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.


  1. All I really remember about this episode was that Diana Muldaur was in it, and that it didn't really make any damn sense. It really is true that the story feels like an explosion of insanity. It's almost as if the first half were written as a meditation on the nature of truth and knowledge, how we can become devoted to them as if through love, and how love can interfere with understanding knowledge. Then the writer makes all the characters explode to create some kind of adventure, as if the producers had no idea how to make exciting things happen from those themes.

    Sad, really.

  2. This episode is like a puzzle where none of the pieces seem to fit and you get the feeling the picture you'll find once it's all together won't be worth the effort it took in the first place, so just bin the damned thing and go find out where that leak in the corner is coming from because I don't think the pipes go by that corner and it really doesn't make any sense and oh lord how much is this going to cost me?

    That got away from me a little bit, but you get the idea.

  3. I've got to go over the episode, but either way Muldaur gets pretty high marks; this might be her most miscast, and least effective character, but she's still as memorable as ever. Kollos is a less effective take on the Mother Horta parables, but there's a sort of pseudo-psychedelia to go along with the heavy emphasis on psychic contact, gender ideals and outer versus inner beauty that is at least poignant and apropos, aesthetically.

    I did like the covert expansion of Vulcan that came in this episode quite a bit - it not only gave us the IDIC, it also informed us that inexperienced telepathic species go to study with the Vulcans.

  4. 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.

    Well, it's not specifically Christian; it's a common theme in many belief systems around the world (Neo-Confuciansim, for example).