Tuesday, November 5, 2013

“All the greatest men are maniacs.”: Whom Gods Destroy

"A cat may look at a king..."
“Whom Gods Destroy” is famously bad. It is also famously unapologetically repetitive, reiterating the exact same plot of the first season episode “Dagger of the Mind” down to reusing the same chair prop that was central to that episode's climax. It is also, like the vast majority of third season episodes, riddled with plot holes, logic lapses and inconsistent characterization: In terms of basic narrative structure and coherence, it's once again a mess. “Whom Gods Destroy” seems to be a particular bugbear for Leonard Nimoy, who spent the entire week writing memos and complaints about it to anyone who would listen including, but not limited to, Fred Freiberger and Douglas C. Cramer, the Paramount Studios production executive.

While the laziness and sloppiness are painfully apparent, I'm not especially inclined to tear into them here for a few reasons. One, exasperating as it is, this is not really unusual for this season, and really I'd go so far as to say it's standard operating procedure for the show at this point. Secondly, even if it hadn't been officially stated yet, it's pretty clear Star Trek's time is just about up. We've had our bonus year, and the show has about two months left before it's put to bed for good. It's rather pointless to get too worked up about structural problems now. While it's possible we might get one or two late-stage minor classics along the lines of “Wink of an Eye” or “That Which Survives” in the remaining stories (I have little to no recollection of the next batch of episodes except for the really blatantly obvious ones), the show is for all practical purposes done and we're just killing time before the inevitable sits in. This run of episodes is the word death of the Original Series.

“Whom Gods Destroy” isn't even all that bad given the standards of the 1968-1969 year. It manages to on the whole avoid being as incensing as “Elaan of Troyius”, “The Paradise Syndrome” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, though it does have a few ethical issues of its own. And, while it's not as much of a B-movie pleasure as “Spock's Brain”, there are certainly parts that are genuinely entertaining in a way only the most gloriously trashy science fiction can be. Indeed, though “Whom Gods Destroy” is certainly nowhere near as thought provoking as “The Tholian Web”, “Plato's Stepchildren” or “Wink of an Eye”, it does actually manage to occasionally drunkenly stumble into one or two genuinely captivating concepts. What we have here is probably Star Trek's first Curate's Egg: It's a disaster, but parts of this disaster are quite excellent.

Let's square away the obvious issue right away. “Whom Gods Destroy” is literally a retelling of “Dagger of the Mind”, and a shitty one at that. This time the story follows the almost cartoonishly stereotypical plot of having the inmate running the asylum have a Napoleon complex, on which I'll have more to say a little later. Most catastrophically though, “Whom Gods Destroy” not only removes the single most important theme that made “Dagger of the Mind” the pinnacle of the Gene Roddenberry era, it completely botches and inverts it. The whole point of “Dagger of the Mind” was that the Neural Neutralizer was an absurdly terrible idea: Yes, Doctor Adams is a megalomaniacal crazy guy who's using it to create an army of hypno-zombies, but both Kirk and Helen Noel point out that it's leaving people with false memories and insincere personalities and there was at least an inkling of a critique of the kind of Scientistic normalizing Western society engages in with such wild abandon. Here though, the vaccine the Enterprise is delivering is supposed to serve the same purpose as the Neural Neutralizer, mentally reprogramming people who are considered deviant and socially unacceptable to make them “normal” and “healthy” again, and it's portrayed as an unambiguously Good Thing that the ethics of which are never once called into question. It's horrifying.

So it's probably best to avoid trying to read “Whom Gods Destroy” as a challenging and provocative critique of how mental health issues are handled in Western societies. Actually, on a brief tangent this is one of my biggest objections to the way Star Trek has traditionally been read: Each and every episode is typically seen as some highbrow and intelligent work of social commentary, which is dangerous in my view, and this episode is a good example of why: It's actually far easier to read “Whom Gods Destroy” as part of the archaic theatrical tradition of using madness as a metaphor and insane asylums as a setting for satire. It's no more progressive, of course, as it's still horrifically dehumanizing to the people involved, but it's in my opinion ironically less problematic (and significantly less likely to plunge you into hopelessness and despair) to read the story this way than it is to presume the Star Trek creative team circa 1969 genuinely endorsed coercive institutionalized mind-wiping for mental health patients.

In this view then while Garth of Izar remains the central character, the key scene is the dinner he throws for Kirk and Spock. Garth is a former Starfleet hero whose military exploits remain required reading at the Academy and who was a personal hero and role model for Kirk during the early part of his career. After an unspecified “accident”, Garth decided that the logical cap-off to his illustrious career was launching an unprovoked attack on a peaceful planet of healers as the first front in his bid to become, I kid you not, Emperor of the Universe. As delightfully hilarious as that bit of backstory might be, it also leads to the one true moment of erudition in the entire episode. Garth's argument is that the Federation's policies of pacifism are not only irrational and illogical, but also hypocritical given the military might they wield and their idealizing of him. Garth figures the far more sensible course of action is for him to appoint himself Emperor and use Starfleet to take over the universe, and it's as he outlines his philosophy to Kirk and Spock over dinner that we catch a glimpse of the episode “Whom Gods Destroy” might have been.

What's great about this scene is how Kirk responds to Garth's arguments. Kirk states that Garth's exploits demonstrated that he was a brilliant tactician and military leader, but his is not the kind of leader the Federation needs anymore. The key moment is when Garth appeals to Kirk as a fellow soldier, and Kirk politely responds that while he was a soldier once, he's now an explorer. This is brilliance, because it's absolutely true: Star Trek started out as literally a show about the adventures of the Space Air Force or Space Navy going around dropping tactical moralizing strikes on people and Gene Roddenberry absolutely wrote Kirk (and before him, Pike) as a gruff, manly military hero. But that's not what the show became, and that's not who Kirk really is. The split between Garth and Kirk embodies the split between what Star Trek started out as and what Star Trek wants to be, or perhaps more accurately two different directions Star Trek could go. But the line that absolutely clinches it is Garth’s declaration that he too is a great explorer and that he's discovered more new planets than any other captain in history.

Regardless of the truthfulness of this particular account, and I think we're supposed to take it as more of Garth's delusional ramblings, what this line also does is bring back the theme of exploration, and what the purpose and consequences of exploration actually are, that we last saw in “Return to Tomorrow”. Recall back then I pointed out one of the problems Star Trek often has to fight against is the Western roots of exploration that are intrinsically linked to imperialism, in particular the notion of an objective Unknown (which in reality doesn't exist and has never existed). This is in fact built into the whole idea of a “Final Frontier”: That last Great Unknown that we heroic Westerners must boldly plunge and expand into as is our inalienable right. But even here in 1969, Star Trek is actually rejecting this: Garth claims to be an explorer, but if he is one he's explicitly an explorer in the colonial sense: The only reason Garth would explore is to find new worlds to conquer and expand his reach into. Meanwhile Kirk seems to explore simply because he enjoys travelling and learning from others: Though he never comes right out and says this, by clearly placing him in opposition to Garth the episode would seem to be granting him this position by default.

Now we can maybe at least kinda see why “Whom Gods Destroy” casts Garth as an inmate in a mental asylum. It's trying to say that anyone who holds to the kind of megalomaniacal and imperialist beliefs Garth does must be crazy. This is not an especially effective statement, obviously, largely because the episode unnecessarily weds its anti-imperialist sentiment to a rather staggeringly awful bit of normalization, but the basic claim is a solid one and worthy of further development. On a related note, this also adds more nuance to the scene where Garth uses his shapeshifting skills to impersonate Kirk. On the surface this seems like an eye-rolling return to a really tired cliche from the first season (the evil Kirk duplicate), especially as the rest of the episode has an aggravatingly stock pulp structure. But if Garth is supposed to be what Starfleet gone bad looks like, this suddenly becomes more interesting. Despite taking his visage, Garth really isn't in the vein of characters like the android Kirk of “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” or even the roles William Campbell played. Garth isn't a Dark Mirror of Kirk, he's actually more of a Dark Mirror of Star Trek-He embodies not only the concepts of the frontier and manifest destiny, but the dangerous egotism of any one individual (or worldview) declaring themselves absolute ruler...and an ideal to aspire to.

And further, Garth is an incredible character. Steve Ihnat is an unbelievably charismatic and crowd-pleasing presence, delivering a memorably twisted and over-the-top performance that effortlessly (and hilariously) shifts between the character's mania and dementia while just eating everything in sight. It's a masterpiece of late-stage Star Trek ham-and-cheese that is consistently and laudably entertaining and is everything “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” wasn't. In fact, the only thing more enjoyable than Garth is Yvonne Craig's Marta, who is amazing, and manages to actually steal the show from Ihnat. Craig, fresh off her stint as Batgirl on the Adam West Batman show, plays Marta as delightfully unhinged and psychotic, literally dancing around the other prisoners with a deliberately exaggerated flair. The scene where she and Garth have an overplayed shouting match of a debate over whether or not Marta actually wrote the complete works of William Shakespeare and her wonderfully medium aware declaration that since Kirk is her lover this means she is obligated to kill him are sublimely elegant works of comic perfection and actually made me laugh out loud. As a matter of fact, I'm going to come right out and say it: Marta blows Batgirl out of the water and is prime evidence that even when it's struggling Star Trek is still capable of outclassing its competition if it plays its cards right.

I only wish I could say all of this comprised a better episode. As entertaining as all the various elements and ideas in “Whom Gods Destroy” might be, the whole is not greater than the sum of them. The episode torpedoes itself from the beginning with is tired structure, lazy self-plagiarism and unacceptable attitudes towards mental health patients. There is a great episode you could make out of the various disparate elements here, but it's not an episode I think Star Trek at this stage of its life was probably capable of making. Even so though, there's something to be said about the arc the series has taken this year: Just last year Star Trek was on the whole a show that wildly swung between the extremes of retrograde garbage and progressive, idealistic brilliance. What we've seen in the third season is a show that largely seems to have its head and heart in the right place, it's just staffed by people who have their hands tied by a number of factors in a number of different directions such that the day-to-day production is kind of spectacularly incompetent. This isn't an *amazing* position to be in (as what's going to happen in eight weeks sort of retroactively proves), but it does seem like evidence Star Trek has finally figured out what it wants, and needs, to be.

It's just too bad it's only happening now.


  1. I feel moved to comment:

    I'm really really enjoying this blog and I feel you need to know that there a people reading and getting a lot out of it. I don't have anything beyond that to say, but I felt I ought to say it

    Bob dillon

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by! It always means a lot to me to hear my writing is capable of touching people.

  2. This is actually one of my personal favourites of the original series. I grant you all the critiques of the episode (especially the idea of 'normalizing' people, even though the episode stacks its own deck by showing the malevolence of Garth and Marta's madness). But it is an absolutely uproarious story, one of the cases where the tendency to make its scenery eminently chewable by constructing the sets and actors from pure ham improves the story immensely.

    I know 'inmates take over the asylum' is an old theme. But the tone of the episode goes along with that to such an extent that the whole thing becomes a circus. It's literally the story of Kirk and Spock trying to maintain their sanity in an isolated world that's literally gone insane. The story doesn't make sense, but I like to interpret it as purposely not making sense.

    I finally got around to watching My Son My Son What Have Ye Done a few months ago, one of the most disturbing films Werner Herzog ever made. The idea was simply to depict someone who had gone insane, not try to diagnose or explain him, just to depict violent insanity matter-of-factly. Even though the cinematography and tone of the script have a documentarian quality, everything that comes out of Michael Shannon's mouth is pure campy nonsense. It's disturbing because everyone takes it seriously. When I watch this episode, I feel like "Whom Gods Destroy" could be just as disturbing and strange if played completely straight. Under all that camp is a very unsettling narrative.

  3. Camp-Nirvana.

    And Shatner definitely plays Kirk as a 'traveler'. It's the biggest redeeming quality about his tendency toward cliched romance with every space-woman he meets; exploring strange new bodies, seeking out new babes. But it's not played for laughs (a massive failure of the Abrams reboots). It's neither good nor bad (well, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but that's realistic in all relationship histories).

    He seemed pretty genuinely reticent about engaging a mental patient like Marta in any kind of salacious rendezvous.

    1. Absolutely: Despite Kirk's Girls-of-the-week being studio-mandated, Shatner tries very hard in each case to remove as much problematic subtext as he can. The way he plays Kirk it seems like he truly does care about all of these people and that means a lot. And, not necessarily to knock the other cast members, but this is something that does seem to be occasionally missing when they get one-off romances.

  4. The only reason Garth would explore is to find new worlds to conquer and expand his reach into. Meanwhile Kirk seems to explore simply because he enjoys travelling and learning from others

    DOCTOR: You're a genius. You're stone cold brilliant, you are. I swear, you really are. But you could be so much more. You could be beautiful. With a mind like that, we could travel the stars. It would be my honour. Because you don't need to own the universe, just see it. To have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space. That's ownership enough.
    MASTER: Would it stop, then? The noise in my head?

  5. I get what you're saying, I really do... but I'd volunteer to have a "false" self implanted in a heartbeat if it meant making my brain healthy.