Thursday, June 6, 2013

“Listen to it...The sound of children playing...”: Miri

That's not right!

OK, let's get this out of the way right off the bat: “Miri” is pretty terrible. Its central concept, while interesting, is basic and stretched far too thin, it's padded to the point whole dialog exchanges and entire scenes are repeated almost verbatim, its pacing is excruciating, it has behind-the-scenes problems that will culminate in Grace Lee Whitney getting fired and it has a someone who looks like a 15-year old falling in love with Captain Kirk (even if she does turn out to be over 300) and as a result this is an episode nobody is especially fond of. In spite of all that, however, it *is* a landmark moment in the history of Star Trek, because this is the first episode overseen by new producer and showrunner-in-all-but-name Gene Coon.

Coon is one of the great unsung heroes of Star Trek and probably the most criminally marginalized person in the entire history of the franchise. Coon's influence on Star Trek, or at least the Star Trek everyone likes to pretend existed, cannot be overstated: Not to put too fine a point on it, but if there's something you remember liking about the Original Series that didn't evolve in some way from “The Cage”, chances are it was Coon's idea. The fact of the matter is the lion's share of the utopianism and progressive idealism Star Trek is so frequently praised for comes not from Gene Roddenberry, but from Gene Coon. I don't want to completely dismiss Roddenberry, mind: He and Coon seemed to generally work well together and one of Roddenberry's virtues was his willingness to listen to every idea and piece of constructive criticism people gave him. Granted, he was more likely than not to go ahead and do whatever the hell he wanted anyway, but he'd at least listen to you. However, the problems come when people, especially Coon, would give Roddenberry particularly good ideas that caused him to see things in a totally new way and then Roddenberry would then turn around and claim it was his idea all along. This will prove to be a troublingly reoccurring motif.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is Coon's first episode and I'd like to take some time to try and tease out a little of how his style contrasts with Roddenberry's. Unfortunately, Coon is given a right turkey of a story to work with here so the show isn't doing him any favours right from the start, but even so there are signs things might just be starting to change. For one, this is the first time the Enterprise seems to be doing something other than running errands or law enforcement: It's not entirely clear what it was up to before receiving the distress signal, but the crew were clearly not on another mission beforehand. And on top of that, the whole teaser and first few scenes are absolute corkers: The Enterprise stumbles upon a planet that is inexplicably an exact clone of Earth and, once the away team beams down, it seems dead except for a group of disturbingly feral children who seem to haunt the town, always hidden just out of sight and chanting in warped versions of playground games.

These opening moments alone are filled with more ideas and imagination than the entirety of the series up to this point: There is a real, palpable sense of mystery as to the setting and, more to the point, for the first time the crew know no more about it than we do-The Enterprise isn't checking out an Earth colony, which, while operating in ways the audience isn't familiar with given it's a futuristic setting is still something the crew knows as it's part of their culture, this is a genuinely strange and unfamiliar world they have to learn the rules of along with us. Of course “Miri” scuttles all this halfway through Act 1 where we find out exactly what killed off all the adults and how to deal with it (and it never does explain why this planet is a clone of the Earth) but even so this is still bolder and more creative than the show has ever been before.

These scenes are the first steps toward moving Star Trek away from being a show about running around policing people and telling them what to believe into one about going out, exploring and making contact with new people and new places. They're tentative steps in that direction, but they're clearly recognisable as steps regardless. If only the rest of the episode was as clever: The mystery is solved immediately and it takes Kirk, Spock and McCoy a tortuously long time to do anything about it. We still have Roddenberry-era gender politics as Miri gets catty and jealous of Rand (I suspect Rand is meant to feel the same, but Whitney does not come anywhere near close to selling it, although to be fair she had somewhat legitimate reasons not to. Still, seeing her acting deteriorate is sad). This is somewhat mitigated by Miri herself being an interesting and likable character, and she manages to work much better as an exploration of puberty than Charlie Evans was ever able to.

It's perhaps possible to read the Life Prolongation Disease as a metaphor for puberty's confusing nature, although I think Adrian Spies probably intended it more as a critique of the glorification of a kind of fairy tale interpretation of childhood and the fanciful desire some have to remain children forever (indeed Rand even gets a line espousing the charms of a permanent childhood, after which Kirk tells her she may want to rethink that). If this is the angle Spies was aiming for it's a laudable one: An unnatural romanticization of children is one of the Victorian era's defining cultural traits and has become a pillar of Westernism (and to an often detrimental extent) ever since. Indeed, the whole idea that children are by definition pure, innocent, honest, asexual beings who are special as they have been unsullied by the world's natural, sinful reality can be seen as an artificial Victorian construction based around a reductive interpretation of the New Testament, and Miri, both the character and the episode, are a sufficient refutation of this idea. Star Trek choosing to criticize this cultural tenet would firmly ally it with the leftist counterculture for the first time.

Although Miri's blossoming sexuality is portrayed as a sign of her maturation, it's something the show unambiguously supports: Kirk at once encourages Miri to grow up, but is gravely concerned for her because he knows that's a death sentence on this planet, causing him to redouble his efforts to find a cure. And William Shatner is gangbusters at this, showing more compassion and love for Miri than he has at any other time for any other character on the show before now. I'm sure he was helped by being a father himself and having two of his own three daughters on set as extras on this episode, and his performance is as heartfelt and beautiful as it is hyper-caricatured and scenery devouring. Of course, this episode runs smack into some more uncomfortable Freudian implications by having Miri be attracted to Kirk, but at least Shatner has the decency to portray Kirk's love as purely platonic surrogate parental concern. I also really appreciate how Kirk's affection for Miri contrasts so perfectly with his awkwardness in dealing with Charlie Evans in “Charlie X”: It seems clear Kirk is much more comfortable taking on this role with women than with men, thus implying he's more of a friend to female culture. This is the most feminist Kirk has been since his first appearance.

But the frustrating thing is this still isn't enough. Spies' script doesn't go anywhere with this idea, or any of these ideas for that matter, bewilderingly thinking the most interesting aspect of the story is watching Kirk, Spock and McCoy kill time in a bombed-out doctor's office waiting for the plot to progress to the point where they're allowed to discover the vaccine. Coming from a modern perspective, it's also really tempting to hope for Kirk, Rand and McCoy to serve as representatives of some sort of idealized, leftist uptopian version of adulthood for Miri to aspire towards, especially in contrast to the deranged monsters adults become on her planet. But the episode is sadly not designed to do this, in no small part due to the fact we're still a ways off from the point where the Enterprise crew can first actually conceivably be called ideals. There are a ton of really intriguing ideas worth pursuing here, but Spies follows through on exactly none of them: All we're left with are half-formed thoughts and glimpses of meaning. As an actual piece of television “Miri” is just a mess of potentialities and implications and doesn't have any desire to pick up any of the threads it leaves strewn about on the floor.

Nevertheless, the fact we can have this kind of discussion about the show's ethics, even if they don't work, is strong evidence something is different now. It doesn't really matter, in this regard, that Adrian Spies never wrote for Star Trek again thanks to Roddenberry finding this episode below-par: Gene Coon's fingerprints on it indicate his version of the show is promising and something it might be worthwhile for us to follow. Coon took a script that really wasn't going to work all that well and injected it with a genuine sense of mystery and imagination, not to mention has begun cleaning up the show's philosophy to be something a bit more nuanced and radical. Right now it looks like bringing him on was one of the best moves Star Trek has made to date. Now all that remains is to see where else Gene Coon will take it.


  1. I agree about the weak script, but it’s good to be reminded about Gene Coon, he deserved credit for so many well-known contributions to the Trek saga as a whole. Seems like this story could be seen as a reflection of the sharp generation gap in the 60’s and maybe also draws on Golding’s Lord of the Flies(?).
    As you note, it does bring out a tender paternal side of Kirk. William Shatner and Kim Darby also starred in a TV movie produced by Francis Ford Coppola, “The People” (1972) – Shatner plays a gentle country doctor, Darby plays a children’s teacher in a remote community –people with strange powers, who turn out to be aliens--

    1. This is an episode I've warmed considerably to: I still think the script is pretty godawful, but there are a lot of interesting ideas the show is working with here. The generation gap angle is another great way to read this story and I agree the text supports it, but, sadly, I think it's yet another intriguing concept it hints at and than does nothing with.

      Star Trek, even under Gene Coon, is always going to have a problematic relationship with youth culture IMO: "Charlie X" was blatantly reactionary to the point of becoming youth hating and later on we're going to get lazy space hippies as lotus eaters, which isn't especially palatable. But equally, there's enough progressive motifs about the show that it can be turned into something more utopoian and forward thinking as well.

      Definitely agreed about Gene Coon: He's going to become the primary creative figure I'll be focusing on for the remainder of the first season and the second. He deserves all the credit he can get.

      And thanks for the plug for The People! It's good to see Shatner and Darby together again: They have such good chemistry.I'll be sure to take a closer look at it-cheers!

  2. It does seem like Miri, Charlie X, Squire of Gothos, And the Children Shall Lead all show kids being bad when separated from parents. The Way to Eden has Spock sympathizing and jamming with Sevrin’s followers, but the episode is a negative, trivializing view of hippies. And yet, if Star Trek TOS had been perceived as “youth hating” it would never have caught on as it did. As Trek evolved, there were much more positive portrayals of kids and teenagers, especially in TNG.
    If you don’t mind, could you clarify your earlier statement, “there is a way forward…I’m making a passionate case the franchise eventually finds it…there is a sense the only way for ST to really escape its cage is to burn the jail down and turn itself into something else.”

    1. Right, I mean clearly there's something about this show that appeals to the youth. Anything with the level of clout that Star Trek has in progressive circles has to have something going for it. I think a lot of that is due to its utopian trappings, the development and evolution of which I'm slowly attempting to trace here. But on the other hand it's hard not to read something like "Charlie X" as being anything other than bluntly in favour of adult authority.

      As for TNG that's another story entirely as far as I'm concerned, but we'll get there eventually :-)

      The statement you quote me on is going to be the defining thread of not just the next few posts, but of the rest of my TOS (and TNG, actually, now that I think about it) section on the whole, so I fully intend to explore it in much more detail in the days and weeks to come. In fact the post I just finished writing deals with this somewhat explicitly.

  3. Interesting, had never connected the idea of Kirk as Caesar, with the new ‘triumvirate’ that displaced Janice Rand. Not sure what is meant by “the indictment of Star Trek as an empire builder, is definitely there and it still stands” – that Trek’s theme of exploration has always been policing/ imperialism in disguise? seems a bit harsh considering the way the series grew, but maybe. Maybe the one area where TOS came closest to actually embracing liberal values, was civil rights.
    When it comes to diversity and inclusiveness though, one progressive ideal where they really fell flat was accepting gays-- though apparently Trek has always had its share of LGBT fans, and there’s been no problem with George Takei and Zachary Quinto. TNG had “The Host” and “The Outcast” episodes which are deeply sympathetic to gays in an oblique way. In 1991, Roddenberry said he planned to add a gay character to the cast, but when he died suddenly a few months later his intention was lost.
    I know nothing about ancient Polynesian culture, but most likely Roddenberry et al would identify themselves the same way, as “explorers, navigators, poets, mystics and philosophers, not conquerors…” It’s an intriguing challenge to expose Star Trek’s hypocrisy without completely undermining the atmosphere of hope.

    1. I'd like to stress I'm drawing a distinction here between Star Trek the franchise and Star Trek the TV show that ran from 1966-9. Even within that second category there are variations as the show operated under several different showrunners over the course of three years: it's not all Roddenberry all the time as the myth goes (and I'm highly skeptical of *anything* he said about himself to be perfectly honest), but that's something I'm trying hard to convey.

      My indictment in "The Conscience of the King" post is strictly targeted towards the show as originally conceived: Star Trek under Roddenberry is very clearly militaristic, although I grant mostly by association, as its premise is fundamentally about space law enforcement. Under Gene Coon this is beginning to change, and my argument is that Coon's first few episodes are explicitly about taking the show to task for its militarism and looking for ways to move beyond it. There are indeed leftist utopian elements to TOS, the problem is we just haven't seen the majority of them yet. But we're getting there, please be patient :-)

      Star Trek in the 1980s and 1990s is a completely, utterly different animal from my perspective and there are a number of talented people that help reshape it over the course of 20 years or so. What TNG and DS9 go on to do is incredible and I can't wait to talk about them. But what I'm trying to do here is trace the evolution of the series; to try and tease out how Star Trek gets to that point from its troubled beginning. You're right it does get there, but the story of how is a lengthier one than I think many realise.

  4. I meant to respond to the post above...sorry about that :-)

    1. No worries-I figured as much :-)

      I was hoping to move this whole thread over to the relevant post, but I'm not sure if there's a way to do that on Blogspot...