Theodore Sturgeon is an obvious pick to write for Star Trek Phase II. He wrote one of the most beloved and influential Original Series episodes ever, “Amok Time”, so it would make sense to give him the opportunity to make something equally memorable for Phase II. However, the thing about Sturgeon is that he *also* wrote “Shore Leave”, which was such a hot mess it was possibly the only work of fiction in the history of time to be actually improved by getting a retread sequel. So, would “Cassandra”, Sturgeon’s submission to Star Trek Phase II, channel the grandiose brilliance of “Amok Time” or the misogynistic clusterfuck of “Shore Leave”?
Naturally, it had to be the misogynistic clusterfuck.
“Cassandra” is pegged as a “comedy”, which is already a bad sign because Star Trek sucks at comedy unless Gene Coon and Dave Gerrold are writing, and neither of them are in this case. The Enterprise is monitoring a diplomatic conference on the planet Manlikt (an aside, here’s a stock Star Trek theme that gets more pronounced in Star Trek: The Next Generation that I never understood: Why is the Enterprise crew frequently put in charge of hosting diplomatic conferences? Aren’t they supposed to be explorers? Isn’t this the job of ambassadors?) between the warlike native peoples the Manlikt (great names) and the Breet. It seems to have gone smoothly at first, but no sooner does the conference wrap up than the Manlikt make a planetwide declaration that they will detonate a doomsday device if the Breet do not return their Sacred Monitor, a priceless Manlikt cultural artefact that seems to have gone missing.
As the bridge crew try to figure that out, our “heroine”, a young, fresh-faced and exceptionally clumsy Yeoman named Myra Kart stops by sickbay to give McCoy and Chapel a strange alien egg she found, but that she also managed to drop and crack. The egg hatches into a small, fuzzy bird-like thing named Cassandra, who seems to have the ability to parrot people’s words before they say them. Cassandra then escapes, and the rest of the episode pretty much consists of Kart chasing her all over the ship as she causes all manner of wacky and whimsical mischief while Kart runs into walls, pushes the wrong buttons and just generally wrecks shit and acts like a dumbass. Eventually, she manages to accidentally capture some Breet spies after Xon reveals to Kirk what everyone who wasn’t asleep figured out forty-five minutes ago, that Cassandra is the Sacred Monitor, was stolen by the Breet and hidden aboard the Enterprise and must be returned to Manlikt. Apparently, somewhere in all of this is there’s supposed to be humour.
Wow. I haven’t seen an episode this manner of bad in quite awhile. This is the sort of thing that defines *painfully* bad: It’s physically difficult to watch because of how awkward, stilted and forced it is and how completely it lacks any manner of self-awareness of just how badly wrong and embarrassing it’s gone. This was literally intended to join the ranks of episodes like “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action”. I just…Wow. I can’t wrap my mind around that. This is “I, Mudd” again except without the banter between William Shatner and Roger C. Carmel to save it. This is comedy by people who I’m not sure know what comedy actually is. This is V’Ger’s idea of comedy.
And at this point do I really need to explain what’s wrong with Myra Kart? A young, ditzy woman who can’t keep her act together for more then five seconds and who is an exasperating burden to everyone? Nobody this incompetent would ever have been given an assignment on *any* starship, let alone the Enterprise, and knowing this creative team is eventually going to sideswipe us with the jaw-droppingly awful “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”, it’s really hard for me to read this as anything other than ugly, unfiltered misogyny. And no, don’t try to tell me the other female characters make up for Kart: With the exception of Chapel, none of them do a goddamn thing. Uhura’s back to playing switchboard operator and Ilia sits out her third episode in a row twiddling her thumbs at the nav console doing fuck all. Kart is the only woman who plays a major, active role in the plot and she’s a bald-faced patriarchal stereotype.
Aside from the misogyny and terrible, unfunny slapstick and pratfall routines, “Cassandra” also has a really lazy structure. Even though we’re only three episodes in, this doesn’t feel like a Star Trek Phase II story at all: It feels like an Original Series one, and a bad one at that. This is most evident in the bridge scenes, where the crew’s dynamic operates exactly the same way it did in the 1960s. Kirk tries to understand and get control of a situation, the doctor comes in every once in awhile to say something and Uhura answers the phone. Meanwhile, the clever, logical Vulcan science officer fiddles with stuff in the background before popping up at a crucial moment with the solution that saves the day. Remove Chapel from the McCoy/Chapel Dynamic Duo, then replace Chekov with Ilia and Spock with Xon and you’ve essentially got “Cassandra”. I don’t think Will Decker even *appears* in this episode, let alone does anything.
It’s of course with Ilia and Xon that the most serious problems crop up. Ilia I’ve already talked about, but writing Xon as essentially Spock with “Spock” crossed out and “Xon” written on the margins in Crayon couldn’t actually miss the point of his character harder then if the creative team had specifically tried to. The whole point of Xon is that he’s not going to act like Spock: He’s an overly energetic workaholic. At this point, the typical rebuttal would likely be that I shouldn’t be too hard on “Cassandra” because it’s only the third episode of a brand new Star Trek and obviously they haven’t quite worked out how the show and the characters are going to work yet. But that’s just the thing…they have: “In Thy Image” and, for all its quirks and eccentricities, “Tomorrow and the Stars”, did establish the groundwork for how Star Trek Phase II was supposed to work and what made it different from the Original Series. This was one of the first episodes accepted, so it likely went into production before either of the other two episodes aired…but they had surely been filmed by that point.
But the larger issue is that not only does “Cassandra” not understand how Star Trek Phase II works, it doesn’t understand how the Original Series worked either: It baffles me to read this was written in the spirit of “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action”, because the way it plays out you wonder if the writer had ever even seen those two episodes, let alone understood what made them great. So I suppose this leaves us with one question: Why does Star Trek fall down at comedy so frequently and so frequently spectacularly? We can’t answer that just yet because this doesn’t get any better in any of the subsequent TV series, but my best guess so far is that it’s yet another thing the franchise lost when it lost Gene Coon. He had a sublimely talented ear for comic timing and rapport and a deep understanding of what constituted a good farce or satire. Writing comedy requires a skill set just like any other kind of writing: Despite what people seem to think, not just anyone can start writing brilliant comedy right out of the blue and, oftentimes, the people who think they’re the funniest are nowhere near as funny as they think they are. I know I’m definitely not.
And it would seem Theodore Sturgeon didn’t have that skill set. And that, for whatever reason, Star Trek doesn’t tend to attract the kinds of people who do.