I remember seeing Day of the Triffids when I was very young. And Specimen: Unknown… which we will talk about next year… but I think my love for both started with Star Trek’s This Side of Paradise.
This Side of Paradise offers us a strange tale. The planet Omicron Ceti III has been bombarded by deadly Berthold rays. Sandoval’s colony should have been wiped out. Kirk goes to … actually, what the hell was his mission? Go down and see what was in their pockets? Get their wagons back; you never know when they’ll come in handy for Starfleet! And when they find the colonists alive and well, what’s the urgency in evacuating the colony? Clearly these Berthold rays don’t exactly kill; quite the contrary. In fact, you know what? Starfleet should go to hell! McCoy says the colonists are fine, healthy, happy, and have renewed appendixes… appendices? What is the plural when it’s in the body? My point is, they didn’t want to leave and they weren’t initially a threat. They only start becoming all “one of us, one of us” when Kirk and crew say “You have to come back to my ship… Starfleet demands it!”
I’ve actually gone and annoyed myself! I liked this episode but maybe I shouldn’t have! Maybe all the little pet peeves I have add up to nothing when we look at the big stinking problem of Star-“non-interference-my-ass”-fleet! I’ll come back to that in a minute. Let’s talk about strange behavior. Kirk anticipates when McCoy will need medical data, so he walks around with a zip disk in his pocket. Unlikely but plausible. Less likely, Spock didn’t think to use that blue light scanner on his desktop when approaching the planet to scan it? Shouldn’t scanners have shown life signs? Still less likely: Kirk has my parents’ luggage case in his quarters. It fits all of two shirts and one pair of pants. That’s what they use in the future to travel!? Even less likely still: after the crew has beamed down to the planet, Kirk goes down to confront Spock again, then goes back to the ship. Huh? Who beamed him back up? Probably had a rope hanging down… that must be it! Speaking of starships, Leila says to Spock “I’ve never seen a starship before”. Oh, no? How’d you get here again, all of 4 years ago? Bus? Really big pogo stick? Oh, I know: a wagon! That’s why Starfleet needs them back! OK, completely unlikely: Spock gets spore’d. What’s the first thing he does? Runs back to his girlfriend’s house to get a workman’s overalls! Wait, it gets better. Jim lures him back to the ship to insult the crap out of him upon realizing that anger overpowers the spores. Spock is himself again. So before working on the sonic device to make everyone fight, he runs to his quarters to put a new uniform on. Give me a break. (Thank the god of all Vulcanians, Spock doesn’t hold a grudge. Kirk said some pretty bad things about his mother and father! At least we learn one was a teacher and the other an ambassador!) I mean this story is just full of issues. McCoy suddenly becomes DEEP SOUTH but worse… he throws away a perfectly good mint julep! And I haven’t even discussed the worst yet. If anger can override the spores control, did not one of these colonists ever slam their fingers in a barn door? Step on a nail? Get kicked in the head by a cow? I know when these things happen to me, I want to punch the pope! And I like our pope! (Well, let’s be clear: I don’t get kicked by cows, but I’m rarely around farms. I have slammed my fingers in the odd drawer from time to time and my language gets… colorful!)
That all said, the plants are gloriously creepy looking and the idea of being sprayed by them is somewhat disturbing. The fact that they could do something to your mind… that’s actually sort of scary. I love that we learn a bit about Spock’s parents, even if it is through jibes. I love learning that Spock is actually stronger than humans; at least some of the lore starts to build around these characters. I hate the cop-out answer that he has another name but we “couldn’t pronounce it”. Lame! But I’m “debating in a vacuum!” The real meat and potatoes of this episode is Paradise. Was man meant to achieve it? Kirk says no, but who is he to make that decision? The planet was so beneficial for the colonists that even after leaving, they were completely healthy. Sounds like Starfleet really did have paradise under its nose. (Good god, you could probably send sick people there and have them get better!) I actually think this episode is very bad for Jim, because even in the final moment of the episode, Spock says that for the “first time in my life, I was happy!” So, Kirk took happiness away from his entire crew and a bunch of colonists because in his mind, he needs his pain? Even Sandoval, upon getting out from under the spell of the spores, says in three years, they achieved nothing. Actually, looking at those mortgage-free houses and the farm, I’d say you did pretty well for yourselves. Yeah, you don’t have DVD players to watch Enterprise, but that’s a small price to pay. So what is paradise? Is happiness a measure by which we should measure our lives? Those colonists sure were happy. Or is it satisfaction they should be striving for? To be honest, they seemed pretty satisfied to me too. So what was missing? Pain, failure, misery and death? Mortgages? Netflix? Did Kirk have the right to make them give up what they had? In retrospect, I am not sure what I liked about this episode, but I think for his birthday, I’ll send Jim a copy of Genesis of the Daleks. He may need to hear that “do I have the right” speech of the Doctor’s… ML
The view from across the pond:
Well that was a fascinating anti-drugs parable. What, you didn’t get that? I did a quick trawl around the internet after watching this episode and on first glance I can’t find anyone joining those dots, which surprises me. The episode shouts out “drugs trip” and then shows the futility of using drugs as a path to happiness.
We have a colony where people inhale something and then find happiness. Superficially it looks good: they are living in harmony; they shed their inhibitions and embrace childish fun once more; they can love without feelings of repression. Spock is the poster boy for the drug, able to escape his straitjacket of coldness and logic, fall in love and climb trees. But when the Enterprise crew start mutinying and beaming down to the planet, leaving the ship abandoned, the insidious nature of the drug is revealed: it’s a fake, forced happiness, and it’s achieved by neglecting responsibilities. It’s a selfish high, and one that causes people to abandon any ambition for the betterment of themselves or their society.
Like real drugs, what the spores offer is temptation. The way these people live their lives does seem superficially very tempting, but the key word there is superficial. I have been watching an anime recently that has a lot to say about the balance of sorrow and joy. One cannot exist without the other, because there is no context. The kind of happiness these colonists experience has no meaning, and Spock’s love for Leila is a sham. He has been lobotomised by the spores, his higher thought-processes removed. She desperately wants him to love her, but it’s just not real. This is a utopia until you scratch the surface.
“We have harmony here. Complete peace.”
Sounds nice. What am I saying? I’m watching Star Trek on a laptop computer. I’m not trading that in for a plough. As I say, superficial. It’s repetitive, boring, soulless. The utopia the spores offer is no more substantial than the happiness achieved by real world drugs. Tellingly, the spell is broken when genuine human emotions break through the drugs haze. The true self re-emerges.
As always with Trek, the storyline stumbled on some questionable ethics. For the second week in a row, Kirk behaves like a “just following orders” Nazi, heavy-handedly insisting on trying to evacuate the colonists against their wishes, never stopping to think about whether destroying an established society is the right thing to do. In doing so he exacerbates his problems. There were kinder ways to deal with this than to go in like a bull in a china shop and force everyone to go cold turkey. His punishment for his hubris is a whole-ship mutiny.
It wasn’t quite clear why Kirk was the only one to escape from the effects of the spores, until eventually one got him rather amusingly on the bridge. I did like how his anger at abandoning the Enterprise made him snap out of it in the end, although it’s hard to believe that only Kirk would achieve a level of emotion sufficient to escape the effects of the spores, especially as the colonists had been on the planet for so long. Surely that would have happened to somebody else by now? A great episode could have been made even greater by having some examination of how the colonists might have snapped out of it and then actively decided to inhale the spores again. Then the story could have dug deeper into the realms of addiction. Matters are complicated by how avoidance of the spores would be a death sentence on the planet. That was the one area where the script falters, because it takes something away from the parable. These people didn’t actually have a choice, and it would have been so much more effective as a story if they did.
The rights and wrongs of what we see take place are complicated by Spock’s role in it all. Yes, it was an artificial happiness, but for Spock it was also a release from his life of logic, almost as if his true self is locked away and he cannot reach it:
“For the first time in my life, I was happy.”
It was a melancholy moment but the episode illustrated that there is no shortcut for Spock. Drugs cannot break through his repression and help him find happiness. If he wants that, he has to find a way to do it for himself, or he just won’t be Spock any more. Life can be blessed with peace and happiness, but you have to work for it. Nobody can inhale their way to utopia. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: The Devil in the Dark