The Corbomite Maneuver


Even from the initial germination of the idea for this Trek-a-Week project, The Corbomite Maneuver was squarely in my mind as my pick for the first episode in the whole series. Some of the reasons for this are pragmatic narrative ones: we’ve got the core bridge crew in place here — McCoy, Uhura, etc. — as well as the Kirk/Spock/McCoy “dramatic triad” that’s the meat of the character drama in pretty much all Trek with the TOS characters. This was the first (other than the two pilots) episode filmed — although the tenth to be aired — and it hits the ground running.

More significantly, though, this episode does something really well that’s easy to screw up narrative-wise: it makes an “on the page” thesis statement of what Star Trek is all about. And it’s a thesis statement that pretty much remains a constant throughout all of the Star Trek series.

Early on in the episode Captain Kirk states — ostensibly to his crew, but really to us, the viewers — that The Enterprise’s mission is to, “ seek out and contact alien life” (as per the now-famous title sequence narration). Later in the episode, though, he reiterates this in a way that’s a lot more significant. When Balock is in distress — the same Balock who’s been attacking and tormenting them the entire episode — Kirk orders his crew to turn The Enterprise around and go help him. The crew (even Spock and McCoy) clearly doubt Kirk’s judgement here, but Kirk calls them on it.

MCCOY: Jim, don’t you think…
KIRK: What’s the mission of this vessel, Doctor? To seek out and contact alien life, and an opportunity to demonstrate what our high-sounding words mean.
  • “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
  • “… that all men are created equal…”
  • “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship…”

These are all high-minded ideas and as an American I’ve always claimed these ideas as my own and taken pride in them. But The Corbomite Maneuver powerfully challenges our convictions: are our beliefs just slogans — just words on paper — or are we actually willing to put these ideas into action? And more to the point: are we willing to put these ideas into action when there’s a potential cost to us to uphold those ideas?

  • We just elected a president whose major platform promises include severely limiting immigration and building an actual physical wall on our southern border.
  • The run-up to that presidential election saw a systematic and successful effort by state governments to suppress African-American and Latino voters.
  • A “Muslim registry” is a thing that’s being talked about by people in our soon-to-be federal government as if this is a reasonable idea.

Are we really what we say we are, or are these ideas just words on paper — words that make us feel good about ourselves when it’s convenient and easy, so long as we don’t actually have to act on them at some cost to ourselves? Kirk’s answer is a profoundly positive and idealistic one — and one that’s squarely in line with Star Trek’s positive vision of the future. By ordering The Enterprise back to help Balock, despite the danger that entails, Kirk is setting a pretty high bar — but The Corbomite Maneuver tells us that it’s a bar we should aspire to meet.

A few random observations:

  1. Lots of Shirtless Kirk. I can’t imagine where all this queer Star Trek fanfic came from.
  2. When I saw this episode as a kid I totally believed I’d be like Kirk in this situation. I’d actually be like Bailey. I devolve into a panic when I can’t figure out why the Roku’s not working.
  3. I LOVE Kirk’s address to the crew — which is actually an address to the listening Balok: “…there’s no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”


We’re starting, obviously, with the original series, and The Corbomite Maneuver is a classic episode in the way it contrasts Captain Kirk’s bravado with Spock’s logical stance, referenced by the characters themselves as playing “poker” vs. “chess.” The setup is that they encounter a seemingly hostile alien — represented in true low-budget style as simply a spinning cube — of greater size and power whom they eventually out-maneuver, first by out-witting it and then by bluffing. It’s very “Hunt for Red October”-ish with military guys guessing and second-guessing each other’s moves.

Ben will cringe when I say it but James T. Kirk isn’t really my type of guy. The scenes of him shirtless, only halfheartedly explained as a “physical check,” are hilariously gratuitous. But the way he walks onto the bridge and totally takes command of the situation, starting by individually asking each crew member for input, portrays a powerful and respected guy. He’s the kind of boss who values your opinion, will tell you when you’re being an idiot, and you know that he’s right. He can admit to uncertainty on one hand yet relieves someone of duty with no hesitation on the other. The delivery is cheesy but Shatner oozes confidence that just makes you want to root for him every time. He stays true to the mission and his soft spot for helping everybody, “even alien life,” is underscored in this story line.

The only other things I’ll say about this episode are some of what makes it so different from modern television shows. It is fifty years old at this point and I don’t want to call it dated because that sounds too negative. But, for example, the lighting puts shadows on the actors faces in some shots. Like, are there rafters or a ceiling fan in Kirk’s cabin? It looks strange but I guess it’s meant to be dramatic, like you need to edge nearer to the person to share a secret with them. The close-ups that last just seconds too long, punctuated with drawn-out music, give it a soap opera vibe that I adore.

As for whether the characters feel modern or not, lieutenant Bailey comes across like Wally Beaver, first throwing a restrained tantrum, then immediately agreeing to be left behind indefinitely with the alien who tried to kill them as though Kirk had asked him to join a friendly game of catch. This unquestioning allegiance would be unbelievable in a current setting. In contrast, Spock’s slyly smart-ass attitude — “There is a certain inefficiency in questioning me on things you’ve already made up your mind on.” — has become part of the contemporary American lexicon. He gets away with challenging the captain by being intelligent and, well, cool. Spock is a smart-alec yet supportive, never optimistic but never gives up trying. For good or bad, this is what I identify with and one reason I love Star Trek. I guess Roddenberry created all these diverse characters to do just that.

Next week: Balance of Terror

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