The Hunt (Review)

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For the past year, I’ve been a big fan of the podcast Filmspotting. Recorded in Chicago at National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ, it’s one of the most famous podcasts out there, dissecting films and offering a new Top 5 list of whatever they can think of in movies each week.

Besides general criticism and knowledge, hosts Josh Larsen and Adam Kempenaar also have giveaways, which occasionally include tickets to advance film screenings in Chicago. Purely on a whim, I recently entered to win two advance tickets to an advance screening of a Danish film from last year, The Hunt and wound up winning.

So I went Monday night with a friend to the screening and…well. saying I enjoyed it doesn’t necessarily describe it. I think it’s best to view it the same way I view movies like Waltz with Bashir and Dancer in the Dark: absolutely essential and provocative storytelling, but one that doesn’t elicit a positive reaction, which is, I feel, a good thing.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (the co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement), the film stars Mads Mikkelsen (who is pure brilliance as the title character of NBC’s brilliant, little-seen Hannibal) as Lucas, a middle-aged divorcee who works at a kindergarten because the secondary school he used to teach at has closed. His life is in a bit of a rut, although things pick up when an attractive female coworker (Alexandra Rapaport) hooks up with him and his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom) announces he wants to move back in with him. However, all this comes crashing down.

After her older brother’s idiot friend shows her a picture of a penis, Klara (Annika Weddenkopp), the daughter of Lucas’ best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), confused by that and by her childlike crush on Lucas, unwittingly claims Lucas exposed himself to and molested her. The adults around her ask her leading questions to confirm their suspicions and, despite barely talking to or confronting Lucas himself, proceed to single him out and make his life a living hell.

This is one tough film. The conflict essentially boils down to “Do we believe in a human being we all know is decent, or do we believe the child, because children never lie?” That phrase “children never lie” is uttered over and over again throughout the film and it’s fascinating to see how the story’s characters take that thought and run with it, even to horrifying ends.

Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at Cannes last year for this film and watching him, you know why. Every single minute he’s on screen is captivating and the quiet dignity with which he conducts himself even to the point of despair is heartbreaking and mesmerizing.  Fogelstrom is completely convincing as Marcus, and when the story shifts to him for a substantial amount, he proves himself capable, showcasing the confusion and torment that a child of divorce plus a circumstance like this no doubt has. Bo Larsen plays mostly a riff on the best friend but he has his scary moments. Weddenkopp is now one of my favorite child actors due to how natural she is; it’s uncanny how effortless she makes it seem.

Amazon doesn’t have a DVD release for this out anytime soon, but if this is playing in your area, check it out. It’s a marvelous drama that raises questions in a way few other films do.

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Disney and Animation Historians

Props to Memoirs of a Culture Stalker and CriticalHit009 for getting me to think about this stuff.


I recently finished reading Michael Barrier’s wonderful Walt Disney: The Animated Man. As far as Disney biographies go, it’s probably the most unbiased account of his life you will ever read, although Barrier freely admits in the opening that it is far from the “definitive biography,” and he doubts it will be written for a long time as some papers pertaining to Disney’s life are withheld by the corporation that bears his name for legal reasons still today.

But reading that book–as well as Barrier’s other myriad essays available on his website–reminded me of a problem that I keep encountering in animation history that keeps bugging me: the need and want of several historians to place Disney on a pedestal above all other studios.

The book that does this the most is Charles Solomon’s 1994 tome Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation which, while it is an excellent historical survey, clearly places Disney on a pedestal (there are two sections devoted to Disney’s output exclusively before discussing the work of others in the same period). This bugs me for a lot of reasons, but the main one is pretty easy to state.

My big problem with this line of thinking is that yes, while Disney is technically innovative and focused on the physical art of animation in a way other studios have never been, their characters–as in the stable of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest–aren’t visible enough to merit such devotion.

Think about it: have you ever seen an actual Mickey Mouse cartoon on TV? Of course you haven’t; Disney keeps that stuff locked up tight. The only DVD options you have for that stuff is either the insanely expensive Walt Disney Treasures boxsets or the Cartoon Favorites DVDs, which don’t have that much. The only time you ever see them on TV now is either on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (which is a show I don’t really have an opinion about one way or the other) or on the Have A Laugh! program–which takes a seven-minute short and trims it down to five minutes for some inane reason–and Re-Micks, which takes classic cartoon footage and scores it to Top 40 pop (it’s as dumb a novelty as it sounds).

By contrast, Cartoon Network–which has exclusive rights to the Looney Tunes stable of shorts–reruns the old shorts at least five times a day. Not only that, they’ve reinvented the characters with The Looney Tunes Show, which puts Bugs, Daffy & co. in a sitcom setting with new designs and lets them go (I’ve only seen a few episodes; overall, pretty good). As for the classic shorts, they’re available in the Golden Collection boxsets for the enthusiast or, for the budget-conscious, the Spotlight Collections, which are just the Golden Collection sets broken up into halves.

The Hanna-Barbera stable–Tom & Jerry, Fred Flintstone and so on–is pretty much the same deal. Affordable boxsets and easy access on TV (most of the Hanna-Barbera stable can be seen on Boomerang, Cartoon Network’s throwback channel).

Sure, all three sets of characters I’ve mentioned occupy plenty of merchandise, but there’s a greater ratio of mechandise-to-availability of actual cartoons with Disney than the other two.

And another thing: as Barrier and Solomon both document, there was a definite point where Disney short cartoons became formulaic and stale rather than fresh and innovative. Despite geniuses like Carl Barks working in the story department, Disney would–often led by Walt himself–restrict the characters to familiar patterns and jokes so as to hold up the integrity of the brand. It is Solomon, I believe, who tells a story of two Disney animators watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon in a theater at some point in the late ’40s and one asking the other  “Why aren’t we allowed to do stuff like this?”

So yeah, this deification of Disney by historians needs to stop. Yes, they’re technically innovative. Yes, their films are, even at their worst, always interesting and entertaining. But saying that Mickey, Donald & Goofy are still these multi-generational icons–when today’s kids have only grown up seeing them on merchandise–is ridiculous and annoying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find some Daffy Duck to watch.

P.S. When Solomon addresses the then-airing Batman: The Animated Series in his book, he decries it for having “pedestrian storytelling.” Right: and that’s why it won a Daytime Emmy for writing in its first season, sparked a stylistic revolution in action animation that persists to this day, became a generational touchstone, directly influenced the comics it sprang from, and served as the foundation for a cohesive universe unlike anything ever seen in children’s cartoons before. Sure, that’s “pedestrian.”

Star Trek Saturdays #26

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #26!

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This week’s episode is “The Devil in the Dark” and it does what “The Man Trap” should have: it provides a tight, contained horror story with strong direction and tight writing.

We open on the mining planet Janus VI, where a man named Schmitter relieves another guard at his post. When the other guards and their boss, Chief Vanderberg (Ken Lynch) move on, they hear a terrified scream and they rush back to see Schmitter gone, reduced to a smoking pile of ash.

After the theme music, we see the Enterprise has arrived at Janus VI in response to a distress call sent out by Vanderberg. As we learn, for the past three months, something has been terrorizing the mining colony, killing people, sabotaging machinery and halting production of the valuable mineral Pergium in its tracks. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to the surface and meet Vanderberg as well as Chief Engineer Ed Appel (Brad Weston), the only person to have seen the creature and lived; he even shot at it but to no effect.

  Ed Appel

(L: Vanderberg. R: Appel)

McCoy analyzes Schmitter’s remains, then says he wasn’t burned to death but corroded, as if by acid. Spock notes a sphere made out of pure silicon on Vanderberg’s desk; the mining chief says there are thousands of them underground but they have no value. They’re interrupted by an alarm at the colony’s nuclear reactor.

They head over there and discover that the creature has killed the guard stationed outside the reactor, burned its way in, and stolen the main circulating pump. Without it, the reactor will go critical and destroy half the planet. Kirk contacts Scotty, who says he can rig up a makeshift substitute for the ancient pump, but it’ll only last 48 hours.

Spock, still pondering the silicon sphere, postulates that they’re dealing with a silicon-based lifeform, not a carbon-based one, which would explain why it is impervious to phasers. Kirk summons a security team led by Lt.Cmdr. Giotto (Barry Russo) while Spock adjusts their phasers to be more effective against silicon. The security team is sent to Level 23, which was opened just before the creature began attacking. Kirk orders them to set their phasers to maximum and fire whether or not they’re attacked.

A security officer with the miners gets killed by the creature, which makes Kirk and Spock rush to the scene, where they actually spot the creature. They fire on it, wounding it, but it escapes by boring a tunnel with its acid.

Horta injured by phasers

What is this creature, and why does it keep attacking the miners? And what will Spock and Kirk ultimately do about this new lifeform…?

This episode is marvelous and in a lot of ways, it reminds me of “The Man Trap.” If you’ll recall, that was the only episode I’ve seen so far that I’ve just hated, mostly because its premise wasn’t lived up to by its writing and direction.

This episode, then, does the opposite. We get an instant hook, a great conflict and a nice sense of atmosphere: it’s not just that everyone is trapped on a planet with a dangerously unstable nuclear reactor, but that they’re all underground, which insures that if anyone dies, they might not be taken out. That adds a real sense of horror and entrapment to the proceedings.

The creature, here, is far more realized than the one in “The Man Trap.” Yeah, it looks like somebody crawling around some fake, rubber lava but hey, it’s effective. Its total alien appearance is what makes it so interesting, especially considering the huge twist that happens later in this episode. Such a game-changing element fundamentally alters the nature of the conflict and ramps it up in the process.

The script here is by Gene L.Coon, his first solo effort since the great “Arena” and, according to Memory Alpha, he wrote this episode in four days. While usually that’s a detriment, I can believe it because the pace is relentless. He gives us one conflict, ramps it up, then switches things around–through a scene involving mind-melding by Spock with the creature (although it’s still not called mind-melding yet)–and gives us a whole something else to care about. It’s a gripping story that sweeps you up.

Joseph Pevney is directing once again and, once again, he’s brilliant, taking full advantage of the underground surroundings in this episode. He really plays up just how shadowy the caves are which makes it all the more scary when the creature attacks. On top of that, he makes his actors state their positions with words and body language that clearly conveys what they’re trying to do.

The cast is terrific here. We actually see a bit of a conflict between Kirk and Spock as to what to do for the creature, and Shatner and Nimoy really bring out this ideological coming to blows, which tells us a lot about these two characters. Vanderberg is really the most prominent of the miners, and Lynch plays him well enough; he’s an authority figure wanting to protect his authority, which is one-note, but Lynch sells it.

So yeah, we have a terrific writer and a great director teaming up once again to give us a stellar episode towards the end of the first season. Recommended.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

 

Star Trek Saturday BONUS #3

Star Trek: Nemesis has an odd place in the Trek universe. On the one hand, it’s the final on-screen adventure of Picard, Riker and company, who personify Star Trek as a whole for at least two generations of fans (including myself). On the other, it’s the film that supposedly inverts the Trek curse–which holds that the odd-numbered films are terrible while the even-numbered ones are good; this film is the tenth Trek film made–and is considered to be so awful that it killed the franchise…at least until J.J. Abrams revived it.

But watching it for the first time last night with some friends–actually, a group I’m in a Trek tabletop RPG campaign with; more on that later–I enjoyed it because it caps some long-running stories from the TNG era while exploring new things and finding new grounds to explore in the franchise-long exploration of what it means to be human.

The plot begins on Romulus where two military commanders are trying to persuade the Senate to align with Shinzon (Tom Hardy) of Remus, a mining planet containing a slave race called the Remans and which, like Mercury, has one side in extreme heat and light while the other is extremely cold and dark. Such an alliance, they argue, would make the Romulans the most powerful force in their quadrant of the galaxy. The Senate Praetor (leader) shoots down their proposal and they exit, as does Senator Tal’aura (Shannon Cochran) who leaves behind a device that releases a radioactive gas which destroys the entire Romulan Senate from the inside out.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) gives his best man toast at the wedding of Cmdr. Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Cmdr./Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), congratulating them on both their wedding and their accepting positions on the U.S.S. Titan, where Riker will be captain. He mockingly laments their being happy while he has to train the android Data (Brent Spiner) as his new first officer.

Later, as the Enterprisemakes its way towards Troi’s homeworld of Betazed for the traditional Betazoid wedding ceremony–which involves nudity–they detect a positronic signature coming from the planet Kolarin III. This is a surprising discovery because positronic signatures only come from Soong-type androids, of which Data is one and of which there aren’t many. Picard decides to set course for the planet and, while down there, he, Data and Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn) come across an android in six parts who looks very similar to Data and calls himself B-4(also Spiner).

While dealing with all that, Picard communicates via subspace with now-Admiral Janeway (from Star Trek: Voyager and played by Kate Mulgrew) who tells him that Shinzon, who is now Praetor, has requested a Federation envoy. Deeply confused, the Enterprise heads there and discovers–through an away team of Picard, Data, Riker, and Troi–that Shinzon looks just like Picard in his early  20s. Shinzon also proposes that the Neutral Zone be torn down and peace established. Is that really his end goal? And why does he look so much like Picard…

Nemesis wraps up one big thread of The Next Generation–the romance of Riker and Troi–and introduces three big ideas: 1. A non-Romulan taking over the Romulan Empire, 2. Another “brother” of Data besides the evil Lore from the show, and 3. The Remans, a slave race to the Romulans who are anxious for independence of their own. It delivers on these threads fantastically while being very concise, thanks to a screenplay by John Logan (who, a few years later, wrote Hugo) that builds on all of this goodwill and story from the show but manages to make it feel like the characters have evolved some since we last saw them.

The director is Stuart Baird and he does a rather decent job here, making the space battles the best looking pre-Abrams battles I’ve seen. He also knows when to control and when to give control of a scene to his actors.

Speaking of actors, we are chock full of good performances. Stewart, despite looking rather haggard, makes the new weight on Picard’s shoulders that Shinzon brings very palpable and heavy. Spiner–who also came up with the film’s story–continues his excellent renderings of Data and makes B-4  big-hearted doof. The rest of the regular cast all do equally well. As Shinzon, Hardy could have easily gone the melodramatic route, but he plays it rather subdued and serious, giving us a serious impression of what being both power-mad and crazy will do to you. This is also the skinniest I’ve ever seen him.

So did this kill Star Trek? I dunno, but I can definitely see huge chunks of it being a disappointment to a lot of people. But really, it might have ended the live-action franchise, but it gave way to a whole lotta something else. See, obviously, Paramount wasn’t gonna let the TNG-era end with this movie if there was still money it could earn. So since 2004, we’ve gotten a lot of novels that explore what happens to the Enterprise-E after this movie; heck, the only Trek books I’ve ever read, David Mack’s two trilogies of Star Trek: Destiny (a crossover between TNG and the universes of the relaunched book lines of Deep Space Nine and Voyager) and Cold Equations are both from this era and I like all those books a lot.

So, if nothing else, check this movie out and decide for yourself whether it is bad or not. Although you newbies might want to watch some TNG on Netflix first. Recommended.

 

 

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Pacific Rim–(Review)

I have a friend who’s a bit of an expert on Japanese kaiju movies and anime. Seriously, I’ve seen his DVD shelf–it’s made up of Godzilla films, assorted anime and a whole lot of Jackie Chan movies. It’s the sort of stuff I’ve always wanted to get into but have had, unfortunately, little experience thus far.

I have seen two Godzilla movies–1962’s Godzilla vs. King Kong and 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The former is a delightful blast of cheesy awesomeness while the latter is…well “of its time” would be putting it loosely; there’s a lot of psychedelic weirdness and heavy-handed environmentalism that could ONLY come from this particular moment in culture (if you want to know more, check out James Rolfe’s excellent series of videos about the Godzilla franchise). Anyway, I betcha a whole lot of people will be interested in Godzilla movies and similar other kaiju or “giant monster” movies now because that word is used exclusively to describe the pictures of the current nerd-friendly blockbuster, Pacific Rim. It’s not only a terrific love letter to those sorts of movies, it’s also a fantastic film in its own right and easily this year’s answer to The Avengers, proving once again that a big summer movie can be fun and easy on the eyes rather than grim and hard to follow.

So all those things I mentioned my friend was an expert in? That pretty much informs this movie: it’s basically a giant robot anime combined with a giant monster movie, mashed up in director and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro’s unique worldview and stylistic sensibilities.

So what’s the story? Well, in the near future, an inter-dimensional rift dubbed “the Breach” has opened up in the Pacific Ocean between two tectonic plates, which allows giant monsters called “kaiju” to come through and attack every coastal city worldwide. In the wake of the mass destruction, humanity bands together to create massive, humanoid fighting robots called Jaegers (after the German for hunter) to combat the monsters.

Because the mental strain caused by piloting the Jaeger is too much for one pilot, two pilots operate the machines while neurally linked together–a “neural handshake,” as the movie calls it–sharing all of each other’s memories and feelings in order to balance the load of piloting such an enormous machine. The film opens at the height of humanity’s success against the kaiju, with Jaeger pilots having ascended to rockstar status. In Anchorage, Alaska, brothers Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Beckett (Diego Klattenhoff) pit their Jaegar, codenamed “Gipsy Danger”, against a kaiju that they seem to defeat relatively easy but it survives and destroys Gipsy Danger and eats Yancy alive while he’s still connected to Raleigh–meaning Raleigh feels all the agony his brother feels in his last moments. The experience, combined with the exhaustive effort of defeating the monster and getting to shore under his own willpower, traumatizes Raleigh and he quits the Jaeger program.

Several years later, the kaiju have gained the upper hand and humanity is on its last leg. The world’s governments have opted to defund the Jaeger program  and focus on building gigantic walls to defend themselves; never mind that the monsters can break through the wall in less than an hour. In response, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the head of the Jaeger program, decides to rally the remaining Jaegers together in Hong Kong to plan an all-out assault on the Breach itself. He goes to recruit Raleigh from Alaska, where he’s working on one of the walls; although Raleigh doesn’t want to bond with someone that close again, he agrees and winds up paired with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young woman with savant-like piloting abilities who has a connection to Pentecost. Combined with the other pilots from around the world–okay, just Russia, Australia and China–they prepare to mount an all-out assault while scientists Newton (Charlie Day) and Hermann (Burn Gorman) try and unlock the mysteries of the kaiju themselves.

That may all sound complicated and worthy of a ton of exposition–indeed, I can think of several other directors who would take that path–but that’s not what happens here. Del Toro and his co-writer, Travis Beacham (who also wrote the story), keep things remarkably lean and focused; we get all we need to know about anything through an image or some quick dialogue, nothing more. It’s a tactic that works remarkably well and reminds one of the original Star Wars trilogy. Combine that with some truly fantastic and visionary visual effects work, photography and set design and you have a movie that made me go “WOW” about every ten minutes.

The cast also helps keep this movie grounded by being totally committed. No tongues in cheeks here. Hunnam gives Raleigh the stoicism and solidarity one expects from your typical action lead, but he has some strong emotional moments too. Kikuchi, most famous in America for her role in Babel, has some terrific heavy lifting here that goes beyond your typical shy, blue-haired anime love interest and she plays it like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Elba–who is, in all honesty, one of my favorite actors–is terrific as Pentecost, taking the typical tough-guy commander role and really making him feel like a true leader, with all that that implies. Day and Gorman are a terrific comedy pair, with Day’s sheer mania and energy bouncing off of Gorman’s deadpan nerdiness. Del Toro regular Ron Perlman has a part here, although he’s so great that I’m gonna let you find out who he is for yourselves.

In addition to being a terrific movie, this film also highlights the creativity and importance of new ideas in the Hollywood landscape. If you see only one blockbuster this summer, make it this one. Recommended.

Superman: For Tomorrow

So before we start here, I’d like to thank everybody who viewed, liked or commented on my post about the passing of my professor and friend, William J. Vande Kopple. It was a very hard post to write–probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever written–and to have seen such a response is overwhelming. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

And to those who have decided to follow this blog in the wake of the post, well, here’s the kind of post that we usually have around here.

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Despite the fact that DC Comics rebooted their entire universe in 2011, in their marketing departments and “Essential Stories” lists, they still hold up several storylines from the prior incarnation of the DC Universe, colloquially known as the “Post-Crisis” DCU, up as gateway stories to read if one wants to know about their characters.

Superman: For Tomorrow, which ran for 12 issues in 2004-2005, is one of those stories; although in abstract, it always seemed to me an odd choice, as it’s an event storyline with no real major changes for Superman nor anyone in his supporting cast, after finally reading the complete edition from the library recently, I understand why. This is an ambitious, epic story that humanizes the one superhero more often called “overpowered” than anyone else and tells a tight, suspenseful tale while doing so.

The scope of this story is shown by the fact that it begins in media res: we open with Superman visiting young priest Daniel Leone in his church. Leone is both apprehensive and slightly confused as to why someone like Superman would come to him. Supes begins confiding his immense guilt over the fact that, while he was out saving Green Lantern from a disaster in space, over a million people–including Lois Lane, who at this point he was still married to–vanished without any cause or explanation. He begins mediating about sin, then tells Father Leone, “My sin…was to save the world.”

Not too long later, Superman appears to Leone again, telling him how he traced the source of the Vanishing, as it’s called, to an unspecified Middle Eastern country in the midst of a civil war. Discovering that the cause was a strange mechanical device held by military leader General Nox, hellbent on taking over the country, he tries to confiscate it. Nox refuses and sics his minion Equus, a sort of cyborg horse-man thing with no moral compass whatsoever, on him. In the chaos, Equus gets ahold of the device  and vanishes himself along with 300,000 other people. Not surprisingly, this gains the ire of both the world at large and the Justice League.

Meanwhile, Father Leone, who is actually suffering from cancer, is confronted by a mysterious man named Mr. Orr, who describes himself as a mercenary for people who have “80% of the world population working for them in one way or another,” who wants to find Superman and the device.  But for what end…?

Writer Brian Azzarello has been a staple at DC for a long time now–starting with his creator-owned series 100 Bullets, he’s currently writing Wonder Woman–despite the fact that he has openly stated he doesn’t care for superheroes. So whenever he does wind up writing them, he writes them differently from the standard portrayal for purposes of storytelling. The biggest tell of that is here, we get an introspective Superman; Azzarello perfectly nails the query of “If you were the most powerful person you know, yet you couldn’t save your own wife, what the hell would that do to you?” A lot of people have opined both to me personally and online that Superman sucks because he has no limitations seemingly. Azzarello gives him some, but they’re psychological, which helps give this story a unique and distinct tone amid all the required punching.

Jim Lee, the comic art world’s Alex Rodriguez in terms of his popularity and ubiquity–and who is currently co-publisher of DC and artist on Justice League–is on pencils here and he does a bang-up job. Even as someone who’s not intimately familiar with the majority of his work, I can’t help but acknowledge his immense talent. The way he handles both the big fight scenes and tense dialogue-filled moments is propulsive and compelling in equal measure, and it shows you just why he’s such a big deal.

Overall, this is a terrific story that doesn’t require no more than a little above baseline knowledge of Superman to get, a terrific suspense thriller as well as a great exploration of Superman’s psyche. I wasn’t even done with this book before I told my friend, an avowed anti-Supes man, to check this out, and I suspect you’ll like this too. Recommended.

Star Trek Saturdays #25

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #25!

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This week’s episode is “This Side of Paradise” and while it’s very much of its time, it also has a poignant message and is a remarkable showcase for Leonard Nimoy.

We open with the Enterprise approaching the planet Omicron Ceta III, the site of an agriculture-minded colony established three years ago. Kirk expects this mission to be a grim one because, as he and Spock establish through dialogue, the planet is constantly bombarded with deadly berthold rays, which wasn’t discovered until after the colonists had left Earth.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Lt. DeSalle (Michael Barrier–not the animation scholar) and Lt. Kelowitz (Grant Woods)–the last two characters have appeared before–beam down onto the planet–which looks an awful lot like some guy’s ranch in Northern California somewhere–and see nothing, thinking their worst fears are confirmed. A voice tells them otherwise, and it turns out to belong to colony leader Elias Sandoval (Frank Overton). “I may be mistaken, Jim,” McCoy says, “but that man is very much alive.”

Sandoval shows them all into the main indoor hub of the colony, where they encounter botanist Leila Kalomi (Jill Ireland) who was once Spock’s girlfriend on Earth six years ago. Needless to say, this causes some surprise among the others.

But it’s not nearly as surprising as the thing McCoy, performing examinations with his tricorder, discovers: every colonist on the planet is in perfect physical health, to the point where previous injuries had healed. When queried, Sandoval replies that it must be due to the colonists being vegetarian. But the landing party discovers other anomalies, such as a barn with no animals and no vehicles of any kind, which Sandoval says is deliberate.

Spock repeatedly questions Leila as to how on Earth all this is possible and Leila shows him. She takes him to a large plant that sprays spores all over him and Spock’s emotional walls break down. He confesses he loves Leila and kisses her madly. But what are these spores and why do they affect everybody so? And what happens when they start landing on the crew of the Enterprise?

Omicron Ceti III flower

D.C. Fontana is credited with the script and co-writing the story here and this is by far her strongest work yet. In fact, so the story goes, she was handed a draft of this story to fix and complete by Gene Roddenberry, who promised to make her story editor in return. Whether that’s true or not, Fontana brings it all here: a tight central mystery, interesting characters for the crew to bounce off of, a heavy conflict for Kirk to deal with and most importantly, stuff that humanizes Spock.

This is the first time we’ve seen Spock become emotional really since way back in “The Naked Time” and while there, it was sad, here, it’s joyous. This is Nimoy’s episode through and through and he owns it. He shows that even a half-human like Spock can love and lose, same as the rest of us, and gives us complete and utter bliss and sheer happiness that I bet no one must have thought we’d see. It’s terrific.

This episode is directed by Ralph Senesky, who went on to do many more episodes and many, many other TV shows, and he’s terrific here. He takes full advantage of shooting on location, using wide crane shots and sweeping scenery where he can, and his handling of things like the introduction of Leila is simply gorgeous stuff.

While this is Nimoy’s episode, everyone else is fine too. We learn McCoy is apparently Southern; one point, Kelley lapses into a Georgian accent, which is surreal but utterly convincing, making one see why Kelley landed all those Western parts. Sulu gets some good moments too, the other two lieutenants are pretty solid and Shatner gets to explore Kirk’s loneliness and need for Spock as well as show off some impressive anger. Overton–best known for Sheriff Heck Tate in To Kill A Mockingbird–and Jill Ireland–best known for TV roles and being married to Charles Bronson–are both fine too, with Overton selling Sandoval’s scheme and Ireland making Leila’s longing for Spock utterly palpable.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.