These Are The Voyages: “The Corbomite Maneuver”

Written by: Jerry Sohl

Directed by: Joseph Sargent

Production code: 6149-3

Principal photography: May 24th, 1966-June 2nd, 1966 (6 1/2 days)

Score: Fred Steiner (partial; recorded September 20th, 1966); also uses material composed by Sol Kaplan (from “The Enemy Within”), Steiner (from “Balance of Terror” and “Charlie X”), and Alexander Courage (from “The Man Trap”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and “The Naked Time”)

Final episode cost: $190,430 (approximately $1,416,693 in 2016 when adjusted for inflation)

First Aired: November 10th, 1966

Initial Nielson Ratings: 15.9 Rating/25.9% share (first half hour-third place), 16.4/25.9% (second half hour-third place)

The Enterprise is engaged in a routine star-mapping operation (much to the consternation of ship’s navigator Dave Bailey) when it encounters a giant glowing cube, which blocks the ship’s path. As the Enterprise slows to a dead stop, Mr. Spock orders a Condition Alert, and has Mr. Sulu summon Captain Kirk to the bridge.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1512.2. On our third day of star-mapping, an unexplained cubical object blocked our vessel’s path. On the bridge, Mr. Spock immediately ordered general alert. My location: sickbay. Quarterly physical check.”

Dr. McCoy continues running Kirk through his paces, even as he notices the Red Alert lights flashing, much to the captain’s annoyance when the physical is completed. After speaking with Spock, Kirk heads to the bridge, but decides to change instead after determining through his first officer that the threat is not immediate. After scolding Mr. Bailey for being inefficient, Spock further confirms with Kirk that the cube has no life forms aboard, and that attempts have been made to contact it. Upon arriving, Kirk receives reports on the size, distance, and shape of the object from Bailey, Sulu, Mr. Scott, and McCoy, but none on how it works and of its purpose. The navigator declares that they should blast it with their phasers, which Kirk soundly rejects.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1513.8. Star maps reveal no indication of habitable planets nearby. Origin and purpose of the cube still unknown. We have been held here, motionless, for 18 hours.”

In the briefing room, the staff labors over the cube, coffee cups in hand, as Spock announces that the cube is either a space buoy……or fly paper. Understanding that the time for action has come, Kirk begins to issue an order to Mr. Bailey, who misinterprets it as a sign that his earlier suggestion will be followed. Instead, the captain orders that a spiral course away from the cube be plotted. On the bridge, the cube continues to block their way, and begins emitting radiation. After the Enterprise stops, the cube closes in and the radiation increases, leading Kirk to order the ship to retreat, at increasing speeds. The cube still closes in, at which point Kirk orders Bailey to fire phasers. The navigator freezes momentarily, but he does indeed fire, and the cube explodes in a great cataclysm.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1514.0. The cube has been destroyed. Ship’s damage: minor. But my next decision: major. Probe on ahead, or turn back?”

Kirk asks Spock to speculate on what they’ll find if they continue on, and the science officer declares that they’ll likely find something not only different from them, but superior, as well. Spock points out that it’s inefficient for the captain to ask his advice when he knows what he’s going to do, but Kirk merely admits that it provides him with comfort. With their course plotted and laid in, Kirk orders a series of simulations to improve the crew’s efficiency right as McCoy arrives. The doctor leaves the bridge with the captain, and proceeds to question his timing, and of the promotion of Bailey, who might be a bit green….but also similar to how Kirk was in his younger days. In Kirk’s quarters, the two share a drink as the simulation is completed. Kirk orders another round to increase the crew’s efficiency (to which Spock agrees) when Yeoman Rand arrives (to the captain’s annoyance) with his dinner…..a dietary salad (to the captain’s even greater annoyance). Shooing away his yeoman as she hovers over him, Kirk complains about having a female yeoman after she leaves, only to be teased by McCoy. However, the ship encounters a bigger object than the cube, and Kirk rushes to the bridge. Once there, Kirk receives a report just before the entire ship is shook by a tractor beam as the object, a huge, glowing sphere. Bailey is too stunned to answer Kirk’s request to see the entire ship, and is covered for hastily by Sulu. Uhura tries to contact the ship, and receives to apparent reply…..until Bailey picks up the answer over his navigation beam. The commander of the vessel, Balok, announces that his vessel, the Fesarius, has come in the name of the First Federation to deal with them for trespassing and destroying a warning buoy (the cube). Kirk tries to answer, but Balok probes the Enterprise with a sensor beam instead, and warns that any action will lead to their destruction. Kirk orders Bailey to launch a recorder/marker, and again the navigator freezes before complying. The device is swiftly destroyed, and Balok announces that he is giving the Enterprise 10 minutes before he destroys them. McCoy and Scotty arrive on the bridge, and the former informs Kirk that the entire crew heard the message. As the captain addresses the entire crew in an effort to ease their fears, Bailey wavers. Kirk then tells Balok that he intends to turn back, and Bailey freezes-again-but it’s of no use: Balok has the ship firmly in his grasp. Spock is able to pull up a visual from inside the Fesarius, revealing Balok’s fearful appearance to the bridge crew. After listening to Balok’s threats and notification that there are 8 minutes left, Bailey has a full-on meltdown and is escorted to his quarters by McCoy. Kirk attempts to reason with Balok, but is told that the ship has 7 minutes remaining. Three minutes pass, when Spock mentions chess, and specifically checkmate moments before McCoy returns to criticize Kirk for how he has handled Bailey, causing the captain to blow his stack and call the doctor on his bluff…..just as Balok announces that there are 3 minutes left. And then it finally hits Kirk: the game is not chess. It’s poker. Emboldened, the captain hails Balok and informs him that the Enterprise is built using a material called corbomite, which will destroy any attacking ship will even greater force than was unleashed upon it in the first place. To further sell the bluff, Kirk taunts Balok, but receives no reply, except for the announcement that there is 1 minute left. Bailey returns, hat in hand, and is welcomed back to his post moments before the countdown ends…..with no action by the Fesarius. After nearly a full minute, Balok replies that the destruction has been delayed pending further information on the corbomite (which Kirk refuses). Then, a smaller ship breaks off from the Fesarius, and Balok informs the Enterprise crew that they shall be taken to a planet and interned and their ship destroyed, before he activates a tractor beam, taking the Enterprise in tow.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1514.1. The Enterprise is in tow. To this point, no resistance has been offered. My plan: a show of resignation. Balok’s tractor beam has to be a heavy drain of power on the small ship. Question: will he grow careless?”

Eventually, Balok eases off on both his ship’s power and the tractor beam, and Kirk pounces, ordering the Enterprise to break free. After a tense struggle that pushes the Enterprise to the brink of explosion, the tractor beam has broken. Balok’s ship, however, is in dire straits, as Uhura picks up a faint distress signal. Kirk, still attempting to open diplomatic relations, goes back to aid Balok, bringing along Dr. McCoy and Lt. Bailey. Once aboard, they find Balok…..both the puppet that had threatened him, and a small, smiling humanoid, who offers them a drink of tranya, much to the astonishment of the landing party. The entire affair has been a ruse by Balok, who was testing the Enterprise crew. But Balok is alone on his ship, and suggests that someone from Kirk’s crew stay aboard, as a form of cultural exchange. Bailey leaps at the chance, while freely admitting to his own imperfections, and Captain Kirk slyly notes that he’ll be getting a better officer in return once the exchange has ended. Balok laughs heartily at Kirk’s joke, and then proceeds to give a tour of his vessel.

Despite having two chances to nail down the show’s look and format, “The Corbomite Maneuver” is an incredibly primitive hour of Star Trek in its presentation. There’s a bit more exposition than would become normal for the series, and the plot develops at a far more leisurely pace (which is probably why NBC never wanted it to be the first aired episode of the series). Despite Jerry Finnerman’s camera work being mostly consistent with his later work, the vintage of this episode is glaringly obvious because the uniforms are almost appallingly unrefined: the zippers and seams of the uniforms are very visible (with some of them being retrofitted “Where No Man Has Gone Before” uniforms) and quite ill-fitting (likely because they’re too big, so as to extend their usable lives, as the velour shrunk after being cleaned per union rules). Also, Spock’s uniform has a higher collar for some reason, and Uhura is dressed in command gold (and her outfit is the worst fit of all, owing to Nichelle Nichols’ last-minute casting).

Characters are also quite unrefined, particularly Dr. McCoy, who, as I inferred when I reviewed the first episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe over a decade ago, is far more hostile in his demeanor than in any other episode, and for seemingly no reason as there’s not much in the script that’s inconsistent with the McCoy we know and love (with the bit where the good doctor talks to himself eventually resurfacing in Star Trek V to great comedic effect). Spock also suffers from growing pains, which is not helped by his running training drills, interactions with Lt. Bailey (which are more in character for Commander Tuvok’s interactions with Neelix and Tom Paris on Voyager, frankly), and some curious camera angles that Finnerman would never again attempt. Perhaps oddest of all is Spock’s comparison of Balok to his father, which comes along with something of a smirk. Yeoman Rand fares even worse, as she is little more than a waitress, serving Kirk a dietary salad and then, much later, coffee to the entire bridge crew (which she gamely admits she heated using a phaser). A deleted scene was filmed (but has not been discovered) that features Rand laying out a uniform for Kirk (probably to have taken place during the first act) and that’s probably even worse. Granted, yeomans on Star Trek have a rather nebulous function compared to naval yeomans (who do mostly clerical work), but that deleted scene veers a bit too much into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend territory (but minus the songs and fun self-awareness). Oddly, given our shipper-crazy world of television today, it was NBC who demanded the scene be excised, as they were tetchy about the captain flirting with a subordinate in a microskirt.

Also unrefined beyond the characters are some of the camera angles. While part of this involves a sequence that essentially establishes the layout of Stage 9’s corridor set (which includes sickbay and Kirk’s quarters) and the aforementioned strangely composed shots with Spock, we also have a brief overhead shot which on its own possibly accounts for the half day over the episode went. (And if not for Sargent being a highly in-demand director with an Emmy in his future, I’d argue that this was what sunk any future chances of him directing for the series.) Furthermore, in some of the crew shots (which were clearly created with stock footage in mind), there is a crewman wearing what appears to be a mundane 1960s radiation vest. Another features Eddie Paskey in a gold uniform right in the center of the frame (and appears directly after a shot where Paskey, as Lt. Leslie, is seated at his usual bridge station).

But even with these lengthy statements of what isn’t refined, there is much that is on point. The effects, which are spectacular (and well they should be, given how late they were), also belie the patchwork nature of Enterprise footage from here on out: the opening shot is from “The Cage”, for instance, and sticks out like a sore thumb with its prominent, moving stars and unlit ship model. The music, which in addition to being a partial score, features multiple cues from later episodes, and this is the first episode to feature Steiner’s revised “cello” version of the opening theme song. (Courage’s rarer, “electric violin” version, while mostly restored to the episodes they aired on these days, was scrubbed from the syndicated prints I grew up on.) And while the performances are rough, there are many touches in the episode (most introduced in Gene Roddenberry’s revisions to Jerry Sohl’s script, but some at the behest of Joseph Sargent) that ring true for these characters: in particular, the discussion of chess and poker are defining moments for Kirk and Spock: naturally, Spock is an expert and enthusiast of chess, a logical game with predictable, proven strategies (and predictable, proven outcomes), while Kirk appreciates poker, which values instinct, skill, and perhaps most importantly for this series, the ability to be a bullshit artist bluffing. Not only does it get him out of danger, we see Kirk doing the same with Bailey: here is a slightly green officer with whom the captain relates (as McCoy astutely surmises) and sees a world of potential in. And while the gamble initially fails miserably, it pays off even greater in the end, just like the corbomite gambit.

The deliberate pace of this episode (which was mandated by Roddenberry, even as Stan Robertson, in the first of many memos that would make more sense coming from a modern network executive, demanded that the episode progress at a greater pace) is key to its success, with a real-time 10-minute countdown (which includes and accounts for a commercial break, predicting 24‘s primary conceit by some 4 decades) as its centerpiece. Credit must go to Anthony Call for his performance as Lt. Bailey, as he looks utterly out of his depth when the cube begins to spew radiation, and even moreso when the Fesarius arrives. Best of all is Bailey’s meltdown, which is as much about Kirk’s mistake in rushing him through the ranks as it is about Bailey not being ready for the pressure of being a bridge officer. And, in classic Roddenberry fashion, this imperfect, green officer is chosen to represent humanity because humanity’s flaws are just as important as their achievements.

However, the truest and most memorable part of this episode is Balok, whom is presented to us as a truly fearsome adversary for most of the episode until the final moments, in a twist worthy of a veteran Twilight Zone writer like Jerry Sohl (who had written three episodes of the series for Charles Beaumont as the legendary writer fell victim to what is now acknowledged as a severe case of bromide poisoning). However, this twist was introduced by Roddenberry, but Sohl introduced the concept of Balok’s initial, sinister appearance being a puppet. Besides providing one of the iconic end credits images (Balok would appear in the end credits of this, and many other episodes, eventually settling as the image seen during Desilu’s and Herb Solow’s credits during the second season), the Balok puppet is on its face one of the more obvious reveals in the entire series. As the show has been restored and remastered over the years, it has become increasingly obvious (even with the superb water-like distortion effect) that the Balok puppet is just that. But luckily, the twist is still out of left field, as Balok really resembles a child. And moreover, the child in this instance is Clint Howard, who is as known for looking odd as he is for being Ron Howard’s brother. But since a little kid’s voice is neither threatening (for the puppet) or authoritative (for the man), voice actors were employed. And Star Trek hit a home run.

For the sinister puppet Balok, Ted Cassidy, infamous as Lurch on The Addams Family, was cast in the wake of his appearance in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” It was basically kismet in this instance, as Cassidy had just begun a fruitful career in voice acting, starring in Hanna-Barbera’s Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles and voicing two of Space Ghost’s nemeses, Metallus and Moltar. Cassidy’s voice acting career was loaded with phenomenal successes, and Balok is no different. For the unmasked Balok, character actor Walker Edmiston was chosen. At the time, Edmiston was best known in the LA area as a children’s TV show host, but just like Ted Cassidy, he was far more familiar to me in the ’80s for his voice work: he voiced some of his most prominent roles right around the time I first started watching Star Trek, namely Inferno on The Transformers, Harvey Gabor on Jem, and briefly assuming the role of Ludwig von Drake for Disney.

I didn’t recognize the connection.

But Edmiston’s take on Balok is everything that Cassidy’s isn’t, and helps greatly to send the episode off on a happy and positive note. (He even covers expertly for Clint Howard, who furiously overacted his reaction to the tranya because he absolutely hated pink grapefruit juice, which was chosen for the occasion.) We quickly believe that Balok is a good man, and much of this is because of Edmiston’s warm, disarming portrayal.

Next time, we’ll introduce one of Star Trek‘s great scoundrels….and one of the studios that helped the show’s special effects get back on track.

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