Sunday, June 2, 2013

Rise of the Machines: What Are Little Girls Made Of?

And here we have the blow-up doll division. They're like collectibles; you're supposed to find them all.
Only Star Trek would have the gall to do the exact same goddamn story twice in the same month.

Of course, me having to deal with “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” here is mostly my fault, a result of me deciding to follow the show roughly in production order. This episode was filmed after “Balance of Terror” but aired long before, the latter show being pushed several weeks back such that it aired with material produced under the next showrunner. Really though this actually fits: “Balance of Terror” has far more in common with that crop of episodes than it does with this one, which is pure Gene Roddenberry, down to him doing a last minute hectic rewrite that actually ran contiguous with filming as he felt the script was unworkable. Of course you know where this is going: We follow up the greatest episode in the entire Original Series with a third-rate rehash of every second-rate, half-baked concept the show's done to date. Another logic versus emotions debate? Yup. An evil duplicate of Kirk who fools the crew? You got it. Theiss Titillation Theorem? This episode gives us the poster child! Sexism that ranges from the mild to the straight-up blunt? Of course. Loads and loads of Majel Barrett? Do you even have to ask?

We're not quite back into “The Enemy Within” territory of awfulness with this one, though there are several moments that come close. No, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” just feels haggard, tired and spent, as if it's just halfheartedly going through the motions and re-covering old ground, which you might recognise as decidedly not the most healthy position for a show to be in ten episodes into its first season. So, not only do we have Roddenberry writing again, we don't even get Roddenberry at the top of his game. Delightful. One could argue I should go easy on this episode because of its tumultuous history: After all, Robert Bloch's original story was by all accounts never any good to begin with. One would be mistaken in making that argument. Poor quality at the start is a sign you should rethink the way you field story pitches, not the cue to give it to Gene Roddenberry and force it through production. That said, regardless of whether or not this episode *should* have been made (it shouldn't have), the fact remains it exists, I had to watch it and now I have to come up with something to say about it.

The only remotely interesting thing “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” adds to the very, very well-worn territory of logic debates and “what makes us human?” musings comes through what can only be described as drunkenly stumbling into personal identity theory. The core ethical debate of the episode is whether or not the androids actually are human. Korby seems to think that if the androids can “pass” as human that's enough and in fact argues they are superior because they are infinitely reparable and have superhuman strength. The key moment comes when Korby reveals he has discovered how to essentially upload someone's consciousness into an android body, and that's akin to crafting a superior version of oneself. This actually falls into some basic intro level personal identity theory, namely, a classic puzzle that is often posed to undergrad philosophy students. The conundrum goes something like this: If you were in a devastating accident of some sort that rendered you either a paraplegic or on the verge of death, but your brain was undamaged, and the technology existed to transplant your brain into a new, healthy body such that this duplicate would have the same memories, experiences and experiential identity (that sense of being within your body and experiencing the world through it) you do, would that new person be you? This is in fact the exact scenario Korby faces in this episode.

This being Star Trek, the show naturally makes a right mess of this. As someone who actually took personal identity theory as an undergrad and was given this same puzzle to work with, I can safely say the show doesn't have any idea how to handle this. The solution my professor gave us at the time, and one I'm inclined to agree with, is that no matter what your conception of the self, it actually doesn't matter whether the duplicate is “you” in the technical sense or not because the fact it has the same memories, personality and experiences things in the same manner you do means the duplicate is for all practical purposes you anyway and anything more is just tedious semantics (it may also be worth pointing out my professor was a Buddhist philosopher who didn't believe in free will or individuality either). But Roddenberry seems to think this is some horrible, dehumanizing thing, and we're never really shown any evidence that it is.

Kirk's primary objection seems to be that the androids, namely Andrea and Ruk, can be programmed, thus reducing them to unfeeling logic machines with no soul (well, that and the actually hilarious fear that the androids will rise up and overthrow their masters which not only made me literally laugh out loud from its blatant absurdity also means Roddenberry has gone and done Terminator 20 years early). But this is totally at odds with what we've seen from Roddenberry so far, who seems to on the whole favour distant logic to passionate emotion, or at the very least he does when it's dramatically convenient. Also, aside from this being a complete slap in the face to Spock, Kirk is also being incredibly facile here: Korby rightfully points out that Andrea and Ruk are constructed service drones built from the ground up to basically be computers, which is an entirely different thing than a human transplanted into an android body.

On top of that, the show can't even keep its own ethics straight, let alone Korby's: A big part of the climax involves Kirk “confusing” Andrea by displaying affection for her (alright, he does it by forcing himself on and sexually assaulting her) and pointing out to Ruk that he's acting out of vengeance, not orders to protect. This would seem to imply that the androids *are* in fact capable of human emotions and experiences, they just need to learn about them, so this invalidates basically everybody's arguments. Furthermore, the fact Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation is an android and nobody on that show (well, none of the regulars anyway) ever questions his sentience, experiential self or capacity to be human just makes me resent this episode all the more.

A saner objection for Kirk to raise might be concern that the androids have bodies that are built out of digital machines instead of being naturally occurring parts of the universe, but, as Captain Picard will also one day point out, human bodies are still machines of a sort: We're just machines built out of biochemistry instead of positronics. No matter which way you argue, however, the fact remains “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” is hinging its core ethics debate on wildly fantastic speculative future technology that places it about as far away from saying something remotely contemporary or relevant as it is possible to be. Even from a purely philosophical perspective instead of a futurist one, personal identity theory is a fun thought experiment, but I'm far more interested in the lived experiences of real people and material social progress and this episode has none of that.

What it does have is some solid acting from Majel Barrett, who clearly appreciates finally having a part of some significance to work with. She's good enough at conveying Chapel's conflicted affections for Korby we almost overlook the fact Chapel's presence here makes absolutely no narrative sense. The script writes her, and Barrett plays her, as still very much in love with Korby and the denouement shockingly seems to imply Chapel was ready to abandon her post on the Enterprise to live with him. But the last time we saw Chapel she was confessing her love for Spock (who she seems to have no feelings for in this episode at all) and gave no indication she was dealing with being engaged to someone she hadn't seen in a decade. Once again, the show gives Barrett a highly emotional scene she sells quite well, but gives it absolutely no context, history, development or follow-up.

On a different note, it is more than a little suspect that this script, which was predominantly written by Roddenberry, gives Chapel (Barrett) a complex love story with a man she swears she knows inside and out (which is admittedly there to sell the android plot) and than has her become immediately jealous and catty as soon as Andrea shows up (indeed, Korby even straight up says “I cannot love Andrea! There's no love there!” which is as hilariously on-the-nose as it is painful to watch). I was kind of hoping I could redeem Chapel's confusing and contradictory romantic aspirations by retroactively making her polyamorous, but thanks to her scenes with Andrea I can't. No, what this feels like to me is Roddenberry's and Barrett's relationship details slipping into the show, which is frankly nothing anybody really needs to or wants to see. As for the rest of the cast, William Shatner has settled into a groove and is just doing his job at this point. His job is to be a gloriously over-the-top ham sandwich, but we expect that of him now. Everyone else is either absent or barely gets any screentime.

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” is tough to get too angry about. It's bad, but it was probably always going to be bad given the hectic behind-the-scenes situation during filming. Stress and sloppiness are no excuse for the ethical missteps it makes, of course-if anything that's even more reason to condemn it. But it's honestly not as bad in these areas as Roddenberry has been in the past, and it's frankly refreshing to finally have a script from him with which I can have a reasoned, academic disagreement instead of screaming incoherently until I pass out about how horrifically privilege blind it is. More to the point, we're rapidly approaching the end of Roddenberry's tenure as showrunner of Star Trek, and while some of these problems never quite go away they'll at least very soon cease to be quite as central to how the show works (we'll have some new problems to worry about, but one thing at a time here). And, if nothing else, this episode does give us some more of the show's iconic moments: Andrea is one of the most memorable characters in the Original Series, as is the penis-shaped rock Kirk uses to attack Ruk. If I've learned anything about this show, it's that setpieces like this will live on far longer than any philosophical questions it raises, or indeed my pillorying it for not being up to my standards.


  1. Hrm. No offense, but you don't seem to have been very interested in redemptive readings so far.

    1. I'll be honest. Redemptive readings are a goal of mine, but not a primary one, at least not for the TOS phase of this. The reason is simple: Gene Roddenberry, and TOS more generally, are by and large considered absolutely beyond reproach by the majority of Star Trek fans and critics I've read and I find this to be inappropriate, blinkered and facile.

      Part of bringing a fresh approach to Trek discourse unfortunately involves being very harsh to some much-loved parts of the franchise that haven't really been put under scrutiny before. I've made no secret I'm no fan of TOS and feel Roddenberry is criminally overrated, and revisiting his tenure of the show hasn't done much to change my mind. If I'm to cover them and keep this a personal journey, I want to be honest about my positionality as much as I want to explore the show within the context of its own time.

      Do I like being forced to start this blog with what I am 100% certain is going to be the most pedantic, least creative and most negative section I'm ever going to do? No: It bothers me to no end. This is by no means what I set out on this project to do, and I really don't want people to get the impression Vaka Rangi is the contrarian Star Trek blog. That's not what it is; that's not what it's going to be. But Star Trek under Gene Roddenberry wasn't what most people think it was, and I also feel obligated to point that out. It wouldn't be fair to history not to: We have to see where it starts to understand the transformations it undergoes in the future. Also, sadly, some of these episodes I really did find to be irredeemable.

      Although to be fair, It's only here where I start to get genuinely fed up, but that's only because the show feels like it's fed up too. I liked "The Man Trap" a lot, I praised "Balance of Terror" up and down and I also thought I was very fair to "The Naked Time" and the two pilots. Even "Mudd's Women" I tried desperately to turn into something resembling erudition. No, I didn't like "The Corbomite Maneuver", "The Enemy Within" or "Charlie X", but most people love those episodes so I feel justified in having a different opinion. And there are a handful of episodes coming up I've already written posts on that I liked quite a bit as well.

      Unfortunately, we're in seas that are stormier than I'd like at the moment. Things smooth out quite a bit under the next showrunner, during whos tenure really the most interesting stuff TOS does happens and I can guarantee I'll be unable to shut up about how much I love Trek in the late 80s and early 90s. Even the late-90s and 2000s may bring a few surprises. But this is just something we're going to have to bear with for awhile, at least until we can finally suss out everything that made Star Trek a lasting pop culture phenomenon in the first place.

    2. I'm suspicious of the whole concept of redemptive readings anyway. (It isn't that I dismiss the possibility or desirability of them... just that I think the whole notion needs sceptical handling.)

      To me, simply enjoying something is redemption enough... if redemption means justifying one's enjoyment. The use value of a text is that it should be consumed with pleasure (however complex that pleasure may be). This runs into political problems, of course: the fact that I enjoy hating the Dail Mail isn't reason enough for it to exist... indeed, that perverse enjoyment of it by lefties and liberals is part of its insidious effect. Hence the need to put current and important political considerations (like combating oppression) above personal taste.

      But beyond that, any redemption either has to be based on what the text itself will allow (TBH, I'm for a quite empirical, evidentiary approach), or it has to be openly and consciously 'against the grain' of the text... which entails first noticing everything irredeemable.

      Also, a meta-text like 'Star Trek' or 'Doctor Who' (or whatever) can be meta-redeemed, i.e. redeemed in the general while being damned in the particular. For instance... the overall 'meaning' of TOS will feed into what becomes TNG. If Josh can make a convincing case for TNG, *that* in itself might be TNG's redemption. Just a thought.

    3. Well, I understand, but... I don't know, some of this just feels like an active refusal to engage with the text.

      In this case, I felt that way about its handling of the android-ized humans; it seems to me that there's a reading to be made - possibly even an intended one, who knows - where the programmability thing is the main problem, and the fact that the androids are capable of human emotions and experiences but can be forced to do things contrary to those is the dehumanizing thing. (Can you tell I've just now gotten up to the episodes with Auton Rory? But it's a common - though not common enough IMHO - point in these debates.) And the way you just kind of wave off any possibility of interesting philosophy in this episode, it just grates. Y'know? ^^;

    4. I'd be more willing to engage with the episode's philosophy if the show itself were interested in engaging with its own philosophy.

      To be blunt I was grasping at straws to get even this reading: The script is an absolute mess. Korby and the androids are villified from the start, Kirk and Chapel constantly protest about how scary and inhuman they are (except when Ruk gets angry and Andrea gets "confused", which the episode itself handwaves away and doesn't follow up on) and when Korby reveals he uploaded himself into an android body he goes straight from "antagonist" to "horrifying evil sci-fi monster".

      I don't think there's any moral or philosophical complexity here aside from what the script brings upon itself by being sloppy and disjointed, which makes perfect sense as it was largely considered a poor script in the first place hastily re-tooled by Roddenberry in the middle of filming. Trust me, if I felt there was more intellectual content to explore here I would have made more of an attempt to do so.

      The thing about Roddenberry at this point is that I don't think he's actually interested in ethical complexity-I think he wants Kirk to show up at a place, get in a few scrapes and teach everybody what they're doing wrong. He's interested in proselytizing, not exploring. Just look at the blunt "don't fence me in" and "absolute power corrupts absolutely" declarations of the pilots or the many flavours of the logic vs. emotions debates we've seen.

      Roddenberry's scripts to me feel like they're aiming for the philosophical depth of a Grimm's Fairy Tale, and because the show is so unambiguously sided with Kirk as the moral authority, any interesting personal identity stuff Korby raises can only be construed as "the wrong choice". But I've gone over that in every single Roddenberry script I've looked at so far-What was I going to add to that by bringing that up again here, aside from giving the impression I've run out of things to say and am just repeating myself?

      So if we have a showrunner more interested in preaching than debate, a troubled script and a stressful behind-the-scenes climate, my argument goes we wind up with something that ends up feeling broken and unsatisfying. If my critique feels the same way, then maybe it just reflects what I saw onscreen.

    5. Speaking of the early 90s, I'm greatly looking forward to see your take on DS9, for numerous reasons; especially given that it's the incarnation of Trek with the most passionate affection for TOS while simultaneously being about as far from TOS in every other respect as it's possible to get.

    6. Fascinating. While not completely dissimilar to my reading, you've chosen to word your take in a most curious way :-)

      Fear not: Covering DS9 is going to be a labour of love for me. I'm planning how I'm going to approach it already.

  2. "Andrea is one of the most memorable characters in the Original Series, as is the penis-shaped rock Kirk uses to attack Ruk."

    I'm almost certainly reading this wrong, but I don't care - the idea of a penis shaped rock being one of the most memorable characters in the Original Series is just fantastic.

    1. You're not reading it wrong from my perspective, at least: You're interpreting it exactly the way I wanted it to come across.

  3. Josh,

    Are you going to be looking at The Animated Series at all? I think it's probably the most "vaka rangi" version of Kirk and Co. there is.

    1. Absolutely: I'm picking up the Animated Series right where TOS leaves off at "Turnabout Intruder".

  4. Lovely. Looking forward to it. TAS seems to generally get disregarded as a piece of Trek ... but I've found it to be one of the strongest incarnations and suprisingly forward-thinking in some of its stories.

    1. I find TAS to be particularly interesting because its "canon" status seems to vacillate back and forth: It was immediately disregarded after it aired, but then there was a renewed interest in it come the early 1990s when Starlog started to do interviews with the production team and episode recaps, following which some memorabilia based on the show started to come out. Then everyone ignored it again until 2006-7 or so when it started streaming online and now Memory Alpha considers it the canonical fourth season of TOS.

      Of course for me it's also useful as a showcase of where Trek fandom was in the early 1970s and it's especially helpful for learning about Dave Gerrold and D.C. Fontana, both contributors to TOS at various points who became major creative figures in the first season of TNG. TAS is very much their show in more ways than one.

    2. Well, I'll be looking forward to learning more about TAS then. I've only seen it for the first time fairly recently, thanks fo the magic of Netflix. I do remember catching it now and then on Nickelodean when I was a kid ... I don't know a whole lot about Fontana, except that it's generally a good thing when her name pops up in the credits. I'm a bit more familiar with Gerrold, mainly because my buddies and I were semi-obsessed with "War Against the Chtorr" as teenagers.