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)