Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Tenth Level- a toupological analysis.

As many of you will know, the 1975 Bill Shatner TV movie The Tenth Level appeared in it's entirety on YouTube not long ago (see it in 13 parts here). Our team of toupologists, fresh from their holiday break, has now studied the movie and we are ready and eager to present our toupological analysis.

The TV movie was filmed towards the end of Bill Shatner's "Lost Years" period (1969-1976), when toupee quality took as much of a nosedive as the quality of the projects the actor was appearing in. However, this particular phase within a phase signaled a brief return to far smarter-looking toupees somewhat reminiscent of the old "Jim Kirk lace" (1958-1969). Click here for a more detailed examination of the "Lost Years" period.

But before we look at any moments of toupological value, let's first examine The Tenth Level in its entirety. The TV movie (it was shot on video rather than film) is basically a dramatization of the Milgram Experiment, which sought to determine whether one human being could, via a particular morally and ethically questionable test, be goaded into inflicting harm on another person simply because they were told to do so by an authority figure. From a socio-psychological viewpoint, the question that the experiment sought to address was: when gross wrongdoings are committed at an institutional level, are the majority of perpetrators simply following orders or are they actually complicit in the wrongdoings?

Shatner as scientist Stephen Turner.

In one room, a test subject is told to inflict ever-stronger electric shocks every-time a human guinea-pig in another room answers a test question incorrectly. At around the tenth level of pain, the test subject starts to hear screams from the other room (the subject of the experiment does not know that no actual harm is being done to the other person). A lab assistant urges the test subject to continue. Will they obey and commit torture? Or will their morality override their sense of submission to authority?

"The experiment requires that you continue."

There are several inherent problems with dramatizing such an experiment for television - and, sadly, The Tenth Level falls prey to almost all of them. Rather than presenting a human drama, the TV special retains a clinical detachment similar to the scientists portrayed on screen conducting the tests. This leaves the viewer deeply unsettled as the cerebral and troubling nature of the experiments unfolds without a crucial human context. Where's the story? The Tenth Level feels like it was written by a scientist rather than a dramatist and that is probably its greatest flaw. Non-scientific dialogue is poor at best, with "relationships" feeling tacked on - at times, the whole thing feels like Robert Wise's 1971 The Andromeda Strain meets Days of Our Lives.

In what might be the best Shatnerism ever, Bill Shatner manages to insert a dramatic pause between the "in-" and "-quiry" of the word "inquiry".

Prolonged sequences show this experiment repeated over and over again until we get to a hiccup. An assistant (Dahlquist, brilliantly played by Stephen Macht) at the institute decides to undergo the experiment, but freaks out and smashes up the place. The experiment has brought to the surface similar moral struggles from the character's recent service as a soldier in Vietnam.

A trial follows at the institute to determine if Shatner's character has crossed the line with these troubling experiments. Yet, for all the horror, many of the subjects relate that the experiment helped them to confront certain demons (a both dubious and complex point that is not explored enough).

Dahlquist flips out.

There is, we feel, so very, very much wrong with the way The Tenth Level is written. If torture as a subject is to be dramatized, then the rules of drama would have it that the human angle must focus on the dehumanization of the torturer, whether that character is an antagonist (a bad guy who is corrupted by what he does) or a protagonist (a good guy who suffers for his wrongdoings and perhaps finds redemption).

Sadly, Shatner's character Prof. Stephen Turner (the apparent protagonist who heads these experiments) is badly realized as a character and none of the above really plays out during the movie. The human impact of conducting such dehumanizing experiments is only really dealt with at the end of the movie when Turner breaks down in tears. Until that time, the film focuses at first of the subjects of the torture and then on the scientific value of the torture experiments. The scientists remain cardboard cutouts throughout. Thus, the torture aspect remains little more than a constructed contrivance, with little to surprise or engage the viewer other than the lurid nature of it all.

Shatner's performance is poor in the movie because he evidently does not know the character that he is playing - a fault of the script. The movie should have been about Shatner; about what conducting these experiments does to him. It might have worked better if he was the ex-Vietnam soldier (fusing Macht's character and his into one). Shatner could have been blasé about the tests at first until he decided to try it out for himself - with real pain being inflicted on the other side of the wall. At which point, all kinds of suppressed demons would be released. Or it could have been a story about a former general (Shatner) in Vietnam and his underling (Macht). That might have made for a great drama.

Due to poor writing, Stephen Macht's character is far more compelling than Shatner's.

Yet, the film as written and produced is far from without merit -'s user comments attest to the power of The Tenth Level as a guttural and profoundly unsettling viewing experience. The disturbing sequences that unfold on screen are undoubtedly engaging, if only to fill the viewer with a sense of repulsion and disgust. By the end of the movie, the viewer is likely to feel a strange mix of unpleasant emotions - but none of them apathy.

Shatner's character breaks down in tears at the movie's climax.

Although the Milgram Experiment was devised to understand human wrongs during WWII, here the subject of America's experience in Vietnam is unavoidable. The Tenth Level must be credited for broaching a subject that remained largely taboo for movies and TV until the late 1970s. And if one metaphor triumphs by the end of the movie, then it is the one related to that war, which was just ending at this time, and the dehumanizing effect it had on so many young soldiers who found themselves uprooted from their lives and shipped to a jungle thousands of miles away.

It was these "kids" who in some cases found themselves committing unspeakable horrors (shooting at unarmed women and children) because they were either following imprecise orders about who the enemy was or because the psychological impact of the Vietnam War was distorting and warping normal human values.

Whether it's racism (1961's The Intruder), sex education (1961's The Explosive Generation) or Vietnam (Star Trek and 1975's The Tenth Level) Shatner was frequently among the first to tackle taboo and controversial subjects.

If Shatner's character is the metaphorical embodiment of anything in The Tenth Level, then it is the entire political establishment fighting a war for a theory (the domino theory) with the human impact only being considered near the war's end. "The story is fiction...but it happened" a title card tells us as the movie concludes. Had the script been better, this movie might have been a classic, a kind of Marathon Man meets Born on the Fourth of July.

Now, to the hair...

Bill Shatner's toupee is largely subdued in the movie, with very little to do (like his character) and there is very little that ruffles or disturbs it. The one exception is a Bill Shatner shoulder roll in which the toupee finally takes center stage for a brief moment:

Turner confronts Dahlquist during his freak out.

Near the end, there's also a brief "Real Hair Reflex" in which Bill Shatner pats down the back of his toup:

The last point of real toupological interest is the final scene (see the clip higher up in this post) in which Bill Shatner breaks down in tears (has he ever done that on screen before?) and is comforted by his colleague who strokes his hair (the real part at the back). For Bill Shatner, this was evidently a real step forward from the days of Yvonne Craig and Star Trek in which hair touching was a no-no! While America was coming to terms with Vietnam, Bill Shatner too was healing the nation by allowing his hair to be stroked on screen. The dividing line between the real and the toupee is a fragile one indeed...


  1. There's a patented Shatner "Real Hair Reflex" at 1:20 in part 13.

    I think you're being a little too critical of this show. There are some hints given regarding Shatner's character and how it influences his actions in the experiment: ego-driven, unfeeling, manipulative. As an example, he says he'll make sure a colleague's name is spelled correctly "in the footnotes". One might even say that Shat was well-cast for this role, as these adjectives have been used to describe him in real-life. One thing I'd have wished for would be to see them show how a charismatic presence (like Shatner) might increase a subject's obedience and compliance.

    As for dramatizing this, it is a difficult proposition. Characters like Prof. Turner or Donald Rumsfeld, for example, typically have little ability for introspection and are convinced of their righteousness and infallibility. Both this show and The Andersonville Trial had their main characters break down at the end in an attempt to dramatize the wrongness of their previous actions although I didn't quite buy into it in either instance.

  2. Thanks "Lamplighter" we knew it was there but couldn't find it the second time round! We've added the Real Hair Reflex example now. -ST

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