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Star Trek – Metamorphosis (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Gene L. Coon’s last solo script for Star Trek, Metamorphosis is an intriguing episode that seems trapped between two extremes.

A love story operating within the unique confines of the Star Trek universe, it is nominally a story about how love can take just about any form. Here, it’s a story between a lonely old man and sentient cloud of sparkles. However, at the same time, Metamorphosis is aggressively and actively heteronormative – suggesting that while it may be acceptable for a man to fall in love with a non-corporeal entity, that alien has to be female.

All your Cochranes are belong to us...

That “in love” glow…

To be fair, Star Trek has always struggled with issues of gender and sexuality. If Star Trek: Enterprise could not bring itself to feature a non-heterosexual lead character in the early years of the twentieth century, it seems unfair to complain about an episode of Star Trek broadcast in the sixties. In a way, Metamorphosis suffers because of the thirty-odd years of Star Trek broadcast after the fact. With the exception of Rejoined or Chimera, this is the closest the franchise comes to suggesting a non-normative relationship.

When our characters get stranded on an alien world, they discover a lonely human and the all-powerful entity that seems to provide for all his needs. The two interact on a “non-verbal level.” Observing their union, in which the man is enveloped by the entity, McCoy remarks, “Almost a symbiosis of some kind. A sort of joining.” As the man tries to explain his relationship with the entity, he uses language that evokes romantic love. “The Companion saved my life. It’s taken care of me all these years. We’ve been very close in a way that’s hard to explain. I suppose I even have an affection for it.”

This is what happens when you leave the red shirts in charge...

This is what happens when you leave the red shirts in charge…

Metamorphosis explicitly codifies the relationship as sexual. When Cochrane discovers that the entity is in love with him, he feels violated. “Do you know what you’re saying?” he demands. “For all these years, I’ve let something as alien as that crawl around inside me?” It’s a rather explicit inversion of the standard dynamic in heterosexual couples. Coupled with the rest of Cochrane’s angry and reactive tirade against the creature, it’s hard not to read some measure of homosexual subtext into their relationship.

Unfortunately, the episode goes out of its way to undercut any such readings. While the relationship may not be between two human beings, the viewers can rest assured that it is a relationship between a man and a woman. “The idea of male and female are universal constants, Cochrane,” Kirk assures Cochrane, which seems depressingly narrow-minded for the show. When the cast discover the Companion is explicitly feminine, it serves as a “eureka!” moment. “The matter of gender could change the entire situation,” Spock observes, as if the idea of a romantic love would be ridiculous otherwise.

William Shatner's attempts to offer spoken word serenades were not enthusiastically appreciated...

William Shatner’s attempts to offer spoken word serenades were not enthusiastically appreciated…

This decision to gender the creature is unfortunate, as the show continues the same sort of unfortunate gender essentialism that marred Catspaw:

Undoubtedly the Companion, with no physical markers of human biological sex, performs her gendered identity. Star Trek, however, does not differentiate between the role of biological sexual difference and performed gendered identities. After all, acting feminine, which includes the Companion’s impulsive (and dare I say hysterical) behavior, is being female. Furthermore, the Companion’s femininity is assured, within this heterosexual framework, through her desire for a man.

Given that the most powerful part of Metamorphosis is the idea that Cochrane and the Companion have a love that crosses social norms, it feels like the episode undercuts that. (Similarly, the episode would be more powerful without the character of Nancy.)

"The time we talked..."

“The time we talked…”

However, keeping in mind the social constraints of the time, it’s hard to be too critical. Director Ralph Senesky has his own theories about the story that Coon was trying to tell, suggesting he was dealing with another contemporary romantic taboo:

There was another question that remains unanswered. Gene Coon told me one of the advantages of being on Star Trek was that he was able to deal with issues that he couldn’t do on any other series. For instance he had written an episode that emanated from his own anti-Vietnam War feelings. The race issue was a major issue of the sixties. I never asked Gene, but I have since wondered if the cloud-man love story in Metamorphosis was his way of dealing with that issue.

There is certainly enough subtext in the episode to support such a reading, even if it is undercut by the ending that suggests Cochrane is only capable of loving an entity in the same corporeal form as himself.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

There’s a strong sense that Metamorphosis is a story about things that are difficult to articulate or express. The Companion literally has a love for Cochrane that it cannot bring itself to express. Euphemisms are used rather freely over the course of the episode – not just in terms of love or sex, but in relation to other big ideas. “A man needs the company of his own kind, or he will cease to exist,” the Companion tells Kirk, as if unable to use the word “die.”

It seems like Metamorphosis is very much about communicating ideas without necessarily using the words associated with those ideas. Somehow, it may be easier to deal with concepts like “love” and “death” if we do not label them as such. Given that censorship limited the vocabulary of television drama in the sixties, it feels like Metamorphosis is trying to consciously draw attention to the fact it cannot literally articulate the concepts with which it is wrestling.

She's almost dead, Jim!

She’s almost dead, Jim!

Tellingly, Cochrane’s freak out when he discovers the Companion’s romantic feelings is presented as a generational gap. Cochrane is a man who has been stranded on a rock for over a century. He is out of touch with the wider universe. His views are classified as “parochial” by Spock. “It’s disgusting,” he rants. “Is this what the future holds? Men who have no notion of decency or morality? Maybe I’m a hundred and fifty years out of style, but I’m not going to be fodder for any inhuman monster.”

This is quite close to the sort of dialogue the characterised discussions over anti-miscegenation laws. Up until a Californian anti-miscegenation law was overturned in 1948, such laws were to be found in thirty of the forty-eight states. The topic had been a political hot potato, with movie and television studios censoring these sorts of plots into the late fifties. After the production of Metamorphosis, but before it aired, the Supreme Court ruled such laws to be unconstitutional.

Well, that's an entity of a different colour...

Well, that’s an entity of a different colour…

Sure, having the Companion take the form of Nancy provides a rather easy solution to the issues raised by the episode, but Metamorphosis has its heart in the right place. It’s a love story about celebrating diversity and unconventional attractions, even if it feels a little dated in places and makes some very serious missteps along the way. The biggest problem is that it seems like Star Trek‘s concept of gender and sexuality froze at this point – the franchise never pushed that much further on.

Sure, episodes like Rejoined touched on the issue of taboo relationships between individuals of the same gender, but they were few and far between. Even when Star Trek: The Next Generation did an episode about gender dynamics and relationships in The Outcast, it was careful to code the object of Riker’s affections as female. When Odo engaged in a multi-episode sexual affair with a Changeling on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Changeling was coded as female.

"THERE's your problem!"

“THERE’s your problem!”

Metamorphosis set the boundaries of how far Star Trek could push on issues of sexuality and gender, with the franchise reluctant to push beyond what was established here. The problem is that while Metamorphosis was an adequate metaphorical exploration of gender and sexuality for the late sixties, it was hopelessly outdated by the eighties or nineties. While Metamorphosis could have been a bit bolder or more daring, the fault lies with the franchise that really took this as a line in the sand.

It’s a shame, because there is a lot of good stuff here. Metamorphosis is an episode about how wonderful the future is, when mankind has moved beyond its hang-ups and insecurities. Coon does that by contrasting Cochrane with Kirk – a look at how far mankind might travel in a little over a century. It’s a rather clever twist, suggesting that mankind has been steadily and consistently improving itself.

All your Cochranes are belong to us...

All your Cochranes are belong to us…

“We’re on a thousand planets and spreading out,” Kirk boasts to Cochrane, when the latter wonders what he has missed. “We cross fantastic distances and everything’s alive, Cochrane. Life everywhere. We estimate there are millions of planets with intelligent life. We haven’t begun to map them. Interesting?” It’s a future with limitless options and infinite possibilities. Cochrane reflects, “How would you like to sleep for a hundred and fifty years and wake up in a new world?”

Cochrane’s description of the future as “a new world” seems delightful self-aware. Coon is suggesting that the future of Star Trek isn’t merely the Kennedy era projected forward a few hundred years. Instead, Coon seems to suggest that it is a whole new world. After all, episodes like Arena and Errand of Mercy were highly critical of the idea of the Federation as an imperialist force, suggesting that the future cannot be contemporary American politics unfolding a few centuries into the future.

Sparkles!

Sparkles!

Coon ties this idea of a “new world” into the idea of warp drive. This is perhaps the most important contribution that Metamorphosis makes to the larger mythos – much larger than Cochrane himself. Metamorphosis presents Cochrane as the last relic of the world before warp drive. He doesn’t know what the Federation is. His view of the universe is rather narrow. His attitudes are decidedly conservative. His outlook is, perhaps, closer to the people watching Star Trek than the characters appearing in it.

The implication is that Cochrane’s invention made all of this possible. Cochrane invented warp drive, which gave mankind access to an almost infinite universe. Watching Metamorphosis, you’d almost forget Coon’s generally cynical attitude – you may even mistake him for a romantic. Almost. Still, this idea that the warp drive provided the missing link between the contemporary world and the world of Star Trek would become a pretty major part of the franchise. It is the basis of Enterprise as a television show.

It turns out love is not the universal language.

It turns out love is not the universal language.

To be fair, it’s an idea that is both good and bad. On the one hand, it marks a clear delineation between the present and the future of Star Trek, making it clear that the show’s future is an ideal to strive towards rather than simply a reflection of contemporary realities. On the other hand, it is a concept that cements the idea of Star Trek‘s technological determinism, suggesting that mankind’s solution to our problems is essentially “build a magic gizmo.”

However, lest we forget Gene L. Coon can be a cynical fellow, Metamorphosis is full of swipes at Starfleet and the Federation. In the opening scene, Nancy protests that her illness is entirely the result of Starfleet making a mistake. “I should’ve received the proper inoculations ahead of time,” she insists. “I was sent to Epsilon Canaris Three to prevent a war, Doctor. Thanks to the inefficiency of the medical branch of the Starfleet, I’ve been forced to leave before my job was done.”

"Where's the jukebox around here anyway?"

“Where’s the jukebox around here anyway?”

McCoy insists that Starfleet did the best that it could, and that Nancy has an infection that is highly unlikely – the odds, we’re told, are “billions to one.” It’s a small touch that suggests Starfleet is really just a number-crunching bureaucracy. It is worth noting that the disease isn’t so exotic that an inoculation and cure and unavailable Although it isn’t stated, one can imply that providing the medicine to every traveller would be quite costly, and so Starfleet decided it was worth neither the time nor the expense.

This is rather in keeping with Coon’s cynical portrayal of Starfleet and the Federation in episodes like Arena and Errand of Mercy. However, the script for Metamorphosis seems more upbeat than either of those two stories – more optimistic and romantic in its portrayal of this future. What is the difference? It would seem that people are the difference. As much as Coon is cynical about large organisations and directives, he seems to have his faith in people.

"You're all astronauts on some kind of... Original Series of adventures?"

“You’re all astronauts on some kind of… Original Series of adventures?”

While the original Star Trek never had the most linear of character arcs, Coon’s scripts for Star Trek do have something of an arc for James T. Kirk. Scripts like The Devil in the Dark, Arena and Errand of Mercy all featured Kirk as a character who needed to learn to make his own decisions. Kirk would act on impulse or orders, and throw himself into a rapidly-escalating crisis. Only be assessing the situation on its own terms could Kirk figure out the best solution.

In The Devil in the Dark, Kirk is willing to kill the Horta until the situation is explained to him. In Arena, he prepares to hunt down and avenge himself upon the Gorn, until he realises that there are two sides to every conflict. In Errand of Mercy, Kirk is just as ruthless and bloodthirsty as Kor, treating the Organians with contempt for daring to ruin his best efforts to escalate an interstellar war. His character arc in Metamorphosis is not as pronounced, but it is still there.

Kirk just has that effect on women...

Kirk just has that effect on women…

Ever a good soldier, Kirk tries to use force to defeat the Companion. He is motivated by a sense of duty and loyalty, but Metamorphosis makes it clear that force is not the solution that is needed. “I’m in command, Bones,” he tries to explain. “It makes it my fault. How do you fight a thing like that?” McCoy replies, “Maybe you’re a soldier so often that you forget you’re also trained to be a diplomat.” Naturally, it’s diplomacy that resolves the situation.

Kirk is able to find common ground by engaging with the Companion on a personal level, rather than following a military text book. Rather than treating it like the enemy, he tries to talk to it like another sentient being. Metamorphosis suggests that perhaps we aren’t all so different after all, and Kirk’s willingness to embrace diplomacy so quickly – and so effectively – would seem to represent significant character growth on his own part.

It's behind you!

It’s behind you!

Coon’s script reinforces the idea that people are more important than protocols with its finer line. As Cochrane and the Companion walk off into the sunset together, Nancy’s body serving to bring two lovers together, McCoy idly wonders about what this means for the peace talks that Nancy was working on. Kirk replies, “Well, I’m sure the Federation can find another woman somewhere who’ll stop that war.” Nancy is more important as a person bringing two lovers together than as a cog in a gigantic bureaucratic machine.

Indeed, Kirk rather forcefully rejects the idea that man can thrive inside the rigid framework of a utopian society. “Our species can only survive if we have obstacles to overcome,” he tells the Companion. “You take away all obstacles. Without them to strengthen us, we will weaken and die.” In many respects, this seems like a firm rejection of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the Federation – it’s a criticism of the sort of utopia presented in the first couple of years of The Next Generation.

She really knocked him off his feet!

She really knocked him off his feet!

Gene L. Coon continues his hot streak of “inventing things that will be very important to the franchise” here. In Arena, he introduced the Federation. In Errand of Mercy, he gave us the Klingons. Coon is generally credited with creating the Prime Directive. On top of the importance of warp drive, Metamorphosis also gives us the character of Zefram Cochrane. Cochrane would go on to appear in Star Trek: First Contact and Broken Bow, played by James Cromwell.

It’s interesting how comfortably Cromwell’s version of Cochrane fits with the character introduced here, despite the somewhat incongruous touches between the two productions. Here, Cochrane is just as sleazy as the version who would appear in First Contact. Greeting the crew, he remarks, “If you only knew how good it is to see you. And a woman. A beautiful one at that.” Charming. Later, he remarks, “Ma’am. You’re food to a starving man.” Realising how creepy he sounds, he quickly adds, “All of you.”

That said, despite the fact that Cochrane is from 150 years in the past, it's reassuring to know that sixties styles never go out of fashion...

That said, despite the fact that Cochrane is from 150 years in the past, it’s reassuring to know that sixties styles never go out of fashion…

One of the awkward implications of the episode is that the Companion simply decides not to cure Nancy of her illness. Given all that the organism can do and the way that it merges with her later, it seems weird that it can’t cure a simple disease. However, Cochrane tells Kirk that the Companion “can’t do anything to help Miss Hedford.” Considering Cochrane’s response to Nancy, it might simply be that the Companion is refusing to cure Nancy. If that is the case, its decision to take Nancy’s body (and its whole relationship with Cochrane) becomes a lot creepier.

There are other similarities between the versions of Cochrane presented in Metamorphosis and First Contact. Given what we learn of Zefram Cochrane in First Contact, it makes a great deal of sense that the engineer would decide to venture alone into the void to meet his maker. “I was tired, Captain,” he confesses. “I was going to die, and I wanted to die in space. That’s all.” Given how much difficulty the character has with hero worship in First Contact, it makes sense. It is also very easy to imagine James Cromwell reading that line.

"I noticed this stuff's been happening a lot more since I joined the main cast..."

“I noticed this stuff’s been happening a lot more since I joined the main cast…”

There are a host of other interesting aspects of Metamorphosis. It is interesting that the early drafts of the script featured Scotty on the shuttlecraft with Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Ultimately, Scotty was eliminated – very little was lost. However, something was gained. As with Catspaw, there is a very clear sense that Star Trek is pushing the leading trio rather heavily. The show is no longer just about Kirk and Spock. McCoy is now a key player. He’s elevated above the supporting characters like Scotty, Sulu or Uhura.

Although Catspaw ultimately developed into a story driven by Kirk – and, to a lesser extent, Spock – the show opened with Kirk, Spock and McCoy beaming down to the planet as a trio. Friday’s Child would produce the series’ first truly McCoy-centric episode. DeForest Kelley formally had his name added to the credits at the start of the second season. This represents a pretty significant development for Star Trek, as the show broadens out a bit from the dynamic between Kirk and Spock.

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

According to Mark Clark’s Star Trek FAQ, DeForest Kelley had to fight quite hard to earn his place on the series:

“When I see the trade papers, after a whole season, still only list Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as co-stars, I burn a little inside,” said DeForest Kelley, in a rare fit of candor with a TV Guide interviewer in 1968. “What I want, as a a co-star, is to be counted in fully. I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve gotten at Star Trek, from a parking space at the studio to an unshared dressing room, and sometimes the patience wears raw.”

Of course, Kelley was always a consummate professional, but that does give an example of how hard he had to work to really establish himself as part of the show’s “core.”

"It seems logical that they didn't hire a character in a red shirt to be the third lead..."

“It seems logical that they didn’t hire a character in a red shirt to be the third lead…”

Little touches like including McCoy as the third party on missions like the ones in Metamorphosis and Catspaw help to solidify sense that he is an essential part of Star Trek, something that had been apparent from his early appearances. In the first season, Kirk and Spock were presented as a clear duo – two halves of the same mind. Pushing McCoy to the fore like this really codifies the idea of the leading triumvirate – which lends itself to a rather different dynamic than a duo.

This shift pushes Kirk very much to the centre, rather than forcing him to serve as a foil for Spock. Slotting McCoy into an antagonistic role with Spock as a member of the main cast means that Kirk occupies the ground between the two. He is the leader forced to reconcile the two extremes. Star Trek isn’t so much a show about the conflict between logic and emotion so much as it is about balancing the two extremes. Well, in theory, anyway. In practice, it varies from episode to episode.

"No, Spock! I am not asking him for an autograph!"

“No, Spock! I am not asking him for an autograph!”

Metamorphosis is also just a visually striking piece of television. With the delightfully surreal purple sky and the heavily stylised planet set, Metamorphosis looks absolutely lovely. It’s an example of the technical craft that went into classic Star Trek. Ralph Senesky’s direction is delightful, particularly one inspired (if accidental) touch:

I needed something to start the final scene between Cochran and Nancy. I decided I would have this cloud, recently turned into a human, look and marvel at the scarf that Nancy had in her possession. I would like to take credit and say I planned the unexpected added dimension this gave the scene, but I have to admit, not knowing at that time what the Companion was going to look like, that was not my motivation in doing this. At that point the fact that the vision of him through the scarf was as she was used to seeing him when she was a cloud had no significance for me. As it turned out it was an unforeseen bonus that added a stunning nuance to the scene.

While the demands of Catspaw had exposed the limitations of Star Trek, Metamorphosis demonstrated the skill and ingenuity of everybody working on the show. The unnamed planet has a delightfully alien feel to, which plays very well into the themes of the story.

The fabric of reality itself...

The fabric of reality itself…

Metamorphosis is perhaps a touch too conservative for its own good. Its insistence on gender essentialism and its rather neat ending robs the story of a lot of nuance – for a show about how love transcends boundaries, the show works very hard to make sure those boundaries don’t actually pose any real challenge. Still, in the context of 1967, it’s an interesting and thoughtful love story that perhaps works better in broad strokes than in specifics.

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

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8 Responses

  1. An interesting review.

    To be honest I think you went a little too far in looking at the episode through 21st century glasses when it comes to sexuality and gender. In 1967 to a great many viewers, especially in the more conservative parts of America, homosexuality wouldn’t have existed, except as a very vague boegyman. I do feel the sin here was more of omission than trying to force a particular mindset onto the viewers.

    That doesn’t make it right of course, but you might be seeing an agenda here were there wasn’t one (or rather there was but not a concious one.)

    • Fair point.

      However, it’s not as if homosexuality didn’t exist – or was unknown – in the late sixties, as much as certain sectors of America did not want to believe those rumours about Liberace.

      I agree that expecting them to identify the Companion as male is a bit too much for a prime-time drama on NBC in 1967. However, the fact that they could not simply leave the Companion as an alien construct that was capable of love, and had to clarify that love is only a thing that exists across clearly defined gender lines is what gets me. It’s the awkward clarification that nothing too challenging to conservative values is happening here because – even if this is a cloud loving a man – it is a female cloud.

      It’s a piece of dialogue that adds nothing to the scene, and takes a lot of the power of the episode away. I think you have a fair point that the standard I am holding it to might be unreasonable in context, but it just pokes out of the script. Heads up – I seem to recall looking at homosexuality in fifties and sixties science-fiction in the review for Amok Time, so I don’t think leaving the creature genderless would have been too radical an option. (Then again, it’s quite likely the censors insisted that the line be added.)

      (That said, there is evidence that the writers on Star Trek were capable of being open-minded on the topic of sexuality. D.C. Fontana’s This Side of Paradise seems to wryly and consciously aware of its subtext, when Kirk and Spock literally wrestle in the transporter room after Kirk gets jealous of Spock’s new girlfriend. One suspects her re-writes helped to play up the subtext in Amok Time as well, although Sturgeon was a big fan of blending sexuality and science-fiction. Gene Roddenberry would allude to the undercurrents of the relationship in the footnotes (!) of his novelisation of The Motion Picture.)

      (Then again, it is very hard to watch Metamorphosis without seeing it as a precursor to the next forty-odd years of Star Trek that tend to treat homosexual characters as people who do not exist in utopia.)

      • That’s very fair, and sorry if I came across as overly critical.

      • Nah, nothing to apologise for! I’m sorry if I was a little overly-defensive or snappy. (In my defense, it was very early in the morning when I got around to replying.)

  2. I Love Star Trek.

  3. I also saw Cochrane’s reaction as a sort of “gay panic.” It made me think of how some men get angry when they find out the lover they thought was assigned female at birth is actually transgender.

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