Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“They live, we sleep.”: The Cloud Minders

"My beloved, let's get down to business/Mental self defense fitness"
Well. This, I did not expect.

There are quite possibly no bedfellows stranger than Dave Gerrold, Oliver Crawford and Margaret Armen. Gerrold is at this point still an energetic young Star Trek fan and beginning writer, albeit one who, with the help of Gene Coon, penned arguably the single greatest episode of the Original Series. Crawford was an experienced Hollywood screenwriter who miraculously recovered his career after being blacklisted for refusing to disclose names of supposed communist sympathizers, but his only Star Trek credits have been co-writing “The Galileo Seven” with Shimon Wincelberg and somewhat misreading Gene Coon in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. Armen, meanwhile, is one of my least favourite writers in the entire series and a compelling candidate for one of the worst as well, with the two spectacular turkeys that were “The Gamesters of Triskelion” and “The Paradise Syndrome” to her name. The prospect of a story jointly written by all three of these wildly disparate talents is quite frankly inconceivable. But hey, we got Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop last week, so stranger things have happened.

Actually, “The Lights of Zetar” is a good point of comparison because like it, “The Cloud Minders” is absolutely a flawed masterpiece, which took me completely by surprise: This one is properly excellent. I mean, it's not perfect-It has some worryingly serious flaws which, although customary for the third season, are still really annoying and keep “The Cloud Minders” from completely going the distance. But there are moments of genuine greatness in this story, and it crackles with an energy and passion the show hasn't seen since John Meredyth Lucas was running the show. This is most likely the part of the episode inherited from Gerrold, who wrote the original story pitch, entitled “Castles in the Sky”. Thankfully from my perspective, Gerrold gave a quite lengthy and detailed comment about the differences between his story and the episode that made it to air in his book The World of Star Trek, which both gives me ample fodder for discussion and saves me having to summarise the plot:

"It was intended as a parable between the haves and the have-nots, the haves being the elite who are removed from the realities of everyday life – they live in their floating sky cities. The have-nots were called "Mannies" (for Manual Laborers) and were forced to live on the surface of the planet where the air was denser, pressure was high, and noxious gases made the conditions generally unlivable. The Mannies torn between two leaders, one a militant, and one a Martin Luther King figure. (Mind you, this was in 1968, shortly after King was assassinated, and just before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.)

In my original version, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Uhura were captured by the Mannies when their shuttlecraft was shot down by a missile. (The Enterprise desperately needed dilithium crystals. This planet was one of the Federation's biggest suppliers, and Kirk's concern was to restore the flow of crystals. He didn't care who worked the mines, just that the supply was not interrupted. The shuttlecraft was necessary because I felt that the crystals might be too dense for the transporter.) In the process of the story, Kirk realizes that unless living conditions for the Mannies are improved, the situation can never be stabilized.

Because Uhura has been injured in the shuttlecraft crash, McCoy starts treating her in a Mannie hospital. But he is so appalled at the condition of the other patients there, especially the children suffering from high-pressure disease, that he begins treating them as well. Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock have convinced their captors to let them go up to the sky city and try to negotiate a settlement to the local crisis.

The story focused primarily on the lack of communication between the skymen and the Mannies. Kirk's resolution of the problem was to force the two sides into negotiation. He opened the channels of communication with a phaser in his hand. 'You –sit there! You –sit there! Now, talk!' And that's all he does. He doesn't solve the problem himself, he merely provides the tools whereby the combatants can seek their own solutions, a far more moral procedure.

In the end, as the Enterprise breaks orbit, Kirk remarks on this, as if inaugurating the problem-solving procedure is the same as solving the problem. He pats himself on the back and says, 'We've got them talking. It's just a matter of time until they find the right direction.' And McCoy who is standing right next to him, looks at him and says, 'Yes, but how many children will die in the meantime?'

This answer was not a facile one; the viewer was meant to be left as uneasy as Kirk.

– But in the telecast version, the whole problem was caused by Zenite gas in the mines, and 'if we can just get them troglytes to all wear gas masks, then they'll be happy little darkies and they'll pick all the cotton we need...'

Somehow, I think it lost something in the translation."

Gerrold might not have liked the finished product, and he certainly has a right to as “The Cloud Minders” *is* significantly different from “Castles in the Sky” in a number of important respects. However (and acknowledging how weird it is for me to be in the position of defending Margaret Armen), I think Gerrold is missing some crucial nuances of the final script that not only make it far more progressive and interesting than he grants, but in my opinion actually improves on his original story in some areas.

The first thing is that it was probably a mistake to do this overt an allegory for racism: For one thing it's doubtful to me that NBC would have allowed something this pointed through, especially this year and coming so soon after the hand-wringing over “Plato's Stepchildren” (not to mention the fact NBC had a vested interest in killing Star Trek off by this point). Secondly however, the thing about Gerrold is that he's not particularly known for his subtlety when it comes to hot-button political issues. It's not that Gerrold doesn't have his heart in the right place or that the issues he's interested in aren't important and worth being overtly critical about, it's just that he sometimes has trouble wrapping that all up into a functional story and, like a lot of people who write about Big Important Things, he frustratingly frequently doesn't have the broad-scope understanding of sociocultural and historical factors necessary to give the issues the kind of serious overview they deserve. “The Trouble with Tribbles” started as a very overt criticism of introduced species before Coon helped mould it into the masterpiece it became, and this is eventually going to come back to bite Gerrold big time when he tries to Say Something Important about AIDS and “the plight of the gays” on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

(Incidentally, the other problem with the kind of brief “Castles in the Sky” was is that this isn't actually the way you go about addressing racism, or sexism or homphobia or any other kind of institutionalized oppression for that matter, in Star Trek, but that's a discussion best saved for another day).

So we can probably safely assume that without the necessary help (which Gerrold certainly would not have gotten six weeks before Star Trek got canceled), it's altogether possible “Castles in the Sky” would have ended up an ethical trainwreck, especially as in the final episode both the Stratosians and the Troglytes are depicted as mixed ethnic societies. But of all the issues “The Cloud Minders” has (and it has a number of them), the fact that it's “heavy-handed” is far from problematic. In fact, it's a virtue: The finished episode is extremely blunt and upfront about what it's saying but, and full credit to Armen and Crawford here, what it largely avoids is being carelessly heavy-handed. The primary difference between it and Gerrold's original submission is that instead of being a parable about slavery and racial inequality, “The Cloud Minders” is a straightforwardly Marxist criticism of division of labour and the dehumanizing effects of industrial late-stage capitalism on a workforce that is so beaten down and exploited they may as well be slaves. And the episode is absolutely brilliant because of that.

In spite of Gerrold's complaint that adding the technobabble explanation about the gas temporarily inhibiting mental faculties removing the episode's sense of social commentary, I find “The Cloud Minders” to be quite explicitly making a very clear point about social justice: The Stratosians are absolutely Western capitalist producers profiting off of an oppressed working class, the Disrupters are absolutely a workers' revolt, and the episode absolutely wants us to side with them. Vanna is unquestionably the episode's hero, and Kirk and Spock become sympathetic to her almost immediately as soon as they learn the truth about the way Ardanan society is structured. Kirk in particular is written on the whole magnificently here: He's willing to go against the direct orders of Starfleet Command and the Stratosian government to ensure the Troglytes receive justice and vindication, as he flat-out refuses to allow the Federation to be complicit in or benefit from their exploitation. And, of course, William Shatner leaps at the opportunity, infusing Kirk with a truly magnetic sense of righteous anger.

Also, the gas plot in my opinion helps the story more than it hurts it. Rather than taking the blame away from Ardanan's exploitative society by giving it a technical explanation, I think it emphasizes how the Troglytes are victims of the social stratification industrialization naturally brings. The Stratosians force them to mine in toxic working conditions that are not only visibly harmful to their health and well-being, but that also deny them access to the education and aesthetic luxuries the ruling class enjoys, thus reinforcing their dependency on the system and keeping them from organising themselves to strike back. In this regard I am inclined to excuse Vanna and the other Troglytes not knowing about the existence of the gas and betraying Kirk in the mines: Keeping the workers uneducated, or just educated enough so they don't ask too many questions, is a key tool of the oppressors who know an ignorant workforce is a complicit workforce (although it maybe would have helped for the Stratosians to know about the gas beforehand). Furthermore, Vanna had absolutely no reason to trust anyone who wasn't a fellow Troglyte, let alone someone like Kirk, who works for Starfleet: An organisation that explicitly enjoys material benefits from its alliance with Stratos, which, along with Ardanan more generally, is a society built on the subjugation of people like Vanna.

That said, this does lead to one of the biggest problem moments in “The Cloud Minders”, during the scene where Kirk traps himself and Vanna underground by causing a cave-in, then having Spock beam Plasus to their location. Kirk forces them both to dig to prove the existence of the gas. It's unnecessarily cruel and goes against the heart and soul of the rest of the episode: Not only would it have been significantly less awkward and tone-deaf had that scene been tweaked so Kirk just abducted Plasus to make him see and experience for himself the squalor he forced Vanna and her people to live and work in, it would have made a lot more sense and been far more effective too. There was no need to humiliate Vanna further. I do, however, very much enjoy how Kirk and Plasus quickly and obviously succumb to the gas' effects and try to tear each others' throats out (and Shatner is, predictably, masterful at portraying Kirk's artificially heightened emotional state) while Vanna remains rational, level-headed and cogent.

(This is the big problem with this episode in general in my view: There are an unpleasant number of noticeably crap scenes that weigh down an otherwise terrific story: Another one is the bit earlier on in the guest room where Kirk wrestles Vanna to the bed as she tries to kidnap him, then leans over her while he says he's quite enjoying the whole situation, which is more than a little eye-rolling.)

Speaking of Vanna, she's positively stellar. She's a perfect protagonist for this story and is everything Lokai in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” wasn't: She's not a charismatic, populist revolutionary figurehead, she's an angry, brutal and venom-spitting oppressed worker woman who's had enough and is taking her destiny into her own hands no matter what the cost or who stands in her way. She's also a shrewd tactician and confidant, competent leader for her people and unquestionably an equal to Kirk, as the brilliant and mesmerizing Charlene Polite goes out of her way to make her so even when the script doesn't always afford her that opportunity. She's in the league of people like Daras and Diana Muldaur's characters; Simply one of the greatest female characters in the Original Series. And, perhaps most importantly, she wins: Far from what Gerrold says about how the resolution to the gas problem will mean the Troglytes will capitulate and “pick all the cotton we need”, Vanna explicitly states that this “is only the beginning” of her demands, and Plasus complains about how now all the Troglytes will be just as “ungrateful” and “uncooperative” as she is, to which both Vanna and Kirk emphatically agree. And, most deliciously, it is Vanna who puts an end to the heated argument between Kirk and Plasus in the denouement, stepping in as the mediating voice of reason.

And although her relationship with Kirk is neither entirely unproblematic nor as overt or meaningful as some of his other dalliances, it does remain an important one. In fact, the way the cast gets divided here is quite intriguing, and it even manages to introduce some not entirely unwelcome minor criticism of Star Trek's own ethics. Spock spends a lot of the episode interacting with Plasus' daughter Droxine, and the two seem to share an obvious mutual attraction. Droxine is very much a pampered aesthete, and this has allowed her the freedom to pursue academic and artistic interests in a way someone like Vanna would never have had the opportunity to. This is why Droxine and Spock get on so well, as they both very much admire the other's commitment to logic and artistic expression. Spock, the character who so often tries to remain cool and distant and above petty and unhelpful human frailties like “emotion”, is a natural fit for Stratos, although, importantly, he is also one of the first to condemn Stratos' oppressive treatment of the Troglytes, and it's telling Droxine does eventually turn against her father after spending time with Spock (he is, after all, first officer of the Enterprise).

Kirk, meanwhile, mostly interacts with Vanna and spends a lot of time getting literally down and dirty in the mines. Because of this, “The Cloud Minders” allows us to see a side of Kirk the show hasn't really explored since D.C. Fontana wrote it into “The Ultimate Computer”: Kirk is once again the working-class spaceman here, and it's perfectly fitting that he be the one to ally himself with Vanna and take on the Troglytes' cause with her. The split between Spock and Kirk may be somewhat muted in contrast to some of the other motifs the episode works with, but it does very clearly mirror the split between Droxine and Vanna, and it's an indictment of Star Trek's occasional tendency to privilege intellect and intelligence at the expense of equality and material social progress (think back on how many hyper evolved beings of pure thought we've run into, or indeed all those Roddenberry-esque logic vs. emotions debates). And, once again, it's another set of one-off romances I unabashedly champion and really wish weren't one off: Spock and Droxine and Kirk and Vanna are perfect matches for one another.

There are, of course, other problems with “The Cloud Minders”, mostly structural ones: It once again feels padded at times (complete with entire dialog exchanges recycled wholesale) and the characterization is once again inconsistent scene to scene, which is really a problem when you're trying to do a story this morally and politically charged. But, sadly, this is sort of the thing you have to expect when you get Margaret Armen to write your teleplay, a writer not exactly known for her exquisite and boundless competence. But this remains the best story she's been associated with to date by far, and the fact she and Oliver Crawford were able to take a Dave Gerrold brief and not only not totally screw it up but arguably make it a little bit better in some respects really has to be commended. This episode manages to do a story about oppression without falling into the repugnant moral equivalency of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (well, mostly-the scene in the mine is still rather distasteful). In fact, “The Cloud Minders” is very possibly the most boldly and brazenly forward-thinking Star Trek has been since “Mirror, Mirror” and “Patterns of Force”. Furthermore, it feels noticeably less restrained and far more comfortable about its stance here than it has recently, and that makes a huge difference on the overall impact it leaves. And, while it's still burdened by the usual raft of season three problems, I'm confidant enough to call it a highlight of the year, and maybe the entire show. I mean, where else are you going to get unfiltered Marxism on primetime television?

I only wish it had come along a little sooner.


  1. A true favorite. Of course, some time later DS9 pretty much one-ups it ... with time travel and a contemporary spotlight. And the rest of the cast really has very little to do. But this is a champion example of a "Kirk and Spock" story and probably one of the ones that really cements the narrow focus on those two in the Pop psyche where Star Trek is concerned.

    It always feels right when Kirk plays the working-class hero. He's from Iowa, he only works in space. But more than that, Shatner is himself very working-class in origin, and every time they bring Kirk closer to Shatner, time and time again, things feel perfectly suited.

    1. IMO DS9 one-ups it not just in "Past Tense" but all over the place in its first two years with the troubled history and culture of Bajor. And actually, TNG could have beaten it to the punch in its first season (and pre-empted the 90s problematization of the Federation to boot) had Tasha Yar been the character she was originally supposed to be. But of course, it's episodes like this that give Star Trek the ethical groundwork and backbone it needs to go on to do things like that.

      Naturally, I completely agree about Shatner-as-Kirk. This is the perfect kind of story for him.

  2. the haves being the elite who are removed from the realities of everyday life – they live in their floating sky cities. The have-nots were called "Mannies" (for Manual Laborers) and were forced to live on the surface of the planet where the air was denser, pressure was high, and noxious gases made the conditions generally unlivable

    Didn't I recently see this with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster?

  3. a straightforwardly Marxist criticism of division of labour and the dehumanizing effects of industrial late-stage capitalism on a workforce that is so beaten down and exploited

    It always bugs me to see this sort of idea called Marxist, as though it weren't an established idea well before Marx.

    1. Well yes, but in the case of this episode the approach to division of labour seems decidedly Marxist to me. At the very least, it's the mentality the show's writers would almost certainly have been working under.