Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “Bem”

“Bem”
Written by David Gerrold
Directed by Bill Reed
Animated Season 2, Episode 2
Production episode 22018
Original air date: September 14, 1974
Stardate: 7403.6

Captain’s log. The Enterprise has taken on Ari bn Bem, a representative from a recently contacted species, as a passenger. He will be observing Starfleet’s exploration and first-contact protocols in action.

Delta Theta III is a planet with some aboriginal life forms. Kirk’s mission is to plant monitoring devices without the locals seeing them. Bem—who has spent the last six missions in his quarters, not noticeably observing much of anything—volunteers to go on this landing party. Kirk is reluctant, but Bem insists, and he beams down along with Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and Sulu.

Bem sets the coordinates, and Kirk and Spock wind up materializing over a body of water. Bem jumps in to offer assistance—but even as Kirk insists they’re all right, Bem’s legs disengage from his torso and walk over to Kirk and Spock, using the water as cover to remove their phasers and communicators, replacing them with fakes.

Uhura reports from the Enterprise that there’s some kind of sensor anomaly on the planet. Kirk orders her to monitor it and keep them posted.

Bem detects life forms nearby—and then inexplicably runs off. He gets through thick underbrush by detaching his body into several independent components. Kirk and Spock go after him, only to find him captured by a group of natives.

Arex reports that the sensor anomaly is increasing in size. Uhura can’t raise Kirk or Spock, nor can the Enterprise detect their communicators. Per Kirk’s orders (and against Scotty’s better judgment), Uhura has Scotty and Sulu beamed back immediately while Arex scans for the captain and first officer.

Kirk and Spock, meanwhile, have discovered that their communicators are fakes. They follow Bem and his captors to their village. They try to rescue Bem—who insists that this is part of his observation—but then are captured themselves. Bem eventually reveals that he has the actual communicators and phasers belonging to Kirk and Spock. He detaches his legs, which hand them back. Kirk is baffled as to why he didn’t escape earlier. Bem says that this allowed him to observe Kirk trying to rescue him. Kirk is livid that Bem is treating this dangerous mission like his personal lab experiment, and places him under arrest.

But first they have to escape the village. When they try to, an alien entity appears and paralyzes the landing party. She says that the natives are her children and she will not let the landing party harm them. The trio are imprisoned once again. Bem declares Kirk to be incompetent and not intelligent. He detaches his head, torso, and legs, uses them to leave his cage, and then wanders off, leaving Kirk and Spock to their own devices.

Kirk contacts the alien entity and offers to leave and warn others to leave the planet alone. The entity agrees as long as the landing party departs. But Kirk can’t leave Bem behind, so he orders Scotty to beam down with a security detail to find Bem—who, it turns out, has again been captured.

Bem realizes he’s erred and claims he must disassociate himself and no longer be a colony creature. But the alien entity convinces him not to do so—yes, he erred, but if he, in essence, kills himself, he can’t learn from his mistakes. Bem is humbled and agrees.

They beam back, and Kirk declares the planet to be quarantined.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Bem is a colony creature made up of three distinctive portions—a set of legs with arms that unfold from the hips, a torso, and a head. The torso and head can apparently float.

Fascinating. When Kirk muses on why they always wind up being captured and put in cages by aliens, Spock’s very un-Vulcan answer is, “Fate.”

Hailing frequencies open. Good week for Nichelle Nichols, as Uhura gets to be in charge of the ship for a while (though they never actually have her sitting in the command chair for some reason) and she also does the voice of the alien entity.

Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu does get to go on the landing party. However, he doesn’t get any lines.

I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty somehow misses that Bem’s landing coordinates will drop Kirk and Spock in the drink.

Forewarned is three-armed. Arex is the one who discovers and tracks the sensor anomaly (which is truly the alien entity that guards the locals).

Go put on a red shirt. The security detail manage to rescue Kirk and Spock from their cages and rescue Bem from his recapture by the natives.

Channel open.

“How come we always end up like this?”

“I assume that’s a rhetorical question, Catpain.”

–Kirk musing over Trek clichés and Spock giving it the response it deserves.

Welcome aboard. Only four people provide voices for the entire episode, as even DeForest Kelley gets the week off. James Doohan voices Scotty and Arex like usual, along with Bem, while Nichelle Nichols voices both Uhura and the alien entity. While Sulu and M’Ress both appear, they have no dialogue.

Trivial matters: David Gerrold originally pitched this story during the third season of the live-action series, but it was rejected. D.C. Fontana bought it for the first season of the animated series, but it was the seventeenth script bought for a sixteen-episode run, and it was left unproduced. When six more episodes were ordered, “Bem” was one of the ones immediately produced, since it was already paid for.

This episode establishes that Kirk’s middle name is “Tiberius.” It would continue to be used in tie-in fiction moving forward (most notably in Gerrold’s own The Galactic Whirlpool, as well as Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), though it wouldn’t be spoken on screen again until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The episode title and guest character’s last name is a play on the old science fiction abbreviation BEM, for bug-eyed monster, a common description of nasty aliens.

To boldly go. “This isn’t my communicator!” Another case where the animated format helps out, as neither Bem nor the natives would look anywhere near as cool in the live-action of the era. I like the fact that the locals are saurian, and nobody comments on it one way or the other, I like Bem’s odd form of speaking that indicates that he’s not speaking his native tongue, and I like the weirdness of his being able to detach body parts that work on their own.

The actual practicalities of Bem’s ability to separate don’t entirely make sense—how do his head and torso just float like that?—but it provides a fun visual, particularly when the legs pick Kirk and Spock’s pockets.

In particular, I like the fact that Bem is, basically, a jerk. Better still, he’s a jerk who gets his comeuppance at the end. And while the shift from overbearing jerk to apologetic depressive at the end is a bit too fast, one can chalk that up to the limited time slot and the kids-show format.

William Shatner is obviously much more comfortable with voiceover work at this stage, as he does a much better job of portraying Kirk’s emotions—notably, his frustrations with Bem’s nonsense—in this second season than he ever managed in the first.

I must confess to having cheered when Uhura lectures Scott on following proper procedure. As I’ve pointed out any number of times, Kirk’s reputation as a maverick who thumbs his nose at the rulebook is entirely an artifact of the movies—usually if someone’s going to break the rules or disobey orders, it’s Scotty (e.g., “A Taste of Armageddon,” “Friday’s Child“), and it’s nice to see Uhura bitchslap him for it. And just in general, it’s good to once again see Uhura in charge, and this time it’s a legitimate thing rather than her just being in charge ’cause it’s the girl episode.

Speaking of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols is also the main saving grace of the alien entity that guards the natives—an addition suggested by Gene Roddenberry, whose fetish for godlike aliens who treat primitive species as their children would continue into the first season of TNG—as she lends that alien a gravitas that I guarantee James Doohan’s gruff line readings would not have provided (cf. his woo-woo voice for the Guardian of Forever in “Yesteryear“). Having said that, I do like the alien calling the Federation on its arrogance to consider classifying planets that aren’t theirs, too. The line between archaeological curiosity and arrogance is a thin one, and it’s one the Federation dances on a lot. Nice to see that acknowledged.

Warp factor rating: 8

Next week:The Practical Joker

Keith R.A. DeCandido is running a Kickstarter for Mermaid Precinct, the long-awaited fifth novel in his fantasy/police procedure series, in which Torin and Danthres will be charged with finding out who murdered the legendary Pirate Queen. Please support it, as there are many nifty rewards, and there will be tons of nifty stretch goals!

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