by Jeff Bond
Time to render another overly harsh verdict on a third season Star Trek stinker, “The Savage Curtain,” an episode which sometimes plays out like a junior high school history pageant. But before ya’ll start yelling out what an elitist snob I am, I’ll readily admit that for all its infamy this episode has its strong points.
“Curtain”’s biggest failings are those of the imagination—like “Whom Gods Destroy,” it seems like a pale copy of better Trek outings, most notably “Arena,” which also has aliens with superior powers pitting Kirk against opponents on a barren planet as a test of humanity; and “Who Mourns for Adonais?” which has Kirk confronting a famous character from Earth history. The other episode raided is “Devil in the Dark” as the Excalbians, the arrogant rock creatures who put humanity on trial this time, bear a passing resemblance to the earlier episode’s Horta.
Without the spectacular location setting of the Vasquez Rocks, “The Savage Curtain” looks depressingly cheap with an abundance of papier mache rocks and foliage. Where the episode entertains is in its choice of guest characters—Lee Bergere’s Abraham Lincoln, who appears practically seated on his own glowing red memorial chair in space on the Enterprise viewscreen, and Barry Atwater’s Surak, a kind of Vulcan Christ who’s crucified all over again near the episode’s end.
I’ve always found classic Trek’s tendency to embrace these kinds of over-the-top figures to be part of its essential charm. Only James Kirk seems at home sharing the stage with the god Apollo, Abraham Lincoln or Genghis Khan—when Kathryn Janeway hobnobs with a holodeck Leonardo Da Vinci later on in the franchise, both characters seem diminished by the meeting. As ridiculous as Lincoln’s entrance is (in another visual riff on “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and its giant hand in space), Kirk’s determination to treat this clearly illusory character with the respect the real man would have deserved and his thoughtful hero worship of the fabled president is interesting—as is Lincoln’s brief interaction with Uhura, a moment that shows the series expressing its always high social and racial ideals. Lincoln’s oft-expressed acknowledgement that he may not be real adds a nicely wry quality to his characterization that jibes with our historical anecdotes of a man with a sense of humor about himself.
Atwater’s Surak, although given frustratingly less screen time than Lincoln, is equally interesting. Atwater was probably best known for playing the Las Vegas vampire in the TV movie (and series pilot) The Night Stalker, but his Surak easily puts across the notion of a Vulcan Messiah, a man self-possessed enough to calmly admonish a skeptical Spock when they first meet. While it may lack some impact now due to the campy circumstances under which it occurs, I remember Surak’s betrayal and murder at the hands of Colonel Green and his minions as being pretty traumatic stuff when I was a teenager, particularly given the character’s strong Christ analogue. Atwater’s performance is another example of the original series’ consistent and inspired casting: he’s different from Nimoy’s Spock, yet clearly in the Vulcan mode of suppressed, controlled emotional expression—something that has almost utterly eluded actors and casting directors of all the later Trek series in their casting of Vulcan characters. Oddly Surak never quite gained the mystique of Nimoy’s Spock or Mark Lenard’s Sarek, perhaps because of Atwater’s death before he could ride the Trek wave of fandom and convention appearances, or perhaps just because “The Savage Curtain” isn’t held in as high regard by fans.
The villains conjured up by the Excalbians to face Kirk and his force of heroes are of a somewhat lesser order than Lincoln and Surak—like Surak, they’re robbed of screen time by the episode’s laborious, Lincon-centric set-up, leaving only Philip Pine’s Colonel Green enough time to register as a character. It’s unfortunate because the roster (apart from the nondescript alien mad scientist Zora) is impressive: Green (dressed somewhat appropriately in Khan Noonien Singh’s sleeper ship uniform) is a cagey, double-crossing fink and Pine is nicely oily and cruel in the role; Genghis Khan is certainly an Earth history bad guy heavyweight, and Kahless the Unforgettable equals Surak as the founder of the Klingons’ brutal civilization. But they’re all shortchanged by the script—Genghis Khan and Zora don’t rate so much as a line of dialogue, while Kahless turns out to be the Rich Little of the Klingon Empire.
In fact the whole thing is over just as the dramatic stakes seem to reach their height, with Surak and Lincoln dispatched too quickly and the rest of the action settled in a clumsy skirmish. Kahless would receive far better treatment on Star Trek: The Next Generation while Surak and even Colonel Green rated a mention in the fourth season of Enterprise. There’s also an issue that hangs over the episode but is never explored: the idea that Lincoln, Surak and the other historical characters are in fact “played” by modified Excalbians—as Spock scans Lincoln before he beams onboard the Enterprise and describes him exactly as the Excalbian leader we later see on the planet. If these characters are Excalbians are they merely playing their parts, are they being forced into the roles (and into their own deaths) against their will, and what exactly do these role players get out of the experience?
“The Savage Curtain” was conceived by Gene Roddenberry and it’s probably appropriate that this episode showcases the best and worst of the series he masterminded: the outlandish moral ambitions marching right alongside its sometimes kitschy execution. For better or worse, only classic Trek did stories like this.
CBS-D provides some of their most striking orbital shots for “The Savage Curtain,” rendering the planet Excalbia as a vivid globe of hot magma and swirling poisonous clouds. The life-sustaining environment created for the humans is shown being wiped into existence on the Enterprise viewing screen, and CBS-D even retouches the stars around Lincoln’s glowing space chair to tie him into the environment better. In addition to the standard orbital shots there are a few additions: the overhead shot of the Enterprise in orbit, relatively small in the frame that’s been used in only a few episodes, and a very nice composite of the starship from the angle first seen in “Space Seed” with the Enterprise towing the Botany Bay—here Excaliba fills the frame behind the starship and with George Duning’s recycled music cue from “Is There In Truth No Beauty” it’s a striking shot. It’s a shame a new matte painting for the surface of Excalbia couldn’t have been done as the claustrophobic planet set environment really needed it and the set’s orange skies actually become quite dazzling in the new transfer.
Remastered vs. Original
Seasons One and Two discounted at Amazon
The Season Two box set is now available at Amazon for pre-order, discounted to $63.99 (Amazon has a low price guarantee that if they drop the price before ship date of August 5th you will get that lower price). The Season One DVD / HD DVD combo disk is available now for $112.49 (retail is $194.99).