Tuesday, December 31, 2013

“Hello, little teeny-tiny people!”: The Terratin Incident

I'm really running out of Godzilla jokes to make here at this point.

The first, most immediately startling thing about “The Terratin Incident” is that it was written by Paul Schneider. The same person behind the flagrantly and angrily anti-war “Balance of Terror”, “The Squire of Gothos” as well as the first draft of the equally anti-authoritarian “Patterns of Force” is now penning a story where the Enterprise crew gets zapped with cosmic rays and shrunk down to less than an inch tall in order to rescue a civilization of equally miniscule individuals.

This is, obviously, not at all the sort of thing we would expect from Schneider. It's also his weakest contribution by far, and as tempting (and easy) as it would be to chalk this up to good writers having bad days and leave it at that, the fact is, like so much of the Animated Series, “The Terratin Incident” isn't actually bad. It has a few especially egregious moments, but there's actually a few interesting things going on here. It's another example of an episode indicative of the positive direction Star Trek is heading in.

The key here is in the final shot where Kirk describes the Terratins, descendents of a colony of Earth explorers who have evolved into a new species thanks to prolonged exposure to the stature-diminishing rays of the planet their ancestors landed on, as Lilliputians. The entire episode is a version of Gulliver's Travels with a great deal of science fiction shenanigans thrown in for good measure. This makes sense, as Schneider and D.C. Fontana built this episode around a one-paragraph brief from Gene Roddenberry, who was well known for his admiration of Jonathan Swift's masterpiece, as well as for his cataclysmic misunderstanding of said masterpiece.

Roddenberry frequently described his ham-handedly didactic version of the original Star Trek as Gulliver's Travels in Space while Swift's original is well known as a work of political and social satire. The hook of the original novel is that Gulliver espouses a different viewpoint of the inhabitants of the land he visits in each section, which is then mirrored and exaggerated by the inhabitants of the land he visits in the next section. So, for example, while Gulliver sees the Lilliputians as inherently aggressive, the Brobdingnagians he visits in the next section (who are giants compared to Gulliver) sees humanity as equally aggressive. The joke then being, of course, any good idea or plan can go bad at some point and humans are inherently shitty at organising themselves, also evidenced by Gulliver's growing hardness and cynicism throughout the book. The hook of Gene Roddenberry's version of Gulliver's Travels is that the Enterprise goes around and runs into a bunch of civilizations based around one single gimmick and then tells them why blind adherence to that gimmick is self-destructive and unnatural and how everyone would be better off living under a Western-style representative democracy.

But while “The Terratin Incident” may be a *literal* Gulliver's Travels in Space, as has become the norm for the Animated Series this is considerably played around with to an intriguing degree. The crucial thing about this version of the story is that it's the Terratins, who as Kirk helpfully reminds us at the end are stand-ins for the Lilliputians, are in fact in the right here. Kirk throws a big fit about them turning their shrink ray on the Enterprise and beaming his crew down without permission, but as the Terratins point out, this was the only form of communication available to them and their planet was literally breaking up around them and they needed to find some way to call for help.

Read this way, the size difference is also another metaphor for privilege blindness: This time it's the Enterprise crew who are unable to hear the voices of others because of their perspective. So, while the episode is not quite a reiteration of Gulliver's Travels as the alternation of viewpoints is integral to conveying the book's central point, it *is* a reiteration of half of the book's core structure and, crucially, it's the half that Roddenberry spectacularly failed to pick up on (although to be fair, it's also the half most people only casually familiar with Gulliver's Travels fail to pick up on too). Thus, “The Terratin Incident” is another attempt by the Animated Series to fix Star Trek by re-examining its central tenets and assumptions, and a rather laudably cheeky one at that as it takes a pot-shot at the show's original pitch by inverting the structure it operated under.

This is all well and good, but the problem is “The Terratin Incident” isn't quite as good at this as “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” was, and this is largely because it saves all the interesting stuff 'till the last third of the episode. The rest of the runtime is taken up by the rapidly-shrinking Enterprise crew trying to figure out what's happening and how to adjust to it. This is a plot so stock I would expect it to show up on Space Ghost (in fact now that I think of it it might well have) and, the be blunt, this kind of story just does not interest me in the slightest. I find it both juvenile and boring. I can barely tolerate it in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that's one of my two favourite books of all time.

This episode also features the singular moment where Nurse Chapel finally stops being a potentially interesting character and fully transforms into the token chick she was probably always destined to be: After Sulu breaks his arm stupidly trying to fire phasers at Terratin to stop the shrink ray, Chapel eagerly volunteers to go get a microscope part that she figures will work similar to their bone-knitting device. In the process of doing so she doesn't watch where she's going (which sort of seems hard to do if you're less than an inch tall, but maybe that's just me) and trips and falls into the fish tank. Chapel apparently never learned how to swim, because she stupidly flails around for about five minutes until Kirk has to rescue her with a bit of recycled running animation, after which he basically tells her “No more independent thinking from you, young lady!”, to which Chapel sheepishly giggles and demurely returns to her proper post. Watching this era of Star Trek really gives me new respect for Lwaxana Troi and what she did for Barrett's career and legacy.

I will grant the space adventure part of the episode a few things. For one it's not a terrible idea to have what appears to be a standard adventure plot undone at the end by a plot twist, I mean that's a fair approach to critically writing the kind of show Star Trek is at this point. And they do go out of their way to try and explain the shrinking stuff in scientific terms (or at least terms that sound plausibly scientific at first glance) with Spock's lengthy explanation of contracting DNA strands or whatever. “The Terratin Incident” really does break new ground for technobabble. I guess my issue with it, and everything about this story, really, is that I'm not sure this kind of plot really belongs here. This sounds more like something that would go near the beginning of the second season of the Original Series, not in a season that's already given us “Beyond the Farthest Star”, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” and even “Once Upon a Planet” if you're inclined to swing the same way I am on that episode. It's a problematization of Star Trek's original premise, and no matter how good and welcome that might have been at one time we're sort of beyond where it might have been appropriate to see it: “The Terratin Incident” sort of feels like it missed its moment to be relevant to me: Star Trek's clearly not going anywhere at this point and there's not a whole lot else to recommend about the episode as it exists where it exists.

But “The Terratin Incident” is also where we say goodbye to Paul Schneider. Of whom, what else do you want me to say? He wrote one of my two favourite episodes of the Original Series, and one of the only two I'd call flawless. He also wrote the clever “The Squire of Gothos” and had a hand in “Patterns of Force”, which was also staggeringly brilliant. Perhaps in hindsight some of the genius of those episodes was also due to Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon tweaking them, and “Patterns of Force” at least was technically written by John Meredyth Lucas. But that only means he needed some help to adapt his work for Star Trek, and as I've said before, Star Trek is actually unbelievably hard to write and write *properly*. Even a storied writer like Jerome Bixby needed help with Star Trek, so that's hardly something to hold against Schneider. Especially as the future will demonstrate that it's scripts like Schneider's are the ones that are the real models Star Trek aspires to in its finest moments.


  1. Replies
    1. That's the comment I was planning to make as I was reading this!

  2. Right from her first appearance, I've always had considerable respect for Lwaxana Troi. Her episodes were always among my favourite doses of comedy in a narrative style that could sometimes feel sterile.

    1. As a younger man, particularly as a kid, I couldn't stand her. Hated. Skipped every episode. Now they tend to be episodes I look forward to - right on into DS9. Her later stuff in particular, suddenly turned into properly powerful emotionally resonant stuff.

      Many of us grow to love friskier older women, I suppose.