|“Legendary Space Encounter”, by Randy Asplund
“The Enterprise Incident” is arguably one of the most iconic episodes of the original Star Trek, or at least this season. “Iconic”, however, is not necessarily a synonym for “good”. While decent and a godsend compared to what the show has been hurling out since the beginning of the season, I’m not especially inclined to call “The Enterprise Incident” one of the all-time greatest stories from this show, especially coming off of the streak of home runs that was the latter John Meredyth Lucas tenure. This episode is, however, perfectly serviceable, better than the last two stories by light years and further evidence of what a tremendous asset D.C. Fontana was to Star Trek.
The circumstances behind Fontana’s resignation as script editor are somewhat hazy. The official story is that she was too overwhelmed by her day-to-day duties and wanted the opportunity to freelance for other shows, but the somewhat caged and guarded way she tends to recount this (along with the rather exasperated tone she often takes on when describing her time associated with the franchise) leads me to believe there’s likely a bit more than that at play. Whatever the reasoning though, “The Enterprise Incident” is Fontana’s first Star Trek contribution as a freelancer, a position she’ll hold for the remainder of the Original Series, and also her final contribution to the Original Series under her actual name. And right away, it’s very clear the impact her absence has had on the show’s overall production: “The Enterprise Incident” was extensively “edited” by Gene Roddenberry (even though that shouldn’t technically be his job anymore) as well as (I presume) Arthur Singer. As a result, what we get here is in many ways D.C. Fontana-lite: Even “Friday’s Child” wasn’t monkeyed around with to quite the same extent this story was, and this had an almost quantitatively net negative effect on the final product.
Fontana’s original draft was partially inspired by the 1968 “Pueblo Incident”, where North Korean forces captured and detained a United States Navy cruiser for over a year on charges of espionage, hence the title. This would make “The Enterprise Incident” arguably the first Star Trek episode to explore a current and topical sociopolitical issue (previous episodes, namely things like “A Taste of Armageddon”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Private Little War” made halfhearted stabs at this, but were almost always held back by the show’s apparent desire to remain somewhat safe and apolitical) were it not for two issues: Firstly, Roddenberry’s and Singer’s “improvements”, among a great deal many other things, helped to obfuscate this significantly. Secondly however, “Journey to Babel” proved that, if nothing else, Fontana is a master at blending complex political world building plots with intimate stories about characters, and would prefer to lean in this direction if given the opportunity. “The Enterprise Incident” builds off of this, using the backdrop of a high-stakes espionage mission to further explore Kirk and Spock as well as the sense of loyalty and devotion the Enterprise crew shares amongst themselves.
Much like in “Journey to Babel” then, it’s clear the story Fontana is really interested in telling examines is the effect the situation has on the characters, as opposed to the intricacies of the situation itself. She’s said the Pueblo story was merely what kickstarted the train of thought that led her to write this episode and it was not as much intended as a direct analog or parable. However, and that qualifier hangs like the Sword of Damocles over this episode just as it does every other episode this season, this is largely not the story “The Enterprise Incident” actually is. Nevertheless, we can try to piece together what Fontana’s original story might have been based on her words on it after the fact and the inklings we get in the thing that made it to air: We see hints of a story about Kirk pushed to the edge of madness over his flagrantly warmongering and potentially trust-shattering orders from Starfleet Command, Spock’s exploration of heritage being pushed to the logical limit by having him sympathetic to, and ultimately side with, the Romulans, and a Romulan Commander who is in many ways an extrapolation of the tantalizing groundwork laid down by Paul Schneider in “Balance of Terror” and who proves once and for all the Romulans, the supposed Evil Enemy, are in truth a deeply complex and multifaceted culture who, while they may not be *just* like us, are ultimately just as worthy and deserving of respect and personhood as we are.
As Fontana is not one to speak ill of her former colleagues (though one does frequently get the sense she’d really, really like to), she says there were a lot of “little things” that were changed she wasn’t happy about. And while she may be coy about her original intent so as not to upset the Trekker cart, let’s be honest with ourselves. We know enough about Fontana, her writing style and her positionality by this point to rather easily discern which parts of this production were hers and which parts…weren’t. I’m willing to bet the first “little thing” that was altered was Kirk’s mental state. In the episode as aired, Kirk puts on an elaborate show to give the impression he’s losing his mind and endangering the crew to provoke a diplomatic incident with the Romulans, while in truth he’s on an undercover mission to steal their new cloaking device so that should something go wrong his reputation and his alone would be tarnished. Fontana says that in the final product “Kirk’s attitudes were wrong”, but never elabourates. I have a feeling this is what she’s talking about-It would not surprise me in the slightest to learn the original draft had Kirk genuinely teetering on the brink of insanity due to what the Federation is asking him to do and the strain it’s putting on his relationship with the crew, and yes, the Romulans. This is the kind of story one does not expect to see until the Dominion War: To see Fontana hinting at it in 1968 is astonishing. But, it is in keeping with her perspective: She was there when Gene Coon created the Federation (which was intentionally problematized from the beginning) and neither of them have been especially keen to leap at the idea it’s a perfect utopia.
(That said, as aired “The Enterprise Incident” does give William Shatner a decent vehicle: Playing Kirk playing mad while secretly scheming is right up his alley, and he knocks the performance out of the park: We suspect he’s secretly up to something from the teaser. It’s properly close to “A Piece of the Action” standards).
Spock’s story seems to have remained comparatively intact, which is for the better as it’s arguably the best part of the episode. It’s not, however, completely unaltered: While Spock and the Romulan Commander were always meant to fall in love based on their similar perspectives and experience, the final episode drastically changes some significant scenes with the Commander such that her impact is altered and, in my opinion, worsened. She starts out as a truly hypnotic presence: Someone just as intelligent, competent, cosmopolitan and with just as much dignity as Kirk (and crucially, just as workmanlike too). And, helped by Joanne Linville’s imperious and elegant performance, she absolutely dominates the first half of the episode. Naturally, all this is promptly shoved out an airlock as soon as she begins a relationship with Spock, who is easily able to manipulate her and allow Kirk to sneak on board the Bird-of-Prey and steal the cloaking device right under her nose, turning her into a generic “woman scorned”. Fontana hated this, saying “Any Romulan worth her salt would have instantly suspected Spock because they are related races. That was wrong.”. Of course, she’s right, and frustratingly, this would have made a far, far more interesting story: Imagine the Commander and Spock constantly trying to play and outmaneuver each other throughout the whole episode because they know what they’re planning and what they’re capable of (and what their respective orders are), despite also deeply loving each other. That would have been electrifying.
One alteration Fontana is perfectly upfront with is the actual love scene: Apparently in the original script Spock was meant to “rain kisses” on the Commander. This was *not* Fontana’s idea: Gene Roddenberry felt the need to throw this bit of stage direction in before it was submitted to Arthur Singer and Fred Freiberger. This enraged Leonard Nimoy, who penned Roddenberry a scathing letter complaining about this addition and demanding he cut it out. Fontana, predictably, agreed with Nimoy and also wrote Roddenberry a(n altogether more diplomatic) letter cautioning him on what the fan backlash would be if Spock was written out of character. Eventually Roddenberry backed down, and Nimoy and Linville improvised their gestural makeout session, a further extrapolation of the significance of hands to both Vulcan and Romulan society. A final note on the Spock/Commander plot: It’s delightfully telling that Fontana’s first post-“Save Star Trek!” script puts Spock in an intricate and deeply personal love story and throws Kirk into the clink to pretend to have a mental breakdown. She clearly knew perfectly well the sort of thing all those fans really wanted to see!
Despite everything that was tacked on, altered or taken out, there’s still a lot of great moments in “The Enterprise Incident”, the best of which build on not just “Balance of Terror”, but the work both Fontana and Gene Coon have been building over the past two years. This is as nuanced and developed as we’ve ever seen any culture in Star Trek so far, not just the Romulans, and the Commander’s description of them as a deeply passionate and aesthetic people who guard against the more retrograde, warlike aspects of their culture with a smouldering love of life is intoxicating in and of itself: I could listen to Linville go on about Romulan sensuality basically forever. Speaking of Linville, she has the distinction of playing the very first female captain of a starship in the entirety of Star Trek, and I’m quite sure Fontana meant for there to be symbolism behind having her be Romulan instead of a member of Starfleet: There are a number of times she comes dangerously close to having the moral and ethical high ground, and one suspects she would have won the whole thing in Fontana’s original version. Shatner-as-Kirk too plays into this theme when possible: It’s an easily missed bit of genius to have Kirk retain his surgically altered Romulan appearance after he beams back to the Enterprise with the cloaking device…and have the episode end before we get to see McCoy change him back.
But the problem is these great moments never add up or come together to be a truly great episode. The story that we can watch on television is too in love with its espionage trappings and refuses to problematize the actions of Starfleet Command in the slightest. We never get to see any actual debate over the morality of Kirk’s orders and the Federation emerge the unambiguous Good Guys again. And, well, putting aside the larger sociopolitical and ethical concerns of the UFP for the moment, just knowing the sort of things Richard Nixon was getting up to in 1968, one sort of hopes Fontana would have been allowed to write a story less enamoured with the glory of Western-style representative democracy. Furthermore, the Romulan Commander gets a positively dreadful ending: Yes, she’s treated as a guest of honour on the Enterprise, but she surely won’t be once she gets taken back to Federation space to be “processed”. Imagining the loneliness and despondence she must feel trapped on the other end of the galaxy from her people literally deep in enemy territory just makes me shudder, and no amount of apologising and commiserating on Spock’s part makes any of that better.
“The Enterprise Incident” is also the last story to depict the Romulans in a manner consistent with their original characterization in “Balance of Terror”. Though it builds on and extrapolates this to a marvelous degree, it’s kind of gut-punching to know we’re never going to see this developed on ever again. In many ways the Romulans are the perfect adversaries to the Federation, because we get to see different aspects of ourselves reflected and emphasized in different ways, both for the worse and for the better. But, much like “The Enterprise Incident” itself, future Romulan stories will be subject to micromanaging such that their overall impact is significantly dulled. A case could be made D.C. Fontana too was never able to see the true potential of her vision realised: This is far from her last offering; we’ll be talking about her well into the 2000s and 2010s and she even gets to be showrunner of her own Star Trek series, but her story is all-too-frequently one of being hamstrung, runaround and dismissed in favour of bigger-name creative figures and studio party lines. In that sense, while “The Enterprise Incident” may not be her best work, it may sadly be what best represents her contributions to Star Trek’s legacy.