Star Trek (TAS) “Bem”

The Stardate is 7403.6, which now that I think about it, could be the date this script was finished or something. It makes me wonder now how many Stardates are actually secret codes, like somebody’s telephone number or some hot chick’s measurements in metric. And it wouldn’t surprise me to find out there are Star Trek sites somewhere out there in the interwebs specifically devoted to deciphering Stardates. This time out, the Enterprise is on a mission to find alien lifeforms and screw around with them, so yeah, it must be Thursday. Only this time, there’s a twist: along for the ride is an “independent observer” in the form of a member of a recently contacted alien species who’s been made an “honorary commander”, named Ari bn Bem.

So… as an honorary commander, does that mean he can boss McCoy around? No wonder Bones doesn’t show up in this episode; he’s probably sulking in Sickbay. The Enterprise has taken orbit around Delta Theta III, or as the aliens probably call it, Dirt, or Home, or the Place Where We Keep Our Stuff.

I vote for #3.

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Kirk’s doing the whole conference thing where he explains the plan is to place some sensors on the planet so they can better spy on the natives. It’s a dangerous job, he says, but it’s gotta be done. He tells the gang, “Nobody try to be a hero,” because double-fist punching, shirt tearing, and woman wooing is his job, dammit! The group enters the transporter room and find Bem there waiting for them. The honorary commander says he’s going with them and hey, guess who’s doing the voice of Bem? Yes, it’s the man of a thousand hundred dozen couple of voices, James Doohan! But fair is fair; he’s actually doing a pretty credible job this week, and I didn’t realize it was him until I cheated and used IMDb. Bem’s got this weird, sing-song speech pattern that kind of works; it’s like Bem learned Federation Standard a week ago and he’s still trying to figure it out. If that’s so, then what’s Yoda’s excuse?

(sniff) Cry I will not.

Bem says he’s coming along and Kirk scolds him, saying the guy’s sat out the past six missions in his quarters and is skeptical about why he now wants to go on this super dangerous one. I wonder which six he missed? If we go by the previous six episodes, the Enterprise ran into Orion pirates, Kirk and Spock got stuck in an alien zoo, Spock and Sulu ran afoul of Kzin renegades, Kirk and Spock got turned into fish people, the Enterprise was sucked into another dimension with a Klingon ship, and Kirk and Spock went on an away mission that everyone pretty much forgot about because ultra-powerful aliens messed with time, space, and memories. If half that crap happened while I was onboard a ship, I wouldn’t leave my quarters either. Still, Bem picks now as the time where he wants to get involved, and Kirk’s a little miffed. Bem says Kirk needs to be patient, and says it like he’s talking to a five year old wanting his Jell-O after being forced to eat a horrible helping of goulash, and adds that “the Nexus is now”. No, Bem, you have to wait a few decades before that crap happens.

I’d sit that one out too if I were you, Bem.

Kirk begins to realize that Bem is one of those guest stars. You know the ones I mean: the ones that take charge, ignore Kirk and his people’s advice, and almost get everybody killed. Kirk tries again to talk Bem out of this, but then suddenly gives in. Hmm, I wonder why? It couldn’t be Kirk is hoping something bad might happen to the “honorary commander”, could it? Nahhh.

Cue the action music and cut to an external shot of Enterprise for no good reason whatsoever. It’s like somebody did some sloppy editing and director Bill Reed said, “Ah, screw it; they’re seven year olds, it’s not like they care.” But I cared, Bill. I. Cared!

Scotty is checking out the controls, and…

…yes! It’s the return of Mister Kyle and his amazing ‘stache! Oh, Kylestache, how I’ve missed you and your future-hipster facial hair. The only thing that would make it more epic is if he had a man bun. Scotty reports that the landing coordinates check out, and the gang beams down…

…and at first I was thinking this was just some typically shitty TAS art, like Kirk’s third arm in “Beyond the Farthest Star”. Or the giant crewman. Or Scotty’s missing torso. Take your pick. And then…

Oh, Scotty, you’re so fired. The dude didn’t even check the transporter settings, did he? Just glanced over them, said to himself, “um, yeah, looks good,” and decided to trust the alien to scramble his and everybody else’s molecules. I’m not surprised; I’ve seen similar stupidity in my real regular job. Bem dives in and offers to help Kirk and Spock, and then we cut to what’s underwater.

Man, it’s like those dogs from that Doritos commercial!

I guess if I had hands down my pants all the time, I wouldn’t be leaving my quarters either. Jesus, didn’t McCoy check this guy out before he came on board? What if these aliens were radioactive or had diseases or something? It’s all just, “Hey, he’s got the right number of hands and feet, it’ll be fine.” Then again, should I be surprised? Vulcan joined the Federation and apparently nobody on Earth knew beforehand how they procreated. I think the first thing any competent biologist would ask is, “So, um, how do you guys, you know, do it?”

So, back to the episode. Bem’s lower, better half reaches around Kirk and Spock’s belts and steals their communicators and phasers and then replaces them with others, presumably fakes or ones without batteries or something. And these hands must have a deft touch if Spirk doesn’t feel them. A gentle, delicate touch; feather-light if you will, able to stroke and caress with consummate…

Ahem. Moving on, now that Kirk and Spock are on dry land, Jim reads the riot act to Bem (who’s now in one piece), telling him only Scotty or one of his people should be touching the transporter controls. Before he can get more into it, however, Uhura calls down to Scotty and says she’s picking up some strange activity. Huh, normally she’d call Kirk direct. Is Jim avoiding her calls? She can’t still be pining for him after that kiss, can she?

Once you’ve had Jim’s kiss, all others you must diss.

Kirk takes Scotty’s communicator and talks to the pining lieutenant and she reports that there’s some sort of weird stuff going on a few thousand kilometers away: namely, a “non-network sensory stasis”. It’s like Kirk reads my mind when he says, “Come again?” and Uhura breaks it down to the catch-all word we all know and love: “anomaly”. She could have left it there, but noooo, she has to say it resembles a scanning field, but without a scanning grid or other point of reference. So, I’m guessing somebody else is on the planet that ain’t a native, like a Klingon or a Romulan.

Or a Gorn. Please let it be a Gorn this time.

“I’m due a rematch!”

Spock suggests that it may instead be another intelligence. He doesn’t come out and say it, but I’m guessing he thinks it could be some sort of god-computer or something, which is okay because talking computers to death is what Kirk does best, right? Jim gives a counter-suggestion that it could just be something natural that looks high-tech, and might be nothing. Anyone else think it’s just nothing? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Kirk tells Uhura to let him know if anything changes, and the gang heads into the jungle. They detect a group of lifeforms up ahead, and Kirk is about to tell everybody to chill and that they need to avoid being seen… and that’s when Bem goes running towards the natives. Jim tells Scotty and Sulu to stay with the gear while he and Spock go chasing off after Bem. They come to a stretch of jungle which is impossible to get through…

…unless you happen to be able to break your body up into little hovering bits, that is. Man, the body horror in this episode is almost as bad as a Cronenberg film. The only way things could get more creepy is if we find out Bem eats by first vomiting all over his food.

Considering some of the writer’s other works, it wouldn’t surprise me if a scene like this appeared in this episode’s first draft.

Kirk and Spock have no clue how Bem got through the jungle, and they work their way around. Kirk says the “Pandronian’s” actions make no sense, and Spock points out they might make sense… to another Pandronian. Kirk takes the high road and doesn’t respond to this smart-assed comment. They discover they’ve lost Bem, but it’s okay, because somebody else has found him.

Not quite Gorn, but eh, I’ll take what I can get.

Back from commercial, Lt. Arex tells Uhura that the weird scanner thingy is getting bigger. Uhura calls down to the planet and finds out Kirk and Spock ran off after Bem, and he’s not answering the phone. Assuming something’s wrong, she orders Scotty and Sulu back. Scotty objects, but Uhura lays down the law and says she’s following Kirk’s orders. Scotty reluctantly agrees, and really, this is entirely in character for the Scotsman; sure, he could pull rank, but he’s a man who goes by the book, even if it means wiping out all life on a planet. General Order 24, baby. And no joke, it’s nice to see Uhura in charge. Nichelle Nichols has a ton of charisma, and I always liked Uhura. It’s a shame she never got her own command.

Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock discuss their options and figure they can beam Bem out of here. But wouldn’t aliens seeing a transporter in action be a violation of the Prime Directive? Oh, wait, it’s Kirk. To him, the Prime Directive is more like the Prime Strongly Worded Suggestion I Get To Ignore When I Feel Like It. He tries calling Uhura, and he and Spock discover their communicators and phasers are fakes. Kirk says something funny’s going on. Of course something’s funny is going on, Jim: it’s a TAS episode. Only, it’s not funny in the way the producers intended.

Kirk says they have to go after him, and they find the Gorn-like aliens’ camp and see Bem is their prisoner. They wait until nightfall to rescue him…

…yeah, that worked out well. Kirk asks Spock why this always happens to them. Oh, come on, Jim, it’s not like this happens a lot. Okay, yeah, there was the time you got caught by the Iotians on the gangster planet… twice. And there was that time on Rome World, and Nazi World, and that incident where you traveled back in time and got locked up and called a witch, or the time you were captured on that penal colony, and later on in that space insane asylum, or that time on Beta III or on Iconia where the Klingons—

Well… shit. I guess it does happen a lot. Damn, it even happened in Star Treks V and VI!

Anyway, Spock says he assumes it was a rhetorical question, and when Kirk suggests he pulls some sort of magical Vulcan power out of his ass to save them, Spock says he’s got nothin’. Kirk turns his ire towards Bem, and it’s a cool moment because we find out just how alien the dude is. He deliberately got himself captured to observe the natives, then to see how Kirk and Spock would react. It’s kind of cool to see somebody with very different motivations and thought processes. Bem fesses up and his lower half hands over the real phasers and communicators.

Spock says “fascinating” like Nimoy is having trouble staying awake, or like Spock’s seen one weird thing too many and now nothing surprises him any more. I mean, after you’ve seen a giant version of yourself…

…the rest is just “meh”.

Back on the Enterprise, Uhura reports that the scanning field is now covering the whole “northern continent!” and they can’t call Kirk. Back on the planet, Kirk finds out they can’t call the Enterprise to get a lift, and he realizes their options are A) Jim seduces the tribal princess, or B) they shoot their way out. It’s a tough call, but Kirk goes with option B, probably because he hasn’t figured out if these aliens even have sexes. They get ready to shoot it out when suddenly, it’s like they’ve been dropped into a space disco.

Uhura starts talking to them from… Oh, wait, I’m sorry, my bad. That’s just Nichelle Nichols doing a half-assed job of doing a supreme alien intelligence’s voice. I guess she was saving all her passion that year for Truck Turner.

The Supreme Intelligence tells Kirk the natives are her “children”, and she takes exception to Kirk going around and messing with them. And it doesn’t help that Kirk used words like “classify” and “test”, like the planet is just a big science experiment. She makes Kirk and Spock’s phasers disappear, and Kirk and Spock are captives again.

Man, captured twice in five minutes; that’s gotta be some kind of record. On board the Enterprise, Arex thinks he’s found Kirk and Spock, and Scotty’s decided to get hardcore; he asks for a security squad armed with phaser rifles. For a man who once almost carpet bombed a planet, that’s showing considerable restraint. Back down below, Bem gives Kirk a failing grade when it comes to commanding, and then he bails on out of here.

He doesn’t even unlock Kirk and Spock’s cells. Man, what a dick. Jim and Spock weigh their options, and figure maybe they can talk to the entity. Spock uncharacteristically suggests a bribe, and Kirk decides to, for the first time this episode, do something smart and stick with honesty. Spock combines their communicators to boost the signal, and Kirk does the second smart thing he’s done in this episode and apologizes to the Supreme Intelligence for trespassing. The entity says it’s all good and lets them go, but she doesn’t want them to hang around to look for Bem. Kirk tells Spock they can’t just leave the green goon there. Scotty comes down with a squad and Kirk orders phasers at the lightest setting, which I’m guessing is something like “goose” or “noogie”. The aliens attack and Kirk’s redshirts seem to have one up on Stormtroopers, and can actually hit what they aim at.

They rescue Bem, and he’s all sad and sorry he made such a mess of things. He says he’s gotta “disassemble”, meaning his parts can’t stay together anymore. The entity hears all this and tells him if he breaks up the band, then they can’t learn from their mistakes. The gang gets to leave in peace, and back onboard the Enterprise, Kirk has Uhura send a message to Starfleet to classify the planet as off-limits. Bem says he’s got a lot to learn, and we end the show with Alien-hura telling them go in peace.

“Bem” isn’t a bad episode. The title character is all kinds of weird and alien, both in body and thought processes. We get another one of those omniscient alien intelligences, but unlike killer computers, this one is pretty reasonable. And the scenario of a higher order alien protecting a primitive people reminded me of the Next Generation episode “Justice”.

The difference is, “Bem” was done a helluva lot better. The primitives in Bem have an excuse for their behavior, but the Edo in “Justice” come across as idiots willing to kill a kid for stepping on plants. And during the course of “Bem”, it’s implied that the entity is just waking up; what’s the god-entity’s excuse in “Justice”? Well, it’s just too easy to beat up on a season one TNG episode, so I’ll just leave it at that.

“Bem” was written by author David Gerrold, who also penned the Trek masterpiece “The Trouble with Tribbles” and numerous science fiction novels, most notably his War Against the Chtorr series.

TV Show: Star Trek (TAS)

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  • Olaf_the_Lofty

    This is of historic importance to me: the one moment I remember from watching TAS as a child is Bem’s top half and bottom half separating. That his head also comes off I had completely forgotten. It was also interesting to see Nichelle Nichols at work on “the day job”, though inevitably, as with all the original Star Trek bridge cast, her part in that has come to overshadow everything else she has done.

  • My headcanon now is that Scotty got the idea for growing a mustache from Kyle, couldn’t pull off Kyle’s luxurious curves, and put on weight out of depression.