Contrarian to the Stars: I Defend the “Star Trek” Episodes You Hate

Contrarian to the Stars: I Defend the “Star Trek” Episodes You Hate January 14, 2016

I have finally finished my epic rewatch of “Star Trek: The Original Series.” (Previous posts here, here.) The final stretch was defined by my discovery that lots of supposedly terrible episodes are either genuinely good, or better than I’d remembered.

There is one exception. That exception is, of course, Spock’s Brain.

Let’s do this thing. Bread and Circuses, infamous for supposedly pushing Christianity with Uhura’s final line, “Not the sun in the sky, Mr. Spock–the Son of God!”, is genuinely excellent. The ex-gladiator, now-Christian, who longs for a return to violence, is a great character; you guys know how I feel about the emphasis on peace; there’s a strong Hunger Games feel to the “ancient Rome + commercialism” atmosphere. You guys, this episode features a space Romans reality show. How does it have a bad reputation?!

Uhura’s line is also somewhat less pushy in context (she’s been listening to the Christians’ underground radio broadcasts, so she’s clarifying for Spock what they believe, based on her investigation) and I seem to recall some fascinating First Things-type stuff in which Kirk et al. believe they share the civic values of the Christians (democracy? liberalism? can’t remember) without sharing the belief in their god. ETA: possibly it was, “How odd that we share a belief in human equality even though we don’t share your god!” Except that they do/did share that god! “All men are [redacted] equal,” the TV show.

Ahead of its time.

I don’t think these two are actually disliked, but Plato’s Stepchildren and The Empath make an interesting pair on one disc. Stepchildren affected me a lot as a child and is just as powerful now. Its look is fairly generic ST:TOS but its intense focus on humiliation as a tool of control has not exactly aged. The Empath focuses on physical pain instead of humiliation and is therefore proportionately less fascinating to me/maybe less psychologically complex. Its look is quite distinctive though–theatrical and somewhat surreal. Very artsy. Too bad the empath actress is just a blank face, given nothing to do but look pitiful. I know she isn’t supposed to be an audience-identification character like Alexander in Stepchildren, but she’s just very boring.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Okay, I won’t fully defend this preachy race fable, but the actors who play Bele (Frank Gorshin, black on the right side) and Lokai (Lou Antonio, black on the left side) really sell the generations-old power difference. Their body languages are perfect: Bele’s arrogant bearing and assumption of respect, Lokai’s pushy challenges and constant cycle of hope and brutal disappointment. Also I think this is the episode with the gorgeous green and red lighting in one shot. Although it also has the very silly thing where an alarm goes off and the camera zooms in and out because ALARMS ARE SCARY.

How do people feel about The Cloud Minders? It was one of my favorite episodes as a child and on rewatch I can see why: It has more than one woman. ETA: Or more precisely, two women who explicitly parallel one another, who debate political ideals and tactics, and whose intertwining future is imagined not once but twice in the show.

The storyline is a prescient ST:TOS take on environmental justice–there’s a strong flavor of later (?) lead-poisoning controversies–and the planet’s class difference is shown through the two women, Droxine the daughter of the cloud-dwellers and Vanna the leader of the mine rebels. Droxine is paired with Spock and Vanna, clearly the superior female, is paired with Kirk. I think I had a crush on Vanna myself back in the day. Droxine has a dress that makes her look like a water fountain (it is glorious) and a room decorated entirely in different shades of fuchsia.

Speaking of women, the last episode on these discs (other than an extended version of The Cage) is Turnabout Intruder aka Hysterical Females Be Murderin’. If you cut maybe five minutes from this episode I think it would be regarded as second-tier at worst, a top-fifteen episode: It’s tense and well-paced, William Shatner is hilarious as a murderous lady inhabiting Kirk’s body, and the crew of the Enterprise seriously considers mutiny. The problem is basically the character motivations for Dr. Janice Lester, the villain, which are a gross hodgepodge of feminism + thwarted love for Kirk (of course) + hysteria. See, ladies? This is why you can’t run a starship! Anyway I loathed all that stuff and was surprised at how excellent the rest of the episode is. Also they bring back the weird jazzy Vulcan mind-meld music!

(Although they also forget the transporter code words from Whom Gods Destroy, which would have solved this episode’s plot very quickly.)

Anyway–these final discs had plenty of lilac, not nearly enough Sulu and Uhura (the first season has most of their good stuff iirc) and way too much Chekov (The Way to Eden, in which he flirts with an old Russian flame, is just a painful pile-up of comedy Russkie accents), and fewer real clunkers than I’d expected. If you want a later ST:TOS episode to really dislike go for the one that was supposed to lead into a “Get Smart”-style spinoff. The only good thing about that one is all the ’60s women’s wear.

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