May we present part 4 of our series of reflections on a very Star Trek childhood – from featured writer Keith Parker!
Setting aside for a moment that little actually happens in Star Trek’s classic episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” it is still one I hold close to my heart, the one I keep in a jar on my desk. You see, Corbomite was the first science fiction show that ever scared the living shit out of me. That image of Balok, bobbing in his morass of soupy alien goo, made me shudder for years to come. . .
A mood piece to be sure, Corbomite is an episode where Spock yells, the navigator curls into an emotional ball, and Captain Kirk plays poker with an alien that’s about to pulverize everything he knows and loves (Janice Rand is in this episode). Even as a clueless youngster I knew, subconsciously at least, that there were several solid dramatic scenes here, but it was Balok, on screen and off, that kept me looking over my shoulder.
Additional mood is anchored in episode’s background: The Enterprise, exploring uncharted space (else, they wouldn’t be exploring, would they?) wind up blasting a six-sided die to smithereens before being bullied by the die’s big brother, a 1960’s d20 cobbled together by a proto-hippie using psychedelic Tinker Toys. This spaceship, so immense it makes the Enterprise a veritable footnote, left me wide-eyed, spellbound, and experiencing my first taste of megalophobia.
It was the combination of these mood pieces that led to a lifelong fascination with the macabre in science fiction. In the penultimate scenes of this episode (prior to Kirk and Bailey’s orange juice toasts), Balok threatens to obliterate the Enterprise for crossing his ephemeral boundary in outer space. Kirk bluffs, telling Balok that the Corbomite-laden Enterprise will utterly annihilate Balok’s ship if the latter tries to make good on his threat. Balok balks and, using the twenty-third century’s version of a tugboat, drags the Enterprise back to whatever planet creatures like Balok come from in the first place. Just as it looks like Kirk and company are about to become POWs, however, the Enterprise breaks free, leaving the tug dead in the water. It’s at that point that this episode engages its full engines. Rather than doing the easy thing (getting the hell out of Dodge), Kirk realizes he has to risk all to help his helpless antagonist.
In Eugene Roddenberry’s superb podcast, Mission Pod Log, the hosts discuss this in detail in their “messages, morals and meanings” segment; if you haven’t heard Mission Pod, put it in the queue just behind JustUs Geeks, because there’s good stuff there. Star Trek makes it plain: We can talk the talk, but there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? “Liberty and justice for all” sounds brilliant, but are we willing to do the work it takes to make that a reality? I apologize for the digression, but one cannot properly look at this episode without seriously pondering whether we are who we claim to be. Kirk ponders this, too, and decides to walk the walk.
Anyway, back to my main takeaway, it was the combination of mood pieces described above that writhed, squirmed and finally mated, resulting in a noisome infant that changed the way I looked at genre forever. From that episode onward, no matter how optimistic or whimsical, I was always expecting to see the mad scientist cackling wildly in the rain as lightning bolts silhouette his castle. I had become hooked on science-fiction-horror, all because of Trek. And while Corbomite is clearly a hopeful piece, in the end it will always foreshadow my fascination with the macabre, as exemplified by one of the greatest hook lines of all time: In space no one can hear you scream.