Tuesday, June 18, 2013

“There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!”: Shore Leave

"How Beautiful You Are That You Do Not Join Us."

“Once upon a time there were three little sisters...”

The three sisters lived together, all by themselves, on a small island. To this day no-one is quite sure where that island lay: Some have claimed it was somewhere among the modern-day Marquesas, while other swear it was much further out, an outlier island far off to the west. Then there are those mythologizer-poets who swear by the stars themselves that this island was impossible to place on a map, for any cartographer foolish enough to attempt to chart its location on parchment would find it to be forever out of reach, just beyond the edges of the paper. Most who claim to have reached it never return, and those who have are unable to find it again, even if they retrace their path down to the exact last nautical mile. And yet this island did exist, as alive and real as any of us. It presumably still does today.

“What did they live on?”

Mostly coconuts and the splendid gifts of the sea, but they were very well provided for on the island. I am told it is a place where scarcity and want does not exist, for the island and its inhabitants live together in balance and harmony. But that is not this story.

On the beach, the sisters sat in a circle facing each other, each with legs crossed in the lotus position.

“I vote one of us tells a story,” Tertia suddenly exclaimed “Would either of you happen to know one?”

“Here's one,” Hedda responded with a smile “Once upon a time there were three little sisters...” she began, but was quickly interrupted before she could continue.

“Very funny,” Tertia drolly responded with her hands on her hips, “We've all heard that one, you know...”

Then, Alice spoke up: “Have I ever told you the story of the spacemen, my dear sisters?” she inquired.

“I believe I know it, if that's what you mean,” Hedda answered, “I have seen it thus invoked.”

“Oh please do tell it anyway!” Tertia implored, “As the dawn rises over the eastern waters each night, the future shall be known to us again and again and again.”

“It was in the days before you, dearest star-sisters,” Alice began, “My counsel is sought on one of the multiplex planar realms of invocation. These are the lands where Is and What Is exist together in their death-dance. These are truths we know.”

“Yes, I have seen many such places,” Tertia remarked, “The world-stage and World-In-Itself in cohabitation”.

Alice nodded, then said “And this world-stage was Thought, which is the child of thought yet not an heir to its throne. As I passed through this realm, I met the first of the spacemen, who had come seeking my guidance. They adorned themselves in the visage of a summer's day, but did not yet know its meaning.”

“They do not see the Day, for some are not attuned to seeing it.” Hedda continued.

“All was blank at this time, for as blankness is what they sought blankness is what they found. This is not the wondrous apotheosis of the All Thing, but glorification of the Zero, and thus the lamentable zeroing of all.”

“Much as a canvas remains blank if the dream is forsaken” Tertia added, as she drew a treacle jar in the sand.

“I appear in this way because I was summoned to so appear, and this was My Will. The spacemen could not accept this, for they understood the shape, but not the meaning. It was for this reason I journeyed to the glade, whereupon I was observed yet unseen.”

“I See and I Do Not, don't I?” said the first spaceman, and this was the incantation that thus blinded him.

“I came bearing the egg of Mystery and Time, though I was not yet prepared to be reborn again into this visage,” said Hedda.

“Those who know the word may reshape the world-stage, so I did. Wearing the Sun Crown, I did take my leave of another realm. It was in this way the world was broken, and in this way the spacemen would come to see through blinded eyes. The world has changed, and it cannot be fixed now.” Alice declared.

“The spacemen didn't like the breaking of the world very much, did they?” asked Tertia.

“It is the time wound that will never, and can never, heal. It aches in the days past and far out into the future, destined to be inflicted again and again.” said Alice.

“The static, sex-death of being.” Hedda offered.

“That's another story, Hedda!” her sister Tertia responded.

“Indeed it is.” Hedda replied. “Another time, perhaps.”

Another thing that makes “Shore Leave” worthy of note is its handle on characterization. Building on Coon's previous overtures in this direction in “The Galileo Seven”, a major theme in this episode is examining the innermost thoughts of various characters and the relationships they have with one another. This works significantly better here than it did in “The Naked Time”: Sulu's interest in arms returns, as does Kirk's reminiscence on his more tight-laced and reserved academy days. The best execution of this structure is probably Kirk's fight with Finnegan, in spite of the fact the latter is once again a horrifying Irish stereotype, this time down to his ability to teleport around like a leprechaun. Aside from those brought upon by the planet itself, this episode has a number of nice character moments just in passing: Kirk's conversation with McCoy about Finnegan and his academy days is lovely bit of the everyday and the massage scene on the bridge during the teaser is an absolute riot and justifiably a memorable moment that called the fanfic writers to action.

Aside from its meta-narrative connotations, the concept of a planet that reacts to desires and imagination is a remarkably good one, and has the potential to be a far more effective window into the psyche of our leads then getting them space drunk was. The keyword here is potential, however: The problem is, apart from Kirk and Sulu, the show frustratingly stops short of giving us enough meaningful content: McCoy's budding relationship with Barrows could have been nice, except that Barrows is a sexist nightmare. She openly fantasizes about being “ravished” by Don Juan (and we're sickeningly all meant to laugh at when she “gets what she asked for”), then about being a fairy tale damsel with knight to fight over and protect her and finally about jumping Doctor McCoy's Bones (to the point she even gets a Roddenberry signature comedy catty jealous scene at the end). Even McCoy himself gets a few really uncomfortable lines. The rest of the development comes from the random science techs we never see again and this is kind of tough to read as anything other than a staggering mismanagement of the cast.

The problem is, of course, Gene Roddenberry. Theodore Sturgeon is going to end up writing one of the most beloved and acclaimed episodes in the entirety of the Original Series, but Roddenberry didn't seem to take too kindly to the script he turned in here, finding it to be “too much fantasy” and “not believable enough”, so he gave it to Coon to rewrite. Coon is alleged to have misunderstood Roddenberry's complaints and rewrote “Shore Leave” to be even more overtly mystical and fantastical (a draft I'd actually really like to have been able to read), leaving Roddenberry to furiously and completely rewrite the entire script alongside filming, yet retaining Sturgeon's name on the finished product. This of course means we're in the exact same situation we were in with “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, which should already raise a considerable number of warning flags. This one turns out better, mostly because the central concept is already a great one to begin with and the overall quality of the show has increased dramatically under Gene Coon.

“Shore Leave” is not completely spared, however: The tension between Roddenberry's and Coon's differing styles is painfully evident any time the former writes under the latter, and especially in this episode. While “The Menagerie” (quite ironically) had logic lapses, it was a more or less competent step forward. “Shore Leave” screams at itself: Whereas in “Court Martial” we had an African commodore on Starbase 11 and an Asian records officer on the Enterprise and nobody made a big deal about it; here we have Roddenberry pitching a fit because his story about the futuristic Space Navy and lawkeeping taskforce taking shore leave on a far-off planet isn't realistic enough and then populating it with a magical Irish leprechaun and a yeoman who boldly declares it's a woman's natural right to be submissive and protected. Yeesh. The First Speaker and the Second Speaker battled each other in the heaven-earth, tearing it asunder, and this was the time wound the first. It's little wonder Alice tells Kirk at the end of the episode that humanity is not yet ready to understand her ways.

“I believe”, said Alice “This realm now lies shattered before us.”

“Before and After, you mean.” corrected Tertia.

“Things can exist without and within,” Hedda added, “I have seen it to be so-Events dance the cosmic dance of potentialities echoing to the dawn and beginning at the End of All Things. All that can be is.”

“It was in this way, and in many other ways, that the War in Heaven began. I have chanced to hear this story told on many occasions from many fellow dream-travellers in different transformative incarnations. The War begins and it begins again, and it is fought at all times in all places,” Alice said, “The spacemen exist in ceaseless conflict, for this is their way. To fight is to play is to be. This is a path. But the War in Heaven shall consume them. This I have seen, and it is thus written. Yet fire does not destroy, it carbonizes, and this remains transformation and metamorphosis.”

“The spacemen dance to the intersection of stasis and change,” added Hedda.

“And it is there, my dearest star-sisters, that we reconvene.”

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