This is one of those episodes that never seems to turn up in reruns. It’s like that forgotten gem that even the networks overlook. But make no mistake, like so many episodes of season three, this one is important. I often find myself thinking of it many times in my life when I wonder about the effects of some unseen thing. What’s that 5g doing to us? WiFi signal? Heat from a phone? Just because it’s unseen doesn’t mean it’s not there. The Cloudminders dared to tell us that well before it was in vogue to draw our attention to it. In that respect, Trek was once again looking ahead.
This is the third episode in a row to feature a plague, but mercifully, it’s a botanical one and the planet Andara has the only known cure. Kirk and Spock arrange to beam down to pick up some of the much needed element but find themselves lassoed by local miners. They quickly learn that there is a distinct feeling of Morlocks and Eloi going on with the class divide and Kirk gets to bully around the planetary ruler to level the playing field. (While Spock offered a master class in diplomacy in The Mark of Gideon, Kirk’s diplomacy is “somewhat inadequate” and he ends up abducting the ruler of the planet to make a point. Note to self: if I plan on taking any Masterclass sessions on Diplomacy, take the lecture offer from Spock, not Kirk!)
There are a few observations that we must make before we get into the meat of the episode. To start: good God, that’s Justin from Babylon 5. I have expected Plasus to tell Kirk “Once you’re inside one of those ships for a while, you’re never quite … whole … again. But you do what you’re told. And so will you!” Jeff Corey has worked with two of my favorite science-fiction captains! The other big observation is: dear God, where do these women shop and when will they open a branch around here? I mean, all kidding aside, the women’s outfits on Trek really make one wonder why people thought this show was ahead of its time. (The makeup needs work too. That tri-toned eye makeup is just weird looking!) Now, the outfits that Droxine and Vanna wear can’t help but raise an… eyebrow so it’s no wonder that even Spock can’t resist the temptations of a woman. He spends time talking to her about his 7 year mating cycle, all the while checking her out. (Sure only one year has passed, Spock, m’boy, but you can round up if you need to!) Kirk, meanwhile, is attacked in his bed then wrestles Vanna into a compromising position where he says he finds “this rather enjoyable!” The mind boggles! Not that I necessarily blame our heroes, but it was … difficult not to find it all somewhat distracting!
Now one has to suspend disbelief with this episode just in the interest of timing. To prove his point about the unseen gas, Jim intends to lock himself, Plasus and Vanna in a cave together. But maybe the gas was already affecting his mind because he gets things in the wrong order. He blows the cave entrance up so no one can leave or enter, and then he tries to call the Enterprise to make sure they can enact his plan. How sucky for him if he had buried himself alive then couldn’t get in touch with the ship! But this is where one has to be lenient with timing because they made the mistake of establishing that they only have 12 hours to get the mineral to the plague planet. So McCoy says that prolonged exposure causes mental retardation but these people have been working in the caves all their lives. Do they really improve after just an hour away? One would think that would be noticeable! Does the gas start to impact them that quickly?
I do like a lot of the ideas in this story too because, while the comments made about them comprise a very small part of the story, their meaning carries a great deal of weight! Kirk tells Vanna an “idea can’t be seen or felt” to make the point that just because it’s not visible, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Spock has an internal monologue (second time this season) wherein he speculates that the leadership of the planet is not a wise one. Lessons on leadership from Spock are worth paying attention to! And Kirk explains to Plasus that all people deserve basic rights, like equality, kindness and justice and that loyalty and leadership are not the mark of a weak mind. Kirk make a strong case for the downtrodden in this story and I applaud his work, even if it is… shall we say… unconventional. I’m not sure that the two stubborn leaders, Kirk and Plasus, could have been talked off the ledge so easily but it was nice seeing them find a mild peace in the end. (Was that a good pun? Talked off the edge? I thought so!)
The end once again reminds me of the COVID-19 world we have been living in when Droxine says she doesn’t like masks. Neither do I, but like this story, I realize they could mean the difference between staying healthy and having big problems. Maybe this episode needs to find its place on television again! However, the biggest realization is also from Droxine when she talks to Spock. She says she is interested in learning about life by going down to the mines; she doesn’t want to stay confined to the clouds any more. I saw this as an important allegory for we fans of science fiction. Sure, staying in the lofty clouds of imagination is a wonderful thing, provided we know when it’s time to get down to earth and do the difficult tasks. As long as we remember that both are important and we can’t have one without the other, we should be ok. Otherwise we end up like the guard: “half unconscious”! (Which is what…? Awake or asleep?) The Cloudminders may not be well loved by networks, but I think it’s a hidden masterpiece. ML
The view from across the pond:
I love a floating city in the clouds. I think anyone who has ever been inspired by sci-fi ideas would. It’s an idea that goes back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, and one of my favourite ever anime movies is the wonderful Laputa: Castle in the Sky. The idea of living in a city in the sky is just magical.
Cleverly, this is used as a starting point for a story that looks at class issues, in an amusingly literal representation of upper and lower class. The cloud-dwellers have a “totally intellectual society”, which sounds boring to me, but they clearly have at least some interest in fashion and beauty.
“The finest example of sustained anti-gravity elevation I’ve ever seen.” Or, at the very least, it’s a cleverly designed outfit. Invading their intellectual society are the “disruptors”, who make themselves an easy target of discrimination by destroying art, a sure way to provide fuel to the fire of those who seek to dismiss them as an “inferior species”. This is basically a miner’s strike, and Plasus employs an all-too-familiar tactic for undermining people with a genuine grievance, focussing on a destructive minority whom he claims are manipulating the others and do not represent the Troglytes as a whole. You’ll have seen this tactic in action whether you realise it or not, in the aftermath of any demonstration that goes too far, which inevitably leads to a media focus on the few numpties who smash windows rather than the inequality that triggered off the protest in the first place. I think we are supposed to see Plasus’ tactics for what they are, and the evidence for which side of this debate the writers sit (or at least the original writer) can be found in a rather unusual moment for Star Trek: Spock’s monologue.
“This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrasts. Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens… It is not a wise leadership.”
This is admirable, but it’s undermined by a few things. Whereas Doctor Who offers us a natural hero for these kinds of stories, a man who fights for the underdog, a rebel even in his own society, the friend of the oppressed and champion of the miners who toil in the dark, Star Trek shows us instead a captain who almost constantly seeks to remodel the universe in the image of his utopian Federation. A utopia comes at a price, and his Federation has turned a blind eye to what is going on here, or perhaps doesn’t even care enough to look. We therefore get a predictably bumpy road to Kirk doing anything about the problem here, and along the way he engages in a bit of characteristic mysogyny when he’s violently pinning a woman down on a bed by her arms and confessing that he finds it “rather enjoyable”. It’s hard to ever shake the feeling that he’s only getting involved because he wants the cure for the botanical plague (yet another example of one planet holding the only source of a cure) rather than really caring about the inequality, and he’s happy to do a deal with Plasus at the end and walk away, smiling at the fascist, to save his own sorry arse from an enquiry into his actions. Let’s be realistic here, all the progress made in the name of equality will be undone the moment the Enterprise flies away. But there’s a bigger problem than this, and that’s the whole idea that the zenite in the mines makes people belligerent and violent. Leaving aside the absurd spectacle of Kirk being beamed up and immediately going back to normal, this undermines the message horribly, because it suggests that the Troglytes are motivated by mental illness rather than the oppression they suffer, and giving them masks will solve their problems, so they can go back to being happy slaves while their masters continue to literally look down on them.
So this is all a bit of a mess, and with three writers credited it’s presumably a case of too many cooks, but I was still happier to watch it than most Star Trek episodes. At least somebody was trying to do something interesting, and I still want to visit a city in the sky one day, even if I would be one of the “disruptors” drawing moustaches on their statues. RP