by Mark A. Altman
Back in the 1970s when I was enjoying Star Trek for the first time, there were a series of books called “The Best of Trek” from New American Library (being unlicensed from Paramount, they always were marked by covers with a series of spaceships that looked like nothing ever depicted in the Trek universe, actually presaging Battlestar Galactica with their boxy, metallic shapes). They allegedly culled articles from a short-lived magazine called “Trek,” but the seemingly endless volumes of this book series long outlived the actual magazine. And to my perpetual amazement, the episode that always seemed to top their “Worst Of Trek” lists were “Spectere of the Gun” (along with the equally goofy, if not even more enjoyable, “Savage Curtain.”) I continued to be baffled by that to this day. Not only are their far worse episodes of the original series (e.g. “The Alternative Factor,” “Turnabout Intruder,” regrettably, the list goes on), but I actually quite enjoy “Spectre of the Gun.” In fact, in the third season, which is filled with innumerable examples of Trek’s good, the bad and the extremely ugly, “Spectre of the Gun” is a standout. Like “Spock’s Brain,” the episode is stamped with Gene Coon’s pseudonym, Lee Cronin, a moniker he slapped on all his show’s after leaving the series in the second year, when they were re-written. Ironically, “Spock’s Brain,” had always been intended as a comedy a la “I, Mudd” and “Tribbles” only to be transformed by hackneyed writing into, well, an unintentional comedy. Yet with “Spectre of the Gun” there remains a very Coon-ian conceit at the heart of the show: man’s ability to refuse to kill even when provoked to vengeance and retribution. Although this theme was more effective in previous episodes, like Coon’s first script, “Arena,” it still works with “Spectre.” Coon, of course, is the unsung hero of Star Trek and one needs only look at how the series degenerated after he left the show to see how invaluable his contribution was to creating the mythology of Star Trek, something I have written about at length elsewhere.
"Spectre of the Gun" is an episode Coon could have left his name on
What could have easily been just a silly Trek attempt at doing a western works for all the reasons it shouldn’t: the notable production limitations. The unformed and uncompleted sets give the episode a surreal and minimalist look, and there’s a certain irresistible lure to Kirk & Company strapping on their six-guns. “Spectre of the Gun” is one of the episodes in which every element of the production is so perfectly realized that it helps elevate the episode as whole from a stunning western themed tinged score by the great Jerry Fielding (who appropriately scored “The Wild Bunch” for the great Sam Peckinpah) to surreal production design, albeit a money saving gambit which is actually supported by the plot mechanics, and wildly inventive directing from Vincent McEveety. Realizing he couldn’t deliver a western with the scope of John Ford or Howard Hawks or even Gunsmoke, McEveety instead uses zooms, dutched cameras, imaginative make-up design for the Melkotians, a series of tight close ups and clever lighting to create an unsettling milieu for the entire episode, culminating in the final battle at the O.K. Corral which does in three minutes what it took “Wyatt Earp” three hours to do.
The low-cost stylized West works in "Spectre of the Gun"
I think “Spectre” sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s lumped in with the perception of the original series by some that it was literally the allegory of the week following on the heels of “Nazi Planet” (Patterns of Force), “Roman Planet” (Bread & Circuses), etc. But interestingly, virtually every subsequent Trek series has done a western-themed episode, none of which are as good as “Spectre,” but certainly rate among the best of their respective canon, including TNG’s “A Fistful of Datas” and Enterprise’s “North Star.” It’s easy to forget that at the time “Spectere” was broadcast, westerns were still the rage on television and the show was coming off the success of such series as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick and, of course, the masterful Have Gun, Will Travel, one of Gene Roddenberry’s earliest writing gigs. That said, most (other than Have Gun) glorified the gunplay which “Spectre” rebukes in the most harshest of terms. There’s also some enjoyable character interplay between the big three who are joined by Scotty and Chekhov, who provides what little humor there is in this episode. There’s a great scene where McCoy inadvertently requires Doc Holiday’s help to procure some pharmaceuticals and the episode creates a genuine sense of impending doom as the clock counts down in true “High Noon” fashion to the 5 o’clock shootout, that despite their best efforts, our crew can’t avoid.
The TOS crew, in a classic shot from "Spectre of the Gun"
As for the remaster, there’s not much to say. As we lurch into the final episodes of the series, CBS Digital has finally seemed to get the Enterprise flybys close to right, but then inexplicably throws in a shot in which the camera is so close to the Enterprise that we have to pull back to actually see the ship and it exposes the lack of detail and metallic steel finish of the curves of the beautiful Matt Jeffries’ design. It’s just as jarring as the extreme close up’s in previous episodes of the nacelles going by. As for the Melkotian warning buoy, it looks like a rejected design from “Tron” rather than something out of Star Trek. It’s continues to be frustrating that those behind the remasters won’t make obvious changes like adding other classes of starships to episode’s like “The Ultimate Computer” in which the original visual effects artists truly were limited by the constraints of the time and technology, but completely redesign simple, but effective designs like the Melkotian warning buoy. To give them credit, I think they continue to be victimized by too little time and too little money to truly give Trek the remastering it deserves, but imagination doesn’t cost anything – and, in this case, it’s sorely lacking. Fortunately, the exquisite color timing and remastering of the negative, as always, looks stunning – and this episode in particular, greatly benefits from the clean-up.
As we head into the homestretch, I have found that many of my highest hopes have not been met for the project (e.g. “Ultimate Computer” and “Doomsday Machine”), but it has also boasted a wealth of pleasant surprises as the consistently fine matte work that has continually impressed me throughout as well as the unexpected delights in such episodes as “The Immunity Syndrome,” “Amok Time” and “Court Martial.” I was less impressed with what I hoped would be a standout, “The Cloud Minders,” an episode which is far better than I remember it – particularly in its prescient denunciation of torture. Although the filter masks, as the great Jeff Bond pointed out, are ludicrous.
That said, regardless of whether you prefer your “Star Trek,” original recipe or extra crispy, I can only hope that the show will continue to live long and prosper in whatever form you choose to watch it, particularly as new fans discover it in the wake of next year’s release of Star Trek 0, or whatever you’re calling it this week. May your way prove as pleasant…
MARK A. ALTMAN is writer/producer of such films as Free Enterprise. He moderates a panel “It’s Not Dead, Jim: The Life, Death & Life of Star Trek” this Thursday at 6 PM at the San Diego ComicCon.
UPDATE: SFX VIDEO
[new features: Vid is now higher res + click the above to go to full screen]
by Nelson (thanks)
Remastered v Original
Editors note: Thanks to all the community members who offered to help out after we ran into tech issues with our own source video, especial Nelson, Steve, Eugenio. We will try and load a higher res video later.
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 $105.99 (retail is $194.99). (SALE NOTE:
The first season combo set is on sale at Amazon.ca for CDN$54.95)
Seasons One and Two of TOS-R
($105.99 and $63.99 respectively)
Star Trek and harmonicas are a perfect match.
Aren’t they called “Melkotians”?
I love the actor who plays the young steely-eyed gunslinger. To me, he always epitomized the cool/cold lethal assassin gunfighter.
My personal favorite TOS episode. Really enjoy the Old West….especially the incomplete recreation of the town…I love it.
This is a rather tedious labor to rationalize one of the bottom-dwellers of the Trek universe. “Spectre of the Gun” oozes as a story with the “Star Trek” credits at the beginning, a hammy finish, but elements of a western cobbled in the middle. Notwithstanding the huge plot hole that unravels the episode’s premise (more on that in a moment), this was an episode of a series dying from its own lack of resources.
“Gun” ratifies itself on the premise that Spock can “meld” everyone into believing that the western scenario they’re in isn’t real – as if the facade-only sets weren’t compelling enough. “Gee, didn’t they have buildings with four walls in the old west, Captain?” The problem is that their preliminary solution – a gas grenade – doesn’t work when Kirk insists it be “tested” first. Surprise – it doesn’t work on Scotty. Therein lies the problem – if Spock convinced everyone that the bullets weren’t real, therefore they couldn’t kill you, why wouldn’t the “unreal” gas grenade knock you out if you believed it were real? And if you were, finally, convinced nothing was real, why is Kirk getting even the slightest hint of enjoying his “revenge” against the Earp clan for having “killed” Chekov?
I could go on, but the point’s been made. Trek had many wonderful moments over the years, but “Spectre of the Gun” was not among them.
SPOCK: This show is not real. Those sets are not real. Your hair…
KIRK: Spock, don’t push it.
McCOY: Have you guys seen the outside of the ship lately? Damn it, Jim, I feel like I’m not real compared to its realistic look.
SCOTTY: Awwwk! I know what ye’ mean, Doctor. I wuz cleanin’ out tha’ warp core and look at all these shiny, crytsal clear thingees I found…
CHECKOV: Those are nuclear pixels!
SCOTTY: Aye… and thar’s quite a bit o’ ’em.
WYATT EARP: Take this! (fires his gun at everyone)
SPOCK: Oh, crap! The bullets! Guys- the bullets are not real! Guys?
KIRK: Ohhhh… Spock… remember….. remember… how my chest looked…
I liked this episode, not one of my absolute favorites, but it’s pretty good.
“Gee, didn’t they have buildings with four walls in the old west, Captain?”
Another 3rd season winner. I love Spectre of the gun!!! Print never looked better!!! Remastered effects as usual quite mediocre!!!! Nuff Said!!!!
Good to see that other people like this episode too. I agree with Mark: this one looks great now that it’s cleaned up.
The biggest problem with the remastered project has been in the form of fan expectation vs. the project budget. I’m sure Okuda and Co. would have loved to add a ton of little details to all the episodes, but it just couldn’t happen. Also, there’s an issue of asthetics…many fans wanted super detailed renderings of the Enterprise but that wouldn’t work with the production values of the live action scenes…so instead we have a pretty good rendering of a 13 ft. model that looks like a 13 ft. model on screen, not a life-sized starship.
Overall, I’d give the remastered project a B+. A lot of their work has been outstanding (video remastering, mattes, The Cage fly-in shot of the E) and I’m glad that they had the opprotunity to do this project.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the episode I must confess, but I seem to remember that the meld was necessary to remove “all” doubt that the were an illusion. If there was the slightest belief it was real, you would be killed. I don’t think Kirk, McCoy, or Scotty would be capable of removing all doubt without the meld.
I always enjoyed this episode.
I’m not 100% sure there’s a Trek anywhere that can’t be discombobulated by applying the requirement that it make complete sense. Hell, we haven’t even decided yet whether Trek is right and Einstein wrong about that whole speed of light thingiemuhbob. I like this episode, and I’ll tell you why because you didn’t ask: It hits me in the gut. I don’t realize that parts don’t make sense until after the closing credits. In my entertainment universe, if you like it until the credits, score one for the show.
I like the “steely eyed” gunslinger, a whole lot better than I like the other Trek he was in… ahem, as Sybok’s Sandpeople sidekick in ‘Shat’s Surprise V.’ I like Chekov getting the girl, then getting the bullet. (Ha! Exactly where in the series did it develop that Chekov always gets abused? I don’t know, but I love it.)
This ep also comes the closest to a good ep of TZone, which I also like. And yes, I can see the Coon impact, and love that, too.
So, New American Library be damned, I’m with you on this one, Mark.
Regular or extra crispy. Ha.
I love this episode. One of the best mind melds ever. the “There is no gun” scene came forty years before “there is no spoon”. Love it!
As prescient as anything else Trek has been given credit for, “Spectre of the Gun” is notably one of the earliest revisionist westerns to appear on TV or cinema.
As Altman states in his article, the western was popular at the time of “Spectre’s” airing, but its glory days were behind it. As the seventies approached movies were starting to shift in their perspective toward western heroes. Filmmakers, like Leone and Peckinpah, were replacing the traditional white-hat cowboy with antiheroes like Eastwood’s Man with No Name or William Holden’s Pike.
So it is interesting to note, that though Doc Holliday and the Earps had thus far been treated as heroes in films like “My Darling Clementine” (1946), and “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (1957), this would be among the first times, if not the first, when they would be portrayed as trigger-happy thugs. Subsequently, this antiheroic portrayal of them has been seen more often, in film [“Wyatt Earp” (1994)], and TV [“Deadwood” (2006)].
Actually this isn’t an episode Coon could’ve kept his name on, because he used a pseudonym for contractual reasons. According to INSIDE STAR TREK (p. 402), after the second season Coon left Paramount to accept an exclusive deal with Universal, but he promised to complete the ST writing assignments he had already in the works at the time of his departure. Since Gene L. Coon was contractually forbidden from writing for a non-Universal show, he had to sneak the assignments in by using the “Lee Cronin” pseudonym.
I thoroughly enjoyed the new buoy. It looked like the original one, but it was 3D, moving and mysterious. I loved it.
Did anyone find the transfer a little dark compared to previous TOS-R efforts? The bridge scenes in particular seemed a bit dark and washed out, but maybe it was just KTLA’s (via DirecTV) SD broadcast.
well for full disclosure I write the captions, but I think Mark’s point is that this is a 3rd season episode he could be proud of
T2 – This is my Fave episode of TOS too
it may not be the best but i like it for its eerie Twilight Zone feel..
the half sets, the music, the Earps, the general feel are so eerie and weird…its more like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits with Kirk and Co…
A pleasure to see another review by Mark Altman, who is the Trekmovie.com equivilent to the dose of common sense that Dr. McCoy said he preferred in Star Trek 4: The One with the Whales.
Did anyone else get a god-like echo in Spock’s line “fascinating, mankind, ready to kill” during the broadcast. I damned near jumped out of my chair when he gave the line because I knew to by heart, and then, *wham* Spock comes off with this huge echo effect. Wondering if it was set, the broadcast, or a change by CBS digital?
BTW love this episode. #5 DW you make an excellent point about the inherent fallcy/non-consistency of the gas paradox, but I don’t beleive it relegates “Spectre” to being anything but classic, classic Trek. Perhaps they knew the gas was real, but not with the “absolute certainty” that Spock provided them with regarding the bullets at the OK. Bones and Spock were convinced by the scientific reality of the gas, yet Scotty (and Kirk) less so. Perhaps this lack of absolute certainty made the gas “unreal” for Scotty. Clearly, the gas was merely a plot device, as Chekov’s ‘death’, that reality was a variable in the Melkotian game. If anything, I would introduce non-trekkers to this episode first as a good primer for TOS.
Great episode. From the appropriately menacing actors portraying the Earps and Doc Holiday to our heros remaining un-scathed, despite the bullets ripping apart the fence behind them, this episode is full of great direction, art design, lighting (especially during the mind meld) and music.
With the new remastered effects looking great as ever this episode continues to be one of my favs.
spectre of the gun is one of my all time favourite TOS episodes. i actually think the the half finsihed sets etc added to the mystery of the story. the only draw back is that there is no beam down sequence probably due to the cut backs.
scotty in the gas grenade scene is excellent.and really funny. i love it when they discover in the saloon that things dont have to happen as they did at the ok coral. the attempts to leave town and a good old fistycuffs make this a classic.
ps spocks brain post no3 – i think that bloke your referring to is the same guy who plays the first character we see on nimbus 3 in star trek 5 the final frontier.
I was at The Dark Knight and missed it. ;O
Chekhov was a Russian author. Chekov was a Davey Jones clone.
Its funny. De Kelley was probably right at home on this set with all the westerns he had done before this. Plus the fact he played Morgan Earp in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
21. Ensign Ruiter , “Did anyone else get a god-like echo in Spock’s line “fascinating, mankind, ready to kill” during the broadcast. I damned near jumped out of my chair when he gave the line because I knew to by heart, and then, *wham* Spock comes off with this huge echo effect. Wondering if it was set, the broadcast, or a change by CBS digital?”
You heard that too? It was freaky but probably a signal distortion or something.
Terrible show. Rent the John Ford movie.
wow no screenshots on clips…lol…no love for ‘spectre’? Well I’ll throw in my 2 cents…the buoy looked great I thought, staying true to the original design but making it crystal like and pulsating with colors. I thought maybe they’d tweak the Melkotian but they didnt and thats fine. I thought the planet was one of the best looking planets of TOS-R…and I’m still looking forward to a nice screen shot of it (I might have to wait untill the dvd)
#21 yes I too had the echo….very sloppy to let that get out, it freaked me out at 2am
You’re not alone. I heard the split-stereo reverb and attributed to some sort of audio mastering error.
I thought the new Melkot buoy was good. It preserved the original design, but made it a little more mysterious and alien. The flashing colors even matched the Melkotian puppet. CBS-D was definitely paying attention on this one.
i saw this the other day
The gas grenade scene:
Scotty *about to down whisky* – its to kill the pain
Spock – but this is painless…
Scotty – *downing whisky* – well you shoulda warned me eariler Mr Spock Fire away…
LOL – its a great ep…plus wasnt GRs original tag line/pitch for trek ‘Wagon Train to the stars’?
Good to have a western in there…esp one with such an eerie Twilight Zone/Outer Limits feel
Its a great ep to watch late at night…all the lights off
Yes. Same here. I’m surprise nobody in CBS-D asked, “Is there an echo around here?”. It might have been a Satellite feed issue. Not sure.
I liked the new Buoy with the cool colors. I noticed they left the Melkotian (sp?) the same, even on the new viewscreen shot. Actually, not a bad idea. I liked the way he looked. A snakey-spooky look.
I agree with the review. It was not the greatest episode nor was it the worst. The one question I always had with this episode is how they got back to the ship. Was the whole beamdown an illusion or did they beam up and was not mentioned?
Loved this episode. The ending scene where Kirk and his crew just strand there while the bullets fly is classic. This episode also has some great use of Star Trek sound effects, like the wind effect they always use when they’re on some planet. The Old West setting has a really creepy feel.
For years I’ve read about how “Spectre” was done on the cheap. The fact is that the episode was filmed before NBC pulled the plug on the show and that it was intended to be the premiere for the third season.
The surrealistic set design was clearly an artistic choice and not necessarily a cost cutting measure. “Spectre” was filmed before the arboretum was constructed for “Elaan” or the pricey location shooting seen in “Paradise Syndrome.”
Just as John Ford (thanks, Dennis Bailey) chose to shoot “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” on a sound stage versus the sprawling location work on “The Searchers,” so too did the production staff decided to lens an illusory Western with sets that only suggested the locale.
The whole conceit of the episode: death by illusion is paralelled by a production design that exposed filmed Westerns as mere shadow and sawdust. Jerry Finnerman and Vincent McEveety were far too professional to allow shadows to appear on the cyclorama, but the Earps shadows are seen on the sky in this episode as the characters change position in each successive cut. The wall-less wall clock, the Clanton gang dressed in space suits, and an episode where Chekov (!) gets the girl –all smoke and Panaflex.
Production design tells the story in concert with the lines and the acting. It has been noted elsewhere that Ford chose to keep “Liberty Valance” on a soundstage because it was a fairy tale with no more connection to the real Old West than “Wild Wild West.” So too with this episode, which was as far away from reality as “Arena” was intimately connected to Chavez Ravine.
This was a classic Coon episode that was only enhanced by the design.
“There’s also some enjoyable character interplay between the big three who are joined by Scotty and Chekhov, who provides what little humor there is in this episode”
I’ve always said this.
And I still say this episode is the best example of Kirk pounding in someone’s spine. I used to get chills waiting for that scene as a kid. This of course is a Star Fleet maneuver, no doubt, taught at the Academy. Because we see it other times in the show (as in Matt Decker). I’m waiting for the book that outlines Star Fleet hand to hand manuevers and the genesis of the fighting style. That’s the one thing I’ve never heard the research behind.
Wish I could be at Mark’s panel this year.
“Get yer hands off her…Mr. Earp”.
re: post 38; Do you think we’ll ever see Chris Pine do a flying kick? : )
I think the remastering of this episode’s special effects was quite good. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked the bouy, but I liked it! The new Enterprise fly-by of the bouy was really nice.
The last shot of the Melkot on the view screen was new. At first I thought it was a CGI Melkot, but I think they did it simply by using the original image and softening it and altering it enough to remove the smoke and then place it in a new star field.
I actually liked the minimalist style of this episode, yeah it could well have been a Gene Coon episode.
Also like the avante garde bar room piano music this episode.
“Kill ’em any way you can!!”
Watching this episode is like taking an acid trip minus the acid! Oh, wow, man!!
This might be my favorite episode… it has a genuinely creepy feel, and the partial sets work to the advantage.
Some great visuals, and wonderful character moments.
Chekov in this was great. He has some very funny lines. Everyone in this episode has a nice moment. I liked it when Kirk and the Bartender get into the argument about what’s real and not.
Mark Altman and Trekmovie.com, hmmmmmmmmmmmmm
Better than donuts!
Some screenies added. Video will be in a few hours
I hate it when the cable channel logo fills half the screen. I love DVDs.
And thanks to all those in the community to offered to help, it means a lot
I’ve often wondered (even back in the 60’s when i saw it for the first time), why couldn’t the producers use the numerous exterior western sets that where so prevalent back in those days. I understand cost was a factor, but westerns shows where EVERYWHERE on TV at the time. Would it have cost that much more to just use existing sets? Sets that where probably right on the Paramount lot. Still, it’s an enjoyable this episode…
Scotty *about to down whisky* – its to kill the pain
Spock – but this is painless…
Scotty – *downing whisky* – well you shoulda warned me eariler Mr Spock Fire away…
Yeah I like that one too.