The Corbomite Maneuver, or, the structuring theme that holds the franchise together.
Kirk has a dietary card and is angry that he has to eat salad? How prophetic.
The Cage established the broader mythology of Star Trek. Where No Man Has Gone Before gave us Kirk and Spock. But The Corbomite Maneuver gives the series the emotional and ideological underpinnings of what the franchise would really be about.
The episode opens with the Enterprise being confronted by a mysterious force, which soon identifies it as Balok of the First Federation. The Enterprise has unwittingly intruded on its space, and will soon be destroyed. The Enterprise vainly tries to escape, to no avail. But instead of opting to fight this vastly powerful force, instead of somehow finding a technological solution, Kirk comes to the conclusion that they must bluff their way out of it.
At the critical moment, Spock uses an analogy: they are in a game of chess. The Enterprise is in an inferior tactical position, and their foe outmatches their technological pieces on the board, so to speak. But Kirk breaks in with an analogy of his own: they’re playing a game of poker. The one factor that Spock hadn’t calculated was the individuals themselves.
Further subtext to this metaphor is that Chess is a zero sum game. Each round is played to its conclusion, and there is a stark winner and loser. But Poker rarely ends with one hand; and over the course of an evening, it concludes whenever the players decides that it should end, even if the evening as a whole has come to a draw.
It’s moments like these where Star Trek is at its best.
At the end of Corbomite, the crew of the Enterprise meet Balok. Instead of being the intimidating alien they thought he was, they find that the whole thing had been a façade while he attempted to divine their true intentions.
I’ve always found these sorts of endings to Trek episodes and films to be the most satisfying. Where the impetus for the drama has been misunderstanding rather than overt antagonism. And where the conclusion is that, in truth, what we don’t know or understand at that moment holds little threat to us.
Further, the resolution of the drama through characters and their decisions rather than plot or technological factors is always better storytelling. And in many ways, the latter two spinoffs of the franchise frequently forgot that axiom: that the capabilities of a starship is far beyond the equipment it houses—it is instead in the people it carries.
I’m generally disappointed with how Captain Kirk is presented in popular culture. It’s true that later in the franchise, he was presented inconsistently with some brash bravado. But in the First Season at least, where so many of the episodes are of real quality, I have difficulty seeing him as reckless, or arrogant, or irresponsible.
Corbomite very definitively establishes Captain Kirk’s command style. It’s characterized by consulting with his subordinates. Most notably Spock and McCoy, but also other members of his staff when it is required. This was the case in Where No Man Has Gone Before as well, but it certainly stands out from the genre, which can take troubling “shoot first” turns. Ultimately Kirk can and does take decisive action when it is called for, but he tends to default to collaboration.
Indeed, the conference scenes in this, and other episodes markedly deescalate the tension in their episodes. They then explore the narrative—and ultimately philosophical—implications of their stories.
I suppose I have some trouble writing about Kirk’s characterization because this is my first time watching this series in chronological order, and skipping nothing. We’ll see if my hypothesis is borne out.
Bailey is a character that encapsulates my frustration with the original series. He is given as much run time as many of the series regulars. The writers give him an emotional backstory: a young and promising kid who was promoted perhaps too quickly. Kirk even remarks that Bailey reminds him of himself when he was younger. And at the episode’s conclusion, he returns to the bridge to redeem himself for his earlier mistake.
Yet by the end of the episode, he is never seen again. The characters introduced that will soon be series regulars are given less dialogue, and more importantly less narrative weight than him.
This episode marks the first screen appearances of Dr. McCoy, Lieutenant Uhura, and Yeoman Rand, as well as the promotion of Sulu to the position of helmsman. While each of these characters are hugely important, the latter two are not given particularly strong action in this episode. Therefore as I progress in my blog, I will focus on them and their importance to the series in the episodes that prominently feature them.
In addition, from this point I will be reverting to air date order, and omitting the preceding three episodes from my chronology.
Looking forward to the next several episodes and the people I will be focusing on:
- The Man Trap, with an emphasis on Trek prop master Wah Chang.
- Charlie X, with an emphasis on Uhura and Nichelle Nichols.
- The Naked Time, with an emphasis on Hikaru Sulu and George Takei.
- The Enemy Within, with an emphasis on Janice Rand and Grace Lee Whitney.
- Mudd’s Women, with an emphasis on costume designer William Ware Theiss.
- What Are Little Girls Made Of?, with an emphasis on Christine Chapel and Majel Barrett.
- Dagger of the Mind, which I’d frankly prefer to skip. Expect a paragraph. Maybe.
- Miri, with an emphasis on Leonard McCoy and DeForest Kelley.
- The Conscience of the King, with an emphasis on the supposed love life of Kirk.