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Just finished watching Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode 4 Memento Mori. This one has elements of Balance of Terror which actually closely mapped to the 1957 submarine film The Enemy Below starring Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens. During World War Two, “an American destroyer discovers a German U-boat, and in the ensuing duel the American captain must draw upon all his experience to defeat the equally experienced German commander.”
Bonus points because David Hedison (as Al Hedison) had a role in the movie. He later played Captain Lee Crane of the nuclear submarine Seaview in the 1960s Irwin Allen TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
As a child, I watched this film before Star Trek debuted, so when I saw Balance of Terror, I immediately recognized how writers Paul Schneider and Gene Roddenberry had “borrowed” from the movie’s plot.
At the beginning of the episode, we see scenes from prior shows revealing things about La’an, Uhura, and Hemmer.
Uhura is doing her engineering rotation and Hemmer is critical of her. Then again, he’s critical of everyone, so that’s not saying much. The Enterprise is taking a very powerful, very dangerous, and highly glorified air filter to the colony world Finibus 3 before their air becomes unbreathable. Heck of a place to settle down.
It’s also Star Fleet Remembrance Day, the day when people wear the insignia of ships they previously served on and lost friends and comrades. La’an’s colony vessel was the USS Puget Sound when she was a child, where she encountered the Gorn. She refuses to wear it.
As an aside, in the original Star Trek episode Arena, we first encounter the Gorn, a reptilian race, and Kirk has a one-on-one duel with a Gorn ship captain. Up until this show, this is the only time we’ve seen or heard of the Gorn on screen. I suspect they’ve been reimaged to be more like the xenomorphs in Alien (1979).
Arriving at the colony world, communications are down. A brown dwarf orbiting a black hole is nearby (like I said, heck of a place to settle – black holes only get bigger as they consume matter, so I wouldn’t want to live on a planet anywhere near one) which they thought might be interfering, but it’s really that the colony’s communication satellite is destroyed.
Una leads a landing party and they find utter devastation. The only thing alive is an upset dog. There’s massive blood but no bodies.
The Enterprise detects a ship in orbit and beams up the landing party. The ship contains about a hundred survivors who are injured, confused, and can’t offer an explanation as to what happened. They took refuge in a ship designed to haul nuclear material so they can’t be beamed out. The Enterprise constructs a bridge between the two ships and they offload the survivors.
One little girl tells La’an that the monsters who took her Daddy are coming. She didn’t see them but imitated their sounds. Now La’an knows what they’re dealing with. She tells the Captain to scan for a polarized EM shift. One is detected on a nearby moon. She tells them to raise shields but they can’t with the Enterprise still attached to the other vessel. Pike actually says “Oh no” out loud.
A ship attacked beating the Enterprise’s pants off before she has a chance. La’an regains consciousness in sickbay but she seems to be fine. Number One isn’t and tells her to get to the bridge. La’an is made temporary first officer and tells Pike that their only chance is to withdraw and regroup. Spock suggests the nearby Brown Dwarf.
The Brown Dwarf is also referred to as a gas giant in the episode which is confusing. A brown dwarf is basically a failed star, an object with a mass roughly 75 times that of Jupiter which did not reach “stable luminosities by thermonuclear fusion of normal hydrogen.” You can learn more about them at Quantamagazine.org or do your own Google search.
For the sake of argument, let’s say you can enter the atmosphere of a brown dwarf and pretend it’s a gas giant. This is all very Kobayashi Maru, very Mutara Nebula as per Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (speaking of La’an).
If the Enterprise goes to deep (below “crush depth”), it will be destroyed, but if it leaves, the Gorn will see and destroy them.
Meanwhile, during the attack, Hemmer and Uhura were trapped in the main cargo bay. The “air filter’s” coolant system has failed. If it explodes, it will take out the Enterprise. Hemmer’s hands are crushed, so of course, he has to talk Uhura through the repairs. Oh, the exits are blocked and they can’t be beamed out.
Sickbay is pretty much down. All of the 23rd century tech is useless, so M’Benga and Chapel have to treat patients manually, at least as long as their supplies last. Una collapses and it looks like she’s got some pretty good sized holes in her abdomen. She needs surgery and does Chapel know how to sew?
By the way, if all sickbay’s electronic and technological systems are down, does that include the emergency medical transporter? If so, does that mean there’s nothing to keep M’Benga’s daughter’s pattern (see the previous episode) from decaying? He doesn’t mention it and seems totally unconcerned. Or the writers forgot to include that detail.
As the Enterprise “escapes” into the Brown Dwarf, we finally see explosions of bridge consoles. Guess those fuses didn’t work out after all. At one point Pike asks about running on impulse and La’an says something about one of the nacelles taking moderate damage.
The nacelles are used to generate the warp field that drives the ship faster than light. They have absolutely nothing to do with the impulse engines which are basically fusion plasma drives located on the back of the saucer section. Oops.
They have exactly one photon torpedo available but in the Brown Dwarf, they can’t fire it. They do discover that although sensors don’t work, they can track the movement of atmospheric gasses which gives them a kind of sonar. There’s a few tense moments when the Gorn ship is coming right for them. If the Enterprise moves, the Gorn will detect them, so they hold on and hope. Of course, there’s no collision and the Gorn can’t see them…for now.
At this point, Pike’s best advice is to “be vigilant and be creative.“ He seems content to rely on his crew’s skills without giving any meaningful orders.
They get above the Gorn ship and basically drop the torpedo on them as if it were a bomb. But gravity isn’t the only factor involved. It’s the relative movement of both ships, the atmospheric movement, density, and temperature, and a thousand other things that would make the torpedo miss. The torpedo should have missed.
Naturally it hits because the plot required it. One ship down, but three more are advancing, including a really big one.
Pike’s solution is to take the Enterprise deeper and risk being crushed. They evacuate the lower decks but of course, not everyone is out before they have to seal the bulkheads. Another wounded crew pushes Chief Kyle through the doors just before they shut and is killed for his kindness. Yes, another submarine trope. The show is full of them, including Ortega’s cute and archaic quips.
The Enterprise can’t take much more and Pike stops his dive. He expects to be boarded and orders the crew to prepare for close combat. However before that happens, one of the Gorn ships implodes. Pike used the relentlessness of the Gorn as a tactic. The first really “Captain” thing he’s done all episode.
La’an suggests using a shuttle to scout the area. The Brown Dwarf is being consumed by the black hole too quickly and they need a way out. Spock goes with her. They observe the two surviving Gorn ships and the lights they shine between them triggers a memory.
With the help of a Vulcan mind meld, Spock visits her childhood memories of horror in a Gorn feeding chamber. Long and hideous story short, La’an’s brother sacrificed himself for his little sister’s (played by Ava Cheung) survival, also giving her his translation of the Gorn language (under the circumstances, when had he been able to do that?).
Side note: In the original episode Dagger of the Mind, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must mind meld with Dr. Simon van Gelder (Morgan Woodward) to unlock secrets buried by a malicious psychological device. Spock makes a huge deal about how dangerous it is, how it requires pressure changes and such. It’s quite an effort.
As the years and decades went by, Vulcans mind melded with no more concern than turning on a light or shaking hands. But this is a younger, less sophisticated version of Spock. This is also 2022. Oh well.
In the cargo bay, Uhura thinks she’s got fixing the device so it doesn’t explode knocked and tries to help Hemmer not go into shock. However, whatever she did didn’t work. The only thing now would be to depressurize the bay and blow the device into space. Problem is, Hemmer and Uhura would go with it.
La’an remembers her “language lessons” and using low level phasers, sends a message to the large Gorn vessel that the smaller ship has been overrun by humans. The big ship destroys the little ship. Only one left. They return the shuttlecraft Galileo (yes, that one) to the Enterprise.
Pike and Spock come up with the idea of a slingshot course around the black hole. The red shift effect would visually give the impression that the Enterprise was in a different location. But then need an explosion to make it good. Pike plans to depressurize the cargo bay and send that very dangerous air filter into space at just the right moment. To that end, Hemmer and Uhura put on spacesuits and tether themselves to the inside to the bay.
Actually there is a scene in the Next Generation episode Disaster where LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Crusher (Gates McFadden) are trapped in a cargo bay with barrels of a substance that will explode when exposed to radiation. There’s a plasma fire and the only way to put it out and get rid of the barrels is to depressurize the bay. They find some equipment to hold onto, but stupidly the depressurization and pressurization controls are located at opposite ends. Who designs things like that? Who makes two scenes in two different Star Trek shows that are so similar?
Anyway, Ortega says that if this works, it will go down in history as the “Pike Maneuver.” I hope we never hear that again.
In sickbay, Una’s surgery is mostly successful but she still needs to have one more piece of shrapnel removed and it’ll require a lot of plasma. They only have so much. Then, another patient needs it and Una orders the Doctor to give it her that person.
Especially in sickbay and in any medical situation, the Doctor’s authority is absolute. He can even give orders to the Captain. But he knuckles under and Una may well perish.
Before they begin, Pike gives an absolutely thrilling speech to the ship that rivals the one he gave in the pilot episode. For once, he really was the Captain body and soul. Oh, kudos to the writers for NOT having Pike obsess about his ultimate and ghastly fate in this episode.
Then the “hit it.” I have no idea how the physics would work in this and all my Google searches were for naught. I’ll have to assume that what the show depicted would have actually worked (no way to test it) because we see the Enterprise disappear near the black hole’s event horizon, a big explosion, and Gorn ship leaving, and the Enterprise shooting out the other side.
There was a tense thirty seconds or so when Pike couldn’t bring up the comm to the cargo bay, but then Uhura responds that they’re okay. Pike bends over grasping his knees, so obviously relieved, I thought he’d puke. It was an extremely human response, but I don’t think I ever saw Jim Kirk do anything quite that dramatic.
M’Benga solves the plasma problem by giving a transfusion to Una. Good thing they have compatible blood types, especially since he’s human and she’s a genetically modified Illyrian. Also, he’s standing, apparently treating a patient, and we see the transfusion tube extending from his upper arm to Una. Who gives a blood transfusion standing up, moving around, and doing work? He’d be lightheaded at least and might even pass out. Doesn’t this show have access to a medical consultant or even someone who’s donated blood?
Seven crew members died during the mission but the ship survived. We see Pike reviewing the seven caskets or photon torpedo cases or whatever (remember Spock was launched into space after his death in “Wrath of Khan”). La’an puts on the badge of the Puget Sound. She also frets to Pike about the next time they encounter the Gorn. He says they’ll be ready.
Famous last words?
Here’s my three-minute or less TikTok review. Unfortunately, I repeated myself in it, but what the heck. Another “Wrath” reference says “We learn by doing.”
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