Thursday, August 8, 2013

“Monsters are real”: Wolf in the Fold

"I am Nazgaar of the Spirit World..."

Oh goodie, more violence against women. Just another Wednesday then?

At least there's a vaguely defensible reason for it this time, given that “Wolf in the Fold” borrows its basic structure from slasher movies, which is somewhat befitting the third of three Star Trek episodes penned by Psycho author Robert Bloch. Indeed, this story is once again a straightforward whole plot lift, this time of Bloch's own famous short story “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper”, which posited the titular ripper had somehow managed to attain immortality through his crimes. This episode changes him to an ageless non-corporeal life-form who feeds on fear and death, but the basic premise and themes remain the same. “Wolf in the Fold” thus becomes a very competent and professional execution of this kind of horror story, as one would expect with a writer of Bloch's calbre behind it. That said, I have to twist my own knife a bit here: Merely being in the slasher genre (or proto-slasher, depending on whether or not one wishes to name Psycho the ur example of its kind) does not, of course, excuse the violence towards women. This one's better then Bloch's previous effort in this regard, but really not by a whole lot and he doesn't make a good case for himself when he opens in an exotic dance parlour clearly designed to cater to straight men, starts picking off women and then gives Spock dialog about how Redjack naturally preys on women because they're more predisposed to extreme fear and terror and are thus more vulnerable then men.

There's also the somewhat troubling matter that Star Trek has already shown itself to be bigger than the slasher genre, and in the Gene Roddenberry era no less. The very first episode to air, “The Man Trap”, was a complete rejection of this kind of story: Janice Rand and Sulu are shot like nameless slaughter victims, but their big scene involves them eating lunch and talking about plants. Salt Vampire is shot like a slasher villain, but is really a starving animal. Honestly, going from “The Man Trap” to “Wolf in the Fold” is kind of a step back for the show, especially given the former's strength was in making all of its characters feel like likeable, complete people while the latter treats women as helpless passive objects. Sadly though, we should probably expect that given Star Trek's aggravating lack of internal consistency and general self-awareness. That all said though, I don't want to completely go “Who Mourns for Adonais?” on Bloch, mostly because I really, really don't have the energy, but also because Bloch, despite his failings, and he does have several, remains one of the good guys. Anybody who gave us voodoo and alchemy in “Catspaw” clearly has hidden depths and is someone worth taking the time to engage with, and “Wolf in the Fold” is a similarly intriguing magickal door if one looks at it a certain way.

The obvious thing to talk about would be Redjack: An ancient being of pure evil who has existed since the dawn of time and thrives on fear, terror and death. He's not quite Lovecraftian because he doesn't quite seem like a vast, incomprehensible Eldritch Abomination (in fact Redjack seems downright petulant, given the way he childishly, and frankly rather goofily, taunts Kirk once he takes over the Enterprise computer). One would expect Bloch would finally introduce the Old Ones to Star Trek with a lot more gravity, and indeed this is the only one of his three scripts that makes no mention of them. Nevertheless, Redjack does belong to a certain subset of cosmic horror, and the show does seem to treat him accordingly. However, there's a word for this kind of character that we use for stories like this when stripped of their sci-fi genre trappings: “Demon”.

I'm not especially fond of demon stories because, aside from their shallow pop Christian connotations (indeed in his novelization for this episode James Blish even has Kirk describe Redjack's appearance as “a vision of Hell”), they seem like a rather cheap cop-out way to deal with horrific acts without actually implicating anyone or dealing with the consequences of violence and death in any real meaningful way. No need to actually reprimand people or change the status quo: Just kick out the demon and everything's fine again. This is facile: Evil is not a thing, it is a kind of action connected to strong, violent emotion. There are no objective beings actually comprised of pure evil who influence innocent mortals, nor is evil a quantifiable, measurable substance that a person has (again, even Roddenberry was up on this: “Dagger of the Mind” is as clear-cut a reaction against this line of thought as exists). This is what we learned from “Who Mourns for Adonais?”: Evil is done by people, unfortunately overwhelmingly more frequently men, who for one reason or another believe their lives, agency and personhood are more valuable than those of others.

Thankfully “Wolf in the Fold”'s mystical connotations neither begin nor end with Redjack himself. Rather, they're a great deal more subtle, more nuanced, more understated and altogether more fascinating than that.Of interest to us here is the Argelian Empath Ceremony, which is partially a seance but also a communal joining of the minds: A kind of large-scale Mind Meld. In other words, it's a spiritual and mental orgy, which is all manner of delightful. Also crucially, before she gets annoyingly, and more than a little offensively, bumped off, Sybo delivers every bit of the critical information Kirk and Spock will need in the climax in order to discern Redjack's true identity: The fact he goes by many different names, feeds on fear and death and cannot himself die. The Enterprise crew may dub him an energy-based life form, but he's also (much as I dislike using the term) a demon. This is the same trick Bloch pulled with “Catspaw”, where Korob's and Sylvia's powers were both “mental sciences” and unabashed magick. This scene is also a microcosm for a theme that is extremely pronounced throughout “Wolf in the Fold”, to the point I'd actually call it one of its major concepts, yet seems to be frequently overlooked when this episode is discussed. That is, the high-tech world of starship bureaucracy and that of magic and spiritualism are not actually mutually exclusive, and in fact can benefit a lot from co-operation and exchange of concepts and ideas.

Aside from the entire plot after the Empathic Ceremony really boiling down to one prolonged exercise in proving Sybo unequivocally correct on all counts, there are a lot of moments where each party involved in the case freely contributes some resource of theirs to help the other and the investigation in general, and both Kirk and Minister Jaris are very respectful to each others' worldviews, lifestyle and approach to problem solving. Hengist protests every single time, but, of course, he turns out to be Redjack in the end, so that can be read as a rather stinging indictment from Bloch. Kirk, naturally, is the most open of his crew to the possibility of a spiritual dimension to the case and even admits to having encountered beings comparable to Redjack on several previous occasions. Wonderfully, the Enterprise's own technology seems to work according to the principles of magick now too: It's really the only way to account for something like the psychoanalytical tricorder, which can reconstruct memories and historical events basically out of nothing, or the ship's computer's newfound ability to essentially read minds in order to determine if someone is lying. In true Star Trek fashion, the joining of minds works according to mystical logic and in true Robert Bloch fashion, we get just enough technobabble to paper over the fact everything here is basically magick. Just like with the Empathic Ceremony and Sylvia's voodoo, it may be advanced technology, but it's also sorcery.

Actually, it's not just Sybo and her ceremony-All of Argelian society is delightful. As Minister Jaris says, the only law is love: It's an entire planet built around empathy and free love to the point it comes dangerously close to being called idyllic, where the only serious violence and strife is brought in from the outside in the form of Redjack. Even better, the show is unequivocally in favour of this, with Kirk praising the Argelians for their hospitality and patience. While he is at first sceptical of things like Sybo's Empathic Ceremony, especially when the life of a member of his crew and a personal friend is on the line, his respect of the Argelians grows throughout the episode as they collaborate on the investigation. This is 180 degrees away from “This Side of Paradise”, a clear declaration of Bloch's loyalties and something that's very much needed at this point in the season.

Argelius was also responsible for a particularly memorable behind-the-scenes anecdote from this episode: It seems when Kirk, Scott and McCoy were in the bar in the teaser, their drinks were meant to be comprised of multicoloured layers. As they drank each layer, it would cause them to experience a different unique emotion. The network censors cut this scene from the episode however, deeming it “too complicated” for viewers to understand and expressing concern people might think the crew were on drugs. This caused Gene Coon to tell the censors to their faces that they were “full of horseshit”, which is why in spite of everything we still love Gene Coon. The censors' objections are even more patently ridiculous in light of the fact McCoy's solution to containing Redjack is to get the entire crew high on prescription drugs. I mean...It just is. It self-evidently is. There is literally no other way to read that scene. The crew doesn't act like they're sedated, they act like they're on the absolute best acid trip of their lives: It's truly one of the most remarkable moments in Star Trek history: The way to stop from turning evil is to get blasted out of your minds and hold a big love-in. Perfect.

Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the acting, in particular James Doohan. This is one of the few times an entire episode gets devoted to Scotty, and Doohan leaps at the opportunity to show what he's capable of. As Adam Riggio pointed out in the comments for the “Catspaw” entry, Doohan's greatest strength was arguably his ability to make his character immensely and immediately sympathetic. The fact Scotty, unlike Chekov, isn't remembered as the borderline offensive cartoonish stereotype he was clearly conceived as is entirely due to Doohan's performance. Under him, Scotty is completely down to Earth, charismatic, relatable and friendly. We want to like Scotty and don't want to see anything bad happen to him, which is why making him the prime suspect in the murder investigation for so long such an evil genius move on Bloch's part. No matter how much circumstantial evidence gets stacked against him, we simply do not want to accept he's capable of doing these things-It's inconceivable to us. It's not only fair to see Scotty as the blueprint for someone like Miles O'Brien, but it's also reasonable to read “Wolf in the Fold” as the blueprint for the altogether too numerous and increasingly incredulous “torture O'Brien” episodes that become a hallmark of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine under Ira Steven Behr.

But Doohan's is not the only marquee performance here: I've spent a lot of time already on Shatner-as-Kirk, who really is properly excellent here. I mean he typically always is, but it's so refreshing to see him so open to and respective of the culture and customs of people like the Argelians, and his very obviously bored demeanour in the club with the exotic dancers in the teaser is just delightful. He can talk big all he wants about the women in the “little place he knows”, but his actions speak louder than words, so to speak. DeForest Kelley too is in fine form, this being the rare occasion where he's allowed to step out of the “bristling unchecked passion” mode he's become pigeonholed in, making McCoy for the first time in awhile reminiscent of the straightforward, wise elderly doctor his character was originally supposed to be. While Leonard Nimoy doesn't get as many scenes in this episode as he has recently, he is as as predictably cool and complex as always, and while it might be just me, he seems to have developed or fine-tuned a subtle commanding presence and quiet dignity since “Amok Time” that makes all his scenes stand out. Nichelle Nichols, by contrast, makes her second consecutive no-show of the season, which is sadly to be expected by this point.

Which leaves me to sum up Robert Bloch's tenure on Star Trek, this being his last story. Not often am I able to witness a writer redeemed in so quick a turnaround as Bloch was. I suppose the argument could be made Bloch, author of Psycho that he was and all, probably didn't need redemption, but “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” was messy enough and “Catspaw” rocky enough I maintain I was entitled to ask a few questions. But it's more than clear now Bloch's influence on the show was an overwhelmingly positive one, and I'd go so far as to call him one of the unsung pre-eminent architects of the Star Trek we all actually know and love, right alongside Gene Coon. He may not have been altogether perfect at writing women, but he's leagues better than several other people we've seen this year alone. Perhaps it just took Bloch awhile to learn how to write for a show like Star Trek, and we really can't blame him for that. The fact he eventually did figure it out is reason enough to applaud him, seeing as he's one of the alarmingly few people who actually seems to have figured it out. But most of all, Bloch's legacy on Star Trek goes without saying: He introduced it to the world of magick. With a few scant lines of dialogue, Bloch just about singlehandedly redefined what Star Trek could be about and changed its destiny. In effect, he changed the show's mark, and nothing I can say could ever be enough to thank him for that.

Robert Bloch truly was a magician.


  1. A bit of a tangential comment, but your description of demons reminded me of the Dostoyevsky novel Demons. Its basic idea, as far as the title is concerned, is that a demon is really an insuppressible urge or fantasy that inspires destructive actions. An entirely secular conception of the old idea of the demon. We can almost conceive of the traditional supernatural idea of demons as a way to overcome the trauma of actual evil acts: such acts may be driven by the urges of men, but we an find a scapegoat in the supernatural to avoid having to confront the terrifying potential for violence that lives in us all.

    But if the supernatural can manifest in the form of Bloch's Argelians, it might be worth living with all these personifications of evil.

    1. There is a very interesting trend in contemporary mysticism and spirituality that identifies the things we would traditionally have called demons with the idea of thought-forms: Energy given form and agency through powerful emotion. Sometimes this ties back into a conception of faith and the extremely Alan Moore idea gods and spirits exist and have power because the people who believe in them want and need them to.

  2. Whenever I watch "Wolf" now, I immediately link it to "Day of the Dove". Because Redjack and the entity from that level function incredibly similarly as demons, Redjack feeds on Fear, the "Dove" demon on Hate; like Star Trek versions of Parallax and the Butcher from Green Lantern.

  3. This episode always puts me in mind of its B5 analogue, "Comes the Inquisitor"; but I found the latter superior in its complexity.

  4. A good read would be Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. Van Vogt's. It is the main inspiration for Star Trek. And with some study of religious teachings about the Devil and demons it would become easier to see how the majority of the TOS episodes employ sci-fi devices to speculate on the forms and functions of supernatural evil.