Thursday, October 31, 2013

“They're dead...They're all dead...”: That Which Survives

"Monkey in the middle!"
“That Which Survives” opens promising to be one of the most creative and exciting episodes since “The Alternative Factor”, and that it doesn't quite maintain that momentum for the whole of its fifty minutes is almost beside the point. We're still in the curious mystical territory the show's been exploring off and on since “The Tholian Web”, and here Kirk even uses the phrase “ghost planet” to describe an astrogeological impossibility: A planet too young to develop life and an atmosphere, yet which clearly has both. As the landing party is about to beam down, the transport sequence is interrupted by a woman who suddenly materializes, imploring them not to go down, killing the transporter chief in the process. She's too late to stop the landing party, however, but as Kirk tries to contact the Enterprise Sulu informs him it's simply not there anymore and that they're stranded. Back on the ship, we learn the Enterprise has somehow been instantaneously flung to the other end of the galaxy.

So once again we've stumbled into a region of space where weird and inexplicable things happen. This time though, the closest analog seems not to be pagan mythology but supernatural horror movies: The mystery woman materializes every once in awhile to a specific crewmember, both on the planet and aboard the Enterprise. Puzzlingly declaring she is “for” them and that she knows everything about them, she gains their trust enough so she can touch them, at which point she explodes every cell in their body simultaneously. The mystery woman is a slasher villain then, and “That Which Survives” works a bit like an old haunted house movie, where travellers have to seek shelter in a dark and foreboding mansion. But it's also a survival movie, as Kirk, Sulu and McCoy are forced to search for food and water as they're now cut off from the Enterprise and are unsure if they'll ever be able to leave. And, in a cruel twist of fate, it seems like the planet they've found themselves on has neither.

However, this is just half the story. “That Which Survives” is split between the landing party and the Enterprise at the other end of the galaxy trying to return to where it was. On the Enterprise, the episode plays out entirely differently-While the mystery woman still hunts people down, the challenge Spock, Scotty, Uhura and M'Benga face is an entirely different one: This part of the episode is straightforwardly a thriller in the mould of “The Doomsday Machine”, albeit with the inspired decision to put Spock at the centre and forcing him to react to everything. The crew soon discovers that in addition to throwing them across the galaxy, the mystery woman has somehow also sabotaged the ship's warp drive. With the warp engines locked and accelerating at a rate beyond Scotty's control and to a speed at which the Enterprise wasn't designed to withstand, the crew has fifteen minutes to figure out what's happened and correct it or the entire ship will blow up. Just as before, we get a tense countdown to destruction averted at literally the last second as Scotty risks his life to manually shut off the engines inches away from the reaction itself.

What's also great about this half of the episode is how it manages to build up its own unique sense of internal narrative coherence. Even without Kirk, McCoy and Sulu, the crew left behind on the Enterprise has great chemistry, and it almost feels like a mini-show unto itself, which hasn't really been the case on previous occasions where the main cast has been split up. One of the reasons this works is that the guest cast this week is both extremely strong and well handled: It's great to see Doctor M'Benga again, especially as “That Which Survives” is an infinitely preferable story to “A Private Little War”, and the way he effortlessly fills McCoy's shoes and narrative function is both a testament to how good this script is and how talented Booker Bradshaw was. Lieutenant Rahda, played by Naomi Pollack, who fills in for Sulu, is also very good: Pollack plays her as a competent professional and an equal and the rest of the bridge treats her as such. Even Watkins and D'Amato, who only show up to get killed off, are defined and likeable. The episode goes out of its way to make its one-off characters distinct and memorable, and that in turn allows each half of the episode to move along a lot smoother than they would have otherwise.

This episode then is a deft fusion of thriller, survival and slasher horror tropes all done effortlessly within the framework of an above-average contemporary Star Trek story. You may recognise this as suspiciously similar to the show's very first hat trick way back in “The Man Trap”, which was also a genre fusion piece (that time it was science fiction, slasher horror and soap operas) in addition to one or two episodes from last year. This is probably because “That Which Survives” is a collaboration between Star Trek veterans John Meredyth Lucas and D.C. Fontana, though Fontana uses her pseudonym Michael Richards here. As one would probably expect, the result is pretty bloody excellent. This may not be either writer's absolute best work and I'm sure it was tampered with in the same way every script this season has been, but even so it's remarkable how intact this one turned out and how just genuinely enjoyable and entertaining it is. Even at this late a stage, Fontana and Lucas are cranking out some of the series' very best material: I could watch about ten more episodes just like this and be perfectly happy.

However, “That Which Survives” is not itself absolutely perfect. As is frustratingly the case with this season, it's a showcase of a lot of really good ideas brought down by really sloppy and ham-fisted production. Certainly it turned out far, far better than something like “The Enterprise Incident” or “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, both of which were episodes that had their fundamental themes torpedoed by micromanagement, but it's still very much a season three story. The biggest issue is that on a number of occasions the characterization and voice of certain crewmembers, much like the Enterprise itself after its molecular dissasembly and trans-galactic beaming, feels ever so slightly wrong. Kirk and Spock suffer it the worst, and they both frequently act, for lack of a better word, like assholes. William Shatner at least makes up for it by taking a lot of the edge off of Kirk's worst lines, but Leonard Nimoy is so beyond giving a shit at this point it is as calculable as the amount of light years the Enterprise travels. Spock is written as the most smug, obnoxious pedant imaginable and Nimoy makes no attempt to disguise this, playing him just as exasperated, snarky and sarcastic as he himself must have felt. All this is stuff that could have been avoided had, ironically enough, the episode's writers still been working for the show: As script editor, Fontana was very meticulous in preserving the characters' voices from episode to episode, a fastidiousness shared by Lucas, Gene Coon and, of course, Gene Roddenberry.

Also, it's more than a little annoying that the slasher villain is an alien femme fatale, although the episode does manage to sidestep this at the end a bit when it's revealed she's a flawed computer recreation of Losira, the last surviving member of a species wiped out by a deadly plague, created by the automated defense system of her people's last bastion (the planet, which turns out to actually be a space station...or something). Losira was very much not a slasher villain, heroically staying behind to maintain the base in case any other survivors happened to find it, until she herself succumbed. Nevertheless, for the majority of the episode we have someone who looks like a stereotypical femme fatale going around slaughtering people, which is somewhat less than satisfying.

Ultimately what's the most telling about all of this is that this is a story the show could have done in its sleep a year ago and it's struggling a bit with now. The delightfully unexpected newfound focus on mysticism is new to Star Trek in 1968-9, but the rest of “That Which Survives” is very much in keeping with the likes of “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Ultimate Computer”. One gets the sense that, just like with those episodes, this is the kind of episode that should, in an ideal world, be an average episode of Star Trek. All that's really missing here is D.C. Fontana and Gene Coon's trademark polish and attention to detail. Had it been made in the second season, I'm confidant “That Which Survives” would have been remembered as the minor classic it really is, rather than being declared “camp” and thrown out with the rest of the third season. Perhaps in some parallel universe we got a tighter version of “That Which Survives” that did indeed serve as a quality standard for the third season. But in the reality we live in, it was just one more step in the Original Series' plodding march towards obsolescence.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pearl of Beauty: Wink of an Eye

"I knew this would happen if we gave the LHC access to Starfleet's resources."
One of the things that's especially curious about the third season is that in some ways it is arguably the most thematically consistent the Original Series ever was. We've now had several stories dealing quite explicitly with the question of utopia, idealism, Star Trek's Western pedigree and what makes the show ultimately valuable and worth preserving. And then there's that odd flirtation with the mystical, something “Wink of an Eye” doubles down on to a delightful extent.

This episode sees Gene Coon back (at least I'm assuming I can attribute it to him: He didn't write the screenplay but the story is credited to Lee Cronin) and it's sort of chilling how easily he seems to have embraced the magickal head trip the series has gone on recently. What we have here is a story that can be quite easily read as being just as Otherworldly as “The Tholian Web”, and takes a unique look at a number of science fiction conventions to boot. First of all we see the Enterprise answering a desperate distress signal from the people of a planet called Scalos, but beaming down they find the entire planet devoid of life. Spock and Uhura reason the distress call was prerecorded, but just as the landing party is about to beam back up the redshirt suddenly vanishes into thin air in front of McCoy. back on the ship, random pieces of equipment start malfunctioning and circuits start rerouting themselves. McCoy and Chapel tell Kirk the medical supply cabinet has been broken into and things have been rearranged, and people keep hearing a strange, insect-like buzzing sound. The whole first act then once again brings to mind ghosts, and this time evokes in particular stories of places haunted by poltergeist activity.

But that all changes in the second act when Kirk vanishes too. This time we get to follow things from his point of view, and it turns out that the culprits are in truth the Scalosians themselves, who beamed aboard the Enterprise with the landing party and have commandeered it. It turns out that the Scalosians conceive of time differently than other people, and exist in a state of perpetual hyper-accelerated existence. Kirk meets Deela, the Scalosian Queen who makes the interesting declaration that she has chosen Kirk to be her king. Deela says that long ago the Scalosian civilization was wiped out by a series of natural disasters that also sterilized the male population, and they now have to abduct men from other species and bring them into their plane to ensure the survival of their people.

As cheesy as that scenario sounds, I first have to give the show credit for inverting the stock “Mars Needs Women” scenario long before most people realised that was in fact a stock scenario that could be inverted. This perhaps isn't the episode to talk at length about this, but the kind of role reversal we see here brings up the question of the effectiveness of turnabout as a form of social criticism: “Wink of an Eye” doesn't quite manage to shed absolutely all of the disturbing sci-fi rape connotations of this kind of plot, though it's clear Deela would prefer her subjects to know and love her first, which is something of a start I suppose. It is actually possible to do a story about sci-fi reproduction from a female perspective and turn it into something resembling intelligence as there's room there to discuss certain issues regarding female sexuality and femininity, but I doubt this is the kind of thing Star Trek circa 1968 is really cut out to handle, and the fact the show clumsily skirts around the issue here is both predictable and probably ultimately for the best.

What truly salvages what is otherwise a premise that is iffy at best is Deela, who is eminently likeable. This is due largely to her actor, Kathie Browne, who is stupendously good. Browne plays Deela as someone unwaveringly confidant and self-assured, but who also experiences a wide array of human emotion. Deela is consistently both dominant and gentle in a way that makes her utterly believable and utterly sympathetic. For the first time we have a female character who is unquestionably Kirk's equal and who's not played by Diana Muldaur, and “Wink of an Eye” goes a step further: Deela's not just an equal, she's Kirk's counterpart, and commands just as much trust and respect among the Scalosians as he does amongst the crew of the Enterprise. One of my favourite scenes is when she coldly and imperiously shoots down the irrationally and violently jealous Rael in Kirk's quarters both literally and figuratively, declaring she absolutely has the right to maker her own decisions, live her own life and love whom she wishes and nobody is allowed to take that right away from her. It's a deliciously perfect scene and Browne knocks it out of the park.

If nothing else, “Wink of an Eye” and its love story is proof positive of how badly wrong “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” went, because as much as Deela is ultimately another “girl of the week”, her one-off romance is something we care about, whereas Natira was just a compilation of gurning scenes. Just like with Muldaur though, as likeable as Browne makes Deela this has the side effect of screwing up the ending rather spectacularly, because now we actually root for this romance, if not perhaps for the “Scalos Needs Men” silliness but because Kirk and Deela are so similar and seem to care about each other so deeply. Seeing her beamed down without ever learning Spock and McCoy found a cure for her accelerated state is a kick to the gut.

It's also interesting to note this episode could be argued to handle the folkloric concept of the Changeling better than the actual episode entitled “The Changeling” did. Some sources from Norway do in fact say that fairies and trolls exchange their own offspring with human children because they need new blood for their gene pools, and “Changeling” can refer to the child that was taken as well as the child that was left in its place. It's not too strangled a connection to make to see this as at least roughly comparable with what the Scalosians try to do here: Beings from another plane take someone from ours to live in theirs because of their own reproductive emergencies.

But for the Scalosians' plot to be comparable to Changeling folklore, this would of course mean the Scalosians have to be comparable to fairies, which I think they absolutely are. Starting in act 2, “Wink of an Eye” becomes an almost completely standard-issue reiteration of any number of saga stories from Celtic mythology about warrior heroes who are called upon to travel to another realm compelled by a Woman of the Otherworld. Probably the two most famous are one tale of the hero Cúchulain, who is punished for throwing rocks at seabirds when the birds reveal themselves to be the goddesses Fand and Lí Ban, who whip him and cause him to lay ill for year until he agrees to help Fand in her war against her adversaries, eventually becoming her lover. Another story concerns, perhaps even more similar, is that of Oisín, son of Fionn mac Cumhail, who is asked by the goddess Niamah from Tir na nÓg, “The Land of the Youth”, to be her companion. Though he loved Niamah, Oisín grew homesick and asked to return to Ireland after what to him were three years, but what was three hundred years in the outside world. We even see that time passes differently for the Scalosians, just as it does in the Otherworld, and Deela is positively steeped in Fairy Queen imagery, in no small part owing to the fact this seems blatantly how Browne plays her. The only thing that's different is the Scalosians' fixation on reproduction and the fact Kirk is far less willing to take the journey than Cúchulain or Oisín.

Except for one small yet very explicit difference. In the traditional myths, one of the major differences between our world and the Otherworld was the sense of time. Time passed much, much more slowly within the Otherworld than it did in the land of humans: This is why Oisín can return to Ireland after what felt to him like three years, but were in fact three centuries for his compatriots. But, in “Wink of an Eye”, it's the opposite: The Scalosians experience time at a much faster rate than others because they are accelerated. So what we have instead is a very obvious inversion-The hero is taken to a realm where time passes at a faster rate. Why might that be? This seems like an unusual switch to make, considering the Celtic Otherworld is meant to be the Fortunate Isles, or the Land of Eternal Youth or Summer. Doesn't that miss the whole point? Well actually, no, because the Scalosians aren't the fairies. The Enterprise crew are. Kirk isn't the hero who finds himself across the sea or within the barrows: Deela is.

Really, who else would they be? “Wink of an Eye” follows up not just on “The Tholian Web”, but on “Plato's Stepchildren” as well. This is how you depict a utopian setting: You don't introduce petty conflict amongst the people who live within the utopia, you show how the drama emerges naturally and generatively through the interaction between the utopians and the people who are allowed to visit with them. You demonstrate what a utopian or idealistic approach to problem solving would entail. “Plato's Stepchildren” was really about Alexander: It was the story of how he was able to find his inner strength through peacefully standing up for himself and rejecting oppressive, hegemonic Westernism through being inspired by a better alternative. “Wink of an Eye” is Deela's story: It's about how she discovered a way to cross the boundary into the Otherworld because she needed the help of its people to save her own. The Otherworld has long been the residence of deified ancestors, spiritual guardians and a land of peace, life and happiness. Deela knew this and sought the spirits out for guidance, she just didn't understand that you can't bend them to your own will. That might end up being the tragedy of her character, although the ending, with her mysteriously reappearing on the Enterprise viewscreen, may leave enough ambiguity about her fate to posit that she might have found a way back after all.

“Wink of an Eye” isn't a perfect solution, but it's a definite step in the right direction. Future Star Trek will be able to handle this kind of thing with a lot more nuance and care and strike a balance between internal and external conflicts in a utopian setting. But what “Wink of an Eye” does show is that Star Trek's idealism need not be tied to teleology: This isn't a grand future Westernism is inevitably building towards, it's explicitly a magickal realm that we have to prove ourselves worthy of being allowed to visit. It's a challenge to better ourselves and an invitation for us to dialog about how best to do so.

And that to me is just about the most Star Trek message of them all.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

“From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen.”: Plato's Stepchildren

"You'll have to get your entertainment someplace else."
“Plato's Stepchildren” is utterly unwatchable, critically important and incredibly easy to talk about all at the same time.

Leonard Nimoy has said the majority of the third season was “embarrassing” for him, and nowhere is that clearer than here. This is one of the most excruciatingly painful and humiliating episodes to watch of the entire franchise. It is also one of the most popular and important, and it's not at all difficult to see why. It is straightforwardly a reiteration of a number of the themes the show has been grappling with dating back to the Gene Coon era with very little new to say about them, but it's also the most concise and blunt about them the show will ever be. Actually, I'm not certain the franchise is ever this blatant about these ideas and concepts ever again. “Plato's Stepchildren” doesn't quite work: It almost does, but it's messy and sloppy and needed to go one little step further to really sell what I think it was attempting to drive home. Nonetheless, it had a measurably, provably positive effect on world culture, and that alone unquestionably seals its legacy.

A bit like Star Trek itself then.

Put most basically, “Plato's Stepchildren” concerns a group of extraterrestrial settlers who lived on Earth during the time of Ancient Greece and were inspired by Plato make the utopian republic he imagined a reality. When settling on a new planet, they discovered that eating the native fruit, mixed with their endocrine systems, gave them massively powerful psychokinetic abilities, through which they perfected the use of their minds and intellects...while regarding anyone else as so inferior and beneath them to be not even worthy of the most basic amount of respect and dignity. Aside from being utterly without compassion and empathy, they're also ruthlessly sadistic: Luring the Enterprise to their planet under false pretenses, the Platonians, as they have come to call themselves, capture the crew and turn them into human (and Vulcan) marionettes to be subject to their every capricious whim.

Obviously, “Plato's Stepchildren” is not treading any new ground here. It is once again conceptually extremely similar to many previous episodes, most notably “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (it even recycles the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” speech), “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Bread and Circuses”. The difference here is in execution: As a standalone piece of television, “Plato's Stepchildren” seems to come up extremely wanting when compared to some of those episodes: It's not as poetic and doesn't feel as fresh as “Where No Man Has Gone Before” did, and it's nowhere near as boldly creative as “Bread and Circuses”, at least the Gene Coon part, as that episode managed to effortlessly equate the Roman Empire, the larger Hellenistic tradition, the Gladiatorial spectacle, television and the general state of United States culture circa 1967 in a grand, sweeping condemnation of Westernism. That said though, “Plato's Stepchildren” doesn't have Gene Roddenberry to come in and screw all that up with one of the most morally bankrupt and reprehensible denouements in TV history, and in the process drive away his show's biggest creative force.

And “Plato's Stepchildren” is leagues better than “The Cage” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, largely by virtue of it actually being a somewhat competent production and not swimming in rape culture. And what it lacks in eloquence and craftsmanship it makes up for in volume and emphasis, because “Plato's Stepchildren” strikes right at the heart of Westernism and deals a brutal, shuddering, crippling blow. There are few thinkers more central to Western philosophy and ethics than Plato, and the secret of this episode is that it's just as strong a denouncement of Plato himself as it is of the followers who have supposedly strayed from his teachings. Central to this is the concept of the Philosopher King, who we've talked about before in the context of “Space Seed” and of which I've been more than a little critical, largely because I see little difference between “Philosopher King” and “'Enlightened' Despot”. Parmen explicitly calls himself one, despite claiming he has “no need” of a title, and the Platonians absolutely act like they're intellectually superior to everyone else and thus are deserving of the power they wield: It's how they attempt to justify treating Alexander and the Enterprise crew as subhuman creatures only worthy of being playthings.

What “Plato's Stepchildren” seems to be saying is that any utopia, which the Platonians explicitly say they've created and Plato certainly thought he'd conceived of even if he didn't use the name, which values some people over others is in truth no utopia at all. Now that Star Trek has overtly transformed into a utopia, it's first test is to prove why its utopia is a stronger claim than others, and it makes its case on both diegetic and extradiegetic fronts: Firstly, of course, there is the character of Alexander, a little person mocked and tormented by the other Platonians because of his stature and his inability to develop their psychokinetic powers, which of course turn out to be endocrine-based. It's a self-evident and straightforward stand-in for a particularly Western form of institutionalized and hegemonic bullying that dates back to Plato himself: The other Platonians hate Alexander because they don't consider him as intelligent and sophisticated as they are, and he looks different than them to boot. Tellingly, Alexander says his bullying began at the exact same time the psychokinetic powers developed, which, given the “absolute power” speeches, can be likened with power more generally. The very first thing the “enlightened” disciples of Plato do upon attaining power is hoard it for themselves and weaponize it to dehumanize an innocent person.

Alexander immediately trusts Kirk, Spock and McCoy because while they might look different than he does, they don't bully him and don't have the power, two concepts that had previously been inconceivable to him. This leads to his character's major turning point, and probably one of the single most important exchanges in the entire franchise. Alexander asks Kirk if, “where he comes from”, there are more people like him, referring both to his stature and lack of psychokinetic abilities. To which Kirk responds in a beautifully loaded quote:

“Alexander, where I come from, size, shape or color makes no difference. And nobody has the power.”

And with that one line, Kirk sets the stage for the entire future of Star Trek. Crucially, this advice proves vital to Alexander in the climax when he abstains from killing Parmen, even though he'd be entirely within his rights to do so. But, as Kirk later says, killing is murder, even in self-defense, and Alexander doesn't want (the) power, because he doesn't want to end up like the Platonians. He wants to be better, and he proves to himself as much as anyone else that he's capable of better. And it was Star Trek that showed him he could be better. What makes Star Trek's utopia worth holding onto is that it is, in the words of Robert Nozick, a “meta-utopia” where “...people are free to do their own thing”. It is the only environment that can exist when each individual person is treated as an equal.

While catching a rerun of “Plato's Stepchildren”, a boy named Dan Madsen was captivated by Alexander's story. A little person himself, he dreamed of a world where he would be “...accepted for who [he] was, not how tall [he] was or how [he] looked”. But I'll stop talking now and let the founder of the first official Star Trek Fan Club and fanzine speak for himself.

Then there is of course the kiss between Kirk and Uhura, which I suppose I must talk about. It's wasn't actually the first interracial kiss on television: A year prior Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. greeted each other by kissing on a music variety show, and Desilu's own Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz had of course kissed on I Love Lucy long before Star Trek. Actually, this wasn't even the first interracial kiss in Star Trek this season: William Shatner shared many passionate kisses with French-Vietnamese France Nuyen in “Elaan of Troyius”, though “Plato's Stepchildren” was the first of the two to air. This was, however, the kiss that the biggest spectacle was made out of, with lingering closeups of the actors both individually and together, some quite obvious shipper bait dialogue from Uhura and a cut to commercial break just as the two embrace. What's most interesting about this scene to me is firstly that despite the production team's hand-wringing there was practically no negative feedback about it whatsoever, except for one letter from a southern viewer that actually reads more like a joke, which seems sort of astonishing for 1968.

There also seems to be some debate about how the filming of the kiss actually went down. William Shatner seems to recall that NBC didn't want the actors lips touching, but Nichelle Nichols says that each and every take was a real kiss. Also apparently at one point or another it was considered to have Spock kiss Uhura, but whether or not that was in the original script is a point of contention. What we do know is that Shatner apparently said of this idea “If anyone's gonna get to kiss Nichelle, it's going to be me, I mean, Captain Kirk!”, which could be seen as an example of his frequently alleged arrogance, but I can totally see this as his way of stressing how important it was that the kiss was between a Caucasian and African human via his signature tongue-in-cheek artificial and intentionally stilted bombast. Furthermore, there was originally going to be two versions of the scene filmed, one where they kissed and one where they didn't, just in case the southern affiliates objected. But Shatner and Nichols, especially Shatner, deliberately and hilariously threw every take of the “no kiss” version so they would have no choice but to go with the kissing one. Regardless of the details though, this scene alone assured that “Plato's Stepchildren” was the most talked about Star Trek episode of the year, possibly ever, and Nichelle Nichols recalls the show received more gushing fan mail for this one episode than they did any other. There is simply no denying its impact on pop culture history.

In spite of all this however, there are some things about “Plato's Stepchildren” that simply do not work as well as they could have, and maybe should have. There's one noticeably problematic line from Kirk and Spock wherein they denounce the Platonians for betraying Plato's desire for peace, beauty and justice. This seems to contradict the themes the episode is working with everywhere else, and without it this would have been a more then sufficient follow-up on Kirk's comments from “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” about how an appreciation for beauty is one of the last remaining unsavoury things humans in Star Trek retain of their Greek heritage. This would have been especially effective as the world of Star Trek is depicted as otherwise so pleasingly utopian in “Plato's Stepchildren”.

The biggest issue with this episode though is that it really is basically unwatchable: The scenes where the crew are turned into clowns and puppets by the Platonians are absolutely excruciating. I know they were probably supposed to be, but they go on forever and the camera lingers on them way, way too long to the point it starts to feel as sadistic as the Platonians themselves. “Plato's Stepchildren” could have used this to make a similar condemnation of the voyeuristic spectacle of television that Patrick McGoohan does in The Prisoner, or indeed that Gene Coon did in “Bread and Circuses”. But the cinematography, direction and editing simply can't pull that trick off here. Star Trek once again ends up feeling cheap and seems to come up short, which it's actually managed to largely avoid for awhile. As it stands, it takes someone of a very strong constitution to sit through this, no matter how many brilliant and landmark ideas it might have.

I don't think I'll ever watch “Plato's Stepchildren” again, but I do now respect it in a way I was never able to before. And the legacy it had on pop culture really doesn't need my approval or analysis.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


"Promenade across the floor/Sashay right on out the door..."
In the 1980s and 1990s Galoob produced a line of miniature models called Micro Machines. They were mostly replicas of different automobiles, but Galoob also produced tie-in sets of Micro Machines for a number of different licensed works. Merchandise is typically seen by those of a leftist persuasion as a primary symptom of crass capitalist frivolity and indulgence, and while I'm not largely inclined to disagree in the general sense, I do believe there are enough positive effects to glean out of the phenomenon to justify its existence, and ultimately it's intrinsically linked with the concept of Soda Pop Art and thus an important facet of Western culture.

But my qualified defense of merchandise will have to wait for a later date. The reason I bring it up now is that there were in fact Star Trek themed Micro Machine sets, and I happened to have a few of them. each set was patterned after a different incarnation of the franchise and typically featured three different ships, the implication being these were the most notable and important vehicles. The Original Series set featured the Enterprise, of course, but also a Romulan Bird-of-Prey and a Klingon D7 battle cruiser. On the back of the box there were some basic overview specs, probably taken from Mike Okuda's Star Trek Encyclopedia. There was also a note that indicated which episode the ship was from. Now obviously most of these ships appeared in a great deal more than one episode, so Galoob picked the episode they must have figured was the ship's most iconic appearance. For the Bird-of-Prey they understandably picked “Balance of Terror” (if for no other reason than that's the only episode unique footage of the model was shot for), but for the D7 they picked “Day of the Dove”.

This is another of the most iconic episodes of the Original Series, becoming memorable enough to warrant a considerable number of sequels and references in future incarnations of Star Trek. This, combined with the generally very positive reception amongst fans makes “Day of the Dove” in many ways the definitive Klingon episode of the Original Series. It's not difficult to see why it's garnered this reputation: This is the first time we see Klingons behaving in a manner that's somewhat consistent with their later depiction, as a proud culture of warriors that values honour and courage. Kang throws out Klingon proverbs and phrases on a reliably regular basis, many of which served as the inspiration for future explorations of Klingon philosophy, and even carried through wholecloth into future series. Kang is also played with impeccable force and prowess by Michael Ansara: He's without doubt one of the most memorable antagonists the show's seen, Klingon or otherwise, or at least the one who it's the easiest to see why the fans would be drawn to him: He has a charm and charisma absent from several previous Klingons (although I still prefer William Campbell's delightfully camped-up Captain Koloth in “The Trouble with Tribbles” personally).

“Day of the Dove” is also the third outing from Jerome Bixby. Bixby previously gave us “Mirror, Mirror”, which was one of the finest hours of the entire series, and “By Any Other Name”, which perhaps wasn't, but was still a somewhat solid outing with one or two intriguing ideas. “Day of the Dove” is closer to the former rather than the latter in theme, tone and general execution, and while it's a good showcase of Bixby's strengths as a writer, it's also a showcase for his weaknesses as well. Like “Mirror, Mirror”, “Day of the Dove” seems to be a critique of imperialistic tendencies both in and out of Star Trek, although this one seems to be criticizing violence, conflict and negative emotions more broadly. Which brings me to my next point which is, unfortunately, like “By Any Other Name”, this episode has a tendency to come across as unnecessarily heavy-handed, pop Christian and honestly, a bit facile and morally simplistic.

At heart this episode essentially boils down to one big Cold War allegory: The Klingons and the Federation are pushed to the break of brutal, never-ending war when a(nother) non-corporal entity that feeds on anger, hatred and violence sneaks aboard the Enterprise and manipulates both crews to do its bidding by enhancing their inherent aggressive tendencies and confusing them with false memories, which is overtly likened to propaganda in the scene where Kirk tries to plead with Kang on the bridge: Kang is under the control of the entity and refuses to listen, while Mara, Kang's wife who Kirk had previously threatened to kill as a bluff, is confused as to why she's not being sent to a Federation death camp. Kirk informs her she's been a victim of anti-Federation propaganda. The hostilities are eventually resolved when Kirk convinces Kang that the entity is the real enemy, and they must unite to free themselves from its control. The best possible reading I could muster of this would be to say the entity represents distant politicians who send soldiers off to fight wars for their own political gain with no concern for the sanctity of life, and the worst would be that it represents what it looks like: A dangerous Other. This would make “Day of the Dove” quite paradoxically militaristic, as it would seem to be saying the only value in alliances is to forge solidarity against the *real* threats. Neither of these are particularly nuanced observations, especially taken in the context of this episode's most obvious antecedent, “Balance of Terror”.

The Klingons too are not without problems. In many ways this is the best they're portrayed in the Original Series, as Bixby shows them to be a unique culture unto themselves and for the first time we get to see a Klingon crew made up of more than two distinct individuals. Ansara helps a great deal too: Kang's constant speeches about death, glory and honour make the Klingons sound like warrior poets, and it's leagues better then the generically Russian or Mongol schemers they started out as. It's no surprise why this becomes the model for all of their future portrayals. But this still isn't quite enough: For “Day of the Dove” to become the “Balance of Terror” or “Enterprise Incident” for the Klingons, it would have needed to show them as absolute equals to the Starfleet officers, and it never quite gets there. For one, every Klingon character other than Kang and Mara is basically an extra and even Mara, supposedly the science officer of Kang's ship and a very intelligent person, gets an absolutely intolerable scene where she stands around dumbly in the corridor while Kirk and Spock discern the nature of the entity, contributing nothing even though she should technically be as qualified as Spock. She also blurts out to Kang that Kirk is tricking them while he's trying to make a truce immediately after seeing the entity herself.

Secondly, this is the most jaw-droppingly racist the Klingons have ever looked. The show isn't even trying to hide the fact all the Klingons are played by white actors browned up and given ambiguously foreign makeup anymore, and on top of that they're still shown to be more warlike and less reasonable then the Federation. While they're not antagonists, they are aggressors and they do quickly become the last stubborn factor that keeps the plot from resolving. This isn't so much a mutual alliance where two groups of equals work together to come up with a joint solution to a problem, it's more Kirk convincing the Klingons they were wrong about the Federation, even though violent emotions exist in all of us. Even “The Enterprise Incident”, neutered as it was compared to D.C. Fontana's original pitch, managed to at least hint at the Federation engaging in underhanded and unethical behaviour and gave them part of the blame for that episode's conflict.

Unfortunately, a lot of this might come down to the fact the Klingons simply aren't as interesting or effective an alien culture as the Romulans. Gene Coon did create them as generic baddies and never intended them to become reoccurring adversaries, after all. While the Romulans are our explicit parallels and represent another direction we could have gone and can be used in fascinating studies of aesthetics and sensuality through their connection to the Vulcans, the Klingons are really never going to be anything more then stoutheart warriors, and without the dense tapestry of myth, oral history and culture that tends to accompany roving bands of warriors in the real world.

And I mean for goodness' sake, the Klingons were defeated by Tribbles.

But that said there are a lot of things to like about “Day of the Dove” too. First of all, the acting is bloody spectacular, and I'll wager that's a large part of the reason this episode is as popular as it is. The entire cast is in absolute top form, every single major actor gets a scene to shine and I haven't seen this cast this energized and fired up in a very long time, if ever. Watching Nichelle Nichols just completely lose it on the bridge, portraying Uhura not crying or acting withdrawn, but pushed over the line enough to simply snap and start railing against everything, is genuinely unsettling and impossible not to relish as much as Nichols herself clearly is. DeForest Kelley looks like he's about to start foaming at the mouth and James Doohan has Scotty just have a total nervous breakdown. Ansara's great, as I mentioned, and while this in many ways feels like business as usual for William Shatner, he's an imperious, rowdy and passionate force and plays Kirk taking command without making him seem dismissive and paternalistic. What's actually more telling is that for the first time everyone in the cast seems to be following Shatner's lead now, so every character becomes a deliberately exaggerated artifice, which is actually perfect for conveying the story's artificially heightened stakes. It's truly captivating and mesmerizing.

The fight scenes are also visceral and exciting in a way they're usually not in Star Trek, and the fact they're actually central to the plot this time excuses the fact they take up about half the runtime. However, this also highlights another area in which “Day of the Dove” falters a bit, because the stuff that's not fighting or impassioned speechifying is kind of thin and hokey: It takes entirely too long for the two crews to figure out what the entity is doing and the literal “everybody laughs” ending where Kirk, McCoy, Scott and Kang crack painful “jokes” at the entity to make it go away is embarrassingly stilted and clunky. Although I suppose it's better than Bixby's original plan which would have entailed the crew singing songs and holding peace marches.

It's at this point where it starts to become clear what the actual problems with “Day of the Dove” are. The script seems like it's trying to come down against war and violence, but its stops short before delivering anything close to a comprehensive or even-handed critique. It doesn't talk about the origins of violence or why people might be pushed towards it, or how power structures provide a climate where violence is not only allowed to exist but encouraged to (which are all things the show has said in the past, so I don't think I'm being too unreasonable in my expectations), it just says “fighting is bad” and that it strengthens the real enemy, which is...fighting, I guess? I suppose we could redeem this by saying “Day of the Dove” is about problematizing all parties in a fight, and that it's trying to be just as hard on the Enterprise crew, who are frequently tempted by their violent and bigoted impulses.

Except I don't think the episode is actually very good at making that argument. There's the problem of the Klingons of course, which I addressed above, but even without them I'm not sure this is the kind of story the show should be doing now. It might have actually been a better fit in the second season, maybe even the fist, coming alongside stuff like “Arena”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, “The Devil in the Dark” and yes, even “Errand of Mercy”. Coming here, midway through the third season, Star Trek is now in a climate that has seen not only Bixby's own “Mirror, Mirror”, but also “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “A Piece of the Action”, “Patterns of Force”, “Save Star Trek!”, “Spectre of the Gun”, “The Empath” and “The Tholian Web” (although to be fair, those last two episodes wouldn't air until after this one, though they were produced before). The ship has sailed on problematizing the show and its setting, the focus should now be on what it is that makes Star Trek special, important and worth preserving. We should be looking at what makes Star Trek *different*, in what way it's idealistic and hopeful, what we might be able to learn from it and how it can continue to grow.

Then there's the plot, which sadly kind of falls apart if you think about it too hard. There's the fundamental theme, which is already somewhat more facile then maybe might be desirable, but after a time it also starts to feel...overly familiar. One detects shades of not just “Balance of Terror” and “The Enterprise Incident”, but also “Arena” (the solution is not to fight, and a external force underlines the brutality of fighting by replacing all weapons with basic implements to take the flash and glory out of it) and even Bixby's previous work (the scene between Chekov and Mara seems to be an echo of Mirror Spock's mind rape of McCoy in “Mirror, Mirror”, and it's nowhere near as effective here). And, “Day of the Dove” remains pop Christian by depicting human(oids) as inherently savage and violent and who must struggle to keep their instincts and inhibitions under control...which is also reminiscent of “The Naked Time”, “The Enemy Within”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, “Errand of Mercy”, “Wolf in the Fold”, and even “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” if you're especially inclined to read that episode that way.

Jerome Bixby has one more Star Trek credit to his name, but I'm starting to get the sense he might not have had a tremendous range as a writer, at least on this show, and probably needed other people to give his scripts that last bit of polish necessary to make them truly shine. He was lucky enough to have sublimely good ghost-writers in D.C. Fontana and Gene Coon on “Mirror, Mirror”, but he doesn't have them anymore as both have long since left their day-to-day positions on the show, and Arthur Singer doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd gel all that well with Bixby's themes and motifs, if you catch my drift. But Bixby is saved by his cast here, who are absolutely on fire, and “Day of the Dove” really is a solidly enjoyable and well-done episode. It's without question the best Klingon story of the Original Series (if you don't count “The Trouble with Tribbles”), and certainly given the fact the show is churning out stuff like “The Paradise Syndrome” and “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” on a frighteningly regular basis this year it's hard to get too upset at an episode that has its heart in the right place and is a spellbinding bit of television on top of it all.

But maybe the reason “Day of the Dove” is the definitive Klingon episode is because it leaves us feeling just a little bit unsatisfied and disappointed.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

“But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”: For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky

You know, sometimes the picture just says it all.
This was an episode I never saw much of. I'd seen scraps of it here and there, but it was never a story I deliberately sought out to watch, for a number of reasons. First of all, I was just never as big a fan of the Original Series as I was its two immediate sequel shows and I wasn't especially inclined to be a completionist about it. Also, from everything I'd seen of “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” told me it just wasn't my kind of story. Not that it was bad, and indeed by all accounts it was a highlight of the third season, it's just this kind of weighty tragedy is not really the way I enjoy spending my leisure time, even knowing it of course had to be undone at the end of the episode. But it seemed like a very well-regarded tear-jerker of a character study awash in a dreamlike sense of poetry, as anything with a title that breathtakingly pretentious damn well better be.

Yeah, no, it's terrible.

“For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” is “The Gamesters of Triskelion” for the third season. It is so awash in Star Trek cliches the show itself seems tired of them. It's not even really possible to come up with a list of episodes this one cribs from, as it seems like it just stole from everything, but, off the top of my head I can maybe mention “The Return of the Archons”, “The Apple”, “By Any Other Name” and most obviously “The Paradise Syndrome”, from which this episode takes its basic plot about a member of the Enterprise crew abandoning Starfleet to live a simpler life married to a high priestess, not to mention a worrying majority of its set. None of this really fills one with boundless enthusiasm.

The one innovation this episode brings to a mountain of overplayed, hackneyed Star Trek standbys is the idea that the reason McCoy wants to retire to Yonada is because he's suffering from a terminal illness. This isn't something Star Trek had looked at before, probably for good reason. Imagining any of the previous creative teams attempting a plot like this is a somewhat frightening prospect, and as good as writers like Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana might have been, this isn't really the sort of thing that's in either one of their wheelhouses. Of course, this logically means we should expect *this* creative team to make an absolute hash of this, as they were both stupidly confidant enough to attempt this kind of episode in the first place and blissfully ignorant of the actual extent of their grasp to the point they could tie it to a story about an intergenerational asteroid starship. We would not be wrong to expect this as the finished product is in fact embarrassingly awful, but let's briefly pause for a moment to remember that intimate character drama isn't really all that unusual a thing for Star Trek to attempt. The series began, after all, with an overt fusion of pulp sci-fi, Golden Age sci-fi and soap opera dynamics. Characterization *should* be a strength of the show.

And indeed it is, but doing character pieces for Star Trek is not the same as doing character pieces for other shows. It's a unique environment with its own quirky and counterintuitive rules, and failing to heed them sort of means you're not *really* doing a Star Trek story. One of the big ones, at least for the moment, is that Star Trek tends to involve going to a new place every week and the setting of the Enterprise has to remain somewhat constant: The show is about the interaction between two status quo: The constant of the Enterprise and the setting-of-the-week of the planet or starbase or whatever (and before someone says something, yes, the show you're thinking of does in fact manage to game this rule and still be Star Trek, at least at first, but that's a special case and we've got until 1993 before it becomes a major theme). The character moments need to be sparked by the plot of the episode, not the other way around. I mean this is just good writing advice in general, but it's absolutely imperative for Star Trek. This is a very long-winded way of saying that teasing the death of a major character really doesn't work on Star Trek unless we know for a fact the actor isn't coming back next season, which was certainly not the case here.

And furthermore “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” just fails at its character moments anyway: If you're going to do a soap opera plot about how the characters might deal with a friend who has a terminal illness, it absolutely needs to be done with the utmost care and respect and more than anything your creative figures need to be on the same page. None of this happens in this episode. While McCoy's disease does serve as his primary motivation here, the shift between the deeply serious plot about him possibly dying and the retread space adventure is audibly clunky and, damningly, neither have very much to do with one another. The acting is also painfully poor this week, and it really, really needed not to be for this to have any chance of working: DeForest Kelley gives an astonishingly phoned in performance and doesn't at all act like anyone in that situation might. Leonard Nimoy is no better: I know Spock is supposed to be a Vulcan who hides his emotions, but Nimoy just looks he doesn't want to be here and has totally tuned out of everything. Thank goodness William Shatner makes up for them, playing Kirk as someone gently compassionate, but who's also awkwardly walking on eggshells around his dying friend because he doesn't know how he should react. Nimoy and Kelley just look utterly bored out of their skulls.

The guest cast is no better: Katherine Woodville's Natira is a neurotic, bug-eyed wildwoman who spends most of the episode mugging for the camera. She's not helped by the fact her love story with McCoy is one of the most stupendously half-assed and thrown-in romance subplots I have ever seen: It basically amounts to Natira taking a fancy to McCoy after about 30 seconds and then proposing marriage after a beat, to which McCoy's reaction is essentially “OK. Sure, I guess...”. This makes Kirk's studio-mandated-girls-of-the-week look intimate and meaningful. At least Shatner had the decency to play those as if he was genuinely in love. Also, while taken on its own the title “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” sounds lovely and poetic, it becomes considerably less so when it turns out to be a literal description of the major plot reveal and is blurted out verbatim by some random crazy old guy who disturbingly creeps out from behind a curtain in Kirk, Spock and McCoy's guest quarters on Yonada before promptly dying of an acute ham seizure. This is a far cry from William Shatner's pantomime recursive artifice performance art, or even his antics in something like “The Omega Glory” or “And The Children Shall Lead”. Shatner at least is never not entertaining, regardless of whether or not he's actually trying. These people are just screwing around and it's not even fun to watch.

(This non-romance also leads directly to the episode's spectacularly incoherent resolution where Natira decides McCoy has to go back to the Enterprise while McCoy wants to stay with her on Yonada. Natira sounds like she's explaining to McCoy why she can't go back to the ship with him...even though that's not actually what McCoy says he wants to do.)

It's a general rule of mine never to get hung up on production details like plot, character development as special effects, as I typically find them to be tremendously overvalued by the vast majority of people who write about visual media and to me they are largely the least important aspects of a work of fiction. With this season, however, and in particular an episode like this one, we've gotten to the point where Star Trek's slapdash approach to production, which could previously be written off as pleasingly theatrical, has now actually become a major problem and is directly interfering with and detracting from the show's overall impact and ability to be read. Neither “The Empath” nor “The Tholian Web” looked especially lavish and neither were the smoothest scripts, but I didn't focus on the structure issues there because both episodes were imaginative enough they absolutely didn't matter. That's...not really the case here.

The problem with the Yonada sets isn't that they're “unconvincing” (very little in Star Trek actually is), it's that they're visibly the same sets we saw five weeks ago and no attempt has been made to make them look the slightest bit different. “The Empath” and “The Tholian Web” reused a bunch of props too, but you wouldn't know that because of the enchanting art design. It's possible to do wonders on a shoestring budget: I direct you once again to not just the last two episodes, but also Raumpatrouille Orion. Here though there's an overwhelming sense of fatigue and deflation, and it's crushingly depressing to see the asteroid-starship that was the one thing from this episode that really stuck in my imagination portrayed not just via one of the saddest, most drab and blase bits of 1960s set design, but also through stock footage from “The Paradise Syndrome”, reminding me once again how cynically similar the two stories are and leading me to wonder if the whole reason this episode exists wasn't actually just to reuse all those effects shots. It all comes back to love: If you love something enough, you can make it work.

Just like the loveless romance between McCoy and Natira, “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” is the product of a show that's stopped loving itself.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lua-o-Milu: The Tholian Web

"Well, shit."
For a season so thin on actual quality, there are an intriguing number of truly iconic moments and scenes from Star Trek's final year: It's difficult to forget images like the Melkotians from “Spectre of the Gun”, the half-moon cookie aliens from “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, the cloud of anger and the commandeering of the Enterprise in “Day of the Dove”, the asteroid spaceship from (not to mention the title of) “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky”, the Kirk/Uhura kiss in “Plato's Stepchildren”, the cloud city from “The Cloud Minders”, Ro-Spock from “Spock's Brain” and everything about “The Empath” (that last one may just be me, but I'll fight for it to the end).

Then there's “The Tholian Web”, which is just about made of iconic moments.

Right from the start we have what amounts to a ghost starship, which is a concept so fundamentally and basically wrong the Enterprise's own sensors refuse to accept it's there. Beaming aboard, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Chekov find the entire crew dead, apparently at their own hands. While it's never explicitly stated this time, the Defiant bears all the symptoms of what could be called a dead starship, and when those show up it's usually the sign something very big and very serious is about to go down. Indeed, the Defiant takes this theme to the next level: If a starship can die, a starship can become a ghost as well, and it can also haunt. And this is very clearly what the interspatial rift is: It's a haunted region of space where weird, unexpected and incomprehensible things happen. This was even more blatant in Judy Burns' original script, which also featured cosmic spirits manifesting in space and fading in and out of existence onboard the Enterprise. However, as Gene Roddenberry didn't like the supernatural and had specified as much in his writer's guide for Star Trek, this plot point was altered somewhat in the produced episode.

But even so enough of this remains in “The Tholian Web”, and the episode we get is still extremely eery and atmospheric. What clinches it is when the Enterprise is attacked by Commander Loskene and the Defiant fades out of normal spacetime. Kirk had stayed behind when the initial landing party was forced to return as the transporter was only able to beam back three at a time, thus becoming trapped onboard the departing Defiant, and is declared dead by Spock. From this point onward, Kirk becomes a ghost himself, and he haunts the remainder of the episode on a number of levels. First, his absence understandably causes great strain on the crew, particularly Spock and McCoy. Without Kirk to mediate between them, their normally quasi-friendly banter becomes openly hostile, each clearly resenting the other's presence. This could be interpreted as evidence of the old reading of Star Trek that posits Kirk, Spock and McCoy represent the tension and interaction of the id, ego and superego, but I still disagree with that pretty vehemently. For one, that's actually not how the actors are playing these characters: DeForest Kelley shows McCoy's barely restrained distrust of Spock unleashed and free to go wild. Leonard Nimoy, by contrast, returns to the style of performance that made him famous by playing Spock as someone *trying* to be logical and collected but who is in truth plagued by self-doubt and second guessing. These are very personal moments that come expressly out of who these characters are, not some phony and tacked-on bit of pop Freudianism.

(My favourite scene in this regard is at Kirk's memorial service where Spock tells the crew that he cannot put into words what made Kirk a good man, and that each person individually must look inside themselves to figure out what Kirk meant to them personally. It's a very, very Spock thing to say and a very Nimoy moment: It's as much a confession and an apology as it is an appeal to individual positionality and experience, although Nimoy is, as usual, best at conveying this via subtle nonverbal cues).

But Kirk also acts as a literal ghost, as he starts appearing to various crewmembers culminating with a full manifestation on the bridge in front of Spock, McCoy and Scott. This is actually handled exceptionally well; Uhura is the first to see him, and she's at first dismissed as suffering hallucinations brought upon by the interspatial rift, which by this point has been revealed as the source of a kind of madness that causes crazed, violent outbursts and what killed the Defiant. But, once Scotty sees Kirk too, and then the entire bridge, Uhura is vindicated, and the episode even goes out of its way to give us a scene where McCoy undoes Uhura's restraints and tells her that no, she's not crazy: The captain is very much alive. I really like this scene because, were this just about any other show, that whole exchange would have been totally skipped, or at least briefly acknowledged with a throwaway line. We'd cut back to the action, rescue Kirk and Uhura would be back on the bridge for our “everybody laughs” denouement as if nothing had happened. I hate it when shows do this (and almost every show has at one point or another), leaving what really need to be important, intimate character moments to our imaginations. But Star Trek makes sure we get to see that, because it, at least for right now, knows these characters are people and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, especially as each and every one is somebody's inspiration or role model.

(And Nichelle Nichols looks positively elated, not just for her character, but to be doing this scene at all. It's little wonder she names this one of her two favourite episodes).

This peculiar otherworldly feeling is present elsewhere in “The Tholian Web” as well. There are, of course, the Tholians themselves, who have always been one of my absolute favourite alien species in all of Star Trek. Commander Loskene (who is referred to as a “he” in the episode but always came across to me as quite feminine, especially voiced by Barbara Babcock) just looks plain weird: In one of the best uses of the Original Series' gaudy primary colours, Loskene appears as an overly exposed glowing red geometric shape afloat in a swirling blue haze. She looks nothing like any other Star Trek alien we've ever seen before, and with just a crudely defined head and a bizarre energy web, our imaginations are racing to conceive of what these creatures might actually be like. It's yet another vividly memorable image that draws you right into both the show's world and it's mood. Indeed, one of the savviest moves Enterprise ever made was, when they did a pseudo-sequel to this episode and needed to show a full-bodied Tholian, depicted them pretty much exactly the way you'd expect them to look: As giant, burning, psychedelic crystalline polygon crab-spider things.

I don't use the term “otherworldly” here at all lightly: “The Tholian Web” is very much about an Otherworld in the pre-Christian heathen sense. Most obviously, there's the ghost ship Defiant and Kirk's passing into the region beyond the interspatial rift (itself a magickal doorway, much like the barrows, or sídhe, might be in CelticXNordicXGermanic mythology). But also there's the Tholians-Not only does Loskene not look like any alien we've seen before, she doesn't act like one either. She appears out of nowhere, threatens Spock and then ensnares the Enterprise in a perfectly geometric spider web for ultimately unknowable reasons. Although it's not made explicit, to me, the implication is that the Tholians are very clearly meant to be inhabitants of the Otherworld here, who have always been portrayed as creatures who operate by a standard of logic and morals that are completely impossible for us to fully understand. This would also explain the Tholians' aggressive territoriality: Typically visitors to the Otherworld from our plane are only welcome if they're explicitly asked to visit, and the Enterprise has shown up someplace it's not supposed to be without an invitation (and also note again how psychedelic Loskene looks and the reappearance of that fisheye lens, used here in the PoV shots of the crewmen under the influence of interspace) .

What's really exciting though is how Burns melds this concept with science fiction. Firstly, Spock gets this extremely telling bit of dialogue:

Well, picture it this way, Mister Chekov. We exist in a universe which co-exists with a multitude of others in the same physical space. At certain brief periods of time, an area of their space overlaps an area of ours. That is a time of interphase, during which we can connect with the Defiant's universe.

This is exactly how the Otherworld is supposed to work, especially in the CelticXNordicXGermanic tradition. The way Spock describes the “time of interphase” is word-for-word precisely what happens during the festivals of Beltane, Mittumaarin and Samhain: The boundaries between worlds becomes permeable and can be freely crossed. With that in mind, it's also interesting that it's Shatner-as-Kirk who not only gets to spend the majority of the episode on the other end of the looking-glass, but gets to come back as well. Sure, he says the universe he wound up in was “completely empty” when we might expect it to be full of Tholians or some similar kind of space spirit, but we can also attribute this to the Nordic concept of the Nine Worlds: The Eddas describe not just one Otherworld, but eight, unified by the World-Tree Yggdrasill. Even Celtic lore occasionally makes reference to there being more then one spirit world or Land of Eternal Summer. And, of course, Spock mentions a “multitude” of other universes. So Kirk just managed to find himself in a pretty boring Otherworld then.

But the real coup de grace, although probably not explicitly intended by Burns, is that the Otherworld of “The Tholian Web” isn't just a CelticXNordicXGermanic one, though it definitely draws quite heavily on that tradition: It's also a Polynesian one. It is firstly, as I mentioned above, overtly a Land of the Dead: The Defiant is most definitely dead and Kirk acts like a ghost when he's on the other side (which might even explain the puzzling rapidity with which Spock declared Kirk killed in action). The Polynesians also believed in the idea of multiple worlds, typically divided into the realms of the Sea, Earth and Sky. In some variants of Polynesian mythology, one of the places the deceased might go is the world of the sky. So now we have not only an Otherworld situated in outer space, previously only the domain of “serious” science fiction, but the vaguest hint that maybe Star Trek is itself some kind of Otherworld as our heroes inhabit the sky world already, even without needing to cross the interspatial rift. This actually makes perfect sense for a series moving more towards utopianism: The show embodies ideals we might not actually be capable of living up to, but it remains a powerful source of inspiration and hope. It's in many ways then an Otherworld of fiction and oral myth, perhaps even an...“ideaspace”...but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

What's really the most important about “The Tholian Web” for me is that it shows Star Trek on the vanguard of a major sociocultural transition that's about to take place. Star Trek began, of course, firmly in both the Golden Age and pulp science fiction traditions, but had the unenviable misfortune to come out just as both genres were beginning to wind down. The cutoff point is often put at the Apollo 11 mission, which supposedly turned the public perception of outer space away from something that was our inevitable destiny and a place where weird, unusual and exciting adventures could happen to that of a vast, cold and most likely empty void. This, the argument goes, proved to be the death knell of Star Trek's kind of science fiction. But I don't think even the original Star Trek was as indebted to Golden Age Sci-fi and pulp as much as that argument needs it to be: Certainly Gene Coon and Robert Bloch at least might have some objections to voice about that.

More to the point though, both Golden Age and pulp sci-fi emerged were at their peak alongside the UFO era. Kenneth Arnold's famous “flying saucer” sighting over Mount Rainier on June 24, 1948 put the idea of hyper-advanced extraterrestrials visiting Earth in snazzy spaceships firmly into the public consciousness. Although, as Jacques Vallée points out, sightings of mysterious objects in the sky have been around for almost the entirety of recorded human history, the specific theory they are alien spacecraft is an invention of the mid-20th Century. In many ways the UFO era and sci-fi of the Golden Age and pulp variety are intertwined, and while neither UFOs nor science fiction ever go away, there is a kind of shift in the way both are read after this point. As this kind of science fiction fades away, so does the classic UFO era, to be replaced in the 1970s with what might be called a more overtly Fortean era of inexplicata that draws much more heavily on indigenous spirituality and mysticism (although Forteanism, like the UFO phenomena, has also been around as long as people the true beginnings of this particular era are really with John Keel and the pointedly bizarre happenings in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966, appealingly synchronously around the same time Star Trek went to series).

This is ultimately more the domain of something like Scooby-Doo, especially right now, and there's in fact a truly magnificent episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that will air about a year from now that is the definitive statement on the death of the UFO era and first-wave science fiction. But “The Tholian Web” is about this too, with its Space Land of the Dead and overtly mystical overtones. The fact Star Trek can do an episode like this and have it not seem at all out of place is proof positive the franchise is something more than the sum of its parts, and this is yet another reason it has the ability to last forever. The Enterprise has learned how to travel between worlds, and it now has everything it needs to transcend itself to seek enlightenment.

Of course Judy Burns had to be a fan.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

“...suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion”: The Empath

"There's no greater sacrifice than one's self, and Joyce Muskat's 'The Empath' proved that to SF fans worldwide."

Science fiction aficionados of a certain age will probably remember Starlog: A fan magazine looking at sci-fi and other genre film and television works, often focusing on the perspective of writers, actors and the community fans built for themselves. Starlog actually began as essentially an unlicensed fanzine for Star Trek fan culture that broadened its scope to avoid legal troubles, which was interesting for me to read: It was always a bit curious to see Star Trek get such a focus in the magazine, although back then I just chalked it up to the massive amount of cultural capital and ubiquity the franchise had at the time I was reading it.

Starlog was really my primary entry into the world of science fiction culture. I never went to Star Trek conventions or anything like that (OK I think I did once, but it was so long ago I remember next to nothing about it), nor did I have a bunch of spin-off or reference books (well, at first I didn't at any rate). Partly because of this, I never considered myself a massive Star Trek fan, let alone a massive genre fiction fan. Star Trek had certainly captured my imagination, but a large part of the reason why it was able to do that was because at the time it was wildly popular and when I talked to people about television, it was naturally one of the things that came up.

But Starlog gave comprehensive coverage to a wide spectrum of film and TV projects: Articles on the latest Star Trek and sci-fi shows were mixed in with, retrospectives on the live-action Batman and Spider-Man shows, cartoons, bits on action spy fiction, cowboy westerns and interviews with the writers of really obscurantist stuff like The Powers of Matthew Star. Looking back, the magazine was probably my introduction to a lot of shows, like Buck Rogers, Red Dwarf, Doctor Who and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which probably directly led to my years-long belief Doctor Who was some kind of peculiarly and flamboyantly British version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and why Jon Pertwee remains one of my favourite Doctors). It was also my first, and for a very long time only, exposure to Star Trek: The Animated Series: Seeing gorgeously lush and evocative screenshots and cells from what seemed to be a Star Trek cartoon that continued the story of the Original Series was unfathomable to me at the time, and all I knew was that I needed to see a lot more of it and as soon as possible. But no matter how hard I looked I couldn't find anything more on it, so it remained a part of the franchise's history forever ungraspable to me.

Starlog then was my window into what went into making these programmes and what allowed me to read the reflection of the people and positionalities involved in bringing them to life. I was fascinated by the stories of writers, what they were thinking, what they had hoped to convey and what they loved about the shows whose legacy they were contributing to. Reading about them was my first introduction to the people who would help to define the way I looked at not just Star Trek, but in many ways fiction in general. And of the Star Trek episodes profiled in the magazine, “The Empath” was, apart from the ones from the Animated Series, what stood out in my memory and imagination the strongest. Starlog peppered an interview with the episode's writer Joyce Muskat with some of the most vividly surreal images I'd ever seen associated with Star Trek: A stark black stage with nothing but an alien-looking couch in the centre, Kirk speaking with an unearthly young woman, Spock and McCoy frozen in place by a beam of rainbow energy, weird extraterrestrial beings in glitzy, sequined gowns and two guys in giant test tubes seemingly frozen in a moment of sheer horror and anguish.

"'With violence in a script, suggestion is much more effective,' Muskat says."

Star Trek to me is as much about images as it is about characters and ideas.

“The Empath” is a triumph of not just atmosphere, but also minimalism and subtlety: Its setting and general look-and-feel are utterly unlike anything else in the series, possibly the entire franchise. To me it's the most 1960s the show ever looked, and by that I don't mean it looks especially gaudy or psychedelic, although there are certainly parts of it that do. Nor do I mean it as a negative: Rather, what I'm trying to say is that for me, if you were to try and come up with a single piece of visual art that encompasses the totality of what the decade meant, I think it would look a lot like this episode: It's got the overt filmic contrast indicative of the black-and-white era with the theatricality of the early single-set sitcoms and dramas and there are occasional flashes of glitzy psychedelia shining through the dark to set our consciousnesses aflame. “The Empath” also at times teeters on the edge of calling to mind the bittersweetly nostalgic Neo-Expressionism of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that would define the last few years of the 60s era for me, mostly thanks to the aforementioned use of light and shadow, and before Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! to boot (although not before Mysteries Five, to be fair). “The Empath” at once reminds me of The Twilight Zone, Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Honeymooners, Monty Python's Flying Circus, “The Mind Robber” from Doctor Who and Star Trek itself. Watching it is like a dream of signifiers standing in for all the images from the era that captured my imagination the strongest.

"'I wanted a bare stage, not rock walls,' Muskat maintains. '[Director] John Ermen gave me just that.'"

While at least part of the reason the episode was filmed largely on an indoor set was surely for budget reasons, Muskat specifically requested a “bare”, “theatrical” set as she not only approached writing it like a stage drama, she wanted to use a lot of visual contrast because she only had a black-and-white TV while all her friends had colour, and she was of the opinion Star Trek looked better in black-and-white, a sentiment I've at times shared. The cinematography is also a rare bit of genius: Muskat goes out of her way to credit director John Ermen, and says she never would have had a director other than him. For me the highlight of Ermen's work here is the use of rapid fire images, cuts and distorted, fisheye lenses. All of these techniques were utilised heavily in the last episode, “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, especially in the climactic “mind war” between Spock and Miranda Jones. But, like a lot of things in that episode, it never seemed to quite fit there and felt like a jarring intrusion into something that seemed so straightforward and simple (which could very well have been the point). In “The Empath” however, this just reinforces and builds on the episode's hauntingly psychedelic subtexts and provides a formidable visual landscape through which Star Trek crosses astral planes.

Curiously, “The Empath” bears a number of striking similarities with “The Cage”: Both involve highly advanced aliens living in a vast underground scientific research outpost who kidnap human test subjects to test their resolve and usefulness to a larger purpose of their own. Both episodes make somewhat clunky allusions to aspects of traditional Western thought: The Platonic (read Greek) idea of the Cave Allegory in “The Cage”, and a few tossed off Bible references in “The Empath”. The Vians even faintly resemble the Talosians, with large, bulbous heads, flowing gowns and mastery over telepathy and emotion. But that's where the similarities end, and “The Empath” ends up about as different from “The Cage” as is possible to get.

"Morality is a double-edged sword, and these aliens use that blade to test the Enterprise crew."

“The Empath”, rather unsurprisingly, is a story about empathy. But the empathy of whom, and for whom, is never singularly clear for more than a moment. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to evacuate a group of research scientists observing the decay of a star as it starts to go nova. Scotty and Sulu want to rescue the landing party before the star's solar flares become too violent to withstand. The mysterious Vians seemingly kidnap the crew and subject the to cruel experiments on the limit of human fear and pain in order to test their reaction. And at the centre of it all is the mute Gem, the “complete empath” who can take the suffering of any person upon herself and heal it with her latent energy. Gem is embodied with an almost balletic grace by Kathryn Hays, whose vividly expressive performativity is evocative of mummers and mime artists, turning her into an uncannily sublime mirror of William Shatner. Hays-as-Gem trails the crew like a ghost, putting on the masks of every emotion Kirk, Spock and McCoy experience. She fills the palpable, physical space that opens when the landing party is split up or at odds with itself, and she cries Spock's and McCoy's tears for them when each is hurt by the other's attempt to sacrifice himself. But her masks do not work to hide or conceal anything, as she rather instead becomes each mask, underlining and emphasizing the emotions the show needs to express at each crucial interval.

Though initially appearing to be an extradiegetic test of the crew's empathy for one another during the Vians' brutal physiological endurance sessions, Gem is ultimately revealed to be the focus of the experiments herself. While the Vians have the technology to spare a planet from the impending supernova, they can only save one civilization, and they needed to be sure Gem's was the one to preserve. The Vians had hoped Gem would learn from Kirk, Spock and McCoy's values of loyalty and self-sacrifice and would ultimately sacrifice herself to save another person. And interestingly, as both Muskat and the characters in her script seem keenly aware, it's from McCoy, the most human and emotional of the entire main cast, whom Gem is expected to learn from. Muskat considered McCoy one of the most underutilised characters on the show and felt he was “a force to be reckoned with”. DeForest Kelley responded in kind, delivering one of his most memorable turns in the entire franchise.

"DeForest Kelley was one of the episode's highlights for Muskat. 'The doctor should be someone to be reckoned with.'"

Here is where Star Trek strikes back and reasserts itself, but this is not the Star Trek we've come to expect. As McCoy and Gem lie dying, her wanting to save both his life and her own, while he steadfastly refuses to let someone else sacrifice themselves for him as he values life above all else. The Vians stand idly by on the sidelines refusing to take action despite possessing the capability to save them both because they are of the belief the only way for Gem to prove she truly has empathy and compassion is for her to die for another. Kirk and Spock suddenly break free of the emotion-powered force field the Vians are holding them back with (in the aired episode, Spock essentially meditates his way out, while in Muskat's original script Kirk would have overwhelmed the Vians with emotional overload. Both versions have their merits in my opinion), rescue Gem and McCoy and declare it is the Vians who lack compassion and empathy, having long since abandoned it in favour of pure intellect, and that Gem has more than passed their test already. The Vians finally capitulate, restoring life to McCoy and Gem, sparing her planet and returning the crew to the Enterprise.

Though the Vians' plan may not have originally been about Star Trek, it has now become about it. The series has accidentally stumbled into someone else's exploration of empathy, and instead of becoming subsumed by the story and allowing it to become a test of their own capacity for empathy as we may have expected in years past, now Star Trek has become the model by which *others* can be compared to. Not because the show is going around *declaring* itself to be morally superior and telling everyone else how to behave as it was in the first season and the opening half of the second: Now Star Trek is valued because it acts in accordance with its own beliefs, openly and respectfully dialogues with other perspectives and simply wants the freedom to remain what it is, and to hopefully make the universe a better place in the process. The role the series used to play in past stories with this kind of structure has now been passed to the Vians, who are shown to have made mistakes and are praised for admitting and making up for them. Star Trek has become empathetic.

"Muskat refused to visit the set. 'I was writing a script about Kirk and Spock.' Seeing William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy might have ruined the illusion."

Joyce Muskat was not a professional writer. She was one of a handful of fans allowed to pitch stories to the Original Series, along with Jean Lisette Aroeste, who wrote last week's “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, Judy Burns, who writes next week's script, and Dave Gerrold. Without getting too far ahead, I don't think it's a coincidence that three of these four stories are among the very best Star Trek episodes ever (and also note how, with the exception of Dave Gerrold, these writers are all women). “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” might seem to be the outlier here, but Aroeste's original brief did at least seem to have one or two interesting ideas and if nothing else its first act was easily more effective than the stuff the actual staff writers were doing at this point in time. “The Empath”, however, is conclusive proof Star Trek in fact both can and should work. No matter what intrinsic, fundamental flaws the franchise may have, it is absolutely possible to make something imaginative, provocative and positive out of it. But the people who understand this are the people who love it in spite of everything: Star Trek relies on empathy. And right now, the people running the show neither love it or empathize with it. But the fans do because they can see things in it that inspire them, and its that sense of love, loyalty, compassion and empathy that will singlehandedly keep the franchise alive for decades to come.

And at last we can perhaps see why “The Empath” seems so curiously similar to “The Cage”: This is in truth the pilot for a new kind of Star Trek. In amongst all the doomsaying that makes up the 1968-1969 year, the way forward is as clear as both the inevitable cancellation and the vivid images of “The Empath” itself. The heart of Star Trek beats for itself and for anyone else who loves it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

“The Beast Within”: Is There In Truth No Beauty?

A Mr. "Noonien Singh" called. He wants his line back.
Star Trek has made me feel a lot of things over the years: Warmth, pride, comfort, joy. Of course lately it's been mostly white-hot anger and frustration, but that kind of comes with the territory. One thing I don't think it's ever made me feel before now though is utter confusion. For the first time, I may have found an episode of Star Trek I didn't actually get.

I don't think this is entirely my fault, however: “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” is just about the single most scattered and schizoid production I have ever seen. What should be a very straightforward parable about inner beauty vs. outer beauty becomes a disassociated mess of random, half-baked ideas and concepts and I'm not even sure the actors realised they were on the same show with each other, let alone gelled with the production team. More than any episode we've seen so far, this one conclusively demonstrates, if there was any lingering doubt, that nobody involved in making this show is on the same page anymore. This is the most crystal-clear example of people talking past each other I have ever seen.

And the whole first half of the story is so formidable too: Doctor Miranda Jones, one of the most powerful telepaths in the galaxy is escorting an ambassador to a race of people whose physical form is so incomprehensible the mere sight of one causes humans to go mad, yet who also supposedly have the most beautiful thoughts of any being. From the moment of her introduction, Jones becomes a powerful presence, as the first person to greet Spock with the Vulcan hand salute who isn't a Vulcan or otherwise related to him. This leads into a delightful contrast with the characters' behaviour towards one another, as there's a hint of professional jealousy between Jones and Spock, who was also offered the position of emissary to the ambassador. This all builds to what is in my opinion frankly one of the single best scenes in the franchise so far, where Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Doctor Jones and her companion Larry Marvick size each other up over a formal dinner. Doctor Jones accuses Spock of wearing his IDIC pin (a famous symbol of the Vulcans both in and out of the Star Trek universe, which makes its first appearance here) in an attempt to intimidate her and flaunt his superior qualifications, while McCoy wonders why anyone would want to dedicate their life to working with someone who could potentially drive them insane. Kirk and Spock then accuse McCoy of holding to the very Greek (and very Western) idea that what is beautiful must by definition by good, and Kirk goes on to admit an appreciation for beauty is one of the last vestigial traces of humanity's past they have yet to cast off, firmly and explicitly establishing, for the very first time in the history of the franchise, that the world of Star Trek is meant to be an expressly idealistic and utopian one.

Then suddenly Jones declares she can sense someone very nearby is thinking of murder, and excuses herself. One by one the other guests leave as well, leaving Kirk alone at the table, putting in place possibly one of the greatest potential whodunnit setups in history: Astoundingly, every single person at that table (aside from perhaps Kirk) now has a motive: Naturally we know the killer is going to have to be either Jones or Marvick as the show would never (and should never) write one of its regulars out by making them a murderer, but the fact this one scene gets us to suspect even for a moment, Spock, McCoy or Scott might be capable of such a crime is quite simply a masterstroke of screenwriting and direction. Of course Robert Bloch made Scotty the prime suspect of a series of murders in “Wolf in the Fold” last year, but there we sort of always knew he was innocent and something else was going on: The mystery wasn't “is Scotty a murderer?”, it was “how will Scotty exonerate himself?”. This episode, however, is able to trick us for a split-second into thinking one of our heroes really might go bad, which is a bit of sleight-of-hand that really should be appreciated even if you don't agree with it.

The story has to change after this, of course, and when Marvick goes to confront Jones and confess his love to her in her quarters, we know his intentions even before she reads them in his mind. Of course he tries to kill the ambassador, and of course he sees him and goes crazy. But what's great about this scene is Jones' reaction: She urges Marvick to seek help and talk to someone about his feelings, instead of turning him in for planning a political assassination. Marvick snaps at her saying she should “try being a woman for once” and that she perhaps even enjoys emotionally tormenting him, which is the exact same reaction any immature man is going to have at being romantically rejected, before storming off to zap the ambassador. The juxtaposition of this scene with the previous one and the next one is a work of sheer brilliance: Kirk explains to us about how humanity has evolved, but still on occasions reverts to its less-than-savoury instincts. The altercation between Jones, the ambassador and Marvick is a demonstration of how emotions like jealousy, anger and betrayal live on in humans (which is contrasted with the inner peace and beauty of ambassador Kollos' people, the Medusans, as well as the goals humans now try to hold themselves to) and how they both manifest and are dealt with in an idealized setting.

The clincher comes when Marvick, driven out of his mind, flings the Enterprise out of the galaxy, and perhaps even out of the normal space-time continuum, claiming he's looking for a place to hide from the visions and thought-beings that torment him. Marvick, a flatly retrograde individual, is not comfortable in the world of Star Trek and tries to not just escape it, but drag the show with him. Crucially, Marvick is being depicted as retrograde specifically because he subscribes to tenets of outmoded Westernism, and the fact he was one of the original designers of the Enterprise just makes it all the more perfect: As Kirk says, humanity is still struggling with the more aggressive and antisocial aspects of its collective psyche, and this goes for Star Trek itself. While it may not have begun in a terribly laudable or progressive place, it's changed for the better and demonstrated the capacity for self-improvement. It may not quite have lived up to its full potential yet, but it's closer to realising it now then it has been in the past and, given time, it will eventually reach it.

And then the episode completely goes to pieces. It turns out the Medusans are supposedly the greatest navigators in the galaxy, hence why their ambassador is being escorted to negotiate with the Federation, and Kirk wants to ask Kollos if he'd be willing to help them return to normal space. Kollos needs a physical form in order to operate the helm controls, however, so Spock volunteers to temporarily fuse with him, if Kirk can “distract” Doctor Jones long enough. This whole sequence of events just doesn't make any sense to me: Spock tells Kirk he has to meld with Kollos, and in secret, because Jones is jealous of him...even though her mental powers are superior to his. The reason Spock eventually gives for why it has to be him instead of Jones, or really, anyone else (especially Sulu who is, you know, the actual helmsman) is because Jones is secretly blind, but can position herself through an incredibly sophisticated sensor net.

Although, even then it's not clear: McCoy is the one who ultimately reveals this (and in doing so explicitly violates patient confidentiality, he even flat-out says this, just about) despite previously giving the indication he too was completely unaware (hence his comment at the dinner table) and Spock sort of waffles on whether or not he was really aware of Jones' blindness while mumbling something about Vulcan telepathic abilities. This also lands the episode square into some of the most awkward and painful misguided ableism ever: The show tries to talk its way out of it by having McCoy tell her to “be realistic” and how while she can “do almost anything a sighted person can do” she “can't pilot a starship”. But this also makes no sense, because Jones is absolutely right-There is literally no reason Spock is more qualified for this task than she is. She brings it up with Kollos, who...threatens and assaults her I guess, as she screams, and that's that. So we're now ableist and misogynistic.

Once SpockXKollos does his thing, he forgets to put on the visor humanoids have to use when handling Medusans so as not to go mad, leading Spock to temporarily lose it. Then Jones has to probe his mind to repair it, but Kirk barges in and accuses her of manipulating Spock to forget the visor so he'd die because she's still jealous of him which she defiantly refutes (and by the way, she's not wearing her sensor net here for some reason that is once again never explained) and this continues to not make any sense. I think the implication is that Jones really did set the whole thing up, which would be a return to Kirk and Spock's earlier comment about how beautiful things are not inherently good, but that's not how anyone involved is playing it, and furthermore, I can't figure out what it is they actually *are* playing!

Shatner seems to play Kirk as very doubtful that he's made the right call, and seemingly very remorseful for how his impulsiveness has hurt Jones (perhaps a callback of his own to his comment about humans still having trouble living up to their own standards). Leonard Nimoy, meanwhile, plays Spock very guarded and unreadable: On the one hand, the scene with the IDIC and the rest of the first act would seem to imply Spock is nothing but respectful to Jones and only wishes to honour her, but his actions with Kollos after the Enterprise gets lost would seem to indicate he really is acting in an underhanded fashion and might harbour some jealousy towards, or at the very least unwarranted distrust of, her. But the script seems to want us to unanimously turn against Jones, which leaves the whole back half feeling aimless and purposeless. It almost feels like there are two or three *jarringly* different stories here that got thrown into a blender.

It is also worth briefly talking about the IDIC. An acronym standing for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, though that actually won't be made official until the Animated Series, it's become an iconic symbol of both the Vulcans and Star Trek to the point some Trekkers have adopted it as a life philosophy. Literally the only reason the IDIC exists at all, let alone becomes a prominent part of this episode, was because Gene Roddenberry figured he could turn Spock's pendant into a lucrative collectible piece of merchandise. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, along with other members of the cast and crew who I can't find by name, were absolutely livid at Roddenberry's hubris and crass commercialism they actually protested it, him and the episode to the point he had to be called to the set to negotiate a settlement before shooting could continue (and I'd like to point out that as much of a reputation as Shatner and Nimoy have for being prima donnas, it seems to me every time they've put their foot down, at least so far, they've been pretty squarely in the right). But there you have it: Just another friendly reminder about what Soda Pop Art ultimately is if you take it at face value and only consider it worthy for its extant media artefacts.

Then there's Doctor Jones herself, who's played by Diana Muldaur in her second of three marquee Star Trek appearances. And, as much as I love Muldaur and certainly won't complain anytime she appears in the franchise, of her four Trek performances I have to say this is her weakest by far. This isn't so much her fault as it is that of the people who recommended her for the role though, as I think Muldaur may have been pretty seriously miscast here. The thing about Muldaur is that she's only ever going to play one kind of character: A devastatingly competent professional who is on unarguable equal footing with her male colleagues. She can and does bring a theatrical bombast and power to her roles, but this is the kind of character she tends to gravitate towards. If Jones was indeed meant to be unsympathetic and taught a lesson about facing her inner ugliness as it were, Muldaur was absolutely the wrong person to call, because she goes out of her way to give Jones the moral high ground at every possible opportunity, and the rest of the cast are more than happy to let her have it. As a result, Muldaur ends up playing Jones a bit like Thalassa: Imperious, spiteful and vindictive with an unearthly power, and it doesn't work quite as well this time around.

Maybe the intention wasn't to give one character the ethical upper hand. Maybe it was instead to show how none of us are perfect and how we all carry inner ugliness we're continually fighting against. In that case I have two things to say: One, that's intolerably pop Christian. It's just demons and original sin with the serial numbers filed off. Secondly, there's really nothing here to indicate the cast and crew were on board with that. Nimoy and Muldaur keep gunning for the protagonist role, Shatner's off doing something else entirely, whatever that is, and the episode clunkily changes gears midway through to become something completely different, or rather a multiplicity of different things which is in fact the actual problem. On a basic, structural level, as well as the level of production, “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” is such a shambles it should be the concluding arguments to restore “The Alternative Factor”'s classic status.

This is Star Trek at its absolute most disperse: In the past, we've seen the show at war with itself. This isn't a show at war, it's six or seven different shows halfheartedly grasping for the same title. In a sense though, this is as prescient about the future of the franchise as the series has ever been.