|"1-2-3...Hey! No fair Zerg rushing!"|
“The Apple” was the episode of the Original Series that always stuck out in my mind as the one I unequivocally hated. Most of the time an episode being forgettable is a cause for concern when doing this kind of revisit and retrospective, but this is a case where the story made me so angry I never forgot it and I would constantly bring it up in discussions as Exhibit A for why I could never get into this show. It's good to know some things remain constant and my tastes weren't altogether unrefined all those many years ago.
“The Apple” is Biblically awful. That it's not even the worst episode of the season should explain in no uncertain terms how bad things are for Star Trek right now. It is shockingly racist and imperialistic, with naive, simple, primitive people modeled on Pacific islanders in funny skin colours and outfits in a cargo cult setup being told how to live their lives by educated white people from space. It believes quite strongly in a teleological view of history and cultural development, where all societies have to follow a pre-determined and unwavering master narrative where Western cultures are seen as more advanced then non-Western cultures (despite the idyllic, childlike lifestyles they have), basically making this the Space Age White Man's Burden, except that poem was at least well constructed. It is pop Christian, being a straight-up plot lift of the book of Genesis. It is unoriginally pop Christian, shamelessly recycling all the worst aspects of “The Return of the Archons” and “This Side of Paradise” and somehow managing to make both look better by comparison. It is also *textually* racist: Kirk and McCoy talk down to Spock throughout the entire episode, making fun of his green blood, logical mind and resemblance to Satan.
It is sexist, with yet another wistful, pouty yeoman fretting about needing someone to protect her (albeit one who at least gets to hold her own in a fight scene this time). It is proudly and boldly heteronormative, conflating love, procreative sex and heterosexual relationships. It has an appallingly lax attitude towards life and death, casually killing off enough redshirts to the point it makes jokes about Doctor Who's death toll look unwarranted and tasteless (well, at least perhaps even more so). Aside from being a bigot, Kirk is once again written as a gruff, shouty military commander having a psychological meltdown over regulations and taking it out on his crew. Chekov gets another grating “Russia is the greatest country in the universe” scene and is in full-on cartoonish stereotype mode. Even Spock, the most sympathetic person in this episode by virtue of voicing the self-evidently correct course of action (which the rest of the show helpfully belittles him for) is made to look like a complete idiot by getting carelessly and dumbly injured once an act. There is not a single likable character in this entire production. The pacing is sluggish which, combined with the excruciatingly terrible story, has the combined effect of making this feel like the longest fifty minutes ever put to film. Naturally, it's a fan-favourite episode, because this is my own personal self-imposed Hell.
I could carry on in this manner, but, as liberating and cathartic as it might be for me to finally be allowed to lay into “The Apple”, it strikes me as ultimately less than productive. Therefore, I am informally dubbing the rest of this post “The Revenge of Carolyn Palamas” and dedicating it to taking this episode to task from a cultural anthropological perspective. It may still be too easy, but the alternative is taking Warren Ellis' writing advice, which I don't want to write and you don't want to read. In this regard, the first thing to take note of are the People of Vaal, or, to be more precise, the Enterprise crew's reaction to the people of Vaal. Due to the part of the plot “The Apple” lifts from “This Side of Paradise”, we once again have a culture where want and strife do not exist being described as both paradise as well as “stagnant” and “unnatural” because it lacks the Western, Modernist conception of progress (Extra Credit: Go ahead and try to reconcile that with the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, supposedly also Gene Roddenberry's idea). In true Star Trek fashion, we have Captain Kirk coming and *literally* blowing everything the fuck up, and I can't decide whether or not this is actually worse than killing the peace plants of love and happiness in “This Side of Paradise” with anger, hatred and manliness.
Anyway, the point here for our purposes here is the idea this kind of idyllic lifestyle is stagnant (having more or less sorted the reactionary business with “This Side of Paradise”). Yes, there is the fact the People of Vaal are ruled by a giant, vaguely explained authoritarian computer (which would allow me to redeem “The Apple” from an anarchist perspective), but this isn't actually Kirk and McCoy's objection here: Both expressly state on a number of occasions the problem with this society is that it doesn't “progress” not that it takes orders from a machine. The supposed stagnation is very clearly the script's problem with the People of Vaal, and the source of said stagnation is considered purely incidental. Spock points out that this system works and everyone is happy and healthy, and he is obviously in the right, but the show doesn't want us to side with him. There's Vaal's prohibition of romance and physical affection to consider, and some have tried to use this as way to read some free love theme into this episode, but this is also obviously an afterthought: The lack of procreation and children is meant to be another manifestation of the society's lack of growth, not an indictment of oppressive anti-sex cultural mores, and indeed the entire episode can be seen as retrograde and reactionary in terms of sexuality because the Enterprise only values “doing what comes naturally” as a means to an end to produce offspring and keep society growing.
What this means is that “The Apple” is squarely in the intellectual tradition of the Modernization theory of international development. Dating back to the core Enlightenment-era Idea of Progress itself (though most associated with and active during the mid-20th century), Modernization theory is the belief that “underdeveloped” societies can be brought up to the level of “developed” societies by taking the exact same economic and political steps the latter group did, and proponents of the theory furthermore claim to be able to quantify and isolate objective variables that contribute to social progress. Indeed, it may well be the origin of the idea of “development” in the sociological sense. As one would expect anything coming out of Europe during the 18th century, Modernization theory is flatly Scientistic and imperialistic, and essentially every aspect of contemporary Western Neo-Imperialist economic and geopolitical policy can probably be traced back to it in one form or another. Crucially, however, those who hold to Modernization theory believe strongly in the idea of growth and progress through new technology and policies as well as a firm break with tradition (which does nothing but hold societies back) and that this is to be valued and stressed almost above all else. This is exactly what “The Apple” is about and is absolutely central to its entire philosophical outlook.
Modernization theory, it should go without saying, doesn't work, and just about every attempt to apply it to places that aren't contemporary Europe and the United States have ended in spectacular failure and a criminal level of injustice and human rights violations. The obvious anthropological explanation as to why is the same reason no other theory of international development works either: It's self-evidently stupid to try applying a blanket box of policies to every single culture in the world assuming it's going to work the same everywhere because each group of people has a unique set of experiences, challenges and needs. The actually sane, considerate way to approach solving global issues is to, you know, ask people what they need and listen to what they have to say while also making case-by-case, on-the-ground observations of your own thus resulting in a sharing of positionalities and specialized expertise. But that approach requires cultural anthropologists (or at least people who have an appreciation for that sort of way of thinking), and, as is well known, humanities scholars are all uncool, lazy, pretentious trust fund parasites with no practical skills and we all have cooties.
But there's another reason Modernization theory in particular doesn't work, and it's the same reason (or at least one reason at any rate) all the so-called “developed” and “advanced” Western societies are, as of this writing, each undergoing some manner of spectacularly grotesque systemic collapse: The idea of “social growth” (which, being a Western concept, is inexorably bound up with economics) and the notion it must be permanent, steady and infinite, is a particularly dangerous myth. It's simply not possible to maintain a continuous state of “growth” the way Western societies conceptualize it, especially not with factors such as ever-increasingly rampant inequality and the looming ecological disaster of climate crash. Furthermore, there is also mounting evidence constant economic “growth” really doesn't contribute much to the well-being of a society at all. Pretty much any economist will tell you this, not that anybody is actually listening to them, but here are some of the basic arguments and evidence at least.
Aside from the economic imperialism concerns, the other big anthropological bugbear I have with “The Apple” is the Prime Directive. Back in the “Return of the Archons” post I mentioned there are two episodes in this season that deal overtly with the ethics of the Prime Directive, and this is the big one. There are two conflicting lines of thought to be had here and, amazingly, this episode manages to come out in the wrong in both of them. The first is the basic idea of the Prime Directive itself: Simply put, it makes no sense from any conceivable perspective. From a purely narrative standpoint, it seems...counterintuitive, to put it mildly, to have a show built around going to a new place every week and laying down some heavy-handed moralizing while also having a primary facet of the show's setting designed to prevent you from doing exactly that. If it's supposed to add drama to the show by forcing some navel-gazing over whether or not to go against regulations and whether or not Kirk, Spock and McCoy know better than Starfleet Command, this doesn't work because of course Kirk, Spock and McCoy know better than Starfleet Command. That's been a default given since the concept was introduced.
But this is just structural quibbling: The real problem I have with the Prime Directive is that it is a fundamentally unattainable ideal. Gene Roddenberry liked to wheel out the Prime Directive as a key example of how evolved, utopian and sophisticated the Federation is, but he was patently talking rubbish. Aside from the fact that every single Prime Directive story in the entirety of Star Trek is not about how great and wonderful an idea it is but rather 50 minutes of angsting over how it constrains the crew from Doing The Right Thing, the fact remains even if it *were* a good idea there is no way for the crew to actually uphold it unless they never contact another culture ever. See, one of the tenets of postmodern anthropology is that the presence of the anthropologist by definition permanently and irreparably changes the status quo and defines the relationship the anthropologist has with the contacts. It goes without saying that a group of people are going to act differently and change their behaviour when there's some weirdo from another country (or planet) lurking around their village in khakis and a sun hat brandishing a notebook and asking strange questions. There is no way to get an objective, unbiased record of everyday life from an outsider's perspective: It's only possible to write down things you notice and what people tell you and draw your own inferences. Even in an idealized future this would be impossible: People simply do not work that way.
The other reading of the Prime Directive of “non-interference” is that it's in place to prevent, well, things like Modernization theory. The imperialist notion that a supposedly “advanced” or “developed” society can waltz into another society it considers “less advanced” or “primitive” and *deliberately* impose their own ideas of how to live and what choices they make. If this is what the Prime Directive is meant to prevent Starfleet from doing, then Gene Roddenberry was a bloody hypocrite, because from the very beginning his crew is tossing it out without a second thought and deciding that no, they really do have the right to say exactly how a society should act and to force it down the exact same path the Federation took. Imperialism disguised as anti-imperialism: I have to admit that's pretty brazen. Now, take this argument, change the character names and episode titles around and transplant it to every single other Prime Directive story Star Trek ever does: It's a fundamental failing in the philosophy of the franchise that will continue to do nothing but hold it back for the rest of its life.
There are ways Star Trek can handle multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism without resorting to something like the Prime Directive. However, it involves treating people as equals by default and actually listening to their perspectives on issues and life experiences, and none of these are things “The Apple” is interested in. It latches onto the worst, most dangerous aspects of both the morality play and utopian conceptions of the franchise and declares itself Philosopher King in a world where Star Trek has already slain its kings. This is the show bluntly and embarrassingly failing to learn the lessons it itself was trying to teach weeks ago and proudly landing a backflip into ugly racism and socioeconomic Neo-Imperialism. It may not be flat-out worse than something like “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, but at least that episode had an intriguing meta-narrative running throughout it. Perhaps “The Apple” isn't the worst episode of Star Trek ever, perhaps not even the worst we've seen so far, but it may well be the least Vaka Rangi the franchise will ever be.
The Apple does let me make what might be a genuine insight into the reasons why it's so popular. I never really liked the episode, either, simply because I found its story kind of facile and stupid.ReplyDelete
But when I speculate on why The Apple is so popular among the general community of Star Trek fans, I come up with an explanation similar to my idea about the popularity of Who Mourns for Adonais. The underlying story of Adonais is Star Trek confronting the mythic presence and power of the ancient Greek gods, and destabilizing them to the point that Star Trek can take their place as the mythos of humanity. Maybe fans see The Apple as doing the same with Christianity.
Dogmatic religious devotion isn't exactly prevalent in sci-fi communities; atheism tends to be a more dominant perspective. And if modern online communities are any way to judge the tendencies of atheists in previous generations, then I feel pretty safe concluding that their atheism is of the shrill, facile, dogmatic versions of Richard Dawkins and folks like him. So they'd read The Apple as Star Trek declaring Christianity to be the brainwashing of an evil computer who keeps our own civilization from progressing. The replacement for repressive Christianity? The mythmaking power of atheist humanist sci-fi, led by Star Trek.
The deluded natives incapable of progress are, in this interpretation, liberated by the arrival of Star Trek's godless mythmaking. The genuine offensiveness and moral shortfalls of The Apple and Adonais appear when we stop reading the story through the allegory the authors intended. Once we do that, we not only see how the allegory disguises a different kind of repression, but that crafting characters and stories that serve only as single-purpose allegories is itself a kind of repression. It represses individuality for the sake of an allegory.
I agree with you completely up to the point when you say the shortfalls of "The Apple" only come when we stop reading it the way the authors intended. While the militant, facile atheism of Dawkins and his ilk may be prevalent in sci-fi fandom, I'm unconvinced this was the perspective the people running the show at the time were writing from.Delete
IMO there's still a general sense in 1967 that Star Trek is about morality plays, at least among the people writing it. Despite its pretensions it's really not in the camp of hard, secular science fiction, and Gene Roddenberry's description of it as being made of "mini Biblical stories" is telling. I think there's an at least implicitly pop Christian undertone to the series right now (well, in stories like this at any rate: The show's ethics, politics and structure change every episode) and that Star Trek won't begin to openly court secular humanism until the late-1970s.
Then shift my designation of the atheist humanist interpretation's origin from the authors to the cult fans of the 1970s that made Star Trek legendary. It seems to fit my reading of Adonais better as well. The producers of TOS believed themselves to be making sci-fi morality plays. Maybe the Western secular humanism of 1970s cult fandom established such deep love for The Apple because it supported a militant atheist reading against Christianity. The episodes with deep love from 1970s fandom (like Jason Alexander) are episodes that can be read as Star Trek supplanting Western myths. In the 1970s, that seems to have been the goal of Star Trek cult fandom.Delete
That seems fitting to me. I've avoided discussing first generation fandom at length so far as I have a series posts lined up meant to look at it directly and right now I'm predominantly interested in the show's production history, but this does seem a more than likely explanation for the popularity of this kind of story.Delete
In brief, I think it's the 1970s that leads to a large-scale reconceptualization of what Star Trek was about, from sci-fi morality plays to a vision of secular utopianism, and that's mostly due to the fandom that arose out of watching syndicated reruns. This, in turn, leads the creators to approach writing Star Trek differently once they return to and reimagine it. As my critique exists in multiple time periods this is something I'm always aware of, despite on the whole trying to focus on the realities of producing Star Trek day-to-day in the late-1960s at the moment.
Hey, just wanted to say thanks for all the great writing you're doing. TOS is my favorite of the franchises, but your reviews are much needed challenges to a lot of classic fan orthodoxy. I'll be glad to follow your project as it moves forward.ReplyDelete
This episode has always stood out to me as the ugly worst TOS had to offer. Not that there aren't other extremely problematic episodes of the series, but at least they usually offered something intriguing or basically entertaining. This episode commits the twin sins of being full of odious, retrograde ideas and not even having the decency to present those ideas in an entertaining manner (something which saves a lot of other episodes of the show from being totally unwatchable).
Your series of posts always reminds me of that line in the Futurama Star Trek episode when Fry is trying to explain Star Trek to Leela: "79 episodes... maybe 20 good ones." I'll be curious if we get to 20 by the time your run on TOS is up.
"Hey, just wanted to say thanks for all the great writing you're doing."ReplyDelete
Thanks for stopping by and for saying so! Glad you're enjoying the project so far.
"TOS is my favorite of the franchises..."
"...but your reviews are much needed challenges to a lot of classic fan orthodoxy. I'll be glad to follow your project as it moves forward."
Well, thanks for the vote of confidence there! This is certainly one goal of mine.
"Your series of posts always reminds me of that line in the Futurama Star Trek episode when Fry is trying to explain Star Trek to Leela: "79 episodes... maybe 20 good ones." I'll be curious if we get to 20 by the time your run on TOS is up.'
Well, I count six as of this episode that I'd recommend, maybe a handful more that are borderline. We'll have to see what the final tally is when we're through with it I suppose...
TOS is my favorite of the franchises as well! But you're not vivisecting the production or LCD work, which is the primary impetus for that favoritism and endless fascination. Other series may lack 'most' of the retrograde, hard-to-stomach aspects, but they're dismal, grey affairs and often kind of bland to look at; atypical for the early 90s, which was still inundated with the worst of the garish late-80s.ReplyDelete
I agree with your assessment of The Apple but there was always an element of cult slavery (the United States being a Western, Europe-based model, has always had the same witch-burning, church-sponsored fear and paranoia of cults and it was and is still ever-present in pop culture, in spite of the massive underground or alternative appeal of neo-pagan lines of thinking) that I thought the allegorists were attempting to tackle, specifically in regards to unquestioning servility toward a vague authority. And a mind-controlled populace. Think of all the "contemporary" television shows that deal with poor duped cult members serving an abjectly corrupt leader. Not that there aren't real life examples of such things, but they don't typically come in the form of peaceful, child-like people in grass skirts and huts.
But beyond that, in a very large regard I think there was a deliberate intent to contrast the Children of Vaal, some of whom had receiving devices implanted into their brains, with the idea of brainwashing. Brainwashing and hypnosis via radio waves - the paranoia ray - was an ever-present threat from Russia during the Cold War. The narrative of an unflinching, purely logical computerized leadership imposing its un-Freedom on your very will like so much Darkseid via broadcast was so present in the pop-cultural forefront that most people at the time could probably discern it easily. Kirk & Co. were anarchist insurgents freeing a small, forgotten native population from the ills of the Red Menace. Vaal might as well be some MK-ULTRA project in a forgotten backwater that the Kremlin built then abandoned.
Not that it did it particularly effectively (even as a child I had trouble buying into a clearly white actor pretending to be some kind of aboriginal tribesman, before I could even conceptualize how terribly racist the use of an aboriginal tribesmen as a McGuffin for white imperialists was). Anyway, from my very present day perspective, there are far better examples of Trek and other sci-fi dealing with this "threat" of mind-controlling a population, and they properly forsook paranoia radio mind-control for the far more disconcerting and relevant use of "drugs" as a means of mind-control.
There's an extremist line of thinking seen in right or left wings that still pervades all spheres, which will gladly equate "geopolitical rivals" with "different philosophies" with "evil cults". In the 60s, Communism was tantamount, probably by-and-large perceived the same way, as some faddish cult living in a compound in the middle of nowhere.
"Other series may lack 'most' of the retrograde, hard-to-stomach aspects, but they're dismal, grey affairs and often kind of bland to look at; atypical for the early 90s, which was still inundated with the worst of the garish late-80s."Delete
I must say it may be just me, but I'd hardly call Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "dismal, grey affairs". Star Trek Voyager yeah, and maybe that's why the 80s and 90s series get this reputation, but the concept of Voyager supplanting all the other Trek shows in the late 90s is a theme to tackle far in the future.
Oh sweet baby Jesus, "The Apple." The very first episode of Trek I ever saw (or remember seeing), watched on the old Trek laser discs my dad used to have, back when he was first introducing me to it. As such, this one's stuck with me, part of my primal childhood iconography; the Vaalians throwing the sacrifices into the glaring red maw of the machine, Kirk teaching them how to kill, the Enterprise's air strike, and that ending, with Spock essentially stating outright "We have completely and irreparably fucked these people over" only to get mocked for his apparently Satanic appearance. Even as a kid that felt very wrong to me, and I vaguely recall being confused as to why showing the Vaalans how to kill would ever be a good thing. God this episode is really fucking terrible, and it doesn't have "The Omega Glory's" hilarity to excuse it either (that one wins first prize in the "man, Spock TOTALLY LOOKS LIKE THE DEVIL AMIRITE" sweepstakes).ReplyDelete
Also, "pop Christian" is a wonderful phrase that I will probably appropriate in the future. And I would have to completely agree with Adam's theory on the 70s emergent fandom's relationship with episodes like this; pity Trek won't tackle religion effectively until DS9 and Kira, though God bless 'em they really knock it out of the park when they do, but I'll save my thoughts on that 'til we get there. Incidentally, speaking of your addressing the 70s fandom, I cannot wait to hear you talk about the birth of slash fandom/fangirl culture in the context of Trek fandom, as that's a narrative begging for a decent examination and celebration; the contempt with which they're treated on the internet (or only paid attention to in terms of origin in context of the rise of Buffy) is both bullshit and utterly belies how critical they've been since the very beginning.
"I cannot wait to hear you talk about the birth of slash fandom/fangirl culture in the context of Trek fandom, as that's a narrative begging for a decent examination and celebration; the contempt with which they're treated on the internet (or only paid attention to in terms of origin in context of the rise of Buffy) is both bullshit and utterly belies how critical they've been since the very beginning."Delete
You will get your wish, and perhaps sooner than you think.
Actually, in many ways the entire TOS phase of the project is building to that inevitable (series of) post(s).
"... but I'd hardly call Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "dismal, grey affairs".ReplyDelete
I suppose I should've added 'by comparison'. I think TNG and DS9 are loaded with color, but a lot of it seems to blend into the stylized detail of the background. I know the very intent with say, the Enterprise-D was to make the bridge look almost like a relaxing lounge, but it really did - the pajama like jumpsuits, a bridge that doesn't feel at all like a submarine. It's easily iconic but it jars sometimes for me with the actual "threat", or any time things feel a little military.
But mostly, mostly I think it's more a matter of the difference between film quality, and broadcast quality between the 60s and the 90s. I'll cop to having not seen much of the HD releases of TNG "in motion" yet (only screenshots), and from what I understand, the grayness and lack of color was not at all coming from the artists and set designers, and is one of the joys of watching them redefined.
It's a bias I have yet to get over, that probably largely stems from syndicated broadcasts on an old television. I certainly need to learn to judge the 24th Century stuff for what it is, not what I wish it was (not enough day-glo!) or even what it is 'filtered through lousy technology'.
Still, there was a great deal of beige. And nothing as brilliant as the primary or secondary color directional lighting used in TOS, in spite of a more cohesive universe. Something about the randomness and lack of cohesion in TOS led to more radical, sort of far out, comic bookish in design, like some aspect of actually springing into existence during the Space Age lent it a weird realism, preventing it from being too grandiose or operatic and utilizing the great lines and curves of the 60s. The 60s Enterprise looks like an Apple product, whereas the 80s Enterprise looks like a dirigible.
"I certainly need to learn to judge the 24th Century stuff for what it is, not what I wish it was..."Delete
Not necessarily-I'm not even going to do that, and I actually like those shows on the whole. A central theme of this blog is the tension between what Is, what Isn't, what Could Have Been and what Should Have Been.
"...or even what it is 'filtered through lousy technology'."
I think this is closer to the reality of it, at least from my perspective. 1980s-1990s broadcast technology hampered those shows *a lot*. If you're so inclined, I do highly recommend the Blu-ray releases of TNG: It really is night and day and far, far closer to what I think the original intent was. It gives the show the sense of vastness, wonder and majesty I always imagined it had.
"Still, there was a great deal of beige. And nothing as brilliant as the primary or secondary color directional lighting used in TOS, in spite of a more cohesive universe. Something about the randomness and lack of cohesion in TOS led to more radical, sort of far out, comic bookish in design, like some aspect of actually springing into existence during the Space Age lent it a weird realism, preventing it from being too grandiose or operatic and utilizing the great lines and curves of the 60s. The 60s Enterprise looks like an Apple product, whereas the 80s Enterprise looks like a dirigible."
Although I agree in broad strokes, I think this may be an issue we're just not going to see eye-to-eye on. I'm in love with the look-and-feel of TNG/Early DS9 myself and always have been. Not that I overtly dislike the mood of TOS (...at least when it comes to set design and VFX), of course, though I do prefer the Kraftwerkian, analog, 20th Century European atmosphere of Raumpatrouille Orion.
I adore DS9, and consider it the high-watermark for all things Trek.Delete
I usually rewatch the whole thing in one big block, once or twice a year, so I'll tend to have the later four seasons fresher in my mind than the early ones, but I'll admit, post-Vaka Rangi will be the first I've watched it with more an eye for themes, analysis and even color-design. Hopefully that gets an HD update within a reasonable amount of time - but I suppose the argument could be made that Kira's uniform, Quark's fashion, even the sharper "station personnel" Starfleet uniforms, build to a greater color pallet, and then you get into later designs like the emphasis on color to distinguish enemy vessels (Jem'Hadar purple! Cardassian orange! Breen green!). They're not un-stylish, so I can't really place why the simplicity and starkness of TOS sticks with me.
It's got to be the technology, and in spite of hours poring over Memory Alpha, I can't say I've seen a lot of supplemental material online to give me a better picture.