Thursday, November 7, 2013

“Be not a cancer on the earth”: The Mark of Gideon

"'Oh, I wish it could stay like this forever!' 'So do I.'"
“The Mark of Gideon” is not one of the original Star Trek's finest hours. But you expected this. It has the makings of a great example of the show's newfound direction, but it ultimately ends up proving the show is just drifting at this point, painfully obviously out of steam.

It tries though, it really, truly does. For an episode very clearly produced solely so the show didn't have to build any new sets, “The Mark of Gideon” does the self-evidently correct story to make with that brief: Having a crewmember be mysteriously transported an eerily empty starship. It's a novel concept, though it would be perhaps more novel if the show hadn't pulled similar tricks in both “The Tholian Web” and “The Doomsday Machine”. So novel in fact it's done again in the similarly resource-challenged second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (albeit to a much more effective extent) and one of the most frequently overlooked virtues of the first two seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was it's ability to knock out world-class science fiction on a weekly basis while consistently only using one set.

This time though it's Kirk who, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission to a notoriously reclusive and xenophobic civilization, beams down only to find himself apparently where he started, on the transporter pad of the Enterprise. Only now it seems like he's the only one on the ship. To make matters worse, he has a mysterious bruise on his arm and nine minutes of his life, the period of time between when he beamed down and beamed back up again, are a blank to him. Soon though he realises he's not alone when he meets a mysterious woman named Odona who claims to have been abducted from her home planet. Although she doesn't remember much about it, she says it was extremely claustrophobic, and that thousands upon thousands of faces were constantly staring at her from every direction. Meanwhile, we keep cutting to scenes on the very much populated Enterprise as Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura try to determine why Kirk has disappeared into thin air and trying to navigate diplomacy talks between Starfleet Command and Gideon, the latter who are clearly hiding and withholding information.

This part of the episode is actually brilliant. There is a palpable sense of mystery surrounding the proceedings, keeping us constantly wondering about whether or not Kirk has been transported to another dimension or perhaps into his ship's own past...or perhaps its future. It slowly builds tension and unease over the course of a full half-hour up until the moment Kirk and Odona look out of the portholes and suddenly see the stars transform into thousands of faces staring back at them, a scene which is genuinely unsettling to the point of actually being disturbing. Furthermore, just like the subtle Forteanism of “The Tholian Web”, the Fairy Myth overtones in “Wink of an Eye” and the supernatural horror of “That Which Survives”, the first half of “The Mark of Gideon” is yet another example of Star Trek shifting its approach to science fiction from the pulp and Golden Age tradition to the more fantastic trappings that come to define the genre from here on out, and indeed that the franchise is capable of making this kind of shift at all and living on after Apollo 11. The concept of Kirk having a sense of missing time and a mysterious injury he can't explain is straight out of UFO abductee reports, in particular the case of Betty and Barney Hill.

On the night of September 19, 1961 Betty and Barney Hill were driving through New Hampshire on their way back from a vacation (to, funnily enough, Montréal) when they claimed to have sighted a strange object fly across the face of the Moon that seemed to be tracking them. The object, which the Hills described to be a kind of craft, suddenly came down in front of them, at which point they blacked out and swerved into a roadblock. When they woke up, they were thirty-five miles away from where they were when they crashed and two hours seemed to have passed without them retaining any memory of what happened, though their car was inexplicably damaged and Betty's dress had been torn and stained. For weeks afterward, Betty had reoccurring dreams about being led into the craft they saw land by strange beings, who proceeded to conduct medical tests on them in an effort to determine the difference between the Hills and the people in the craft. Seeking medical help and at the urging of the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena, with whom they had been having regular meetings with, the Hills underwent hypnosis sessions, where they both recalled the events of Betty's dreams. A sketch Betty drew based on her memory of a starmap she saw inside the craft has been used by some UFOlogists as evidence the beings who the Hills encountered originated from the Zeta Reticuli star system.

In many ways the Hill case was one of the events that helped to shift the pop perception of UFOs. Previous sightings had largely been similar to Kenneth Arnold's, where people would observe mysterious objects appear at random in the sky and then vanish after a time (indeed, this is the most common type of UFO sighting dating back to the beginnings of recorded history). With the Hill case, there was something of an unprecedented confluence of tropes and motifs that would define how the phenomenon was interpreted: There was the the contemporaneous theory that UFOs were spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrials, and now they had a physical appearance and a potential point of origin. Also new to the Hill case however was the possibility these aliens could abduct and experiment upon humans, and the Alien Abduction subgenre of UFO accounts was born.

Now, it's not an enormous stretch to see this as an extension of earlier folklore about visits to Fairy realms inhabit by strange, unpredictable and unreadable entities (in fact Jacques Vallée has made a somewhat significant second career out of historicizing these cultural comparisons), and really, UFOs have always been a somewhat mystical and Fortean mystery. It was just the 1940s and 1950s that linked them to rocket science and astrophysics. The point being Star Trek doing a story like this is another great example of the series moving away from its roots and expanding its reach by looking a bit more closely at if not the literal supernatural (Gene Roddenberry would never approve after all), at least the roots of this kind of cultural phenomenon and what it might say about the connection between humans and their larger world, which is really the kind of story this show should be doing.

Except that's not the story “The Mark of Gideon” ends up actually *being*. In an unbearably maddening and frustrating twist, it's revealed not halfway through the episode that the whole thing is an elabourate psychological experiment by the Gideons to, get this, find a way to curb their out of control population problem brought upon by their virtual immortality by selectively culling random members of the populace with a deadly virus Kirk is a carrier for and that Odona was there so Kirk would fall in love with her and be compelled to stay on Gideon as a living blood bank. And it reveals all of this at about the 35 minute mark, leaving the rest of the episode to spin its wheels pointlessly as Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura get caught up to the rest of us in the most tortuously slow fashion imaginable. There are a great many things wrong with this, so let's take them one at a time. First of all, that twist has got to be one of the biggest, most underwhelming letdowns ever: You don't tease us with Betty and Barney Hill in Star Trek and then land us with a clumsy parable about overpopulation. Yeah, the Gideons were probably always going to have to be behind everything, but to really sell this plot they needed to be a lot more alien and mysterious. Instead they look like a bunch of bored city councilmen in a beige meeting hall. Zeta Reticulans these guys ain't.

And furthermore, you kind of have to be really careful when you do an overpopulation story as so many of them tend to be cloaked in blatantly racist overtones as the argument always seems to be about how those ignorant people in Africa need to stop having so many babies and learn about condoms instead of, you know, the fact the Western world dominates the planet's natural resources and has built its entire cultural history on appropriating and exploiting them to the point they thoroughly wreck the whole ecosystem. Miraculously, “The Mark of Gideon” actually manages to not fuck this up, as the Gideons are not space Africans, but a bunch of Old White Men who go on at length about the holiness of all life, and that everyone is a full person and is sacred even from the moment of conception. The Gideons would rather encourage people to voluntarily commit suicide in the most agonizingly painful way imaginable then practice safe sex. In this regard they're more similar to the fundamentalists in Abrahamic religions who are militantly against contraception and abortion rights, and coming down on people like that is pretty laudably brazen move for 1969 (and it does come down on them hard: Kirk condemns the Gideons, in particular what they would do to Odona, who was the first volunteer, and frequently explicitly implores them to relax their hardline stance on contraception).

“The Mark of Gideon” isn't the worst episode of the year, far from it: There's actually a lot to recommend and, once again, the show seems to have its heart in the right place, and the acting and characterization of the main cast is once again where it's supposed to be. But it's also, yet again, a staggeringly incompetent bit of television: The two halves of this story might as well be two different episodes and the justification for reusing the Enterprise set, as good of an idea as it might have been originally, comes across as pretty flimsy in the finished product. A lot of fans complain that this episode doesn't make sense and there are a lot of logical lapses and plot holes, but I actually couldn't pick up on any more than what's sadly become the norm for the show.

No, the big problem with “The Mark of Gideon” is that it shows Star Trek stretched so thin it's starting to fray and crack. It's not going to be able to keep this up for much longer.


  1. Still deeply infatuated with your blog, mate.

    Having not seen this one since I was eleven, I think I might have the preferable experience of it.

    All I can recall is the wonderfully spooky first part, and have absolutely no memory of the resolution.

    And MY, but wasn't it spooky? The release of tension for me when they first come back to Spock et al on the bridge was palpable - only to be replaced by an even greater sense of mystery. The rest of the crew weren't dead and gone, but WHAT THE HELL WAS HAPPENING?

    There's a great tapping in here to childhood fears of being lost in the supermarket, too.

    1. I think that's the virtue of the "images" I was talking about in the context of "The Empath". Stuff like that stays in your mind, remaining hauntingly evocative above and beyond the quality of the original episode. Especially if you saw it at a young age. That's the kind of thing I think makes this kind of show live on so long, far more so than the basic episode-to-episode text.

      Also, that's one of the reasons I get nervous revisiting episodes like "The Empath", and coming up soon, the Animated Series. I'm reasonably confidant the episodes aren't going to live up to the mental landscape they inhabit in my imagination. Thankfully "The Empath" did.

      As I said in the post, I think "The Mark of Gideon" has all the makings of a true classic...for about 35 minutes. But perhaps those 35 minutes were enough.

  2. The faces in the window terrified me as a kid but now I just laugh at how silly it is.

    I do think I can see a fair critique of white Christian conservatives in the leaders of Gideon, though. I don't recall, did they say in the episode whether or not their society featured war at all? Had they grown bored with it? That seems highly unlikely in any emotional creature still tethered to animal instinct.

    It should have been The Mark of Gwydion, Kirk actually abducted along with a random woman and toyed with on an empty ship by another trickster god. Overpopulation's a mug's game.

    1. I don't recall them mentioning war, because the Gideons claim their society is built around happiness and a love of life such that everything and everyone is sacred to them: That's why they're so opposed to contraception and safe sex, because harming a fetus or blastula is tantamount to harming a real person. Which is *very* fundamentalist Christian.

      "It should have been The Mark of Gwydion, Kirk actually abducted along with a random woman and toyed with on an empty ship by another trickster god. Overpopulation's a mug's game."

      You get no disagreement from me on that one.

    2. Though of course the Gideons (and not the Gwydions) are also an evangelical Christian group that goes around giving away free Bibles, so the name makes a kind of sense.

  3. Being fair to 1980s Me, Nimoy's Spock kind of terrified me as well. Why in the world did they do away with his yellow-green tinge? If his blood is green his skin ought to be as well, and so too all Vulcanian-Romulanoids no matter pigment gradient.

    1. I can't answer that, though I would guess it would have something to do with a fear over how people would perceive that kind of face paint in later decades.

  4. shifting its approach to science fiction from the pulp and Golden Age tradition to the more fantastic trappings that come to define the genre from here on out

    I wonder whether you may drawing from a narrow range of samples of pulp and Golden Age sf; because when I look at, e.g., Clark Ashton Smith's Captain Volmar stories in the 30s, Heinlein's more surreal work from the 40s, and James Blish's Cities in Flight stories from the 50s, I have a hard time seeing how it falls short of any fantastic bizzarerie that could be in the offing.

    1. It's true I'm thinking more in terms of Asimov and Clark here, but as they seem to be considered more or less the definitive voices of the era amongst a certain section of the populace, I feel at least a little justified in making generalizations here (and I tackle Blish in due time, no worries).

      Perhaps I should have been more specific: While it's certainly true that the Golden Age writers had a penchant for evocative imagery (as I mentioned when I talked about the Fesarius and again IRT Foundation and James Blish) the kind of fantasy I'm thinking of here is a far more mystical and Fortean style that the Golden Age writers did tend to shy away from.

  5. Great article again Josh thanks, still enjoying your essays as ever - just catching up to the point where I am in sync with you!

    You know, I think there was a massive opportunity missed here by the show - you make the natural link between UFO and Faerie abductions, and particularly the encapsulation of technology around Faerie lore and life - well you may know of the supposed Faerie abduction of a minister and Gaelic scholar in Aberfoyle, Scotland in the 1700's from the local Faerie hill. His name, Reverend Kirk! He wrote a fabulous little book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Faeries recording his abduction, their culture and even technology. If the show was flirting (wonderfully) with the Hill's type of experience, they missed a big thematic link by not following it through.

    1. Unfortunately, massively missing thematic links and opportunities was sort of a trademark of the Fred Freiberger/Arthur Singer era.

      Loving the connection to Reverend Kirk, though! How wonderful would that have been? Actually, what am I saying? You may have given me a story idea...

      Briefly playing the name game myself here, I find "Kirk" comes from the Old Norse "Kirkja", from a Greek word meaning "church". So, Western, but a name also associated heavily with Northern Europe, especially Ireland and Wales ("Newkirk", etc.).

  6. Yeah thanks! Yes from what I have read and half remember there a lot of missed opportunities in this era.

    Great to hear that I have given you a story idea - go for it!

    I was actually going to write about the term 'kirk' in Scotland for churches - an especially nice tie for a Reverend! If you want a good bit of Faerie lore research check out The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz. Sometimes skewed but great document of accounts of localised beliefs around Faerie culture.