"Without Stick or Sword" is a 1962 third season episode of the police drama series Naked City, which aired from 1958-63. The series notably placed guest stars front and center of each episode, and in this case Bill Shatner and respected character actor Martin Balsam assume the reigns (both actors having acted together on several occasions, including a classic episode of Studio One).
William Shatner and Martin Balsam (center) in "The Defender"
In this story, Bill Shatner plays a devout Burmese Buddhist sailor called Maung Tun. (Yes, a white man playing an Asian - we'll get to our thoughts on that point later on!)
Anyway, the story begins with a murder. An Asian man (again, it's best to just hold off on this part for now otherwise we'll really never reach the end) knocks on the door of a New York apartment and stabs a person to death as they open the door.
Only, he doesn't know that the person he killed was actually the wife of his intended target.
Maung Tun had hoped to kill American ship captain Russel Barris (Balsam), a man he accuses of causing the deaths of his four younger brothers while on a shipping trip to Rangoon years earlier. We learn that the good captain had deliberately chosen not to rescue the boys after they ran into a little trouble while on a small rowboat in the city's harbor. But, crucially, Barris did radio in a warning about the youngsters. Nonetheless, they subsequently capsized and drowned. The captain and his first officer were both dismissed by their shipping company for gross professional discourtesy.
At first, the police hone in on Barris as the potential killer of his wife. But soon, the web of his troubled past is unraveled by the investigating cops.
Maung Tun finds temporary solace in the company of a female acquaintance he encountered on a previous visit to the US (possibly a prostitute, though this is only implied), portrayed by Philippine actress Pilar Seurat.
Tun is honor-bound to seek vengeance against the men who killed his brothers, including the first officer of that ship, the next man he goes after.
But the twenty-four-year-old is riddled with guilt when he learns he has killed an innocent woman. Perceived religious-cultural prescripts demanding vengeance directly clash in Maung Tun's consciousness with Buddhist morality. The result: a young man's confusion.
Meanwhile, the cops launch a sting operation at the funeral of Barris' wife. Maung Tun is guaranteed to turn up.
But will he seek vengeance or forgiveness? What shape will justice ultimately take?
That's where we'll leave the plot. Before we get to our toupological analysis, our overall thoughts on this episode:
It's a noble piece of drama, for sure. By that we mean that the subject matter - meaning the exploration of the pressures, penalties and oftentimes harsh judgments "prescribed" by traditional cultural and religious values - is certainly not belittled here. In today's world, these tensions are very real for many Christians, Muslims and Jews too.
Here, the Buddhist aspect of the story is treated with respect (with one notable exception - we'll get to that in a moment).
"Help me not to do this," Shatner's character asks his god in an almost Shakespearean soliloquy, begging to be absolved of his self-declared role of "just" executioner.
He also seeks guidance at a Buddhist temple - fortunately, we have another Asian actor cast as the priest, although in this case the fellow both looks and sounds like he's reading off cue cards.
Helping things along is above-average TV direction, and an oddly Star Trek-like haunting music score from Nelson Riddle. We would say that the real weak spot (other than the issue we're about to delve into) is the series regulars.
The cop characters, played by Paul Burke and Horace McMahon, come across as rather soulless automatons. Standing 90 degrees apart, looking out at "the audience", processing plot points almost like a Police Squad parody. No humor. No characterization. It's during these scenes that we felt this show descended somewhat into the realms of being just another forgettable 60s-era TV show. To be fair, we'd have to see more episodes to gauge how exactly this format works, but in this one episode, it leaves the viewer feeling a little bit alone amidst all the heady life and death themes (rather like watching the cold Captain Pike and "Number One" talking shop in the Star Trek pilot "The Cage").
So, let's move swiftly to the hair. And by hair, we mean hair and also that other issue, namely what happens when you "black-up" or otherwise make-up a white actor to play an ethnic role. The practice is pretty much taboo these days, and rightfully so (although there are exceptions both awful and iconic).
Peter Sellers as Dr. Fu Manchu.You Only Live Twice (1967):
The real question is why a white actor had to be cast in such a role. Were there no decent Asian actors available? Of course there were (we don't mean George Takei, as we have to confess to not having been wowed by his acting abilities). Sad thing is, that even well into the 1970s, perfectly good Asian actors like Pat Morita were still having to accept degrading roles as "house boy" butlers with funny Asian accents, when in fact their real accents were as American as any other US actor. The legacy of fighting the "Japs" in World War II certainly plays a role in that. Thank God for Sam Fujiyama!
We suspect that in 1962, an Asian leading man in a role like "Without Stick or Sword" was still considered by producers as not viable. An Asian woman, or an Asian Buddhist mentor - yes. But not leading man.
However, we're not of the "OTT PC" school that believes retrospective offense should be taken at the portrayal. It is what it is. Certainly not intentionally demeaning to Asians in any way. Yes, Bill Shatner as a Burmese man is ridiculous. No matter his acting abilities, a white man as an Asian is just silly in this context. But it's not his fault he was mis-cast this way. Those were the times.
Weirdly, he even slips into an Indian accent at one point (please try not to laugh while listening to this):
And the actor also appears to have slight prosthetic appliances on his eyes to appear more oriental - not the fuller sort often used for this type of effect, but it is there. Here's a close-up:
If we try to set the whole ethnic debate to one side, we can say that Bill Shatner performs a reasonable acting job here. He's less effective when he's being characteristically del-ib-er-ate in his acting (as always), although adding "The Enemy Within"- style insane characterization into the mix can always turn such ham into a compelling Shatner-esque experience.
Indeed, watching the episode, a great deal of familiar Shatner-isms seen in later Star Trek episodes are evident - for example, the bloodied hand, the pause, the extra bit of acting to the camera, etc.
The actor is more effective in this role when turning up the soft-spoken charm:
Phew! Now, really, really to the hair! A brief flashback sequence at the start promises merely a variation on the typical-for-the-time "Jim Kirk lace". Nothing to see here, right?
But shortly thereafter, the audience is given a subtle hint that toupologists should perhaps pay greater attention to this one. Bill Shatner pats down his cap, then walks contemptuously past a man combing his hair. Message?
Semiotics, or its sub-branch "toupiotics" - the study of toupological meaning.
What emerges from thereon is a full on black wig, and a long-haired one to boot, as Pilar Seurat points out:
Hair is mentioned several times, including when, during his soliloquy, the character says "I will cut off hair" (foreigners naturally don't use words like "my"). Oh, Buddha, why didn't you take up Bill Shatner on that promise?
But most importantly in this episode, Seurat gets to perform a very, very rare act - she gets to repeatedly touch the "hair".
Note the lace line around a centimeter below the hair line.
She strokes it.
An act, which can lead to some fascinating insights.
A slight discomfort is visible in Bill Shatner during such moments:
There's also a curious wrinkle around the lace line visible at one point. Despite extensive touposcopic analysis, we can't conclusively state at this point whether it is a forehead wrinkle (which does seem less likely given the nature of Bill Shatner's facial expression) or the lace line edge coming undone:
Anyway, stepping back a little. We've often spoken of the idea of a grand trial in which all accumulated toupological evidence would be presented to a court attended by Bill Shatner.
Perhaps the idea is best viewed in less confrontational terms - as a way to provide healing and closure for all sides. A kind of "Toup and Reconciliation Commission" in which the believers and the master denier finally present their cases.
The "Toup and Reconciliation Commission" convenes.
Why bring this up? The funny thing is that one could imagine Bill Shatner's high-powered defense team moving to dismiss this entire episode from being presented as evidence. "Yes, it's a wig!" the lawyer could argue. "My client accepts that."
Stunned murmurs in the audience.
"My client wore a wig for this role. As many actors do. That in no way proves toupee-wearing. He could hardly have grown his own...lush, absolutely real and extremely plentiful [looks to Bill Shatner for approval - receives a nod] hair long for a TV role of the week."
This undoubtedly brilliant tactic would leave the prosecution momentarily in tatters. The defense would be absolutely right. The wig here is so blatant that is cannot necessarily be placed in the same toupological category in which we might place more realistic attempts at persuasive hair presentation by Bill Shatner.
Naked City is available on DVD. The episode "Without Stick or Sword" can also presently be found on YouTube. Worth a watch for a variety of reasons.
Our next post will be entitled "Where the hell have you been!?"