|Fuck it. I quit.|
“I, Mudd” sees Star Trek circling the tower for another week. This is strange, because everything about it seems to have the making of something quite interesting, if not perhaps actually good. It’s the return of Harry Mudd which, while not exactly an advisable decision, means Roger C. Carmel has the distinction of playing the only reoccurring character in the Original Series not a member of the Enterprise crew, and I suppose if one were looking for former foils to bring back, Mudd was probably the least disastrous option to go with and he’s at least a very memorable personality. It’s also the first work we get to look at by future Animated Series co-showrunner and inaugural story editor for Star Trek: The Next Generation Dave Gerrold, who collaborated with Gene Coon on an uncredited rewrite of Stephen Kandal’s original treatment due to how impressed the team was with his work on his debut script (which we take a look at next time).
Furthermore, this episode marks one of the first occasions Star Trek attempts to do an overt comedy, or at least a story where the comedic elements are meant to be in the forefront: Previous episodes were humourous and had funny bits in them, but this is the first time the show seems to be going out of its way to try to be funny. The keywords to note here are, naturally “attempts” and “tries”, because “I, Mudd” is an absolute spectacle of magnificent failure. First of all, it is a casserole made of repurposed ingredients left over from “The Cage”, “Mudd’s Women”, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “The Return of the Archons”, “Metamorphosis” and “The Changeling”, and the end result is precisely as terrible as you would expect a story with that pedigree to be. The entire plot can be sufficiently explained, without leaving out any important details, simply by stating that if there was a major element in any of those episodes, “I, Mudd” has it too but is even more heavy-handed about it. Likewise, if there was a mistake those episodes made, “I, Mudd” will make it all the more frequently.
This does not, however, adequately describe the uncanny, surreal experience that is watching “I, Mudd” within the context of the episodes around it or, actually, any previous Star Trek episodes. This is an attempt at comedy in the most broad-strokes fashion, packed to brimming with pratfalls, one-liners, zingers and characters so programmatic they wouldn’t look out of place in a cartoon. William Shatner, who is actually quite good at broad-strokes comedy and is served well by it in turn, is very much in his element again here, and the way he deftly alternates between the blusteringly indignant straight man and merry prankster narrative roles is as fine an acting trick as anything he’s done: He plays it on a spectrum, so that his mode shifts don’t feel jarring within the context of the action. Shatner’s conception of comedy is very much born of his theatrical performativity, and this is going to be an extremely important theme to monitor throughout the rest of his association with Star Trek, as it’s pretty much crucial to understanding his continued place within it.
Shatner also has a good partner to play off of in Roger C. Carmel, who is strong in many of the same areas, and the double act they eventually turn the Kirk-Mudd relationship into is certainly the high point of the episode (doubly so as Mudd is significantly less of a horrifying Irish stereotype this time ’round, though this is balanced out by Stella being about as stock and cartoonish a sexist depiction of the shrewish, nagging wife as is possible to get). However, the rest of the cast isn’t helped by this in the slightest: Leonard Nimoy, who often plays Spock with a dry, sarcastic snark, manages well enough and James Doohan probably would have been good in this episode too, had he been given more to do. Nichelle Nichols, while formidable (especially in the scene where Uhura pretends to betray the crew to the androids), just feels out of place and while DeForest Kelley makes McCoy very witty and enjoyably curmudgeonly, watching him trying to do physical comedy is embarrassing and painful. Meanwhile, Walter Koenig gets to play Chekov setting up a threesome with twin android women, reminiscing about Leningrad and doing the Ukrainian Cossack dance, but really, at this point this is what we fully expect to see him do, and having him do anything else in this episode would have just been disappointing.
But the fact remains there is absolutely no precedent for an episode like this anywhere in what we’ve seen of Star Trek so far. Coming to “I, Mudd” after “The Apple” and “Mirror, Mirror” is profoundly weird, and even “The Deadly Years” was played fairly straight. This, by contrast, is a live-action Bob Clampett cartoon. Actually, I take that back: “I, Mudd” isn’t as much comparable to Golden Age theatrical shorts as it is to Vaudeville, and that in itself is worth examining as Star Trek’s first go at Commedia dell’arte. Vaudeville is often called North America’s signature form of entertainment and “the heart of American show business”. While I’m not entirely convinced by this statement (I personally feel that, at least in the United States, Hollywood and television has proven to be far more ubiquitous and far more more associated with their point of origin in a global context), I do think there is some truth there in that Vaudeville is an extremely US phenomenon inasmuch as it draws elements from a number of international forms of entertainment (most notably British and continental European music halls and burlesque shows), isolates them from their original context, and then promptly waters them down and defangs them to the point they essentially have no impact or power anymore in the interest of making them “safe” for the “American People”.
While Vaudeville shows were a mixture of sketch, musical and standup comedy, variety, talent shows, magic acts, and the like, the ruthless “modesty codes” of many halls and touring companies meant that Vaudevillian acts were rather famously terrible. It’s not something you’re likely to find in showbiz history books, but the pop culture memory of Vaudeville, especially of those for whom it was actually in living memory (or that of their parents and grandparents), is that it was excruciatingly tepid and unfunny as a result of its draconian censorship policies. If we look at any pastiche of or reference to Vaudeville in late-20th and early 21st Century US entertainment, the stock scenario is always of a desperate performer bombing onstage Stepford-smiling through tortuously bad material while being pelted with rotten fruit from a bored and increasingly irritated audience (indeed, the number of cartoons that have done exactly this gag is far too high to count). The joke, then, is that performers are forced to scrape out a meager living humiliating themselves to please the ungrateful masses, or alternatively, that the performers are so deluded and incompetent that they get taken in by their managers’ flagrant soaking and pursuit of safe profit through “decent” entertainment at the expense of talent and quality. In that regard, Vaudeville being the seed from which sprouts all of US mass-media entertainment is rather perfect, as we continue to see much of the same Puritanical behaviour in, say, network standards and practices.
The one problem, really the fundamental one “I, Mudd” seems to have, is that this is a joke it’s in no way in on. One only has to watch the jaw-dropping scene in the climax where the crew literally waltzes into the androids’ control room and puts on a truly legendarily bad Vaudevillian routine, complete with miming, improv sketches and “jokes” about logic paradoxes and self-contradictory behaviour in an effort to confuse and overload Norman. The show clearly wants us to read this, and the rest of the crew’s actions during the last two acts of the episode, as “funny”, but we end up feeling more like the androids, staring stone-faced at the slow-motion train wreck unfolding before us with smoke billowing out of our ears. It’s not so much the routine itself as much as it is the utter lack of irony or situational awareness in regards to how completely off-the-wall mental it is: This is not Star Trek turning its critical lens inward at the heart of US show business, this is Star Trek putting on a straight-up Vaudeville show as a paean to illogic and irrationality and it has absolutely no clue how terrible an idea that is.
The truly grotesque part of this is that Vaudeville is absolutely an overtly performative form of expression: The show will certainly change from night to night and audience to audience. This is still moving Star Trek further away from teleology and prescriptive representationalism. I probably would not have gone with diluted and sanitized musical theater and burlesque as the way to stress the show’s performative core, but perhaps it seemed like an appropriate thing to do given Star Trek‘s place as part of the primetime lineup on major network television at this point (although I still think this is kind of a flimsy excuse as theatrical cartoons had been lampooning Vaudeville for thirty years already by 1967). So, while this may still be a mistake, it’s at least a somewhat expected mistake to make. More concerning is that this is apparently what Star Trek thinks humour is: Much like sexuality, humour is something that the entire franchise, not just the Original Series, has serious problems with. Unlike sexuality however, which Star Trek does eventually figure out how to handle (albeit considerably and worryingly later than probably would have been helpful), it has a far more changeable relationship with humour.
It’s deeply confusing to know Dave Gerrold’s name is attached to “I, Mudd”, because the script that actually got him the job (and indeed the very next episode to be produced) goes for explicit comedy and becomes an instantaneous television landmark while this is, well…this. Although that said, I don’t think the failure-to-launch of “I, Mudd” can be laid at the feet of Gerrold, or Coon, or Kandal or even Shatner and Carmel. Partially at issue here is the concept of doing a comedy episode of something like Star Trek at all. When the show’s been successful at humour in the past, it’s oftentimes been in smaller vignettes and moments that come out of the character’s inherent foibles or how they react to certain situations. “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, for example, is a riot, but it’s not a “comedy” episode per se: While a lot of laughs are to be had at the three temporally displaced parties, the basic story is a serious one as the Enterprise is at risk of being stranded in the 1960s (how prescient) and their future is also at risk of ceasing to exist. By contrast, a story about a planet of sexbots who are trying to observe humans and who get outsmarted by Kirk, McCoy, Chekov and Uhura acting like lunatics…isn’t.
I am reminded of a story Douglas Adams used to tell about the production of the Doctor Who serial “City of Death” (typically regarded as a comedic triumph and a high water mark of the whole series), and a great deal of other writers who know their way around comedy had a version of it. Adams used to say he would have to stop tape and remind his actors not to do funny walks or funny accents because humour is actually better conveyed by people playing their roles straight in bizarre and insane situations. The basic idea is that if you are deliberately trying to act “wacky” or “random”, you are in fact coming across as terrifyingly stilted, forced and awkward. This is I think where “I, Mudd” goes wrong (at least in execution: At its core, it remains a basic story concept that probably wasn’t entirely a great idea): It never goes above and beyond stock scenarios and deliberately overplayed zaniness and the whole production feels like its trying much, much too hard. That’s not to say Star Trek is incapable of doing comedy, or even broad-strokes comedy (despite the protestations of the fandom, determined as it is to take absolutely everything deathly seriously and who are opposed to having any sort of fun whatsoever), it’s just this isn’t the way to go about doing it.
But, like “The Deadly Years” this is an episode that, in spite of its missteps, is ultimately largely harmless and inoffensive. That in itself is proof Star Trek has turned a major corner, and if this is the way the show is going to start screwing up I really can’t object much at all. And anyway, what Gerrold helps the show do next unilaterally cements its status as a pop culture legend. It’s allowed to slide a bit here.