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Star Trek – This Side of Paradise (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.

Star Trek always had a curious relationship with the hippie movement in the late sixties. On a surface level, you’d assume that the series would have a great deal of empathy for the idealistic and pacifist movement. After all, the show embraced counter-culture in a fairly significant way, offering none-too-subtle criticisms of American foreign policy in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon, and harbouring some very serious concerns about authority in adventures like Dagger of the Mind. What was The Naked Time but an embrace of fin de siècle anxiety mere months before “the summer of love”? After all, the nineteenth century European fin de siècle period had produced Der Wandervogel, considered one of the predecessors to the hippie movement.

And yet the show never seemed entirely comfortable with the youth movement. This would be much more obvious third season’s dire The Way to Eden, but the show’s sense of unease is quite palpable here, as Kirk finds himself trying to deal with a crew that have sampled some mind-altering vegetation and are now embracing free love.

Flower power...

Flower power…

This Side of Paradise is very clearly about the hippy movement. The colonists on Omicron Ceti III couldn’t embody the movement better if they tried. They live on a farming planet which produces enough food to sustain them. They don’t consume anything beyond what they need. “We’re vegetarians,” Elias explains helpfully. They’ve also stumbled upon a way to enhance their mind, using all-natural spores, using what Spock would describe as “a happiness pill.” They might use spores instead of mushrooms, but the colonists are clearly meant to be under the influence of something similar to LSD.

They offer a world that is no longer slavishly devoted to technological advancement, where there is no larger machine for the people to serve. In a way, their philosophy is quite regressive, as Elias explains, “Our philosophy is a simple one, that men should return to a less complicated life. We have few mechanical things here. No vehicles, no weapons. We have harmony here. Complete peace.” He has, in essence, built a “perfect world”, one devoted to the needs and wants of the people living in it.

Reaping what they sew...

Reaping what they sew…

There is a sense of “free love” and communal sharing. “Now,” Leila tells Spock, “you belong to all of us and we to you. There’s no need to hide your inner face any longer. We understand.” You could argue that Omicron Ceti III represents another rejection of communism from Star Trek, similar to the way the show dismissed the paradise that Landru had created on Beta III. Here, everything is shared, even the self.

However, if This Side of Paradise is intended as a criticism of communism, it feels like a more balanced and nuanced critique than the version see in The Return of the Archons. Here, there is no “red hour” where the world seems to tear itself apart due to the expression of repressed desires. Omicron Ceti III has no secret police or brainwashing to impose the will of the collective over anybody else. Indeed, individualism is celebrated on Omicron Ceti III, to the point where everybody is allowed to do whatever they want to do. There is no larger obligation to the colony. Even Spock is able to indulge his own wants and desires more than ever before.

Never too far afield...

Never too far afield…

According to The History of Star Trek – Trek Classic, This Side of Paradise was written with one eye on the hippy movement, its philosophy and its trappings:

“I have a whole drawer full of ideas,” adds Sohl on the story’s genesis, “and I had the idea that… spores, as you know, are inanimate up until the point when they are mixed with water or with anything else, then they come alive. Like yeast. So I had the idea that these things could be consumed by someone and as a result the whole character chemistry of that person could change to a nice, peaceful and loving person. In other words, it was a psychedelic kind of thing. A lot of that was going on at the time. The premise of the thing was that everyone on the Enterprise takes LSD. What would happen? In effect, that’s what this was. They go down to the planet and they all get the spores in them and turn into different people. That was the basis of the whole thing, and I thought it was an interesting premise. It was the only time that Spock was allowed to be a loving, caring, cherishing human being. That was my idea. Worked out just swell, I think. I’ve forgotten what the payoff was. I think they had to be made angry. The adrenaline going into your system is what defeats the spores.”

It’s a metaphor that fits far more comfortably as a critique of hippy counter-culture than as a condemnation of communism.

A rose, by any other name...

A rose, by any other name…

It is worth noting that, despite the condemnations of communism in The Return of the Archons and of the hippy movement here, Star Trek is a franchise that generally leans a little bit to the left. Star Trek: The Next Generation features a socialist utopia existing in a post-scarcity economy, and the franchise generally espouses values that are associated with left-wing politics during the sixties. The series would champion racial equality, condemn the escalation of the Cold War and remain deeply critical of American foreign policy.

Star Trek is, after all, an attempt to imagine a western frontier, without the systematic exploitation of the native people and the natural resources. And yet the condemnation of the hippy subculture in This Side of Paradise actually feels quite consistent with what we’ve seen of Star Trek‘s social conscience and attitudes. It is worth conceding that sixties counter-culture was not one gigantic and homogeneous political entity. Although there were obviously areas over overlap between the various sub-entities and branches under that umbrella, there was a huge diversity to be found.

We'll just Ceti down over here...

We’ll just Ceti down over here…

In An Invasion of Centaurs, Theodore Roszak, the man responsible for coining the term “counter-culture”, outlined the most obvious divide:

To one side, there is the mind-blown bohemianism of the beats and hippies; to the other, the hard-headed political activism of the student New Left. Are these not in reality two separate and antithetical developments: the one (tracing back to Ginsberg, Kerouac, & Co.) seeking to “cop out” of American society, the other (tracing back to C. Wright Mills and remnants of the old socialist left) seeking to penetrate and revolutionise our political life?

Star Trek very clearly has a great deal of empathy for the political New Left. Indeed, as noted above, Roddenberry would embrace a lot of their philosophy when it came to crafting Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, it has very little patience for what Roszak classified as “the mind-blown bohemianism of the beats and the hippies” trying to opt out of contemporary American political culture.

Spock's pollen allergies are acting up...

Spock’s pollen allergies are acting up…

This is entirely in keeping with the philosophy of Star Trek, particularly at this early stage of its life. Political apathy and disengagement were not to be celebrated. You didn’t simply reject a system you found to be distasteful. You tried to change it from the inside. Political change only came around through hard work. The system only gets fixed if you are willing to commit to fixing it. Running away from political injustices and dwelling on a theoretical and abstract existential utopia did little to help anybody.

The main condemnation of the colonists in This Side of Paradise is levelled at their general apathy towards anything except their own wants and desires. “Well, sir,” Leslie reports to Kirk, “for an agricultural colony, they have actually very little acreage planted. There’s enough to sustain the colony, but very little more.” They are wasting their opportunity and their potential. When Elias is woken from his state of bliss, he laments, “We’ve done nothing here. No accomplishments, no progress. Three years wasted.”

No Bones about it...

No Bones about it…

As noted in Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, this fits quite well with the way that the classic Star Trek treated the concept of utopia.

In This Side of Paradise, Kirk angrily counters Sandoval’s claim of a “perfect world,” saying that “man stagnates if he has no wants, no ambitions, no desire to be more than he is.” Against the arrested cultural development of the Feeders of Vaal, or the deliberate primitivism of a return to a “simpler” life in The Return of the Archons and This Side of Paradise, Trek suggests that people have a responsibility to their species’ collective project of growth and change. Perfection, insofar as it is conceived of as a state of being rather than a project of becoming, is detrimental to the health of the individual, the society, and the species. By a cruel irony, utopians are doomed to live eternally in their constricted situation unless someone else intervenes, for utopia enervates people and deprives them of the drives that, in the usual course of things, would lead to growth and change.

For the original Star Trek, perfection was a path rather than a final destination, an unattainable goal that nobody could really hope to reach. The hope was that humanity might advance and evolve while striving towards it. As Kirk observes, “Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.”

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

This a key difference in the philosophical outlook of the classic Star Trek and the first couple of seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At some point in the gap between the two shows, Roddenberry decided that mankind should shift from striving towards utopia to living in it. Michael Piller, writing in his unpublished book Fade In, would describe this as “the Roddenberry Box”, where Roddenberry would insist on crazy ideas like “in the twenty-fourth century, no one grieves – death is accepted as part of life.”

This approach would sap all drama from the first two years of the show, removing any potential for character drama, and making the Enterprise seem self-righteous and judgemental when confronted with cultures that did not conform to their value system, condescendingly looking down on the Ferengi in The Last Outpost or the Anticans and the Selay in Lonely Among Us. If you believe the writers, who struggled to write around Roddenberry’s restrictions, the show became as stagnant as the cultures the classic Star Trek used to condemn.

"I hope this ship has autopilot..."

“I hope this ship has autopilot…”

As an aside, I do like that This Side of Paradise doesn’t work too hard to stack the deck in Kirk’s favour. Although the colonists are affected by alien spores, the spores aren’t presented as sinister or evil. They aren’t parasitically feeding off the crew, and there’s no convenient health risk that makes it necessary to eliminate them.The relationship seems genuinely symbiotic, with the spores actively protecting the colonists.

“You see, they actually thrive on Berthold rays,” Spock explains. “The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.” Alias adds, “In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.” It would be easy to make them evil and villainous, but This Side of Paradise resists the temptation. They seem genuinely peaceful, and Kirk’s destruction of them seems almost cruel. “You said they were benevolent and peaceful. Violent emotions overwhelm them, destroy them.” Kirk and his crew essentially hate an alien life form to death.

"Okay, Spock... I concede that McCoy might be a little bit racist..."

“Okay, Spock… I concede that McCoy might be a little bit racist…”

In fact, This Side of Paradise represents a dramatic shift in the depiction of space in Star Trek. Earlier in the season, space had been presented as vast and empty. It was full of the ruins of dead civilisations on dying worlds, and threats just waiting to strike at anybody stupid enough to wander along. Here, for the first time, space seems somewhat benign. Omicron Ceti III is a veritable Eden, filmed on a ranch that had been used for Gunsmoke, cementing the sensation that Star Trek was a “space western.”

Discussing the colony, Kirk explains, “It took these people a year to make the trip from Earth.” It doesn’t seem that far, in the grand scheme of things, given the Enterprise has been to the edge of the galaxy. When those human settlers arrive, they find a local organism that actively helps them survive. There’s also a sign that the Enterprise crew themselves are getting more used to all the crazy stuff happening out there in the cosmos. Kirk protests, “But these people shouldn’t be alive.” Sulu, getting genre-savvy, replies, “Is it possible that they’re not?”

The seeds of doubt...

The seeds of doubt…

Indeed, This Side of Paradise is a rather wonderful respite from what is a very intense final third of the first year of Star Trek. The show has been pretty high stakes since the last “breather” episode, Tomorrow is Yesterday. Between Tomorrow is Yesterday and the end of the season, This Side of Paradise feels like the only time that Star Trek stops to catch its breath. And, even then, we’re still confronted with the possible destruction of the Enterprise as it falls from orbit.

Like Tomorrow is Yesterday, D.C. Fontana is largely responsible for This Side of Paradise. Fontana is probably the strongest character writer to work on the original Star Trek, and it was her re-write of This Side of Paradise that earned her the post of story editor. She whipped original writer Jerry Stohl’s script into shape, offering a final version of the story which seemed quite different from the script originally submitted by Stohl.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

As The Star Trek Compendium notes, one of the more significant changes made by Fontana was the decision to focus the script on Spock:

The story outline and earliest first-draft script for This Side of Paradise were called The Way of the Spores, and were very different from the final episode. In these early drafts Mr. Sulu was the central figure in love with the Eurasian beauty Leila. McCoy discovered an internal condition that would have necessitated Sulu’s resignation from Starfleet service, had the spores not cured his condition. His illness gave Sulu a will to develop a relationship with Leila (just as similar circumstances would later affect McCoy’s judgment in For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky).

Although a Sulu-centric story would have been interesting, given the show’s tendency to focus on the leading trio, it makes a lot of sense to use Spock as the central character in a story about free love.

Leonard Nimoy was particularly sensitive to William Shatner's spoken word work...

Leonard Nimoy was particularly sensitive to William Shatner’s spoken word work…

Fontana has confessed that Spock is her favourite member of the original cast. Part of the reason Fontana writes Spock so well is that she understands the character’s inherent contradictions:

Spock was always meant to be Mr. Logic, but we always knew that – underneath – there’d be all these raging hormones from the human side; that he was emotional; that he really did feel, but he had clamped it down so hard that he didn’t want to admit that he felt anything anymore. He was “true Vulcan” – all logic and no emotion. And we knew that wasn’t true.

This has already been hinted at repeatedly over the first season – most notably in The Naked Time and in The Galileo Seven – but This Side of Paradise delves into the issue in depth, conceding that Spock would probably be a lot happier and a lot better adjusted if he could acknowledge his human side. Refusing to do so, somewhat counter-intuitively, is highly illogical and demonstrates the root of the character’s internal conflict.

Well, Shatner always wanted a larger role...

Well, Shatner always wanted a larger role…

Not only does this afford Leonard Nimoy to demonstrate that he is a fantastic actor, but it lends the story a sense of tragedy, as Kirk discovers that he must essentially ruin his best friend’s chance at happiness in order to get his crew back. It’s an interesting moral dilemma for Kirk, who has (along with McCoy) always urged Spock to embrace his human side. This Side of Paradise offers us a rare glimpse at a completely well-adjusted version of Spock, which is all the more tragic for the fact we know it can only be temporary.

This Side of Paradise also demonstrates that the series recognises Spock’s sex appeal. It’s remarkable that all three leads already had established romantic lives. Kirk seemed to hook up fairly regularly, and it seems like every Starbase housed a friend of one of Kirk’s ex-girlfriends. McCoy even got some action in Shore Leave. The show teased the possibility of Spock and Uhura hooking up in a few of the early episodes (they play a mean duet), recognising that even the stoic Mr. Spock was not entirely asexual. An early episode of the next season, Amok Time, would be dedicated to Spock’s sexual identity, as well.

Spock smash!

Spock smash!

Spock was something of a sex symbol while the show was on the air. In 1967, Isaac Asimov penned an essay about how Spock was “dreamy.” Science fiction author Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the name James Tiptree Jr., had a crush on the character, as recounted in Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon:

Around this time, Alli fell under the spell of a new story about exploration. She started watching Star Trek, and saw in the crew of the enterprise her childhood travelling party, crossing the great unknown. Kirk was the fatherly leader of the expedition, while Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears and rational reserve, fit Alli’s dream of the unattainable alien. To her surprise, Alli developed a violent crush on Spock. As Tiptree, she wrote a long fan letter to Leonard Nimoy explaining Spock’s appeal. Since humans were naturally exogamous, tending to marry outside of their own group, and xenophilic, or naturally attracted to foreignness, a crush on Spock was an instinctive and almost biological reaction to his alien appearance: “the touching shoulder-blades, the tremor, the shadowed and infinitely effective squint.” To another correspondent] Harry Harrison, Tiptree sighed, “If only Spock had a sister…”

Asimov argued that Spock made it sexy to be smart, and it’s quite telling that one the elements that carried over to JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot was a sexualised Spock.

Spock finally flips...

Spock finally flips…

That said, it is very hard to write about a sexualised Spock without dragging Kirk into the picture, and This Side of Paradise is an episode that contains particularly strong homoerotic undercurrents to the relationship between the duo. Those undercurrents are present throughout quite a few episodes, to the point where it’s hard to suspect that the writing staff didn’t include those hints intentionally. In Amok Time, for example, strangling Kirk to death is enough to satiate Spock’s impressive lust.

Come to think of it, the only time Spock falls in love with Kirk wrestling him back to sense is when Spock finds himself stranded in the distant past with Zarabeth in All Our Yesterdays. McCoy wrestles with him a bit, but apparently it’s just not the same. Even in the expanded universe of the tie-in novels, extrapolating from an off-hand line in Sarek, Spock only gets married after Kirk has long been pronounced dead. We all mourn in different ways.

It's a plant!

It’s a plant!

The romantic pairing of Kirk and Spock is one of the earliest fan fiction “couplings”, creating an entire sub-genre of fan fiction known as “slash.” As David Grevin argues in Gender and sexuality in Star Trek, the homoerotic pairing is an essential part of Star Trek‘s cult appeal:

Numerous same-sex relationships involving Star Trek have been invisioned by slash fiction writers, but none more famously than Kirk/Spock. When watching the original series, one has little trouble understanding the basis from which slash writers derived their fixation on this male couple. The love between Kirk and Spock is quite palpable, lending their banter a depth and urgency that exceeds the boundaries of typical male friendships on television. What comes through most vividly in the Original Series is Spock’s conflicted but insistent love for Kirk, a love that breaks through the boundaries of Vulcan propriety.

And so Spock’s “closeting” of his emotions, burying and repressing a side of himself that his society has deemed distasteful, becomes mirrored in the closeting of his attraction to Kirk in this interpretation of the character. It takes a potent metaphor and makes it more literal.

Don't worry, Spock has seen The Happening and knows exactly how to handle this...

Don’t worry, Spock has seen The Happening and knows exactly how to handle this…

This episode is primary concerned with how Kirk reacts to Spock’s love life. Spock seldom interferes in Kirk’s love life, and is generally respectful. Here, Spock hooks up with a nice young lady, and Kirk is less than pleased about that. Kirk’s entire crew has abandoned him, but he focuses on Spock’s betrayal. To be entirely fair, that makes sense even outside a homoerotic reading of the story. Spock is both his science officer and his second-in-command. He is also, excluding possibly Bones, Kirk’s closest friend on the crew. Spock is also one of the very few members of the crew who could probably figure out what is going on, if he set his mind to the task.

And yet there is something quite pointed about the way that Kirk reacts to Spock’s choice. He seems offended that that Spock has picked a beautiful young woman over service to his captain. He beams Spock up to the ship alone so he can try to stir him out of this stupor. The two wrestle, which always seems to help Spock get his priorities straight when he is focusing on a beautiful young woman ahead of James Tiberius Kirk. For extra bonus points, Kirk is holding a very phallic pipe.

It's a pipe dream...

It’s a pipe dream…

Later on, when Spock suggests that he should talk to Leila again, Kirk rather pointedly suggests that it might not be a good idea, while still playing the role of a gentle and concerned friend. “Mister Spock, Miss Kalomi is strictly your concern, but should you talk to her while she’s still under the influence of the spores?” Listening to Shatner deliver the line, it almost sounds passive-aggressive, as if Kirk is trying to stir Spock away from the woman without coming across as too possessive or too jealous.

There are a few other points in the show’s run where the relationship between Kirk and Spock seems rather blatantly homoerotic, but This Side of Paradise is really the first episode that supports such a reading, with Kirk trying to pressure Spock into forgetting about his girlfriend so the two can continue to have wonderful adventures out in the cosmos. It adds a wonderful layer of subtext to This Side of Paradise, which is already a very fun episode for anybody fond of the show’s sixties trappings.

The crew is really flora-ishing down there...

The crew is really flora-ishing down there…

We really are into a great run of episodes here. While the hippy commentary dates This Side of Paradise a little more than some of the surrounding adventures, it’s still a fantastic piece of Star Trek. As a rule, Spock-driven episodes are generally great fun. (Spock’s Brain being the obvious exception.) Here, Fontana also gets a little further underneath the character’s skin, enhancing the tragedy suggested in The Naked Time. Spock is an emotional creature. His irrational inability to accept that fact means that he will never find the peace he craves. Only by giving up the struggle against his imperfect human half will Spock finally be able reconcile every part of himself.

It’s very good character writing, and it explains why Spock remains such a fascinating character almost half-a-century later.

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

2 Responses

  1. This is another episode I am very fond of. It does excellent work with Spock, examining the inner turmoil that he strives so hard to conceal and overcome. And the scene of an emotional, angry Spock seriously pummeling Kirk does go some way towards demonstrating why (McCoy’s protestations about logical thought to the contrary) the Vulcans felt it necessary to adopt a strictly non-emotional philosophy & lifestyle.

    Certainly the events with Spock in this episode neatly parallel what happened in the Enterprise episode “Fusion” which aired many years later. Archer is nearly killed by Tolaris, a member of a breakaway group of vulcans who have rejected logic and embraced emotion. I forget the exact line, but aftewards Archer admits to T’Pol that he after that experience he is finally starting to understand why most Vulcans are the way they are, why they feel it necessary to be logical.

    Another thing that “This Side of Paradise” reminds me of is the famous speech by Harry Line (Orson Welles) in the 1949 movie The Third Man:

    “You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

    There’s a real moral ambivalence to this whole episode as it raises the notion that peace and stability can perhaps inadvertantly lead to complacency and atrophy.

    • Yep, the original Star Trek was quite skeptical of utopia in places, wary of perfection. That makes it interesting to look at how readily the first season of TNG embraces it.

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