Thursday, November 14, 2013

“...a framework for utopias”: The Way to Eden

"Far Out."
Well, it's not quite as youth-hating as “And The Children Shall Lead”. I can at least say that much for it.

Yeah, this one was never going to be any good. You know the routine by now: The Star Trek team (or what remains of it) digs up an old story pitch, it gets turned into a teleplay by one or more writers who had nothing to do with the original submission, the original idea having been extensively rewritten beyond the point of recognition in the process and then this becomes the framework for the finished episode we see onscreen. Last time the show got lucky: Margaret Armen and Oliver Crawford turned Dave Gerrold's submission into something that wasn't quite his original idea, but worked almost as well, if not better in some respects (thanks, surely, in no small part due to it keeping Margaret Armen as far away from anything having to do with race politics as is humanly possible). This week, doesn't.

“The Way to Eden” is loosely (and I mean extremely loosely) based on an old D.C. Fontana pitch entitled “Joanna”, which would have featured Doctor McCoy's estranged daughter, the titular Joanna, coming aboard the Enterprise and beginning a relationship with Kirk, thus creating tension between him and her father. Despite being one of the more famous unused story ideas for the Original Series, I wasn't able to find a lot of information on plot details or anything like that, so I'm actually going to keep Fontana out of the discussion for “The Way to Eden” for the most part (and after all, she did dislike the finished episode enough to request credit under her pseudonym): Supposedly Joanna was the character who eventually became Chekov's love interest Irina Galliulin, but if she were indeed going to be one of the Space Hippies, my guess is that it probably would have played out a lot like “Journey to Babel” where the plot is largely a basic skeleton upon which to frame a character piece (which in this case would have been about McCoy's relationship with Joanna and Kirk) and it wouldn't have gone any further than that. And anyway, unlike Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana's thankfully not going anywhere anytime soon so we'll have plenty more opportunities to talk about her. This isn't her final bow in Star Trek, this is, for at least us, the point where it becomes clear who the next showrunner is going to be.

So let's talk about Space Hippies instead. “The Way to Eden” concerns a group of free-spirited youths who have formed a movement built around peace, brotherhood and an aggressive rejection of modern technology and political structures in favour of a return to an idealized pastoral lifestyle. The youths think that they are destined to travel to the mythical planet Eden, supposedly a tranquil unspoiled paradise where they can live out their lives free of technology and on their own terms. Inconveniently for pretty much everyone, the travellers believe Eden resides in Romulan space. Furthermore, things get more complicated when their leader Doctor Sevrin is revealed to be a dangerously insane manipulator carrying a disease similar to antibiotic resistant super-bacteria: He blames modern society for infecting him, and believes those who reside on Eden will be able to cure him, and he doesn't care who he has to use to get there.

The Space Hippies are pretty much everyone's objection to “The Way to Eden” and it's really not difficult to see why. They're dressed to the nines in positively ridiculous outfits that look like parodies of Hippie clothes, spend half the episode singing intolerably bad imitation folk music and, just like in “And The Children Shall Lead”, speak in strange, unfamiliar slang and have weird rituals and habits meant to unnerve decent, respectable, law-abiding grownups like us. But there's a significant difference between “The Way to Eden” and the last time Star Trek ham-fistedly tried to talk about “the kids these days”: While the Enterprise crew is famously unkind to the Space Hippies at first, deriding them by calling them grown adults who act like spoiled, irresponsible children (Scotty's especially bad: I'm surprised he wasn't literally yelling at the damn kids to get off his lawn), by the end of the episode they're all, with the exception of Sevrin, portrayed as innocent (if sometimes misguided), kindhearted people who ought to be respected for making their own decisions about how they want to live their lives.

What this touches on, and with surprisingly more nuance and sophistication than I actually expected of Star Trek in 1969, is the oftentimes complex and troubled relationship between the Hippie movement and the larger counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite becoming the iconic and ubiquitous symbols of 1960s youth thanks to major events like Woodstock and their memorable fashion sense making them easy targets for pop culture references and pastiches, it's very important to keep in mind that the Hippies did not comprise the entire scope of the revolutionary zeitgeist of the mid-20th century. Long before them, there were the Beats, the Mods, the Situationalist Marxists and psychedelic street performance artists. The Hippies were but one branch, and a particularly United States branch to boot, being in truth a movement actually based primarily on syncretism and cultural appropriation: The Hippies picked and chose assorted bits and pieces from the Beats, the Mods and the Psychedelics and blended them through their own perspective with a rather populist and facile interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, crafting a unique, and uniquely United States, kind of movement.

Furthermore, the Hippies were very much middle class in a way the previous and contemporary countercultural movements really never were: The major nerve centres of the Hippie movement were big Southern Californian universities known for military industrial complex supported technoscience research, like Berkeley, Caltech and Stanford. Indeed, the Hippie movement is intrinsically linked to the origins of the personal computer and modern computer science, a field and industry pioneered in those selfsame institutions. Now, look at who comprises our Space Hippies in “The Way to Eden”: Starfleet Academy dropouts, the son of an ambassador, a disgraced physician and several scientific specialists. In other words, all people who come from largely academic, and largely privileged, backgrounds. These are certainly not Vanna's expressly oppressed working class Disrupters from “The Cloud Minders”.

Perhaps then the Space Hippies were never meant to stand in for the actual radical youth, or if they were, they were intended as a comment on the dangerous tendency for real-world Hippies to develop a somewhat blinkered worldview. This would mean Doctor Sevrin also comes across far better as an antagonist: Unlike the generically evil Other of the Friendly Angel from “And The Children Shall Lead”, Sevrin is an unscrupulous person who is co-opting and using an otherwise well-meaning and harmless group of people. Just like in the real world, the good intentions of the youth can be manipulated for evil ends, such as to support a politician who outwardly courts them, but who is in truth just another establishment figure who will betray their trust as soon as his populism gets him elected. Or, for that matter, the Hippies' own deal with the devil that was the military industrial complex.

In this regard Spock is the character most worth paying attention to. He's the most sympathetic to the Space Hippies' plight (though he calls it “curiosity”) as they, like him, feel like aliens in their own world. He understands their culture and language and tries to persuade them that Sevrin is delusional and doesn't really have their guiding principles in mind. Furthermore, he tries to show them how modern technology has made some developments worth holding on to and that it's pointless, counterproductive and even dangerous to reject everything simply because it's modern (actually, I think this part of the episode may resonate stronger today than it did in 1969: The behaviour of Sevrin and Adam in particular reminds me very much of the claims made by nervous and reactionary anti-vaccine advocates).

That Spock is the person to mediate in this way is actually critical, and it takes a lot of the edge off of the episode's numerous problems. It's important to remember here that, at the time, Spock was still very much seen as a countercultural figure: He was a pop culture icon respected and admired by real-life utopian idealists and was someone a lot of young people could relate to. He wasn't yet the Star Trek brand's mascot known only for the hand salute and saying “fascinating” all the time. To have Spock very overtly ally himself with the Space Hippies and stress on several occasions that while what Sevrin is doing is wrong, what his followers seek absolutely isn't is a very powerful statement, or at least an admirable attempt at one. And it's Spock, not Chekov, who gets to say the final goodbye to Irina at the end once Sevrin is defeated, delivering this gem of a line:

"It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden. I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves."

This line is lovely because it has Spock come right out and state the single most important thing about utopianism, which is that a utopia really means the freedom for each individual and network of individuals to make their own utopia. The Enterprise might be a utopia, but it's not the utopia Irina and her friends want, and it shows great maturity on the part of both parties to accept that.

But I have to end with the inevitable and obvious: “The Way to Eden” doesn't work. It doesn't come close to working. Sevrin, for one, is still awful: Once again, he's emblematic of Star Trek normalizing the stigma attached to mental health issues. Furthermore, while there are definite hints at a great Star Trek story about the youth and utopianism here and while Spock's actions certainly count for a lot, most of the time the way the episode treats the Space Hippies feels like outright bullying. From their idiotic costumes and music to their incessant gullibility, it just comes across as mean-spirited. In addition, every member of the crew should have been as understanding as Spock, if not right away without question by the end, and the episode never quite gives us that resolution. Kirk sort of gets there and makes a lighthearted joke in the denouement that seems like it's meant to give the Space Hippies his approval, but it doesn't really take.

And Kirk's not the only one-Chekov's behaviour in particular is inexcusable: “The Way to Eden” paints him as almost as programmatically dogmatic as Tamara Jagellovsk from Raumpatrouille Orion (and any time he's onscreen together with Irina the episode becomes an excruciating showcase of the most unwatchably terrible and embarrassing fake Russian accents ever put to film). It's one more example of the character's laughably wasted potential. And finally, while there is fodder here for an intriguing and even-handed critique of the Hippie movement, the episode simply doesn't go anywhere with it. What it really needed was for a character like Vanna to come in and call them out on their self-righteous privilege.

But ultimately it's tough to get too worked up about it, because “The Way to Eden” came along far too late to do any lasting damage to the series, or to give it any help either, for that matter.


  1. Despite the critiques that you're right to mention, I've always considered this one of the "twenty or so good ones" of the original Star Trek, mainly because of precisely what you mention. If anything, I almost see a parody of the typical mainstream dismissal of hippie and youth culture. The Edenites' slang sounds silly, like everyone's attempts to adapt slang and swearing to sci-fi settings who isn't Joss Whedon or Ron Moore. And they look ridiculous, but so did a lot of hippies. The blanket dismissals of the Edenites from the conservative perspectives of Chekov and Kirk appear at first, yes. But Spock and Uhura's respect for them predominates the episode as the folk jams continue. Spock's own idealism takes the episode firmly from the socially conservative perspective. Yes, hippies were drawn from the middle class, but their goal was to reject the values that created the middle class and find another way beyond the capitalist rat race. I think that's why the conservative establishment of the 1960s was especially hostile to hippies: a generation of young people receiving the benefits of imperialism and the military-industrial complex weren't supposed to turn their backs on it. Hippies weren't just critics of mainstream conservatism; they were class traitors.

    I always considered "The Way to Eden" a tragedy of idealism that had been twisted by a charismatic leader who turned their dreams into a cult that resulted only in death. If anything, the character of Severin reminds me more of Charles Manson than any true utopian. And we should remember that Manson's success lay in seducing genuine idealists to his demented vision. I'm not sure how the chronology of the Manson Family intersects with the production of this episode, but when I look at it from 2013, Manson is what I see.

    The changes, or lack thereof, of the more conservative cast toward the Edenites at the end of the episode seems to reflect the way Manson tarnished the dreams of hippie culture. Chekov still cares for Irina, but sees his own dismissal of utopian thinking as vindicated by the revelation of Severin's being Charlie Manson. Kirk, perhaps because of his sympathies with Spock, can reflect on the tragedy a little. Spock understands the tragedy, and hopes that it can continue.

    For me, "The Way to Eden" is one of the most hopeful Star Trek episodes.

  2. It's not an episode I hate, despite its failings and some of the cheesiness. But before this post and some of the production order context, I didn't realize just how good this episode is as a companion piece to The Cloud Minders. Not only do they belong next to each other (even though Cloud is far better), they serve as some of the final relevant (and bittersweet) examples of the End of Star Trek.

    Plus, I thought it was a pretty fair ensemble piece that utilized all of the principle actors quite well - always a huge point bonus for me. And honestly, while the Enterprise crew has espoused militaristic ambitions and a lot of Roddenberry's space policeman behavior, they're still uniformed officers that came out of a dogmatic school - I felt like Scotty and Kirk's initial reactions toward the Children of Eden were realistic.

    I've liked the discussion of the Hippie movement occurring in the Middle Class though - as someone ensconced in the Art School community who came out of a uniquely poor situation, it's easy to relate back to some of the resentment that might have come from both the establishment, and the underprivileged.

    I've always liked episodes that serve as prophetic visions of the future though - as we find out (albeit in a pretty awful film) that Spock's views on brotherhood are intrinsically linked toward his sympathy for the 23rd Century "Eden Movement".

    Having found "Eden" pretty annoying when I was younger, I'm consistently surprised how much more watchable it is on repeat viewing, provided you maybe mute Adam's song.

  3. It's certainly not unwatchably terrible: I fully expected it to be and was pleasantly surprised to find upon watching it that it wasn't. That said, I'm not sure exactly how effective it is either-I grant a lot of the points you both made, but I can't help feeling this falls unsatisfyingly short of what Star Trek is capable of, even recently. I think Adam's reading is bang-on, I'm just not convinced it's as clear or as fleshed out in the final product as it should have been. And, as usual, I would have liked to see what D.C. Fontana's original plan was.

    Perhaps Kirk and Scotty's reactions are realistic within the context of the Original Series' conflicted relationship with militarism and authority, but it still feels off to me coming at the tail end of the third season, and *especially* after "The Cloud Minders". For a show that has been trumpeting utopianism so much lately, and the notion that utopianism comes out of respect for everyone's chosen way of life, to have them so dismissive just rubs me the wrong way.

    It is, however, most certainly a quite effective microcosm of The End of Star Trek: Its ultimate balking at taking a stand is tragically fitting.

  4. I agree - that line from Spock you quote about the search for Eden is a stand out moment, for me one of the best of the series.