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Retro Review: Albatross

Posted by Michelle - 09/09/11 at 02:09 pm


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Star Trek: The Animated Series

Season: 01 Episode: 20 (s01e20)

Original US airdate: 09/28/1974

Dr. McCoy is charged with causing a plague nineteen years earlier, and the Enterprise crew contracts the illness while looking for evidence to use in his defense.

Plot Summary: After thanking the Enterprise crew for delivering medical supplies, Dramian authorities arrest Dr. McCoy for causing a deadly plague on Dramia II when he visited 19 years previously. The disease causes changes in pigmentation followed by lethargy and death. Kirk is told that a mass inoculation program led by McCoy killed nearly the entire population of the sister planet. Leaving McCoy in a Dramian prison, the captain takes the Enterprise through a colorful aurora to Dramia II, pursued by Dramian Commander Demos who is determined to see McCoy punished for the plague. The group finds Kol-Tai, a survivor of the plague who says McCoy saved his life, but soon Kirk, Demos, and nearly everyone else on board falls ill. Immune, Spock puts the Enterprise under quarantine and goes to work studying the plague. When the Dramian authorities will not release McCoy to search for a cure, Spock rescues McCoy from prison. McCoy realizes that the colorful aurora preceded both plague outbreaks and guesses that the color changing effects come from that, not from the disease itself. Because the treatment for a Saurian virus kept Kol-Tai alive, McCoy treats the crew and the Dramians with it, saving all their lives. Instead of prosecuting McCoy, the Dramians give him an award for his work in interstellar medicine, though Spock taunts McCoy about having been absent from duty while in prison.

Analysis: I’ve always wished that there were more McCoy-centered episodes of Star Trek, yet most of the ones we did get didn’t tend to be the most exciting – “The City on the Edge of Forever” may start out as his story, but it quickly becomes Kirk’s, and “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” gives us McCoy less as doctor than patient. So I appreciate “Albatross” just for showcasing McCoy’s heroism, though he spends an unfortunate amount of time in an alien jail while Kirk and Spock head off to clear his name. The title of the episode has always puzzled me; I had assumed it it referred to the fact that albatrosses will peck open their own chests to feed their young if they are starving, the way McCoy will risk his own life to cure his dying crewmates, but I just looked it up and in legend it’s the pelican, not the albatross, that does that. So I guess the title refers to having an albatross around one’s neck, but the metaphor seems strained because McCoy did not kill the proverbial beast in the first place – he tried to save people from it – and he didn’t know for 19 years that the Dramians blamed him for their plague, so it’s not like he dragged his guilt around with him for a long time. It’s rather confusing.

I wish this had been a live-action episode, because I doubt blue face paint would have been much cheesier than the animated monotonous blue skin on the plague victims and the Dramians couldn’t look any sillier if their robot monkey skull faces were created with what limited prosthetic makeup was available while Star Trek was filming. We get no glimpses of Dramian culture and not enough exposure to begin to get a sense of the depths of their grief at having lost the population of an entire planet; indeed, it seems inconceivable that they waited until the end of a diplomatic mission to arrest the man they blamed for slaughtering thousands of people. We don’t find out whether Demos pursues the Enterprise from a personal or social sense of justice or because he personally suffered devastating losses in the plague. Nor is there time for Kirk to work up a verbal defense of McCoy before he must race off to look for ameliorating evidence (which, due to the time constraints of the episode, he finds with absurd ease). The fact that the Dramians still want assistance from Federation doctors, and that they didn’t report their accusations against McCoy to the Federation until just before the Enterprise returned – since Kirk says the warrant is in order, I assume there must be a reason the Federation didn’t advise Starfleet to relieve McCoy of duty before letting him go to Dramia – just makes it seem more arbitrary. You’d think Dramians would have been trying to hunt McCoy down for nearly two decades.

Of course, I love all the character interaction – Kirk’s rage at Dramian “kangaroo justice,” McCoy’s fear in the face of Spock’s logic that his inoculation program might have set off a catastrophe, Sulu stoically reporting that the ship must self-destruct if the plague can’t be contained, Spock replying to McCoy’s “This is a jailbreak!” accusation by saying that the doctor can stand trial after he cures the plague killing everyone on the Enterprise, except of course that the doctor will die as well if he’s unsuccessful. And the lovely bit at the end, in which Spock complains that McCoy hasn’t been dispensing regular vitamin rations to the crew because of his recent dereliction of duty – “Hippocrates would not have approved of lame excuses” – which inspires McCoy to say that if he’s ever in jail again, he’d rather be left to rot than rescued by “that Vulcan.” It’s worth watching “Albatross” for those bits alone.

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  • mjb

    Agree with the review totally. This episode suffered from the shortness of the TAS episodes. It could have been really really good with the points you describe exapnded and more mccoy