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Star Trek – The Squire of Gothos (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It’s easy to see why The Squire of Gothos has become such a Star Trek touchstone. The show is iconic, but there are particular images and ideas that resonate beyond the core fanbase. Captain Pike’s wheelchair from The Menagerie is one such example, as is the fight with the Gorn from Arena. It’s amazing that Star Trek could produce so many memorable and distinctive images so quickly. Trelane might not have the same name recognition, or even the same pop culture cache, but The Squire of Gothos makes quite an impression.

Indeed, the image of a god-like being acting like a spoilt child, dressed in all manner of period military clothing is a great visual, and it’s little wonder that Roddenberry would return to that idea when he was writing Encounter at Farpoint, the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Similarly, The Squire of Gothos is one of the major influences on Futurama‘s superb parody/homage, Where No Fan Has Gone Before, right down to the wonderful “twist” ending that has been spoiled by almost half-a-century of pop culture osmosis.

Still, even apart from its massive influence on pop culture, The Squire of Gothos is still a fantastic piece of television, and an example of Star Trek at its very best.

It's hip to be squire...

It’s hip to be squire…

To be fair, there’s not too much about The Squire of Gothos which is original at this point in the game. We’ll just about two-thirds of the way through the first season, and we’ve already learned to take god-like beings for granted. Where No Man Has Gone Before and Charlie X both feature immature beings granted impossible powers. Indeed, Charlie X even features the same ending, with the parents of the eponymous spoilt child intervening to take him home and to stop him from causing more hassle.

Indeed, Trelane’s strange and ethereal quality fits in surprisingly well with the rest of the first season. There’s little concrete sense of what Trelane might actually be, just that he is almost beyond our comprehension. He can steer a planet like a space ship, freeze people, move anybody anywhere, reshape matter to his will. More than that, though, there’s a sense that what we see is just a faint echo of what he really is.

Kneel before Trelane!

Kneel before Trelane!

“I monitored him, and what I found was unbelievable,” McCoy notes. When Kirk asks if that means Trelane is not alive, McCoy replies, “Not in the way we define life. No trace. Zero.” Sulu inquires, “You mean, it shows he’s dead?” The doctor clarifies, “It doesn’t even show that he exists at all, alive or dead.” Indeed, it seems like this entire universe is nothing but a daycare centre to him, some place where his parents can drop him off before they come to collect him.

This universe is nothing to him. It’s like studying an ant colony through a magnifying glass. “But I haven’t finished studying my predators yet,” Trelane protests when his parents show up. His father sternly rebukes, “This is not studying them.” There’s a sense that Trelane is truly, inescapably alien – in a way that so many of the original Star Trek aliens are. Like the salt vampire in The Man Trap or the Old Ones in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Trelane is distinctly and uncomfortably “other.”

Hot shots...

Hot shots…

Looking back over the first season of Star Trek, it seems like there was a very definite fear of granting power to those too immature to handle it, probably a theme that resonated with the Cold War anxieties. Balance of Terror seemed afraid of a war that might be started by a generation too young to recall the horrors of the last major conflict. Miri imagined a planet full of perpetual teenagers. As mentioned before, Charlie X gave unlimited power to a teenager with no idea how to use it responsibly.

Trelane behaves like nothing more than a spoilt brat throughout the episode. “It’s my game and my rules,” he protests at one point, and seems unable to fathom that everybody else might not enjoy this game as much as he does. Trelane is perhaps the best of that particular Star Trek archetype, with Q the only other mischievous god-like being who could potentially challenge his place in the Star Trek canon.

Q, who?

Q, who?

Indeed, Q actor John DeLancie has argued that Trelane was probably a massive influence on the depiction of Q in The Next Generation:

I think probably what he did – and I never talked to him about this – I think that he naturally went back in his mind and looked at the characters and events that he had created in the past that had been successful. And the character of Trelane is so… it has a lot of characteristics that are generally like Q. That’s when it occurred to me that Gene had probably called upon that character, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s kinda carrying that baton through time. My contribution is to carry on that idea that began – quite possibly – with Trelane.

Part of the reason that Trelane works so well is down to the fantastic work of William Campbell, an actor among the very select (and very talented) group of performers who would return to the show in a different role.

Shining a light on it...

Shining a light on it…

Campbell gives Trelane this wonderful larger-than-life quality, this incredibly petulant and incredibly powerful persona that really marks him out as a dangerous threat to Kirk. And he’s dangerous precisely because Kirk and the Enterprise aren’t a threat to him. All it takes is a stray thought to destroy the Enterprise or to kill everybody on board, and Campbell makes it quite clear that Trelane wouldn’t even think twice about casually destroying the ship as one might swat a fly.

It’s an ingenious twist – one that hasn’t been diminished or undermined by decades of imitation and parody – to make Trelane a literal child, to reveal that the god-like being tormenting the crew is little more than a kid with a magnifying glass torturing ants. It’s something hinted at throughout the episode, and set up quite well, but it’s also something that makes a great deal of sense. It’s also one of those rare plot twists that still works on re-watching an episode. The Squire of Gothos is arguably enhanced if the reader knows the revelation going into it.

Sword play...

Sword play…

Once again, there’s a strange sense that the universe we perceive is only the smallest facet of reality. Reprimanding the child, his father sternly warns, “Stop that nonsense at once, or you’ll not be permitted to make any more planets.” Indeed, the parents seem rather indifferent towards the crew of the Enterprise. It seems like they prefer not to intervene or interact with our reality. “Captain, we regret that the life paths of yourself and your companions have been disturbed,” they apologise, as if they prefer to simply observe action on this plane of existence, if they pay any attention to it at all.

There are lots of nice touches that have probably aged better than they were intended to. It’s hard to believe that anybody working on Star Trek in 1966 or 1967 suspected just how much of a pop culture phenomenon the show would become. And yet, despite that, Trelane feels like a spot-on parody of “super-fans” or of collectors. Of course, unlike Melllvar in Futurama‘s Where No Fan Has Gone Before, Trelane is a “fan” of Earth culture rather than Star Trek itself, but it’s still a nice plot point.

The Enterprise's annual "robot" dance-off was going to be tight this year...

The Enterprise’s annual “robot” dance-off was going to be tight this year…

Trelane’s old mansion is decorated with relics that just happen to be (as a matter of convenience) props from Star Trek. He has the weird bird-man from The Cage, and a stuffed salt vampire from The Man Trap. He even has two life-size action figures of Captain Kirk and Mister Sulu, although they don’t come in their original packaging. While they’re obviously meant to evoke hunting trophies, Trelane’s fetishism of Earth culture and their dynamic pose makes it easy enough to imagine them as prized collectables, a limited edition. “I must say, they make a perfectly exquisite display pair,” he tells McCoy, “but I suppose you want them back now.”

Star Trek and its spin-offs would never attack or directly criticise its fans in the same way that, for example, Doctor Who would occasionally rebuke its more ardent followers. While episodes of Doctor Who like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy or Dalek or Love & Monsters would offer a criticism of a particular type of fan, Star Trek has never engaged in a brutal examination of some of fandom’s less than appealing attributes.

Flying the flag...

Flying the flag…

As such, Trelane – with his superiority complex, his collection of rare memorabilia, his fancy cosplay and his inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy – is perhaps the harshest criticism of collectors in the entire franchise. Of course, The Squire of Gothos was written and aired long before Star Trek had build up that sort of fandom. It’s highly unlikely that The Squire of Gothos was ever meant to be read that way.

To give some context, The Squire of Gothos aired in January 1967. The term “Trekkie” would first be used later in 1967 in relation to fans at the 25th World Science Fiction convention, and the first fanzine – Spockanaliawould be published in September 1967. While Star Trek wasn’t the first show to attract a die-hard fan following (Fan Fiction And Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays credits The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the first), it was certainly an early example.

Boys with toys...

Boys with toys…

Still, it’s interesting to read The Squire of Gothos in that light, and you can see why the episode provides such a wonderful template for Futurama‘s tribute episode. The set-up is even quite similar: a lonely childish god-like being just happens to witness a particular side of human culture, and that culture shapes the way that he interacts with the universe; he demands that others play along with his fantasy and is disappointed when those people refuse to conform to his ideals. Trelane just builds a monument to 19th century culture, while Melllvar has constructed a tribute to Star Trek itself.

As an indication of just how early this is in the life of Star Trek as a franchise, we’re apparently still in the phase where the particulars of the series have yet to be firmly tied down. Uhura references “Spacefleet Command.” When McCoy mentions a desert, Kirk suggests that they are quite a distance from that sort of world. “We’re nine hundred light years from that kind of desert, Bones,” he informs the doctor. This comment suggests that Earth is really the only planet with “that kind of desert”, which seems quite strange once the show introduces the notion of other races and cultures inhabiting the cosmos.

Yes, it's an original...

Yes, it’s an original…

More than that, though, the revelation that Earth is 900 light years away suggests that Trelane’s outdated information is due to the fact that he is watching Earth from 900 years in the past. (Which, by the way, is yet another clever idea from a script packed with clever ideas – the notion that Trelane is influenced by old Earth culture because he is observing from light-years away.) Basic mathematics would then place Star Trek at some point in the 27th or 28th centuries, quite far from the 23rd century that the franchise would eventually settle upon.

Still, despite these hiccups, there’s a lot of the traditional Star Trek aesthetic to enjoy here, beyond wonderful variations on character archetypes. By setting Trelane up as a fan devoted to ancient Earth, the show can contrast Kirk and his crew with their more aggressive and violent ancestors. Roddenberry was very keen to give the show a moral philosophy, to suggest that mankind would eventually evolve past hatred and warfare. The Squire of Gothos allows that philosophy to play out in a rather clever way, as Kirk confronts an alien who fetishises ancient human conflicts and wars – and is subtly appalled by it.

Gunning for Kirk...

Gunning for Kirk…

“You shall join me in a repast,” Trelane offers. “I want to learn all about your feelings on war and killing and conquest. That sort of thing.” Roddenberry’s moral philosophy would occasionally overwhelm Star Trek, and actively restrict the franchise’s ability to tell interesting stories. For example, a lot of the first season of The Next Generation – including episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us – suffer because they are nothing more than excuses for the cast to act superior to the aliens of the week.

The Squire of Gothos avoids this clunky heavy-handedness by being rather clever. For one thing, Kirk doesn’t spend too much time specifying about being better than Trelane. It’s quite clear that Kirk would challenge Trelane to a fair fight if he thought he had a chance to win, and our lead is not an idea – he’s not so idly devoted to pacifism that he orders his men to holster their weapons, but instructs them to keep theirs on stun. Kirk might be better than Trelane, but he’s not afraid to do what needs to be done to protect his crew.

Don't leave him hanging...

Don’t leave him hanging…

It also helps that The Squire of Gothos is relatively subtle in its commentary. In a nice touch, Trelane tries to politely greet each of his guests using what he determines to be their language or customs. He bows in deference to Sulu. He speaks German to Jaeger. Neither is especially impressed. Sulu seems to find it quaint (“is he for real?”) while Jaeger seems put off by Trelane’s military pageantry. It’s a nice way of illustrating that a lot of the old cultural barriers are gone, much like George Takei’s choice to use a fencing sword rather than a samurai sword in The Naked Time.

The script does occasionally go a little bit too far, and is a little bit too on the nose. At one point, Trelane is excited when Kirk tries to protect one of his female officers. Trelane goes into full “officer and gentleman” mode. “After all, that’s the root of the matter, isn’t it?” he demands. “You fight for the attention, the admiration, the possession of women.” It’s a little blunt. Then again, considering how episodes like The Enemy Within and Shore Leave have treated their female characters, perhaps it is worth pointing out that culture can be quite sexist and that some attitudes towards women are quite outdated.

So, he thinks he can dance...

So, he thinks he can dance…

Still, the execution of The Squire of Gothos is quite wonderful. Don McDougall does a wonderful job directing the episode. The whole production looks lavish and fantastic – including the sets and the costuming. The trial scene is shot especially well, with McDougall adopting an approach that is almost expressionist as Kirk stands in the dock, with the nose depicted in silhouette against the back wall of the sparse courtroom. (It helps that Campbell is having a wonderful time, banging his gavel.)

The episode is filled with little touches that work surprisingly well, making the whole thing seem quite surreal. For example, the episode does away with the orange environmental suits from The Naked Time, which already seemed to offer rather dubious protection. Here, the away team can seemingly survive in a hostile environment by merely covering their nose and mouth with a little respirator. It’s absurd, and it’s something that any other Star Trek spin-off would have difficulty pulling off, but it works here. Similarly, Trelane’s written invitation to the planet surface is an inspired touch, creating a sense that something very strange is afoot.

"Well, at least it's not space!Lincoln again..."

“Well, at least it’s not space!Lincoln again…”

The Squire of Gothos is a superb piece of Star Trek, and one of the highlights of a rather great first season. It’s probably the best story featuring a god-like being in the entire three-season run of Star Trek, and features one of the best guest performances in the franchise’s history. Quite frankly, it’s just a great piece of television.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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4 Responses

  1. I really enjoy the depth and thoroughness of your reviews, but I was curious about one point in this one. When you say this episode was the harshest criticism of collectors in the franchise, had you considered “The Most Toys” from TNG?

    • I think I honestly might have forgotten about it.
      Which seems ridiculous, when I admit it. (I should surrender my Star Trek fan badge.)
      Good spot. And thank you very much for the kind words.

  2. So much of this episode rests on Campbell selling a quick switch from a sadistic toff to (as you point out) a literal child, and he does it so well its almost uncomfortable to watch, if you catch my drift…

    As far as the script goes, I always appreciated the use of the name “Jaeger” for the obstinate, script-mandated blood sacrifice to the monster that later describes its activities as “studying my predators”. On the nose, perhaps, but not bad.

    • Campbell is amazing. Particularly on rewatch, where he signposts the twist so brilliantly that you feel stupid for not getting it the first time around.

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