Sunday, October 6, 2013

“Put up a parking lot”: The Paradise Syndrome

"There seems to be a reoccurring reference to a 'World-Eater'..."
Somewhere around the point one begins musing “you know, maybe 'Elaan of Troyius' wasn't so bad after all”, one gets the sense there are worryingly fundamental underlying problems with “The Paradise Syndrome”.

It is wretched. Somewhat amazingly, it manages to tell a story about the concept of an idyllic lifestyle without invoking the godforsaken Garden of Eden again. This does not make it any less wretched. It is unabashedly racist, because it is noble savages again, and this time the show just drops all pretense and flat-out calls them literally “American Indians” so there's absolutely no doubt about who and what it's horrifically stereotyping and misrepresenting. Aside from “The Apple” (which this is almost as bad as) this was the episode I most dreaded having to rewatch: A story about a Kirk rendered amnesiac by a von Dänikenesque obelisk who becomes the messianic spiritual leader of a village of Space Native Americans, and lives for months married to a doting priestess who is promptly stoned to death along with their unborn son is my idea of just about the worst possible way to spend an evening.

My expectations were not disappointed.

Let's tackle the racism first, because “The Paradise Syndrome” is absolutely racist and it's so transparent about this it's almost refreshing in a way. Let's once again turn to Daniel Leonard Bernardi, as this is his territory and he's apparently becoming something of a fixture this season (and also because it saves me having to reiterate everything):

"'The Paradise Syndrome" stereotypes Native-Americans as noble savages and whites as 'normal' and even divine [...] Miramanee cannot figure out how to pull Kirk's shirt off, as she cannot find any lacing. She is portrayed as simpleminded, not that bright. This is not the case with Kirk. Moments before, he has fashioned a lamp from an old piece of pottery and saved a boy by using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Despite his amnesia, he is shown as naturally superior [...] When the Indians realize that Kirk is not a god, they stone both him and Miramanee (it's the Indians who are violent in this version of the noble savage stereotype). Spock and McCoy eventually intervene, but only Kirk survives. In this take on a standard white/red miscegenation narrative, the native girl dies so that Kirk, the white male hero, isn't shown unheroically and immorally leaving her and their unborn baby behind."

Just like before, we'll use Bernardi's analysis as a jumping-off point because, once again, he's right as far as the basics go but he also seems to miss a great deal of nuances. I don't want to go too hard on him as in many ways Bernardi was one of the first people to make note of Star Trek's more reactionary tendencies, but really: That “The Paradise Syndrome” treats Native Americans as simpleminded primitives is so laughably blatant and obvious it really doesn't need to be commented on, at least not to the extent Bernardi does. This is far from the first time the Original Series has done this, and we should really stop being shocked by this at this point, especially during a season it's clear was a write-off from before it even began. No, the larger racialist issue with “The Paradise Syndrome” is that its Native Americans aren't just primitives, they're not even real people: They're constructed entirely out of half-assed and half-remembered stereotypes and vague imagery. There's a lot of strong medicine, abbreviated, punctuated speech, feathers and thunderstorms, but there's not a single thing to indicate this is an actual, living culture, which even “The Apple” managed, albeit terribly. These aren't even cartoon caricatures, they're ad spot and slogan mascots.

And furthermore, “The Paradise Syndrome” misrepresents its Native Americans so completely it bewilderingly wants us to believe their complex and deeply symbolic animism can be distilled to straightforward pop Christianity, or at the very least generic Western theism. Kirok is explicitly called a god and is prophesied to return from the “temple” at a predetermined time to save his people from catastrophe. This is the stuff of the absolute dregs of dime-store sci-fi-fantasy, and it's not possible to misread Native American spirituality worse even if you were deliberately trying to. Part of this is due to the von Däniken embellishment of the Preservers, who “seeded” humanoid life in the galaxy and left behind monolithic artefacts to watch over and protect them, but come on. That's not an excuse, and if anything, that makes it even worse. Thing is though, this remains easily explainable. “The Paradise Syndrome” is the work of Margaret Armen, whose previous credit was “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, so she's sort of established a track record for spectacularly bombing on issues of race and culture. I wish I could be kinder to Armen as she's one of the only other female writers for Star Trek during this period aside from D.C. Fontana, but the fact remains her work so far has been consistently middling to disastrous.

This also raises some serious concerns I have about the validity of Bernardi's work: So far, the only episodes in which he's been cited as being critical of and demonstrating the irreducible Whiteness of Star Trek have been calamitously shitty ones by troubled or irredeemable writers. This rather smacks of Bernardi stacking his argument. Also, Bernardi attacks the final scene by arguing it skirts around the issue of Kirk potentially abandoning his wife and unborn child. But this isn't quite what happens-They were both already dead by then and there was nothing even McCoy could have done. Kirk is not a deadbeat dad: There's no implication anywhere in the final act that Kirk wouldn't have taken Miramanee and her child with him had they lived. The real problem here isn't Kirk being cast as colonialist and thoughtless, it's that Miramanee is considered expendable, tying into the standard power structures of imperialism, racism, institutionalized misogyny and the fundamental disadvantages of serialized anthology television. “The Paradise Syndrome” has a ton of problems, but it doesn't have that specific one. If we're going to damn Star Trek, let's at least damn it for stuff it actually did.

“The Paradise Syndrome” also provides some more illuminating evidence on how the way in which Star Trek is bad now is different from the way it's been bad in the past. Horrifying racial insensitivity and casual sexism are, sadly, nothing new to the Original Series. What makes “The Paradise Syndrome” significant is that it's not only reactionary, it's also a flatly terrible production. There are basic, amateur mistakes all over the place: Spock is reduced to nothing more than exposition machine, delivering overly padded monologues about basic science and setting details while McCoy is treated as almost as simple and thick as Miramanee. While the portion of the episode taking place on the Enterprise is ostensibly supposed to be about Spock and his command choices, Leonard Nimoy isn't actually allowed to convey any of this: McCoy has to come in and flat-out state the emotions the script says Spock is going through. On a related note, the passage of 58 days takes place during one, single cut and is conveyed purely through dialog leaving no sense that any time has passed at all. There's even a jaw-droppingly cliched “running through the forest laughing” montage designed to let us know Kirok and Miramanee are in love that's played unnervingly straight. Forget being rejected by a major network television series, a script like this would have failed an intro to creative writing course.

While Gene Roddenberry was something of an incompetent writer, his problems were largely due to the fact his style was too firmly stuck in the pulp sci-fi style that was already dated by the time he first pitched “The Cage” in 1964 and he refused to ever admit this wasn't working. The reason something like “Mudd's Women” or “A Private Little War” is bad is purely by virtue of its grandiose jingoistic soapboxing. Neither of those episodes were de facto poor pieces of writing, they were just *offensive* writing. While “The Menagerie” and “The Return of the Archons” did have logic issues, even those weren't as glaring and crippling as the ones here are. Furthermore, Compare “The Paradise Syndrome” to “The Omega Glory”: While both are awful, retrograde stories, the production level problems with “The Omega Glory” were due to the explicitly pulp structure that was about two-thirds stupid fight scenes and the fact Roddenberry was an abject failure at conveying any kind of nuance or subtlety. You simply can't imagine him turning in a script like this: Although the politics are just as abhorrent, even Gene Roddenberry would have known better than to make such obvious writing mistakes.

Most damningly however, the cast is very clearly aware of what a mess “The Paradise Syndrome” is and, for the first time in the history of the show, just flat-out give up. Even during the low points of the past, the actors always went out of their way to deliver their lines with conviction, or at least make them entertaining. Here though, they simply can't be bothered any longer. Nimoy plays Spock as the most deadpan and monotone parody of a stoic, logical character you can think of, DeForest Kelley is clearly just punching his time card and, chillingly, William Shatner mumbles his way through his every scene as both Kirk and Kirok. The only person who seems remotely like the characters we've become accustomed to is Scotty, thanks to James Doohan's animated performance of someone exasperated at his boss' unreasonable requests, but he's in so little of the episode it's nowhere near enough to make a difference. Everyone else just looks painfully bored and drained.

One of the biggest strengths of Star Trek has always been its cast, who have reliably come to it's rescue whenever the rest of the show trips up, very much alive and aware Star Trek means something more than the sum of its parts, and imploring us to not forget this in spite of everything. With them checked out, Star Trek has lost its final asset, and it seems its time, at long last, really is up. One gets the sense everyone should just pack up, go home, move on and let the show wind down, which is probably neither the environment nor mindset you want to cultivate three episodes into the new season. While it may be no more reactionary then the show's worst moments of the past have been, “The Paradise Syndrome” is very possibly the saddest and most depressing episode of Star Trek ever made.


  1. I first saw this episode at the age of 11 with a fever of 103. In that context, it wasn't half bad. I had fond memories of it keeping my mind off the fact I had never been so sick.

    Rewatching it to keep up with you was...sobering.

  2. I know I usually have long, involved, and complicated comments. But today, I have only a reaction, and it's brief at that.

    A little while ago, I happened to catch a rerun of The Paradise Syndrome on my country's sci-fi television channel, Space. I watched it over lunch. No other episode of television has led me to say, "What the fuck is this shit?" quite so frequently.

  3. It's all right, everyone. I had a hard time coming up with things to say about this one too. It's just...bad. At least the next disaster has a lot to complain about.

  4. Some part of me has always been most angry not at the middling writing, the cast giving up on trying to polish it, the overt racism, the sexism, the lack of story logic, poor pacing, bad dialogue, every other thing - at this point I just hate the fact that even when portraying headache-inducingly bad American Indians, they didn't actually cast any.

    White people browned up to be "Space Exotic" is one level of bad, sure ... but white people browned up to play an actual human culture? It stings worse somehow.

    1. Oh, absolutely. The show's been offensively reactionary many times in the past, but it's crossed a line by applying this same level of blase insensitivity to an actual, real-world group of people.

  5. This one is a serious bummer, to say the least. I'm actually compelled to really, really want the voice-over happy, soap opera style of storytelling to work. It borders on compelling how much time passes in this episode - more than any other episode, no? - and the idea of Kirk getting stranded and settling down with a wife and kid is so tantalizing it almost hurts.

    But, alas, it is all undone by everything we actually see in the episode. Particularly the hideous, wretched racism that actually makes this essentially unwatchable.

    It's interesting that Elaan is supposedly the one that was aimed at women, since this one seems like the obvious attempt to do a real romance in Trek (which is what the women want, natch). But it's all so offensively bad that it doesn't really matter in the end.

    At a time when the show is in a major identity crisis, I think this episode sort of shades at a way the show could have reinvented itself once again. But what ends up happening is more or less confirming that the show has fallen apart and, except for a few final gasps, what we're watching at this point is a decaying zombie

    1. Indeed, I do believe this is the episode that takes place over the longest span of time in the history of the show, not that you'd notice that as it's mentioned once in an easy-to-miss throwaway line.

      Of course, Armen is in fact female, so one would think she would be somewhat more attuned to what Star Trek's female fans might have wanted from the show. Unfortunately, it seems like her overwhelmingly crap tendencies as a writer sort of cancelled that out.

      Interestingly enough coming up next we do in fact have an episode that's extremely female-friendly, or at least that was originally written that way. It's by the person you'd probably expect.

  6. I'm fairly excited for the next one. A cursory glance at the Production Order listings makes it pretty clear that phenomena like the latter half run of top episodes in Season 2 never happened again; after this slight four episode slog, with only "Spectre" to introduce anything interesting, Star Trek begins vacillating a little. Not quite good-bad-good-bad, but certainly dramatically veering from one to the other, with no "runs" of good or bad. We'll address it with rewatches of course, but to my memory the whole rest of Season 3 maintains that metronome quality. (Like a countdown clock to cancel-town.)

    The next is my very favorite Original Crew episode, and a story that deserved its own "Wrath of Khan" re-visitation, and never got it.

    1. What's interesting about that to me is this is exactly how the show used to operate: The latter John Meredyth Lucas run was almost more of a fluke than anything else. A metronome approach to quality isn't anything we really ought to be terribly shocked by at this point.

      Why, then, exactly, season three becomes seen as an aberration when in many way's it's merely Star Trek falling back into old bad habits is an intriguing question. This too I pick up over the next few entries.