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.


  1. a) This episode makes an interesting pairing with the TNG episode "The Inner Light," where Picard spends years in Faerie from his perspective, but only moments pass in our world.

    b) It also seems to me I've read myths where that's the case (as opposed to the other way around), but i can't think of any at the moment.

    1. I can't think of any myths, but it's how Narnia works, and Narnia is pretty explicitly a fairyland. Also utter shit, but that's unrelated.