One of my all time least liked classic Trek episodes is The Apple. But when you go into it knowing you’re going to be chatting about it, it does make it a degree more fun. Gamma Trianguli VI is a garden of Eden, not the one from the Bible – Chekov tells us that’s just outside Moscow – but a lush and beautiful land where cousins of Doctor Who’s Thals live. These dudes have white hair, white eye make-up and are about as sorry a race as we’ll ever meet in Star Trek. When Kirk punches one, he just starts crying. Of course, I cracked up! But I admit, I felt terrible for doing so. This was a guy who was hiding out of fear but had not a single mean bone in his body. He didn’t even understand what it was to murder someone. He just assumed it was like smashing a melon opened. So, while the laughter was due to an unexpected response, I actually felt dreadful for the guy. Kirk and crew have arrived and in so doing, they’ve taken away some of the innocence these people knew. And it gets worse! This is the reason the Prime Directive was created. So we can look at the ethical issues, but not just yet. First, I’m having some fun with this one.
Max Ehrlich wrote this episode and I am pretty sure he was insane. I can’t say I know the writer, but let’s look at the evidence presented here. First, Spock takes a bunch of plant-darts to the chest that were intended for Kirk. “I surmised that you were unaware of that plant..” (Thankfully he’s OK, and his shirt soon heals too). Then he’s struck by lightning. (His shirt is less OK with this). He also picks up a rock which he snaps in half, then throws it and it blows up. Imagine if snapping it were half as deadly as throwing it!? Oh yeah, this planet actually has exploding rocks. “ROCKS!” This episode also features a ton of Red Shirts all going out in the most ignominious ways imaginable including plant darts and lightening and explosive rocks. One even goes before the opening credits roll! So let’s review: when these same things happen to Spock, he’s OK. But anyone wearing a red shirt dies? Me?? I’d walk around with the black t-shirt on from that point forward. And apply for a transfer to another section the first chance I got.
Meanwhile, Chekov decides to get Martha alone to snuggle with her on a planet that they are trapped on in a garden filled with lethal flora and fauna. Sure, that’s where I’d go to “demonstrate love”. As Martha is wondering if they could get away, Chekov isn’t concerned with his fellow crewmen who may be crashing to the planet any time now. Instead, he’s asking her if it would be so bad to stay on the planet. Um, yeah, dude… it would. Especially after burying the rest of the crew… And one of the best lines comes from Kirk who, having just seen a fellow crewman die unexpectedly says they could be safe “if we’re a bit more careful”… and immediately rips a plant off its stem. Luckily it didn’t blow up!!! And good job being careful!
OK, I’ll leave that stuff alone now and jump to the actual thought-provoking stuff. Kirk and Spock have a debate: do they break Starfleet’s non-interference policy for these people? They are “stagnated” and not growing. Spock says he views it as a breach of the prime directive; Kirk feels they are not robots and should have a choice. But McCoy did point out that there is no harmful bacteria, no illness, nothing but happiness and long life. It truly is Eden. According to the leader of the worshippers of Vaal, all good comes from Vaal. So therefore, Kirk decides to destroy Vaal! Kirk applies human standards to non-human beings; beings who are very happy to be who and what they are. They want for nothing. Kirk has the right to disregard a mission and he can leave this one if he could get back to the ship. He doesn’t have to interfere. So in many ways, Spock is right: the Enterprise brought self-awareness to these people and in so doing became like the Serpent in the Bible. Did we learn nothing from our own history? Do we want struggle just to see what we can achieve? Would it not have been better to allow them to exist happily until the time came that Vaal broke down rather than have these poor fools get traumatized at the lack of Vaal? At what point is it stagnation and when is it just a different morality based on what a culture knows? And who are we to make that decision? Evidently, not Jim Kirk! To combat this, the writer makes it where the crew are trapped on the planet. How much more of a debate would it have been if the crew could leave at any time.
Interestingly, Kirk tells Scotty to abandon the nacelle’s if necessary and “get out with the main section”. I never realized until watching this story now that the Enterprise was always designed to be able to break into two sections, but we don’t see this for the first time until Star Trek: the Next Generation. But being trapped was the only way to make their actions work, or the comedic dialogue at the end would genuinely take on a different meaning. While Spock may look the most like the Devil, it was Kirk who brought pain and struggle to a very young race, and then he left them to their own devices. How long before that race was no more, I wonder?
Like the worshippers of Vaal, I prefer to cast this story into The Dim Time and forget about it. It makes me uncomfortable anyway; I have to wear a red shirt at my job and I’m constantly afraid I’ll step on an exploding rock one day. My last words will channel my inner McCoy: “damn it Jim!” ML
The view from across the pond:
“Fragile, good cleavage. An analysis should prove interesting.”
But enough about the women. This week Star Trek presents us with a very interesting planet indeed, a “Garden of Eden, with landmines”, which is a fascinating mix of beauty and danger. At first it looks like the landing party has arrived in paradise, until paradise starts trying to kill them. With those deadly plants, I did wonder for a minute if I was watching a Terry Nation story, but alas nothing emerged from the undergrowth waving a sink plunger. Finally all became clear:
“30 seconds ago there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
With a ridiculously sudden rain storm moving in, I realised where this paradise had to be: Britain. OK, actually our hairstyles aren’t quite that bad. What is it with sci-fi where everyone from a group of people have to look the same? We don’t all have identical hairstyles, so why would we think aliens would only have one hairdresser, who insists on the “bouffant wig look” for all his clients?
This episode reveals a problem with the whole premise of Star Trek, and not for the first time. At its heart it’s a series about exploration, and it’s not a huge leap to go from that to colonialism. When we explore new places, it’s almost impossible not to change them in some way, even if they are uninhabited. When there’s an indigenous population you’re going to have an impact. That has to be handled with care, because I don’t think anyone involved in the writing of Star Trek wanted to make a series about destroying other ways of life in the name of empire building. So they just did that by accident instead.
The problem here is that the people on this planet are happy, and genuinely think they are living in paradise. With apparent immortality and no children to look after, some of us would probably agree with them. Personally I think they’re living a horrible life, but I recognise that nobody has the right to swan in and change everything about another culture. To give writer Max Ehrlich his due he does make some attempt to address the problem, and that to a certain extent ends up backfiring on him, because his script is far too talky in the middle. But I think he puts his questions about the rights and wrongs of all this in the wrong place in the episode, and doesn’t quite ask the right things.
The reason I say that, is Kirk never has much of a choice. I mean, there’s always a choice, but when that choice is to (a) save the lives of everyone on the Enterprise and change this culture’s way of life, or (b) preserve their way of life and allow his entire crew to die, it’s obvious what he’s going to do, and frankly I can’t argue with his decision. There’s a case to be made that he should never have been on that planet in the first place, but once they’ve got themselves into that situation there’s apparently no other way out of it.
So perhaps the question Ehrlich should be asking is what right does Kirk have to fundamentally change another culture and then walk away. This has happened before in Star Trek, and if we look at the history of imperialism we can see what a problem his actions are likely to be. If you change things and leave a power vacuum, what happens after you’ve gone is almost always a horrible mess.
We have here, then, a story that raises some interesting questions but maybe not quite the right ones. Star Trek is a series about boldly going where no man has gone before… and changing things. RP