CULT TV FLASHBACK # 115: Star Trek: "The Enterprise Incident" (1968)

For over forty years now, Trekkers have passionately debated the third and final season of ST: TOS (Star Trek: The Original Series, for the non-trekkers out there).

This was the spell during which the late Fred Freiberger (1915 – 2003) assumed the role of executive producer after series creator Gene Roddenberry — the Great Bird of the Galaxy — reduced his involvement.

A little background: Roddenberry had apparently promised NBC he would be a hands-on show-runner for the third season, but then the network pulled a fast one and re-scheduled Star Trek to the Friday night graveyard (or “death slot”) at 10:00 pm. Roddenberry stepped down, and Freiberger arrived on the scene. Not everyone was a happy camper.

The general perception has long been that Star Trek took a significant downward turn in quality during Freiberger’s tenure; perhaps as a result of his involvement. Yet the ratings-troubled series had other problems to grapple with too, including a dramatic budget cut in the third season which rendered location shooting impractical except on rare occasions (such as “The Paradise Syndrome,” early in the new season). According to William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories, the per episode budget dropped from a high in the first season of $193,500.00 to a low at the third season of $178,500.00. (William Shatner, Chris Kreski, Harper Collins, 1993, pages 290-291).

Now intriguing, visually-exciting location work — “planet side” action — had been a staple of Star Trek in the first two seasons; with episodes such as “Arena,” “This Side of Paradise,” “The Alternative Factor,” “Shore Leave,” and “Friday’s Child” springing to mind. But in the third season, Freiberger — in the words of original series star, Nichelle Nichols — suddenly became a “producer who had nothing to produce with.” (Nichelle Nichols, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York 1994. p.189.)

So depending on mind-set, you can either appreciate Star Trek Season Three for what it is (and in some cases, by necessity what it had to be), or dislike it for the manner in which it differed from the first two seasons.

One can either laud episodes such “The Paradise Syndrome,” “The Enterprise Incident,” “The Tholian Web” and “All Our Yesterdays” or curse the quality of such outings as “Spock’s Brain,” “And the Children Shall Lead” and “The Way to Eden.”

Other third season episodes remain even more controversial, both loved and despised by fans in equal measure: “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield,” “The Empath,” and “Spectre of the Gun.” Failures, or, in some cases, almost avant-garde masterpieces?

One third season episode that holds up remarkably well today is author D.C. Fontana’s “The Enterprise Incident,” which first aired September 27, 1968 and featured the Enterprise’s secret espionage mission inside Romulan space to recover a new and deadly cloaking device technology. This was the second broadcast installment of the last season.

When I interviewed D.C. Fontana for Filmfax, she explained in detail about the origins of this episode: “It was a reflection of the Pueblo Incident, where a ship was captured in an area of sea where it shouldn’t have been. The ship claimed not to be a spy ship, but in fact it was a spy ship.”

Specifically, on January 23, 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Banner-class research vessel with six officers and seventy crew men aboard, was surrounded and captured by North Korean vessels. The U.S. government insisted the ship was well within international waters, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea countered that Pueblo was inside its territory when captured.

Classified, high-security material was eventually found aboard the Pueblo…it was on an American spy mission after all. The ship was brought back to an enemy port (the nearest U.S. naval vessel was — ironically, the U.S.S. Enterprise — positioned some five hundred miles south and in no position to assist…). The Pueblo crew was then processed, tortured, and eventually returned stateside. The ship itself remains in the custody of the North Koreans.

In “The Enterprise Incident,” you can see many deliberate resonances of the real-life incident, which had occurred scarcely nine months before the episode was broadcast. Here, a Federation starship, NCC-1701, strays into enemy waters, metaphorically-speaking. The Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) plans to take the Enterprise back to a Romulan port as a prize, and process the crew before eventual release. Of course, that doesn’t happen.

Here, history is re-written rather dramatically. The party that is actually in the wrong (conducting the espionage in enemy territory in the name of intergalactic security,) escapes with a secret device that could alter the balance of power. In fact, the Enterprise actually gets away scot-free, with an important captive in tow: the Romulan Commander herself. In other words, Kirk and Spock are on the side of the angels, keeping the Romulan-created technology…out of Romulan hands.

In space, all warriors are cold warriors…
In “The Enterprise Incident,” Kirk and Spock’s secret spy mission also involves the logical half-Vulcan science officer…uh…romancing the Romulan Commander to gain her confidence.
Like the rest of us, then, the Romulans prove themselves intrigued by Vulcan morals and ethics. In this case, they make a bad mistake. The commander is manipulated by the poker-faced Spock. Specifically, he distracts her while a surgically-altered Kirk (now resembling a Romulan) makes off with the top-secret cloaking device. Scotty does a lickety-split installation, and the escape is made.
Notably, Spock re-affirms in this episode that “Vulcans are incapable of lying” and live by a code of “personal honor and integrity.” The Romulan Commander naively accepts his word on these crucial matters, and pays the price for trusting Spock.

Yet, “The Enterpise Incident” works so well because the noble Spock clearly takes no satisfaction, let alone joy, in manipulating this Enemy of the Federation. In the hands of another actor, Spock might very well seem like a heel or a cad for actively encouraging the romantic inclinations of the Romulan Commander, but Leonard Nimoy plays the role sensitively; humanely. This subtle approach comes to the forefront during Spock’s final conversation with the Romulan commander aboard the Enterprise, in the turbo-lift.

The Romulan commander has been tricked and disgraced. She is angry, and rightfully so, over Spock’s trickery. And yet Spock doesn’t hide behind orders or regulations here. Instead, he expresses, perhaps obliquely, that this has all been a rather useless and short-lived game. “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all,” he acknowledges. Rather, he suggests to the Commander that it is the connection that the two of them shared that will prove more permanent, more lasting.

This is one of the reasons I love and admire Star Trek. The character of Spock — perpetually the outsider — gives us a good, outside perspective on ourselves and our behavior. By contrast, Kirk is the giddy American cowboy, the dashing American secret agent, the guy who is going to accomplish his mission with heroic flair and dynamic action. He is entrenched in his mission (he cannot afford otherwise), and he doesn’t really look outside it at the big picture. We love and admire Kirk for this clarity of vision and purpose.

But Mr. Spock thinks more analytically, and with a deeper perspective. He weighs matters outside of petty political and military concerns. Though as a Starfleet officer he performed his duty, he intimates that in this case, that duty involved something “fleeting,” hence ultimately unimportant. Rather, the bond established by the Romulan Commander and Spock suggests that these two clashing races/empires can find common ground in the future, beyond the conflict of the present.

The second-to-last time we encounter Mr. Spock in Star Trek history, he is pursuing this very cause: the re-unification of Romulus and Vulcan. I’ve always wondered if Spock’s personal encounter with the Romulan Commander was the impetus of his decision to pursue this tough-to-negotiate peace. In some subtle way, Star Trekdespite the presence of all kinds of alien creatures and some imperialistic tales — has really been, sub textually, about the bonds that unite humanity. We may differ with the Soviet Union (during the Cold War) or the Taliban today, during the War on Terror, but we hope and pray that in the future what unites us all as inhabitants of the planet Earth will overcome that which today divides us. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), only Nixon could go to China; only Kirk could bring peace between the Klingons and The Federation. And here, way back in “The Enterprise Incident” in 1968, the seeds of peace between the Romulans and the Federation are being planted…by Spock; in his humane treatment of the Romulan Commander.

Now, Spock also manipulates the Romulan Commander very successfully and in some sense, it does play as cruel. But lest we forget, she is also manipulating him simultaneously, using what she perceives to be Spock’s sense of racial superiority to harness resentment against Kirk and loyalty towards her. So they are both pawns of the mission. But I would suggest that — all along — Spock may have a better future in mind. He may be stealing a cloaking device and deceiving a beautiful woman in the present, but he also realizes that military secrets are fleeting and that one person can change the world; can alter the direction of the future (also a message of another Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror.”)

In Star Trek history, “The Enterprise Incident” may actually be one of the most significant episodes of all, especially in terms of impact on the franchise.

This episode establishes a Klingon-Romulan alliance (later shattered, with great resentment and animosity in the Next Gen era), and it introduces blue Romulan Ale, though not in name, as a “powerful recruiting inducement.” The episode also establishes Spock’s time in Starfleet as 18 years.
Much of the drama also hinges on the mistaken belief that “Vulcans are incapable of lying,” a turn of phrase which returns in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Also, although Fontana introduced Vulcan “finger-touching” as a gesture of affection in “Journey to Babel,” here we see a more…erotic…application. That too returned to Star Trek, in 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Additionally, in “The Enterprise Incident,” the audience gets some significant knowledge of the Romulans, from the “Right of Statement” to the command structure inside the Empire.

And of course, “The Enterprise Incident” introduces the Vulcan Death Grip. Which, as you surely know, does not exist…

I’ll go even further. I believe that “The Enterprise Incident” is very much a template for the modern Star Trek motion picture series, as it involves the Enterprise forced to take dramatic action to capture or otherwise stop a weapon of mass destruction. Here it is the Romulan Cloaking Device. But Khan had Genesis, Soran had the Ribbon — which he wielded as a weapon, Shinzon had a tharalon device, and Nero had Red Matter.

Over the years “The Enterprise Incident” has not been without controversy, of course. Fontana told me that the “episode wasn’t substantially re-written” from what she had imagined, but rather “was changed in ways that really bothered me. The relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander was somewhat different than what I had envisioned. From a production standpoint, the cloaking device was supposed to be small and easily hidden, but on the show it looked like a lamp. That didn’t work for me, because they had to run around holding this large device, it was pretty obvious. More than that, the relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander wasn’t what I had in mind. I wanted it to be more adversarial than it was.”

Indeed, if “The Enterprise Incident” contains one weakness, it is that the Romulan Commander appears far too trusting, far too early, of Spock. Especially since she did not know he was stationed on the Enterprise and therefore could not anticipate her strategy before seeing him on the viewscreen. Of course, given a little thought, the Commander’s actions might be written off as signs of a healthy, Kirk-sized ego. She believes she can appeal to Spock’s ego, assuring him that he is a “superior being” and thereby offer him ample incentive to turn against the Federation. Given Kirk’s irrational, arrogant behavior leading up this incident (all orchestrated, of course…) it is also easy to see why she could imagine Spock would prefer to serve her rather than the fragile, insulting Captain Kirk. Of course, that’s what she’s supposed to believe.

I think some fans also dislike “The Enterprise Incident” because it says, basically, that when Starfleet breaks its own laws, it is okay, because — hey, these are the good guys.

Perhaps today, given all we’ve been through in the last decade, this makes the program feel a little simplistic. The (overlooked) fact of the matter is that this mission could have sparked an all-out war with the Romulans, one that could have cost millions if not billions of innocent lives across the galaxy.

And furthermore, the Romulans had not even used this cloaking device in battle yet. They had used a similar weapon in the past, on Federation border outposts (“Balance of Terror”), but still, this seems to qualify as a pre-emptive strike, right? Does Starfleet subscribe to the…Bush Doctrine?

For a second, imagine what a powerful episode this might have been had Kirk’s mission failed; had he and the stalwart crew been taken hostage and interrogated back on Romulus; had the mission been exposed as a dangerous, irresponsible one; had Starfleet paid the consequences for issuing such orders. But you know — honestly — that sounds more like a Next Gen era story of DS9-flavored one. And if that had happened here, we might have lost the valuable message that is clear in “The Enterprise Incident:” that peace can begin in the heart of one man, or one Vulcan, as the case may be. That Spock is, for lack of a better word, emotionally affected by his contact with the Romulan commander…who, despite her manipulations, comes across as strangely vulnerable…and likable.
In closing, I submit that “The Enterprise Incident” is a worthwhile and memorable installment of Star Trek because in that last scene, Spock acknowledges something important and true. Kirk, the Romulan Commander, and Starfleet itself are all playing one dangerous move in a much larger chess-game. They are focused on that move: getting the Cloaking Device (or getting the Enterprise, contrarily). But Spock is thinking a long-term strategy, thinking several moves ahead, to something more permanent than a fleeting military secret. He was touched by his encounter with the Romulan Commander, more than he ever could have imagined.
On the other hand, you could also argue that Spock’s entanglement with the Romulans, begun in earnest in this episode of the classic series, is the very thing that destroys his timeline some hundred years down the road. As the Vulcan himself might note, “fascinating…”

Also, I appreciate Leonard Nimoy’s thoughtful take on this tale: “Episodes like “The Enterprise Incident” made it exciting to go to work. Like all of Dorothy’s scripts, it had an edge to it, an adult level of complication, and social commentary. The characters’ lives were being affected, their ethics violated, even their spirituality touched. Scripts like this added to the moral structure of the Star Trek universe.” (Nimoy. I am Spock. Hyperion, 1995, page 118).


11 responses to “CULT TV FLASHBACK # 115: Star Trek: "The Enterprise Incident" (1968)

  1. I must admit as a Star Trek original series fan the third season is my least favorite. Spock's Brain is enough to cause me to want to ignore the whole season. Yet The Enterprise Incident is a favorite. I think it is one of the best of the series. Thanks for making this a focus of Cult TV Flashback.

  2. Agreed, but on the other hand, women have referred to this episode as a "toe curler". Exciting in a whole other way!

  3. Great review. Thanks John. I always enjoyed this episode – probably BECAUSE of the giant lamp-like prop that was used to portray the cloaking device. ;-)Thinking about this episode and season 3 in general caused me to wonder why I DON'T particularly DISLIKE season 3 (double negative?). I grew up in the 70's (born in 1970) and was exposed to Trek at an early age. The much derided "Spock's Brain" was an AWESOME episode for a 6 or 7 year old to see back then. Even in my teen years, I enjoyed watching this one, and still watch it with fondness.I guess my point is, that my personal context of experiencing Star Trek beginning over 30 years ago has left me incapable of rendering critical judgment on season 3 episodes.Long live Spock's Brain!

  4. Great Cult TV Flashback, John. To me, the third season to ST:TOS was uneven. However, this one episode had that "adult level of complication and social commentary" as Nimoy noted. It remains a favorite of mine exactly for that, and stands out because of the quality of the writing. I agree with your take that it does have a latter season TNG or DS9 flavor to it, tooI really appreciated Joanne Linville's performance and characterization of the Romulan Commander, too. But then again, it seemed a good many of TOS women characters brought a good amount of allure with them on the series [not that there's anything wrong with that ;-)]. As well, I'm grateful for the detail in your examination. It really brought some great background and context on this look at the third year of the series and this episode, JKM. Thanks for this, John.p.s., it's likely just me, but I really didn't like Scotty's experimental hair styling in this installment (as shown in the screen capture image you have here). Maybe, he was trying to look taller ;-).

  5. And isnt it interesting that in ST3 that when we do see the "Vulcan finger-touching" it is between a Vulcan male and Vulcan/Romulan. (Spock and Saavik)I think any others in the Star Trek universe that played Vulcans had the bar set very high by Nimoy as Spock and Mark Lenard as Sarek. Tim Russ as Tuvok did well on Voyager, but for me, Jolene Blalock didn't quite measure up as T'Pol on Enterprise(btw, this is the only series I somehow just couldn't get into). Zachary Quinto did an admirable job as Spock in the 2009 film, but it kinda just seemed like someone trying to be Spock instead of actually being Spock (if that makes any sense to you at all)Dreaded DreamsPetunia Scareumbtw, Chekov was my first school girl crush…how twisted is that? Other girls were drooling over Shaun Cassidy and I as mooning over Chekov

  6. Definitely a good episode, and a great review, John! The secret agent plotline also fits in with the films and TV shows of the time (James Bond, Mission: Impossible, etc.).Unfortunately, at times in the later series and movies I did not like how the cloaking device was utilized by the writers. It just seemed that Starfleet always completed the mission, always got away, when the Klingons/Romulans had cloaking technology and the Federation didn't.

  7. My friend, I know you and I willa gree. At least we had Freiberger to give us a few gems in Star Trek and Space:1999's final seasons. Bless bless for that.I think you offered some valuable reasons why Season Three became smaller and offer viewers some understanding of why. Limited budgets may have shifted to some of the better episodes as a possibility which certainly hapens.And DC Fontana certainly had her pulse on the characters and vibe of the series, which is why that writer [Gene Roddenberry's secretary originally] really delivered.Your wonderful description of characterizations between Spock and Kirk offer us why we loved the balance of these actors. They were the ying and yang right? Obviously, with Bones, they were the perfect Freudian model. All of the psychology aside, these characters were wonderful to watch because they were seasoned talents.Your interview input was very interesting. The Enterprise Incident is arguably the best installment of the entire series eventhough it landed in the much maligned Season Three. This is complex stuff for its time.I look forward to watching it again John. Thank you.

  8. Because of this post I watched the episode again on YouTube today. Great stuff. I also watched another gem of the third season, "Turnabout Intruder," where Dr. Janice Lester switches the inner essence of her being in Kirk's body and vice versa. It is one of Shatner's best performances of the series in my view, giving him a vehicle to go over the top in keeping with is acting style. Perhaps I should pick up the third season to add to my collection after all.

  9. Hello my friends, thank you for all the insightful comments regarding The Enterprise Incident.John W. Morehead: I'm glad you've been enjoying the third season of Star Trek. Personally, I like most of the shows (well, not "And the Children Shall Lead," which plays like parody). "Turnabout Intruder" was one of my choices for a cult tv flashback this week, but I picked Enterprise Incident. I enjoy Turnabout very much, for the reasons you specify.Nick: I know exactly what you mean. Star Trek pre-dates me too. I wasn't aware of it until the mid-1970s, so it was a pre-existing show and I never debated really the relative merits of seasons…until I started reading about the show (World of Star Trek, etc.). Then it seemed like a big deal, but I have to say, it's not a big deal on the order of what went on with Space:1999, Buck Rogers or SeaQuest, or even Land of the Lost, that's for sure!Le0pard13: Scotty's hair is a little "puffy" here, isn't it? :)But seriously, I agree with your comments on the allure of Linville and the women of Star Trek in general, and that this episode has a moral spin on it that reflects a more relativistic stance, of later Treks. Very interesting…more to come…

  10. Just came across this — excellent review. And as a 13 year old in 1974, this was one of my most favorite episodes, not so much for the spy mission, but for the pseudo-romance between Spock and the RC. I agree that at first he was playing along with the plot to distract the RC so the Cloaker could be liberated, but I also felt actual attraction from Spock to the RC in his flirtatious manner. Being madly in love with Nimoy at the time added to my delight in this episode. But it's true, in that last touching moment in the turbo-lift, Spock's genuine concern about what he had to do, and his hopes for something 'more permanent' between him and the RC makes for one of the most romantic moments in TOS history. (oh yeah, and she touches his chest too — my 13 year old self says "Squeee!") I totally loved Joanne Linville in this ep, she was the epitome of sleek female cool. Just wish her uniform wasn't so damn short! Of course her b/w one shouldered gown was to die for! If you get a chance, please check out my Trek Blog:! -Therese

  11. John, as always another excellent review. The Enterprise Incident has always been a favorite of mine. Not only for Joanne Linville’s excellent performance, but also for its social commentary. Like you, I think this was the catalyst that made Spock seriously think that reunification between Vulcans and Romulans was definitely possible. This is definitely one of the third season’s finest. I wish there were more like this one during that season.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. the reviews get better and better with each reading/posting.

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