Sunday, December 29, 2013

“I love you! I hate you!”: Mudd's Passion

"Hey, baby."
Maybe Harry Mudd just doesn't work.

I would make the argument that when you reach the third of three appearances of a character and still come up with something that can charitably be descibed as a “non-starter”, this might perhaps be the time to call into question whether the character and his signature plots were ever really a good idea to begin with. Except, of course, for the fact that I'm in the minority here. Harcourt Fenton Mudd is one of the most beloved characters from the original Star Trek era despite never once appearing in a halfway decent episode. If I'm tipping my hand early, it's just because “Mudd's Passion” is extremely difficult to work up any enthusiasm for. It's probably the second-weakest episode of the Animated Series I've seen yet, trailing behind “The Lorelei Signal” only because it's not a grotesque train wreck. It's simply bad in a ponderously mediocre way and is, ironically enough, utterly dispassionate.

“Mudd's Passion” begins with a dutiful recitation of Harry Mudd tropes that have already become worn and tired. The Enterprise is once again playing Space Cop and is sent to the Arcadian system to investigate Mudd, who is once again running a scam operation to peddle false promises of romance to horny miners. The script even tries to recycle the “he STOLE a SPACESHIP” joke from “I, Mudd” and to say it didn't work would be being kind (if for no other reason then it gives the key line to Leonard Nimoy instead of William Shatner: Spock is absolutely the wrong person to be the second half of that kind of double act). This time Mudd is selling a love potion he promises is infallible. He gives himself up to Kirk when the miners start to revolt, but once on the ship he tries to sweet talk Nurse Chapel into releasing him from the brig by bribing her with a sample of the love drug for her to use on Spock. So naturally, like an idiot, she agrees. Mudd then mugs her, steals her ID card and takes her hostage as he hijacks a shuttlecraft to escape to a binary star system the ship just discovered. And this one's by the same writer as the Original Series Mudd stories, so we can't lay the blame on someone else not understanding the source material.

At this point, the episode stops being a half-baked rip-off of “Mudd's Women”...and becomes a half-baked rip-off of “The Naked Time” instead as the love potion somehow manages to get into the Enterprise's ventillation system and everyone in the crew starts falling in love with each other. We get a token “we must learn to control our emotions” speech from Kirk after he beams down with Spock to rescue Chapel right in the middle of being chased by Giant Rock Beasts (who are, again, far and away the most interesting things about this episode). This is no more captivating or less problematic than it was last time we saw it, or then it will be in any other of the bafflingly at least three more times Star Trek attempts this story. This script is also unrepentantly heteronormative, anti-trans and a whole host of other nasty things as Mudd's love potion explicitly only works on members of the “opposite sex” and the only reason it avoids being as misogynistic as “Mudd's Women” is because M'Ress is here: Chapel is obviously the weak-willed woman tempted by the sin of her own sexuality because she endangers the ship by releasing Mudd because she wanted to get it on with Spock.

I mean there are some fun things about this one. Roger C. Carmel is back and predictably good, though not as good as he was last time and it was a serious mistake to have him interact with William Shatner as rarely as he does. The love scenes in the back half of the episode are also interesting, as brief and neutered for “children's television” as they are. The Beta Couple is, delightfully, Scotty and M'Ress, which is the sort of thing that is at once only possible through animation and also something one doesn't typically expect to see outside of fanfiction, but this episode just blatantly goes with it and it's amazing. Also speaking of fanfiction, once Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet to chase after Chapel and Mudd they start acting very emotional and talk about how close and important they are to each other, which was something that just had to have been put in to tease the shippers. This also makes the moment a few scenes later when, feeling the effects of the drug's “hangover” (which balances a few hours of intense love with a few more of intense hatred) Kirk starts to snap at Spock for being unable to keep his hands of Chapel also amusing: Do I detect a hint of jealousy there?

Back on the ship things are no less intriguing: Apart from Scotty and M'Ress, the crew seem to mostly be flirting with each other instead of just with “the last member of the opposite sex they touched”, which was what the drug was supposed to do. Mudd has essentially turned the entire ship into a giant love-in orgy, which is fantastic. But the person who hands down wins the episode is McCoy. In the rec room while trying to impress a young female Lieutenant, he ends up delivering what is actually one of the most memorable speeches I've heard on the show yet:

Did I ever tell you about the time I saved Captain Kirk's life? Or Spock's? And my dear friend Scotty. And that pretty little Lieutenant Uhura. I've saved just about everybody on this here ship. If the Enterprise had a heart, I'd save her too. Now, let's talk about your heart, my dear.

Apart from that last eye-rolling pick up attempt, this is actually a really lovely and heartfelt moment, and DeForest Kelley sells the heck out of it. I think this is the first time we've seen any sort of exploration into McCoy's own personality and motivation, at the very least since “The Empath”. In this quote, McCoy truly sees himself as a healer and lifesaver, someone whose job it is to protect and look after people who have become his close friends through many long years of service with them. He even goes so far as to suppose the Enterprise herself might have a heart, and if she did he'd take care of it. And he does, because he's it: He's the ship's moral conscience. It's a staggeringly good bit of dialog that stands apart from an otherwise eminently forgettable episode.

But it's not enough to save “Mudd's Passion”. None of the few good (and they are genuinely good) moments are. The orgy, delightful as it is, simply isn't anywhere near as effective as it is in something like “Wolf in the Fold” because we're right back in that “emotions are bad” quagmire from the first season of the Original Series. The way some of the cast play around with gender roles and sexuality is fun and to be commended, but it doesn't work as well here as it does in even something like “Turnabout Intruder” because the rest of the episode is so ridiculously sexist. Even by the standards of Harry Mudd episodes this comes up short because while it was ultimately something of a hot mess there was a lot to recommend in “I, Mudd”'s goofball earnest Vaudeville routine, especially anytime Shatner and Carmel were onscreen together. This one doesn't even have that, the other stuff can't keep it afloat and the predictable Harry Mudd misogyny seals it.

It's exceedingly difficult to critique an episode like this because for one thing it's so short and for another pretty much everything that's bad about it is stuff Star Trek has tripped up on before. There's simply too many of these episodes with not enough unique tropes and motifs between them. “Mudd's Passion” is another example of a middling-to-poor episode redeemed by Star Trek's outstanding cast, but that's no longer enough to get a pass from me, especially given the Animated Series standard of quality and especially given the last two weeks. It's not enough to put the series in a dangerous position, but equally it doesn't really leave me a lot of material to sink my teeth into. It just sort of there, which I guess means this is another filler week for the show.


  1. Mudd is (sadly) liked enough that the writers of Stargate Atlantis wrote 2 episodes with a very similar character in Season 4.

  2. I've always felt the way to do a proper Harry Mudd story was "The Outrageous Okona". It's an episode that I feel like may be derided as a least favorite, but it's just how a rakish space pirate ought to be played - against expectations. Carmel is a fantastic actor and Harry Mudd is a spectacular fop but his schemes are always so pedestrian. I've only ever really loved him for occupying a "type" of tropish, Pulpy role that not many others in Trek ever occupied.

    But if you're going to be that kind of rogue, you probably ought to look like you walked off the cover of a romance novel.

    I love M'Ress, though, and hope we get an opportunity to really delve into discussing her merits.

    1. I too am a fan of "The Outrageous Okona". It's a fun story, one of the most memorable episodes from that season to me and the guest star literally makes the episode: He's such a fascinating guy.

      Ditto about M'Ress. I like her a lot, but I haven't found much of an opportunity to actually discuss her at length yet.