Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Corbomite Maneuver

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: November 10, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 1 (Shat-tastic!)

“The Corbomite Maneuver” was the first regular season TOS episode produced, but aired later because it was heavy with time-consuming visual effects. As a result, some of the series’ early, unpolished traits are present, such as different uniforms and the shouting version of Spock. The episode’s premise is simple and a stark demonstration of our whole reason for being here: exploration. During a routine star-mapping mission (introduced with a stunning opening shot of the bridge), the Enterprise encounters a cube-shaped ship that obstructs its progress in every direction. The ship turns out to be a warning buoy, which the Enterprise is forced to destroy in self-defense. Our crew soon encounters the “mother ship” behind the buoy, a massive vessel called the Fesarius, directed by the malevolent-looking Balok (voiced by Ted Cassidy, who played Ruk in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”), who engages in a game of space poker with Kirk before deploying a smaller vessel to tow the Enterprise to imprisonment. An opportunistic escape by our crew gets us to the end result, a peaceful exchange between the real Balok (played by Clint Howard and voiced by Walker Edmiston) and the Federation. One note on the Fesarius: I’m sure it’s not true, but I always imagined that the ship’s design might have inspired the Lite-Brite toy, first licensed and marketed by Hasbro in 1967.

Left: Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver with Enterprise in front of Fesarius, right: photo of Lite-Brite toy
Go toward the lights!

One immediately appealing aspect of “The Corbomite Maneuver” is an acknowledgment that exploration isn’t as glamorous as we might think. It would be naive to think that every day of an explorer’s life involves scaling Everest or battling Cardassians. The crew is clearly bored by their star-mapping mission, but such is life in deep space. We get other hints of day-to-day life on board a starship. For example, we learn that the captain (and, presumably, the entire crew) eats meals according to a “diet card,” programmed by McCoy according to each individual’s nutritional needs and physical condition. Food replicators haven’t been developed at this point, so the diet cards would help address the challenge of feeding 400+ people on a long-duration mission.

The episode also conducts a brief compare-and-contrast between humans and Vulcans. Early on, when Lieutenant Bailey (we’ll have a lot to say about Bailey later) acknowledges the first of his many failures, rather than take responsibility for himself, he blames the fact that he has an “adrenaline gland.” (We’ll trust that he means an adrenal gland, which produces adrenaline, but Bailey’s a navigator, not a doctor.) In contrast, Spock’s differences from humans, both physiological and mental, render him better able to operate efficiently during a crisis. The crew clearly has some appreciation for Spock’s clear-headed nature, as Sulu compares the first officer’s logical prowess to a street fight. On the other hand, Kirk’s saving tactic at the end, the Corbomite maneuver that gives the episode its title, is a bluff that never occurred to Spock, who (not for the first time) thinks of strategy as a chess match. If it’s true that Vulcans aren’t accomplished liars, perhaps it’s this very experience that inspires Spock to “exaggerate” days versus hours in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). The fact remains, neither humans nor Vulcans are perfect, and each functions better when they’re able to learn from the other in one of the most significant benefits of diversity.

Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver showing, left to right, Bailey, Spock and Sulu, on Enterprise bridge
Spock and Sulu have identified the weak link

Sadly, “The Corbomite Maneuver” is another TOS gender-fail. Uhuru has an important but intermediary role, and her limited dialogue reflects this transactional status. When Kirk leads a meeting of senior officers, he addresses the room as “gentlemen,” ignoring Uhuru’s presence. When McCoy and Kirk converse in the turbolift, McCoy comments, “The men are tired.” Don’t the women get tired? Even Balok, in the conclusion, requests Kirk leave behind “one of your men,” for conversation and cultural exchange. And poor Yeoman Rand. She is reduced to serving lunch to Kirk and apologizing for the salad McCoy ordered for the captain. Late in the episode, Rand disrupts a life-or-death crisis by serving coffee on the bridge. Kirk complains about being assigned a female yeoman, as if Starfleet would give him no say in the matter. This implies male yeomen exist in Starfleet (one speculated source of the word is an Old English phrase for “young man”), but I don’t recall ever seeing one in TOS. The message is that someone considered the position too subservient for a man.

Ultimately, “The Corbomite Maneuver” is about that moment every explorer must face: fear of the unknown. Kirk and Bailey (Anthony Call) respond to fear in dramatically different ways, and this provides much of the episode’s conflict. Let’s consider Bailey first. I have to wonder how someone of Bailey’s ineptitude ever made it on the Enterprise in the first place, much less how he became a bridge officer. When we’re introduced to Bailey, he complains about the star-mapping mission, and later he’s condescending toward Spock (much the way Data was occasionally treated by android-neophytes in TNG). Spock is too self-aware to care about this rude behavior, but I can’t imagine Kirk would tolerate it. We’re given an entirely unsatisfactory explanation for Bailey’s status: according to McCoy, the young lieutenant reminds Kirk of himself “say, about eleven years ago.” This doesn’t fit the bookish, procedure-driven Kirk that Gary Mitchell described in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It’s hard to imagine Kirk ever behaving like the whiny, trigger-happy Bailey.

Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver showing, left to right, McCoy, Kirk, and Bailey on Enterprise bridge
“Can’t you see that I’m grossly incompetent?”

Some have speculated that Bailey represents us, the audience, panicking in the face of danger. There’s no doubt many of us would panic in a true life-or-death situation, but I’m not entirely in agreement with that interpretation. I like to think most Trek fans wouldn’t impulsively shoot at anything they didn’t understand. Bailey could just as easily represent the communist paranoia that drove America’s military aggression in Korea and Vietnam, a paranoia that ultimately led to a philosophy of “burn villages and ask questions later.” Whatever the interpretation, Bailey is an anti-Kirk. When the cube obstructs the Enterprise’s progress, Bailey twice expresses the desire to fire phasers, and both times Kirk rejects the idea. Faced with a ten-minute countdown, at the end of which Balok has promised to destroy the Enterprise, Bailey suffers a meltdown and is ordered off the bridge. In his behavior, Bailey personifies not the Trek audience specifically, but the weaker elements of human nature, the individual impulse to focus on the self, and an inability, or unwillingness, to distinguish between genuine threats versus the inconveniences that are inevitable in a world inhabited by a multitude of individuals. Bailey represents the paranoid who stockpile firearms because they assume every face represents a potential home intruder. He represents motorists so threatened by Black Lives Matter demonstrators, they would choose vehicular homicide over driving a different route. By choosing to sacrifice lives over compromising the short-term mission, Bailey fails at the true mission: encountering the unknown.

Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver showing Enterprise in front of space cube

Kirk, in his polar opposite response to Balok, reminds us of this twice: “The mission of the Enterprise is to seek out and contact alien life.” Kirk doesn’t even appear in “The Corbomite Maneuver’s” prologue; that dramatic opening shot of the bridge emphasizes an empty captain’s chair. Drawing out Kirk’s first appearance (grumbling through a physical with McCoy) heightens the dramatic significance of his leadership throughout the episode; it also demonstrates the crew’s professionalism, able to self-govern during routine missions, further emphasizing Bailey’s incompetence. When escaping the cube proves impossible, the captain lets the Enterprise remain stationary for nearly an entire day rather than initiate combat. Only when the cube emits lethal radiation does Kirk destroy the buoy as a necessary act of self-defense. Throughout the experience, Kirk’s goal is not to defeat an enemy, but to understand what’s happening.

Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver with McCoy and Kirk in sickbay
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be topless.

At every turn of the plot, Kirk demonstrates why he’s the captain. As always, he collaborates with his officers, at one point telling Spock he takes “emotional security” from their conversations. He never goes off duty, listening to a crew training exercise while sharing a drink with McCoy. He remains tolerant of his crew’s shortcomings, only relieving Bailey from duty after the aforementioned meltdown. He even forgives McCoy when the doctor chooses to ignore a ship-wide red alert long enough to complete a physical (this might explain why Kirk and all subsequent Starfleet captains single-mindedly avoid medical exams). Yet, unlike Bailey, Kirk never dodges responsibility. He apologizes after snapping at McCoy on the bridge. When death from Balok seems imminent, Kirk blames himself, saying, “There must be something to do, something I’ve overlooked.” He also accepts his duty as prime decision-maker, reminding Bailey that, while he might consult others’ opinions, the Enterprise is not a democracy.

However, Kirk’s cleverness at devising the corbomite ruse is not the episode’s true display of leadership. The premise of corbomite, that by destroying the Enterprise their opponent will destroy himself, is reminiscent of mutual assured destruction (MAD), in which either side is so heavily armed that both are discouraged from initiating conflict. The concept was discussed as early as the 1870s, but was first named MAD by a Hudson Institute strategist in 1962. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR used MAD to justify stockpiling increasing numbers of nuclear weapons, believing that more weapons would actually have a deterrent effect.

Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver showing Kirk and Spock on Enterprise bridge
Emotional security – Kirk and his advisers

Kirk, rejecting MAD, shows what he’s made of when the Enterprise finally powers away from Balok’s tractor beam. Balok’s ship, a smaller tow ship that separated from the Fesarius (for no reason that’s ever explained), is heavily damaged, leaving Balok stranded (this turns out to be another step in Balok’s plan). Kirk fully embraces the Federation’s “life first” philosophy; he immediately forgives his now helpless enemy, and orders a rescue mission. This is the point when he reminds his crew, for the second time, that meeting and learning about Balok is their mission. It’s also a reminder that peace is not a passive undertaking. It requires effort and sacrifice, and it forces our crew to confront their fears of the unknown all over again.

To make peace with the enemy, we must learn about them. This is as true for Balok (who appears to be entirely alone in the galaxy, something else that’s never explained) as for the Enterprise crew. His confrontation turns out to be an elaborate plot to establish the Federation’s true intentions. Balok clearly has some things to learn about first contact. Imagine how this approach would play out against Klingons or Romulans. He claims to represent the “First Federation,” which sounds made up to top our familiar Federation, equivalent to responding to “Make America great again,” by saying, “Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll make America greater again!”

Images from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver showing Balok on left, Balok's fake alter-ego on right
Balok and his alter ego

Balok has scanned the ship’s records, so his menacing false appearance seems designed specifically to intimidate humans; Spock isn’t frightened, reporting that it reminds him of his father (Mark Lenard’s Sarek clearly far from anyone’s mind at this point). Is Balok’s aggressive approach really the best way to establish peace? The episode’s abrupt happy ending implies that meeting in a brawl can easily end in a friendly handshake, but this is too convenient. How we present ourselves matters, especially if the presentation is aimed at strangers. We don’t express desire to live in a free society by threatening others at gunpoint, or by legislatively removing basic freedoms of gender identity, spiritual worship, and reproductive rights of citizens. Those who speak of freedom while denying it to others are really expressing their own fear and intolerance. It’s hard to imagine being taken seriously if our words, actions, and beliefs don’t correlate, as Balok’s don’t seem to. Balok’s opening gambit is equivalent to a Yorkie made up to look like a Rottweiler. This is fine if we’re reduced to instinctive competition for limited resources, but presumably the Federation, and Balok, aspire to something more. Yes, the Enterprise carries weapons, but the defensive nature of those weapons is indicated by their lack of prominence in the ship’s appearance.

Balok does put out clumsy feelers along the way; for example, when he issues the ten-minute countdown, he speculates that the Enterprise crew will turn to “a deity or deities or some such beliefs which comfort you” in their final moments. Instead, the crew seeks comfort in familiar rituals: Spock is curious about Balok’s appearance; Kirk and McCoy debate the content of service records and medical logs (also a nod to posterity if the ship’s logs remain salvageable). Kirk never loses faith that there is a way to negotiate with Balok. He equates “peaceful gestures” with intelligence, assuming that any society with the will and ability for interstellar travel must be open to conversation. Even the “death with honor” Klingons will prove Kirk correct in the long run. (Indeed, even the Borg can be reasoned with under the right circumstances, as Janeway will demonstrate in Voyager.)

Image from Star Trek episode The Corbomite Maneuver showing, left to right, Kirk, McCoy, and Bailey on Balok's ship
Sometimes we have to bend a little to find common ground

Kirk is as quick to forgive Bailey as he is Balok. Forgiveness is good, but it doesn’t justify Kirk’s decision to leave Bailey with Balok as the Federation’s representative. During the entire episode, Bailey has done very little to convince us he’s ready to learn the lesson of “The Corbomite Maneuver.” Forgiveness, like peace, requires courage, and we’re not entirely convinced Bailey has developed courage so quickly. Let’s be hopeful; Bailey at least acknowledges that he will make mistakes, and that’s progress. At the right times, fear is an essential evolutionary trait: running from landslides and bank robbers is almost always a good idea. However, as Kirk tells his crew, more often than not our fear is misguided and turns us into our own worst enemy. Now that Bailey has seen, up close, that what we fear is seldom a true threat, maybe we can learn right along with him: the time is always right to lay down our arms and share a glass of tranya.

Next: The Menagerie