Mar 26, 2020
Star Trek (TAS) “The Slaver Weapon”
And now, the Agony Booth’s quest to cover every single episode of the animated Star Trek series brings us to “The Slaver Weapon”, which originally aired December 15, 1973.
Our episode opens with…
Wait a minute. Let me look more closely at the title card. Did I read the author’s name right?
Larry Niven? Man-Kzin Wars Larry Niven? Ringworld Larry Niven? Co-author of such classic science fiction as Footfall, The Mote in God’s Eye, Dream Park, and The Legacy of Herot? Indeed, a science fiction demi-god has penned this episode, ladies and gentlemen. We’re about to witness the work of a literary Colossus, and I feel almost unworthy to recap it.
We get a full ten seconds of space accompanied by the usual canned music. I’m not exaggerating here. There’s a ten-second shot of an empty starfield after the credits, and that’s one big pregnant pause. However, it’s obviously a pregnant pause that will give birth to one of the greatest TAS episodes of all time. Case in point: I know we’re in for something special because this episode does not start with Kirk laying down exposition. Instead, we’ve got Spock laying down exposition. He’s delivering his first officer’s log from the Enterprise shuttle Copernicus, and if the classic shuttle seen on the original series was your Dad’s station wagon, the Copernicus is a Corvette.
Spock explains he’s delivering a special cargo, a “Slaver stasis box”, and that name alone just screams high-concept science fiction. The box was discovered by archeologists on the planet Kzin. Wait… what? Kzin? Like, as in Man-Kzin wars Kzin? Are we getting an actual franchise crossover here? This could be epic.
Or… it could suck.
Actually, as it turns out, “The Soft Weapon”, the short story this episode is based on, is part of Larry Niven’s long-running “Known Space” universe, which encompasses over 40 novels and short stories, including his Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Ringworld. This episode is a pretty faithful adaptation of that story, with the main difference being that the three main characters have been replaced by Sulu, Uhura, and Spock.
Cut to a shot of the three of them inside the shuttle, and notice what the animators did here? Notice the empty chair?
Like maybe they’re making it clear that a certain egotistical captain will not be present in this episode? In fact, this is the only TOS/TAS episode (besides “The Cage”) not to feature Kirk at all. I don’t know if Shatner wasn’t available that week, or if Niven went all rockstar and came in with a list of demands when he agreed to write for this series and wanted somebody else to get the limelight for once, but it’s a welcome change of pace.
And for those who miss Shatner’s bored tones, never fear, because Nimoy sounds just as catatonic here. Spock establishes some facts about the stasis box, saying “time stands still” inside one, and “a billion years means nothing… in there.”
I guess Spock suddenly notices Uhura hovering over him, because he asks what’s on her mind. Uhura’s been studying the “history of the Slaver Empire”, and she knows the Slavers were “masters of all intelligent beings in this galaxy” a billion years ago, until one of those races revolted. And wouldn’t Spock already know all this? It’s like Uhura is delivering this information for the benefit of someone who’s not Spock, almost like she’s being watched by an audience or something.
Uhura asks Spock if the stasis boxes are the only source of information they have about the Slavers. Spock says all traces of the Slavers and their subjects were wiped out in the ensuing wars and “intelligent life had to evolve all over again” in one cosmic do-over. The stasis boxes are the “only remnant” of that civilization.
The box gets all hazy and glowing, and for a moment I’m thinking someone at Filmation might have over-exposed a cell or something (hey, these are the people who gave Kirk three arms and forgot to give Scotty legs; I’m not putting anything past them when it comes to a lack of quality control). But after a while, Uhura asks why the thing is glowing, so apparently this is plot-related.
Spock doesn’t answer, and instead stares ahead for a moment. He then turns to look out the viewscreen at what appears to be a… spiral galaxy? Spock then stares back at the box for a while. So either he thinks Uhura’s question is too stupid to respond to, or he’s too embarrassed to admit he doesn’t know. With him, the odds are 50/50. Okay, that’s not really fair; in all the years I’ve watched Spock, I don’t think there was ever a time he threw the fact that he has a four-digit IQ in somebody’s face.
Spock asks Sulu for their position, and Sulu says they’re approaching the Beta Lyrae system, “142 degrees northeast of the galactic plane”. Uh… how exactly does one find “northeast” in space? But now we see why Spock didn’t answer Uhura earlier: because he wanted to make sure he had all his facts straight. Damn, all that would have been easier to follow if these animated faces could express, y’know, subtlety.
Spock explains the boxes glow when they’re close to one another, so there must be another stasis box “circling Beta Lyrae”. He says a second box is just too good an opportunity to pass up and tells Sulu to head on in. And then there’s a zoom-in on that spiral galaxy. I have no idea what that’s supposed to represent, but soon the shuttle is traveling through the Beta Lyrae system.
As they cruise along, Spock provides a little more exposition for his log, saying that these boxes have contributed greatly to current technology. He says that one box held a flying belt that became the key to creating artificial gravity in starships, while another one held a “disruptor bomb” with “the pin pulled”, which tells me some Slavers had a sick sense of humor. Because of that little billion-year-old joke, all the stasis boxes are now under Starfleet supervision.
Spock says “only key specialists” are allowed to handle the magic boxes now, so I guess he’s one. I wonder if he gets a special card for that, that he can keep it in his wallet along with his “First Vulcan in Starfleet” merit badge, his Mind Meld license, and his A7 Computer Rating certification.
The shuttle lands on an ice-covered planet, though it’s not clear how they tracked the other stasis box to this particular planet. And hey, look, it’s the return of those magical “life support belts” that allow the animators to draw a glowing yellow line around everybody instead of spacesuits.
As you might recall, these force fields supposedly protect the wearer from anything. Seriously, these things are so effective that if someone used harsh language against Spock and Company, it’d just come across as static. Uhura regards the scenery and says, “I never did like these little ice-bound worlds!” Damn, Uhura, did Beta Lyrae IV run over your dog or something?
Spock uses his tricorder and determines the other stasis box is some thirty meters under the ice, and I’m going to give Niven a pass here and not point out that we’ve been repeatedly told that only a stasis box can detect another stasis box. I’m guessing that once you know what you’re looking for, you can use one magic plot device (i.e., the tricorder) to find another (i.e., the stasis box). The fact that Larry Niven is a literary deity and can do no wrong has nothing to do with my decision to go easy here.
Sulu says digging for the box shouldn’t be a problem, because in this “low pressure”, the “ice should boil” as soon as it’s melted by their phasers. Whoa there, Sulu; don’t go throwing actual science into this kid’s show. Sulu pulls out his phaser, but before he can blast away at the ice, we get our first sighting of the alien race soon to be identified as the Kzinti.
No, there’s nothing wrong with your monitor; this week’s warlike alien race are basically giant cats wearing pink and purple spacesuits. I realize that Hal Sutherland, the director of most TAS episodes, was colorblind and likely didn’t realize he was signing off on pink spacesuits, but that really doesn’t explain why the animators decided to color them this way in the first place.
The Kzinti attack, and…
Well, damn, their phasers knocked out our heroes! I thought those force field belts could withstand anything. Maybe I overestimated the belts’ abilities. Maybe Niven hadn’t seen any of the other episodes. Well, he’s an important man. You can’t expect him to keep track of each and every little detail. I mean, really, is continuity that important?
Pardon me, I think I hear an angry mob of torch-bearing Star Trek fans at my door.
Also, I think Sulu needs to work on his reflexes. He already had his phaser in hand, ready to melt the ice, and he still couldn’t get a shot off before he was taken down.
Cut to beneath the planet’s surface. We hear Spock’s voice as we get a lengthy pan across a cavern containing the Kzinti spaceship. And naturally, it’s a pink spaceship.
Nice to see Kzinti spacesuits match the ship they arrived in. Color coordination is always important.
In his voiceover, Spock says he says he takes full responsibility for their current predicament. No one is gonna disagree with you there, Spock. He also says that the contents of the stasis box will ultimately determine how much damage his “error” has done to the Federation. But it’s unclear who he’s talking to, because Uhura and Sulu are only now coming around.
Spock tells them they’re on a Kzinti spacecraft, and Sulu points out the Kzinti aren’t supposed to have phasers. Spock confirms this, saying the “Treaty of Sirius” has obviously been broken. Ah, I see what you did there, Niven: cat-like aliens getting the shaft at a treaty signing named after the dog star. I sit in awe of your divine wit, sir.
We learn the Kzinti are only allowed police vessels, but no weapons. What are the Kzinti cops supposed to do if they come across someone breaking the law? Ram the perps?
Sulu points out the trio are stuck in a “police web”–
—and they won’t be able to move unless they can switch it off. Before the gang can discuss how to do that, their captors show up in those eyesore spacesuits. I’m beginning to wonder if wearing these things is deliberate, to possibly blind their enemies and give the Kzinti a tactical advantage.
Spock says the “lean, bedraggled one” is a telepath. Only a wordsmith like Niven would have the genius to use “bedraggled” in a sentence like that. Personally, I’m looking at the poor bastard, and he just looks like someone who spent too many hours playing World of Warcraft.
Uhura says she heard all Kzinti telepaths are unhappy neurotics, and this one “fits the description”. I wonder, if it had been in the budget, could they have gotten Woody Allen to do his voice?
Spock says that the Kzinti will only want to deal with Sulu. Apparently, they see Uhura and Spock as inferior beings, because Uhura is a woman, and Spock is a… vegetarian. You see, the Kzinti are “meat eaters”, and so they have a nearly pathological hatred for anyone who eats only vegetables.
Spock tells Sulu that if he senses the Telepath reading his mind, he should think about eating a raw vegetable. And if you think I’m going to make a crude joke about Sulu fantasizing about big, girthy cucumbers, think again: this episode was penned by Larry Niven, and I’m holding myself to a higher standard. Sulu says maybe he can “goad” them into revealing their purpose. “Goad.” God bless you, Larry Niven. Anyway, we already know what the Kzinti’s purpose is. Grab boxes, open boxes, loot.
Spock tells Uhura to not say anything, and to just stand there. He reminds her that Kzinti females are “dumb animals”, and the bad guys might forget human women are intelligent, and… Wait a second. The three of them sure are talking a lot. Aren’t they afraid the Kzinti might overhear them? Shouldn’t all of this conversation have been held before the three Kzinti walked into the room? Obviously, what we’re seeing here is not a mistake by a Hugo Award-winning novelist who has deigned to grace this series with his august presence, but by a mediocre director who’s made a hash of Niven’s flawless script.
Uhura is a bit miffed by Spock’s plan, but he assures her that he himself values her intelligence. That’s the Vulcan equivalent of saying she has great legs and a fine ass.
The Kzinti start asking questions, and Sulu takes the lead, introducing himself and Spock, and according to plan, not mentioning Uhura at all. I can’t help but think George Takei must have loved this episode, because what follows is a scene where he has to carry it mostly on his own. I’m pretty sure Sulu gets more lines in this episode than all other TAS episodes (and possibly TOS episodes?) combined. But then again, maybe the man was just happy he got enough money to buy groceries that week, and didn’t care whether or not he was spouting ten lines an episode or a hundred. I hear being stuck in those recording booths was hell, so for all I know, he was pissed he had to do so much work that week.
The head Kzinti, who introduces himself as “Chuft Captain”, says he’s more than happy to address Sulu only and not even deal with Spock, since he feels “no pressing need to speak to an eater of roots and leaves.” And of course, the voice of Chuft Captain, as well as all other Kzinti voices in this episode, is provided by TAS’s MVP, James Doohan.
Chuft Captain tells them that they’re aboard the Traitor’s Claw, which is a stolen police vessel. He explains that Kzinti archaeologists found two stasis boxes. One was empty, but they were able to use it as bait to draw in whoever had the other one. I’m a little confused about the chain of custody here. If the Kzinti found two boxes, how did one and only one of them end up with Starfleet?
And if you’re wondering why the Chuft Captain is being so free with information, it’s probably because they’re likely going to eat their prisoners when they’re done with them. No, really. Chuft says that while they don’t eat human meat like their ancestors did, “we would welcome the opportunity”. So if you ain’t Kzin, you’re on the menu.
Sulu points out the Kzinti fought four wars with humans, and got their asses handed to them every time. Perfect time to bring that up, Sulu. Chuft Captain says that’s why they’re looking for a super-weapon that can finally wipe out humanity. Sulu figures out that these guys aren’t pirates, and are really working for the Kzinti government. Chuft Captain growls and replies if they get captured, “the highest of the Kzin will repudiate us.”
Okay, Larry, I know you’re an amazing writer, but maybe you should refrain from using four syllable words like that on a kid’s show. I’m well-read and even I had to take a moment to look up “repudiate”. (Though, I still spelled it right the first time. Weird.)
Chuft Captain says if they succeed, then the humans will be “meat for their tables”. Geez, that’s pretty gruesome for a bunch of seven-year-olds to hear. Then again, at age seven I was baking anthills with a magnifying glass, so maybe that isn’t so bad.
Now that the captain is done expositing at Sulu, the Kzinti zap the box with a white ray to open it, while everyone stands around looking strangely uninterested. Finally, the box is open, and the Kzinti find a photo of giant bipedal lizard with one eye. Sulu sees it and wonders if it’s a picture of a Slaver. Next, they pull a steak out of the box. Uhura exclaims, “Over a billion years and it looks fresh!” Meanwhile, Wendy’s can’t make a cheeseburger that doesn’t taste like it’s been sitting out for a week.
Then Chuft Captain cries out, because he’s found a weapon. A… Slaver weapon!
Aaaand it basically looks like a watermelon with a handle. I guess the Slavers took juicing very seriously. Chuft Captain holds up the Watermelon Gun and says it “may well mean the end of mankind!” Somehow, I’m not feeling terribly worried.
We’re back from a commercial break. During another long, slow pan across the cavern to the Kzinti ship, Spock is making another log entry (while being held captive, somehow), saying pretty much what we already know. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Kirk is a lot better at this log stuff, Spock.
Chuft Captain orders his people to take our three heroes to the surface, and to secure them in place with another police web so they can use them as target practice for their new toy. As they’re led away, Chuft Captain asks the Telepath if he can read their minds. He can read Sulu with “difficulty”, but since the others are “only a female” and a “pacifistic herbivore”, he begs his captain not to force him to read their minds too. Alas, Chuft Captain says it’s necessary, and the Telepath’s pupils dilate to register… shock? Anger? Fear? Pick your favorite.
Cut to topside, where one of Chuft Captain’s minions says they tested the meat and found out it was “protoplasmic [huh?] and poisonous”. Is “testing” synonymous with daring some poor bastard to eat it and see what happens? The Kzinti then talk about the picture they found. The Telepath reads Sulu’s mind and finds out that Sulu thinks it’s a Slaver.
Chuft Captain agrees, saying it “would have made a worthy enemy”. Though, without a frame of reference in the picture, we have no idea how big the alien was; for all anyone knows, the dude was a foot tall. Hell, how does anybody even know that’s a Slaver in the first place? It could just as easily be a picture of someone’s pet.
Without any further ado, the Chuft Captain aims the Watermelon Gun at our heroes, but nothing happens. One of the Kzinti says, “Perhaps the toggle!” Chuft Captain flips the switch on the device, and it glows brightly while making the stock “transporter” sound effect. When the glow fades, the weapon has changed shape.
Now it’s a pointy watermelon gun, and… this new configuration doesn’t do anything really, either. They switch to another setting, and now it’s a telescope. Another setting turns it into a weak laser. So far, the “Slaver weapon” is all kinds of lame. This reminds me of some Dungeons & Dragons sessions I was forced to sit through, where the Dungeon Master stiffed the players with a home brewed artifact and wouldn’t tell us what it was.
They toggle to the next form, but this time, flames shoot out of the back of the weapon.
Chuft Captain gets dragged around by the rocket and smacks into the Telepath, damaging his suit. And then he knocks Uhura out of the web, and she immediately makes a run for it. Go, Uhura! In a moment, she’ll get to the shuttle, grab some phasers, and come back like some badass Valkyrie, rescuing the men just like she did in “The Lorelei Signal”!
The Kzinti were able to save the Telepath, and Uhura is quickly back in the web, which means the last couple of minutes were pretty much pointless. It feels like it was thrown in here because there have been a ton of talky bits, and someone finally remembered kids love a little action and cereal with their morning sugar.
The Kzinti figure out the setting is some sort of “personal rocket motor”, and you’re supposed to ride it. Spock tells the others that they’ve lucked out, because so far nothing they’ve seen is any better than the technology the Federation currently possesses. But before he can say more on the subject, the Kzinti have hit the toggle again.
After a moment, the lights go out in the cave behind them, and the police web shuts off. Spock figures out the current Slaver weapon setting is an “energy absorber”, but if that’s the case, why are their life support belts still working?
Spock and Company don’t question this, and make a break for it. Sulu and Uhura run for the shuttle, while Spock decides to show the Kzinti just how badass the root and leaf eater can be by literally jumping the Chuft Captain and stealing the weapon.
The Kzinti fire at our heroes with their phasers… which also seem to be immune to the “energy absorber” setting. Okay, Niven, even literary badasses like you need to show some consistency. My faith in you is a little shaken here.
Uhura gets shot… again. For a bunch of guys whose females are just dumb beasts, you’d think they’d find Sulu to be the bigger threat and shoot him first. And besides, the Kzinti owe Sulu for all that trash talk earlier.
Spock meets up with Sulu and explains he hurt the Chuft Captain pretty badly when he stole the Slaver weapon, and he’s not just talking about his feelings. Sulu is worried that the Chuft Captain will call for reinforcements, but Spock knows that won’t be happening anytime soon, because Niven spun the alien monoculture wheel this week and got…
Greedy? No. Cowardly? No. Sneaky? No. Super-smart? No. Snobbish? No. Sexy? God, no.
Honorable! Yes, the Kzinti are all about honor, and to the Chuft Captain, being “attacked by an herbivorous pacifist” is “the ultimate insult”. And so, he’s not going to call for backup until he can get his “personal revenge” and restore his honor.
While the pair wait for the Kzinti to make their next move, Sulu and Spock go back and forth speculating about the weapon. Sulu thinks the thing is something that would be used by a spy rather than a soldier, because it has all these utility-type features that aren’t useful as weapons. I have to disagree here. Anyone ever hear of something called the Swiss Army knife?
I think any soldier would love to have a device that allows them to fly, look far distances, and light campfires all in one handy package. Sulu and Spock continue to speculate, and are rudely interrupted by some serious shaky-cam as the Traitor’s Claw erupts from the ice.
Well… sort of. It kind of just pops up out of nowhere. I guess the animator in charge of exploding ice and snow slipped the ankle chain binding him to his drafting table at the Filmation studio that day. Chuft Captain puts out a call to Sulu, saying that they have Uhura, and asking if he’ll bargain for her return. If not, they’ll take “harsh action”, and “It will not be pleasant for her.”
Spock tells Sulu to answer the Kzinti. Initially, I figured he’d just poke his head up and call out to them. But no—Sulu has a communicator.
Where the hell did he get that? Are you telling me the Kzinti took the phasers, but let the prisoners keep their communicators? Why would they do that? Or was Sulu hiding a spare one down his pants in case he ever got captured? You know, based on the number of times the cast gets caught and imprisoned, that’s actually a plausible explanation.
Sulu asks Chuft Captain what’s going to happen to Spock, and his response is he wants a mano-a-mano fight with the herbivore. He says he’s got two broken ribs, so it should be a fair fight, but Spock isn’t buying it, as Kzinti ribs have “vertical bracing”, and he only kicked him over one heart. Spock says Vegas puts the odds in this fight at about 16:1 against him.
Sulu turns the Kzinti down. Meanwhile on the Traitor’s Claw, Uhura talks a little trash herself at the Chuft Captain. Down on the surface, Sulu and Spock are trying to see if there’s another setting they can use to beat the Kzinti. They get another kind of gun, and Sulu fires it at the horizon.
And at about this point, I’d be pulling out a Sharpie and writing the word “Nope!” next to that toggle setting. Spock says nobody in the Federation has a weapon this powerful, and what we just witnessed was an almost total conversion of matter to energy. Sulu says if the Kzinti got their hands on this, the “whole galaxy would be their dinner table!” And the explosion actually obeys physical laws, generating a powerful shockwave that eventually knocks Spock and Sulu off their feet.
And in the aftermath of that mighty blast…
Oh, come on! Right back into the police web again?
The Kzinti have the weapon back, and they’re messing around with it and somehow finding a new setting, which turns out to be a computer. It starts beeping and flashing, and the Kzinti seemed spooked by it, and Spock talks about how the Kzinti have legends of weapons being haunted by their former owners. Okay, I’m really starting to wonder how the Kzinti ever managed to get off their planet in the first place.
Finally, it turns out the computer in the weapon is actually artificially intelligent, and it begins speaking to the Kzinti. But it doesn’t seem to like what it’s hearing, because it has no idea where it is, and its new owners don’t know the code words. But the Kzinti press ahead, demanding that the computer show them how to switch to the setting with the “total conversion beam” that makes the big boom.
The weapon replies, “Twist my widdershins until you reach the null position.” Widdershins? Okay, Larry, we know you probably have a Masters in English literature and access to a really good thesaurus. There’s no need to show off.
The Kzinti follow the directions and the device changes shape again, only instead of the big boom gun, it’s completely different, with two prongs.
Spock watches the Kzinti take their new toy outside, and he’s already figured out what’s going to happen next: Basically, a sentient weapon that was last used in a galactic war has awakened after an unknown period of time, to find itself in the hands of strange aliens who don’t know the proper passwords, while demanding to see its most destructive setting. Eventually, Sulu and Uhura realize where this is going. Obviously, the Kzinti do not.
Yep. They got the self-destruct setting instead.
The weapon and the enemy have been vaporized, so now all that’s left is for our heroes to fly off into the starscape, with a bit of Spock philosophizing, Uhura laughing more like someone trying to impress the boss rather than someone who actually finds something funny, and then a final pregnant pause.
I really want to say this episode was great, and honestly, two-thirds of it are pretty good. The novelty of seeing an episode without Kirk, where Uhura and especially Sulu get to share the spotlight with Spock was great, and it was especially fun to see the Kzinti in the Star Trek universe. Not only that, but I love the concept of the stasis box, as well as the weapon itself.
But all of that is offset by the execution of the story, with our heroes being repeatedly captured and rendered ineffective. And by episode’s end, the three are merely observers, and really, they could have put any three characters in this story, Star Trek regulars or not. But that’s to be expected, since this was adapted from a non-Star Trek story. We’re not really seeing our beloved characters here, but rather Niven’s own creations dressed up in Star Trek uniforms and faces.
Regardless, Larry Niven is a tremendous science fiction author, and I really can’t say enough about how good he is. He’s not only penned his own novels, but he’s also been involved in outstanding collaborations with other notable sci-fi authors like Jerry Pournelle, Poul Anderson, and Steven Barnes.
As for the Kzinti, they went on to crop up every so often in the Star Trek franchise in subtle ways. Besides an appearance in a Star Trek newspaper comic strip (scripted by Niven himself), they’ve also shown up in video games and novels, and the three-breasted cat woman seen briefly in Star Trek V was described in reference materials as a “kzinretti”, which is close to the name for female Kzinti in Niven’s books. And supposedly, the producers of Enterprise wanted to do a Kzinti episode, but cancellation put an end to those plans. Perhaps that’s for the best. An alien civilization whose one devastating weakness is raw vegetables makes the Ferengi look terrifying.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]