Kirk’s Labyrinth, TOS: S1E10 “The Corbomite Maneuver”

While cruising through space, the Enterprise comes across a spinning Rubic’s cube of some kind.  Naturally assuming it to be of absolutely no consequence or interest, they move right along…or at least they attempt to move away from it.  Alas, the eight cornered atrocity will not let them pass, and the captain is forced to fire phasers and destroy it.  This is where the original purpose of Starfleet may have been muddled, because it is hard to imagine why the Enterprise would just want to destroy the cube and move on instead of studying the thing.  In fact, the way that the entire first scene is written works to predispose the audience toward a bias against this machine: the quick judgments and hostile attitude set the unknown object up to be the villain no matter what its original purpose.  Had this episode intended to discover an interesting alien race, perhaps the crew would have shown some curiosity or fascination; instead, they make a few too many assumptions considering that they are supposed to be scientists.

Straight from the beginning, the episode succeeds in showcasing Captain Kirk’s aversion to using force, considering how often the prime directive has been ignored in the past when the plot demands it.  But even so, the story unfolds in such a way that the cube is assumed to be malicious, which seems short sighted considering there are many other potential explanations for strange things in space.  Malfunctioning equipment perhaps?  Could it be an alien lifeform that is only trying to defend itself?  Alas no, it is trying to stop the Enterprise from moving forward, therefore it must be evil.

Nevertheless, this episode is still one of my personal favorites from the Original Series because it is presented more like a series of puzzles and experiments.  Maybe it is no accident that the alien warning buoy resembles a Rubik’s cube.  Misconceptions and flawed tests lead to inaccurate results, all fueled by the crew’s erroneous assumptions and fear of the unknown.  We can’t blame them, as the entrapment must have caused some panic, but for a ship motivated by exploration and discovery, it’s a shame they weren’t more pragmatic.

The perversion of science by one’s own bias is often explored in Star Trek.  What sets this episode apart is the brazen strategy that Captain Kirk pursues.  His interpretation of the situation opens up new possibilities, turning the game from chess to poker.  A fitting metaphor: chess is a game where you are limited to reality, e.g. all moves are known by both players and no deception is allowed, but poker is a game where you can fabricate an advantage if necessary.  That advantage was Corbomite, the biggest, deadliest bluff Captain Kirk could muster.  Fortunately, the alien folded, revealing an elaborate smoke and mirrors setup reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz.  Manufactured advantage, meet manufactured threat.

Ultimately, the alien meant no harm, and only wanted to reach out to new cultures.  The ending is blunt, and it also seems unusually acquiescent.  After being offered a drink by their strange host, the captain and his team imbibe the strange liquid…once the alien proves it is not poisonous for him.  How did they know it wasn’t at least toxic to humans?  Then, Kirk gives up one of his officers so easily, just to keep the alien company?  Well, eccentricity aside, this story is still illustrative of a captain’s ability to manipulate a situation and change the game.

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