I’ve been having a great time watching TOS with my sister, but I’ve also been a tiny bit disappointed that, overall, my reactions to most episodes have been somewhere between “meh” and “NO.” Not exactly shocked, mind; I know what a critical bastard I am, but still: I’m a nerd, and nerds are made for liking things. Going into this episode, I was really hoping to have more of a “hell yeah” reaction.
Luckily for me, “The Corbomite Maneuver” is easily my favorite episode since “The Naked Time.”
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
The Enterprise encounters what is, essentially, a colorful, radioactive building block in space, one that prevents the ship from going anywhere. Lt. Bailey freaks out and wants to blow the big glowy cube out of the sky. Kirk, more level-headed, tries non-violent approaches. Eventually, however, the Enterprise does blow up the cube and move on.
Alas, our heroes quickly run across a massive golden sphere-ship that also blocks their path. Balok, the alien aboard said sphere-ship, says the Enterprise proved themselves hostile by destroying the building block, which was apparently a warning buoy. Balok tells the crew they have ten minutes to pray; then he’s killing the hell outta them. When Kirk can’t reason with Balok, Lt. Bailey loses his shit and has to be removed from the bridge.
At the last minute, Kirk decides to bluff Balok: the Enterprise, he says, carries a dangerous substance called corbomite, which will inevitably destroy the alien’s ship should he attack. A few rounds of bluffing later, the Enterprise manages to break free; Balok’s ship, meanwhile, is damaged. Kirk, McCoy, and a better-behaved Bailey go to rescue Balok, only to discover that he’s not the large “imposing” alien they’ve been interacting with all this time; instead, Balok appears as a
kinda creepy cheerful small child who’s only been threatening the Enterprise to discover their true intentions. And since Balok is lonely and wants to learn more about human culture, Bailey stays behind to take part in a brand new human-alien cultural exchange program.
I learned how to play poker about the same age I learned how to read. I won’t pretend this makes me an especially amazing player: no one has ever described me as “Old Stone Face” and my bluffs really only work because I so rarely use them. Also, people who take the game, like, super seriously get on my goddamn nerves, particularly since I favor “home” games, High Chicago being my absolute favorite. You will never, ever find me in a casino tournament; I’ll play for cash but not, like, stupid amounts of cash, and besides, those guys always seem like such bros. How would I even get through a hand without making fun of their dumb little indoor sunglasses?
I feel like I’ve gotten off topic. The point is, I adore poker and–overplayed as it is–I’m totally a sucker for the whole poker-as-a-specific-life-situation metaphor. It is, anyway, ever so slightly more original than the standard chess metaphor, so that’s one reason to like this episode; I appreciate the change in game.
Other reasons? Well, there are some great interpersonal relationship moments here, especially between Kirk and Spock. One such moment: when Spock suggests that they may be out of options (one might even say in a no-win scenario), Kirk testily asks if giving up is his best recommendation. Spock, looking down, starts to say he’s sorry before cutting himself off, pulling his shoulders back, and says, all properly Vulcan-like, “I regret that I can find no other logical alternative.” I don’t know, people, it’s just such a lovely character beat between these two guys.
Another such moment? When Spock hilariously asks, “Has it occurred to you that there’s a certain . . . inefficiency in constantly questioning me on things you’ve already made up your mind about?” Kirk replies:
And then they share this, like, Look, and you know, I’ve never actually been a Kirk/Spock shipper, but man. I’m just in LOVE with the friendship between these two.
Also, I feel like “The Corbomite Maneuver” really encapsulates that whole optimistic SF spirit Star Trek is so well-known for, a spirit that, for me, has felt a little lacking thus far in our grand TOS watch. Not that there haven’t been some neat ideas or themes here and there, but . . . like . . . it’s also been a lot of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “too much technology is evil” and so forth. Of course, I get those are very traditional SF themes and all, but none of it feels terribly aspirational or inspirational to me.
This episode, though, is different. I like that Kirk only fires on the cube as a last resort. I mean, I don’t know why it takes 18 hours for him to consider “reverse” as a possible course of action, but still, I definitely like that “reverse” comes before “blow up.” And I like that Kirk responds to Balok’s distress call, too. I wish Kirk wasn’t going himself and I think leaving Bailey behind as a human representative is an absolutely terrible idea, but regardless, I like the ideals on display here.
According to Kirk (at least, in this episode), all life is sacred. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that in TOS episodes to come.
Ah, I see we’re airing episodes out of order again. Spock is (briefly) back to his weird shouty ways, although amusingly this will not stop him from chiding Bailey for raising his voice as well. And Kirk, charming as ever, is once again complaining about having a female yeoman (yes, Janice Rand) because, you know, he already has one female to worry about: the Enterprise. In case you were wondering, this part of the episode felt considerably less inspirational.
I’m not going to pretend a little stress ball like me would make a particularly great bridge officer, but Bailey? Yeah, not an awesome choice and definitely should’ve been pulled from duty, probably even before Kirk made the call. Putting aside his constant assumptions and the (admittedly understandable) meltdown, Bailey freezes up so much in this episode that Sulu is pretty much doing his job for him. Since Sulu has his own job to do, this is not ideal. (OTOH, holy shit, Sulu is actually in this episode. HI SULU! Feel free to drop by more often; I enjoy seeing you openly laughing at your whiny, annoying crew mates.)
Also not ideal? Leaving a dude like Bailey as your sole human representative to a newly discovered alien species. Like, I get it: people have flaws, and instead of sending your best and brightest, you send someone who truly represents humanity, someone who isn’t perfect. On paper, I can totally go along with that. In this case? Nope. Not having it. Cause “someone with flaws” and “kind of a douche” aren’t really synonyms, and Bailey definitely seems more the latter than the former, no matter what Bones says. (Sure, Bones, Bailey is like a young Kirk or whatever. Doesn’t make him any less annoying.) Also, choosing a human representative who struggles with anxiety? Potentially totally doable. Sending someone who had a panic attack literally five minutes ago while on duty? You know, maybe not. That might not be in their best interest. Maybe they should get a day or so off before their asses get left behind on some weird alien’s spaceship.
Like, seriously, I applaud the idea of a human-alien cultural exchange program, but . . . shit, aren’t there regulations for this kind of thing? I feel like there should definitely be regulations about marooning individual members of your crew with an alien stranger, one who appeared to be hostile until about four minutes ago and laughs like this.
The little kid, by the way, is played by Clint Howard, who’s been in various things over the year (including guest-starring in several Star Trek TV shows). I, however, know him best as the Aerobics Director in one of my very favorite Key & Peele sketches.
Balok’s Decoy Puppet is hilarious. He’s got this big green head and huge yellow eyes and basically looks like a blurry cartoon. Lack of exposed brain matter aside, Balok probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. I laughed so hard seeing him.
Also, apparently, this puppet somehow reminds Spock of his own father? Having seen Sarek on TNG and movies II, III, and IV . . . um . . . HOW? Is it more of a psychological thing? Will TOS reveal that Sarek often gave Spock ten minutes to pray before getting sent to his room or something?
Considering the special effects of the time, I thought the shot of the giant sphere-ship was remarkably well done.
Also, the music they play for the glowing cube (16 seconds in) is, like, going for tense but somehow manages to hit almost cheerfully tense instead? IDK, but I sort of love it.
Kirk’s bare-chested physical is hilarious, like, usually you have to watch Teen Wolf to get this level of shameless gratuity with your half-naked male leads. Also hilarious? Bones actively getting a kick out of Kirk’s exercise-induced pain. Like any good doctor and best friend, Bones is a bit of a sadist.
It is my personal belief that all starship alerts should be both audio and visual, not unlike how the fire alarms at my job are both obnoxiously loud and obnoxiously flashy. Having a silent, flashing alarm in Sickbay–and apparently only in Sickbay–seems like a really poor call. Although it does get us to a predecessor of Bones’s favorite catchphrase. This version: “What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?”
Much as I like Bones, though, I’ve gotta point out that there’s a time and a place for lecturing Kirk about overworking his crew, and T-minus 10 minutes from total annihilation really isn’t it. I know Kirk needs to hear the word “bluff” to come up with his cunning plan and all, but couldn’t Bones have managed to drop it into the conversation in, like, any other way?
Bones mentions that he’d love to teach poker to Spock. Please, please someone tell me this actually happens. I NEED TO SEE THIS SCENE.
Finally, I’m impressed that Janice shows off some cool outside-the-box thinking when she uses her phaser to heat the coffee. I’m less impressed with her serving the coffee on the bridge when, like, death is freaking nigh. I’m not saying I’d say no to a can of Coke while facing down my possible doom; I am saying that if a perky blonde casually served me a Coke like we were all chilling at TGI Fridays instead of, you know, on a starship facing possible doom, like, I might feel the need to comment on it. Cause, you know. Priorities.
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“Your ship must be destroyed. We make assumption you have a deity, or deities, or some such beliefs which comfort you. We therefore grant you ten Earth-time periods known as minutes to make preparations.”