Friday, 28 January 2011

Star Trek: Who Mourns for Adonais?


A few links of interest before I begin: Penelope Goodman has a new post about Clash of the Titans here, in which she links to a paper by Gideon Nisbet on gaming and Clash here, which I found very interesting, since I know almost nothing about video games. Meanwhile, this episode of Star Trek is mentioned briefly by Caroline Lawrence in a post on Adonis, which I recommend, especially since I don't discuss him at all here!

In a way, this episode embodies several of the most common features of classic Star Trek. You remember it for a somewhat silly but visually impressive feature of the episode, a lot of it is unintentionally hilarious but it takes a more serious turn towards the end, and it's not actually about what you thought it was about. In this case, having seen the episode a long time ago and not really remembering it, I thought it was going to be another run of gods vs science, in the way modern Trek occasionally decides to approach the issue. In fact, it isn't really about gods or religion at all, except peripherally - what it is really about is men and women in the workplace. As to how well it tackles that issue - well, a full summary is probably the best place to start there.

We open with some delightfully patronising ogling of this week's Guest Female Crewmember and a complaint from Bones about how every female crewmember will eventually find a man and leave the service. Luckily the most memorable part of this episode then makes an early appearance - it's a Giant Green Hand in Space! A 'field of energy', it seems, which quite literally grabs the ship, currently flying through a region with a curious lack of intelligent life (that's what Guest Female Crewmember was trying to tell Kirk, Scotty and Bones while they were admiring the way she filled her tiny dress).

Post credits, the Giant Green Hand reorganises itself into a humanoid man's head, with curly black hair and a gold laurel wreath (well, some leaves, in gold, I presume it's meant to be a laurel wreath). The head (the Big Giant Head, even) intones some portentous-sounding statements about how their journey has ended and they're all going to have a lovely time on his planet. This includes the most extraordinary mix-up of religious bits and pieces. At one point, he says, 'there shall be the music of the pipes' which, as will soon be made clear, is entirely appropriate, but this follows hard on the heels of 'we shall drink the sacramental wine', which very much isn't. I suspect if one tried really hard, one could defend this line - something along the lines of how the word sacrament relates to the Greek mysterion and the Greek mystery religions featured secret rituals that may or may not have involved wine (not that the god in question was the subject of a mystery religion). Greeks certainly poured libations - liquid offerings - frequently and many libations were composed of wine. But really, to any modern Western viewer, 'sacramental wine' quite clearly refers to the Roman Catholic communion wine, and hearing it in this context is just plain off. (And yes, Greek libations may be one of several ultimate sources of the communion ritual - but I don't think that's why the line was included).

The Big Giant Head, amusingly, still seems convinced they're in a sailing vessel. Agamemnon, Hector and Odysseus are referred to as 'history', but given that this episode features an actual Greek god as a space alien I can probably let that one go. He's certainly powerful - he makes Uhura squeal! (Uhura squealing is the first sign something is seriously wrong, the second being a redshirt dying. In the newer series, which are marginally more enlightened gender-wise, the inertial dampners going offline are the first sign, followed by the death of an expendable ensign). The god turns out to be quite the racist, disliking Spock because he looks like Pan, who 'always bored me.' Interesting opinion, given how muc they have in common - perhaps he didn't like having a rival. Anyway, Spock must stay in his room while a landing party goes down to play on the planet.

Bones quickly justifies the presence of this week's Guest Female Crewmember, who is apparently an expert in archaeology and anthropology. I've discussed the portrayal of archaeologists in the media several times, but this one is probably alone in using its archaeologist character chiefly as The Girl (River Song is a bit more complex than that).

The still unnamed Greek god is slightly smaller now, lounging around in pseudo-Greek architecture with his lyre. He finally identifies himself as Apollo - hence the lyre and pipe music, as he is a god of music, among other things (Chekov, new to the show and looking like he fell off the set of The Monkees, immediately responds 'And I'm the Tsar of all the Russias!). Apollo eyes up Guest Female Crewmember - well, that's about par for the course for a Greek god, so for once it's justified! He declares that they will all stay and worship him, and proves how powerful he is by growing to giant size (which looks pretty funny in that tiny gold skirt he's wearing. It's tiny skirts all around in this episode).

A bit of a fuzzy image, but you can see Apollo's tiny skirt, and the back of Carolyn (Guest Woman)'s revealing dress

Kirk quite sensibly maintains that the dude, whatever he is, is not a god of any kind, though he does work out that the guy might actually be Apollo, as in, he may have come to Earth and hung around calling himself Apollo (I wonder if this is the first instance of this now-common plot?). Guest Woman explains, in Vaseline-O-Vision, who Apollo is, including 'he was the god of light and purity, skilled in the bow and the lyre.' It's all more or less accurate, though 'light and purity' is a rather too Christianizing way of putting 'god of the sun' - purity didn't come into it that much (as will become clear).

Guest Woman reminds Apollo of Aphrodite or Athena - both of them? They're not exactly similar! He fancies her, of course, because that is the purpose of the Guest Female Crewmember of the week (see also 'Space Seed'). 'You are beautiful,' he tells her - well yes, she's in Vaseline-O-Vision. Scotty attempts to fight for his woman, all manly-like, and gets a sore hand and broken phaser for his trouble. Apollo puts Guest Woman into a ridiculously revealing sparkly pink outfit - though it's long this time - which is the other purpose of the Guest Female Crewmember of the week, to get put into totally silly clothing (see also 'The Squire of Gothos').

Kirk further explains his Apollo-is-actually-Apollo theory to Bones while Uhura actually does something on the ship, something quite technical sounding. Kirk also defends Guest Woman's attempt to do her job, albeit via the medium of flirting.

Apollo explains to Guest Woman that the other gods floated off into the cosmos due to lack of worship - so, like Discworld gods, these fade without adoration. I can't help feeling that the episode veers into fantasy here - Crazy Powerful Space Alien is Apollo I can just about file as science fiction, but we're on a thin line when they start spontaneously gaining or losing power according to words and thoughts. He pulls it back towards some kind of 'science' by further explaining that disappearing off into the cosmos is a choice made by a god who has become disillusioned through lack of attention, which makes a bit more sense. Hera went first, apparently - clearly being portrayed as an annoying nag in all the epic poems got to her.

Then Apollo snogs Guest Woman, naturally.

Apollo is actually a big bunch of energy, the others work out. He comes back without Guest Woman, at which point Scotty, very amusingly, tries to attack him with a statuette and gets blasted with lightening (his real mistake was being the only member of the landing party in a red shirt). Kirk starts yelling and Apollo takes his voice - but the god keeps fading in and out and is obviously in trouble. Kirk and Chekov discuss this development while Chekov, because this is only his second episode, reminds us all that he's Russian several more times. (He also stands with his hands on his hips, rather like Captain Janeway, and pops one hip out like he's disco dancing all the while, which is quite possibly the funniest thing yet).

Scotty and Kirk recover and Kirk declares that 'most mythology has its basis in fact.' Um, this is quite a long post already, should I really start getting into this now? Let's just say he's wrong and leave it at that - though with the proviso that, given the concept behind the episode, that the Greek myths were true and the gods were space aliens, it makes sense in context, and in Star Trek's own particular mythology. As a generalising statement, though - no, they're not. Kirk observes that even gods require rest after activity, and forms a plan based on provoking Apollo till he loses his energy.

Back on the Enterprise, Uhura's in a mechanic's overalls, fiddling with the electronics - awesome! (Still wearing massive green hoop earrings though). Spock even specifically states that he can think of no one better equipped to handle it when she points out she hasn't done this in years.

Back on the planet, Kirk yells at Apollo, and we see once again the enormous difference between TOS and the later Star Trek series. 'We have no need for gods,' says Kirk - so far, so Star Trek - 'we find the one quite adequate.' Later Trek series did occasionally look at religion from multiple points of view - in Voyager's 'Sacred Ground', for example, and I believe Deep Space Nine went into this more (I haven't seen much DS9) but usually, the standard position for a modern Trek crewmember is atheism (even Tuvok doesn't believe in the katra, though you'd think the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had proved that one fairly conclusively!). Kirk's standard view, however, is monotheism. This episode is not about humankind not needing gods, it's just about them no needing this particular type of god.

All four then go for Apollo, attacking him with words so he can't blast them all at once. They also grab Guest Woman who, like so many Star Trek women, appears to be inflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. However, and again like the others, she just can't let anyone hurt Kirk, so she jumps in front of him and yells at Apollo herself before he can be blasted. She protests that Apollo told her he was gentle and kind and that a father doesn't destroy his children. Here, we've gone back to identifying Apollo with qualities of the Christian god, not the pagan gods - there's nothing gentle or kind about any of the Greek gods (though Apollo was a god of healing, that's about as gentle as they got) and fathers were quite keen to destroy their children in some cases, usually to stop said children destroying them. She insists he mustn't hurt them and he gives in to her big, well mascared, puppy dog eyes.

Apollo insists everyone from the ship come down, while Kirk replies that in that case he expects Apollo to provide the sheep and pipes (teehee). Kirk then formulates a new plan which depends entirely on Guest Woman remaining loyal and getting over her Stockholm Syndrome (don't worry Kirk, given the choice between you and another man, they always choose you).

Guest Woman is left with a choice between being the mother of a new race of gods or going back to being ogled by Scotty. Apollo gives her goddess-powers and she drops in ow her crewmates. Kirk declares that Chekov is too young to talk to her and win her loyalty back - apparently her decision will be based on how manly the guy who talks to her is. Kirk orders her to reject Apollo, which doesn't impress her much as apparently Giant Space Hands turn her on and she's fallen in love with him. She doesn't want to break her love's heart, but it seems one grasp of Kirk's manly grip is enough to turn her around. That, plus an actual order, as Kirk reminds her of her duty as a Starfleet officer.

Uhura's got the communicators working and Spock's worked out a way to kill or disable Apollo, but they don't want to try it while Guest Woman is with him in case it kills her too. So she, unaware of this, has to get on with rejecting him by telling him she's only been studying him as a scientist. Typically of Apollo, he resorts to ordering her to stay, which doesn't impress her at all. Then there's a really disturbing scene where he produces a raging storm (did he get Zeus's powers as well when Zeus faded?) and Guest Woman is attacked by the wind of the storm, which blows up her skirt, at which point the camera moves up to her face... it's all very accurate to Greek mythology and actually very effective (at least she doesn't turn into a laurel tree). The show doesn't get more specific than that, of course, and while Apollo's distracted Spock and the others save the day but still... nasty.

Apollo is still alive, but less powerful. Weeping, he tells them he would have cherished and loved them, but Kirk tells him they've 'outgrown' him (which is a very nineteenth-century-anthropologist viewpoint). He gives up and 'fades', or goes into space, or whatever, and Kirk and Bones discuss how they wish they hadn't had to destroy him and how fabulous the Greeks were while Guest Woman falls, weeping, into Scotty's arms.

As with so much of the depiction of women in classic Trek, this episode is full of mixed messages. Overall, Guest Woman appears to prove Bones wrong by choosing her duty over her love and Uhura is, as ever, made of awesome, but we haven't quite reached full enlightenment. Uhura still squeals when things get scary, which none of the male characters do, and Guest Woman's reassertion of her job, her independence and her duty results in (sexual) assault, from which she must be pulled away by Scotty, who spends the rest of the episode with his arms around her. However, it's an interesting dramatisation of what must have been a hot issue at the time.

So why are the Greek gods involved? Well, this is about men and women and on one level, the myths of gods like Apollo symbolise the most basic ancient concept of the relationship between men and women; men pursue and women are conquered and have babies. We've grown beyond that, Kirk insists (all evidence from his own behaviour to the contrary!). On the other hand, it's not quite as simple as all that. The title refers to mourning for the loss of beauty, and all the stranded landing party end the episode mourning for Apollo and for the idyllic dream he promised them of a life herding sheep and playing pan-pipes. (Of course, in reality, no such trouble-free idyll ever existed, but that's not really the point). Apollo represents an older way of life that had its good points as well as its bad, but that is no longer appropriate to the way we want to live our lives. It makes a rather nice metaphor, though it falls down a bit because none of the main characters really explain what, exactly, the gods did to inspire Agamemnon and co. or why they needed them.

The best thing about this episode is that it uses the now-familiar trope of the god who's really a space alien to do something other than pit 'scientific' heroes against religious fanatics (I love Stargate, but that is not my favourite plot!). This does something much more interesting, comparing ancient Greek values to those of the viewer and reminding viewers of the importance of acknowledging the acheivement of the past, but moving on, beyond ideas that are no longer considered valid.

From: http://www.trekp.com/gallery02.htm

5 comments:

  1. This is one of those episodes where you can see how far we've come in the last 45 years. The attitudes towards women that are expressed here were very progressive - or at least as progressive as it was possible to get past the network censors. Guest Woman of the Week was there to be ogled/fall for someone/etc., but it was also taken for granted that she could do her job. It doesn't look like much now, but it was a pretty big step in those days.

    I'd also say it more than just Kirk's manliness and direct orders that gets the anthropologist back on their side. He makes a big speech about humanity and, really, physicality. It's not a bad little speech. Of course, he could also have pointed out that Apollo tends to get bored with his girlfriends even faster than Kirk does.

    Poor Scotty tended to have terrible things happen to him. Not as bad as Harry Kim, but close to Chief O'Brien levels.

    And Chekov was supposed to look like "he fell off the set of the Monkees". They deliberately set out to find a Davy Jones clone to try to get more young and female viewers. Silly, since Spock was their big female draw, but network executives have never been known for their brains.

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  2. I was surprised to see when I looked it up that this episode actually predates von Däniken's "Chariots of the Gods?". I'd always assumed that the episode was inspired by the book.

    But I do have a copy of a 1942 SF story by Nelson Bond called "The Cunning of the Beast" in which an alien scientist called Yawa Eloem produced humanity as an experiment, which then escaped from his laboratory.

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  3. I for one, believe that Dan Simmons novels Illium and Olympos might have been inspired from this one. A bunch of superior beings masquerading as gods and after a time actually believing themselves to be gods.

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  4. Scotty gets two really great flying-across-the-set scenes (well, his stunt doubles do) in the second season: this episode is pretty good, but I think the hands-down winner is his flying across the bridge and over the railing in 'The Changeling', when Nomad blasts him for touching his screens after he drains Uhura's mind. (Another extensive Uhura episode, in which we get to hear her speak Swahili -- how come that didn't get drained? -- as she relearns all of her education in a few weeks...)

    Not much to do with Greek mythology, true, but, hey, it's Star Trek!

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  5. I know Chekov was supposed to look like The Monkees - that doesn't make it stand out any less!

    I like the episode where Scotty turns out to be Jack the Ripper (well, sort of - you know what I mean). One one the really bizarre end of Star Trek!

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