Thursday, October 3, 2013

“I'm spunky!”: Elaan of Troyius

"Wow, this is a really crap episode." "I know. Let's see what else is on."

“Elaan of Troyius” is the first visible sign that things have gotten really bad for Star Trek. “Spectre of the Gun” may have raised suspicions a bit and, upon closer examination, it turned out to be Gene Coon in active revolt against the new status quo. This episode, by contrast, is evidence of how toxic the new status quo actually is.

First of all, it is catastrophically terrible. Star Trek has been reactionary on many an occasion before, but it hasn't managed to be quite *this* reactionary since the Gene Roddenberry era. Elaan is flat-out the worst character we've seen in the Original Series so far: Not since Nona has there been a confluence of bigoted, xenophobic tropes of this magnitude, and Elaan makes Nona look downright progressive. I could explain why, but I really don't have to because our old friend Daniel Leonard Bernardi had a few choice words to say about this episode:

"'Elaan of Troyius' brings into play stereotypes of the Asian female – the manipulative dragon lady and the submissive female slave. Elaan is both irrational and primitive. She throws temper tantrums, eats with her hands, and drinks from the bottle. Kirk tells her, 'Nobody's told you that you're an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman's body, an arrogant monster.' Captain Kirk, the 'white knight' of Star Trek, articulates his and the Federation's moral superiority and authority over the Asian-alien and her people through sexual conquest [...] Indeed, it is only after the captain physically and sexually dominates her that she respects and eventually falls in love with him [...] After giving in to Kirk's power, Elaan, like the cunning and manipulative dragon lady of classical Hollywood cinema, returns the favor by capturing his heart. The Asian-alien's tears contain a bio-chemical agent that, when touched by a man (even aliens like Kirk), forces him to fall deeply in love with her. After she manipulates Kirk into desiring her, Elaan becomes submissive, gentle, loyal, even willing to die with him, by his side, as the Klingons ruthlessly attack the Enterprise. It is at this point in the narrative that the other stereotype of the Asian female comes into play – that of the submissive Asian slave. In the end, Elaan does anything Captain Kirk requests, politely and adoringly obeying his demands and orders. Her dragon lady tactics were only used so that she could assume a position she truly desired: the submissive mistress of a white knight."

Bernardi goes on like this, and, as is somewhat typical for him, he's generally spot-on but in a narrow scope and with caveats. Ironically enough, Bernardi misses one of the biggest racist signifiers in the episode: While he's right that Elaan draws upon Dragon Lady stereotypes, probably unfortunately in part due to her actor, France Nuyen, who is half-Vietnamese, the show is very clearly coding her as African too. Nuyen is dutifully browned up and her costume, hair style and facial makeup are all clearly modeled after stereotypical Ancient Egyptian imagery. Elaan isn't just a racist caricature of Asians, she's a generically amalgamated nonwhite, nonwestern Other, and one would think Bernardi of all people would have noticed that.

Of course, in this quote Bernardi also seems to fail to point out how obviously and spectacularly misogynistic this episode is. Not only is Elaan an archetypical savage, she's also a strong, independent woman respected as an absolute ruler on her planet who spends the entire episode quite literally infantilized by everyone else on the show: She's explicitly called a “spoiled brat”, runs into her room and locks the door when challenged and Kirk even actually threatens to spank her. It's utterly appalling and disgraceful. There's also the narrative Bernardi does mention, which is how the whole episode is based around Kirk forcing Elaan to become “proper” and “courteous”, which really just means submissive. This is bald-facedly anti-woman in a way this show hasn't managed since “Mudd's Women”, and honestly I think this one is actually worse.

Somewhat bewilderingly, this episode was supposedly meant to appeal to Star Trek's female fans. Of “Elaan of Troyius”, Fred Freiberger said "We tried to reach a segment of the audience we couldn't otherwise reach, and didn't succeed.” which is actually pretty funny. However, it also points out a serious failing on the part of the Star Trek staff. Aside from the fact they turned out a jaw-droppingly sexist turkey of a story, according to Freiberger and other members of the creative team, the whole intent was to reach out to women because women didn't typically watch science fiction. I just find this statement completely inexplicable: Women were the *original* fans of Star Trek! Bjo Trimble organised the letter writing campaign that gave us this season in the first place! Spock, Kirk and Uhura were all wildly popular with women, and this would have been painfully obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the people actually watching the show. Women were already watching and in droves to boot-How on Earth were Freiberger and his team unaware of this to begin with?

I think the reason is because there is now a cavernous disconnect between the show, the people making the show, the people overseeing the show and the people watching the show, and this trips up a lot of people who try to talk about this season. Let's take a quick survey of the various reactions to this episode. We've already mentioned Bernardi's, and we'll come back to him a little later on, but let's look and some others first. There's the fan account, which we can divide into two versions. The mainline, semi-official account in this case comes from Star Trek historians Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann, who call “Elaan of Troyius”:

"...indicative of many, though not all, of the episodes produced for Star Trek's third season. Costumes, makeup, and script were all overblown, perhaps more suitable to sci-fi pulp than to the show's earlier attempts at straightforward storytelling in a unique setting."

I normally respect Block and Erdmann a lot, but I can't help but roll my eyes at this. Never mind the fact the episode is a racist and sexist disaster, no, the real problem is that the costumes are too frilly and the script reads too pompous and pulpish. But, at least Block and Erdmann agreed the episode was bad, which is more than can be said of the A.V. Club, our representatives of contemporary fandom, who gave it a “B” rating and praised the “unexpected” ending and “nifty” space battle with the Klingons, which sort of speaks for itself.

The person whose reaction most interests me is that of the episode's writer and director, John Meredyth Lucas. It's more then a little staggering to see his name associated with “Elaan of Troyius”, and even more so to find he was apparently *proud* of it, saying: "I enjoyed the love story aspect of the show and thought it was an interesting change of pace. You didn't get to do too many of those.". It should go without saying this statement makes close to zero sense given what we've seen of Lucas so far, but I think this might actually demonstrate something other than damning Lucas as an insensitive bigot. For one, I'm starting to get the sense Lucas was probably a better showrunner than he was a writer or director. This can happen: Many times creative personnel double up on jobs, and very rarely are they good at all of them. Lucas oversaw one of the best runs in the show's history, but as for stuff he actually wrote? So far it's been this and “The Changeling”, neither of which were particularly successful. “Patterns of Force” was great, of course, but there Lucas was working off of a Paul Schneider script, and Paul Schneider is hard to screw up. Left to his own devices, however, well, maybe Lucas should have stuck to the producer's chair.

But let's play close attention to the word choice Lucas uses in his defense of his script: He specifically says it's the love story that makes up the second half of the episode, which is interesting, as nobody else who's commented on “Elaan of Troyius” has seemed to pick up on that. Admittedly, it's an extremely problematic love story: It begins with Elaan either bowing to Kirk's masculine dominance or trying to manipulate him to enact genocide on the Troyians, depending on which horrifically misogynistic and reactionary trope is least likely to ruin the rest of your day. From what I gather, Lucas wrote this as a retelling of both The Taming of the Shrew and the Helen of Troy myth, which frankly doesn't do this story any more favours anyway. Although Lucas quite honestly fails to do anything with this plot point, he's saved by his actors, who give the entire back half of the episode an entirely different interpretation.

Naturally, William Shatner is the primary figure here. Kirk is written pretty disastrously out of character for the majority of the episode, reinforcing the script's rampant misogyny (seriously, did nobody but me notice “Mister Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That's the only planet in this galaxy that can make that claim”?). However, Shatner doesn't play Kirk with the typical exaggerated, manly bravado he's done when given this kind of prompt in the past: Instead he plays the part exasperated and frustrated at his inability to help bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The key turning point comes, however, after Kirk and Elaan fall in love, because, completely contrary to the way we would expect him to behave (and indeed the way the script seems to be written) then and only then does Kirk actually begin to act like Kirk. Rather then render him unfit for command and incapable of handling the crisis with the Klingons, Kirk seems in possession of every single one of his normal faculties. Spock and McCoy try to handwave this away during the denouement with the annoying "The Enterprise infected the captain long before the Dohlman did." (Nimoy and Kelly actually play their parts in this episode altogether too straight for my liking to the point they got on my nerves), but that's not at all what Shatner seems to be trying to convey.

Nor, actually, is it what France Nuyen is trying to convey either. Interestingly, Nuyen and Shatner had worked together before on Broadway and apparently they got on well enough to work together at least twice more after this episode. The two actors visibly have a chemistry together, and while for most of the episode it's held back by the script's overbearing paternalism, when it does shine through it's bright enough to commandeer the episode's meaning. This is the key thing Bernardi misses in his critique of “Elaan of Troyius”: By focusing on the textual representation problems of the script, he once again overlooks the fact that Star Trek is a joint production composed of many different creative figures, and while Elaan may be loaded up with racist and sexist imagery about manipulative and savage foreign women, Shatner and Nuyen play their characters as being very much in actual love.

Because of this, the back half of the episode gets to play out very differently: Now it seems more like Kirk admires Elaan for her warrior strength and indomitable spirit and Elaan sees in Kirk someone she can consider an equal, and who might consider her an equal in return. The key scene here is when Elaan beams down and says goodbye to Kirk, giving him her dagger to remember her by. Kirk says he has no choice but to let her be married off as political tribute, and Elaan says she doesn't have any choice either, saying she now has only “responsibilities and obligations”, and the way Nuyen delivers this line is obviously loaded. The episode now becomes, only in its final act, a tragedy about political systems and structures of power, and how deference to orders and one's assigned social role puts physical and metaphorical chains on people and dehumanizes them. That seems like something that Lucas may have been attempting to convey through referencing Helen of Troy, but he was so incompetent at it here any evidence for this reading in the finished product comes strictly from William Shatner and France Nuyen.

Star Trek has always in some sense been defined by the ability of its cast to elevate middling and ill-conceived ideas, but this time it feels a bit different. In the past there have been at least more than one party who were more or less on the same page, and now it seems like the management is not only incompetent but deliberately refusing to listen to not only the people they're overseeing, but the people watching the show. Which is, if we're honest, a not entirely unexpected thing for a production team largely interested in making sure this season is the series' last. Thanks to William Shatner and France Nuyen, we can once again read “Elaan of Troyius” as an episode ultimately transformed and redeemed by a few visionary people, but really, with a production this apathetic and retrograde, why would you want to?

6 comments:

  1. I had always considered Elaan of Troyius one of those unfortunate Star Trek episodes where the production team was so entranced by a facile allegory that they forgot all the sexist/racist elements of the story. Wow, you wrote a transparent sci-fi allegory of Helen of Troy (they didn't even really change any names) and crossed it with a really condescending version of Pygmailon; congratulations, you've achieved the level of fanfic written by a sixth grader.

    I didn't know Shatner and Nuyen had worked with each other before, though. I think when I've watched previously, the awful first half just polluted my ability to see the actors trying to rescue the second half. I'm glad you're taking the position of redemptive readings, at least of some of these episodes. It's too easy to fall into the trap of Bernardi, who'll lay a blanket dismissal on the whole franchise because of its problems, and not give it credit for trying to overcome them. Do you know if Bernardi worked through the series by watching the episodes, or did he restrict his research to the scripts alone?

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    1. I do make it a point to redeem what I can when I can because I am ultimately invested in justifying and defending Star Trek, but a fair warning: I'm not married to redemptive readings at all costs (I just finished watching an episode about which I found it basically impossible to say anything positive). I would say my larger strategy is to be kinder to the parts of the franchise that I feel have been unfairly maligned and harsher on the parts of it I feel have inflated reputations. In the case of Season 3, it's still almost universally terrible, it's just terrible for different reasons then the fans tend to mention.

      I would assume Bernardi watched the episodes he cites, if for no other reason then it's actually kind of hard to get ahold of pre-production Star Trek scripts. That said, I think his larger issue boils down to the fact his methodology almost solely consists of taking straightforwardly terrible episodes, pointing to something like Elaan and saying "Y'know, that's pretty racist, isn't it?" and then smugly dropping the mic (I take him more to task for this next time).

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  2. Absolutely the principle actors here are why this episode sticks with me. I've always acknowledged the pulpiness of this one, the dated sexism, and the coded or more likely overlooked racism. But the way Shatner and Nuyen played it - particularly Shatner - always made Kirk's attempts to reign in this "wild beast" seem more like he was the only person on the whole ship willing to follow the customs of her culture; that his threats of spankings were honest-to-god openly sexual references with very little subtext, and that Kirk is totally into the rough stuff and was threatening Elaan with a good time. There was definitely some subtle kink - and the Dohlman's outfit, but also the uncharacteristically bare legs of the Elasian guards - gave this kind of weird vibe that I enjoyed.

    But apart from all the other problems (and it's kind of ironic and nearly satirical that another "Other/Nonwhite" browned up race has actual literal canon ties to the Klingons - the Nonwhite archetype of Star Trek) I think what I liked about this episode most was that it is the prototype for a massive amount of similar episodes involving strange diplomatic scenarios in the border territories where enemy nations had a vested interest in mucking about with things.

    In that way this episode, even with its near satirical levels of the usual suspects of genre fiction endemic problems, reads as a pretty direct allegory or parallel to similar events on Earth, especially in Europe. Maybe late 60s Star Trek deserved a far more progressive eye toward the future, but cultural disputes resulting from shallow interpretations of proud Other people with strange customs, happening in border regions between empires, diplomatic arranged marriages; it's not without real world precedent. And presciently enough, the Super-Powers are interested because of fuel resources. I think TNG deconstructed every single possible element of this episode, I can think of at least five examples in this lineage off the cuff.

    Of course as usual, my biggest takeaway was bemoaning the fact that we learned absolutely nothing about the Troyians other than them having odd teal skin.

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    1. Thinking deeper on the Elasians is now piquing my curiosity about the nature of non-Klingon races that might be part of the Klingon Empire. There had to be some, and it's possible that being in disputed Borderlands, and the agent/assassin stuff here, that had the arranged marriage thing taken a backseat to a more political intrigue angle, the narrative could've been less tied down by problems.

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    2. The kink angle is definitely a good one: I picked up on the as well, and upon reflection I probably should have mentioned it a bit more. Shatner and Nuyen do take a good deal of the edge off the more horrifying paternalistic elements by playing that up.

      I'm tempted to cite "Journey to Babel" as more of the prototype for convoluted diplomacy and political intrigue stories, but ultimately it is still a story about Spock, Sarek and Amanda first and foremost with the conference and sabotage parts of the plot more window dressing.

      TNG is indeed quite good at deconstructing and reconstructing a story like this, but all I could think of while watching it was how they bewilderingly remade it once and somehow managed to still be sexist.

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  3. Although I agree with the majority of the analysis (both anti-female and anti-non-western), I have always been captivated by the character of Elaan and it's entirely due to France Nuyen's craft. The writing may be iffy but the scene where she cries her toxic tears I have always found touching; "I don't know how to get people to like me" is delivered with such gut-wrenching sincerity it evokes instant sympathy, even for a character so broadly and turgidly presented as an irredeemable harpy. I still look forward to the day I finally attend some Comic Con or other in full Elaan regalia, silvery bodysuit and triangular kohl on proud display. The Sixties at NBC was a difficult arena for social progressiveness. I suppose we may forgive this episode as a lazy excuse to display female flesh whilst citing the Bard. And let's not forget those moments Kirk was utterly in Elaan's sway, helpless and lost, even if it was due to biochemicals. If one can wince through Kirk's out-of-character tutelage in the first half, there's enough frippery and foppery in the second half to at least make it halfway watchable. I say - give those poor deluded white men a break! Not that they deserve it.

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