Sunday, December 15, 2013

“I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman...”: The Lorelei Signal

Uhura and Chapel decide to quit the Enterprise and form an alt rock outfit.
For the fourth episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, D.C. Fontana and her team brings back Original Series veteran Margaret Armen for the first of two contributions to the new show. “The Lorelei Signal” concerns a planet of women with hypnotic powers over men who, in the manner of Sirens (or really, the Rhine Maidens from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen) lure starships to their world so they can drain the life force of their male crewmembers in order to remain eternally young and beautiful.

There is nothing in the above paragraph that evokes hope, inspiration, wonderousness or anything that embodies goodness or joy.

Margaret Armen is the single worst writer of the original Star Trek. At least Gene Roddenberry started to redeem himself a bit at the end with “Turnabout Intruder”, “Assignment: Earth” wasn't entirely unwatchable and there were some good bits in the part of the first season he oversaw. Armen, however, is some kind of Dark Mirror of D.C. Fontana: She's the only other woman writer to contribute more than two scripts during this period, and she regularly struggles with issues of representation such that it overshadows every other aspect of her work. Both “The Gamesters of Triskelion” and “The Paradise Syndrome” are serious contenders for the title of worst Star Trek story ever, or at least worst in the Original Series just on structural terms. That's not even getting into her aforementioned terrible track record on representation: The depiction of Native Americans in the latter episode was absolutely inexcusable. The only thing remotely positive she's been associated with was “The Cloud Minders”, which was already far from perfect, and she still only wrote the teleplay in that case and was working off a Dave Gerrold/Oliver Crawford joint venture.

Of all the writers to bring back, I cannot begin to fathom why Armen was anywhere near the top of the list. She's not even the second-best or second most-experienced woman writer we've seen so far, if that's what the team was going for: I can't come up with a single conceivable reason not to give Shari Lewis, Judy Burns, Joyce Muskat or even Jean Lisette Aroeste a couple more shots before bringing Margaret Armen back. But maybe I'm being too harsh on her: Perhaps freed from the constraints of the Original Series and with D.C. Fontana's help Armen is going to be allowed to blossom here. Except no, forget that, because “The Lorelei Signal” is another crateringly awful disaster. The key twist is that the women hypnotize and suck the life out of the men because they're trapped on a planet that causes rapid aging while giving women inexplicable and ill-defined powers over men. So obviously this was the only course of action available to them. Also, they feel their immortal lives are shallow and meaningless because while they have eternal youth they're rendered unable to bear children. If I didn't know better I'd swear this drivel was dreamed up by the the most defiantly and proudly retrograde misogynistic scumball man to ever haunt Hollywood. But no. A woman came up with this. I'm completely and utterly at a loss.

Incidentally, I'm also at a loss to explain the Rhine Maiden stuff. It would have been just as easy, hell, easier to just flat-out call the women in this story Sirens. Why was it necessary to randomly evoke the Ring Cycle? Just like she did in “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, Armen is once insultingly oversimplifying an aspect of Germanic folklore: Wagner has as much to do with Germanic heathenism as Tinkerbell has to do with Celtic mythology, which leads me to the rather astonishing conclusion that Armen had some sort of bizarrely specific motif of badly misreading Northern European traditions and making her stories needlessly and distractingly complicated and confusing.

“The Lorelei Signal” is so deathly uninspiring that the majority of the cast practically didn't even bother to show up. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley deliver the most painfully phoned in and apathetic performances I have ever seen from them and don't even attempt to sell the rapid aging Kirk, Spock and McCoy are subjected to here. Even in “The Deadly Years”, from which this episode cribs rather blatantly, those three at least managed to make the aged versions of their characters somewhat entertaining. Here they don't even try: It actually sounds like they're all on the verge of falling asleep. Majel Barrett too delivers yet another unremarkable turn here, but this time I'm less willing to forgive her because in this case it's a serious problem that gets in the way of the episode's effectiveness (I mean, such as it is). There are almost a dozen female characters in this episode, Barrett ends up voicing almost all of them and she is patently not skilled enough to pull this off. As a result, all of her characters end up sounding literally identical and none of them have identifiable personalities including Nurse Chapel, who's supposed to have a major role in this episode. The only time Barrett is allowed to actually emote is, of course, the scene where Chapel cries over what's happened to Spock.

There are only two people in the entire production who seem to give a damn about this story, not counting Armen herself. One is James Doohan, who is predictably amazing. The few non-regular male voices we get to hear are of course him, and his performances and Barrett's are an exercise in contrast. The subtle, dreamlike preoccupation Doohan affords Scotty as he starts to be entranced by the signal is simply masterful, and is on par with absolutely anything Leonard Nimoy ever did with Spock. The other person is Nichelle Nichols: It's here where “The Lorelei Signal” becomes a kind of Curate's Egg, because Uhura gets to carve out the meatiest role she'll ever have in the entire franchise, brazenly relieving Scotty of duty and taking command of the Enterprise herself. Uhura gets more material than any other character and even gets to record her own Captain's Log entries.

And Nichols just runs wild with it, delivering every bit of a commanding and inspiring performance as anyone else who has ever played a starship captain and decisively proving how disgracefully wasted she was in the Original Series. The scene in the climax where she leads an all-female SWAT team of security officers to storm the alien Rhine Maidens' temple phasers blazing demanding the release of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is poetry in motion and should be seen as one of the most iconic moments of this period of the franchise. And it's Uhura who gets to resolve the plot, getting the entire denouement to herself pointing out the solution that should have been screaming obvious from the start: Just move the Rhine Maidens to another planet and offer Federation assistance to relocate them.

But maddeningly, and sadly, this still isn't good enough. Despite how hard Nichols is clearly trying, the script doesn't allow Uhura and Chapel to come up with any ideas on their own after they initially figure out what's going on: They have to wait for Kirk, Spock and McCoy to advise them on what to do and don't make any decisions without their input first. Appallingly, the Enterprise even has gender-segregated specialty divisions now too (as Uhura makes reference to a “women's science team” and a “women's engineering”) which goes completely against absolutely everything women have loved about Star Trek from the beginning and the utopian vision they saw in it. Essentially Armen is telling us that Girl Power is all well and good, but ultimately women will never be able to break out of their designated social roles and the only progress they can hope for is to cheekily play around with the hand they've been dealt. She's writing her characters in precisely the way I praised Diana Muldaur for not acting in “Return to Tomorrow”: Armen's women are the sisters the boys begrudgingly bring along with them on their adventures because their moms told them to. They're the girls just happy the boys let them play with them for a bit, even if it means playing the neglected, subservient, vestigial support role.

This sort of thing really rankles me. Aside from being a flat-out betrayal of just about everything I love about Star Trek and pointedly retrograde, it's offensive to me on a personal level. Female role models have always been extremely important to me, to the point the vast majority of my heroes and idols are women. I adored Star Trek because it was one of the only places on television or books or whatever where women were unabashedly and unquestionably treated as equals. I know it isn't always like this and certainly on more than one occasion the show simply pays hollow lip service to feminist issues, but the fact remains the bits of Star Trek that *are* feminist are good enough to solidify feminism as a major and important part of the franchise's legacy. Representation issues get to me, and to see Star Trek of all things flounder around with gender issues gets to me in particular. It can do so much better. It *should* do so much better.

Really what this all does is make me feel genuinely sorry for Margaret Armen. I can't imagine the scope of the internalized misogyny issues she must have been dealing with to crank out a story this weighed down by reactionary anti-feminism, and for something like Star Trek no less. A convincing case could be made that “The Lorelei Signal” is her worst outing so far, and that's saying a *lot* when we're talking about the person responsible for “The Gamesters of Triskelion” and “The Paradise Syndrome”. And this was an episode Armen said she had fun writing. Jesus. Aside from Nichols' admittedly brilliant turn, the only positive thing to take from this episode is the knowledge that, for the first time, we can safely disregard a Margaret Armen story without fear the show's going to be permanently derailed. The first three episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series were stellar enough that even the sad tale of Margaret Armen isn't enough to kill its momentum.

And next time the series gets to revisit one of Star Trek's greatest triumphs.


  1. It's a sort of nitpick, but I'm curious why you aren't using the Production Order to analyze The Animated Series. Ultimately either way serves, and I'm sure whatever additional context we might get by analyzing these stories in "order created" is negligible, or at least equivalent to the context of "order in which they entered the pop vernacular."

    But what interests me about the Production Order is where it begins (with our next episode). We have two out of three of the first three episodes acting as sequels to the more popular Original Series episodes, along with one written by Walter Koenig himself. They really front-loaded Season 1 of TAS with the proper fan-bait material.

    1. I am, or at least, I thought I was? From what I gathered, the production order and airdate order for the Animated Series was much closer than the one for the Original Series, with only a few episodes out of place.

      Maybe Memory Alpha is wrong here?

    2. Looks like you're right: Production number and airdate number *do* seem to be quite different. I guess I was tripped up because the wiki pages don't actually list them in that order like they do for some of the other shows.


      Well, I will say had I started with tomorrow's episode rather than "Beyond the Farthest Star" I would have been significantly less enthusiastic and positive about the Animated Series. Not that it's bad, mind it's just...well, I'll leave that for tomorrow.

  2. in the manner of Sirens (or really, the Rhine Maidens from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

    Or, well, Heine's actual Lorelei, which predates Wagner's Ring.

    Why was it necessary to randomly evoke the Ring Cycle?

    See above.

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