“The Corbomite Maneuver” does what a television pilot episode should do. It introduces the main characters and their relationships, gives them a threat that’s significant but not world-ending and provides lots of coverage of the setting of the series, in this case, the starship Enterprise. After “Where No Man Has Gone Before” sold Star Trek to NBC, this was the first “true” Star Trek episode filmed, in the spring of 1966. Many elements of the show were introduced here for the first time, and while this represents a big step towards the show that Star Trek would become, they’re not quite there yet.
While “Where No Man Has Gone Before” basically used the sets and costumes left over from “The Cage”, “The Corbomite Maneuver” shows us Star Trek “2.1”, if you will, with new costumes, painted sets and the full cast of familiar characters. The new costumes lost the turtleneck motif of the previous episodes and redesigned their collars in the familiar black, brightened up the colours to show better on the newly-popular colour televisions, and the women’s costumes were reduced (or elevated) to miniskirts. And showing off the miniskirts are two of the more important female Trek characters, particularly for the first season: Lt Uhura and Yeoman Rand.
Played by Nichelle Nichols, Uhura (whose name is taken from “Uhuru”, meaning “freedom”) was a groundbreaking character by her very presence. The oft-told story is that Martin Luther King himself was a Star Trek fan and particularly appreciated the way that this African-American character was fully integrated into the crew with no mention of her race. Nichols, who cut short a European tour to take the part (and was paid more than any other member of the supporting cast, owing to her status as a stage entertainer), is unfortunately not given very much to do in this episode. That would change in other instalments, to be sure, but at first, Uhura (in a gold uniform for the first and last time – she would don the famous red dress soon enough) is basically a switchboard operator. Pretty much all she says here is, “Hailing frequencies open, sir”. But again, her presence is enough to make a statement.
Yeoman Rand, played by Grace Lee Whitney, is one of the more curious characters in Trek because, for an ostensibly feminist show, she seems so anti-feminist. A “yeoman”, in the Navy, is essentially the Captain’s Butler/Secretary/Personal Assistant. It’s their job to make sure the Captain eats, sleeps, signs the important documents and always knows his schedule. Normally that person would be male (Kirk himself points out how annoying he finds it to have a “female yeoman”), but making Rand an attractive blonde woman adds another layer to Kirk’s character. Trek lore has it that Rand was ultimately jettisoned from the show because the producers didn’t think Kirk should have one steady girlfriend, but rather a string of love interests. Whitney gets quite a bit to do in this episode, and, along with Lt Bailey, plays out how a typical person might respond to a crisis situation, providing dramatic contrast to the cool efficiency of Kirk’s command crew.
The other major character introduced here is Dr Leonard McCoy, ship’s surgeon, played by the wonderful DeForest Kelley. There had been two ship’s surgeon’s before him – Dr Boyce in “The Cage” and Dr Piper in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Boyce was a good McCoy 1.0, but Piper doesn’t particularly register in the series pilot. But McCoy arrives here almost fully formed, right down to “I’m a doctor, not a _____”. DeForest Kelley was a real casting coup, a veteran of westerns, TV dramas and other films for fifteen years by 1966. Known primarily for playing villains, there was still little doubt on the part of Gene Roddenberry or any of the series producers that Kelley could play the sympathetic foil to Kirk.
The McCoy-Kirk relationship takes the best parts of the Boyce-Pike dynamic in “The Cage” and pulls in the “old best friends” material that Kirk and Mitchell had in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. One interesting twist is that McCoy is about ten years older than Kirk, even though the two clearly have a history together. Trek lore (none of this is specifically stated in TOS) holds that McCoy was married, had a daughter, and a good medical practice when he was suddenly divorced and left penniless, forced to join Starfleet. Ironically, so goes the character history, it was in Starfleet that McCoy found his true calling as an exobiologist and ship’s surgeon. Little clues such as how McCoy wears a wedding ring on his pinky finger, and vague references to his past add to the character’s mystique and the “adult” dynamic of the show. (One of the episodes in season three, “The Way to Eden”, was originally written to include a visit from McCoy’s daughter, now a teenager who ran away to a hippie commune, which would have greatly enhanced that episode’s drama.) McCoy treats Kirk like a little brother who happens to be King, but remembers when they were Princes together, a bit like Henry II and Thomas Beckett. It falls to McCoy, more often than not, to be Kirk’s conscience and remind him of his moral responsibilities. But McCoy has the greatest respect for his Captain and the military order under which they are both serving. When crewmen talk back to Kirk, he has the Captain’s back 100%, and always defers to his authority in his gentle but firm way. In this episode, notice how Kirk barks at Lt Bailey, “You’re relieved – Doctor, escort him to his quarters!”, but McCoy quietly takes him by the arm and almost whispers, “Let’s go,” rather than echo the voice of authority. For McCoy, the human touch always wins out, even when he has to practice tough love.
The episode itself is a prototypical Star Trek exercise: the Enterprise encounters some unknown alien force, becomes ensnared in a trap and Kirk must use his wits to save the ship and not fall prey to the blind use of violence. The twist at the end, when the supposed monster turns out to be a harmless and friendly small being (a bit of Yoda foreshadowing, in fact), is pure Star Trek, with its optimism about the future of human, and interplanetary relations. This would make for fair enough drama today, but the show gets a “goosing” from the presence of Lt Bailey, played by Anthony Call, one of a string of nervous junior officers who frankly “freak out” a bit in the presence of the cosmic forces the ship explores. It’s Bailey who steps out of line from anxiety more than once here, and although it makes for good dramatic TV, one has to wonder, in the reality of the show, how someone like that could ever make it out of Starfleet academy. After all, encountering unknowns and facing danger is what these people do. It’s what they train for. It would be like depicting the first moon landing and having Armstrong yell, “Oh my God – it’s the freaking moon!” That might be something we, the audience, would say, but not the characters. We’ll see this trope used again, and it’s frankly not a strong point of Star Trek, in retrospect. But in the context of the times, when networks needed to keep their audiences riveted between commercials, it’s understandable.
When one sifts through the plot of “Corbomite”, there’s really not that much of substance, but it’s a great way to introduce the ship, the crew and the themes of Star Trek. Without this episode, we don’t get the other, more mature instalments, and that’s its true value.
(There’s an interesting PS to this episode. Balock, the villain who turns out to be a small child who speaks in a man’s voice, was played by then-child actor Clint Howard, brother of actor/director Ron Howard. Years later, Clint auditioned for none other than George Lucas who, when he saw the actor, exclaimed, “Balock – the Corbomite Maneuver!” Star Trek fans are everywhere.)