by Jeff Bond
Another entry in Star Trek’s “struggle for freedom” sweepstakes, the late third season entry “The Cloud Minders” is distinguished by the spectacle of a floating sky city a dozen years before The Empire Strikes Back’s Bespin (but about thirty years after a floating city in the Flash Gordon serials), a strong character actor guest star turn, and two of Bill Theiss’ most spectacular costumes.
Once again the Enterprise is rushing to cure a plague, this time a botanical one, and when Kirk and Spock beam down to a mining entrance on the surface of Ardana to pick up a life-saving consignment of Zienite they’re attacked by the Troglyte miner caste. After being rescued by the High Advisor Plasus (Jeff Corey) and a couple of guards, Kirk and Spock are beamed up toe Stratos City, the “finest example of sustained antigravity suspension” Spock has ever seen.
It turns out class warfare has erupted between the effete Stratos City dwellers, artists and thinkers all, and the worker class Troglytes, who do all the dirty work but are confined to the surface and mines of Ardana. In order to get his Zienite, Kirk’s got to get his hands dirty himself—first figuratively by interfering with Plasus and his brutal interrogation of one of the Troglyte leaders, Vanna (Charlene Polite), then literally when Vanna kidnaps him and holds him hostage in the mines.
Depending on who you talk to, “The Cloud Minders” is either one of the strongest entries in the third season or one of its worst. Writer David Gerrold was involved in rewriting Margaret Armen’s script, and he later pilloried the episode’s politics as it settles for merely the beginnings of negotiations between the Troglytes and Stratos City dwellers rather than outright rebellion—in Gerrold’s view it was like ending a story on the Civil War with mere talks about emancipating the slaves.
The episode itself has its strong points, not the least of which is the audacious idea of the floating city itself. Although achieved with the simplest of methods by the effects technicians of the era (in one shot it almost appears to have been pinned to some cotton clouds at the top of the soundstage cyclorama), Matt Jefferies’ set designs and the matte painting do give an impression of a floating city with the bare minimum of resources. Jeff Corey’s Plasus helps as well—he’s one of the more convincing politicians seen in the original series, a man who appears quite at home with the trappings of power, who’s able to deflect an insult like a diplomat but who will only be pushed so far by Kirk’s perceived meddling. He’s in strong conflict with Kirk throughout and while he’s shown to be dragged kicking and screaming into an understanding with the Troglytes at the epsiode’s finale, he’s not depicted as a 100% heavy either. He also has an easy and convincing relationship with his daughter Droxine.
Corey was a famed acting teacher (Paul Newman was one of his pupils) who still taught classes up to around the time of his death; his theory was to focus on a character’s differences from those around him and he had a wide range that’s barely suggested by his regal Star Trek performance. He played the vicious but cowardly villain menacing Kim “Miri” Darby in the John Wayne film True Grit and memorably foreshadowed the deaths of Butch and Sundance in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, telling his old outlaw friends “You’re gonna die and you’re gonna die bloody!” But he also does a magnificent job of scene stealing in the dark thriller Seconds by interrupting his explanation of how his company rejuvenates and creates new lives for its clients when he suddenly finds himself with an uncontrollable craving for the baked chicken meal that’s just been served to John Randolph (trust me, you have to see it to have any idea what I’m talking about).
If Corey is a strong presence, Diana Ewing’s Droxine is another matter, although give her this: she probably sports the finest abs ever displayed by an actress on the series, and Bill Theiss’ gravity-defying costume rivals and probably betters a similar hanging over-the-shoulder gown he designed for “Who Mourns For Adonais?” Ewing affects some of the patrician aura that Barbara Babcock did so well in her Trek appearances in “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Plato’s Stepchildren,” but without Babcock’s wit and intelligence. She comes across as something of a high class bimbo, which makes Spock’s wildly out of character flirtation with her all the more disappointing, despite some nice lines (“Extreme feminine beauty is always disturbing.”). A bizarre piece of Nimoy-narrated montage only serves to make Spock look worse with some nonsensical lines (“The name Droxine seems particularly appropriate for her…”—meaning what? That she seems like a drug used to treat asthma and bronchitis?).
The fact that Spock would blithely discuss his secret Vulcan mating rituals with this woman is pretty much beyond the pale (at least in “Enterprise Incident” he was betraying his people’s privacy to obtain vital military secrets)—and check out the incredibly suggestive blocking as Droxine plaintively asks “Is there nothing that can disturb” the Vulcan mating cycle—as she kneels with her face in front of Spock’s stomach it sure looks like she’s got an awfully specific idea of what to try first.
In a way the casting works because Droxine seems noticeably less intelligent than the Troglyte Vanna. Charlene Polite (shown in at least one costume that rivals Droxine’s) brings a nice edge of bitterness and skepticism to her role as Kirk works to gain her trust. Shatner has a field day wrestling with her on his cloud city quarters’ bed (“Actually, I find this rather enjoyable…”) and he gives one of his better third season performances here. His display of the first symptoms of the stupidity-inducing Zienite gas is rather subtle, his face tightening into a taut, impatient mask as he fusses with his phaser while holding Vanna and Plasus hostage in the caves late in the game.
Kirk’s gambit of beaming Plasus down into the caves to demonstrate the effect of the gas is outrageous—he’s guilty of kidnapping, quite a serious crime—but by the time he executes the idea he’s been digging Zienite for a while and is arguably well under the influence of the gas himself. And the fight scene between Kirk and Plasus (played, like many third season episodes, to the tympani of Fred Steiner’s Ruk music from “What Are Little Girls Made of?”) could have been worse given Corey’s age at the time.
For me “Cloud Minders” holds together because it effectively suggests so much more than it shows—for one thing one of the few high-tech members of the Federation whose planets we see in the series, as well as a strong planetary leader and a multi-tiered society, and probably the most imaginative setting of the entire series. The episode also wraps up with one of the best musical cues of the series, an adaptation of Alexander Courage’s music simply titled “Enterprise In Orbit: Big” in the cue sheets, this was a piece of library music recorded for the series that was first heard in the second season episode “Catspaw,” but only heard in its entirety at the end of “The Cloud Minders”—it repeats the last five notes of Courage’s Enterprise fanfare against a rising series of three note chords for a wonderfully majestic effect as the Enterprise leaves Ardana.
Given the beautiful matte paintings the CBS-Digital crew has conjured up for the Remastered project expectations were understandably high for what would be done with “The Cloud Minders,” and for the most part those expectations are met with an elegant, better-detailed and more elaborate take on Stratos. The episode actually begins with an interesting low angle on the Enterprise, darkly and moodily lit with high warp stars streaking past in the background as the ship rushes towards Ardana. Further shots of the ship are more familiar library angles but the opening shot sets the urgency of Kirk’s predicament nicely.
The after-commercial title card shot of the original made use of a NASA image shot over Saudi Arabia, and CBS-D reportedly tracked down the original photograph and enhanced it for the episode. In fact this is some of the most ambitious work CBS-D has done editorially in the entire run of the project—they fix a glaring error early in the episode when Kirk blurts out “Who are you? What’s the meaning of this attack?” and Shatner is shown with his mouth closed as the line plays over the scene; a different angle is used in the new cut so that Kirk’s face isn’t seen directly while the line is delivered. In order to incorporate the new cloud city shots and the cleaned-up NASA shot into the montage over Spock’s narration, the CBS-D team has also toyed with the order and duration of some of the other shots in the sequence, although it’s arguable that this odd bit of editorial work can be helped.
One of the worst effects in the original series was the cartoonish shot of a suicidal Troglyte jumping to his death, with a clearly two-dimensional black figure animated over the Saudi Arabia NASA shot. CBS-D adds a bit of Stratos architecture to put the shot in perspective and creates a new falling figure, although it’s still somewhat stiff.
While the new Stratos shots have much greater depth and detail (down to apparently an image of Droxine faintly visible on one of the exterior balconies), the effects crew still limits themselves to what could have been achieved at the time—while there is some movement of clouds in the background, the cottony wad of clouds that seem to support the city remain immobile and there are no shifts of perspective around the city. Ardana itself is rendered as almost Mars-like but with fluffy white clouds, nicely matching the look of the NASA orbital photograph. All in all, one of CBS-D’s better efforts and it’s nice to see this work expended on something a bit classier than “The Lights of Zetar.”
[new features: Vid is now higher res + click the above to go to full screen]
Remastered vs. Original
Seasons One and Two discounted at Amazon US
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 $103.95 (retail is $194.99).
Season One on sale at Amazon Canada
The first season combo set is on sale at Amazon.ca for CDN$54.95 (the US$ is about even with the Canadian $ these days). You can purchase from Amazon.ca using your Amazon.com account and even with shipping Americans can still save over $40. The second season is pre-selling for CDN$71.49 so it wouldn’t be a savings from the US.