Star Trek takes on the concept of beauty and ugliness in Is There in Truth No Beauty? I’m torn between thinking it’s a brilliant episode and a dreadful one. It’s a good subject matter, and while The Twilight Zone may have done it first with the iconic episode, The Eye of the Beholder, I think Trek may have a lot more to say on the subject. The problem is that it’s still a show of the 60’s and suffers many of the constraints of the time, leading it to some good messages and some terribly sexist ones as well.
For an episode dealing with ugliness and beauty, let’s talk about the ugly first. This probably sounds like the start of a joke but… Kollos is so ugly that the crew have to evacuate hallways for him to wander the halls or they will go insane. Spock has to wear a visor because his Vulcan training will at least allow him to behold the ambassador without going mad. Ok, so the first thing that happens is Spock beams abord Dr. Miranda Jones (Next Generation’s Dr. Pulaski). He then greets Jones as Kollos, mistaking her for the ambassador. Can Spock really not tell beauty from insanity-inducing ugliness? (Even if you don’t find her that pretty, she’s not going to induce insanity in anyone!) Next, when her assistant arrives, he says to Spock “you’re the Vulcan”. What would he say to Sulu, “you’re the Japanese guy”? Uhuru? Casual racism or just stating the obvious? You decide. While talking to her over dinner, Kirk tells Miranda that he is surprised that the “male population of the Federation” didn’t talk her out of her dream of working with the Medusan. Sure, what’s a woman’s dreams when compared to males wanting a wife, huh? Next up… once it’s established that Kollos is in a container, why did it matter if they cleared out the corridors? Was he likely to get dropped and fall out? Why wear the visor during beaming at that point? Can we see through the case as he beams out? Also, that most revered symbol of the Vulcan culture that we never heard of before, the IDIC symbol that Dr. Jones comments on… the blind woman knew he was wearing it…how? (Telling how close she is to a door is way different to knowing what a person is wearing!) The worst offenses are yet to come. The crew decide, rather than talk to Miranda about their plan, they will use subterfuge and distract her while Spock mind-melds with Kollos. Kirk realizes it won’t be a problem to seduce her which really showcases Kirk’s ego, while Spock walks down the hallway like he’s filming a scene for a Tarantino movie… sloooow motion! Dude, pick up the pace, you’re supposed to be doing this while Kirk is showing off the flower… Then, while in her quarters, she finds out Kollos has agreed to the meld, so she screams. The three gallant gentlemen waiting right outside don’t even flinch or move towards the door to see if she’s alright even though the Medusan has already driven one person mad. For the mind meld, they move Kollos from his room (which had a convenient plinth for his case; you know, for the dude that no one knew what he was going to look like). That move him to the bridge with a dressing gown partition in place, just to maximize the risk of every member of the bridge staff going mad, should the partition fall over! What was wrong with his room? After the meld, while Spock is in sickbay for going bonkers and before Kirk goes on to insult a woman to the point of an HR nightmare, he walks in the room to talk to Miranda. She is well and truly blind, not wearing her sensor net. She calls out to find out who is there. Kirk keeps her waiting for several seconds during which time she must have been at least a little afraid. Oh, chivalry, wherefore art though, oh chivalry?
Now with all this, one can either cringe or laugh, but there are enough good ideas packed in here that we can see past the ugly to find the beauty. When even McCoy is taken by Miranda’s beauty, he asks why she would spend her time with someone so “ugly”. This judgement notwithstanding, her reply is to ask why a man so full of love of life would spend so much time looking at sickness and disease. Miranda then refers to violent emotion as “a kind of insanity”, which is hard to deny. But it’s Kirk’s reference to one of the last of their prejudices (because “the Vulcan” comment didn’t strike him as prejudicial) is that we assume lovely things are good and ugly things are bad. But even Miranda has to ask, what is ugly? And really, that is at that heart of the episode: what makes something ugly? In college, we did a paper on Aesthetics and it’s a fascinating subject, but the question is valid and makes us think; which is exactly what Trek should do! Consider: Miranda is supposedly so beautiful that all the men throw themselves at her – one literally goes mad – but she is incapable of loving another human being, she’s willing to let Spock die because she is jealous and spends most of the episode being very difficult to like. She’s cold and uncaring. She’s the beauty that, in truth, is very ugly. By contrast, the “ugly” Medusan has a deep think about what it means to be alone, as humans ultimately are; he proves to be a very decent being saving the crew and never holding Spock longer than Kirk requests. We are forced to challenge our preconceived notions of beauty and ugliness when we see that which is “beautiful” possessed a malignancy in her soul. She only seems to overcome it when Kirk unleashes ugly at her. In some ways, he throws her own internal ugliness into focus and forces her to release it to become a good person. Maybe inner and outer beauty can now match.
There are a few other points: when the Enterprise goes beyond the galactic rim, I could not help but wonder how Voyager got it all so wrong. Why didn’t we get “weird space” instead of “more of the same space” when that show was on? Still love the concept! McCoy gets to use his famous “he’s dead Jim”, then again proves he’s a doctor of questionable repute when he can’t explain why Marvick died. His best moment comes when Spock speaks some lovely things to Uhura (“That’s not Spock”) only for Spock/Kollos to ask McCoy if he’s surprised that he was quoting Byron! (“That’s Spock!”). Overall, a strange episode but it challenges us and makes us think. A favorite, it is not, but a damned interesting dip into the realm of aesthetics. I hope we have a few more thought-provoking stories before the series ends! ML
The view from across the pond:
Jean Lisette Aroeste’s two scripts for Star Trek were her only writing credits. I haven’t seen the other one yet, but based on this one, I can see why. Her inexperience shows through in the bizarre structure of the episode, creating some kind of jeopardy, dispensing with it, and then doing the same thing again and again. At first it’s about a mysterious foe on board the ship.
“There’s somebody nearby thinking of murder.”
Now let’s think. Who could that possibly be? Maybe, just maybe, it could be the one person in the room who isn’t a regular cast member, and the only other guest role this week? After his failed murder attempt, this becomes an episode about the Enterprise travelling halfway across the universe by accident, and ambassador Kollos holding the key to their return. That’s resolved with ten minutes still to go, and then it becomes a story of Spock’s sanity hanging in the balance, and in the hands of Miranda, who just happens to be incredibly jealous of him.
To be fair, these three ideas are all good ones, with plenty of potential for interesting stories, but none of them are handled particularly well, and even with three plots packed into one episode it all still feels very slow, as if there isn’t quite enough story to stretch to 50 minutes, which is very odd.
Aroeste seems to have been attempting a clumsy fable about judging by appearances here, but it’s an idea that is shoehorned into the script. McCoy simply flags up the potential danger of contact with a race of aliens who can accidentally kill a human on sight (or near enough), and (unusually for McCoy) he’s making a fair point, but Spock’s response is a non sequitur:
“I see, Dr McCoy, that you still subscribe to the outmoded notion promulgated by your ancient Greeks that what is good must also be beautiful.”
Kirk then calls that “one of the last of our prejudices”, obviously forgetting the many other prejudices he has displayed over the last couple of years, and then proceeds to do his very best to hit on Miranda, while McCoy does the same. Later, Kirk tries to distract her by romancing her, and we are invited to the conclusion that the only reason this infallible stud doesn’t get the girl is that she is blind. That was an effective twist, but how revolting to suggest that the only way a woman could resist Kirk’s advances is if there’s something wrong with her. He then belittles her decision to devote her life to her career:
“What about love, Miranda?”
I’m astonished this was written by a female writer. Maybe it was heavily script edited because it was a rookie script, and all the misogyny was added in by somebody else. I’m just guessing, so feel free to use the comments section if you have any insight on that. I suppose it’s hard to argue that it isn’t part of a coherent idea, because Miranda is shown to be the object of everyone’s desires, and yet “the ugliness is within” her, so it does play well into the idea of the folly of judging by appearances.
Where Aroeste, or perhaps the designer, drops the ball on that, is in the actual (non)appearance of the ambassador. I don’t like the idea of somebody’s appearance being able to send people mad, even logical Spock, as it makes little sense and comes uncomfortably close to demonising difference as something that is possibly harmful to others, and in reality it’s the psychedelic flashy lights that he emits that seem to do the damage. At least, that’s how it comes across visually in the episode. So it would have been much more accurate and less problematical from the point of view of discriminatory language (talking about “ugliness” all the time) if they had simply said that Kollos emits patterns of light that send people mad, which is what we actually see. That would of course have been a poor fit for the theme of the episode, but that just highlights how Aroeste came up with an idea but had no idea how to communicate it coherently.
Don’t judge by appearances. Yeah, we know. But also don’t objectify and belittle women. This was the day that Star Trek rejected one prejudice, while embracing another. RP