I realize that I have been largely using this feature to make fun of the original series and some of the creakier aspects of it. Well, I do that largely out of love for the show. I may not always love every aspect of the show, but between this and the weekday Doctor Who write-ups, I think it should be obvious I do enjoy this older TV sci-fi.
But as much as I do seem to make jokes or just notice the stuff that really hasn’t aged well, when the show does something right, it does it really right. “The Corbomite Maneuver” may be a textbook example on how to do a tense episode of sci-fi.
Look at how this one plays out. The Enterprise is mapping stars when it comes across a glowing cube blocking its path. Kirk tries evasive maneuvers, but eventually, he orders the phasers to blow it up. Then a much larger, spherical ship shows up, claiming to be the flagship of the “First Federation.” Its captain, Balok, is angry because the cube was a warning beacon. Because the Enterprise attacked, Balok will destroy the Enterprise in exactly ten minutes.
What makes this episode work as well as it does is Kirk. Captain Kirk basically proves here why he’s the captain. While various crewmembers react in different ways, Kirk is basically there to figure out a way out of this mess from the moment the cube first appears.
By contrast, there’s a crewman named Bailey. He’s set up as a contrast for the episode. Bailey wants action during the star mapping scenes at the start of the episode and is ready to shoot the phasers from the moment Kirk suggests action. Dr. McCoy feels that Bailey may not cut out for this sort of stuff, and McCoy isn’t wrong. Bailey seems to be the lone crewman to panic, even as the rest of the crew seems to mostly go about its duty. Heck, Rand seems to be bound and determined to serve Kirk his meals (salads following McCoy’s recommend following Kirk’s physical). McCoy seems more concerned with Bailey’s mental health, but Kirk, well, he’s under pressure to save the ship.
And he does, in a manner that reminds me a bit of Wrath of Khan. there, Kirk outsmarts the much-smarter Khan simply by knowing what a starship can do better than the genius from the past. Here, Kirk just knows what the Enterprise can do better than Balok. Kirk basically gets an idea from McCoy to bluff, making up a mechanism (the Corbomite) that supposedly will redirect any deadly attack back on the attacker. From there, Kirk basically does his job very, very well. The more Kirk does, the more the tension lessens.
Fortunately, the Corbomite lie works, so Balok sends a smaller ship to tow the Enterprise somewhere and deposit the crew on a planet they could survive on before destroying the ship. Kirk thinks of another way out of that. But by now, the threat is shrinking. Since Balok has already backed off from killing the crew, the sense of how dangerous he might be is already lessened. He went from killing everyone in ten minutes to just stranding them somewhere to eke out a living.
And then Kirk shows that Star Trek idealism. Bailey, banished from the bridge during his breakdown, returns and is allowed to resume his station. Kirk shows understanding. And when Balok’s ship sends a distress signal, Kirk opts to beam himself, McCoy, and Bailey over there to help and show how compassionate humans are. I could see a lot of shows maybe showing the heroes not going that route, but then again, a lot of shows might not take this route at all. Kirk’s humanity saves the day, not violence, but intelligence and compassion. He shows understanding to a crewman, and his decisions lead to a nice reveal.
Balok may be one of the more impressive aliens Star Trek ever came up with. The weird, warped face is a bit creepy, almost intimidating for the era and its special effects. Ted Cassidy’s voice helps sell the scary, too. But then it turns out that Balok was a puppet. The real Balok is a small, friendly alien. A very young Clint Howard with his lines dubbed by someone else plays Balok. That’s coo. Everything is better with Clint Howard. The whole encounter was all a test. Balok was lonely, but he didn’t want just anybody to keep him company. And what better choice than Bailey to help him become a better man himself?
This was just a really well-rounded episode. Aside from Rand’s lunch serving ways, there wasn’t much that seemed a bit too weird to me. It was a showcase for the Kirk character, and it worked.