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Star Trek: "The Tholian Web"/"Plato's Stepchildren"

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One of the most interesting criticisms I read of the new Star Trek movie came in Keith Phipps' review here on the AV Club. (My isn't that convenient. Don't forget to buy a T-shirt!) He pointed out that, for all its whiz-bang excitement, the reboot/re-imaging/reincarnation didn't really have much in the way of actual thinking. In fact, given it's cavalier attitude towards narrative convenience, it's a film that favors distraction over discussion. I don't mean this as a criticism exactly—old school Trek can get creaky when it starts throwing big words around, and I like shiny as much as the next crow. Besides, given the time restrictions with a movie, there probably really wasn't room to get into a deep debate about the morality of time travel and the true nature of paradox. (Not that we couldn't have spared some of the jokes, maybe.)

I raise this only to introduce what was, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of this week's double feature: being reminded once again how much I really do love this series, and how much of that love comes from its commitment to sincere philosophical concern. Sure, it can get corny, and more than a little leading, but the simple fact that "The Tholian Web" and "Plato's Stepchildren" are as much interested in understanding the dilemmas at their heart as they are in the more visceral set-pieces is thrilling and, for a show four decades old, fresh. I can understand someone being put off by the pulpy dialogue, the over-acting, the cheesy sets and effects, but for me, digging Trek is about learning to embrace its absurdities and appreciate its willingness to keep asking questions.

"Tholian Web" also has something we see disappointingly little of: honest-to-god science fiction. The central concept, of a place where universes overlap, is clever, and there aren't any god-beings involved—and let's face it, "alternate universe" is just a hugely tempting source for those guys. Instead, we have an encounter with the titular alien race that isn't even the central point of the episode. This is more a collection of circumstances than one over-arcing storyline; those circumstances are connected by location, thankfully, but there's no sense of one over-riding threat that needs to be resolved. Which is a nice change of pace. Once Kirk vanishes (along with the Defiant), Spock takes command of the ship, and the ep focuses on his and McCoy's attempts to stop crew insanity, rescue the captain, and avoid destruction at the hands of the Tholians. Also, they argue. A lot. Another reason to recommend "Web" is that it gives us an extra-strength dose of McCoy's carping and Spock's arrogance. I've come to welcome their conversations because, as pig-headed as the doctor gets and as dismissive as the half-Vulcan can be, I relish the ambiguity of it. There's something refreshingly real about watching two people argue incessantly, not come to any real agreement, and still work together.

The Enterprise is searching for a missing ship, and they find it in one of the worst places to find a missing ship outside the Neutral Zone, a weird spot where the universe is thin and other universes bleed through. When Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Chekov beam onto the Defiant (in some fairly impressive haz-mat suits, I might add; none of this "top doesn't connect to torso" crap we've seen before), the ship's crew is dead, apparently at each other's hands. We've seen the "madness that makes 'em murderous" effect, and it's not exactly a surprise when Chekov gets his own case of fish-eye lens; wouldn't be much of an episode if our heroes came across some sickness that didn't mess 'em up. Thankfully, the cause here isn't biological, as we begin to suspect when McCoy's hand passes through a corpse. It's not immediately obvious, but clearly, this isn't just a case of the crazy plague.

Things worsen when Scotty beams the away team back to the Enterprise. The universe friction causes a lot of problems for Engineering, and Scotty is only able to beam back three of the four before the Defiant vanishes completely. Unsurprisingly, it's Kirk who gets stuck behind. (I mean, unsurprising in the context of the episode, not unsurprising in this recap, which is unsurprising for completely different reasons since, y'know, I mentioned this two paragraphs ago.) Again we have to question the logic of Kirk's do-everything, give-everything approach. Not only did he go to the Defiant in the first place, which is a questionable but expected command decision, as soon as Scotty says he can't get the entire group at once, Kirk volunteers to stay behind. Because, obviously, a star ship commander is more important than the guy who presses the button marked "Phaser." (I'm mostly kidding here—it's not as though Kirk's willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of his crew hasn't come up before. But I did find myself wondering if any of the away team weren't wishing for a spare Red Shirt when they heard the bad news. That's the drawback of sending all major characters on this sort of mission.)

It isn't soon after this that Chekov starts showing symptoms of mental disturbance. McCoy quickly (and impressively) figures out that this is caused by their proximity to the shifting planes of existence; this does make you wonder why, if there's enough Federation lore to know about the science behind the spot, as well as there being a pact between the Tholians and Star Fleet, that nobody had figured out this cause and effect relationship before. We do get a quick (and smart) justification for the tragedy of the maybe a little too Defiant, though. Given that the area screws with the Enterprise's system immediately, and only gets worse the longer they stay where they are, it's all too easy to imagine the ghost ship getting locked in place, desperately trying to break free, and growing more homicidal with each passing moment.

The main source of McCoy and Spock's rift, apart from McCoy's basic distrust of aliens and Spock's contempt for anyone who isn't purely logical, is that Spock's choice to fire on the first Tholian ship they encounter ends up hurting the Enterprise, and considerably worsening their chances at either getting Kirk back or getting away. It's not that Spock made a bad choice here—the other ship fired first. It's that the situation grows even more dangerous when other Tholians, after the attack on one of their own, start building an "energy web" that, once completely, means bye bye spaceship. ("Ware the Etch-A-Sketch of Doom!") Mostly, though, I think McCoy just can't understand how someone could make rational decisions in a crisis without betraying any emotional strain. He even tells Spock that he doesn't understand his motives, and assumes Spock has a greater ambition than I think the character really does. One of the most frustrating experiences in life is meeting a sane, likable individual who completely and utterly fails to understand where you're coming from. From being most familiar with the movies (by which point their relationship had settled considerably), I'd always believed Spock and McCoy to be good friends who don't always see eye to eye. But here on the series, it's more like colleagues with mutual respect and occasional grudging admiration, but not a whole lot of trust.

There's also a running gag with Kirk appearing to various crew-members as a ghost, because he's not quite dead yet, just trapped in some alternate universe. The biggest criticism you can throw at "Web" is that, in the end, there isn't any huge pay-off to all of this. McCoy figures out an antidote to the crazies(a derivative of Klingon Nerve Gas! Odd that there would be a comparatively easy biological cure to such a complex physiological and psychological disturbance), Spock gets the Enterprise back to where it belongs, and Kirk is beamed on board, just moments before running out of oxygen. There may be some plot holes in here, Kirk's acting as the in-between guy was goofy, but this was solid, overall. We got to see Uhura in her off hours, and we got to witness Kirk's Last Tape, which was surprisingly low-key, if awfully situationally specific. (Does he have a back-up tape if McCoy and/or Spock were also killed in whatever conflict ended his life?)

I also enjoyed "Plato's Stepchildren," which is mostly known these days as "that episode where Kirk has to kiss Uhura." This was something of a big deal with the ep first aired, being arguably the first interracial kiss to air on television—despite the fact that the kiss was far from pleasurable for either party. There's something sad about that, really. In 1968, an African American woman and a white man went where no one on TV had gone before, and it still had to be forced and unpleasant to watch. And hell, not minutes after that kiss, Kirk is threatening Uhura with a whip. Clearly, not really a sex-positive message.

Historical value aside, I may be going against the general consensus once again, but I thought this was very much not bad. Yes, Kirk and Spock's mind control acting is silly, yes the conversations with Alexander the dwarf can verge on condescending, and yeah, there's all that serious talk that, to the unkind ear, could play as clunky and overwrought. But I think, with the right amount of patience, the talking works, and the hammy acting can be surprisingly convincing if you're willing to take it at face value. There's a lot of disturbing, freaky sadism happening here, and while calling it Lynchian might be a stretch, I was impressed at how creeped out I was during some scenes. And hey, there's a lovable dwarf! C'mon. That counts for something.

One strike against "Stepchildren" is that it seems like we've been here before; we had our Toga World adventure way back at the start of season 2, with "Who Mourns For Adonais." But really, all the Grecian trappings on display in this episode are a false front. What we've got here are a group of telekinetic super-beings who actually spent some time on Earth during the height of Greece's golden years, took notes on what they liked, and then kept on flying through the stars until they could find their own place to live. They call it Platonius, and while it's pretty enough (at least, the two rooms we see aren't half bad, even if I expected to see Pearl and Brain Guy wandering through), these aren't exactly the kind of folks you want to spend time with. There's eighty-eight of them, and all but one has extraordinary powers, thanks to the magic of mass eugenics and good eating. (Technically, the powers come from the eating, but they don't stress that in the brochure, kills the mystique.) But while good breeding can provide physical beauty, it apparently hasn't done much in the way of instilling the Platonians with ethics, as Kirk and friends quickly learn.

The set-up is that the ruler of Platonius, Parmen, injures his leg, and they send out a distress signal for a doctor. Kirk, McCoy, and Spock respond—according to Spock, the planet doesn't have any life forms on it, which it clearly does, so maybe someone might want to get the machine checked. McCoy does wonders for Parmen, although they get a glimpse of the man's true power when, during a delusional state, his telekinesis even throws the Enterprise into fits. Everything seems fine, although Alexander looks worried. He's the court buffoon, the only one around without any mind whammy ability, and considering the weird horrors that Parmen and the rest put Kirk and Spock through, it's hard to imagine how unpleasant the past few centuries have been for the guy.

Things take a turn for the inevitable when Parmen decides he wants to keep McCoy around, and McCoy doesn't want to go. To change his mind, Parmen starts messing with Kirk and Spock. Here's where the other big strike hits, because a good chunk of the remainder of this episode is spent watching Kirk and Spock get put through their paces. If this doesn't affect you, you're going to get bored fast. I found it unsettling and sad, because as ridiculous as Shatner may be, he's still someone we've spent two seasons plus getting attached to, and seeing him forced to make a literal ass of himself is ugly. Even worse, they make Spock laugh. Then they make him cry. It's—it's pretty awful, really. And "Stepchildren" treats this betrayal of Spock's core self with the dignity and weight it deserves.

That's what really sold me on all this; there is some camp value in Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley twitching and flailing, but everyone involved takes the whole problem seriously, and when they aren't being tormented, the our heroes are discussing what's wrong with the Platonians, and what makes them so vicious. Kirk gives Alexander a speech about how "size, shape, or color make no difference." (Huh, he doesn't mention sex. Surely that isn't supposed to be included under size?) It's simultaneously hopelessly naive, ridiculous, and neat. Alexander is by far the most interesting of the natives, too; his realization that he's not truly inferior to his tormentors, that by some reckonings he's actually far beyond them, is, again, corny as Kansas in August. But not bad. Not bad at all.

Admittedly, the resolution here could've used some work. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy determine that the Platonians get their amazing powers through eating local food, with its high levels of kironine, a made up element that can do whatever we want it to do. They give themselves a pure hit of the stuff, uncut, that eventually gives them twice the power that any of the locals have managed to achieve. One more forced theatrical (this one involving Nurse Chapel, Uhura, and that kiss we already mentioned), and Kirk takes command. The writing really gets goosy during the kiss-and-kill play, as Chapel talks about how long she's wanted to be close to Spock and Uhura comforts herself with how awesome Kirk is—they're being forced to act, not talk, and since they're just embracing and not, y'know, doing the deed, I'm not sure I buy the full confessional. But still, it's freaky. The big criticism is that, in keeping with the usual practice, Kirk gives a speech, warns Parmen not to screw around again because he's letting Starfleet know about the planet, and then he leaves. Honestly, given how much power Parmen has already shown, once Kirk is no longer around to police them, how fast do you think this is going to degrade again? How hard would you work to keep your heaven safe from people who want to judge you and tell you how immoral you are? At least the Enterprise takes Alexander when they go.

So yeah, not too bad at all. There's roughly the same issue I mentioned last week, with third acts that don't hinge on new discoveries or unexpected resolutions, but this is still solid entertainment. And it's about something. They're still trying, and Kirk's not falling in love with an Indian princess, and that's good.

"The Tholian Web": B+
"Plato's Stepchildren": B+

Stray Observations:

  • To be honest, the grading is become more and more abstract with each passing week. So everybody knows they're suggestions, and not rules, right?
  • It's easy to overlook, since it's basically Spock's only setting, but nobody does dry like Nimoy: "The renowned Tholian punctuality."
  • He also sings! It's no "The Legend of Bilbo Baggins," but Spock's forced performance of "Bitter Dregs" is quite credible:
  • Kirk's speech to Alexander about tolerance is undercut slightly by his "I have a little surprise for you" pun at the end. Dick.
  • Next week, it's "Wink Of An Eye" and "Empath"