Sunday, May 26, 2013

"I am he and he is me!": The Enemy Within

Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction to this episode too.
“The Enemy Within” plays like an almost paint-by-numbers example of how Star Trek works at the moment. This of course means it's terrible. It has a crassly simplistic and poorly thought out moral delivered with zero semblance of tact, form, structure or good sense and almost painfully earnestly and gamely conveyed by the cast. This leaves me in a really frustrating position: It's bad, but it's bad along exactly the lines I've been drawing over the past several posts. This one manages to fall face first into rape apologia, which I will of course take it to task for, but only for the same reasons the show's been reactionary so far. It's a particularly egregious execution of this formula, but other than that, “The Enemy Within” brings nothing new to the analytical table.

However, I have a job to do here so let's see what I can make with this. First of all, if “Charlie X” doing a melodrama about teenage issues irritated me, “The Enemy Within” doing an evil lookalike plot where the baddie frames our hero and gets his friends to turn against him for half the episode before he clears his name is enough to send me straight into smash-the-television-in-blind-rage mode. Ignoring the plot for the moment, which I would sorely like to scream and yell about but shall restrain myself from doing, “The Enemy Within” could possibly be described as something I call an Actor Showcase Episode: These are special episodes, meant to give a specific cast member or members the opportunity to play against type and and show off their reach. These are typically made when shows get a particularly skilled cast who are normally pigeonholed into very tight, programmatic roles to let the audience know the full extent of their range. Actor Showcase Episodes tend to crop up either at the beginning of a show's run (to get the audience used to the new cast) or in the middle (to let them see a side of the cast heretofore unseen) and they're usually delightful changes of pace from standard operating procedure (indeed these become characteristic of Star Trek: The Next Generation once Michael Piller becomes showrunner).

In that regard, calling “The Enemy Within” an Actor Showcase for William Shatner is tempting, especially as the highlight of the episode is arguably Shatner's performance as both crazed madman Evil!Kirk and gentle, thoughtful Good!Kirk. However, as this episode seems consumed by a desire to thwart my attempts to say anything intelligent about it whatsoever at every turn, it comes literally right before an episode seemingly custom-tailored to be a full Cast Showcase, so there goes that reading.

So Roddenberry Ethics it is then. Although this problem is systemic throughout Roddenberry's entire tenure as showrunner, “The Enemy Within” is probably the most clear-cut example of just how badly this can go for the show (so far). The core theme of Richard Matheson's script is a kind of grade school retelling of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Each person is literally composed of a honest-to-goodness Good and Evil half and both are needed for us to survive. The Good Half is intelligence and compassion and the Evil Half is, of course, aggression, ambition, confidence and lust. This isn't even Freud's id/ego/superego distinction, which would be bad enough, this is straight-up “some human traits are by definition Good and some are by definition Evil and that's the Law of the Universe”. It's also very, very Christian, or at least Western: Sexual desire is equated with rape and blind lust and declared Fundamentally Evil. Furthermore, as both Spock and McCoy state, it's “intelligence”, which is here described in terms that makes it sound suspiciously like “logic” and “rationality”, that gives humans their innate goodness and strength, so we're right back at that whole “emotions are fickle and corrupting” thing again, so that's fun.

Let there be absolutely no mistaking what Matheson is suggesting here: Good!Kirk, composed of only his compassion and intelligence, is rendered increasingly frail, indecisive and unfit for command without the moderating influence of Evil!Kirk. There is one scene near the end where the episode seems to be trying to push a Freudian interpretation where Good!Kirk is unable to decide between Spock's logic and McCoy's passion: A common reading of the Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley triple act is that they in fact represent the id, ego and superego. Especially as this follows McCoy and Spock's “intelligence” comments, one could read this scene as the divided superego (the twin Kirks) being unable to moderate between the id (McCoy) and the ego (Spock). Director Leo Penn seems to like this angle, as do the editors, who frame the shot cutting back and forth between Spock and McCoy with Good!Kirk caught in the middle unable to take a stand. DeForest Kelley seems to be in this camp as well, playing McCoy as bristling with unchecked passion, but neither Nimoy nor Shatner seem to be responding to this.

Shatner continually plays Good!Kirk as someone determined to prove his strength, though his strength lies in different areas. When he faces down Evil!Kirk in engineering, he manages to gain the upper hand merely by calmly standing his ground. Nimoy, on the other hand, seems to be playing up Spock's own duality trying to remain cool and logical even has he grows more and more commanding and forceful. Indeed, Matheson even gives Spock a line where he tells McCoy he knows from experience what it's like to live as two people at war and having to keep a handle on both. But at the same time this is as passionate as we've ever seen Spock as he desperately tries to keep control over the ship: The show is at the same time trying to push the Freudian reading as a multi-leveled recursive metaphor, but not everyone seems to be quite on the same page about it. Even if the Freudian theme were completely intentional and not misguided and reductive, it wouldn't really come across all that well anyway.

And then there's the rape angle. Evil!Kirk straight up tries to rape Janice Rand and the show handles it in just about the worst possible way imaginable. First off, we have the Pop Psychology 101 for Dummies ramifications of the scene, which pretty much forces us to conclude Matheson thinks male sexuality is fundamentally based around rape which, wow, I'll let you all hash that one out on your own. Then we have Rand telling Spock, McCoy and Good!Kirk that she “wouldn't even have reported it...but Fisher saw it too” and Holy Goddamn I don't even know where to begin with that. Even so though, even despite all of this, the show *almost* pulled it off by having the attempted rape be portrayed as an absolutely horrible, trust-shattering thing, but then it ruins all its goodwill by having Good!Kirk be primarily confused because he was in his quarters the whole time and knew it wasn't him. He doesn't get a single scene where he acts devastated that someone tried to rape Rand in his name or a single line expressing remorse or sadness for her: It's all about him and he's just confused.

And then there's the ending. Rand eventually finds out Evil!Kirk and Good!Kirk are two sides of the same person (having previously been told the white lie that Evil!Kirk was an imposter) and on the bridge she confronts the newly-rejoined Kirk. The two have an awkward moment where she tries to apologise and he brushes her off. Rand then delivers some schematics to Spock who grins and says “the 'imposter' had some interesting qualities, wouldn't you say, Yeoman?” and this is where I finally draw the line. There is absolutely no way I can redeem this. Absolutely no way I can discern any kind of positive, edifying analysis out of this. This is undistilled rape culture, no, rape apologia in all it's ugly glory. We've moved beyond merely *threatening* to derail the series to actually derailing it outright. There's no way up from this. Star Trek, in this incarnation, is finally and irreparably broken.

Because, while the name on the script says Richard Matheson, this is all Gene Roddenberry. In her memoir The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy, Grace Lee Whitney express her disgust with this episode (thank god) and this scene in particular, writing:

"I can't imagine any more cruel and insensitive comment a man (or Vulcan) could make to a woman who has just been through a sexual assault! But then, some men really do think that women want to be raped. So the writer of the script gives us a leering Mr. Spock who suggests that Yeoman Rand enjoyed being raped and found the evil Kirk attractive!"

Some fan lore tries to spare Matheson, speculating the scene at the end was tacked on by someone else, and if that's the case it's perfectly clear to me who that was. I have no doubt someone with Gene Roddenberry's conflicted, confused ideas about what femininity is and how gender roles work would put in a scene like this. But even if Roddenberry didn't write it, this episode still went out under his watch. As a showrunner, and a showrunner who was known for being especially anal, hands-on and controlling, Roddenberry could have, and should have, kept something like this from being filmed. But of course he wouldn't: He oversaw the bungled sexual politics of “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and put out something as misogynistic as “Mudd's Women” and something as carelessly, needlessly reactionary as “Charlie X”.

And the show is in a real sense tainted by this: I can't even fall back on the actors here, except Whitney I guess, as they all seem either perfectly fine with what's going on or, at worst, getting a little too into it. Shatner gives a strong performance, but none of his characters, even Good!Kirk, seem equitable with the person I saw and praised in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and that's to nothing except the show's detriment. That Good!Kirk displays absolutely no empathy or remorse for Rand is inexcusable, and it's not helped by Shatner's Hitchcockian, Kubrickian method approach of slapping Whitney off-camera between takes to get her to sell the sickbay scene better. Nimoy's performance is good, but I'm probably never going to get over how he has Spock just leer at Rand: He sells it altogether too well. The best thing here by far is George Takei, who keeps Sulu in good spirits even as he's slowly freezing to death: It's a wonderful acting job that's as heartening and human as it is tragic and bittersweet. Shame he couldn't have done anything about the rape scene though.

I've gone at great length in the past to stress that while Star Trek isn't the hopeful, idealistic, imagination-filled show I love it's slowly sewing the seeds that will allow the franchise to one day become that. But that future has never seemed further away then it does while watching “The Enemy Within” (although I should probably watch my words, as I previously said that about “Mudd's Women” and “The Corbomite Maneuver” and look what happened. You'd think I'dve learned by now). The show as it exists now isn't just not that future, it's working actively contrary to realising that future. With callous, ill-thought out morality plays supported by some of the most stilted and clumsily reactionary writing I've ever seen on a television show I'm not sure how I can even call this Star Trek. But that's the awful thing: It *is* Star Trek: If anything, it's the version of the franchise I like that's the weird anomaly: How on Earth do we get from this to Vaka Rangi? How on Earth do we go from this to something that's actually watchable?


  1. "Shatner's Hitchcockian, Kubrickian method approach of slapping Whitney off-camera between takes to get her to sell the sickbay scene better"

    W... T... F?????????????

    1. Yup. It's in Whitney's memoirs where she talks about filming "The Enemy Within" along with the quote I pulled for this article. This episode ruins everything.

  2. I just started watching from the beginning, and following your blog from the beginning, too. This episode should be called Star Trek: MRA.

    Your archives seem to be missing the episodes between The Cage and this one, though.

    1. Welcome aboard!

      The first few Original Series episodes are covered in the multi-post entitled "Temporal Incursion":