French actress France Nuyen… yes, her first name identifies her nationality… very convenient… plays the titular Elaan of Troyius in another one of Trek’s forays into sexism. Yeah, yeah, I’m being unfair, I know, but for a show I remembered as being “before it’s time” and forward thinking, I’m amazed by some of the things that happen in these episodes. When Kirk and company are sent on a top secret mission, it immediately sounds good, but this is no Enterprise Incident. In this story, Kirk has to bring a “spoiled brat” to get married. The problem with spoiled brats is that I expect kids, like in Miri or And The Children Shall Lead. Instead, Elaan arrives wearing the second sexiest outfit in Trek history, acts like a savage (who travels with lots of expensive clothes), and needs to be smacked around by Jim; he actually offers her a spanking at one point. I have a hard time reconciling that with a show that’s supposed to be forward thinking.
It goes wrong in a lot of ways. Kirk only bows to the honored guest after he sees what she’s wearing. Our skilled diplomat doesn’t think to bow when asked before she beams in. Yet, he does seem to indicate some level of understanding of what’s at stake, and the value of being diplomatic when speaking to Petri, the awesomely green skinned ambassador from the rival world, so why bowing was such a challenge is anyone’s guess. Kirk also tells Spock that “the women of your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in the galaxy that can make that claim!” I cringed. Sure, two guys joking around might just be having a laugh, but considering what’s going on, I’m not so sure that’s how this should be interpreted. This episode offers us a few moments of Kirk making a fool of himself. (It even opens with Kirk doing that double question thing we saw once before. “Demand? What delay?”) McCoy also has a chance at his casual racism with his infamous, “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” which I’m sure was intended as a playful expletive. And surely there are some rules to opening the door of a visiting dignitary without being invited. (However, the part that really made me laugh out loud was his how, um, stiffly… Jim walks out of the room after getting busted by Spock and McCoy in the arms of Elaan of Fredericks of Hollywood!)
Yet there is a heart to this story and I can tell you it has nothing to do with the latest appearance of the Klingons, whose role is so minor one wonders why they paid the actor to appear onscreen. Elaan tells Kirk she doesn’t know how to make people like her. Incredibly, I felt for her, especially coming off a week of debating about Netflix’s Lost in Space version of Doctor Smith. Elaan would rather be seen as powerful, a being to be feared and respected, because she doesn’t know how to be loved! (This is not unlike Smith but it’s not the time to dive into a whole story about Lost in Space.) Kirk may be tricked into falling for Elaan with her tears, but I don’t think he needed to be. Once she says she doesn’t know how to be liked, I think Kirk would have taken to her anyway. The point however was to create a situation where he has no choice in the way he feels about her. And I will say Kirk does offer a good lesson because of his experiences: “It’s not required that you like each other… Just do your job.” We all have duties, responsibilities and obligations and sometimes you have to just get on with it. Sure we all want choice, but sometimes there isn’t one. Tell me what parent of a new born doesn’t want a day off? It’s not really a choice though, is it? Like Kirk said, she could have stepped down from her position. Since she doesn’t, one has to accept that this is the duty that she needed to get on with. And Jim lives it at the end of the tale. He doesn’t have a choice in getting over his latest love interest; he’s biochemically connected to her. But he has a duty to the Enterprise and his crew and he gets on with doing his job.
Still I walked away befuddled and with no greater love for the overall story. Not to mention, for a race that’s supposed to be so inferior to the Federation, how does that one dude know how to hack the Enterprise and put it in harms way? When that same guy kills himself, he uses the convenient disintegrator gun on the security guards belt. (Didn’t know Starfleet had those, even if it did happen in season one’s City on the Edge of Forever. These guys are more powerful than they let on!) And the biggest confusion was around Petri. I thought he was a Klingon spy because of that necklace. See, when Petri is with Elaan in the sickbay, he makes one last attempt to give her the gift of a necklace. Moments later, she is on the bridge after stopping off to change first, but significantly, she is wearing a necklace (made of dilithium). She says its common stones from her world but… does that mean it wasn’t the necklace Petri gave her? It was just a necklace from her wardrobe from Narnia? Yeah, I get it, the common stones were valuable to the Federation and the Klingons, but what was the whole push by Petri for the necklace if there was no necklace to be worn? I think someone got confused while writing this one… I hate mocking classic Trek because I still love it but what choice do I have? I have to report on what I see. It’s my responsibility! I just have to get on with it. ML
The view from across the pond:
When I was a child I used to wonder why there weren’t more female sci-fi fans. Why was it so difficult to find girls who shared my interest in Doctor Who or Star Trek? Having watched most of Classic Trek now, I’m pondering on the opposite question: how is it that there are any female Star Trek fans at all? Even one? I mean, if the roles were reversed, and this was a series that constantly treated men as something inferior, episode after episode (I know I’m in the realms of fantasy here), an episode like the groan-inducingly-titled Elaan of Troyius would force me to walk away from this series in total disgust, in the unlikely event that I had made it this far.
By the way, my spell check is trying to change “groan-inducingly-titled” to “Tushingham-cum-Grindley”, which apparently is a parish of Cheshire and sounds like potentially a much more interesting title for a Star Trek episode than the clumsy pun on Helen of Troy.
It’s a poor choice of reference anyway, because what happens to Elaan here has much more in common with Eliza Doolittle, or Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. This is about taming the savage and making her compliant in a forced marriage. Kirk actually calls her “an uncivilised savage”. This of course makes the casting of half-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen and then darkening her skin to make her into a generic African-esque princess instead of actually using her Asian heritage pretty nasty. Let’s not go congratulating Star Trek about interracial kisses when it’s doing stuff like this (and yet again brainwashing is needed to inspire Kirk to kiss the girl, something that is not normally required for his parade of soft-focus conquests).
I’m quite ashamed to say that I found the start of the episode was quite enjoyable. It very effectively tricks the viewer into being on the wrong side of the argument, because Elaan is indeed such a “spoilt brat”. She has no respect for the fact that she is in somebody else’s territory, and expects everyone to sing to her tune wherever she goes. When she slaps Kirk, he slaps her right back, and that’s something I don’t actually take issue with seeing, because far too many television dramas from this era made a taboo of that, as if female on male violence was acceptable but the reverse was not (the correct answer, of course, is that neither is acceptable, but that’s a level of enlightenment that Classic Trek was certainly never going to hit). But as the episode progressed I quickly realised the viewer’s trap I had fallen into. Elaan has every right to be a “spoilt brat” in this situation. She’s being treated as an object to be traded, and never once does Kirk question the right of anyone to force this noble (not savage) woman into an arranged marriage of political convenience to a member of a race of people she despises. Before we are all encouraged to tut tut at her behaviour, it would have been useful if there were some acknowledgement of her right to exercise free will over who she ends up in bed with. I use that expression for marriage deliberately, because there was a connection here ready and waiting to be made, if the writer had cared one iota about rising above the level of a caveman scribbling on walls with his script. There was a conversation to be had about how Elaan takes away Kirk’s right to consent by effectively drugging him, and how that makes a very convenient parallel with Elaan’s right to marry who she wants being taken away from her. But of course, this being Sexist Trek, Kirk is man enough to rise about the effects of the tears (traditionally seen as feminine wiles to get what the woman wants – clearly no accident), while Elaan instead undergoes a gooey-eyed transformation for the remainder of the story.
I should be praising the second half of the episode, which seems almost like an entirely different story, and is actually really good, but the first half put me in too much of a bad mood to appreciate it much. Depressingly, the Classic series of Star Trek has answered the question of my childhood self. Why weren’t there more girls who liked sci-fi? They had more sense, that’s why. RP