Uhura contacts the landing party to inform them that the sensor activity has expanded, though she’s only able to reach Scotty and Sulu. Kirk an Spock, meanwhile, try to contact the Enterprise only to find that their communicators have been replaced with fakes. They quickly find that the same is true of their phasers. Despite his suspicions, Kirk elects to follow the hunters that have taken Bem captive in order to effect a rescue.
Come nightfall, they make their move. Bem reveals to an incredulous Spock that he deliberately allowed himself to be captured to further his observations. Before they can release Bem and escape, however, Kirk and Spock are spotted and themselves captured. As Bem chides Kirk for his disappointing performance, Kirk lets the Pandronian have it, calling him out not only on his abrasive attitude but for stealing their equipment. Bem makes no pretense of denying the charge, simply stating that Kirk relies to heavily on phasers and communicators. Bem reveals that he still has the Starfleet equipment on him, explaining that he didn’t use it because “this one does not demean oneself by using casual violence to accomplish goals.” When Kirk insists on having the equipment returned, Bem once again disassembles in order to comply, revealing his nature as a colony creature to the Starfleet crew. Spock is fascinated, but Kirk is livid when he realizes that Bem not only exacerbated the situation, but could have simply walked out of his cage at any time. Using his phaser to cut through their cages and escape, Kirk dresses Bem down and places him in protective custody – though the act is effectively symbolic at this point. They are spotted on the way out, and as Kirk gives the order to stun the natives, a disembodied voice commands him not to use his weapons, paralyzing them in some sort of stasis field. Kirk tries to explain their mission, but the indignant entity leaves them paralyzed and “nullifies” their phasers to protect its “children.”
The remainder of the landing party has returned to the Enterprise where they are trying to locate Kirk and Spock. This proves difficult thanks to the sensor anomaly, but they’re able to narrow down a general location. Scotty decides this is good enough and prepares a security team. Once again caged, Bem berates Kirk for failing his tests, including “handling” the locals and rescuing Bem. The Pandronian then disassembles, exiting his cage and wishing Kirk luck before walking away. With Bem gone, Kirk and Spock set about trying to attract the entity’s attention, modifying their communicators in order to do so.
Once successful, Kirk apologizes for intruding and upon pledging to ensure that the planet is not disturbed again, the entity releases them. Now free, Kirk has a security team beamed down to search for Bem. They quickly find him, rescuing him from a group of natives. Now it’s Kirk’s turn to berate the contrite Pandronian, pointing out that Bem’s actions not only endangered the entire crew but forced them to interfere with a civilization that would ordinarily be protected under the Prime Directive. The entity once again appears, upset that Kirk is still there – and still interfering. It is quickly mollified, however, upon learning that he has found his missing party member and can now leave. Bem, meanwhile, laments his own conduct, deciding that his errors in judgement mean that he must disassemble permanently, effectively putting an end to this particular colony gestalt. The entity convinced him otherwise, however, reminding him that if he no longer exists, he cannot learn from the experience. With that, the party returns to the ship.
Once there, Kirk says that his report to Starfleet will insist that Delta Theta III be placed under quarantine, a decision that Bem says that Pandro will honor as well. Just then, they are contacted by the entity, who bids them to go in peace and to be proud, for they have learned much.
I’m going to pull the curtain back for a moment. I’ve seen all of these episodes before. There is nothing that I’ve covered for this column has ever been based on my first blush response to an episode, nor is it ever likely to be. Name a ‘Star Trek’ episode and I’ve seen it, is what I’m trying to say. I know, you’re shocked. But for some, it’s been longer than others. In the case of ‘Bem’, it had been a few years. And sitting down to watch it for this article, what stood out in my memory of the episode was not the plot but the gimmick. That being Bem himself, the idea of an alien with his abilities. That’s not to say the story’s bad. It’s just sort of… I don’t want to say “perfunctory,” but that wouldn’t be far from the mark. Especially given Roddenberry’s insertion of the “godlike alien” trope (always a favorite of his) into Gerrold’s script, it becomes a fairly standard ‘Star Trek’ story, albeit a well-executed one with a cool gimmick.
I want to be clear, it’s not a bad episode. I enjoyed watching it. But it is, at the end of the day, a fairly boilerplate ‘Star Trek’ outing. The Gerrold stuff (Bem and his side of the story) is definitely more engaging than the Roddenberry stuff (the godlike entity), if only because, well, even by 1974 we’d seen that movie a few times before. If nothing else, it’s always fun to watch the guest star of the week strain the limits of Kirk’s patience, and Nichelle Nichols turns in some splendid voice work as the entity.
And as I’m fairly certain I’ve pointed out every time we’ve discussed ‘The Animated Series’, the episode is a visual delight. The environmental designs aren’t as far out as they are in some episodes, but Bem (even when he’s all in one piece) is the sort of visual that could never have been pulled off on the original series. And when he separates into individual body parts? The earliest the franchise could have even come close to pulling that off in live action would have been ‘Voyager’ (which, in the form of Species 8472, gave ‘Star Trek’ its first completely computer generated alien), but pulling it off well? Surely the movies could have pulled it off, but with the budget and time crunch typical of TV production? They may only have reached that point with ‘Discovery’.
Plus the natives are lizard people, and that’s always fun. They certainly put the Gorn suit to shame.
That’s it for this week. What did you think of ‘Bem’? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!