Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "The Cloud Minders"/"The Savage Curtain"

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: "The Cloud Minders"/"The Savage Curtain"

We're getting close to the end, folks. I've given up hope at this point of finding some lost classic, which is for the best. Star Trek has been pored over by fans for decades, and the idea that I'd stumble across an episode that had gotten lost in the shuffle is a tad deluded, to put it kindly. This season wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but it wasn't what I'd call good, either, with underdeveloped writing, uneven performances, and stories that unabashedly recycled the same bare handful of ideas while often failing to meet even the minimum demands of such theft. So you start hunting for interesting moments, even while you accept that those moments aren't ever going to combine into a satisfying whole. You savor character interactions, good pieces of dialog, striking design elements. You realize what interested you in the series to begin with, even if all that's left are echoes.

"The Cloud Minders" isn't a complete loss, although much of what's good about it has been done better elsewhere. (This is also true of "The Savage Curtain." In fact, it could be considered an epitaph for the whole season.) The central conflict should be familiar to anyone with a basic knowledge of labor struggles, or if you maybe read The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells; it's the people of Stratos versus the Troglytes instead of the Eloi and the Morlocks, but the principle remains. The privileged elite have become dangerously disconnected from the sweat and toil that keeps their civilization running, and while the workers haven't quite got to the flesh-eating phase in their struggles for the proletariat, they're definitely beyond writing firm letters to the newspaper. 

This poses something of a problem for Kirk and company, because the Troglytes do the mining, and the Enterprise is visiting Stratos to pick up some much needed zenite, a mineral of crucial importance for stopping a botanical plague over on another planet. Again, this isn't the first time we've had this set-up; hell, we saw roughly the same thing happen last week. It's a little disappointing that we never get to address the plague directly—we're informed that if the zenite isn't delivered on time, all the plant life on the planet will die, and that could've served as a good focus. There's a curious conservatism in many third season storylines; not from a political standpoint, but in the way the writers keep retreading the same ground. Which is too bad, really. I'd be willing to endure a few more missteps like "The Empath" if it had led to more risk-taking in the scripts overall.

But we've got what we've got, so let's see how that plays out. After a brief struggle planet-side with some angry miners (later labeled "Disruptors," which sounds like the name of somebody's high school New Wave band), Kirk, Spock, and McCoy meet Plasus, high advisor of Stratos and essentially the only ruling figure from the city we ever deal with. He apologizes for the misadventure, and invites everybody back to the cloud city for some chill time while his people try and force the Troglytes to give up the necessary materials. (The cloud city effect is obviously done on the cheap, but it's effective nonetheless. There's something fairy tale-ish about such a perfect model castle floating overhead.) In Stratos, Spock makes an impression on this week's Wearing Next To Nothing Female, Droxine, who happens to be Plasus' daughter. She's smitten by Spock's background and intellect, so we get a few scenes distributed throughout the ep of Spock keeping his pimp hand strong. (So to speak.)

Kirk makes an impression of his own on Vanna, the leader of the Disruptors, when she breaks into his room and tries to take him hostage. They struggle on the bed for a while in a fight scene that can only be described as… unpleasant, until Kirk takes control and learns of her plans. Unsurprisingly, Kirk is sympathetic towards the rebelling workers, and it's hard not to be; they're stuck doing all the crap work, while the cloud city folks lark about and behave like grad students (ie, "the worst people.")(that was a 30 Rock reference, by the way). Plus, while both sides are aggressive about standing up for themselves, Plasus breaks out the torture faster than you can shout "Where is Marwan?!?", and that's never really a good sign.

The most interesting angle that "Cloud" takes, story-wise, is that it actually bothers to find some justification for the Stratos bigotry against the Troglytes. McCoy discovers that the miners are mentally inferior to a normal person, because of a gas they inhale from mining zenite. Plasus is still a blind, infuriating ass, but his and his people's prejudice is grounded in some kind of fact, and it's hard to know how to take that. It ends up providing the episode with a third act, as Kirk decides to take matters into his own hands and force Plasus to directly experience the gas's effects. But given that the fight between the two groups is already pretty easy to understand without outside factors, why is it necessary to have the gas at all? The Troglytes aren't going to be as educated as the Stratosians, because their job requirements don't call for it (some of them work as servants on the cloud city, which is how Vanna ended up being away from the gas's effects long enough to get her brains back), and the conflict between the under-educated and the elite is such a familiar one that giving it a logical justification is redundant at best. It doesn't even serve to make Plasus more sympathetic, because he never stops being an angry, blinded creep.


But like I said, this does give us a third act, and it does give Kirk a chance to get kind of stupid, so that's all right. I'm not sure I completely buy that the gas wears off as quickly as it does, and that prolonged exposure has no cumulative ill effect. This seems like a narrative cop-out—just like the gas itself. Because what if the Troglytes really were somehow mentally inferior, and they still didn't want to spend their whole lives doing dangerous, demanding work? Does missing a few IQ points mean more intelligent people are fully justified in exploiting you? I'm grateful that "Cloud" had enough story that it didn't drag too terribly near the end, and Droxine and Spock's flirtation was entertaining, but philosophy-wise, it chickened out in a way that's highly unusual for the show. There's nothing wrong with a disenfranchised lower class trying to stand up for its rights, and pretending that the Troglytes could really be just like the Stratosians misses the point of such a struggle.

While "The Savage Curtain" is just as derivative as "Cloud," it's a lot more fun, and it's deeper than you'd expect from an episode that opens with Abraham Lincoln in space. Hey, you know how everybody complains about TV, how it's destroyed our culture and turned millions into attention-span-deficit morons? Well, everybody is wrong, and Star Trek gives us proof. Without daily programming, our race would've quickly turned to games of death and chance for our amusement, kidnapping strangers from other worlds to compete against one another simply because we couldn't think of anything better to do with our time. TV saves lives, my friends. Without it, we'd all just be another group of hideous rock monsters living on the lava planet. (Don't question me! This is science.)


The Enterprise is orbiting a red planet, and for once, Spock's computer equipment has found actual signs of life—the problem is, it's carbon-based life, and given the planet's unstable, really, really, really hot environment, that's just flat out impossible. Uhura isn't able to make contact with whatever life is down there, real or computer glitch, and because no one can actually beam in to check on the readings in person, for once Kirk decides to do the sensible thing and leave. (I know it wouldn't make for great drama, but I wish we could've seen a few instances where the Enterprise discovers a strange anomaly, but can't do a damn thing about it. Most everything our heroes encounter has been explicable, even if the explanation often boils down to, "A wizard did it.") But it's too late! Before the ship can exit orbit, the form of Abraham Lincoln appears on the view screen, very chummy, very confident in his flat-out impossible existence.

Sadly, this also turns out to be explicable. And really, there's no "sadly" about it. Opening with a ridiculous plot reveal, something so incongruous that it couldn't possibly make sense, is basically making a promise to your audience: somehow, this will work out in the end. The writer has asked a question—in this case, "How in the holy hell is a president centuries dead able to project his image onto the Enterprise view-screen, as well as have extensive knowledge of Jim Kirk and his crew?"—and now we get to spend the next half hour or so really, really hoping the answer doesn't suck.


Of course, Trek has long ago perfected the Art of Improbable Resolutions, so nobody should be that surprised when the inevitable god-like being makes its appearance on-screen at the fifteen minute mark. (Roughly.) As god-like beings go, the race of Rock Lobsters we deal with in "Curtain" at least have the advantage of a distinctive appearance. I'm assuming it's a race, anyway. The one dude we see informs Kirk, Spock, Lincoln, and Surak, the Vulcan responsible for Spock and his people's way of life, that they are being watched by the planets inhabitants, that they're part of a study in the power of good and evil, and that if they ever want to get home again (a question that, conveniently, only seems relevant to Kirk and Spock), they'll need to defeat some of history's greatest monsters to prove their worth. Hey, remember "Arena"? It's a little like that, only no space lizard, and nobody does any lathing.

I was neutral on Lincoln's presence here. While it's never definitively stated (a point in this episode's favor is that very few things are), he appears to have been selected by the Rock Lobsters because  Kirk has a natural affinity towards the dead president, much like Spock has a connection to Surak. That's reasonable, but, unsurprisingly, the Lincoln we see here is so thoroughly indebted to the popular view of the man, even down to the predictable, Halloween-costume style clothes, that it's hard to get overly attached. The actor who plays Lincoln, Lee Bergere, is as comfortably noble as one would expect, and the character is never an embarrassment. (He calls Uhura a "charming Negress," but I could've stood for more of this. He briefly looked like a person.) And really, since Lincoln and Surak are most likely creations of the Rock Lobsters taken directly from inspiration stored in the Enterprise memory banks, it's not that unusual that space Lincoln is more archetype than actual.


I was more interested in Surak, though, because I didn't have any real pre-conceptions as to the nature of a fictional character I'd never heard of before. Even better, Surak's personality comes across much clearer in this episode than Lincoln's, because he disagrees with Kirk's intention to fight back, and instead counsels peace, ultimately to the cost of his own life. In an ep so clearly designed for goofy thrills, it's worth noting how much time is spent discussing the consequences of those thrills, and the dangers of embracing force for force's sake. Surak attempts to negotiate with the monsters the Rock Lobster calls forth (Colonel Green, who did some genociding, Genghis Kahn, who people have heard of, a Klingon named Kahless the Unforgettable, and Zora, apparently loan from Hryule), and is murdered for his troubles, but whether or not his ideals held true, it's impressive that "Curtain" bothers to give those ideals a chance at all. This is slightly undercut but "Surak's" repetitive calls of "Help me, Spock" post-capture (the cries are being made by Kahless, apparently the Rich Little of the Klingon set); his voice is so flat and disconnected that it's laughable even if you hadn't, like me, grown up hearing the line used as a riff on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The third season of Trek really opened up a lot of doors for those guys.

It's entertaining watching Scotty and McCoy struggle with a powerless ship while Kirk and Spock fight on the planet, although we've seen this set-up so many times before it's hard to get too invested in anything either the engineer or our favorite doctor does. The crew ends up watching the battle on the view-screen, again calling to mind "Arena," and apart from Scott's colorful explanation for why he can't beam Kirk and Spock back to the ship ("We don't have the power. They'll come aboard a mass of dying flesh."), this is standard, fill-in-the-blank material. The actual fight between the Good Guys and the Baseball Furies has a high body count for the heroes (Lincoln gets a spear in the back!), but Kirk and Spock win, and Kirk gets to give an impassioned lecture about how the whole Rock Lobster plan was so totally, like, unfair and stupid and stuff. And of course he's right. The few moments of profundity to be had here come from characters who are almost certainly phantasms, and the set-up is a teleplay Mad Lib.


But for all that, I enjoyed it. There is an inarguable exhaustion at work here, as we enter into the final stages of the first phase of Trek-dom, a sense of material churned out not for passion's sake but to meet quotas and generate paychecks. And yet some of the passion remains. I'm not sure I'm going to have time to do any sort of comprehensive discussion of the show as a whole, but I will say this much: by and large, Trek always took itself seriously, and that meant taking its audience seriously as well. It's disappointing that the final season became something so ordinary, but even with that, there's a lot of potential entertainment here. You just have to be willing to choke down a certain amount of dregs, bitter and otherwise.


"The Cloud Minders": C+

"The Savage Curtain": B

Stray Observations:

  • "I have never met a Vulcan, sir." "Nor I a work of art, madam." Smoooooth.
  • Phrase I will endeavor to use out of context as often as I can till my friends threaten to hurt me: "Secure him to the rostrum!"
  • Spock, to Droxine: "There is great beauty in the knowledge that lies below." Um. Does that mean what—no. No, probably not.
  • "Help me, Spock! Spock, help me!"
  • Next week, we finish up season three with "All Our Yesterdays" and "Turnabout Intruder."