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Recap / Star Trek S1 E10 "The Corbomite Maneuver"

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This face was a mainstay of the closing credits for some time. Now there's a delightful image to leave viewers with.

Original air date: November 10, 1966

An ordinary day on the Enterprise. Kirk is taking a required physical, so Spock has the chair. Suddenly, they run into what looks like the Apple Spinning Beach Ball of Doom that they just can't seem to escape. When evasive maneuvers fail, Spock calls for a red alert. Navigator Bailey, who's struggling to deal with all this, suddenly becomes a little trigger happy until Kirk reminds him who's in charge. Kirk tells Bailey to plot a spiral course at increasing speeds to get away from this Negative Space Wedgie. When it starts emitting radiation, Kirk orders to open fire, destroying the object.

Just when everything looks peachy keen, the Enterprise is caught in the tractor beam of what looks like a cross between the EPCOT's Spaceship Earth and a popcorn ball. The message identifies the sphere as the Fesarius, the flagship of the First Federation, and the speaker as her commanding officer, Balok. Balok announces that the crew of the Enterprise has exactly ten minutes to bend over and kiss their collective asses good-bye. If only Kirk can come up with a cunning plan....

The Corbomite Tropes:

  • Always a Bigger Fish: After Enterprise destroys the cube-shaped buoy, it's intercepted by Balok's vessel that dwarfs it in size.
  • Attack Reflector: Kirk threatens to do this (as a bluff) with a device embedded in the Enterprise that would reflect any attack back at an aggressor.
  • Big Little Man: The Enterprise encounters an alien vessel, and is able to get a video feed revealing the bridge, which shows the alien captain, Balok, to be a scowling monster that looks to be about 7 feet tall. However, later they manage to get on board, revealing they had actually been watching an elaborate puppet show, and the real Balok is no larger than a child.
  • Bottle Episode: As the first proper (non-pilot) episode, almost all of it is spent on the Enterprise bridge getting to know the main characters, both old (Spock's infamously stoic new personality; George Takei as helmsman rather than a bit part) and new (DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, and Grace Lee Whitney make their debut).
  • Brandishment Bluff / Not Afraid to Die: This is Kirk's cunning plan.
    "This is the Captain of the Enterprise. Our respect for other life forms requires that we give you this... warning. One critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the memory banks of any Earth ship. Since the early years of space exploration, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as... corbomite. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying... the attacker. It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago, no attacking vessel has survived the attempt. Death has... little meaning to us. If it has none to you then attack us now. We grow annoyed at your foolishness."
  • Call-Back: Just like the last Captain of Enterprise, Kirk has a problem with an attractive female yeoman as his personal assistant.
    Bones: What's the matter, Jim? Don't you trust yourself?
  • Characterisation Click Moment: Originally, Spock didn't have the impassive, scientific characterization he is famous for. Leonard Nimoy said the character first began to click for him when someone suggested he react to Balok's threatening ship with "Fascinating."
  • Chess Motifs: Spock compares their situation to a game of chess. "Not chess, Spock." says Kirk. "Poker!"
  • Characterization Marches On: As important a milestone as this episode was for cementing the characters' personalities, they still weren't 100% there yet:
    • Hypocritically, after chastising Bailey for raising his voice at the beginning of the episode, Spock yells at several points himself.
    • The episode has some solid character-building moments for Kirk, Spock, and Bones, but the Freudian Trio concept hasn't been realized yet. In fact, Spock and Bones hardly interact at all. A comeback you'd think would be a perfect fit for Bones ("then may heaven have helped your mother"), is given to Scotty, of all people.
    • While Kirk is mostly different from Pike (younger, and tired in a different way), he's still annoyed at a female yeoman, when he'd defend women on the ship later on.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: So, uh, does Bailey ever come back? Or what?
  • Crew of One: Balok's ship.
  • Cunning People Play Poker: When faced with Balok's incomprehensible mothership threatening to destroy the Enterprise, Spock contextualises their situation as a game of chess and concludes Balok has declared checkmate. Captain Kirk changes the game to poker, and then bluffs that Enterprise has a defense feature that will ensure that if it's destroyed, Balok's ship will also get blown up.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Bailey tells Spock "Raising my voice back there doesn't mean I was scared or couldn't do my job. It means I happen to have a human thing called an adrenalin gland." Spock responds "It does sound most inconvenient, however. Have you considered having it removed?" Sulu tells him he should know better than to try to out-snark Spock.
    • Kirk gets a snark at Bailey's expense after Bailey "votes" to open fire when he tells him "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Bailey... when this becomes a democracy."
  • Dissonant Serenity: In-Universe as Bailey can't believe everyone's calm response to their imminent death.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: This was actually the first episode filmed after the pilot, and some of the details were still in flux.
    • Uhura wears a gold uniform.
    • The Enterprise is referred to as an Earth ship rather than a Federation ship.
  • Eldritch Starship: Balok's starship Fesarius was a gigantic starship the size of a small moon, composed of a sphere made up of smaller spheres of various sizes and colors. At least one part of this ship could break off as a smaller command vessel. It's possible that the ship was composed entirely of smaller vessels to the aforementioned one, clustered together and sharing power.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The script directed Spock to emote a fearful reaction upon his first sight of the Balok puppet, but director Joseph Sargent suggested to Leonard Nimoy that he simply ignore what the script called for, to see it as an object of curiosity rather than a threat, and react with the single word: "Fascinating."
    • Nimoy had been having difficulty playing an emotionless character, and Sargent wrote him a note: "Be different, be the scientist, be detached." And he was.
    • Kirk's revelation that he should be playing poker instead of chess perfectly encapsulates his ability to think on his feet, to bluff his way out of certain doom, and to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; all traits which would define his character.
    • Sargent was also the one who insisted the bridge crew must include black personnel. The episodes weren't filmed in the order you see them, so Uhura appears in "earlier" episodes, but this is where Joe d'Agosta brought in Nichelle Nichols and the rest is history.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Bones's remark in passing about his intent to point the finger at Kirk for ignoring his warnings about Bailey's condition — "and that's no bluff" provokes an annoyed response from Kirk... in the middle of which he stops, startled. The word "bluff" has clearly kicked off a train of thought, culminating in his remark about poker a few seconds later.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Possibly the reason why Bailey asks permission to resume his post with one minute left on the clock. He takes up most of that minute just walking to his seat!
  • Facial Dialogue: Following Kirk's "corbomite" bluff, Kirk and Spock have such a clear nonverbal exchange that when Spock switches to actual audible speech, he phrases it like they'd been talking aloud the whole time:
    "However, it was well played."
  • Foreshadowing: The first instance Kirk is Not Afraid to Die. He's using it as a Brandishment Bluff this time, but later episodes (like "Arena") will have characters concerned about how much he finds the ship more important than his own life.
  • Freak Out: Bailey has one when he realizes "So this is it; we're all going to die."
  • Head-Turning Beauty: Yeoman Rand. Kirk has a hard time ignoring her charms.
  • Heroic BSoD: Bailey has a disturbing tendency to overreact in times of stress. He might think about a transport ship; there's a lot less pressure there. Staying on the Fesarius works too.
  • I Come in Peace: Kirk says this to Balok.
  • If I Do Not Return: The first time Balok threatens their vessel, Kirk orders a recorder marker dispatched to warn other Earth ships, but it's destroyed on launch.
  • Ignored Vital News Reports: McCoy sees the alert light, but prefers to complete Kirk's physical. Presumably McCoy also turned off the sound, since Kirk heard neither the alert, nor Spock's calling him to the Bridge.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Bones asks sardonically, "What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?"
  • Indy Ploy: An example of the "Character Made It Up On The Spot". It worked so well, he pulls it out again for some Romulans in "The Deadly Years".
  • It's Like I Always Say:
    • Inverted — Kirk claims that Bones always says "a little suffering is good for the soul". Bones flatly denies it, and he never finds occasion to say it or anything similar in any subsequent episode or movie. (This is given a Continuity Nod in the 2009 reboot film, where Bones does say it — of course, that's a different Bones.)
    • Kirk also claims that Bones has said "Man is ultimately superior to any mechanical device". Bones denies this, too, but he's probably lying (Kirk's bemused reaction suggests this), and he does make similar statements in many subsequent episodes, such as "The Ultimate Computer".
  • Jekyll & Hyde: Balok name-checks the famous duo that's really an uno. However, he refers to it more like an alter ego, more of an intimidating disguise than a true split personality. And the method Balok used had much more in common with The Wizard of Oz.
  • Large Ham:
    • The fake Balok's voice, portrayed by Ted Cassidy.
    • When Bailey thinks the ship is about to be destroyed, he goes into an epic Freak Out that leaves teeth marks in the scenery.
  • Leaning on the Furniture: Bones shows his Mildly Military nature by sitting on the Bridge rail.
  • Loafing in Full Costume: Averted; Kirk is shirtless because Bones is giving him a physical. Once he establishes there's no immediate danger, he takes the time to go to his quarters and change into his uniform.
  • Mad Lib Thriller Title: The Corbomite Maneuver
  • Magic Countdown: A fairly subtle example. During the ten-minute countdown to the Enterprise's destruction, the minutes that pass on screen are nearer a minute and a half long.
  • The Man Behind the Curtain: Balok has the appearance of a human child. When he communicates with other ships via the view screen, he uses an intimidating puppet. Notably, Balok's method was more like another noted man behind the curtain than it was Jekyll and Hyde.
  • Mandatory Line: In her debut appearance, Uhura utters her Catchphrase, "Hailing frequencies open", a whopping seven times, and little else.
  • Mundane Utility: Rand uses a phaser to heat up the coffee the Captain absolutely must have.
  • Must Have Caffeine:
    • Who cares if the ship's 'bout to blow up? Kirk needs that coffee, dammit!
    • More justified when they've spent 18 hours trying to figure out the spaceship. Sulu and Uhura look like they're falling asleep at the briefing room table.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: After revealing that he is not hostile but actually friendly and jovial, Balok stresses that he and Captain Kirk are much alike, giving the example that both are commanders who are proud of their ships.
  • Ominous Cube: The Enterprise encounters a cube-shaped buoy that blocks their path and eventually begins emitting harmful radiation forcing them to destroy it. Of course, it turns out that it was a marker buoy belonging to The First Federation and destroying it signals a massive ship to come out and attack the Enterprise.
  • One-Steve Limit: averted with the alien First Federation only because the creators had not yet established The United Federation of Planets.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: There's a great character moment when Kirk berates Spock for his apparent acceptance of defeat: Spock almost says, "I'm sorry", before catching himself and reporting that he sees no logical alternative.
  • Prepare to Die: The Enterprise is confronted by a powerful alien vessel that announces its intention to destroy our heroes, and goes on to say — "we assume you have a deity... or deities," and politely offers to give the Enterprise crew time to make "whatever preparations" they deem necessary. An unusually explicit example of this trope, where the opponent says "prepare to die" and clearly actually means it. And they're all the scarier for that.
  • Race Against the Clock: They only have 10 (Earth) minutes to get out of this. Sulu is watching the clock for them when Balok isn't reminding them. Scotty eventually gets annoyed by Sulu's counting down, saying he has "an annoying fascination with timepieces".
    • At one point the editors forgot to dub in Balok's reminder — leading to Sulu's cryptic "I knew he would" line (which actually gets cut in syndication).
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: Spock says this of Balok's mothership when they're attempting to measure its size.
  • Red Alert: Spock sounds a General Alert when the vessel keeps moving to block their path. Kirk is angry because Bones doesn't call his attention to the alert until his examination is over. Spock orders Bailey to turn it off once all decks have reported they're ready for action.
  • Red Shirt: He was a Red Shirt on TOS... and lived. He is: The Most Interesting Man in the World.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Kirk makes up the title maneuver to bluff against an unwinnable fight; Balok makes all of his communications until the very end through a hand puppet.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale:
    • The Enterprise is 289m long, yet it dwarfs the 107m cube. The Fesarius is a mile in diameter (1609m) according to Spock, yet it dwarfs the Enterprise from 5km away, appearing a hundred times bigger.
    • The Enterprise encounters a mysterious cube, which Sulu says is 107 metres on each side and masses just under 11,000 metric tonnes. Scotty says it must be solid metal, leaving him wondering how it could be powered and how it moves around. But the quoted measurements give a density of about 9 kilograms per cubic metre, significantly less than styrofoam — implying the cube is almost certainly hollow (they may have been aiming for 9 tonnes per cubic metre, which is between the densities of iron and lead, and dropped a factor of a thousand somewhere).
    • The Fesarius itself. The ship's sensors seem to be unable to measure its mass, despite the sensors in other episodes being able to measure objects orders of magnitude larger (like moons, planets, stars, and black holes). Sure, while the ship is massive compared to the Enterprise, it's nowhere even close to a moon, let alone a planet or something bigger.
  • Second Episode Introduction: This is the first non-pilot episode of Star Trek. Introduced are Uhura, Yeoman Rand, and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (as a Second Episode Substitute for Dr. Mark Piper); it is not, however, the second episode aired, as the pilot episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before" was held back until later in the first season.
  • Secret Test of Character: After the Enterprise breaks free of Balok's Tractor Beam, Balok sends out a distress signal indicating that the struggle overloaded his ship's systems and he's now stranded far from any help his own people might send. Kirk decides to beam over and offer the Enterprise's assistance, whereupon it turns out that Balok's ship is fine and he just wanted to learn what Kirk would do. (He also says that the entire encounter has been a test of character, to make sure that the Enterprise's protestations of peaceful intent are genuine. It's not clear, however, what would have happened if the destruction countdown had run down without Kirk thinking up the corbomite maneuver.)
  • See the Whites of Their Eyes: The cube initially stops over 1500 metres from the Enterprise, although on-screen they appear nose to nose with each other. Later the cube gets closer than 51 metres before phasers destroy it. (That's closer than half the cube's size.)
  • Shirtless Scene: Kirk removes his shirt for a physical exam. After learning that the Enterprise is on alert, he proceeds to walk down the corridor this way, and nobody blinks an eye. Of course, considering the frequency with which Kirk goes shirtless or tears his shirt, it's likely that everybody on the ship has seen the captain half-dressed.
  • Sinister Geometry: Balok's warning buoy is a spinning cube, and he himself shows up later in a huge spherical ship made up of smaller spheres. Subverted, since he turns out to be a pretty friendly guy in the end.
  • Smart People Play Chess: In light of this episode, maybe the trope should be "Book Smart People Play Chess" and a new trope be called "Street Smart People Play Poker". Spock contextualizes their conflict with Balok as a game of chess: Balok has them in checkmate, the game is over, Enterprise loses. Kirk changes the game to poker, and bluffs his way to victory.
  • Special Effect Failure: The fake Balok seen on the viewscreen in an obvious puppet to the eyes of the audience. Subverted in that it's revealed to be a puppet in-universe too.
  • Stay with the Aliens: After the alien reveals it was all a Secret Test of Character, he asks for a human to teach him about humans. Kirk sends the crew member that was pushing for the alien's death earlier. (Maybe he just wanted to get rid of him?)
  • Talking to Themself: Bones is quite alone when he says "Humph... if I jumped every time a light flashed around here, I'd end up talking to myself."
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: Kirk is annoyed when Yeoman Rand serves him salad on Doctor's Orders, but fortunately a Red Alert gives him an excuse to leave it behind.
  • This Is Not a Drill: Kirk isn't happy with the slow response to his order to fire phasers, so orders battle drills till they get it right. Sulu then gives this trope when a real call for battle stations arrives in the middle of the drill.
  • To Win Without Fighting: Kirk is able to bluff his way out of a fight by convincing his potential enemy that to engage his ship would result in their immediate destruction in turn.
  • Tractor Beam: Balok's ship is equipped with one which he imprisons the Enterprise with.
  • Two of Your Earth Minutes: "We therefore grant you ten Earth time periods known as "minutes" to make preparations."
  • Video Phone: In many episodes, but at its greatest effect here.
  • Vocal Dissonance: Balok is played by a very young Clint Howard, but with Vic Perrin's (some sources say Walker Edminton's) voice. Ted Cassidy voiced Balok's puppet.
  • We Come in Peace — Shoot to Kill: Though advocated by Bailey not Captain Kirk, who'd prefer to leave peacefully and only fires at the last moment when the increasing radiation levels emitted by the buoy endanger their lives.
  • Where Is Your X Now?: Averted as Balok is civilized enough to respect such beliefs as they might help the Enterprise crew to accept their inevitable fate.
  • Weight Loss Salad: Kirk is given a salad on Doctor's Orders. He's not amused.
  • You Have No Chance to Survive: Justified Trope seeing as the object is a Secret Test of Character. It's not like Starfleet doesn't do something similar to see how their recruits face certain death.
  • You Remind Me of X: Bones thinks that Bailey reminds Kirk of himself at a younger age.