Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “The Practical Joker”

“The Practical Joker”
Written by Chuck Menville
Directed by Bill Reed
Animated Season 2, Episode 3
Production episode 22021
Original air date: September 21, 1974
Stardate: 3183.3

Captain’s log. The Enterprise is finishing its asteroid mapping expedition 72 hours ahead of schedule. As they approach the last asteroid, they’re ambushed by three Romulan ships. The Romulan commander insists that the Enterprise violated the Romulan border, which Kirk denies.

Sulu detects an energy field—one not on Spock’s charts—and Kirk has him fly through it in the hopes of losing the Romulans, at which it succeeds.

Later, in the captain’s mess, Scotty reports that the repairs are proceeding apace. McCoy toasts their narrow escape, and everyone’s drink spills on their tunics, and Kirk’s fork becomes flaccid. McCoy figures it’s a practical joke like they used to do in medical school, but since everyone was affected, and no one’s taking credit, it could be a glitch in the food synthesizers.

The practical jokes continue. Spock gets dark circles around his eyes from a microscope that inexplicably shows up on his console, Scotty is buried in a ton of food in the mess hall, culminating in a pie in the face, the captain’s uniform has “KIRK IS A JERK” stitched onto the back, and a deck has been covered in ice.

They also keep hearing a specific laugh over the intercom. Spock hypothesizes that it’s the ship’s computer, mainly because the laugh over the intercom is the same voice as that of the ship’s computer. (And also the same voice as Chapel and M’Ress, but we’ll let that go…)

McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura head to the rec deck to relax off duty. Sulu programs a walk in the woods. Spock calls all personnel to their stations, but the call doesn’t make it through to the rec deck. And the trio become victims of a practical joke in the rec deck.

Kirk has Spock query the computer as to why the three on the rec deck are incommunicado, and the computer proceeds to snark off both Spock and Kirk. Kirk orders Scotty to disable the computer’s logic functions, but before he can, the computer reverses gravity. Once Scotty vacates the computer room, via crawling on the ceiling, gravity is back to normal.

On the rec deck, the computer changes the setting from a pleasant woodland to an arctic blizzard in order to “cool off” their anger. They can’t see anything, including the console or the exit, so they simply move in a single direction until they reach a wall.

Security can’t get through the rec deck doors, but just as Kirk is about to have Scotty send a work crew there, everyone (except Spock, of course) starts laughing. The computer is pumping nitrous oxide into the air. Spock manages to kill the air circulation, but now they have a ticking clock—the air will run out in six hours.

Scotty’s work crew can’t get the rec deck doors open with power tools, but they manage to crowbar the doors apart and rescue McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura.

Spock’s theory is that the energy field they went through gave the computer the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Scotty tries to shut down the engines, but all controls are frozen out, and the computer changes course back toward the Romulan Neutral Zone. The three Romulan ships detect them and move to intercept—but then the computer kicks out the giant inflatable Enterprise decoy (just go with it), which gives the Romulans pause.

Kirk realizes that the computer is playing a joke on the Romulans. They attack the decoy and destroy it, only to discover that it’s a fake. The Romulans again move to intercept the Enterprise.

Suddenly, Kirk seems to be gripped with fear of the energy field. He expresses how incredibly scared he is of it, which prompts the computer to head straight for it. Going through it a second time resets the computer back to its normal self, er, somehow, and all is right with the world.

Well, except for the Romulans who tried to follow the Enterprise through the field. Now their computer is playing practical jokes on them…

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Apparently the energy field can fritz a computer to the point where it develops a cruel sense of humor—and a second exposure somehow reverses it because plot.

Fascinating. Though he gives no specifics, Spock is genuinely worried about the effects nitrous oxide will have on his Vulcan physiology.

I’m a doctor, not an escalator. McCoy succumbs to the arctic cold in the rec deck before Uhura and Sulu do, and he asks Kirk to turn up the heat on the ship even after they’re rescued.

Hailing frequencies open. Uhura is trapped on the rec deck, so M’Ress handles communications while she’s stuck.

Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu is the one who finds the energy field, which gets them away from the Romulans but causes all the episode’s problems, so mixed blessing there, helmsman…

I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty talks sweet to the ship when they’re trying to escape, then bitches the ship out once the jokes start.

Forewarned is three-armed. Oddly, Arex is seen sitting in the captain’s chair at one point, even though both Spock and Sulu are on the bridge.

Go put on a red shirt. Security can’t get the rec deck door open at first, but eventually they pry it open with a crowbar.

Channel open.

“Captain Kirk, look behind you!”

“Really, M’Ress, you’re going to have to be a little more clever than that.”

–M’Ress warning Kirk about the iced deck and Kirk being paranoid.

Welcome aboard. An unknown voice actor does the Romulan commander, James Doohan does his usual Scotty and Arex along with a couple of the extras, with George Takei as Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, and Majel Barrett as M’Ress.

Trivial matters: The rec deck is a prototype of the holodeck that TNG introduced in “Encounter at Farpoint,” although future productions will ignore this particular innovation on Kirk’s Enterprise, speaking of holodeck technology as if it was new to the 24th century.

The inflatable starship decoy will be seen again in John M. Ford’s Trek novel How Much for Just the Planet?

While the Romulan commander does not specify when the Enterprise invaded Romulan space, it’s possible that he was referring to one of the previous times the ship entered Romulan territory and did not actually get punished for it: “The Deadly Years,” “The Enterprise Incident,” or “The Way to Eden.”

To boldly go. “Say pretty please with sugar on.” Parts of this episode are enjoyable. I like the idea of the holographic rec deck—and so did other people, since it became part of every Star Trek spinoff series that took place in this episode’s future. I freely admit that Kirk walking around the ship with KIRK IS A JERK on his back appeals to my sense of the absurd. I like seeing the crew relaxing on their off-hours—the senior staff dining together, Arex and M’Ress eating together and inviting Scotty to join them, McCoy, Sulu, and Uhura going on the rec deck together. And nobody ever went wrong with a pie-in-the-face joke.

But man, what a mess the episode is. My theory in the Trivial Matters section notwithstanding, there’s no reason given why the Romulans attack in the first place. The jokes are all incredibly unimaginative and very basic stuff. The dark-eyes-from-the-microscope thing doesn’t even make sense in the setting. (Why would there be a microscope on Spock’s console? How’d a disembodied computer even get it there?) They’re just variations on contemporary pranks, and not particularly interesting ones. Plus, there’s the completely absurd giant inflatable Enterprise decoy that the Romulans somehow don’t realize is a giant balloon until after they fire on it. I can’t even…

Also, the episode is particularly done in by the nature of how the voices are filmed. Group laughter works better when everyone’s together laughing with each other. Here, the laughter is obviously everyone recorded laughing separately, and it makes the whole thing incredibly awkward.

And then there’s the giant inflatable Enterprise decoy. Seriously.

While the solution in the abstract shows Kirk being clever, in reality there’s no evidence, none, to support the notion that flying through the energy field a second time would reverse the process and make everything better. In fact, based on how Spock describes the damage, it would make things considerably worse. And there’s no reason to assume that Romulan computers would even respond the same way.

Basically, it’s a lame excuse for a series of lame practical jokes, and it ultimately doesn’t work. Especially what with having a giant inflatable Enterprise decoy. Seriously, why the heck is there a giant inflatable Enterprise decoy????

Though Scotty does get a pie in the face. Which remains awesome.

Warp factor rating: 3

Next week:Albatross

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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