by Jeff Bond
In 1969 when Star Trek ended its three-year run, it was rare for a TV series to create an “ending” for the show—most shows simply ended their runs in cancellation, their creators no doubt still hoping for a pickup for the following season. Episodic television wasn’t serialized—only afternoon soap operas in the U.S. did that on a regular basis—so TV shows could be repackaged for syndication and “stripped” to run every five to seven days a week in the afternoon and early evening, usually in a completely random order that was little-noticed by viewers as one stand-alone story led into the next.
So it was with Star Trek and “Turnabout Intruder,” an unspectacular but fitfully entertaining third season story that has a bitter old flame of Kirk’s, Dr. Janice Lester (Sandra Smith), using an ancient alien machine to transfer her life essence into Kirk’s body and vice versa. Lester is a self-loathing woman who’s nursed a grudge against Kirk because Starfleet doesn’t allow females to captain starships, and once in Kirk’s body she takes over command of the Enterprise—but since she’s a moody, jealous and vindictive female her petty and erratic behavior soon starts giving her away.
Yep, it’s not one of the series prouder moments where the portrayal of women is concerned, although as a woman who’s apparently criminally insane, Lester doesn’t quite represent her gender as a whole. The story is by Gene Roddenberry, a man who was always fascinated by sexual politics, and the appeal of the concept is obvious: William Shatner gets to spend the bulk of the episode playing a woman, and Star Trek’s most theatrical performer does not disappoint. Shatner had numerous opportunities to play an “evil” version of Kirk over the run of the series but this one perhaps takes the concept the farthest as we see Kirk turning into Captain Bligh as Lester attempts to eliminate Kirk in her body and eventually anyone else who stands in his/her way.
Shatner makes an effective villain, although his caricature of female behavior runs hot and cold—by the time we see him filing his nails in his quarters during a conversation with McCoy you have to wonder if this was one of those episodes originally planned to be a comedy that Fred Frieberger steamrolled. The episode flirts with a homosexual subtext in Kirk/Lester’s scenes with Lester’s sad-sack old flame and enabler Dr. Coleman (Harry Landers), but most of the effort goes into showing Lester as either smug or hysterical. Of course, the most controversial aspect of the story has always been the idea that Starfleet won’t allow a woman to be a starship captain—that’s refuted directly in Star Trek Enterprise (whether you think that’s canon or not!), which showed a woman as one of the very first starship commanders—but it seems odd that Roddenberry, who had his character Number One from the original Trek pilot rejected by the network for being unacceptable to audiences, would allow the stereotype of women being unqualified for command to be reinforced this late in the series. Fans have argued with some justification that Lester’s line “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women.” may have been a symptom of her own paranoid self-delusion, but unless he’s just humoring her Kirk seems to confirm it in his response and there’s no evidence in the episode to believe that she hasn’t stated a fact.
If Shatner has a field day as Lester, Sandra Smith has an equally challenging role playing Captain Kirk in a female body. “Turnabout Intruder” doesn’t rank as one of Trek’s casting triumphs—Smith is arguably better at playing Kirk than Lester, but even in this pivotal performance she doesn’t register very strongly and one wishes that someone with the gravity of a Diana Muldaur had been given the role. Even worse is Landers’ inert Dr. Coleman. Several actors who appeared on the original series have noted that Shatner often insisted on being the focus of any scene, to the point that he preferred the other performers to remain in their positions while he moved around and generated action and interest. That’s amply demonstrated with Landers, who sometimes seems like a stolid mannequin wheeled into his sequences.
“Intruder” puts Kirk not only up against himself in a way, but also in what must be the strongest direct conflict with Spock that he has throughout the series. With Spock convinced of the real Kirk’s story of mind/body transference after he mind-melds with Lester, the Vulcan first officer acts forcefully to protect his captain, disobeying Kirk/Lester’s orders and helping Lester to break out of the brig. That leads to a court martial scene that is memorable for the fireworks that Shatner generates (although the syndication cut eliminates some of his crazier moments and undercuts the drama). Ironically given the focus on Shatner’s performance, this final episode of the series features some of the strongest contributions from Trek’s supporting cast. Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are in fine form as they question and counter Kirk/Lester’s odd behavior, and Nimoy in particular is unusually forceful in opposing the possessed Captain. There’s also a particularly nice scene between Scott and McCoy outside the courtroom, with James Doohan delivering a lovely monologue that indicates his depth of knowledge and loyalty to Captain Kirk in a scene that also shows off the gruff wisdom of these two old space dogs, the most mature and experienced men on the Enterprise.
That makes it all the more disappointing that “Turnabout Intruder” ends so clumsily, with Herb Wallerstein’s awkward and ineffectual staging of Lester finally being forced out of Kirk’s body. It’s a feeble finale for the series but Kirk’s last line (“If only…if only…”) has always had a strange resonance as a reflection of Star Trek’s three-year struggle to remain on NBC.
“Turnabout Intruder” offers little in the way of work for CBS-Digital—it’s an odd episode in that there are very few shots of the Enterprise with most cutbacks from commercial breaks fading into live action instead of the traditional starship establishing shots. There’s an opening shot of the ship in orbit around Camus II, shown as a desolate world with prominent rings, and at least one shot from underneath the ship midway through the story. But in this case the CBS-Digital crew has an advantage the original Trek team never had: they knew this would be the last episode (or at least they thought so until "The Cage" was moved off the schedule). And while the shot they produced to show the final view of the original Enterprise may not be the most spectacular one they’ve produced, it nicely echoes the final shot of TNG’s “All Good Things,” with the camera slightly above the Enterprise saucer hull, tilting to follow the vessel off as it cruises towards what looks like the gorgeous M45 Plieades star cluster augmented with a colorful nebula.
Remastered vs. Original
FINAL THOUGHTS ON REMASTERED PROJECT
by Jeff Bond
So now we’ve seen it all (other than the revamped “The Cage,” which will be aired sometime in the next year). Whatever you can say about the Remastered project, it’s always been interesting, with effects work that’s run hot and cold. Some episodes have been noticeably improved by the new effects work, and some of the best work has been marvelously subtle—something as simple as eliminating the freeze frames in the final shot of the Guardian in “City on the Edge of Forever.” At their best the new effects added to the drama and impact of the episodes, particularly in the gorgeous, stylistically consistent use of digital matte paintings, and showed us stuff we’d always assumed was there but had to imagine due to the original series’ low budget: the S.S. Antares in “Charlie X,” the Klingon vessels in “Errand of Mercy,” “Friday’s Child,” “A Private Little War” and “The Trouble With Tribbles.” At its worst the project undermined the excitement of the show’s limited but well-chosen original effects with new shots that painfully displayed the limitations of CGI rendering and shot design—“Elaan of Troyius” is an episode I’ve always enjoyed immensely, and it’s the one Remastered episode I can say I would not want to sit through again due to the terrible rendering of the Klingon warship (remarkable given that this is the single most important “adversary ship” in the history of Star Trek) and some very badly designed space combat shots.
Throughout all of the episodes, however, there’s been one consistent reason to watch: the gorgeous, sharp and vibrantly colorful new transfers that have given me the chance to look at the original show in a way I’ve never seen before. Los Angeles channel 5’s broadcast is hi-def (whether what we see on it is a true 1080i hi-def broadcast of Star Trek or not remains debated), and the image clarity on the bulk of the Remastered episodes shown there has been stupendous—far better than the somewhat washed out look of the standard definition second season DVD set. I can only imagine what the Blu-ray discs of the show will look like at true 1080p definition. So I salute this project for providing some really fun moments, giving me some idea of what it must have been like to see this show during its original broadcast on NBC and most of all for giving me a great excuse to rewatch the original series one more time.
Seasons One and Two discounted at Amazon US
The Season Two box set is now available at Amazon for pre-order, discounted to $59.99 (ships August 5th). The Season One DVD / HD DVD combo disk is available now for $114.95 (retail is $194.99).