Star Trek decides to boldly go into some unusual places and for this episode, we are going to the planet Argelius II … or Whitechapel, circa 1888. You know who we’re about to meet already, don’t you?
It’s always fun examining the object of the missions in this series. In this story, “Doctor” McCoy prescribes rest for Scotty after he receives a major head injury. Alright I put doctor in quotes because I am actually coming around to Roger’s belief about this guy… he is just a random guy who walked onto the Enterprise one day! And why is that? Because he has a litany of blunders throughout this episode. Best treatment for severe concussion? Evidently, loud music, dancing, drinking and most likely, sex. Wait a second, maybe Scotty has hysterical amnesia! Doc, you’ve got to try harder. He also gives no less than three fantastic medical diagnoses of “s/he’s dead, Jim”. It’s Kirk who has the wherewithal to explain how: 1) stabbed over a dozen times, 2) stabbed over and over again, but my favorite, the result of a punch 3) “but that’s impossible!” (And was Kirk held accountable for that punch of death?) McCoy suggests that since Scotty’s head injury was the result of “a woman”, he may resent women. What? Most of my injuries are because my wife suggests some form of home renovation and it never dawned on me to have an overriding hatred of all women! The very first televised episode of Star Trek results in deaths because McCoy still loved Nancy Crater, who just happens to be a Salt Vampire. Does he resent all women too? So maybe he’s a doctor of questionable skill! At least he can help out by checking if a lock has been picked. His diagnosis: “the lock may or may not have been picked.” Thanks, Schrodinger.
Now there are a lot of funny moments in this. Sulu has one of the best lines ever: “that’s the first time I’ve heard a malfunction threaten us!” Hengist’s laughing while threatening to “Kill all” is so absurd that I had to laugh. Not quite as absurd as putting a dead guy in a chair, but still funny. (Two episodes ago, Kirk let one of his own men fall to his death, where he leaves him and even steps over the guy, but this dude gets propped up in a chair…) Scotty also made me laugh when he said of Kirk, “that’s quite a captain. Always thinking of his men.” Um, no… Scotty… Kirk is never thinking of his men. He’s always thinking of people, but it sure isn’t his men! I also had to laugh when Scotty takes the first victim for a walk through the fog because he recounts what happened saying he walked up ahead of her to lead the way. Was he playing hide and seek? Isn’t the fun of a walk through the fog to hold your lover close and enjoy the mysterious beauty of the fog? Maybe not in Aberdeen…
But the biggest laugh is the crime drama that plays out. We basically have all the proof of the murderer in front of us: three deaths with Scotty over the body every time, once literally caught “red handed”. Kirk doesn’t believe it. His moment to shine is: “Everything points to Jack the Ripper!” Actually, Captain… no it doesn’t. Everything points to Scotty. I mean, Hengist is a jerk but he’s not wrong. This is classic Leo Johnson material here (that’s a Twin Peaks reference based on a 1990 Saturday Night Live skit, but it works stunningly well). It’s only because of the extreme cucumber-cool of the Prefect who, even after just losing his wife to the murdered, remains calm enough to entertain this charade. But why? Nothing points to Jack the Ripper! Everything points to Scotty but Prefect Calm listens to Kirk even as Kirk is working tirelessly to exonerate Scotty. I will never be able to watch crime drama again. I’ll look to my wife and say “everything points to Jack the Ripper!” And speaking of Jack, people on Rigel IV and Argelius II know who that is pretty quickly; even that he died centuries ago. I’m willing to bet that I wouldn’t know the names of dozens of murderers just one country over, but Jack is well known universally? (I don’t know; maybe I’m wrong because Spock knows all the planets between Earth and Argelius without even looking, but that’s not even the same as knowing all the states between Maine and, say, Arizona because space isn’t a straight line! So maybe by the time of this story, people know a lot more than I do now.)
A couple quick observations before I get to an interesting idea. First, that belly dance takes up a full 2.5 minutes, where the players are playing the same music from The Cage. Must be a popular song, but I was dying for it to end. It was interminable, but also, even as a product of the 60’s, it was objectifying women in an uncomfortable way! Ahead of it’s time, huh? Not always! The speculation of a creature that exists on emotion will come back soon and it’s one of my favorite episodes. Kirk talks about a gas creature called Mellitus that he encountered; is this the gas cloud of Obsession? Spock says there are 440 members of the crew, which means they have definitely picked up more crew since the first few episodes. And that close up of Scotty’s hand on the lie detector? Nope – tricked! Doohan lost his middle finger. If you watch Trek closely, he always has his right hand balled up, obscuring the loss. I can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t show that in 1968 but that caught my eye and I even paused the episode because I was so stunned!
With all of this, I have to say something good about this episode because like any good science fiction, it did make me wonder. When they beat “redjac” and beam him out into space, they say it might go on existing but as fragments. Effectively they beam it out and disperse its molecules. But that got me thinking: imagine if a race in our universe found a creature like this, and solved it the same way. A creature that couldn’t be killed, so they disperse it and some parts of it wander the universe… until it finds a home, and respawns. A home full of people who can live off fear and kill one another all the time. I’ve heard of a little blue-green marble out in Mutter’s Spiral that might make a great home for such a creature… Well, it just makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
When Trek gets it right, those episodes can stand the test of time. When Trek gets it wrong, I can’t help but wonder how it went so wrong. Oh, wait, I know: everything points to Jack the Ripper! ML
The view from across the pond:
I do enjoy a good murder mystery, trying to figure out who committed the murder out of the possible suspects we are shown. Unfortunately this is not a good murder mystery, and none of the suspects committed the murders, at least not of their own volition. Instead, the murderer was possessed by an entity. So the mystery side of things doesn’t work, because it’s a cheat, but we don’t really watch Star Trek expecting to see Miss Marple anyway. As an episode of a science fiction series it’s not a bad one at all, and that’s because it’s not science fiction. Confused? Doctor Who has done this a few times, with enemies who are basically demons from the dawn of time, the root of evil in the universe. It’s fantasy, not sci-fi, but I have no objection to that at all. The entity that possesses various characters here has “existed from the dawn of time and… shall live beyond its end”. I’m not sure there’s any scientific way to subscribe to that idea. It’s religion or fantasy. That immediately sends the fear factor a lot higher than pure sci-fi can generally manage. When the entity takes over the ship’s computer there a palpable sense of danger. This thing means business.
As part of our journey through Babylon 5, I had to suffer the ridiculous idea of Jack the Ripper in space, so when the meaning of “Redjac” was revealed I groaned. Luckily this was a much better use of the idea. I had a trawl around the internet to see what people thought of this episode after I watched it, and the overriding complaints were all to do with sexism. With one proviso, which I’ll get to, I think those complaints all spectacularly miss the point of the story here. This is an episode about sexism.
So we have an entity here that is repeating certain behaviours. It possessed a man (or men) to become Jack the Ripper, and killed women in foggy London. Fast forward nearly four centuries and the entity is possessing men to kill women on foggy Argelius II. One review I looked at suggested that the fog could be a deliberate evocation of Whitechapel. Er… you think? Of course it is. The point is that this entity has a modus operandi. It kills women. It hates women. What it hates the most is sexually liberated women, or women who allow themselves to be objectified by men, by choice, necessity or desperation. It doesn’t care why. It just kills.
“Hatred of all there ever is. Hatred of women.”
This hatred is the motive for murder, and there are two superficially different ideas in that quote: “all there ever is” and “women”. But the female ability to give birth sustains the human race, so those two ideas fit together. It hates us, so it hates our means of existence.
But here we have to come to the proviso I mentioned above, and the reason why this is a good episode rather than the amazing piece of work it could have been. The writer works hard to show us the horror of the hatred of women, how nasty it is to treat them as a separate species, and where that can lead. Kirk and his crew start the episode by objectifying women as well, with Kirk lining up a conquest for Scotty to cheer him up after an accident, which was caused by a female crewmember. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Kirk actually suggests that Scotty could end up hating all women, because of the accident. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be worrying about him hating all men if a male crewmember had caused the accident. So he’s treating women as if they were alien beings, and a potential enemy. In fact, he’s treating them as less than that, toys that can be played with and cast aside when you get fed up with them. He’s normalising that potential response from Scotty, instead of being a captain and telling him to cut the crap if he wants to keep his job. And that works absolutely fine as a comparison to the misogyny of the entity… except they don’t learn anything from it. One or two different lines at the end of the episode would have fixed this and elevated it to greatness, but instead off goes Kirk and his lads, back to their strip clubs.
“The law of Argelius is love.”
Scratch beneath the surface of that statement, because Kirk never does. RP
Wolf In The Fold, which may be more suited as a Trek tale for Halloween than Catspaw, and the Fantasy Island episode where Victor Buono played Jack the Ripper were my first sci-fi stories in childhood about the notorious serial killer. Decades later it was sci-fi shows like Sanctuary that made me realize how creatively popular it had become. John Fiedler’s Hengist portrayal was in obvious ways guessable enough as the killer, but still very good. It’s depressing to know that the serial killings of women still happen in Trek’s future. What benefits the story they are hoping to create may seem fair enough. For Trek’s moral and optimistic tales, it’s quite challenging. But it would’ve been great to see Kira Nerys or Captain Janeway aikido-flip Hengist in the end.
Thank you both for your reviews.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Whether Jack the Ripper was a literally inhuman entity or just a crazed madman, I’m easily reminded of a quote from Doctor Who: Kinda, when Todd asks: “Why do such things exist?” and the Doctor simply replying: “Who can tell?”. Science fiction and fantasy may in its own methods enhance evil as something that’s meant to make us realize and nurture everything that’s good, even if it most-miraculously-it-seems takes the team of Kirk and Spock to finally rid the universe of Red Jack. The theme of realistically humbled heroes of the piece finally beating some evil force than previously good people somehow failed to do is common with most thrillers. The UK’s Thriller anthology was always somehow enjoyable for that. But in Trek’s case, there can be a Godsend quality to how Kirk and his crew succeed against all of the cosmic monstrosities from the Doomsday Machine to Red Jack that seem to have beaten everyone else before the Enterprise’s intervention.
Even to the point of boldly presuming to make exceptions to the Prime Directive, Kirk, in the tradition of SF heroes from Doctor Who to Ellen Ripley and Fox Mulder, is a natural force for intervention for which the audience expectations are usually satisfied. But when it comes to defeating someone or something based on a real evil of history, the challenge in making it all real enough for the audience is where Wolf In The Fold may be most daring. Again of course it depends on how we view classic Treks over time.
LikeLiked by 1 person