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Retro Review: Bem

Posted by Michelle - 19/08/11 at 02:08 pm


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Star Trek: The Animated Series

Season: 01 Episode: 18 (s01e18)

Original US airdate: 09/14/1974

When visiting Commander Bem of Pandro is imprisoned by aliens, Kirk is threatened by a local god during a rescue attempt.

Plot Summary: Commander Ari bn Bem is visiting the Enterprise as an observer from Pandro, but he has chosen mostly to remain in his quarters and resists following orders. When the ship arrives at Delta Theta III, Bem demands to join an away team even though Kirk believes this mission may be too dangerous, since the civilization on the planet is primitive. Kirk and Spock beam down with Bem into a lake, where Bem – who is, unknown to the crew, a colony creature whose body can separate into functioning parts – steals their phasers and communicators, replacing them with non-working duplicates. Then Bem runs off after a group of native Delta Thetans, who resemble dinosaurs, forcing Kirk and Spock to pursue him. When the Enterprise detects an unknown energy pattern nearby, the crew finds that they cannot contact Kirk or Spock, who find Bem imprisoned in a crude cage and insisting that he does not need their help to escape. The Starfleet officers insist that Bem is their responsibility and are soon imprisoned as well for trying to free him. Bem says he took their equipment to stop them from harming the natives, then escapes by splitting his body into pieces to leave his cage in order to bring them the communicators. However, once they escape, a paralysis field envelops the landing party, and a disembodied entity reveals that it is the guardian of the reptilian natives. The entity orders Kirk and Spock to leave, but Bem runs away because he believes that Kirk has bungled the mission. Insisting that he will not leave without the observer under his protection, Kirk tells the entity that he is responsible for Bem just as the entity is responsible for the natives. The entity lets the Enterprise crewmembers depart with Bem, who plans to disassemble into component colonies until the entity persuades him that he will not learn from his mistakes if he does so.

Analysis: Conceptually, “Bem” is a very interesting episode with a lot going on: a colony creature who’s also a cranky addition to Kirk’s crew, a group of intelligent but primitive dinosaur “aborigines” who build wooden prisons yet apparently speak a language too unusual for the Universal Translator, a godlike alien who finds Kirk arrogant, a bunch of volatile situations (an observer from a planet the Federation wishes to become a member, an accidental first contact with non-humanoid aliens). A lot happens in the short time span of the animated episode, and none of it feels recycled: both Bem and the situation on Delta Theta III turn out to be entirely different than one might have expected from previous episodes. It isn’t even Kirk who gets to make the big pedantic speech at the end, but the godlike entity to whom Kirk has had to apologize for his own hubris. Curiously, Kirk neither apologizes for nor explains the violation of the Prime Directive in making contact with the primitive Delta Thetans; I would have thought his first obligation would have been not to rescue the observer but to disguise him and get him offworld at all costs, even his life. After all the would-be gods with whom Kirk faced off, though, it’s very nice to see him meet a sort of benevolent goddess who seems less possessive than maternal, not even demanding the worship of the beings she protects. (I’m not certain from the script that the entity is supposed to be female, but Nichelle Nichols provides the voice and a quick survey of other web sites suggests that just about everyone refers to it as “her.”)

Yet despite the enjoyable pacing and some quick-witted dialogue, I don’t love this episode. It’s partly because so much of the regular cast gets short shrift – McCoy and Chapel are absent, Scotty and Sulu serve as plot devices, Uhura has little to contribute – and partly because a lot of technobabble is necessary to justify all the goings-on. Bem’s nature as a colony creature is introduced in a clever way when his lower body splits off to steal Kirk and Spock’s phasers, but the initial appearance of the entity on the Enterprise involves a great deal of technobabble that doesn’t make a lot of sense – a non-network sensory stasis anomaly that resembles a sensor field but without a scanning grid? Huh? And Kirk seems awfully willing to let Bem (who may talk like Yoda but clearly doesn’t have centuries-old wisdom) push the Enterprise around in a way that he never put up with from, say, Ambassador Fox in “A Taste of Armageddon.” How, after letting Bem get away with sulking in his quarters for months when he was supposed to be observing, did Kirk allow himself to be persuaded to let the commander beam down to a planet with a pre-warp culture of unknown strength and intelligence?

There are lots of giggle moments – Bem separating parts of his body to walk around logs and through prison bars, Spock saying “I’m only a Vulcan,” Scotty claiming the Loch Ness Monster couldn’t penetrate the anomaly, Bem scoffing at the idea that Kirk is the best captain in the fleet, Kirk wondering “How come we always end up like this?” from inside his cage, to name a few…my favorite is the exchange between Kirk and Spock in which Kirk says at times he thinks he should have been a librarian, only to have Spock say that it would be no less challenging, though perhaps less dangerous. There are several entertaining chase scenes, including one with dino-lizards carrying torches. Yet though this entity may be one of the least annoying godlike beings encountered by Starfleet, it’s still a frustrating plot device – Spock reveals that the life on the planet seems younger than he’d expect given the age of the star, but we never find out whether the entity has meddled or is in fact the reason there’s life in the first place. It’s not the most confidence-inspiring of entities and Bem must be reduced to a pathetic, suicidal state to make it look good, though it’s still a huge improvement on Apollo, Vaal, et al.

On the plus side, however, we get the first pronouncement of James Tiberius Kirk’s full name, not made canon until the original series movies. If there were no other reason to watch “Bem,” that would be enough.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/markus.mclaughlin Markus McLaughlin

    I thought it was a good story for this series, it would be too expensive to do in Live-Action back in the 1960s. Now, it could be done with CGI…

  • Anonymous

    Didn’t David Gerrold write this episode? Although the floating body parts were goofy, I kind of liked this ep.