Four episodes in, and I’m not seeing the Star Trek that I loved. Yeah, The Enterprise Incident was good, but this season isn’t winning any points for the series! The first thought I had when this episode started was that it was a repeat of Miri just on a planet far more pastel-friendly. I was waiting for the kids to call the adults “grups”. Even when Kirk is speculating about why the children would remain unaffected by whatever was on the planet, I was hoping McCoy would say, “Puberty, Jim! Remember Season One when the same thing happened and puberty was the answer? Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not an episode guide!” Thankfully this isn’t a repeat but it’s another of those best-forgotten episodes.
Sure, conceptually, there are good points to be made. “Without followers, evil cannot spread!” It’s a shame that this lesson wasn’t remembered in 2016 or 2020, but that is a good reminder to us all. “Evil does seem to maintain power by suppressing the truth!” Ah, I see what’s happening here. If McCoy didn’t test for a problem on the planet, there wouldn’t be one. The problem is only there because McCoy is looking for it. Obvious, really! Well, Spock does say that humans tend to ignore that which is painful, so it all seems like a very timely episode, if a fairly tedious one.
On top of that, nobody is free of stupidity in this episode either. Sulu, who seems to have a love of old weapons, sees daggers flying towards him and freaks out. Gone is any sense of rational thought because those would be some pretty big daggers… Uhura keeps a mirror at her terminal to gawk at herself, apparently. And when Kirk speaks backwards, the security guard stands rock still. Is he afraid to look confused? Speaking of the security guards, they all watch as the kids take possession of the crew with a fist thumping motion and not one of them starts to think something is amiss. When Spock plays the scenes of the kids with their family at the end of the episode, the sudden cut shows all the parents dead. Who took that picture and why was it a top-down shot? Was this picked up by a passing satellite?? And when Kirk tells Spock to “summon the Gorgan”, I had to question: when did he learn what the creature was called?? But my favorite moment was how McCoy comes off as a real beast when he sees the kids crying! “They’re crying! I don’t know how it happened but it’s good to see!” Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor, not a sadist!
Of course, the worst of the monsters is the Gorgan himself, manipulating the children to his own ends. But what was it? I have to be honest, watching this episode was far more uncomfortable for me now than ever before. Was the creature a pedophile? That’s a damned ugly question to ask of Star Trek, but he’s a shimmery old man who wears an enormous gown and who tells the kids they are friends if they do as he says. He also wants his presence kept secret from the other adults and he’ll give the children special treats (powers and more friends) if they listen to him. And how do the kids manifest those powers? Watch as Tommy “thumps” the air and tell me it’s not a slightly off-putting action! This is not the sort of thing I want to tackle in Star Trek! Of course, they are innocent and think he’s helping them until eventually the truth comes out after which his ugliness manifests physically as a completely horrible monster; about what I’d expect of a pedophile! He dies alone and fades away because that’s all he deserves. (Much like this episode!)
This is not an easy episode to watch, certainly not an easy episode to think about, and is truly one that I need never watch again. And to compound the horror of it, Kirk ordered two men beamed into space to a particularly gruesome death because he thinks they are still orbiting Triacus! (Isn’t there a safety of some sort?!) I mean, could this day get any worse for him? I’m sure he’d cry but wouldn’t want to give McCoy the satisfaction! ML
The view from across the pond:
To appreciate this episode, you have to look beyond the visuals and think about what the story is trying to do, because I think writer Edward J Lakso came up with some great ideas that were just a bit too ambitious for the show. His script is about newly orphaned children being possessed by a ghostly entity, summoning the entity with a ritual, and using its power to make the crew of the Enterprise hallucinate by playing on their deepest fears. Doesn’t that all sound completely brilliant?
That’s because it is brilliant, but all the great aspects of this idea get lost in the disappointing reality of what could be achieved at the time and some unfortunate choices in terms of casting and visuals. So our ghostly figure becomes a fat dude surrounded by sparkly lights, who gives the most boringly monotonous delivery of his lines imaginable, and the hallucinations are nothing more than ageing makeup for Uhura and some swords coming towards Sulu on the screen. The swords look particularly silly, but if you think about the psychology of the scene instead of the visuals it’s clear that this represents an irrational fear. The swords might not seem frightening to us, but the children have tapped into some kind of a phobia, and Sulu is paralysed by it. Scratch the surface, and this is good stuff. You have to do the same with Uhura’s phobia, although that one is more explicit. She fears death, and is shown a vision of herself in the far future, dying and in pain. It’s a nasty idea, and everyone involved deserves credit for being brave enough to put that on screen.
“I see my death.”
One of the things going against this episode is the acting, and the worst examples are our main antagonist and protagonist. I have already mentioned the former, and the latter is of course Kirk, who has anxiety attacks about losing control and being unable to command. Shatner’s ham acting seems to be getting worse. It also doesn’t help that the child who gets the most screen time is irritating, and that fist pumping thing gets old very quickly, although Pamelyn Ferdin is acting her little socks off as Mary, bless her. In the group scenes whenever the children are supposed to be reacting to what’s going on, keep an eye on her. She’s often the only one who’s actually doing any acting, while the others stand there blank-faced.
Where Lakso misses a trick the most is in his portrayal of Spock. Down on the planet he seems to be immune to the anxiety affecting Kirk; that plot point is abandoned later in the episode, but only in a half-hearted way. Lakso could have taken this to either extreme and written some interesting stuff either way. I would have liked to see Spock entirely unaffected throughout, and I would also have liked to see Spock go batsh*t crazy, but what we get instead means he might as well not be there this week.
I realise I have criticised this episode a lot, but I don’t want to give a false impression, because I don’t think this is a bad episode overall. It’s just that I can recognise how great it could have been. The concept behind it is so good, that it’s frustrating to end up with something that just about hits the average mark in terms of Star Trek episodes. It does, however, deserve more credit than it gets for tackling an interesting ethical debate. Take a look at this dialogue between Kirk and Spock:
“Spock, they’re not the alien beings. They’re children being misled.”
“They are followers. Without followers, evil cannot spread.”
That’s a tricky topic, isn’t it, and one of many reminders throughout Star Trek that this is a series only a couple of decades after the Second World War, with the world still struggling to come to terms with the extraordinarily sadistic way a very large number of humans behaved. If people are drawn into a popular, extremist movement and end up “spreading evil”, how culpable are they? Are the followers the villains, or are they the victims? This is of course still relevant today, and in this story that ethical tangle is made all the more uncomfortable by the followers being children, illustrating how innocence and goodness can be corrupted.
“They don’t understand the evil that they are doing.”
When Spock suggests they will have to kill the children, he loses a lot of my respect for the character. I’m not sure if there are any heroes left in this series any more… RP