Sunday, December 22, 2013

“I wanna be big!”: The Infinite Vulcan

"I give you...SPOCK!"
“The Infinite Vulcan” is Walter Koenig's sole contribution to the Animated Series, and if absolutely nothing else it's solid evidence Star Trek's cast by in large tends to have a good idea about what the franchise's virtues are, whether or not other creative figures do. Koenig was actually working on this script as early as the end of the Original Series, and it was one of those things that D.C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry thought would be a great idea to dig up as soon as the new show took off, just like “More Tribbles, More Troubles”.

The plot is one of the stranger ones we've seen so far in the Animated Series, and that's counting the one about the giant space-cloud-cow that eats solar systems that the Enterprise tries to give indigestion. While exploring an uncharted planet, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Sulu discover a civilization of hyper-intelligent sentient plants called Phylosians. While they at first seem friendly, reviving Sulu after a chance encounter with local toxins, it is soon revealed they have ulterior motives as they kidnap Spock at the behest of their “Master”, a fifty foot tall clone of a former Eugenics Warlord by the name of Stavos Keniclius 5. Keniclius is determined to forcibly impose peace on a what he considers a galaxy in turmoil, and in Spock's mastery of Vulcan logic and human emotion and intuition he sees the perfect model by which to base his new society, so he steals his brain and makes a fifty foot tall clone of him to help rebuild the Phylosians' space fleet.

A...controversial episode, to say the least, I definitely think “The Infinite Vulcan” is working through some very interesting ideas. Just like last week, the Animated Series is picking up abandoned ideas from the Original Series (and ones that it was a mistake to abandon in my opinion) and trying to take them further. However, also like last week, “The Infinite Vulcan” is held back by a lot of missteps that make it feel less then effective, and there's a general sense of “been there, done that” about the proceedings. In this case, the closest analog is naturally “Patterns of Force”, which shares this episode's attitude towards liberal authority and top-down pacifism. Keniclius is depicted as being very much in the wrong for taking up the mantle of imposing peace throughout the galaxy, and the episode's best moment comes when Kirk essentially asks him why he thinks he has the right to do that. The problem is, this time the script completely fails to offer any kind of solution or alternative. The whole point of “Patterns of Force” was denouncing what Kirk comes right out and calls “the leader principle”. Anyone who aspires to a position of power by definition thinks they know better than everyone else, and that's wrong.

But “The Infinite Vulcan” doesn't come anywhere close to following up on this. Instead, Kirk's debate with Keniclius (and later Kaiju!Spock) flounders around a lot and doesn't seem to have any actual premise aside from “what you've done to Spock is mean and bad” and eventually ends up at “Keniclius is out of touch and doesn't realise the Federation already has peace”...which is basically the opposite of the point of “Patterns of Force”. When the Original Series was at its best it was able to carefully depict its setting as idealistic while showing that a Western-style Federation still had a lot of problems as a form of government. Flat-out saying attempting any sort of change (even if it's the wrong sort of change) is pointless because we already have utopia is the antithesis of promoting idealism and material social progress, it's straightforwardly Panglossian and reactionary. Yes, Keniclius is wrong for having the hubris and patriarchal egotism to think he's destined to bring peace to the universe, but that should have been the central conflict, not the fact he was attempting it in the wonderful and perfect Federation. On top of being well, wrong, this resolution also just feels rushed and tacked-on to me on top of it all: It kind of plays out like Kirk almost forgot he needed to give a moralizing speech so he badly improvised one at the last second.

And the episode *almost* gets to where it needs to go too: Keniclius' big objection to Kirk is that the ongoing tensions with the Klingon Empire and Romulan Star Empire and the Kzinti Wars (a tantalizing bit of foreshadowing) prove that the Federation is self-evidently not a peaceful utopia. And Kirk doesn't really have a response to this, seeming to just brush it off. But of course the episode ends with giving Kirk the moral high ground again, seemingly deliberately turning its back on and ignoring this potential challenge to the show's ethics. The juxtaposition of that challenge with Keniclius' faith that Spock, who remember in many ways embodies the essence of Star Trek, is the model by which to form his perfect utopia is also incredibly fascinating, but I'm not even sure the script itself is aware of the intriguing metaphors and contrasts it's brought up here.

Then there is of course the fifty foot Vulcan thing, which sounds patently ridiculous on paper but is actually probably the episode's best idea. See, in turning himself and Spock into giants, Keniclius has made them *literal* Big Men of history, which is perfectly in keeping with the way he sees himself and what he aims to do. Keniclius fancies himself a hero and thinks he can bend the will of history to suit himself and his specific ideology, thus creating a new narrative that's ultimately more about glorifying himself then it is actual progress, and this is symbolized in the artificially giant stature he's afforded himself. That he would also do this to Spock is revealing, as it can be seen as an indictment of Star Trek's own predilection towards fancying itself morally superior to the people who watch it, and it's encouraging to see the episode cast Kirk and McCoy in staunch opposition to this idea (tellingly Spock, in the form of Kaiju!Spock who shares his brain, has to be convinced).

This all leads to the fundamental problem with “The Infinite Vulcan”, which is that it has a ton of really interesting ideas that it never does anything with, that never go anywhere and never quite seem to come together. Problematizing authority is good. Calling into the question the Federation's claim to utopia is good. Linking this to Spock serving as a microcosm for the franchise and fandom is smart and on point. Tying this into, through the Eugenics Wars, a criticism of Big Man theory with *literal* Big Men of history is genius. Dropping every single thread in the resolution so we can paper everything over and go back to the status quo is a catastrophically bad move. When your episode ends up feeling significantly less successful and effective than the one that just barely managed to get away with Actual Evil Alien Nazis is, well, more than a little worrying. But the really frustrating thing about this episode is how little there is to actually talk about: One would sort of think a story involving a civilization of sentient pacifist plants, eugenics, cloning and Giant Monster Spock should really be more interesting and memorable than this.

But I don't want to be too harsh on this script either, because it's far from a disaster. As the first offering from an at-the-time beginning writer, this is more than promising and Walter Koenig's later career definitely proves he has talent behind the camera. Every one of the flaws here is eminently forgivable, it's perfectly inoffensive and I don't feel like I've wasted my time, which is more than I can say about a fair few of the Star Trek episodes I've seen so far already. “The Infinite Vulcan” is hitting all the right notes, it's just evidence the musician needs a bit more practice. But again, just like “The Survivor”, it's indicative of a Star Trek that knows what it wants to be, and more to the point what it should be. It has its heart in the right place and is yet more evidence of the special crop of actors Star Trek attracts...and how it's they who frequently understand the franchise the best out of anyone.


  1. I'd rather an interesting story with good ideas that doesn't quite make it to the finish line, any old time, over a dull story full of retrograde notions. I'll say for Infinite Vulcan, that it effectively does something that would have been incredibly difficult for the Original Series: depicting fifty foot characters.

    And I think there's enough novelty in plant-based sentient lifeforms being master cloners, in the application of more Eugenics history (and thus a bit of loose, well-utilized continuity), as well as that bit of neat foreshadowing.

    Perhaps as the second episode on the production list, this episode is a better example of what we can "hope" will be the base-level standard for this series.

    1. Oh, absolutely. That's fair.

      There's a lot to like here, and as frustrated as I was the episode didn't quite manage to pull everything together at the last minute it's still a great, forward thinking little entry.

  2. He doesn't look infinitely large in that pic. False advertising!

  3. Seeing as how he survives the episode, I'm kind of surprised we never heard anything more from Spock-2. It seems like he'd be a gold mine for the expanded universe writers.

    "We have this very specialized problem, and the only expert in this is Mr. Spock! But Spock is currently doing his schtick on Romulus, how do we... wait, wasn't there a fifty-foot clone with all of Spock's memories?"

  4. In a way I kind of look forwards to seeing this, if only for the exploration of the ideas. I am just trying to catch up with your blog, I do have TAS to look at and may pop in comments once watched, but enjoying you as ever!