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Star Trek: "The Paradise Syndrome"/"And The Children Shall Lead"

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Indians are just so adorable, aren't they? I mean Native Americans, but that's such a cold, clinical name. "Indians" was good enough for our forefathers, and "Indians" they shall remain in our hearts. Such sweet, childish innocents! I bet the only language they speak (aside from broken English) is friendship, their only currency, hugs. We could learn a lot from them, about nature and one-ness and living in triangles. We feel terrible about the whole mass murder thing, but to compensate, we will idealize them in a fashion that in no way allows them the full culpability, intelligence, and complexity of an actual human being. No, you don't have to say "Thank you" in whatever jutted syllable baby gibberish you call words. We already know what you mean. And you're already welcome.


If this sounds bitter, I just watched "The Paradise Syndrome," and have been assured on multiple fronts that it works as an example of how the rest of the third season will play out. This is not happy knowledge. "Syndrome" isn't as dire as "Spock's Brain," but it is terribly silly and not very well-thought out. Apart from the occasional clunker, the first couple seasons of Trek are solid TV; the cultural image of the series is usually goofy aliens and Shatner chewing the same three sets over and over again, and going by seasons one and two, that image is, if not entirely unearned, more than a little exaggerated. Only four episodes into this season, though, and I'm realizing where the stereotype comes from. "Syndrome" features two of Trek's most familiar liabilities, a ridiculous plot and a ridiculous leading man. And unfortunately, it provides no substance to distract from either.

An un-named, Earth-like planet is threatened by an approaching asteroid. Before stopping the asteroid, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to the planet's surface for a quick walk-around. Already this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If the planet is in danger, if the Enterprise has plans to divert the threat, and if those plans require meeting the asteroid at a very specific time and position (as Spock later explains to McCoy), why visit the planet beforehand? Their records already indicate that the local population is pre-space travel, and there's no intention or need to evacuate them. The only reason to show up while the threat is active is to allow what happens next to happen: a crewmember (Kirk, natch) is left behind. (There's also the question of why the Federation is involving themselves in this sort of activity at all, as it seems perilously close to violating the Prime Directive as well as incredibly time consuming, but I'll let that pass. Because really, in an idealized sort of way, having star-ships running around protecting those who can't, apparently, protect themselves is rather sweet.)

While wandering around the area—which, it must be said, is lovely and unusual for the series, in that it's an outdoor, forest setting that isn't faked—our heroes find an obelisk covered in unfamiliar writing. The indigenous (or seemingly indigenous) population doesn't have the technology to build such a thing, which is strange; even stranger is that when Kirk stands on the obelisk's base and calls up to the Enterprise, the stone under his feet slides away, dropping him into the statue's based to land on a control panel in an enclosure below. The panel zaps him, knocking him unconscious. Spock and McCoy search the area for a few hours, but are unable to find him; given that time is running out on their saving-the-world mission, they're forced to temporarily abandon the captain.

McCoy's never been the cuddliest of characters, but he spends most of "Syndrome" arguing loudly with whomever happens to be standing closest, and unsurprisingly, that "whom" is almost always Spock. Their relationship is one of the series' most compellingly rough-edged, with McCoy's knee-jerk emotionalism constantly running aground of Spock's pragmatism, but while other episodes have managed the balance between the two, here McCoy falls into a pattern of unthinking opposition. The dynamic remains effective—Spock's choices make the situation consistently worse, despite the fact that they're always the right choices, which puts McCoy in the weird position of being proven right despite having his reasoning be essentially flawed. But more than once, the doctor's nay-saying makes him appear unforgivably dense, like when Spock has to actually give him a careful, step-by-step demonstration of Enterprise's Armageddon-style objective.

But at least the scenes with the George and Martha the sci-fi set are buoyed by a clear objective. Kirk's sojourn with the Indians (who here are about as non-Native American as you can get without being actual from-India Indians) is a campy, inane side-trip that features Shatner at his all around most ridiculous, full of flat, ineffectual characters, with a story that's supposed to be moving but is really just pathetic. When Kirk wakes up from the mind-zapping, his memory is gone. He's soon discovered by two women from the nearby tribe of generically peaceful folks (Spock, from a distance, identifies them as a mixture of "Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware Indians"). They take him back to their home on the assumption that he's a god because, hey, white man, obelisk,  you do the math. The men of the tribe, most notably Salish, the "medicine chief," are suspicious, but Kirk proves his worth when he brings a drowned boy back to life through a complex system of CPR and low-impact aerobics. The big Chief, in fact, is so convinced that he fires Salish on the spot and gives Kirk Salish's job. Oh, and Kirk can't really remember his name, and calls himself Kirok instead.

Kirok's adventures in Frontier Land follow a predictable path—he even gets married to the tribal priestess, Miramanee, thus making an enemy out of Salish for life. At the start of episode, Kirk's immediate infatuation with the landscape leads McCoy to say he's suffering from "Tahiti Syndrome," essentially so over-stressed and over-worked that he's pining for a simpler, more idyllic life. Which he then gets in the form of some Saturday morning kid show costumes and giggly girl wrestling.  It would all be easier to take if it wasn't for the connection to actual Native Americans. We eventually learn that the people Kirk meets are the descendants of tribes transplanted from our own Earth by an alien race known as the "Preservers." (McCoy theorizes that this is why there are so many humanoid races spread around the universe.) So all the trite ritual, the fact that the populace hasn't evolved in any way in the hundreds of years they've been on their own, it's supposed to mean that they live in paradise, but what it really comes off as is Noble Savage style silliness. This might have been progressive when the episode first aired, but I can't help thinking the episode would've fared better if the aliens actually had been aliens. Nothing would've saved the look on Kirk's face when he thinks "I have found paradise," though.

But we still haven't explained that obelisk, have we. After the Enterprise fails to shift the asteroid, Spock falls to obsessing over the strange language printed on the statue's side. It's a "Vulcan hunch," and it pays off. The obelisk was left by the Preservers for the Indians to use in case of an asteroid threat. Whenever the sky darkens, the medicine chief is supposed to follow the ancient ritual and the obelisk with take care of the problem. (Apparently, this happens a lot.) Too bad Salish's father died without passing on the information. Now the assumption in the tribe is that Kirok's assumed godhood will keep them safe. When he turns out to be just as much in the dark as everybody else, the situation turns ugly, and it's only Spock and McCoy's well-timed arrival that keeps Kirk from being stoned to death. (Or is it? I couldn't tell if the "peaceful" Indians were frightened off by the men appearing out of nowhere, or if they just decided they'd thrown enough rocks.)

It's too late for Miramanee, though. Medical science can't top plot contrivance, so Mrs. Kirok dies, taking Kirk's unborn child along with her. Kirk and Spock manage to get the obelisk working properly, as the language on the statue's side is a series of notes, which, ha-ha, just happen to match up with tones Kirk makes when he says, "Kirk to Enterprise." The day is saved, Kirk gets his memory back after a quick mind-meld, and while I think we're supposed to experience some kind of grief in the final shot of Kirk comforting his dying wife, that's undercut by the wife's lack of visible injuries and decision to lie on her back with one leg slightly raised like a pin-up model. All in all, this was goofy without being anywhere close to good.

Continuing the trend established last week, the second episode of our usual two-fer, "And The Children Shall Lead," is solid. I'm even willing to upgrade that to "swell." The storyline is composed of a hodge-podge of things we've already seen, but if I may be unbelievably pretentious for a moment, I'd like to suggest that episodic television in the continuity-free age is a lot like classic blues: it's not innovation as much as what's being done with the same old routines. (This comparison has been stolen from other, more innovative writers, but if you'll permit me, I'd like to suggest that television criticism is also like classic blues, in that my dog is dead, and I haven't been laid in years.) Without the ability to build sweeping, multi-part stories or allowing characters to change over time, old school Trek hews to a few basic patterns and improvises outward. You'll get the occasional striking and original shows ("The City On The Edge Of Forever," and my personal favorite, "Amok Time"), but while those are great, real fan-dom is determined by one's appreciation for the middle of the road.

"Children" is a variant on the "god-like being" motif, this time using misguided human agency to carry out the will of an ancient monster. We've seen the Enterprise under alien control before, and unsurprisingly, it falls to Kirk and Spock to defeat the threat. But the joy is in the details. The monster here is played by Melvin Belli, a lawyer who I'm only familiar with because Brian Cox played him in David Fincher's Zodiac; Belli's real-life fame doesn't have the same cultural cache it would've had when this episode first aired, but the disconnected bombast he brings to the role works fine. The various ways the crew is held mentally captive are often clever and visually inventive. And the "human agency" that Belli uses to carry out his will is a bunch of snot-nosed kids. We've had our share of killer kids before, but these are interesting in that 'Lead" actually has a point to make on how young minds can be misled through self-interest, and it leads to a sentimental-seeming conclusion that's actually deeply sad just below the surface.

After the lush forests of "Syndrome," "Lead" finds Kirk et al visiting Triacus III on orders to contact the planet's science expedition; we're back on the usual dirt 'n' boulder set here, so anyone with allergies can relax. Instead of the expected team of men and women, our heroes find corpses—the only living adult, Starnes, is terrified to see Kirk (who, apparently, knows him—does Kirk know everyone in Starfleet?), and dies immediately on contact. Before the landing party can assess the situation, a group of children run out, laughing and chanting, and none of them are troubled in the slightest about the death that surrounds them. (The use of "Ring Around the Rosy" is a nice touch.)

It takes a while for the truth to come out, but we'll jump ahead—Triacus used to be the home marauding race who lay waste to the nearby planets, until those planets finally teamed up and took them down. But one bandit survived, somehow, and it's either his spirit or some aspect of that long dead culture that's now controlling the kids. It's never made explicit, but the Gorgan needs followers in order to be powerful, and the kiddies were the easiest ones to manipulate. (Is Belli's character supposed to be one of the dead marauders, or is he the force that made them evil? Or is his presence the last vestiges of their combined wickedness?) He instructs the children to use the powers he's given them to take over the Enterprise and fly to Marcus XII, where the Gorgan will amass more followers, and spread his influence still further through the galaxy. On his own, he's just a ghost. But he's a very persuasive ghost, and the more people listen to him, the worse things get.

Actually, that may be underestimating the creature's power. The adults on Triacus were clearly under his influence—the Enterprise was called in because the Gorgan wanted a ship, and it's hard to tell if the mass suicide that followed was the adults realizing they'd been used, or the Gorgan wanting a clean slate. (I'd prefer the latter. The idea that a bunch of parents would orphan their children so willingly is freaky.) Once on the ship, the creature uses the kids to do his dirty work, and because they're kids, they have some fun with it. When Sulu tries to alter course away from Marcus, the view-screen fills the stars with rotating circles of knives, and when Uhura tries to contact Starfleet, the mirror on her console shows her the reflection of an old, old woman. (So, the man is faced with potential destruction and death, while the woman is scared of aging. Sigh. And why the hell does Uhura have a mirror on her console, anyway? In case her make-up needs a touch?) Kirk is made to doubt his ability to command, while Spock is briefly incapable of following orders, but they both manage to shake off the influence. No great shock there.

Head games are always fun (if there's a therapist on the Enterprise, I think it's safe to assume that person is paid very, very well), and it's interesting how the children use their powers in predictably childish ways. Generally they're effective—the knives are a ridiculous concept, but with that much power, it's not hard to make them convincing—but the mistakes they make are telling, like when they mind-warp Chekov and Sulu into believing that they can still see the planet Triacus on the forward screen. This convinces both helmsmen that the ship is still orbiting the planet as ordered, and lets the kids change course, but because the kids are short-sighted (a condition typical of but not limited to the young), they don''t bother to ensure everyone else on the bridge sees the same illusion. So Uhura turns around and sees Triacus is gone, and the game is nearly up, until she looks in the mirror.

This childish limitation comes into play most strongly during the episode's climax, when Kirk and Spock team up to break the Gorgan's hold. Throughout the ep, Kirk has been baffled by the kids' seeming indifference to their parents' deaths. McCoy attributes this to shock, but it's really just a sign of the alien's influence; by convincing them that their parents were boring, the Gorgan is able to keep his followers in a state of constant sugar-high mania, right up until Spock starts playing home movies on one of the screens on the bridge. The change is immediate, and the truth finally sinks in—Mom and Dad are dead, and you are in some way responsible. Sure, nobody will blame you for it (there has to be a clause for this kind of thing in the standard Federation exploration contract, right?), but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with.

If anything connects "Syndrome" with "Lead," is that both have characters trying to retreat from reality into impossible fantasy. In "Syndrome," Kirk's brief escape from his harsh, no-Indian-princess-screwing life has tragic consequences, although not for him. The ending of "Lead" is more memorable, not for the fate of the Gorgan—who suffers a typical "you don't believe in me, I'm doomed!" dissolution—but in the fact that in order to win, Kirk has to force a bunch eight and ten year olds to face the most horrible news they'll most likely ever get in their lives. And then he has to rub it in. That he saves the day by doing so almost seems like a bonus.


"The Paradise Syndrome": C
"And The Children Shall Lead": B+

Stray Observations:

  • This week had explanations for two different MST3K gags: "I am Kirok!" pops up in many Comedy Central episodes, and the space kids who torment Pearl Forrester use the same fist shaking gesture as the Gorgan's children.
  • The Obelisk is awfully specific, isn't it? If the Indians were troubled by a plague of locusts or a mass flooding or a volcano, would it snicker?
  • That UFP flag looks suspiciously like a thing somebody wants me to buy.
  • Shatner was lousy in "Syndrome," but he does solid work in "Lead." There's a line he gives—"Auxiliary Control, my Vulcan friend"—that would've sounded ridiculous coming from anyone else, but he makes it work.
  • Next week, it's "Is There In Truth No Beauty?" and "The Spectre Of The Gun."