The Original Series’ “The Corbomite Maneuver” in Review
Following the pilot episodes “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “The Corbomite Maneuver” was the next produced Star Trek episode, the first regular installment. It introduces new characters while firmly establishing Sulu and Scotty’s roles at the engineering and helm stations, respectively. The newcomers include Uhura (chronologically shown earlier in Strange New Worlds), Yeoman Rand, and young navigator Bailey. Doctor McCoy joins too, forming an iconic trio with Kirk and Spock.
The Enterprise encounters a peculiar multi-coloured cube, spinning menacingly in space. It emits no comm signals but persistingly blocks the ship’s course, unnerving Lieutenant Bailey.
Captain Kirk is undergoing a strenuous physical examination by Doctor McCoy. He keeps it from Kirk that the ship is on alert, but Spock then informs the captain about the cube.
Kirk finds Lieutenant Bailey is extremely presumptive. As the Enterprise attempts to pull away from the cube, Bailey hesitates but then fires on the object, causing an explosion.
After destroying the cube and sustaining minor damage, the Enterprise continues. McCoy privately criticises Kirk for pressuring the crew, particularly Bailey. Their conversation is interrupted by Yeoman Rand bringing salad to Kirk, on doctor’s orders. Kirk confides in McCoy that the Enterprise is the only female he’s focused on.
A massive sphere — much larger than the cube but of similar metallic construction —approaches and dwarfs the Enterprise. A booming male voice from the globe introduces himself as Balok, commander of the First Federation flagship Fesarius. (The episode writers were definitely going for some hardcore alliteration here!) Balok refers to the destroyed cube as a warning buoy, ominously threatens the Enterprise, and destroys a recorder marker ejected from the ship. On the Enterprise‘s viewscreen, Balok’s monstrous image briefly appears.
Although Balok stubbornly refuses any communication, Kirk bluffs him, claiming the Enterprise carries a volatile substance — corbomite. Balok therefore postpones destroying the vessel. As Yeoman Rand brings coffee to Kirk, the sphere launches a small pilot ship that begins towing the Enterprise. The starship strains against the tow, eventually breaking free and apparently crippling the pilot ship’s engines.
However, Kirk isn’t the only deceptive commander. When he, McCoy and Bailey beam onto the alien spacecraft, they discover that Balok’s fearsome visage is merely a puppet and that Balok is actually a welcoming child-sized alien. Bailey volunteers to stay with Balok, for cultural exchange.
Incorporating numerous reaction shots of the crew, this episode is potentially a bit boring. As Lieutenant Bailey at one point hysterically points out, there is too much sitting around. However, the ending more than makes up for any boredom we might have felt along the way. The portrayal of Balok is exemplary, using voiceovers with a combination of puppetry and a young actor overdubbed by a high-pitched adult. Though the tedium of seeing the crew marvel over multiple spacecraft has always irked me, I love how Balok is shown to be much more welcoming than we’re led to believe he will be, leading us in turn to be cautious about judging people too quickly.
There are a few shots in this episode which are a little too shaky, like when Kirk first enters the bridge and during an initial zoom-out from Spock’s station at the start of the episode. In both this scene and a couple of later ones, Spock either shouts a command or suddenly leaps up from his station. His loudness is in keeping with the pilots that were shot before this episode but was toned down from here on. There are also some strikingly unusual lines from Spock, such as when he educates Kirk about checkmate (even though they play chess together in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and talks about his parents consistently in the past tense. Yet another oddity is how the various characters pronounce “Balok” differently.
The Enterprise bridge looks more colorful and therefore better for series television than in the two pilots, particularly moreso than in “The Cage”. Although the greyness of that earlier bridge might have been more realistic as a utilitarian work environment, the configuration of the Enterprise bridge here is definitely classic.
The music seems a bit overblown in some scenes when the cube is shown doing nothing but rotating in space, such as when Kirk first sees it on a small viewscreen in sickbay. However, I do like how colourful the cube is. Similar to how insects are drawn to colourful plants and flowers, it makes sense if the cube is using bright colours as a way to attract the attention of aliens.
Red uniforms were first used in this episode. Despite later becoming famous for wearing red, Uhura sports a brown uniform here. I actually prefer her brown uniform than her later red one, but the thick black collars of the Enterprise crew look too wide. Unfortunately, Uhura’s limited role — besides making announcements about hailing frequencies — is also introduced here and the story does very little to flesh out her character. However, I do love how the episode introduces Spock’s famous “fascinating” remark (accompanied by an upswept eyebrow) and the Kirk-McCoy banter. Both Kirk and McCoy are given some fantastically comical witticisms. The introduction of Rand is also brilliantly comedic.
This episode leaves many questions. Is Balok a child or an infant-like adult? Did he ever compensate the Enterprise for the loss of its recorder marker? What does tranya consist of and is it supposed to be alcoholic? Why is Kirk so trusting of Balok that he immediately sips the tranya when it could be inconsumable by humans, either accidentally on Balok’s part or deliberately (i.e., poisoned)? And what becomes of Lieutenant Bailey after this point? As Balok himself says, “I know, I know — a thousand questions.”
A bottle show that features no strange new worlds, this would have made an odd choice to air as the show’s first episode. It does work well as a standalone installment, introducing some new characters and conveying a fantastic moral message which is delivered subtly enough.
Editor of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinates the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly features live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.