The Battle of the Star Trek Geniuses II – the Wrath of the Guest Stars!

Back here and here, Frank Simons, actor, LA Dodger fan and fellow Star Trek genius formalized our love of (nearly) all things Star Trek by each listing in writing the ten favorite episodes of The Original Series – not the best or the most revered, but the ones WE each liked the best.   Ever since, we’ve been trying to coordinate our second installment of the Battle of the Star Trek Geniuses. 

Since I went first last time, Frank gets first crack at it today.  Given Frank’s far superior understanding of literature, theater and TOS itself, his essays offer far more astute insight than mine.  (You’ll discover that for yourself when you read mine tomorrow.  But I know what I like and in a favorites list, that’s enough. )

Frank has had a number of articles run on the respected Reuters News wire, so you know that this’ll be pretty damned good.  Here’s Frank to start things off.

Frank and Dan on the Gorn Planet location in Vasquez Rocks in California. The photos were taken about 30 years apart.  We each have this displayed poster sized.  (Frank tells me he’s lost well over 40 lbs. since the photo on the right was taken. Outstanding!)

Almost 5 years ago to the day, my good friend Dan Wolfe and I conducted “The Battle of the Star Trek Geniuses” on-line. A grandiose title for an exercise by two Star Trek geeks (and yes, we both wear that badge with honor), to go public with a list of their 10 favorite episodes – and why they were our favorites. It was great fun, so as with everything Trek, we wanted more, thus, a sequel! Our 5 favorite “Guest Star” performances from the original Star Trek series, along with 5 “honorable mentions” and our favorite “computer” episode.

Now one might think picking your 5 favorite “Guest Star” performances from the original series is about as easy as petting a tribble. And you would be wrong. As I sat down to contemplate this challenge it quickly became a Kobayashi Maru — an almost impossible test. The structure of episodic TV requires new characters and situations to challenge the series regulars almost every week. There are easily 30 performances in episodes both good and bad, that are exceptional. It’s all personal taste of course, after all, the Kobayashi Maru is a test of character, and so this became. What these choices reveal about each of us, Dan and I, informs our character – how we were influenced, what we enjoy in these performances, why we choose to single them out, when clearly there are many to pick from. Like our previous “Battle” (is it really a “Battle” if everyone wins?), this is not a list of what might be critically considered the best “acting” by actors guest starring on Star Trek, but the performances we, Dan and I, each liked best. So, without further ado, and to catch the conscience of Star Trek kings everywhere, here’s my list.

5) Guest Star: John Colicos as Kor, in “Errand of Mercy.”

“Always it is the brave ones who die. The soldiers…”

First impressions matter, and John Colicos’s Kor, as the first speaking Klingon we meet, sets the impression in spectacular fashion. Kor defines for us all (and all those Klingon commanders that followed), what it is to be a Klingon: Ruthless. Honorable. Tough. Smart. An equal foe that should not be underestimated.

Like Laurence Olivier’s Richard the III, Colicos plays Kor as a villain who knows he’s a villain. But as a Klingon, that is his core, his normal, and therefore – too bad for those who cross his path. I have occasionally been accused of chewing the scenery on stage, and know what it’s like to pick a splinter out of my teeth from time to time – I recognize flying wood when I see it. Colicos joyfully spits toothpicks out in every scene. He uses the entire spectrum of performance to let us know in both broad and subtle strokes that we’re watching talent. His physical strut as Kor enters a room, his vocal range and phrasing (no one has ever turned the word “vegetable” into a full course meal like he does), and even just his resting stare draw the viewer into his compelling presence. Kor is my favorite Klingon in all of Trek hands down, I wanted to see Kirk battle him again and again, and it’s all due to John Colicos’s acting choices. 

One of my favorite sayings is that it’s better to be type cast than not cast – it means you do something very well, well enough to do it again and again. Colicos played villains like Kor throughout his TV career – he was clearly type cast – but he never seemed to savior playing evil and enjoy those moments as much as he did with Kor. We love to hate our villains, we love to hate Klingons and we owe it all to John Colicos.   

4) Guest Star: Robert Walker, Jr., as Charlie Evans in “Charlie X.”

“Oh please! Don’t let them take me! I can’t even touch them!…Please, I want to stay..stay…stay….stay…..stay……stay……stay.”

It took me a long time to appreciate the performance Robert Walker, Jr. gives as “Charlie” in this episode, because it always made me uncomfortable to watch it. Then I realized that’s exactly why it’s so good. The ship Charlie was on crashed when he was an infant, and 17 years later he’s discovered. Charlie has never interacted with “his own kind” before, he’s been alone all of his 17 years. The innocence when he asks “is that a girl?” upon seeing a female for the first time is endearing.

Charlie was given God-like powers by the Thasians (advanced non-corporeal Beings) who initially found him, so that he could survive. Needless to say, our intrepid Enterprise crew is unaware of Charlie’s power until he starts to use it. Charlie quickly learns that his power makes him a god around other humans. Walker plays the part in a defensive, almost constant reactive state – he literally doesn’t know the limits of what is acceptable in human interaction. Like many adolescents who encounter raging hormones and feelings they don’t understand, his first reaction is fear, he’s awkward, and then begins to lash out.

Walker’s 17-year-old plays love, fear, hate, regret – he gets the gambit of character choices, and plays them with such conviction that he makes the viewer uneasy. Charlie is a difficult boy – but is it his fault? The performance makes us ask – would we forgive Charlie? Should we forgive? What would we have done with Charlie? The answers to those hard questions is what makes us feel uneasy – and it’s Robert Walker, Jr.’s performance that makes us ask them. Even after all the horrible things Charlie has done, his fading “stay…stay…stay” as the Thaisians (who have tracked him down), arrive to take him away, makes us sad. There are many ways to gauge the “success” of a performance, and for most people it’s how the actor has made them feel. We feel Charlie’s despair as he fades from our plain of existence, and even though he should be punished, we ask ourselves – should we have made a better case to save him? The one thing that does “stay” with you after watching this episode, is Walker’s sad, tragic, doomed, fate, to be forever alone.

3) Guest Star: Nancy Kovack as Nona in “A Private Little War.”

“We must fight or die! Is dying better?!”

Twice in my young life Nancy Kovack captured my heart – both in that impressionable sweet spot called “early adolescence.” First as Medea in Ray Harryhausen’s masterpiece “Jason and the Argonauts,” and secondly as “Nona,” the “Kahn-ut-tu Woman” in this dark, sobering episode.

Captain Kirk describes the Kahn-ut-tu as “the local witch people,” but Nona is no green faced Margret Hamilton. Dressed in revealing tight leather pants and a top that frames Ms. Kovack’s natural gifts in a bright orange frock – along with her long black hair, Nona could not have been more bewitching to this young boy. It didn’t hurt that the girl I had a long crush on in school, at least in my mind, looked just like Ms. Kovack’s Nona. “L” was my “Kahn-ut-tu Woman” – as adults I even told her about my then feelings. The comparison as complement was lost on her, but I digress.

Nona is a brave performance, a strong female character clearly motivated by sex and power – and not afraid to use both as she manipulates the men around her to quench her desires and forward her ambitions. But beyond being a tempting vixen, Ms. Kovack’s character is also the voice of reason – she can not understand the pacifist leanings of her tribes’ chief, her husband, in the face of impending slaughter. Nona’s ambition and need for power is her undoing as she pays the ultimate price for betraying her husband – but by doing so unwittingly motivates him to become the cold blooded killer she wanted.

Novack could not be more calculating, mysterious, and alluring, in a performance that a lesser actress would have made one dimensional. When Nona dies, and we see how it has changed the man she loved, we are sad. Sad for the innocence of a man, of a world, that is now lost. This episode stays with you, for so many reasons, not the least of which is the bewitching witch that is Ms. Kovack’s Kahu-tu-tu Woman. 

2) Guest Star: William Windom as Commodore Matthew Decker in “The Doomsday Machine.”

“But don’t you understand?! We’ve got to destroy it!”

The guilt of causing the deaths of those you’re entrusted to protect – those you would give your life to save – is thankfully beyond what most of us will ever experience. That state of mind, or lack there of, is where William Windom’s performance as Commodore Decker begins. Windom’s Decker is Shakespearean in its depth of despair, a yawning gulf of damage and loss, and we feel it. The tearful breakdown Windom performs, as he describes the horrific fate of his crew – who were begging him to save them – is palatable for the viewer. He’s broken and damaged beyond salvation. 

The episode is a Moby Dick story, and Windom is our driven, obsessed, irrational, Ahab. When Ahab gets another shot at the white whale he grabs a harpoon (or the Enterprise), and chases him once more. In such a large performance, it’s one of Windom’s smallest moments that sticks with me. In a standoff with Spock over command of the Enterprise, Spock gives us one of his most famous lines -“Vulcan’s never bluff,” – but it’s Windom’s reaction that is noteworthy: a whiff of bigotry. Spock has the misfortune to be the target of bigotry on a number of occasions in the series. Here, Windom’s Decker replies to the bluff comment with a brief pause, a hard cold stare, then says “No, no I don’t suppose that they do.” The delivery is calculated and deliberate, and so subtle, as to make it even more suggestive. The fact that Windom pulls this small moment off in what is otherwise a larger than life performance, makes it all the more effective. Commodore Decker dies in the line of duty. 

1) Guest Star: Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh in “Space Seed.”

“We offered the World order!” 

Many of my favorite performances are by actors who can do what I call “Big Real” – an over the top performance of a larger than life character, and yet we believe them. Think George C. Scott in Patton, or anything Peter O’Toole ever played. A charismatic, intelligent, brave, womanizing, handsome, leader. I could be describing Captain Kirk, but I’m describing the most distinctive villain in the entire run of The Original Series: Khan Noonien Singh, aka – KHAN.

Ricardo Montalban portrays a genetically engineered superman from Earth’s past – a military dictator with sway over millions on the Earth of the 1990’s, who escaped into space as the warring powers of the time closed in on him. Escaped to live, to fight, to conquer, another day. Khan is a villain as big as Kirk’s hero – and that’s probably why I love this performance. Our regulars begrudgingly respect Khan, and so does the viewer. Khan’s story touches Earth’s past, in Earth’s future.

Montalban’s distinctive voice and actor presence delivers a driven charismatic character that knows he’s the smartest, strongest, most alpha male in the room – in any room of any time.  Khan exudes a confidence that is the essence of the man all women want, and all men want to be. Montalban’s Khan can only win – and even in defeat he gets a chance at victory another day. The challenge Kirk gives him is one we want to see Khan succeed with. Have YOU ever read Milton? Star Trek has lots of larger than life Super Beings, but Ricardo Montalban’s is one of the few we love, and want to see more of, and got to see more of.  It’s no secret why “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is the best Star Trek feature film – Super Hero Kirk vs Super Villain Khan is a fight millions never get tired of watching, including me. 

Honorable mention:
6) Frank Gorshin as Bele, in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”
7) Joseph Ruskin as Master Thrall, Galt, in “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” 
8) Logan Ramsey as Claudius Marcus in “Bread and Circuses.”
9) Roger C. Carmel as Harry Mudd, in “Mudd’s Women.”
10) Julie Newmar as Eleen, in “Friday’s Child.” 

Computer Guest Star: Nomad, in “The Changeling.”

“My function is to probe for biological infestations, to destroy that which is not perfect. I am Nomad.” 

This is one of my very favorite episodes, because it starts with such a great hook. An attack on the Enterprise by a foe that is far more powerful and clearly has no interest in talking. The destruction of the Enterprise is just business, so best get to it. But by the stroke of luck (and a good script), the powerful foe that’s attacking the Enterprise is actually a computer, a space probe, that had its origin on Earth. It has become something far beyond what it was intended to be, but it still has a soft spot for mommy – and it thinks Kirk is mommy. Or father to be exact.

Voiced by Vic Perrin, who is most famous for the opening narration to the classic 60’s science fiction series “The Outer Limits.” Other than Nomad, my favorite turn by Mr. Perrin is as the voice of “Dr. Zin” in the classic Hanna-Barbera TV series Jonny Quest. Perrin appears on camera in one episode of Trek (Mirror, Mirror), and voiced not just Nomad, but also the “Metron” in the episode “Arena.” One actor appears in three of Treks best episodes, guessing he has something to do with why those episodes are considered so good. Perrin infuses the flat mechanical voice of Nomad with a sense of pride, and driven purpose. This computer has a personality, and even what appears to be a sense of humor. If Nomad just sounded like a static computer voice, like say the one used for M-5 in “The Ultimate Computer” we would not feel the implied danger that being in it’s existence every moment actually is. Perrin’s vocal talent wins the day, as our favorite Vulcan might say, we’re fascinated by his Nomad, but also afraid. That’s a hard needle to thread, and Perrin stitches it perfectly. 


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