"Bem" Turns 44
Forty-four years ago today, on Saturday September 14, 1974, planet Earth was a distinctly different place. The President of the United States was Gerald Ford. “I Shot the Sherriff” by Eric Clapton was the number one song in America. Tatum O’Neal and her father, Ryan, won over cinema audiences in Paper Moon, while Darren McGavin spooked them as Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Arcade kids would have been laying down their hard-earned pocket money playing Elimination, Tank or Qwak!, just as Charles Kowal was announcing the discovery of Leda, the 13th satellite of Jupiter.
Very different times indeed.
But within the realms of the Star Trek universe, it wasn’t all that different. That long-distant Saturday morning saw the first screening of “Bem,” the second episode of the truncated sophomore season of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and while we may now look back at those episodes with a mixture of charm and nostalgia, the messages and themes of the episode are every bit as relevant in 2018 Star Trek as they were in ’74.
Let’s first read Captain Kirk’s log entry as the mission begins.
"Captain's log, Stardate 7403.6. The Enterprise is on a series of exploratory and contact missions. Traveling with us as an independent observer is a member of a recently contacted alien species. Honorary Commander Ari bn Bem is from the planet Pandro in the Garo VII system. We have taken up orbit around Delta Theta III, a newly discovered Class M planet. A previous scouting mission has reported possible aboriginal lifeforms here and the Enterprise is to investigate and report."
Written by “The Trouble With Tribbles” scribe David Gerrold, “Bem” (taken from the old-school sci-fi term meaning “bug-eyed monster”) tells the story of the U.S.S. Enterprise mission to the world of Delta Theta III. Discovering “several groupings of aborigines” on the surface, Kirk orders a landing party to beam down, accompanied by the observer Bem, who elects to join them on his own first Enterprise mission. However, unbeknownst to the crew, Bem swaps out their phasers and communicators with fakes and alters the transporter co-ordinates, so Kirk and Spock down beam down to the wrong location.
Uhura’s discovery of a potentially intelligent lifeform leads the crew into a forest, where suddenly Bem breaks into a sprint, leaping into the trees and separating into different body parts to get through the dense foliage. With Bem being held by the natives and a force field surrounding the village, Kirk and Spock use the cover of night to find and liberate the captured Pandronian. However, Bem does not wish to be rescued, and as Kirk notes his irritation at Bem’s unorthodox methods, the alien explains his dislike for phasers and communicators, vocalizing his wish to see if Kirk can manage a mission without his weapons and the casual violence they bring.
Bem once again splits into smaller parts and returns their equipment to them, revealing himself to be what Spock describes as a colony creature. They leave, but are captured in a force field by an alien entity who chastises them for trying to harm her “children.” Kirk explains their mission of exploration and is relieved when the entity orders them to leave immediately. Bem accuses Kirk of failure and runs away again, captured a second time by the planet’s natives. Angry at the crew not leaving, the alien entity returns, and Kirk explains that just as the entity is responsible for her “children,” so he is responsible for his crew. Placated, she allows them to once again leave. Bem is crestfallen, deciding that for his failure he must disassemble into his smaller parts, or, in other words, die. It’s the alien entity who explains that the only way to develop is to learn from our mistakes.
Originally written as an episode of the third season of The Original Series, “Bem” found its home in animated form. Already mostly written and paid for, the episode was picked up by Filmation for the shortened second season after the exit of associate producer and story editor Dorothy "D.C." Fontana. Gerrold further worked up the story with The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, Gene Roddenberry, who suggested adding a number of elements, including the concept of finding God on the planet. Fifteen years later this would resurface in 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, as well as be a key element in the development of Phase II and pre-The Motion Picture era stories.
“Bem” is also notable for a number of other reasons. While James Doohan and his magnificent radio voice were often called upon to provide the vocals for guest characters, this episode employed the skills of Nichelle Nichols, who voiced the alien entity. It was also the first time we heard Captain Kirk’s middle name – Tiberius. Taken from a book that Gerrold had read about torture, the previously undiscovered “T” became - with Rodenberry’s blessing – Tiberius. The name later saw print in Alan Dean Foster’s 1979 novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and on-screen in the original crew’s final big-screen hurrah Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, released during the 25th anniversary year of 1991.
While the story is reminiscent of March 1967’s TOS season-one episode “Errand of Mercy,” “Bem” displayed many Trek elements that live long and prosper to this day. Starfleet’s mission of exploration and first contact is a Trek staple, as are working with officers from other organizations and factions. Here it’s Bem as visiting officer, but stepping ahead 15 years in the Star Trek: The Next Generation season-two episode “A Matter of Honor,” we see Riker assigned to the Klingon vessel the I.K.S. Pagh, while the Benzite ensign, Mendon, comes aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise-D. The hunger to learn more about the galaxy and our fellow species is a continuing thread through all series.
Powerful alien entities are another staple, as seen in numerous episodes across Trek, from Armus, the malevolent being who infamously murdered Tasha Yar on an away mission to Vagra II in TNG season-one’s “Skin of Evil” to the Pah-Wraiths of Deep Space Nine. And let’s not forget Q, the Sha Ka Ree god of Star Trek V, the Douwd, all alien entities with God-like powers, and ones that our respective crews must face down and communicate with.
Forty-four orbits of the sun after its premiere, let’s raise a glass of prune juice and celebrate “Bem.”
Mark Newbold has been an avid Trek fan since the 1970's, when TOS was shown on UK TV, but it was the original cast movie series and TNG era that sealed the deal. Mark is a writer for Star Trek The Official Magazine, is editor-in-Chief of Star Trek: The Neutral Zone and was a stage host at Destination Star Trek Germany in 2018. At heart, he's a Niner. Follow him on Twitter.