Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Corbomite Maneuver”

“The Corbomite Maneuver”
Written by Jerry Sohl
Directed by Joseph Sargent

Season 1, Episode 109
Production episode: 1×02
Original air date: November 10, 1966
Star date: 1512.2

Mission Summary
The Enterprise, gloriously star-mapping previously uncharted space, is approached by a strange object: a cube. The mysterious cube blocks the Enterprise’s path, and Spock, currently in command, tries to out-maneuver it (to no avail). He alerts Kirk, who had been otherwise gratuitously shirtless for a physical exam, back to the bridge.

Unable to hail it, communicate with it, or dodge it, the Enterprise remains stuck for eighteen hours. Kirk convenes a meeting of the bridge crew but they are unable to determine its nature or intent. Spock guesses that the cube is one of two things: some kind of space buoy, or flypaper.

They decide to try and escape. Kirk orders the ship to plot its course forward and engage—but they don’t budge, and the cube begins releasing deadly radiation. The more they struggle the more the radiation increases until it finally reaches lethal levels. Kirk, in the interest of protecting his ship and crew, fires the main phasers and destroys the cube.

The navigator, Bailey, had been unusually nervous, scared, and lacking in confidence during the previous showdown—a liability—so Kirk orders him to practice some maneuvers. Dr. McCoy astutely points out that Kirk is protecting Bailey, who is not ready to be a navigator, because he reminds Kirk of himself as a young man.

Kirk decides to continue into this uncharted territory, despite the possibility inevitability of further hostile contact. It doesn’t take long, either. The next geometric object to assault them is an enormous sphere, so big it dwarfs the Enterprise. They receive a message from this sphere:

This is Balok, Commander of the flagship Fesarius of the First Federation. Your vessel, obviously the product of a primitive and savage civilization, having ignored a warning buoy and having then destroyed it, has demonstrated your intention is not peaceful. We are now considering the disposition of your ship and the life aboard.

Kirk tries to explain that they are on a mission of peace, the buoy tried to destroy them, and they had no idea it was meant to be a warning. But Balok of the Great Sphere is unsympathetic (and unintentionally hilarious):

Your ship must be destroyed. We make assumption you have a deity or deities or some such beliefs which comfort you. We therefore grant you ten Earth time periods known as minutes to make preparations.

With only ten minutes to live, Spock explains that they’ve been caught in a game of chess and Balok has just checkmated them. This of course gives Kirk an idea: poker! (What?) Kirk tells Balok that actually, secretly, every Earth vessel has a material called corbomite—something so deadly that if the Enterprise is attacked the corbomite will react with equal force against the attacker, destroying that ship and all its crew.

The final few moments pass. Nothing happens. Balok relented.

Balok finally gets back in contact with them. He says that instead, they will be towed to an internment planet capable of sustaining human life and their ship will be destroyed. The enormous sphere then disappears, replaced by a very small piloting ship that catches them in a powerful tractor beam.

Kirk assumes that the tractor beam is an incredible strain on that ship’s resources and formulates an escape plan: they will rev up the engines to full power at a 90-degree angle away from Balok and break free from the tractor beam. The Enterprise’s engines nearly overheat in the process, but it works! Just as they regain their bearings they discover that the small ship has issued a weak distress signal. Kirk’s actions have crippled the alien ship and its crew, and their signal is so weak that there is no hope it will reach the mothership. Acting as Kirk always does, with empathy and generosity, they pull around to the ship to give it assistance.

Kirk, Bones, and Bailey beam aboard to help the injured crew—to discover no crew, but a single child-like humanoid. The face they had seen on the viewscreen was merely a puppet. Balok laughs, clearly pleased with himself, and reveals that this entire thing was merely a test to discover the Enterprise’s true intentions, and gauge its real commitment to peace. He admits that he is the only one onboard, but that:

I miss company, conversation. Even an alien would be welcome. Perhaps one of your men for some period of time. An exchange of information, cultures.

Bailey volunteers for the job. Balok explains to Kirk how alike they are, and gives the three men a tour of his own ship.

I will say this: the dialogue in this episode is phenomenal. I was chuckling from start to finish. The back and forth was not only clever, but a really great look at each of the characters. McCoy relishes every chance to tease Kirk, and even Scotty gets a good joke in:

SCOTT: Motive power? Beats me what makes it go.
KIRK: I’ll buy speculation.
SCOTT: I’d sell it if I had any.

Even Bailey, who I initially found irritating, grew on me, if only because it left little gateways open for zingers from Spock:

BAILEY: The cube’s range and position. I’ll have it by then. 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.
SPOCK: It does sound most inconvenient, however. Have you considered having it removed?
BAILEY: Very funny.
SULU: You try to cross brains with Spock, he’ll cut you to pieces every time.

Aside from the banter, though, I found this episode to be unusually tedious and bland. The countdown lacked tension for me, because no one behaved as if they actually believed it to be their last ten minutes. At no point did Kirk or anyone else on the crew appear to be genuinely concerned about dying. They just kind of waited around, and sort of ticked off the minutes until the countdown was over. I didn’t get a sense of urgency or fear, and no one looked defeated. So little actually happened in this episode, and all of the waiting around moments struck me as odd, boring, and tedious. I actually checked my own watch to see the if the ten minutes were up.

You can tell it’s an early episode, though: Spock comes off as kind of a jerk, and Kirk is worse, repeatedly shutting down Bailey in a way I thought was unnecessarily gruff. Sulu was very staid and calm, but Bones was unusually detached, acting more like a therapist than a medical doctor. I’m glad they grew into their characters more—if I had to see an entire series in which Uhura’s only line is “Hailing frequencies open, sir” and Janice acts like a hotel maid I might need to claw my eyes out. Allan Asherman in The Star Trek Compedium notes that during the meeting Kirk convenes, Uhura just sits there, never asked for advice or contributing anything meaningful. She’s a switchboard operator. And can you believe that with only a few minutes to live they had Janice heat up a pot of coffee with her phaser to give Kirk? They ultimately cut a shot of her laying out Kirk’s freshly cleaned uniform on the bed. Really guys?

What bothered me more, though, was the way in which the central premise of episode—Kirk’s clever bluff—was supposed to somehow demonstrate what a great captain and peacemaker he was. He gives empty threats to a lifeform he does not understand, and that makes him a strong leader? It felt like a machismo display, empty bravado meant to scare the opponent despite an empty holster. Why on earth was that kind of behavior rewarded and held up as exemplary? How does that demonstrate to Balok that they are committed to peace? Lying and using threats did not strike me at all as something either indicative of peaceful intentions or worth emulating as an example. I liked that Kirk maintained his commitment to seeking out new life even in the face of danger, but I was disappointed that he was praised for his “leadership,” which here translates as a Western bravado that I didn’t feel meshed with the sentiment of the show.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I think I can sum up this episode with just one word: Awesome. But I do have some additional words in praise of it…

This is one of my favorite episodes, and I was glad to see it was even better than I remembered. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is obviously an early episode, since those old uniforms are back and Kirk complains about having a female yeoman, but the characterizations of the captain, Spock, and Dr. McCoy are nearly pitch perfect and the dialogue is fantastic. There are so many delightful exchanges between them, it’s hard to choose the best lines. This episode establishes/reinforces their friendship and history together and even when they’re at odds, they still take the time to listen to each other and apologize (even Spock almost says “I’m sorry”). I believe this episode is also the first to feature McCoy’s signature, “Am I a doctor or a (fill-in-the-blank),” though the “moon shuttle conductor” punchline here is a little weak.

As for the plot itself, it’s almost pure suspense, literally a ticking clock story, but even on this simple level, it’s fairly nuanced. I’m very impressed that given the ultimatum, Kirk doesn’t attempt to fight his way out of the situation, but he bluffs his way out. The titular corbomite maneuver ranks with fizzbin as one of the best Kirk ploys ever. It’s an incredible moment when Kirk comes up with his plan at their moment of defeat and says, with a gleam in his eyes, “Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker.” This is the man who doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario, changing the rules of the game to suit him. It may not always be the logical solution, but it works.

Kirk truly shows his mettle as a captain in this episode. He obviously likes Bailey, even when he’s pushing him harder than perhaps he should, which as McCoy points out may be because the young crewman reminds Kirk of himself at that age. (I guess we’ll see in the new movie, right?) No wonder the captain seems so disappointed when Bailey breaks down; he actually seems more devastated by dismissing the navigator than he is by Balok’s threats.

Kirk’s encouraging pep talk to the crew as they face imminent destruction is every bit as inspiring as intended: “You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” This is the lesson that Bailey learns by the end of the episode, when we all discover that Balok and his threats are not what they seem, in one of the most effective surprise endings in Star Trek.

It’s remarkable that after barely surviving their encounter, Kirk would turn around and offer help to the alien who moments before was their mortal enemy. Kirk strongly believes in their mission “to seek out new life” and upholds it, even in the face of danger. That’s why he gets to sit in that chair. Time and time again in the series, Kirk maintains the Federation’s moral high ground, holding it to arguably impossible standards—not just speaking the words but acting on them to the best of his abilities.

It’s also a treat to see the Enterprise engage in an actual space battle (more or less—firing the phaser banks counts in my book) for the first time in the series, and against what is still a pretty impressive-looking ship even without the aid of CGI. And in the same episode, we see both the ship’s most exciting duties as well as its most boring: photographing space for Federation star charts, the unsung burden of going where no one has gone before.

In retrospect, “The Corbomite Maneuver” reminded me a bit of the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” which begins in much the same way: an unknown barrier blocks the ship, heralding contact with an alien being of immense power who tests the crew’s intentions. Balok turns out to be a bit more reasonable than Q, and easier to fool. I wonder: did Kirk ever admit to Balok that there’s no such thing as corbomite? Later on Kirk will use the same bluff on the Romulans.

On a different note, for some reason the print on the non-remastered DVD seems dirtier than those for other episodes, which have all been cleaned up. And though we haven’t commented on the episode previews before, I watched the one for “The Corbomite Maneuver” and thought it was interesting how blatantly it misrepresents the episode. Balok’s time limit is given as one minute, and following the countdown an explosion appears on the viewscreen. This sort of creative editing is still being done today in TV and film trailers, of course.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line:
KIRK: What the devil is this? Green leaves?
RAND: It’s dietary salad, sir. Doctor McCoy ordered your diet card changed. I thought you knew.
MCCOY: Your weight was up a couple of pounds…

Lines Kirk Misattributes to McCoy: “A little suffering is good for the soul” and “Man is ultimately superior to any mechanical device.”

Syndication Edits: Much of the initial cube encounter and the Enterprise’s evasive maneuvers; Kirk phoning the bridge from the turbolift and deciding there that he has time to change into his uniform; some reaction shots; and a line by Sulu that “I knew he would” (referring to a Balok voice part that the sound editors forgot to dub in!).

Trivia: The tranya was actually grapefruit juice, which Clint Howard (Balok) had to pretend very hard he liked—he actually found it disgusting.

Other Notes: This episode was actually nominated for a Hugo in 1967 for “Best Dramatic Presentation,” along with “The Naked Time” and the following two episodes, “The Menagerie – Part I” and “The Menagerie – Part II.” The Menagerie episodes won.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 9 – “Dagger of the Mind.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 11 – “The Menagerie – Part I” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.