Mar 4, 2020
Star Trek (TAS) “The Practical Joker”
As I continue on with my recaps of the animated Star Trek episodes that Thomas doesn’t want to deal with, I come to “The Practical Joker”, an episode that originally aired September 21, 1974, near the end of the series’ run. When the animated series began development, Filmation’s original proposal included kids serving aboard the Enterprise as cadets, as a way to better appeal to the Saturday morning crowd. Thankfully, Gene Roddenberry and crew shot that idea down, and TAS was eventually aimed at the same wide audience of teens and adults as the original series. Well, most of the time.
“The Practical Joker” seems to be one of the few exceptions where an animated episode was made specifically for little kids. Not only is it a comedy episode, which are hit or miss (mostly miss) in the Star Trek franchise, but all of the gags seem to be aimed at younger viewers. Much younger. I’m thinking if you’re too old for diapers, you’re probably too old to be entertained by this one.
However, it seems this episode has earned a place in the hearts of many Star Trek fans for being the very first appearance of a technology that would go on to have a huge presence on the later Trek shows, particularly The Next Generation and Voyager, for better or for worse. Read on to find out that the technology I’m referring to is the holodeck! Damn, I never do this “teaser” thing right.
Kirk’s log tells us it’s Stardate 3183.3, and the Enterprise is on a “routine geological survey” of asteroids. He says “the cruise has been uneventful”, and from Shatner’s voice, you can believe it. They’re coming upon the “final asteroid”, even though it basically looks like a planet, albeit one that’s covered in craters.
They come around the planet-eroid, and find three Klingon warships lying in wait on the other side. The enemy ships begin firing on the Enterprise, and Kirk tells Scotty to give them “maximum shielding”.
Spock tells Kirk that these are Romulans (still using Klingon-designed starships as they did in TOS, apparently), and somehow Scotty is able to barge in on their conversation from down in Engineering. Did Kirk accidentally leave the speakerphone on again? Scotty cries, “A cold-blooded ambush! Let’s give the heathens a fight they won’t soon forget!” Well, okay, I guess in the technical sense of the word, the Romulans are in fact “heathens”, but that’s a weird line.
However, Kirk notes they’re outnumbered three to one, and says this is a time where “discretion is the better part of valor” and decides not to engage the enemy. In typically clunky animation, the Enterprise tries to get away, while the Romulan ships follow.
Uhura picks up a hail from one of the Romulan commanders and puts him on the viewscreen. Kirk demands to know the reason for this “unprovoked attack”, but the Romulan insists the Enterprise trespassed into Romulan territory. Kirk says there’s no way they trespassed, and furthermore, he plans to “file a detailed complaint with the Federation!” Strangely, this doesn’t strike fear into the enemy commander’s heart, and he informs them that encroaching on Romulan territory is “punishable by death”.
The Romulans move in for the kill. Just then, Sulu detects an “unidentified energy field” drifting into their path, and there’s a cloud on the viewscreen giving off sparks, fireworks, and little lightning bolts. Kirk decides to take the ship through this field to “shake the Romulans”. And I like how the field is not only sparking and exploding, but actually making fireworks noises in the depths of airless space.
The ship shudders, and Spock says the field is full of “highly charged subatomic particles”, but thinks they should be able to ride it out. Down in Engineering, Scotty says to no one in particular, “Hold together, little darlin’, hold together!” Wow, he seems more drunk than usual.
The Enterprise makes it through the field, and thankfully, the Romulans didn’t follow. Kirk says they’ll have to stay here a while for repairs, and Uhura declares, “After that ride, I could use some repairs!” I… really have no idea what she means by that.
We next find all the senior officers in the mess hall, dining on a huge meal. Well, it’s mostly fruit. There’s just a massive amount of fruit on the table. Scotty says the ship should be good to go within 24 hours, “no thanks to those Romulan vultures!” Whoa, take it easy there.
McCoy then proposes a toast to their “narrow escape”. Everyone joins in on the toast, with Shatner even providing some forced fake laughter. Sulu drinks up, only to find his glass is leaking all over him.
Which means Sulu now has a splotch of conspicuously white fluid under his chin, and all over the front of his uniform. Look, I know I make a lot of gay jokes about Sulu in these TAS recaps, but what do you expect me to do when this show makes it so damn easy?
Uhura points out she also has a jizz stain on her uniform, and as it turns out, the same thing has happened to all of them. Spock calls this a “bizarre coincidence”, adding, “The odds against something like this happening are astronomical!” Gee, thanks, Poindexter, but I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone in the room that this isn’t a coincidence.
McCoy says as much, and recalls how he used to pull “stunts in medical school, with trick glasses!” He’s convinced they have a “practical joker” in their midst, but Kirk warns him not to “jump to conclusions”.
Sulu agrees. “We all got wet, so what’s the joke?” He’s right. It’s never funny when everybody gets wet. Scotty thinks it’s just a malfunction in the “food synthesizers”, and plans to take a look at them later.
Now that that’s settled, Kirk says they better eat, because their food is getting cold. But when he goes to take a bite, his fork suddenly bends, causing food to fall into his lap. Sulu chuckles, and then McCoy laughs, and then Uhura joins in as well. And Kirk is just now starting to wonder if this is all really a “coincidence”.
Another log entry from Kirk informs us that the strange incidents have continued, and have begun happening more frequently. And now the whole crew is falling victim to “simpleminded pranks”.
To illustrate, Spock has something that’s sort of like a binocular microscope on his console, and he’s looking into it. He tells everyone, “I found this device on my console! It seems to serve no useful function!” So… why not place your eyes directly on it, right? He looks up, and naturally, the device has given him two black eyes, which the rest of the bridge crew finds riotously funny.
Another log entry tells us the crew is finding these gags “less and less amusing!” Is that even possible? Were they amusing at all in the first place?
Back in the mess hall, Scotty orders a “grilled cheese on rye” from one of the food synthesizers, and this is actually the first time in Trek we see a food synthesizer (the predecessor to replicators, which seem to be basically the same thing) operate on voice commands.
Suddenly, Scotty is bombarded with food. Well, it’s mostly fruit, again. Food is flying at him rapid-fire, and Arex and M’Ress are sitting there, and they think this is hilarious.
Scotty abruptly turns on them, and accuses them of being responsible. He intends to “report” them to the captain, and damn, he’s a mean drunk, isn’t he? But then a cream pie comes flying out of the machine, with predictable results.
Yet another log entry from Kirk tells us that these pranks now have “friends turning against friends”, and the “entire crew is on edge!” Kirk walks onto the bridge, and says he’s had enough. He explains he just picked up his “clean uniforms from the service chute”, and that’s when he discovered this…
Ah, there’s nothing like the feeling you get when you stumble upon a screencap that you just know you’re going to get tons of use out of in future Star Trek recaps.
Everyone is stunned, and then laughter emanates from a speaker. M’Ress tells Kirk, “Look behind you,” and Kirk thinks this is the setup for another dumb joke, but eventually he turns and sees vapor coming from underneath the turbolift doors. Kirk and Spock step into the turbolift, and then appear to continue walking directly through the turbolift into a corridor. They find the floor is shrouded in what (according to Spock) “appears to be legitimate fog!” Well, as long as the fog is legitimate, that’s all that really matters.
He thinks maybe the “humidification” system is on the fritz, but then he starts sliding across the floor. Kirk tries to help him, and he goes sliding too, and naturally, Kirk and Spock basically end up in each other’s arms, but after all these years, I’m no longer shocked by the slash-y undertones of this show.
Spock says, “The deck is covered in ice!” And Kirk replies, “And it was almost covered in us!” I’d snark on that, but I don’t think I’m allowed more than three jizz-related jokes per kids’ cartoon recap. Kirk is really fed up now, and wants these practical jokes to stop before someone gets hurt. And that’s when more maniacal laughter emanates from a nearby speaker.
Eventually, Spock figures out that the “practical joker” is “the Enterprise itself”, and Kirk realizes the laughter sounds just like the voice of the ship’s computer (provided here, as on all of the Trek shows, by Majel Barrett). Kirk orders all hands to stations, along with a “complete systems check” to figure out what’s going on.
Which is when McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura decide to spend some time unwinding in the ship’s “Rec Room”. As they’re about to enter, we see the door has a giant “Rec Room” sign, as well as a flashing “unoccupied” light, like an airplane toilet. And just in case you still aren’t clear on what’s happening here, Uhura says, “Good! The Rec Room is unoccupied!”
She says she’s looking forward to time away from “practical jokes”, and the three of them step inside. Unfortunately, the door closes behind them just a moment before Spock makes the announcement ordering all hands to stations.
Inside, it’s a large, completely white room. Sulu stands at a console, and asks if they want to go for a “swim at the beach”. He pushes a button, and the white room changes to an outdoor beach scene. McCoy says he’d much rather go for a “quiet walk in the woods”, and Sulu pushes another button and now they’re in the woods.
So basically, the “Rec Room” is a holodeck. Kirk’s Enterprise, going by TAS at least, had a holodeck long before Picard’s. Reportedly, Roddenberry wanted to include a location like this during the original series’ run, but the budget didn’t allow for it. And of course, when The Next Generation came around, it was one of the first things they introduced. Though, if you accept TAS as canon, this requires a bit of rationalization, as TNG basically depicts the holodeck as brand new technology, not something that had been installed on starships for 90 years. The first season of TNG in particular has quite a few scenes where Picard and crew seem amazed and bewildered by the new technology.
On the bridge, M’Ress reports that the gang in the Rec Room aren’t answering the call to go to their stations. Cut to the Rec Room, and sure enough, the ship-wide announcements aren’t being heard in here. The three of them talk about how they’re feeling peaceful and relaxed, and McCoy adds, “And best of all, no practical jokes!”
When he says this, the ship’s computer chuckles at them, which McCoy thinks is “just one of the audio tapes rewinding.” Hmm. Maybe Picard’s crew was just amazed by the existence of holodeck programs that don’t require turning the cassette over.
Just a few steps ahead of them, branches and leaves begin falling from the trees, apparently as a deliberate attempt by the computer to cover up a large hole in the ground. As the three obliviously walk towards this trap, McCoy says, “I have to hand it to you, Uhura! This is just what the doctor would have ordered!” What? You’re the doctor! You can still order it if you want!
Naturally, they fall into the computer’s trap, and end up stumbling into a deep hole, which is greeted by more laughter from the computer. Sulu is finally catching on that someone is laughing at them, and McCoy promises to “get to the bottom of this”.
But the computer finds the phrase “get to the bottom of this” absolutely hilarious, given they’re currently at the bottom of a hole. McCoy angrily yells, “So we fell for your juvenile joke! Now get us out!” And the computer finds the phrase “Fell for my joke” to be even more hilarious given the circumstances, and more laughter follows.
On the bridge, Kirk has Spock “quiz” the computer about the whereabouts of McCoy and the others. Spock asks the computer why they’re unable to contact them, and the computer responds that this is “for me to know and for you to find out.” Spock raises an eyebrow, and Kirk can’t believe what he’s hearing.
Spock asks if they’re being held “prisoner” and the computer’s answer is “I’ll never tell!” A frustrated Kirk steps up and orders the computer to release them, so the computer tells him to “Say please!” At Spock’s encouragement, Kirk says through gritted teeth, “Please!” And now the computer wants him to say, “Pretty please with sugar on,” but Kirk ain’t going for that, and just switches off the speaker.
Suddenly, dramatic music plays as… Scotty appears on the viewscreen. And as far as I can tell, he’s just down in Engineering. What the hell? I can’t recall the bridge viewscreen ever being used to communicate with somebody in a different part of the ship.
Kirk breaks the news to Scotty that the computer has kidnapped three crewmen. Scotty, clearly still drunk, yells, “Kidnapped! Blue blazes!” Kirk tells Scotty to shut down “all logic functions” until they can “get a handle” on the situation.
Back in the Rec Room, they’ve managed to climb out of the hole. McCoy is still on fire and wants to get his “hands” on the “clown who’s behind this” and “put him in Sickbay for a week!” Where McCoy will then spend the better part of that week doing his best to heal him. That’ll show him! The computer laughingly says, “Temper temper!” and then offers McCoy something to “cool you off”.
The woods scene cross-fades into a raging blizzard, and now the three are shivering in frigid winds, and Sulu doesn’t know how they’ll ever find the “exit”. You realize what this means, right? It would seem the very first holodeck episode in the Star Trek franchise also features the very first holodeck malfunction.
Meanwhile, Scotty is attempting to shut down the ship’s logic circuits, but he’s unable to do it, because he suddenly starts floating. It turns out everyone on the bridge is floating as well, and Scotty explains that “our gravity just reversed polarity all by itself!” Because if there’s anything decades of Star Trek has taught me, it’s that the “polarity” of anything can be reversed.
Spock is of course the only one to figure out this is a “defensive maneuver” by the Enterprise’s computer. Kirk is completely confused as to why the ship’s computer has “declared war” on them. Spock has an idea, but first they advise Scotty to “vacate the computer room” so that the computer feels less “threatened”.
And so Scotty leaves the only way he can: by crawling across the ceiling. As soon as he’s out of the computer room, he crashes to the floor. And since this is the episode where Scotty has a big potty mouth, he yells out, “You bloody big scatterbrain!”
Back on the bridge, gravity has been restored. Spock has figured out, presumably 10 or 15 minutes after most of the audience, that the “energy field” they passed through must be responsible. The “subatomic particles” in the field infected the ship, “much like bacteria infect living matter”. And on this line, Kirk for some reason makes a face like Spock just blew his mind, man. Spock suggests that the Enterprise computer is suffering the “electronic equivalent of a nervous breakdown”. Unfortunately, the computer’s behavior is so “illogical” that Spock can’t figure out a way to fix it.
After a time-killing shot of the ship cruising through space, we return to Uhura, McCoy, and Sulu still shivering in the Rec Room, and Sulu says it must be “20 below” in here. But Uhura insists that regardless of what they’re seeing, this is “still a room”, and if they travel far enough in one direction, “we’re bound to reach a wall!” So apparently, this is not a TNG-style holodeck, where force fields or whatever allow people to walk in any direction forever. But if the walls are still the walls, and the floor is still the floor, then how exactly did the computer dig a large hole in the floor for the three of them to fall into?
Cut to some Redshirts outside the Rec Room trying to get inside, and reporting to Kirk that the door is jammed. Kirk contacts Scotty, and in the middle of telling him to get a “work crew with power tools” down to the Rec Room, Kirk starts snickering and giggling uncontrollably.
Scotty on the speaker wonders if Kirk is okay, and then he starts laughing too. M’Ress also begins laughing, as does Arex.
Spock, however, remains serious. A delirious Kirk sees his stoic demeanor and says, “Where’s that Vulcan sense of humor?” Spock eventually figures out that the air is being pumped full of “nitrous oxide”, better known as laughing gas, and that’s why everyone’s giddy. You know, I thought Kirk and Spock having a beer with the Devil was the height of inappropriate children’s entertainment, but the entire ship getting high on whip-its might have that scene beat.
But Spock knows this is “no laughing matter”. This could be dangerous, “especially for Vulcans,” which is presumably a callback to “Plato’s Stepchildren” where we learned Spock could literally die from laughter.
Down in the Rec Room snowstorm, Uhura and McCoy and Sulu are also laughing hysterically. Sulu says, “If we don’t [laughter] if we don’t keep moving [laughter] we’re going to freeze!” Hah! Good one. You still got it, Sulu.
Back from break, Kirk’s log reports that Spock was able to “switch on our emergency air”, and all is well. Because who doesn’t love it when TV characters resolve all their crises during the commercial breaks? However, the emergency air supply will only last six hours, and “there’s no telling what we’ll be forced to breathe next!” Uh… Scotty’s whiskey-induced farts? That could be a fate worse than death.
Scotty’s got a crew outside the Rec Room, but it seems their power tools are useless, so now the Redshirts are using giant crowbars to try to get the door open. Inside the Rec Room, our heroes are losing hope. McCoy in particular can’t handle this arduous hike across a room, and tells the others to go on without him. “My old legs have given out!” But going by what Uhura said earlier, they can just walk until they hit a wall, so how big is this room, anyway?
Uhura says they can’t leave him behind, and then the Rec Room unexpectedly changes to a new environment: this time, it’s a massive garden maze, and they’re trapped in the center.
Which could have been a potentially interesting development, except five seconds later, a door opens up in a hedge, revealing the Redshirts who were finally able to force their way in. Unfortunately, they arrived five seconds too late for poor old “Old Legs” McCoy, but tell everybody he died with his boots on.
On the bridge, Kirk happily welcomes back the three refugees from the Rec Room. McCoy has only one request: “Can you turn up the heat?” And this whole bit is played like the lighthearted banter at the end of an episode, except hang on, guys, this episode isn’t over yet! You’re still in danger from your psycho computer!
The ship has put itself on a new heading, and Sulu reports that the helm isn’t responding. Spock sees that they’re heading “back” to the Neutral Zone (so… that’s where they were at the start of the episode? And they were surprised to encounter Romulans?). Kirk knows the Romulans will be waiting for them, and sure enough, three Romulan ships show up on an intercept course. Just then, Uhura notes that the “Main cargo hatches are opening!”
Something gray and rubbery comes billowing out of the cargo bay. It floats out into space, and begins expanding… and it turns out to be a giant inflatable Enterprise. And I believe this episode (as well as this series) has now achieved peak silliness.
Then we learn it’s not a life-size Enterprise; in fact, it’s much larger. This huge ship draws the attention of the Romulans, because apparently their sensors can’t tell the difference between an actual ship and a giant ship-shaped balloon.
Kirk figures out what’s going on here: the Enterprise is “pulling her biggest practical joke of all”, because she’s “seeking revenge” on the Romulans who damaged her earlier in the episode. Her plan is to have the Romulans attack a balloon, because according to Kirk, “Romulans fear disgrace more than death!” You see, they’re a Star Trek alien race that values honor above all else, putting them in the esteemed company of every single other one.
The Romulans move in on the balloon, which immediately deflates, while the computer laughs and laughs. Cut to a Romulan commander, who says in the blandest, most laid-back voice possible, “We’ve been tricked. I want that ship blasted into space dust.” Reportedly, the two Romulan voices in this episode are provided by Filmation co-founders/producers Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer. Scheimer actually has a few notable voice roles to his credit (Dumb Donald, Bat-Mite, Orko) so I’m guessing we’re hearing Norm Prescott here, and based on his vocal skills, I’m hoping he was one a hell of a producer.
The computer then takes the Enterprise back to Federation space while the Romulans give chase. Cut to Kirk looking terrified. “I-I-I just want to avoid that energy field we passed through before!” In response to Kirk suddenly looking and sounding like a toddler being forced to sit on a mall Santa’s lap, everyone on the bridge just gives each other confused looks.
Kirk presses on, however. “I couldn’t face going through there again!” He says the thought of going back through that energy field “petrifies” him. And as you can easily guess, this is a blatant bit of Br’er Rabbit reverse psychology that the computer falls for, taking the Enterprise back through the field.
As they travel through the energy field, there are all kinds of weird psychedelic patterns this time, like the Enterprise is entering the Monolith. The Romulans follow, while the computer laughs and laughs. Abruptly, the computer stops laughing. “My circuits! You tricked me, Kirk!” The computer’s voice gets slower and slower. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…
Finally, everything goes back to normal. It seems that passing back through the field “reversed all effects” and cured the computer’s “infection”, instead of just getting it even more infected. This is the Treknobabble equivalent of hitting a sitcom character on the head again to cure their amnesia.
Uhura is able to somehow eavesdrop on the Romulans, and we hear the commander yell, “Turn off those food synthesizers! We’re knee-deep in desserts and they’re still pouring out!” And if anyone ever asks you to sum up this episode in five words or less, now you know: “We’re knee-deep in desserts.”
McCoy laughs, and wonders if they should tell the Romulans how to reverse the effects. Kirk says he’ll do that, in time. “Let’s not spoil their fun just yet!” Everyone on the bridge laughs, while the episode finishes up with some particularly goofy circus-like xylophone music, and that’s the end.
“The Practical Joker” was written by Chuck Menville and (an uncredited) Len Janson, who also wrote “Once Upon a Planet” (the one where the Enterprise revisits the “Shore Leave” planet), an episode which shares a lot of similar aspects with “The Practical Joker”, including a rebellious computer, a scene where the gravity gets shut off and everyone on the bridge goes floating, and the conspicuous use of giant crowbars.
Alas, there’s really not a whole lot more to say about this episode. I suppose the idea of the Enterprise becoming self-aware and turning on its Starfleet masters could have been decent, if it hadn’t been used as the basis of a comedy episode. Or if the “practical jokes” the computer plays were actually, you know, funny. But “Kirk is a jerk” and the whole “Fell for my joke” conversation are about as amusing as things get, and only in a “so unfunny it goes past unfunny and somehow becomes funny again” sort of way.
Actually, the same story concept would show up again years later in the mind-numbingly dull TNG episode “Emergence”, where the Enterprise becomes sentient and procreates, generating a CGI “offspring” that looks like a pile of bendy straws. So really, about the best thing I can say about “The Practical Joker” is that at least here, the only thing the Enterprise gives birth to is a giant balloon.