May 27, 2020
Battle of the Star Trek Western Episodes
Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek to NBC as “Wagon Train to the stars”. This was for the simple reason that westerns were at their height of popularity on both TV and the big screen during the 1960s. While Trek‘s original, unsold pilot “The Cage” didn’t exactly make one think of a western in space, many of the subsequent episodes would be noted for the action and heroics that were shared by many of the westerns that were on the air at the time.
So perhaps it was inevitable that the original Trek series had an episode with a western setting. Interestingly, two of the five subsequent Trek series would end up putting out episodes in a western setting as well. So, which of these three episodes is the best? Let’s find out.
This was the sixth episode of the original series’ third season to air, although it was the first to be shot. Kirk and company are approaching a planet when they’re warned to stay away by a race called the Melkotians, who amaze the crew by being able to instantly communicate with each of them in their own native languages (this was before later Trek shows used the universal translator as a crutch). Ignoring this warning, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov next find themselves on the planet. They’re confronted by a Melkotian again, before finding themselves in a western town, albeit one that’s incomplete, with buildings with missing walls, and their phasers have been replaced by six-shooters.
Spock surmises that, as Kirk is the captain, the Melkotians looked into his mind and selected this time period because Kirk had ancestors who helped pioneer the west. A nearby billboard and a overly happy sheriff lead our heroes to realize that they’re specifically in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, shortly before the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Kirk and company also realize that they’re playing the roles of the Clanton gang, who were the losers in that gunfight.
Going to a nearby saloon, Chekov is quickly greeted with kisses by a saloon girl named Sylvia (Bonnie Beecher), while Kirk attempts to convince the bartender that they’re not the Clantons. They also run afoul of Morgan Earp (Rex Holman), who convinces them that things are serious when he shoots another gunslinger and promises to do the same to our heroes when the time comes.
Kirk and the crew attempt to leave Tombstone, but a force field around the town prevents this. Kirk’s subsequent attempts at diplomacy with Wyatt (Ron Soble) and Virgil Earp (Charles Maxwell) end in failure. But Chekov gives McCoy the idea that, using the snakes and cacti that the area is known for, he could make a tranquilizer. Bones goes to the dentist to get the drugs he needs, only to run afoul of Doc Holliday (Sam Gilman), who allows Bones to use his medicines while promising death at 5 o’clock, the time of the gunfight. But Chekov has another run-in with Morgan, which ends with Chekov being shot.
McCoy confirms he’s dead, and Kirk restrains Scotty from charging at the Earps, saying the time isn’t right. But this makes Spock realize that things can be changed, since Chekov was in the role of Billy Claiborne, who survived the actual gunfight. Kirk tries one last time to get the sheriff to help, but is refused. The tranquilizer is ready, but when Scotty offers to be the guinea pig, nothing happens. Kirk decides that they just won’t go to the Corral at 5, but the Melkotians transport them there anyway.
Another force field contains them in the Corral, but Spock deduces from the tranquilizer not working that all of what they’re experiencing is unreal. He states that Chekov died because he believed the bullets would kill him, so he mind-melds with Kirk and the others to convince them that the bullets won’t hurt them. At 5, Doc Holliday and the Earps march like zombies to the Corral, and sure enough, their gunfire doesn’t hurt our heroes. Kirk exchanges some brief fisticuffs with Wyatt, but doesn’t kill him. Our heroes are then back aboard the Enterprise, including Chekov, alive and well, with the explanation being that Sylvia was the other thing real to him down on the planet. The Melkotians contact Kirk, praising his decision to not kill.
This sixth season Next Generation episode begins with our crew killing time while awaiting a rendezvous with the Federation ship Biko, named for the civil rights leader of the same name. Picard, who in a nice touch is playing the flute he acquired in “The Inner Light”, is being constantly interrupted, first by La Forge and Data, who ask for permission to take the main computer offline to try an experiment in which Data can potentially act as a backup (which Picard grants), second by Crusher, who asks if he can take on a small part in her latest play, and finally by Worf, who shows him security drills he can run while they wait for the Biko. Picard says that the drills can wait until their next scheduled starbase layover, and tells Worf to just enjoy himself for now. This comes as great news to Worf’s son Alexander (Brian Bonsall), who drags his dad to a holodeck program set in the “Ancient West” (this would be the first of many times writer Brannon Braga would refer to something in Trek as “ancient”). Worf is the sheriff in this town, and Alexander is his deputy.
Worf soon begins liking the program as they arrest a gunslinger named Eli Hollander (John Pyper-Ferguson) with Troi’s help, with the latter dressed in what looks like the poncho Clint Eastwood wore in the three films he did with Sergio Leone.
At the same time, Data and La Forge are doing their experiment. A brief power surge prompts them to stop, although Data’s mannerisms soon begin to change, such as his use of language and putting his tricorder in his holster like a six-shooter. In addition, the ship’s replicators only produce the cat food that Data’s cat Spot eats, and all the info in the ship’s computers, including Crusher’s play, are replaced with his poetry. As it turns out, this surge extends to the holodeck, as suddenly all the characters resemble Data and have his abilities, which Troi notes when she sees Eli shuffle cards at the same super-fast rate Data does.
While La Forge fixes the issue, Worf and Troi make a plan to buy time until the story in the program reaches its end. Eli’s father Frank captures Alexander and offers Worf a prisoner exchange. Troi knows this a trick, and she and Worf with the help of bartender Annie (Joy Garrett), who’s smitten with Worf, manage to create a makeshift force field that briefly protects Worf from Eli’s bullets during the exchange. They order Eli and the others out of town and the program itself ends just as Annie, who now resembles Data, begins to cuddle up to Worf.
This third season episode of Enterprise begins with the crew discovering a planet inhabited by humans who are living in a western setting. Down on the planet, a man with markings to indicate he’s an alien is being lynched. The head of the lynch mob, Deputy Bennings (James Parks) asks if the condemned has any final words, and those words are “Go to Hell!” Bennings replies that he didn’t think “Skags” (short for Skagarans) believed in hell.
On the Enterprise, the crew detect alien life signs on the planet, along with the remnants of an alien ship. In western garb, Archer goes to a saloon to find some answers, while Tucker and T’Pol manage to get a horse to do some reconnaissance work. In the saloon, Archer stops Bennings from picking on a Skagaran boy. The arrival of the sheriff MacReady (Glenn Morshower) prevents things from getting violent, and he tells Bennings to keep an eye on Archer.
From there, Archer questions a teacher named Bethany (Emily Bergl), whom he had met earlier. She agrees to accompany her to the part of town where she teaches Skag children. Alas, Bennings follows them and Archer is knocked out and put in jail with Bethany. MacReady chats with Archer, informing him that they have laws in place because Skagarans brought humans from Earth to this planet two centuries earlier as slave labor, but the humans rebelled. He also states that Bethany will remain behind bars for the next decade, before telling Archer to leave town.
On the ship, Sato repeats the info about the Skagarans while Archer decides to stage a jail break. When Bethany is shot, Archer beams both of them away, right in front Bennings and his posse. This convinces Bennings that Archer must be Skagaran.
As Phlox tends to Bethany, he reveals to Archer and T’Pol that the teacher is one-fourth Skagaran herself.
On the planet, MacReady tells the trigger-happy Bennings that, considering they just saw people vanish, they should proceed with caution. Bennings replies by throwing down his badge and walking out.
Soon, the whole town is in awe as a shuttlepod lands in the center of town. Archer, T’Pol, Reed, and some security people emerge wearing their regular uniforms. The captain talks with MacReady, saying he’s from Earth, and at present can’t evacuate everyone because of the current Xindi issue (how convenient). But Bennings arrives to cause trouble and we get an exchange of bullets and phaser fire. Archer is shot, but still manages to subdue Bennings. The episode ends with MacReady happily watching Bethany in town teaching both human and Skagaran children.
Of these three, I like “A Fistful of Datas” the best, because it sets out to be a fun romp and succeeds nicely. While we may wonder why that power surge with Data only affected the holodeck’s western program and none of the others (a similar contrivance would occur three years later in Deep Space Nine‘s “Our Man Bashir”), Spiner, Dorn, and Sirtis are clearly having the time of their lives with this episode. Reportedly, Patrick Stewart (who directed the episode) binged-watched classic westerns to prepare for filming this one and it shows, complete with the episode’s perfect final shot of the ship going off into the sunset.
“Spectre of the Gun” has a more serious tone. One could say that the incomplete look of Tombstone that the Melkotians created adds a sense of tension. The exchanges between our heroes are as great as ever, but the end result raises more questions than it answers. If Chekov didn’t die because Sylvia was the only thing real to him, why didn’t Morgan’s bullets just pass through him? At the climax, Spock’s says that Chekov’s mind killed him, but then two seconds later, states that it’s uncertain if he’s dead. Which is it, Spock? Also, Kirk not killing when he has the chance had been done more effectively in previous episodes. Besides, it would’ve been much more satisfying if it had been Morgan that Kirk beat up instead of Wyatt, given how torn up he was about Chekov’s death. “Spectre” is certainly watchable (and it’s a masterpiece when compared to other third season entries like “…And the Children Shall Lead”), but the script could’ve been tighter. A nice side note: Almost a decade before Star Trek debuted, DeForest Kelley played Morgan Earp in the classic western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
“North Star” is also watchable, with a decent message about overcoming prejudice. All three guest stars are fine in their roles, and I’m guessing that MacReady and Bennings were named for characters in John Carpenter’s The Thing. But Archer’s statement that they can’t bring these people back to Earth right away has always irked me, because the crew always managed to make side trips to study phenomena and the like, even with the Xindi threat. Still, the story itself is pleasant, making this episode a good time-killer and one of Enterprise‘s better episodes.