Star Trek 1.10: The Corbomite Maneuver

The Corbomite ManeuverBefore launching into this one, I had to decide whether to change the spelling to Australian English, or use the original American spelling of this episode title: “The Corbomite Maneuver“. I chose to preserve the latter. This is, I believe, one of the more memorable and famous episodes of Star Trek, and for good reason. The story is solid and suspenseful, and there are some strong character moments, sprinkled with the right amount of humour. There’s a truly memorable alien being in Balok, both in appearance and manner. And finally there’s the reveal, which is surprising and interesting if you’ve never seen it before.

My first written note as I watched this episode (yes, I’m scrawling notes to remind myself) was that the opening shot of the bridge was a very nice overhead shot – an unusual angle which we don’t often see. It shows off the layout and construction of the bridge in an interesting way. This shot is followed later by an obvious hand-held shot following Kirk as he enters the bridge. It’s the first time I’ve noticed a hand-held shot in the episodes so far. There may have been others, but this one stood out because I was keeping an eye out for the cinematography now. It’s interesting because despite this being shown as episode 10 of the series, it was in fact the third episode produced. Perhaps the early directors were more experimental with their camera work and it settled down a bit later on. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

Being an early episode, this one also takes pains to make sure we see Kirk without his shirt on. We first see him undergoing a routine medical exam in sickbay, performing an endurance exercise. When Spock calls him to the bridge to deal with the impending crisis, Kirk walks out and stalks the corridors of his ship in manly fashion, with sweat dripping off him and his shirt flung carelessly over a shoulder. When your captain patrols the ship with his shirt off, you know he means business.

The crisis in question is some sort of cubic space buoy, which manoeuvres (there, got the Australian spelling in) in front of the Enterprise to keep it pinned in space. Sulu quotes its size as 107 metres on each side, and having a mass of just under 11,000 metric tonnes. This allows me to calculate that its density is just under 9 kilograms per cubic metre. This implies that it’s probably hollow, but later Scotty states that it must be solid metal, with no room for any mechanisms inside, so he can’t explain how it could be moving around. I’m guessing that – if they thought about this at all – they were aiming for a density of 9000 kilograms per cubic metre, which is a bit higher than solid iron, but someone dropped a factor of a thousand somewhere. (Not that hard to do if you’re thinking in terms of tonnes per cubic metre instead of kilograms. Or vice versa.)

Navigator Bailey demonstrates a nervous trigger-happiness, which turns into a full scale breakdown after the Enterprise destroys the buoy and encounters a much bigger ship. This big ship is commanded by an alien named Balok, who holds the Enterprise in a powerful tractor beam and threatens the ship with destruction. The character moment here is when McCoy reminds Kirk that he promoted Bailey, too early in McCoy’s opinion and based on Kirk’s recognition of Bailey as a younger version of himself. Kirk relieves Bailey, but Bailey dutifully recomposes himself and returns later.

There’s another character moment with Yeoman Rand, which is sad in light of the off-screen events after the filming of 1.8 “Miri” that led to her departure form the series. Here she is seen fussing over Kirk, and after she leaves he states his displeasure in being assigned a female yeoman, saying, “I’ve already got a female to worry about. Her name’s the Enterprise.” The writers were really setting up Kirk and Rand to have an interestingly complex ongoing relationship, which was dashed before it had a chance to develop properly.

Balok grants the crew “ten of your Earth time periods known as minutes” to make peace with whatever deities they believe in, before he destroys the Enterprise. Spock and Kirk engage in a chess analogy, with Spock pointing out they are defeated by superior strength, checkmated, before Kirk uses the memorable line: “Not chess Mr Spock. Poker.” Thus is born the Corbomite Device, a spectacular bluff which Balok is unwilling to call. We’ve seen it a million times since, but this episode is where the tense bluff situation really first hit the big time.

Kirk then tries to break free of Balok’s tractor beam with some fancy engine work, overloading them way beyond Scotty’s warnings. We are treated to some shots of random crew members being slammed into walls in the ship’s corridors. You’d think the captain would warn his crew to brace or something when attempting violent manoeuvres, but no. Anyway, this succeeds in overloading Balok’s tractor beam and crippling his ship. Rather than leave him, Kirk decides on a mercy mission and beams over with McCoy and Bailey to save Balok. Scotty tells them to bend over, because scans indicate the beaming arrival area has a low ceiling, which brings up several interesting questions concerning what would have happened if they hadn’t bent over.

I won’t give away the twist in the ending, but will say that Balok was actually testing the humans to see if they were morally worthy, and everything ends swimmingly. It’s kind of a sleazy test on his part though, as he really had the Enterprise sweating for a while, so there’s a bit of a question as to Balok’s own moral cleanliness. Nevertheless, one can overlook that niggle in an otherwise top notch episode.

Trivia for those who know Balok – the same actor appeared many years later as a human in an episode of Deep Space Nine and as a Ferengi in an episode of Enterprise!

Body count: None!
Tropes: Readings Are Off The Scale (literally!), Writers Cannot Do Math, Tractor Beam, Puny Earthlings, You Have No Chance To Survive, Trigger Happy, Chess Motifs, Magic Countdown, Take A Third Option, Attack Reflector, The Man Behind The Curtain, Secret Test, One Scene Wonder.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

One Response to “Star Trek 1.10: The Corbomite Maneuver”

  1. Robyn says:

    Thanks for the math. I never bothered to do it.

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