“The Corbomite Maneuver”
Written by Jerry Sohl
Directed by Joseph Sargent
Season 1, Episode 2
Production episode 6149-03
Original air date: November 10, 1966
Captain’s log: The Enterprise is off mapping an uncharted sector of space. They’ve been at it for three days, and the navigator, Lieutenant Bailey, seems frustrated. Then the helm console alarm goes off, and Sulu reports an object heading toward them. When Sulu takes evasive maneuvers, the object also changes course to remain on an intercept course. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura detects no signal from communications.
They receive visual contact, and it’s a multicolored rotating cube. When Spock orders Sulu to pilot around it, the cube again changes course to block them. Spock puts the ship on alert status, and Kirk is summoned to the bridge. However, the captain is in the midst of his quarterly physical—which, of course, requires him to be bare-chested and sweaty, wah hey!—and so Dr. Leonard McCoy (who has apparently hit the mute button on the alert signal) ignores the flashy red light until Kirk’s done proving he’s a manly manly specimen.
Once Kirk sees the red light, he contacts the bridge. Spock fills him in, then Kirk bitches McCoy out, then leaves sickbay while still shirtless and barefoot, thus allowing everyone in the corridors to get a look at his smooth, glistening chest. He goes to his quarters, puts his shirt on, checks in with the bridge again, and then leaves his quarters with the camera lovingly lingering on his ass as he exits his cabin.
Kirk arrives on the bridge, and gets reports from Spock, Uhura, Bailey, Sulu, Scotty, and McCoy. It all boils down to “it’s a cube, and we don’t know how it works.” Bailey votes to blast it with phasers, prompting Kirk to remind him that it’s not a democracy and he doesn’t get a vote.
Eighteen hours of study, scanning, and speculation later, and they’ve got nothing. Spock speculates that the cube may be “flypaper.” Kirk orders Bailey to plot a spiral course away from it (and not firing on it like the navigator was hoping), but the cube just keeps sticking with the ship, matching its relative position point for point.
Then the cube starts emitting radiation as the Enterprise picks up speed. Kirk orders full stop, but then the cube keeps moving toward them and is still giving off radiation. Continued attempts to shake it at sublight fail, so Kirk goes to warp. Even at warp 3, though, it stays with them, getting closer and closer and giving off lethal doses of radiation. Kirk orders Bailey to train phasers on the cube and fire.
The cube is destroyed, the damage to the ship minor and repairable. Kirk decides to forge ahead, to try to find whoever sent the cube. He also orders Sulu and Bailey to run battle and evasive simulations, as he was unsatisfied with their performance (well, really Bailey’s performance). Kirk leaves the bridge, accompanied by McCoy, who thinks he might have promoted Bailey too fast, that he may not be ready for the responsibility of chief navigator. The pair of them share a drink in Kirk’s quarters, and then Yeoman Janice Rand brings him lunch—a dietary salad, as ordered by McCoy, to Kirk’s surprise, as his weight was up a few pounds.
Lunch, however, is interrupted by another object, much larger, heading for the Enterprise. Kirk returns to the bridge to find that the object is made of the same material as the cube. This is a sphere that is several orders of magnitude bigger than the Enterprise, and which traps the ship in a tractor beam. This time there’s communication: the ship is called the Fesarius, from the First Federation, its shipmaster is named Balok, and he sounds pissed. They ignored the warning buoy and are obviously from a savage, primitive race. The Fesarius conducts an intense, invasive scan of the ship, and then determines that they must be destroyed. (Balok also destroys a recorder marker Kirk orders sent out to warn other ships about the First Federation.) Balok gives them ten minutes to make peace with themselves.
Kirk instead makes an encouraging speech to the crew, reminding them that fear of the unknown is often their greatest enemy, and also that any species capable of creating a civilization is at least capable of understanding their peaceful intent. He then tells Balok that they had no intention to trespass and promises to leave the area. However, engines won’t respond. Spock manages to track back the communication to get a visual feed, and they see Balok as a big, bald imposing dude with bug eyes.
Bailey—who has been so stunned that he barely heard his last three orders, two of which had to be carried out by Sulu instead—suddenly has a total breakdown, frustrated that the crew isn’t responding with sufficient emotion to their impending doom. Kirk finally relieves him of duty, ordering McCoy to escort him to his quarters.
Kirk then tries again to talk to Balok, saying that they had to destroy the buoy to preserve their own lives, but Balok just says they’ve got seven minutes left.
As the clock ticks down, Spock says he has no recommendations. In chess, he says, when one is outmatched, one resigns the game to avoid the inevitable checkmate. McCoy then returns to the bridge, reiterating that he thinks Bailey was promoted too soon, worked too hard. He says he’ll put in his medical log that he warned Kirk, and that’s no bluff.
At first, Kirk snaps at McCoy, and then Balok says there’s three minutes left. Kirk calms down and says he hopes they have time to argue about it. Then the word bluff hooks into Kirk’s mind, and he says, “Not chess, Spock—poker.”
He then tells Balok that their respect for other lifeforms requires that he warn them about the “corbomite” device that has been emplaced in all Earth ships for two hundred years. Any destructive power visited upon the ship is reflected back on the attacker by the “corbomite,” and has always resulted in the annihilation of the attacking ship.
McCoy and Kirk apologize to each other for the shitty timing of their argument. With half a minute left, Bailey returns to the bridge and asks permission to return to post.
Sulu counts down the last ten seconds (he must love New Year’s Eve parties), and then nothing happens. The bluff was successful. Balok announces a stay of execution pending examination of the “corbomite.” Kirk doesn’t respond immediately—“let him sweat for a change”—and then finally replies with two words: “Request denied.”
A much smaller vessel flies out of the bigger sphere and its tractor beam takes over, towing the Enterprise to a world in the First Federation that can sustain humanoid life. After a bit of a show of resignation, Kirk tries to break out of the tractor beam, hoping the smaller ship has less power to spare than the big-ass one. The engines are strained to the point of almost exploding from overheating, and then they break free.
Once they’re free, Uhura reports a weak signal coming from Balok, asking for help from the mothership. The signal is sufficiently weak that the mothership probably didn’t even pick it up. Kirk immediately orders the Enterprise to come to the aid of the aliens. He takes McCoy to treat the aliens if needed, and Bailey, to whom Kirk feels he owes a look at the face of the unknown. (Spock requests permission to go along, but Kirk wants him on the Enterprise in case it’s a trap.)
The trio are greeted by a very tiny alien and an animatronic puppet. The latter projected the image of Balok, while the little guy is the real Balok. He offers them all a drink and explains that the whole thing was a test to make sure they were civilized. Balok travels alone, and he’s grown lonely. He proposes an exchange of information and culture by having an envoy. Bailey volunteers to be that envoy, and then Balok gives him a tour of the ship.
Fascinating: While Spock’s species still hasn’t been identified by name, his status as a half-human hybrid is established here, as he says a) that Balok reminds him of his father (which is amusing in retrospect, since Balok looks nothing like Mark Lenard) and b) in response to Scotty saying, “Then heaven help your mother,” says that she considered herself a very fortunate Earth woman.
Plus, more shouty Spock! He bellows orders at a high volume—and then, hilariously, castigates Bailey for raising his voice unnecessarily.
I’m a doctor not an escalator: Apparently the original intended catchphrase for McCoy was “I never said that” when someone quotes a comment he made back at him, but it didn’t stick. The embryonic form of the catchphrase he did wind up with is uttered after Kirk complains that he didn’t tell Kirk about the alert: “What am I, a doctor or a moon-shuttle conductor?” Then, after Kirk leaves, and he’s alone in the room, he mutters, “If I jumped every time a light went off around here I’d start talking to myself.”
Ahead warp one, aye: Sulu is at his more familiar position of helmsman, where he’ll remain for the rest of the series (and all but one of the movies in which the character appears, the exception being the one where he’s the captain of his own ship).
Hailing frequencies open: In Uhura’s debut episode, 90% of her dialogue are the three words that make up this category title, generally in response to Kirk’s request for ship-to-ship communications. Given how often Kirk tries to talk to Balok and how often Balok ignores him or hangs up on him, this is perhaps not surprising, but she definitely wins the Repeated Dialogue Award for this episode…
I cannot change the laws of physics!: Scotty does absolutely nothing to justify his title of chief engineer in this episode. No, seriously, the one time he actually is doing his job as chief, he throws up his hands and says he has no frapping clue what makes the cube tick. Otherwise he just stands around and makes snotty comments about Sulu’s countdown and Spock’s parents. He does operate the transporter to beam them over to Balok’s ship, but that’s it.
No sex, please, we’re Starfleet: Kirk bitches to McCoy about being assigned a female yeoman, thus—as with Pike’s reaction to Colt in “The Cage”—reminding us that this was made in the mid-1960s. (Oddly, Kirk didn’t seem to have a problem with Smith/Jones in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”) McCoy’s response is to ask if he doesn’t trust himself. Kirk doesn’t actually answer that question, instead saying he’s already got a female to care for: the Enterprise.
In addition, Kirk’s first three scenes are all ones that emphasize William Shatner’s sex appeal: shirtless, sweaty, and that lingering ass shot as he leaves his quarters.
Channel open: “Raising my voice back there doesn’t mean I was scared or couldn’t do my job. It means I happen to have a human thing called an adrenaline gland.”
“It does sound most inconvenient, however. Have you considered having it removed?”
“You try to cross brains with Spock, he’ll cut you to pieces every time.”
Bailey showing his lack of anatomy knowledge (it’s the adrenal gland), Spock saying “Bazinga,” and Sulu pointing out that Bailey should not go into a battle of wits unarmed.
Welcome aboard: James Doohan (Scotty) and George Takei (Sulu) are back and we get the debuts of other recurring regulars DeForest Kelley (McCoy), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), and Grace Lee Whitney (Rand). In addition, Anthony Call guest stars as Bailey, Ted Cassidy does an uncredited turn as the voice of the fake Balok, and Walker Edmiston does an equally uncredited turn as the voice of the real Balok, overdubbing a six-year-old Clint Howard, who plays the real Balok.
Cassidy will return in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” as Ruk and will lend his voice once again to the Gorn captain in “Arena.” Edmiston, a famous voiceover artist, will return half a dozen times to provide voice work on the show. As an adult, Howard will return to Trek by appearing as Grady in Deep Space Nine’s “Past Tense, Part II” and Muk in Enterprise’s “Acquisition.”
Trivial matters: This episode was produced first but aired tenth in part due to the considerable amount of post-production work required on it.
The red operations/security uniforms debut in this episode (Scotty wears that color, as does Rand), as do the “miniskirt” uniforms for women. Uhura is wearing command gold here and in “Mudd’s Women” before changing to her more familiar red in “The Man Trap.”
In this episode, we get a from-the-captain’s-chair shot of the screen and the navigation console. It’s clearly Sulu at the helm, but only the navigator’s left shoulder and arm can be seen. A similar shot a few seconds later has Sulu turning to look back at the captain. These two shots would be recycled a lot over the course of the next three years…
Bailey appears in the novel My Brother’s Keeper: Constitution by Michael Jan Friedman and the comic book Spock: Reflections by Scott & David Tipton and David Messina (both taking place prior to this episode) and in the comic book Debt of Honor by Chris Claremont and Adam Hughes and the short story “Ambassador at Large” by J.A. Rosales in Strange New Worlds (both taking place after this episode). In addition, the First Federation has been seen and referenced in the “Shatnerverse” novels written by William Shatner and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens and in the Seekers novel series by David Mack, Dayton Ward, and Kevin Dilmore.
Quark will serve tranya in his bar on Deep Space Nine (e.g., in the episode “Facets”).
To boldly go: “End of watch? It’s the end of everything!” This works very nicely as an introduction to the series as it would be going forward, which makes its placement tenth in the airing order all the more frustrating. We get an establishing shot of the ship, are introduced to the main characters, who all get stuff to do, and we get a good look at the Enterprise’s mission to seek out new life and the difficulties of a first contact.
What’s particularly nice is the sense of community, carried over from “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Sulu’s teasing of Bailey after Spock cuts him down to size, Scotty’s snide commentary, Rand using a phaser to heat coffee, McCoy’s banter with Kirk, Kirk and Spock’s relaxed friendship (I particularly like Spock sardonically pointing out Kirk’s inefficiency in asking Spock for advice on decisions he’s already made, not to mention Spock’s reluctant admitting to having no mojo for the final confrontation with Balok), and so on.
In particular, I like how the episode shows that these are professionals, in particular by giving us one person who’s spectacularly unprofessional in Bailey. In a lot of ways, this is the best way to introduce this crew: they’re the ones out there seeking out new life and new civilizations because they’re good at it. They’re not panicking about the Fesarius because encountering the Fesarius and its ilk is part of the job description.
Having said all this, the episode has its flaws. Kirk’s a bit quick to forgive Balok for exposing them all to lethal radiation and threatening to blow them up (of course, he’s so cuuuuuute! How can they resist????), Anthony Call’s Bailey is way too broad, and the episode is ultimately long stretches of people talking to each other with very little action. The latter is actually a feature, not a bug, as far as I’m concerned, but it does lead to some pacing problems. In particular, the sequence when the Enterprise breaks free of the tractor beam goes on more than a little bit too long…
Warp factor rating: 7
Next week: “Mudd’s Women”
Keith R.A. DeCandido’s next two out-of-town public appearances will be at (Re)Generation Who in Hunt Valley, Maryland (along with Doctors Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and, via Skype, Tom Baker, as well as dozens of other Who actors and writers) at the end of March and at Treklanta in Atlanta, Georgia (along with actors Jason Carter, Anne Lockhart, and Sean Kenney, as well as dozens of fan film folk and artists and musicians and performers and such) at the end of April.