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The Trek Nation - The Corbomite Maneuver

The Corbomite Maneuver

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at July 29, 2005 - 5:09 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Corbomite Maneuver' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While on a star mapping mission, the Enterprise encounters a strange device that looks like a rotating cube, is made of unfamiliar materials and follows the ship as it moves. As the Enterprise increases speed to escape, the cube begins to emit lethal radiation and Kirk orders it destroyed by phasers. Soon after, the ship encounters an enormous sphere made out of the same material as the cube, giving off powerful energy readings. An alien named Balok calls the crew primitive and savage for ignoring the warning buoy and tells them that they will be destroyed in ten minutes. Unable to reason with Balok, Kirk announces that all Starfleet ships carry a substance known as corbomite, which will return any destructive attack with equal strength. Balok then takes a smaller ship, tractors the Enterprise and announces that the crew will be spared on a planet where they can survive while their ship is dismantled, but his ship appears to be damaged when the Enterprise makes an attempt to break free. Picking up Balok's distress call, Kirk mounts a rescue mission, only to discover that Balok and his ship are fine and his appearance bears no resemblance to the menacing being they had seen on the viewscreen. The encounter had been a test of their peaceful intentions, and Balok invites one of the Enterprise crewmembers to stay and learn about his culture.


Analysis: The relatively simple drama of "The Corbomite Maneuver" serves as a backdrop for character development that's difficult to sum up in a description of the plot. Though it aired after several much stronger science fiction stories, this was only the third episode filmed: some of the kinks are still being ironed out, like whether the crew would sit around bored and drinking coffee in staff meetings and how much time Kirk would actually spend on the bridge. Uhura is wearing gold, Spock is wearing a looser turtleneck and McCoy is wearing a shirt so shiny that in the new DVD transfer it can be hard to look at.

Nonetheless, this is very familiar Star Trek territory, a setup that will recur repeatedly on the original series and later generations: crew encounters distrustful alien, initially makes missteps that lead to hostilities, then focuses on their mission and their passion for exploration, and they end up passing the test they didn't realize they were taking. Similar events will transpire in "Arena", "The Empath" and several Next Generation and Voyager episodes. What sets this first one apart is the insight we get into Kirk's command style: his refusal to be intimidated, his willingness to take risks and his enthusiasm for it all, even in the midst of what appears to be a dire crisis.

We first see Kirk not on the bridge, where Spock is trying to cope with the aggressive cube, but in sickbay having his physical and trying to pretend he's not as winded as he is. McCoy doesn't tell him of the alert flashing, claiming that he's a doctor, not a moon shuttle conductor, which irritates Kirk, whose temper is not improved when he learns that the doctor has put him on a diet including more greens - he asks Rand to bring McCoy some of his dinner but McCoy avers that he never eats until after the crew. Kirk and McCoy also have the beginnings of an exchange about the captain's frustrations with his female yeoman, retorting to McCoy's question about whether he trusts himself by saying he already has a lady, the Enterprise...a discussion which is interrupted but which recurs often, with Kirk explaining that the starship is his first and best love.

These exchanges are friendly, but there is much more tension over navigator Bailey, whom Kirk promoted over McCoy's objections and who now shows signs of stress in the job, responding slowly to commands and failing to fire the phasers the split second Kirk orders him to do so. McCoy warns Kirk that he's putting too much pressure on Bailey and suspects it's because Bailey reminds the captain of himself several years ago. Later, after Kirk dismisses Bailey from the bridge as he becomes agitated at the prospect of dying, McCoy tells Kirk that he pushed too hard, to which the captain replies that he has no time for the doctor or his "quaint reactions." Naturally this infuriates McCoy, who says he will report his findings in the medical log. And just as quickly, realizing that the crew is listening, Kirk smiles and says he hopes that they have time to argue later, because right at that moment he has a game of poker to play with Balok.

McCoy accepts that this is Kirk's command style, just as Spock accepts, as he gently reminds the captain, that Kirk has a habit of asking Spock for advice about things he's already made up his mind about, then going ahead and doing what he intended to do in the first place. This does not particularly distress Spock; there are no lectures about logic during the exchange. The Vulcan is perfectly comfortable in command, making decisions about how to deal with the cube when Kirk does not immediately arrive on the bridge from his appointment in sickbay, but he is also comfortable if bemused taking orders from an irrational human who's a better chess player than he is and an expert at the game of poker which saves all their lives. He starts out with the usual patterns - evasion, then, when that fails, weapons against the unmanned probe, followed by an attempt to negotiate with Balok, straightforward declarations of intent, and then a threat. Kirk knows he can't make good on the corbomite maneuver but he declares it with such confidence that some on his own crew seem to believe it. All their fear, Kirk has already told them, is fear of unknown; it has simply taken him a few minutes to put it together that Balok is showing not strength but terror, which is something he can use, and not necessarily something his logical first officer or compassionate doctor would have thought to exploit.

In this third episode it's already entirely obvious why Kirk needs both Spock and McCoy, even though the rest of the crew's roles have not yet been solidified (Sulu, who's at tactical, is still chattier than in later episodes, warning Bailey that if he crosses brains with Spock he'll get cut down, and it's Spock rather than Scotty who offers the obligatory "the engines can't take much more of this!" warning). Bailey, whom McCoy has already told us is like Kirk, takes on the role that Chekov will later fill as the bridge officer most prone to panic, but he takes criticism well and Kirk understands him so well that he guesses Bailey will want to stay on Balok's ship. There's fatherly affection of the sort Kirk displays for Charlie Evans - it makes sense that the two episodes were separated, given such similarities. For a few moments it sounds as if he's going to address Balok paternalistically as well, once he realizes that the alien looks more like a human child than a big imposing humanoid, but he's impressed that Balok has outbluffed him with the fake distress call and settles simply for being affable.

This character work is what's really going on in this episode, because the storyline is very basic and somewhat uninspired in stretches. I believe they used the same shot of the crew falling against a bulkhead more than once. But here we meet the Kirk who will invent Fizzbin and keep his sense of humor in a pile of tribbles as well as the Kirk whose faith in the values of the Federation and the fundamental goodness of other beings is unshakeable in the face of death. And here we see the ways that Spock and McCoy support him, in adversarial terms as well as straightforward advice. It's hard not to like "The Corbomite Maneuver" even during the slow stretches.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.