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Star Trek: The Original Series - Season Three

Star Trek's third and final year (1968-69) ended the series not with a bang but a shrug. If you could average all the 24 episodes within this seven-disc boxed set, puréeing them into one 52-minute smoothie, what you'd get is a bland and lumpy distillation compared to the first and second seasons' offerings. The sharp downturn in writing and production quality resulted from backstage drama at Paramount. The show's ratings (which were poorly calculated) had been low enough to discourage Paramount's enthusiasm for an "experiment" that the studio just didn't understand. Therefore, Season Three's budget cuts and a murderous new time slot late on Friday nights stood Star Trek up against the bean-counters' execution wall. Its creator, Gene Roddenberry, abandoned ship in frustration, leaving the show that he had personally influenced for two years in the hands of a production staff with few filters against lazy writing and hoary theatrics. So when you think of "bad" Star Trek — and even us long-haul fans acknowledge such a thing — odds are that the episode you're remembering came from Season Three. This is the season, after all, that kicks off with "Spock's Brain," a famously camp hour that seems discarded from Lost in Space. Also here are the painfully ungroovy Hippies In Space episode, the dreary Screwed-Up Orphans Take Over The Ship episode, and the one where Capt. Kirk rides Mr. Spock like a pony (no, really). Overall, here's the most formulaic and comic-bookish season.

But doesn't it deserve some appreciation beyond a wet flushing sound? Because offsetting the clankers are some fondly remembered episodes. We get good times involving the Romulans (no enemy captain has ever been as sexy in a minidress), the Tholians (one of the most striking alien races in Trek lore), Kirk blissed-out on a planet of Native Americans, and swordfights with Klingons through the ship's corridors. Star Trek's most pointed strike at the absurdities of racial intolerance stars the always-great Frank Gorshin in half-black/half-white makeup. Let's note too that, at this point decades removed, the kitsch factor at play here brings its own pleasures. So bad it's good, "Spock's Brain" set Women's Lib back twenty years with dimwit alien twinkies in Swinging Sixties miniskirts and go-go boots. (Their leader's line, "Brain and brain! What is brain?" might have been asked by the episode's writer.) Spock's jam session with the space hippies sure ain't Woodstock, but the squaresville attempt to bottle the period vibe thuds rather enjoyably. Like the two boxed sets before it, this Season Three collection delivers the good, the bad, and that big middle bulge of episodes that all have something worth tuning in for. The bad may be worse than usual, and the good not as high-reaching, but Season Three proves that even when Star Trek appears to be parodying itself, it can still be a hell of a lot of fun.

When it premiered as the season opener in '68, "Spock's Brain" must have gut-punched the legions of loyal fans who, after the Season Two rumors of cancellation, launched a letter-writing campaign and helped save the show for one more year. In a dozen ways the episode is a goofy slice of TV what-were-they-thinking?, but it's drunkenly enjoyable in that Mystery Science Theater way. What a relief it must have been to tune in the following week when "The Enterprise Incident" brought back a solid espionage drama that dished out the eye appeal in Joanne Linville's Romulan Commander with the hots for Spock. (The role of the Romulan Cloaking Device is played by the Nomad space probe from last season's "The Changeling.") Things get psychedelic in "Is There In Truth No Beauty?" when Spock mindmelds with the bodiless Medusan Ambassador, goes insane, and drives the ship into the weird special effects at the edge of the galaxy. It's an underrated episode. So is "Spectre of the Gun," which put a limited budget to surreal effect in a story (Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Chekov are forced to relive the gunfight at OK Corral) that would have also made a fine Twilight Zone ep.

The Klingons, led by Michael Ansara, return in "Day of the Dove," wherein an alien twirly light that feeds on bloodlust pits the opposing crews against each other in eternal combat. With the Enterprise trapped within "The Tholian Web," Kirk gets lost in another dimension and is presumed dead until he starts haunting up the place. It's in "The Savage Curtain" where a rock creature forces our heroes to fight with or against Abe Lincoln, the Klingon cultural forebear, Vulcan's philosophical father, and other historical figures in yet another test of humanity's worth. Frank Gorshin is just one reason why "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," which puts the race tensions of the 1960s into unsubtle sci-fi relief, continues to be a memorable morality play.

"The Way to Eden" brings in the space hippies, gives tough-guy actor Charles Napier an embarassing start to his résumé, and rehearses the plot of a really bad Star Trek movie. Yes, "Plato's Stepchildren" is lauded for displaying TV's first-ever interracial kiss, but it feels like cheating to have Greek-robed aliens force Kirk and Uhura into it under pain of death. Ditto Kirk riding Spock like a pony, but at least that's still freaky almost forty years later. Dr. McCoy finds love in "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky," which gives the underused De Kelley something to do. The series' most sexually explicit moment — Kirk puts on his boots while the hot space blonde combs her hair back into place — occurs in "Wink of an Eye." A librarian named Mr. Atoz (A to Z, get it?) in "All Our Yesterdays" strands Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in a dying planet's past, where Kirk is imprisoned as a witch in an inexplicably Musketeer-costumed era, while in a prehistoric ice age McCoy watches Spock get all romance-paperbacky with leggy Mariette Hartley. The season concludes with "Turnabout Intruder," in which William Shatner camps up every het male's nightmare as a psycho ex-girlfriend possesses Kirk's body.

After "Turnabout Intruder" aired on June 3, 1969, the original voyages of the starship Enterprise ended. Five weeks later, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

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As with the first two boxed sets, in Paramount Home Video's Star Trek: The Original Series - Season Three all 24 episodes look and sound great. Once again the clean prints display excellent clarity and strong color. Each defaults to a well-produced DD 5.1 audio remix that spreads its audio channels across the room in ways that enhance without being distracting or gratuitous. (For each episode, a DD 2.0 Surround remix is also available.)

This set's extras start with a pair of items that aren't listed as special features. They're two versions of Star Trek's unaired original pilot, "The Cage," with a mostly different cast headed by Jeffrey Hunter as the depressive, fantasy-prone Capt. Pike. One version was pieced together from color footage cannibalized for the Season One story "The Menagerie" plus as much of the excised black-and-white footage as could be found. It's a version that Roddenberry toured the college-lecture circuit with during the 1980s, and here his filmed introduction remains attached. The second, and more interesting, version is a cleaned-up, full-color restoration that includes material that had been thought lost. Hardcore devotees will notice that the restoration is patched together in part from alternate takes and music cues that differ from what we've seen in "The Menagerie" all these years. Having "The Cage" here is the most welcome extra in the box; among other reasons, it's a smarter, more dramatic episode than most of the rest on these discs.

This set's textual commentaries from Michael and Denise Okuda are on "The Savage Curtain" and "Turnabout Intruder," two oddly weak choices.

The usual gamut of new fan-mag featurettes returns: In "To Boldly Go... Season Three" (22 min.) we see Shatner, Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, George Takei, writer-fan Bjo Trimble, and producer Robert Justman in a rambling retrospective on the year's memorable moments and troubled production history. "Life Beyond Trek: Walter Koenig" (11 min.) gives the actor who's not just Ensign Chekov some overdue attention, while George Takei gets to deploy his warm personality and fluid voice in "Memoir from Mr. Sulu" (8 min.). "Chief Engineer's Log" (6 min.) is a poignant interview with James Doohan; now in his 80s, he's showing the effects of his poor health yet remains as big-hearted as ever.

"Star Trek's Impact" (9 min.) is a eulogy narrated by Gene Roddenberry's son Eugene. "A Star Trek Collector's Dream Come True" (7 min.) highlights some original props used in the show with a designer of models and miniatures. The standard galleries of PR photos and production art fill out the menu.

Finally, we get six more annoyingly Easter-egg'd "Red Shirt Logs." Matching the Season One and Two boxes, the packaging stores the discs in a compact page-hinged digipak, and that's housed within a hard plastic case, this time in Scotty red.

—Mark Bourne

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