Friday, 10 March 2017

Spinning a Yarn

After a rather leisurely five year stint to watch all of Star Trek I've finally come to the end of watching The Original Series.

Not that it's taken me five years to watch everything from The Cage to Turnabout Intruder but I only ever intended to watch The Next Generation which led to Deep Space Nine which led to... you get the picture. 

Anyway, it's been too many years since I last watched the show that started it all and as part of that, one of the greatest episodes the show produced in probably one of its darkest times; The Tholian Web.

When I started Some Kind of Star Trek back in 2013 I intended to do a lot more episodic reviews and talky bits about the show but then others things crept in - the books, Attack Wing, starship collections... and while all this is great I realise that an element I always wanted to hold on to was discussion about the show itself. Starships are great but there's more to the show than that and I wanted this site to offer that alternative.

Which brings me back to The Tholian Web because ever since the day I realised I would be going through every episode I would eventually wind up coming to one of the episodes that helped lure me into Star Trek in the first place. So here I am; doing just that and I've been really looking forward to it. This is my love letter to one of the episodes that drove me to Trek.

Produced in the severely budget-restrained third and final season of The Original Series, it was the ninth episode made and also the ninth to air which was unusual considering how the order was chopped and changed over time. How early in my viewing of the show it actually came I can't remember but it's iconic imagery of the USS Enterprise gradually being encased in the net has stayed with me for decades.

In a nutshell Kirk is stranded in another dimension while Spock commands the Enterprise and has to deal with the Tholians but I actually think this is one of the most multifaceted episodes of the show as a whole, added to by the legacy of the show as it later unfolded. However, more on that in a bit.

At it's heart, The Tholian Web is a rescue story as Spock balances diplomacy with a non-humanoid race against the necessity to confirm Kirk's death and later engineer his retrieval. It's an unusual time for Spock in this episode because for the large majority of the time the captain is out of the picture which sets up a more explosive dynamic between the Vulcan and McCoy. Without Kirk to balance the pair they are initially much more confrontational before setting aside their issues to bring their friend home. I love the fact that one of the instrumental elements of the show is absent for a good portion of the episode and by his absence you realise how key Kirk actually is to the balance of the crew.

For a bottle show (one filmed entirely on the existing Desilu starship sets) this is easily Star Trek's finest example. We get two starships out of one with the appearance - and disappearance - of the USS Defiant but yet that restraint takes nothing from the intensity of the episode. The initial visit to the Defiant introduces the stunning atmospheric suits for their one and only outing and the teaser cleverly avoids stranding Kirk instead focusing on the phasing from reality of the Enterprise's sister ship.

Spock's turn in command is, unsurprisingly logical and of course we get Kirk back but look again at the episode and you'll see that this loss of the captain and his return is only a piece of the puzzle here. But is there just a smidgen of emotion in there? Should he really have stayed to confirm the captain's demise or was there something more in there - a trace of his humanity leaking through? I suspect so.

The danger posed by the Tholians as well as the danger posed by the region of space that the Enterprise is waiting in also add elements to the story (crack out your fish-eye camera lense). Then there's Kirk's ghost-like reappearances throughout which actually give Uhura a lot more to do than just open hailing frequencies or contact Starfleet. We get to see her quarters and the comms officer off-duty all at once plus it's a character expanding moment that wasn't afforded to all as well as Uhura was provided.

The Spock/McCoy dynamic is at its most exposed in The Tholian Web but by its conclusion they are perhaps at their most united in their denial of viewing Kirk's final orders. Most un-Vulcan-like but fitting that the captain's absence has cemented their friendship to a higher point.

The episode is a goldmine of concept and brilliance and we're not just talking about those spacesuits. The Tholians themselves are a standout moment for the series. Refraining from simply dressing up another actor we have non-humanoid species distinctly different from anything else we'd seen. Admittedly Enterprise would later expand beyond the head and shoulders we see here but the spark was there. Their ships too are a landmark even in their non-remastered format. Combined with their intricate lattice-work web it takes them away from the standard warp nacelles and phasers compliment that we've had from the likes of the Romulans and the Klingons. It's all hugely forward-thinking and like nothing else that appears in The Original Series

The Tholian Web, for all its budgetary restraints is a classic of The Original Series due to its scope and vision. It truly offers character exploration, a threat, true danger for the ship and multiple smaller events throughout the show which all play a key part in the episode. Amazingly it's all crammed into less than one hour of TV and works tirelessly and in fairness it's one of the more complex stories given the ton of angles it tackles the incident from. A lot of the episodes in the third year are linear in their nature and steer away from smaller incidents and keep on a straight and narrow from the beginning. The Tholian Web is a huge exception adding elements to the whole and exploring a time and a place rather than one single story thread. Look to other episodes in the last year and you'll see that the core story is pretty much the focus of the whole show without deviation.

Now we move to matters that only come to light many years later and The Tholian Web becomes a huge piece of the Star Trek universe puzzle. In fact before we even reach a certain Enterprise episode there's Deep Space Nine. Yes, the episode's influences are there even by 1994 and the arrival of a prototype starship - USS Defiant. Originally the Valiant (which did actually come later...), the Borg-busting starship was indeed named as a part homage to one of The Original Series' most prolific guest ships (or ghost ship?).

There have been nods to the Tholians during the course of the franchise's history in The Next Generation and again lip service in Deep Space Nine during the Dominion War but it's the short-lived prequel that cements The Tholian Web even more profoundly.

In a Mirror, Darkly is widely regarded as one of the defining stories of the final year and - personal opinion - the show as a whole but aside from a brilliant two-part story it actually reinforces how spectacular and seminal The Tholian Web - an episode that aired 37 years previous - is to Star Trek.

The key to the whole thing is the USS Defiant and the decision to attempt its capture from the Tholians of the Mirror Universe. The high-temp loving hexapods are very alike to their Prime Universe counterparts in their technology and it raises the question for me that perhaps the two versions of these creatures are in communication? Are the Tholians of the Prime Universe aware of the rifts and where they are sending items. As a side point how come there's not more of the Prime Universe stuff (and vice versa) floating around in either universe?

Enough of that mind-melting material though because the arrival of the Defiant is a universe-defining moment which changes the political overview and gives (spoiler) Empress Sato a massive advantage over her rivals.

But look more closely at the episode than just the plot because In a Mirror, Darkly is one of those great visual experiences which shows the love and honours its forebears. Yes it's effectively a sequel to the brilliant The Tholian Web by answering the question as to where the hell the Defiant and provides a prequel to the sublime Mirror, Mirror yet there are some key touches that are too good to ignore.

Check out the initial sequence of the NX-01 crew beaming into the Defiant and the positioning of the crew on the bridge. It's a perfect recreation of the duplicate scene from The Tholian Web. The actors are in precisely the same spots as their 1960's originals were when that episode was filmed. The original starship sets are of course recreated with love but we have the Defiant emblem rather than the USS Enterprise delta (take note Timelines because Mirror Archer has the wrong emblem on his tunic). The remastered version retains the mythos fortunately but does change one significant point - the design of the Tholian ships become more akin to their Enterprise CG counterparts than the simple lines of The Original Series models.

Undeniably the arrival and use of the Defiant should have more influence on the development of starships and general technology in the Mirror Universe but how were they going to know in 1968 that this prequel/sequel would be made let alone dreamt about? So it does make continuity less than perfect but the return of the Tholians in full body form breathes new life into that original episode and I think makes it stronger than ever. Being able to relate later events to it makes The Original Series even more integral to the franchise as a whole. 

Deep Space Nine certainly honoured its illustrious forebear with the return of the Tribbles, three legendary Klingons and the Mirror Universe saga but The Tholian Web retroactively becomes a cornerstone of the franchise because of the way its legacy has been woven into the later (or earlier?) generations of Star Trek. It's a clever twist in that it gains importance due to a later story. Perhaps this is only the case in one other episode, that being Trials and Tribble-ations and even then that is more a "reworking" of a classic than a story which builds more onto an existing tale.

For me, The Tholian Web is one of those late signs of Star Trek that even in those harsh production times there were still some shining lights and this Judy Burns written episode is one of those that illuminated the final year. Burns has the characters down-pat even though there's a piece missing and turns in a winner that is always in my top ten episodes of the franchise. Visually it's stunning thanks to the unique way in which the Tholians choose to capture and eliminate their opponents but the script cannot be ignored. It overcomes the boundaries of being a bottle show to create a genuinely thrilling experience that actually has something for all the cast to do while being original and creative.

Everything here comes together and over time I've seen The Tholian Web from different perspectives; the action adventure as a boy through to the character-defining moment that it is for Spock as he commands the Enterprise and the exploration of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate with the removal of the balancing element. Unique and brilliant, The Tholian Web still firmly remains my favourite episode of The Original Series. So thank you Judy Burns, you were a big influence on my life!!!

What are your memories of The Tholian Web?

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