‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “The Corbomite Maneuver”

“The Corbomite Maneuver” is one of the more overrated episodes of the original Star Trek. Director Joseph Sargent and writer Jerry Sohl have been much-praised for the plot’s tense building sense of alien dread. But by the end the suspense dissipates into ersatz puppetry, blandly reassuring the crew and viewers that the only thing out there is us, smugly patting ourselves on the back.

The Enterprise is charting stars in an unexplored quadrant of the galaxy when they are accosted by a yellow spinning cube. They try to go around the cube, but it keeps pace with them, even at warp speed, even when they maneuver, and even when they back away. Eventually, when they make a break for it, the cube speeds up towards them and gets so close that it bathes them in dangerous radiation. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) decides he has no choice and uses phasers to target it. It disintegrates, shaking the ship, and then vanishing without a trace.

Computer Generated Imagery

This is easily the best part of the episode. The cube FX are corny, but in some ways that makes it more effective. It doesn’t quite look real, which makes it feel wrong, out of place, a real intruder. The crew can’t communicate with it, can’t avoid it, can’t understand it, and after they destroy it, they know no more than they did before.

Science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) notes that the intelligence that created it must be “different,” but that’s all he can deduce. The sequence harks back to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris in its refusal to explain and in its evocation of an alien other that defies interpretation. The universe offers no answers, and its questions are inescapable.

Unfortunately, in this case, the questions have to have glib solutions within, oh 30 minutes or so. Despite Spock’s warnings, Kirk takes the Enterprise back onto its original course, and soon big brother of the cube (aka, a big sphere) shows up and a weird big-head alien known as Balok of the First Federation (voiced by Ted Cassidy) announces he’s going to destroy them all in 10 minutes.

Kirk bluffs that the Enterprise has a device called Corbomite which is a kind of rubber-band-and-glue tech, which causes any attack to bounce back upon the aggressor with equal violence. “If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created…destroying the attacker!” Kirk bluffs. Balok is nervous and decides not to risk it.

Not only is the alien thoroughly scrutable, but he’s a crap poker player—which is to say he’s easier to understand than Kirk himself. Balok is a shallow, bluffable doofus. He’s not the mystery, he’s the stooge.

And he only gets less intimidating. Abandoning plans for destruction, Balok instead detaches a few blinking hexagons of his cube, and deploys them to tow the Enterprise to a prison planet where the crew will be incarcerated. But despite his super high tech, The Enterprise manages to escape the tractor beam, damaging Balok’s ship in the process.

Balok sends out a distress signal, and the Enterprise goes to his rescue. Onboard, Kirk discovers that Balok the big head dude was just a scary puppet; the real Balok looks like a child (Clint Howard). Balok wasn’t really planning to kill them; it was all a test. Kirk decides to leave Lt. Bailey (Anthony Call), who got overly scared in a tense moment, behind with Balok to exchange for information. The antagonistic aliens were friends all along. End parable.

Okay, So That Happened

Arguably, the revelation that he was not in distress restores Balok’s dignity. He wasn’t really fooled by Kirk’s threat; he was just playing along, trying to figure out if the humans were as resourceful and altruistic as they claimed to be. The whole poker game was just a game—a competition between more or less equal players for more-or-less friendly stakes.

But the creators are so eager to show that Balok isn’t a threat that they don’t exactly present him as a peer or an equal. Casting him as a child inevitably infantilizes him. Making him the sole representative of his kind, suffering from loneliness, further diminishes him. So does the fact that he hides behind a puppet, like the Wizard of Oz (don’t look at the man behind the viewscreen!)

Kirk, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), and Bailey have to stoop down in the transporter chamber before they teleport because Balok’s ceilings are low. When they get to his ship they find their host reclining on pillows, in a quasi-Orientalist opulence that also recalls a sick bed.

The story insists that Balok was in control the entire time and is a worthy partner and opponent. But the images frame him as weak, defeated, and dependent. While he is unknown, Balok is terrifying, malevolent, and un-colonizable. When he is known, he is domesticated and colonized.

“The Corbomite Maneuver” epitomizes one popular strand of the Star Trek franchise, and also shows why that strand often leads into pillowy dead-ends. The Next Generation embraced the Corbomite vision of space social workers, whose alien encounters eschew conflict and mystery in favor of cultural exchange and mutual understanding.

But the call to mutual understanding can bleed into something that looks an awful lot like condescension if people over there are assumed to be reachable or reasonable only insofar as they reflect or reproduce the attitudes and characteristics of people over here.

Ignoring the Strings

Budgetary constraints factor in here. Aliens have to be humanoid, speak English, and their architecture has to be easily reproducible on a 60s television soundstage. Beyond that, though, “The Corbomite Maneuver” shows how a message of putative amity is often the big head concealing a message of comfortable dominion.

Kirk ignores a warning buoy because, he says, the mission of the ship is to “seek out new life and new civilizations.” That mission sounds peaceful and laudable. But what happens when someone out there doesn’t want to be sought out, or has such a different culture that cultural contact means something radically different to them than it does to us?

There are examples of this in science fiction, and to no small degree in human history. In “The Corbomite Manuever,” though, Kirk’s ingenuity and good intentions sweeps all before him, transforming opaque cubes into deferential and friendly childlike votaries.

Corbomite is supposed to direct any violence from others back upon them. Similarly, “The Corbomite Maneuver” turns everyone into us, so each exploration is just another reiteration of the principle that we have the right to be everywhere.

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Star Trek: The Original Series ("The Corbomite Maneuver)

5.8

“The Corbomite Maneuver” is one of the more over-rated episodes of the original Star Trek.

5.8/10

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.