Sunday, 27 November 2011

Star Trek: Plato's Stepchildren


As so we come, with dreadful inevitability, to 'Plato's Stepchildren.' This is the episode of Star Trek that features the first interracial kiss on US television. I'm glad Star Trek is remembered for that - it's a good thing to be remembered for and Trek genuinely wanted to break boundaries. Flawed though it is, Roddenberry wanted to say something about racism and sexism in an era when it was hard to do so. Flawed it definitely is, though - that famous interracial kiss, as we shall see, most of all.

Kirk & co. respond to distress calls from an apparently uninhabited planet ('cause that always goes so well). They are met by a dwarf who informs them that he is a very good loser. Good signs from the start, then. He explains that they live under a philosopher-king who admires Plato so much that he calls his subjects Plato's children - though, the dwarf says, they sometimes call themselves 'Plato's stepchildren'.

A scary woman appears. 'Welcome to our republic,' she says. Their republic which is run by a king. Someone needs to explain basic political terminology to these people. 'Who among you is the physician?' A guy with a bad leg, their leader, explains that his badly infected leg wasn't attended to ages ago because of 'sheer ignorance'. Then he floats a syringe into his own arm. He explains that this planet is a utopia built on Platonic ideals. Out of earshot, the dwarf pleads with the woman that Kirk and friends came to help and don't deserve to die, but to no avail. Dun dun duuuuuh! Credit sequence.

The dwarf, Alexander, plays with a giant chess set. We had one of those at the hotel I used to work at. Kirk's voiceover explains that these people greatly admire Classical Greek civilization. Presumably this is why the set decorators have covered the place in heads, busts and columns. It doesn't explain the psychokinesis though - that's something to do with the planet apparently, and brainwaves.

The leader's scary wife explains that the planet's inhabitants - all 38 of them - are the product of a really vicious eugenics programme, and they are a small group of perfect, 2,000 year old genetic specimens. They scarcely have to move, let alone work (what do they eat? and who makes it for them, helots?). The leader dude's delirium starts manifesting as poltergeist activity and the Enterprise, under Scotty's command, is hit by some really bad space turbulence. Spock thinks the whole thing is fascinating, of course.

Bones tries to knock out the leader but is defeated by psychokinesis. Kirk and Alexander are made to fight each other until Bones finally manages to overpower the guy. Kirk is all for getting the h**l out of there - sensible man, this is why they made him captain - but Bones insists on waiting until leader dude's fever breaks, so he agrees to stay.

Alexander is grateful to Kirk for saving his life and explains that the other 36 pseudo-Greeks are off meditating, and that he is the only one without telekinetic powers, which is why he is everyone's slave (though he also has a bit of a complex about his size). Kirk explains that where he comes from, 'size, shape or power makes no difference'. Good to know, I'm sure. Spock says that 'it will be very gratifying to leave here', which is pretty vicious, from a Vulcan. Meanwhile, the Enterprise is locked in orbit, and communication with Starfleet has been severed.

Alexander sings a song about Pan and his horn, with a lyre, naturally. Leader dude lounges around, enjoying himself. He looks much more like a Roman than a Greek, wearing a laurel wreath and purpley-red robe thing over a tunic. He calls himself a philsopher-king and refers to his kingdom as a principality - very Roman empire, not very Classical Greek. He mentions that he doesn't really like people wandering into his territory even if they do cure his gangrene, and starts telepathically controlling Kirk, making him slap himself, which is unintentionally hilarious.

Evil leader dude has now cut off the away team's contact with the Enterprise and seems to want to keep them all prisoner. He tries to sweeten the situation by giving them gifts of gratitude for the whole gangrene-healing thing. These are made up of the shield of Pericles for Kirk, a kithra for Spock and a collection of Hippocratic texts for Bones. No one is very impressed.

Leader dude apologises for his behaviour towards the captain and explains that he just can't help himself, and Kirk says cheerio. But leader dude has a final request. He has decided he needs a court doctor and asks McCoy to stay. When McCoy says no, it becomes clear that no-one's going anywhere. Kirk and Spock try to point out that Plato was in favour of truth, beauty and justice, but leader dude claims they have had to make a few alterations, but that they live in the most democratic society imaginable, as anyone can rule if his mind is strong enough (Kirk points out this doesn't work for Alexander). When our heroes try to leave, he keeps Bones held by telepathic power. The wife wants him to just kill them, but since leader dude thinks that might upset McCoy, who will then refuse to play doctor for them, he says he'll keep Kirk and Spock to help celebrate the anniversary of the republic instead.

He forces Kirk and Spock to put laurel wreaths on their heads and do a little dance. They sing Tweedledee and Tweedledum's song from Through the Looking Glass while doing a jig. Then they roll around on the floor for a bit. Kirk gurns and tries to fight the telepathic power and fails for a while. He ends up sprawled on the floor, spurting out 'is this your utopia?' in between screams and gurning. It all looks exactly as silly as it sounds.

'We have had enough of your moralising' says leader dude. To be fair, by this time, so has everybody, but he's not making a good case here. He makes Spock do another little jig around Kirk's now immobile head. Nimoy is a pretty good dancer and looks like he'd do a mean Paso Doble given the chance, but here he just stamps around a bit and then falls over. Then he laughs, which is pretty disturbing, I have to say. Alexander watches all of this, looking vaguely unhappy. Bones complains that they can't force emotion out of Spock as it will destroy him (contrary to several previous episodes). Kirk orders Spock not to let them break him while Spock sobs on Alexander's knee.

Then, when Alexander tries to stick up for them, he is forced to ride Kirk like a horse while Kirk whinnies. Seriously. Picture it, and yes, it's really that bad. But if you really want to see it for yourself, here it is. 'How can you let this go on?' leader dude asks Bones. How indeed.



Later. Spock is freaking out over the whole emotions business. He sympathises with Kirk over the humiliation factor. He observed that the healthy relase of emotion is frequently unhealthy for those in the vicinity, which is a nice point. They have a conversation about anger and hatred and how they lead to the dark side. Bones offers to sacrifice himself and stay so that the others can go, but Kirk points out that probably won't help and they'd just be killed anyway.

Alexander explains that he's now understood for the first time that they (the genetic pseudo-Greeks) are the problem, not him, and says he wants to kill them, but instead they sit down and work out that the psychokinetic power comes from eating the planet's native foods. Alexander doesn't have the power because the same condition that made him a dwarf stopped him from developing it. Bones starts injecting Kirk and Spock with stuff to make them develop the power. Alexander points out he doesn't want to become one of them and doesn't want the psychokinetic power, he just wants to get away.

Then suddenly out of nowhere - Uhura and Christine Chapel! The only two female regular crew members now that Rand has gone! 'I guess we weren't sufficiently entertaining' says Kirk, teeth gritted. This line was used a lot on trailers for Star Trek videos in the past, which is kind of amusing. Uhura and Chapel are put in fancy sparkly gowns and Kirk and Spock are kitted out in tiny, tiny tunics and fresh laurel wreaths. Kirk and Spock are slightly flushed (unsurprising, given the skimpiness of the outfits), but don't have full psychokinetic powers just yet.

'Fellow Academicians' says leader dude. The actual Academicians all roll over in their graves/urns. Kirk insists they have to convince McCoy to join them willingly if they want him to work for them. For some reason, the leader dude's method of convincing him is to force his crewmates to perform for him.

So Spock sings to the girls (clearly they haven't heard Uhura sing, since she actually, you know, can). Nimoy gives it his all and the girls look suitably horrified/embarassed but it's painful to watch. 'Now let the revels begin!' says the leader. No, please, don't let them begin. Make them stop. Now.

The four are plit off into pairs, Spock/Chapel and Kirk/Uhura. And here we have it - forced (and so, by definition, sexual abuse) interracial kissing! Spock and Chapel is terribly sad, given her feelings for him and the fact that they keep apologising to each other, and if they weren't semi-comically jerking around against the mind control, the moment would almost have the power it's aiming for. Then we get to Kirk/Uhura, which is made worse by Uhura repeatedly saying she's frightened. It's a seminal moment, but while it's not Kirk's fault, the fact that the first scene of a white man kissing a black woman on US television is an abusive sexual encounter in which the white man is forced (albeit against his own will) on the black woman is just disturbing. It's really not what they were going for. Her final insistence that she's not afraid with him is quite sweet though.

Then comes, apparently, the piece de resistence. It involves whips. And a hot poker. Seriously, at this point I don't think I can take any more! Kirk insists, contrary to appearances, that his enemies have been 'dead for centuries', because they are empty inside. We're back to one of Classics Trek's favourite themes, the powerful alien that plays with our crew for fun. But no one cares about any of that because Kirk and Spock are whipping each other!

We don't actually see this seminal event in Trek history, we just see everyone else's reactions and hear the sounds of the whipping. This makes no difference; it's just as horrific as it sounds. Alexander can't stand it any more and goes for the leader dude with a knife. Leader dude tries to make Alexander stab himself, but Kirk gets the hang of the psychokinesis thing just in time, breaks the guy's control, saves Alexander and stops whipping his first officer. They have a fight in which both try to control poor Alexander and his knife to stab the other one, which is really unfair on Alexander I think. Kirk starts to win and leader dude freaks out, and Alexander begs to be allowed to finish him off. However, Kirk points out that Alexander doesn't want to become like the pseudo-Greeks, and the knife finally gets dropped.

Alexander tells the leader dude what's what and Kirk takes the moral high ground, while leader dude babbles in a desperate attempt to defend himself. He tries to make it all about absolute power corrupting absolutely but Kirk just tells him to get his act together. Then our heroes leave with Alexander and the Enterpriese gets the heck out of Dodge.

Oh my. It's just awful. So, so awful. To be fair, the whole point of this episode is that Kirk and Spock are tortured and humiliated, and in that respect it certainly succeeds. Everything that is done to them is as horrific as it should be. But the trouble is, that very effectiveness makes the whole thing deeply, deeply unpleasant to watch - the forced kissing most of all. Or maybe the whipping. Or the horse thing... it's all bad.

Most frustratingly for me, there is nothing whatsoever related to or inspired by Greek philosophy in this episode. Phrases like 'philosopher-king' are bandied about without any understanding of what they mean (no kingdom can also be a republic, for a start!). The leader dude makes lots of references to the power of the mind, but the power of the mind here is a simple result of eating the right plants and then forcing your will on others - it's a science-fiction version of physical force, and has nothing to do with the mind at all.

Judging by the Roman-style costumes and the theme of forcing others to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave for your own entertainment, I suspect this is actually an episode about Romans, altered to take its names and slim science-fiction justification from Greeks instead simply because Trek had already done Romans at the end of season 2. Perhaps they wanted to use up leftover Roman costumes. After the success of 'Bread and Circuses', which had explored the idea of Roman culture with added technology so well, this is a crashing disappointment. Poor Plato. He's given his name to many things over the years, but none quite as far removed from any hint of his actual philosophy as this one.

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10 comments:

  1. Once again, a very amusing and well written review. This was, indeed, not one of Star Trek's shinning moments.

    Speaking of butchered Greek myths and history ....

    When will you favor us with a review of The Immortals ...?

    In the name of full disclosure, I should note that I have seen the film (SEE: Titans In A Box!) and my recommendation: Wait for it to appear on cable TV, and then watch something else.

    That said, I am most interested in your thoughts on the film.

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  2. I missed it I'm afraid - that was the week I was ill and I didn't get a chance to see it while it was in cinemas (strangely it did't last long!). I'll have to catch it when it comes out on DVD... or maybe wait until it comes on TV...

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  3. Did not last long in the local cinema ... not strange at all. You will understand completely when you do see it.

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  4. Well this society well known for mixing things up. So confusion of history and geography in entertainment is to be expected since they are as ill educated as most of the rest of the citizens. What do think of people who confuse middle east with near east. As to to Plato's Stepchildren it is a metaphor for power trips,delusions and drug addiction. Wish it had been better written story it might have made a better episode to the show.

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  5. Such a bad episode, although it does have one or two almost redeeming features, most of them involving the splendid Michael Dunn. And they all get wiped out by the playing horsie scene. We had a discussion of it over at the viewscreen (http://www.theviewscreen.com/platos-stepchildren/), where it eventually wound up with a unanimous rating of warp core breach.

    That was only the first interracial kiss for certain categories of first, interracial, and kiss. Desi had kissed Lucy many times, Sammy Davis had kissed Nancy Sinatra just the year before. Basically, it was the first scripted, black-white, passionate kiss. Still groundbreaking, though, and they had to produce an edited version that ended just before the kiss for southern stations.

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  6. It's a nice thing to be remembered for, and I think everyone involved had good intentions - they just hadn't quite thought it through! (This happens a lot in Star Trek - I used to enjoy the Voyager episode where B'Lanna catches ponn farr until I read a review that pointed out it's essentially about her being mentally raped, and then sexually assaulting Paris...)

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  7. Wow, I definitely need to check this episode out. Preferably in short installments. Thanks for re-living the discomfort to post on it.

    If you didn't get enough of Kirk in a toga (and who could?), here's an article and clips from an earlier movie with Shatner and Adam West on Alexander the Great. Think of it as a palate cleanser.

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  8. Did you ever see the Roman mini-series A.D. with Amanda Payes? It follows Christianity and the Julio Claudian dynasty. I beleive it is 10-15 episodes. I found it quite interesting.

    Julio Claudian Joe

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  9. No, but I'll look out for it!

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  10. I did but same old Christtianity good Nonchristanity bad and it great for the world to be massacaeed in family fight between the rival houses of Abraham decendents. And we can look forward to be enslave by the god with four names El,Elohiem,YaHaw and Allah.

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