When I announced on Facebook earlier this year that my newborn daughter had watched her first episode of Star Trek with me, my best friend and co-host of the All Good Things Star Trek podcast inquired which episode I’d decided to show her first.
When I replied it was “The Corbomite Maneuver,” his response was, “Of course it was.”
There are a lot of reasons that I decided to show this one to my daughter first* (though she’s unlikely to remember it as her first Star Trek episode). But most of them come down to the fact that of the first three produced episodes of Star Trek, this one feels the most like Star Trek to me.
*It really all came down to that it was next in my viewing order but it felt like a good place to start. Again, she won’t recall any of this but I’ll always remember it was our first episode and that makes it special.
As good as “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is, it’s “Corbomite” where the original series begins to pick up its stride a bit. Apart from the season two addition of Mr. Chekov, all the major players are in place in this episode. And while Uhura’s role isn’t exactly the dynamic (I had a trivia game on my PC back in the day that pointed out that Uhura’s only line in the episode is, “Hailing frequencies open, sir.”), everyone is still there and settling into their characters.
The biggest addition is DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard McCoy, who makes a memorable first appearance by ignoring the red alert signal in order to make Kirk finish his physical. With the addition of McCoy, the classic triumvirate is complete and it really feels like a very different, more familiar show here.
One thing I enjoy about the first dozen or so episodes of the original series is the world-building the show is doing. It’s especially apparent in the first six produced episodes that the series is trying to make us see what life on a starship would be like. It’s like a small town in space, complete with meals, physicals and the occasional conflict among crew members.
Cutting the budget by using only standing sets, the conflict come from the threat within and without. Externally, we’ve got Balock’s ship that appears to be superior in every way to the Enterprise and internally we have all kinds of great interpersonal conflict. Everyone is put under pressure and watching how they react is, to quote Spock, fascinating.
Of course, the biggest one to crack under pressure is Bailey, the navigator. Bailey’s a bit overwhelmed by the final frontier and it causes him to lose his mind at one point in the episode. In a lot of ways, Bailey’s one episode character arc reminds me a bit of what Enterprise tried to do with Hoshi in its first season. You put an inexperienced person out in space who maybe doesn’t necessarily embrace the whole “boldly going” thing and see what happens.
There’s even conflict between Kirk and McCoy from the great scene where Kirk orders the crew to run drills to get to 100% efficiency to the scene on the bridge when McCoy gives Kirk the idea to bluff his way out of the situation with Balock. There’s even a sense of the McCoy/Spock friendship gelling when Bones finds out Spock hasn’t ever played poker and that he’d love to teach Spock the game. (I always feel a bit cheated that we never see this scene on screen).
But for all the minor pieces of daily life on board the starship Enterprise we see, what really drives this episode is the game of cat and mouse between Kirk and Balock. It’s a situation where the Enterprise has created its own problems by ignoring the warning buoy and continuing to press onward while Balock wants to test the ideals that Starfleet seems to live by. Yes, they say they come in peace but its only in the end that Kirk proves that that ideal is more than just nice sounding words and a good idea. Kirk is willing to put aside everything that’s happened to meet a new lifeform and offer assistance, even when ten minutes before said lifeform was ready to blow them out of existence.
So the threat ends up being Ron Howard’s brother Clint with the lovely tranja for the crew to enjoy. When I was younger and first saw “Corbomite” I felt the ending was a bit of a letdown or anti-climatic. But as I’ve grown older and really begun to see what Star Trek was all about, I can see the ending is as close to the Roddenberry ideals of Trek as the original series can or will ever get.
The enemy isn’t always the enemy, it says. It’s just a friend we haven’t quite figured out how to connect with yet. And it also says that we have to be willing to live up to our ideals, even if ten minutes before the other person was ready to blow us out of space.
I also can’t help but find it amusing that classic Trek brings up poker, a game we’ll see recurring over seven seasons of Next Generation.
Some other ways to explore this fantastic episode: