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Star Trek – The Apple (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.

It’s amazing how iconic Star Trek could be, even when it was terrible. There’s something quite ironic about how much of the franchise’s truly memorable iconography is rooted in some of the show’s weakest episodes. The Apple is one of the most iconic and memorable Star Trek episodes, featuring a giant evil dragon head sculpture, David Soul in orange body paint, lots of speechifying from Kirk, and a strong atheistic message with Kirk casting himself as Satan in the Garden of Eden.

It is also just terrible.

"VAAAAAAAL!!!"

“VAAAAAAAL!!!”

The original Star Trek was generally quite hostile and mean-spirited towards religion. Who Mourns for Adonais? accounts for the show’s most sympathetic portrayal of a religious figure, with Kirk feeling a little guilty about having to kill a Greek god in self-defense. Over the course of their mission into the wider universe, Kirk and his crew were frequently responsible for, or accessories to, deicide.

The Apple is something of a companion piece to Return of the Archons, another story about an evil computer that has declared itself to be the ruler of a primitive culture. However, Return of the Archons was an episode broad enough to be read as a metaphor against communism, religion, or simply totalitarianism in general. In contrast, The Apple is a very specific and very precise story. Kirk is explicitly combating organised religion.

The apple.

The apple.

This should almost go without saying. The title of The Apple alludes to the Book of Genesis, and the episode closes with the leading trio discussing the similarities. Repeatedly throughout the episodes, characters explicitly compare the planet to the Garden of Eden. “It makes me homesick,” Chekov reflects. “Just like Russia.” McCoy responds, “More like the Garden of Eden, Ensign.” Even when the crew discover that everything in the jungle is deadly, Kirk describes the planet as the “Garden of Eden, with land mines.”

The natives are portrayed as innocent primitives – much is made of how the natives do not even know about reproduction. Of course, Kirk and Spock can’t talk about reproduction on a prime-time television show in late sixties America, lending some irony to the crew lamenting about oppression and repression. Still, these are stereotypical primitives who wander around wearing very little, have not idea what a kiss looks like, and don’t know what the word “kill” means. (Their orange complexion adds some unfortunate undertones, evoking the tropics.)

A glowing red red shirt...

A glowing red red shirt…

The native population exist in the thrall of a god named Vaal, whose name seems designed to evoke the deity Baal. Just in case the audience doesn’t get that this is a very bad thing, Vaal directs his followers by pumping messages into their brains, tries to destroy the Enterprise, teaches the natives to murder strangers in cold blood, and has a head that looks like a giant sculpture of a snake, complete with fangs.

Vaal keeps the natives alive, but the episode protests that this is not enough. The computer seems parasitic in form, exploiting the natives – relying on their faith to “feed” it and provide it with sustenance. It keeps the native culture in a permanent state of arrest, preventing any forward movement or development. This is, in many ways, in keeping with the franchise’s fear of utopia. In episodes like This Side of Paradise, the Enterprise crew wondered what humans would strive towards if they ever developed utopia.

"Hm. This is actually pretty comfortable."

“Hm. This is actually pretty comfortable.”

Rather pointedly, as with a lot of Gene L. Coon’s work on Star Trek, it is made clear that the Federation and Starfleet are not a utopia. Several explicit references are made to investment and money. “Do you know how much Starfleet has invested in you?” Kirk asks Spock at one point. It is a question that can be handwaved as referring to “time”, but it does suggest that Starfleet operates an economy of sorts.

As Scotty tries to repair the ship, Kirk jokes, “If you can’t get those warp engines working  you’re fired.” He doesn’t say “dismissed” or “court martialed.” He uses the word “fired”, a term more associated with the private sector than a military organisation. Quite a few of the scripts from Coon’s era of the show make reference to a Federation economy – most notably The Trouble with Tribbles, but also scripts like Catspaw.

"Don't worry about the redshirts. We brought spares."

“Don’t worry about the redshirts. We brought spares.”

In some respects, The Apple feels like a script that Coon revised rather heavily. Kirk even gets a rather stunted character arc that harks back to Coon’s view of the character. In scripts like A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy and The Devil in the Dark, Kirk often found himself at odds with his role as a Starfleet officer. In Metamorphosis, McCoy has to remind Kirk that he is not simply a soldier. That conflict is broached a few times over the course of The Apple, even if it isn’t full developed.

Early on, mourning the death of a member of the security team, Kirk laments his decision to beam down to the planet. “You are under orders to investigate this planet and this culture,” Spock attempts to reassure him. Kirk is skeptical.  “I also have the option to disregard those orders if I consider them overly hazardous.” Later on, Kirk’s angst increases dramatically. “They’ll die because I couldn’t see a warning sign. I had to follow orders, always orders.”

"But my shirt is blue, I tell you!"

“But my shirt is blue, I tell you!”

While this is entirely in character with Coon’s vision of James Tiberius Kirk, it does seem a bit strange. It’s an idea that recurs throughout the episode, but doesn’t provide a clear through line. It isn’t raised often enough to really register, making the scenes where Kirk broaches the topic seem a little weird and out of place. The crew alternate between freaking out over the death of the red shirts and glossing over them entirely. Kirk spends half the episode joking with Spock and McCoy, and the other half wrestling with his angst.

When Kirk beams the body of the first victim back to the ship, Scotty doesn’t react with concern or shock. Instead, he can’t wait to beam down to enjoy a holiday. “I could do with a nice walk in a garden with green leaves and grass.” Similarly, Chekov is very clearly trying to pick up Landon. “If you insist on worrying, worry about me,” he advises Landon, in a line that is not only incredibly pervy, but downright creepy. “I’ve been wanting to get you in a place like this for a long time.”

The fight stuff...

The fight stuff…

Still, The Apple sees Kirk and his crew destroying a metaphorical Garden of Eden, in order to free the natives from a life of religious oppression. Kirk and McCoy are almost fanatical on the subject. “These are humanoids, intelligent,” McCoy exists. “They need to advance and grow. Don’t you understand what my readings indicate? There’s been no progress here in at least ten thousand years. This isn’t life. It’s stagnation.” It never occurs to Kirk or McCoy that they are imposing their own world view on the natives as much as Vaal is.

After all, Vaal provides for the natives. The natives live in peace. While Vaal has the capacity to control the weather and to speak directly into their brains, it is clear that the natives never lose their free fill. They are never “hijacked” by Vaal, never “taken over.” While the relationship is not healthy by the Kirk or McCoy’s standards, there is some balance of power. Vaal cannot feed itself. It relies on the natives. If the natives stop feeding Vaal, it will die.

I'm going to be honest, in that shirt, I'd be hiding too...

I’m going to be honest, in that shirt, I’d be hiding too…

The Apple never provides a historical or social context for this relationship. We never discover what the world was like before Vaal ensured peace a prosperity. We never discover whether Vaal pre-dates the natives or the natives pre-date Vaal. We never discover how the natives reproduce without sex – are they cloned, do they reproduce asexually, or are they just really long-lived? When Kirk asks Landon what would happen if a member of the tribe died, Landon replies, “But they can’t.”

In short, the relationship between Vaal and the natives is sketched thinly at best. Kirk and his crew show up and impose their own perspective on the situation. There’s a wonderful anthropocentrism to Kirk’s perspective, stubbornly insisting that his way of seeing the universe is undeniably correct. Kirk even takes for granted that the natives reproduce in a manner similar to humans. This seems rather reckless.

Vaal sees all.

Vaal sees all.

Kirk’s decision to destroy the creature, rather than convincing the natives to stop feeding Vaal is similarly reckless. Either mechanism of defeating Vaal would involve significant interference from Kirk in a situation that he doesn’t understand, but engaging in a discourse with the natives and allowing them to make their own decision – even while advocating one side of the debate – would at least suggest a willingness to embrace other perspectives.

Of course, the episode forces Kirk’s hand by providing a series of circumstances where the destruction of Vaal is all but necessary. Vaal is trying to destroy the Enterprise, rendering its destruction an act of self-defense. Similarly, Vaal is not able to talk to Kirk, not able share its justifications or its reasons, and so the episode is able to paint Vaal as something very alien and very much “other”, rather than a creature that might be reasonable or sympathetic.

Spock's really not the one to cast judgement about strange aural quirks...

Spock’s really not the one to be judgemental about strange aural quirks…

And, of course, Kirk just disappears into the cosmos as soon as he has destroyed Vaal. He doesn’t bother to stay to clean up his mess. He doesn’t leave a science team to help the natives acclimatise to their new-found independence. There isn’t even a reference to Starfleet or the Federation sending a team to help with the transition. These people are entirely on their own for the first time in thousands of years. Kirk’s response? “Just go on the way you’re going. You’ll find out.”

There’s no question of how the weather systems will change without Vaal to sustain them. Will plant and fruit life by sustainable? Will there by violent storms? How will a people unaccustomed to making their own decisions deal with these potential problems? How can they be expected to form a society that Kirk and McCoy would deem as “functional” without anyone to assist? If Kirk and Spock returned to the planet years later, would they find the culture starving or warring or just huddled together against an unpredictable universe?

The mouth of madness...

The mouth of madness…

To be fair, The Apple does allow Spock the opportunity to play devil’s advocate here. “This may not be an ideal society, but it is a viable one,” Spock tells Kirk at one point. Arguing with McCoy, he observes, “Doctor, these people are healthy and they are happy. What ever you choose to call it, this system works, despite your emotional reaction to it.” At the same time, Spock seems to accept the necessity of destroying this society to build one in Kirk’s image, reflecting on what will happen “if [they] do what it seems [they] must.”

In many ways, The Apple typifies the approach to religion in classic Star Trek. The show seemed to treat science and religion as diametrically opposed to one another – as if framing the old “reason” and “superstition” debate. There was a clear sense that mankind had evolved past the need for religion – despite the occasional network-mandated reference to God in scripts like Who Mourns for Adonais? or Bread and Circuses. It seemed that Star Trek‘s commitment to science-fiction meant picking “science” above all else.

Heart of darkness...

Heart of darkness…

This is obviously a false dichotomy, ignoring scientists who manage to balance their profession with their religious faith, religious figures who embrace science and even atheist scientists who celebrate religious diversity. Still, science-fiction has a long association with atheism, dating back to the work of H.G. Wells:

Wells was perhaps the first science fiction writer to take an openly hostile stance on religion. There are hints of this in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds, in which a curate is driven mad by an inability to rationalise his religion with the Martian invasion, and the narrator is ultimately forced to incapacitate the man, resulting in his death. It is even more apparent in later works, particularly The Shape of Things to Come (1933) in which Wells envisions a world state brought about by the “benevolent” Dictatorship of the Air, which enforces English as a global language, and exterminates all religions as a necessary step on the path to a peaceful utopia. It was reading H.G. Wells novels that motivated C.S. Lewis to try to infuse Christian ideas with science fiction, which in turn led to Arthur C. Clarke trying to push against this in another direction in Childhood’s End (1953), and Lewis and Clarke corresponded on the matter, much as did Wells and Stapledon. (Golden age science fiction authors were closely engaged, being quite a small crowd!)

Given Wells’ obvious influence on the development of science-fiction as a genre, it makes sense that his perspective should become so defining, at least for the early years of the genre.

"What is this thing you call sunscreen?"

“What is this thing you call sunscreen?”

The general perception of science-fiction as hostile to religion developed from that point, anchored in the origins of the genre, as Adam Possamai and Murray Lee explain in Religion and Spirituality in Science Fiction Narratives:

Original science fiction narratives principally dealt with the impact of actual or imagined science upon a society and/or its individuals. As the birth of the genre coincided with the development of the modernist ethos and its secularist underpinning, it is not surprising to discover that commentators on the genre, at least before the 1970s, saw this form of narrative as dealing with the victory of science and reason over religion. J.G. Ballard even claimed in 1971 that science fiction was totally atheistic. The modernist project proposed in the majority of these stories was one in which science was taking over religion.

This context helps to explain why so many science-fiction narratives can seem openly hostile towards religious faith and belief, even positioning rationality and religion as mutually exclusive.

"Hm. We're all out."

“Hm. We’re all out.”

Of course, those claims that science-fiction is exclusively atheistic are ridiculous. There is a rich history of storytelling that has blended religion and science-fiction quite smoothly, even during the so-called Golden Age. More recently, shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica have suggested that it is possible for faith to exist within the framework of a science-fiction narrative, and that it is possible to reconcile a rational curiousity about the universe with spirituality and faith.

Religion can be terrifying and destructive when it leads to dogmatic fanaticism and blind hostility towards anything different (as well as insistence others adhere), but that is true of any philosophy or worldview. The Apple starts from the assumption that religion is inherently backwards or regressive. This is an attitude that continued into Star Trek: The Next Generation – consider Picard’s tirade against religion in Who Watches the Watchers?, one of the few times over the course of the show where Picard seems genuinely angry. This is a very narrow perspective.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

It is also an example of Kirk and his crew very clearly imposing their own cultural norms upon an alien society with little interest in trying to understand that culture. In a way, The Apple serves as an example of the franchise’s strongest imperialist tendencies – tendencies that the series and its spin-offs would grapple against for decades with varying degrees of success. Star Trek is often identified as the ideals of Kennedy-era America projected into the distant future. That involved idealism and hope and enthusiasm, but also came with significant baggage.

The Apple is also notable for being the first episode to heavily feature Chekov. The character had been added to the cast roster at the start of the second season, appearing in both the first episode of the season produced (Catspaw) and the first episode of the season to air (Amok Time). Indeed, the biggest continuity gaffe introduced by the radical shuffling of the episodes in the broadcast schedule is Walter Koenig’s hair – the actor began wearing a cheesy mop-top wig, but grew his hair out as the series progressed.

"What do you mean 'there was no Endor holocaust'?"

“What do you mean ‘there was no Endor holocaust’?”

Chekov is an interesting character, because there’s a lot of history around him. Star Trek took a lot of credit in its multinational crew, and Roddenberry would proudly boast that Chekov was created in response to a Pravda article bemoaning the lack of a Russian on this futuristic space crew. After all, the Russians had been space pioneers, so why wasn’t there a Russian on the show itself? Roddenberry would claim that he decided to create Chekov based on that article.

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of this. While Star Trek was multinational, it was also distinctly American. While writers like Gene Coon were quite critical of the Cold War, Gene Roddenberry seemed to support the American position of the ideological conflict – somewhat ironic, given his attempts to turn the Federation into a socialist utopia in The Next Generation. Roddenberry wrote the chest-thumping patriotic scripts to A Private Little War and The Omega Glory. So it would seem strange that Roddenberry would feel so put out by a Pravda article.

Checkout Chekov!

Checkout Chekov!

There are other logistical problems. Not only can nobody find the article in question, but – as actor Walter Koenig points out – Star Trek would not have been shown in Russia to generate the complaint:

Did you ever get any reaction from Russians back in the day?

None, because Star Trek wasn’t being played in the Soviet Union. That whole promotion thing they did about Pravda complaining that there weren’t any Russians on Star Trek was exactly that; it was a promotional thing by the PR department at NBC. They were really interested, of course, in having somebody that would attract the same fans that The Monkees did. And that’s really why they added the character.

Of course, as with any good rumour, there are just enough hazy details allow the remote possibility that it might have occurred – the suggestion that the anonymous Pravda journalist caught an episode in Germany, the verifiable fact that Roddenberry wrote a “follow-up” letter to the journal.

A flower in her hair...

A flower in her hair…

It’s an enduring legend, and it feeds into the larger mythology of Star Trek. As Bill Brioux notes in Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV’s Most Famous Myths, it is just open-ended enough to make a fascinating story:

The 2006 TV special Star Trek 40 Years dismissed the rumour, suggesting that no one in the Soviet Union was even aware of Star Trek in 1966/67 and that spirited young Chekov was simply added to give the show more youthful appeal. So what of the report that suggests a Pravda reporter caught an episode of Star Trek in Germany? Until someone can beam up the original Pravda story, this rumour will boldly go unsolved until the twenty-third century.

There is an irony to the character’s curious blend of Soviet nationalism and cross-franchise appeal. Chekov’s iconic Davey-Jones-style mop-top was actually illegal in contemporary Russia, with police even shaving the heads young people bold enough to wear the hairstyle. Perhaps Chekov represents a more idealistic future than he realises.

"Of course, Vaal. What does this mean 'warranty void if declared god'?"

“Of course, Vaal. What is this ‘warranty’ you speak of’?”

Chekov is a delightfully surreal character. His accent is questionable at best. His comically overstated Soviet patriotism is an awkward recurring gag in a show that occasionally veers a little too far into American jingoism itself. In Who Mourns for Adonais?, we are informed that Chekov is twenty-two years old, despite being played by a thirty-year-old Walter Koenig. It is a very bizarre combination of character quirks, but it really speaks to the occasionally heightened absurdity of classic Star Trek.

Created to appeal to fans of The Monkees, Chekov is perhaps proof that the production on Star Trek were not quite as down with the youth subculture as they might want to be. Chekov is hardly a break-out character, and certainly not the most relatable member of the crew. He seems more like an adult’s idea of a young person than an actual young person. The way the show approaches Chekov seems to be more like an adult weary rolling their eyes at “youngsters” than a genuine attempt to connect with a young audience.

Inna gadda da vida...

Inna gadda da vida…

The first episode to really focus on Chekov, The Apple a perfect example of how Chekov is – to quote future Chekov actor Anton Yelchin – “just a really funny little guy.” The character spends most of The Apple flirting heavily with Landon, a female character who is never seen again. During that time, Chekov is both incredibly pervy and completely oblivious to the fact that members of the team are falling like flies. If he thought about the dead red shirts at all, he’d probably blame them for killing the mood.

Chekov was the last member of the classic Star Trek ensemble to appear. His arrival in the second season really represents a solidification of the show – a sense that everything is now complete and in its proper place. While none of the supporting players on the classic series ever really grew into fully-formed characters in their own right, it is interesting to have the classic line-up fully established.

"We have been thinking about doing some re-branding to make Vaal a hip and modern god, but we just can't seem to find it in the budget..."

“We have been thinking about doing some re-branding to make Vaal a hip and modern god, but we just can’t seem to find it in the budget…”

The Apple is a mess of an episode, one of the examples of Star Trek being a little too heavy-handed for its own good. It’s a shame, as Matt Jefferies’ stylised production design is as beautiful as ever, and there are some interesting ideas here. The Apple just seems afraid to explore them.

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

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6 Responses

  1. I remember that when The Next Generation was originally on, throughout the run there would be various situations where Picard would be agonizing about how to deal with the crisis of the week without violating the Prime Directive. For a long time that caused me to laugh, because Kirk was ALWAYS violating the Prime Directive. I’m sure I must have had episodes like “The Apple” in mind when I was shaking my head over that. It was very weird to go from Kirk’s cowboy diplomacy to Picard’s tortured hand-wringing. But I do think The Next Generation did develop a better balance about handling these things as the series progressed, though.

  2. I don’t think science and religion go together. We, as humans, have the ability to think very logically about some things while completely ignoring that what we believe in other areas is nonsense.

    To quote Richard Dawkins “We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can’t disprove, we can say that God is very, very improbable. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

    Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation. Assigning the cause to some deity or deities is unnecessary.

    Star Trek is all about collecting and evaluating data, and drawing conclusions from the available evidence. The more we learn how to think critically and rely less on our own superstitions, the more we realize that religion is a crutch. Reality is much more interesting.

    Who Watches the Watchers is one of my favorite episodes. I appreciate and admire the stance that Star Trek takes in aggressively questioning our views of religion.

    On another note, I don’t necessarily agree with Kirk’s decisions in this episode. I thought Spock made a good point when he suggested that this society was stable and questioned their right to interfere. The episode would have been much more interesting if they had explored those issues in more detail (but that would have made it more like TNG instead of TOS).

    • Well, I don’t think that believing in something that can’t be objectively proven to exist puts somebody at odds with the real world.

      I think there’s a solid argument to be made that something like the utopianism of Star Trek is just as speculative as most depictions of “god”, given the evidence to hand. But that doesn’t mean that it’s irrational to believe that mankind can learn to behave with respect towards one another or for groups to understand that their self-interest is served through cooperation and integration, even there is not a lot to support that position.

      I think that insisting that religion is stupid and faith is the last refuge of an irrational mind is unnecessarily confrontational. Having read Dawkin’s books, he seems to fundamentally misunderstand how and why religion works while making blanket generalisations and launching broadsides.

      I would argue it’s a problem when somebody believes something to the exclusion of all else. But that’s not religion; that’s extremism and fundamentalism that might be cloaked in religious dressing, but could just as easily be dressed in the language of nationalism or race. By criticising the entire doctrine of a belief system rather than specifically targeting the pathology, you just alienate people and draw with the broadest possible brush.

      I mean, at worst, you play into things like anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

      • Whoa, let’s take a step back here. Though I think that religion and science do not go together, I do think it is crucial to respect people regardless of what they believe. I would never say that someone is stupid because of their religion, and there is no link between atheism and Islamophobia or anti-Semitism.

        If you look at Pew Research regarding college education and atheism, you can see that there is a correlation. According to Pew Research, about four-in-ten atheists (43%) have a college degree, compared with 27% of the general public. This, to me, suggests a link between learning how to think critically and question the world around you, and moving from religion to atheism. The survey is a correlation, of course, not causation, which is much harder to prove. I would encourage you to read the rest of the Pew findings on the page because they are pretty enlightening. (Just google “10 Facts About Atheists, Pew Research”)

        Finally, in an effort to bring this back around to Star Trek somehow, I would agree that it’s obviously science fiction and speculative. But, it is labeled as “science fiction,” not “truth” or “gospel.” What I love about Star Trek is that it encourages you to think and question everything – not just religion, but all social norms. Even if you don’t agree with the events in every episode (and I certainly don’t), at least they make you think.

      • To be absolutely clear, I have no problem with atheism as a personal belief system. I do have issues with the arguments that it is the obviously and inevitably “right” answer, just as I would have issues with arguing Christianity, Islam or Judaism (or Buddhism or Hinduism, etc) are the obviously and inevitably “right” answer. And I think that suggesting that science (and, by implication, knowledge and enlightenment) exist in opposition to personal spiritual or religious beliefs is inherently worrying to me.

        And it is a tone that I associate with various high profile atheists, like Dawkins or like episodes of Star Trek like The Apple.

        Some of that is just basic respect for people who find value in their faith. Part of that is simple recognition of the fact that you don’t convince people to embrace your perspective if you set it in opposition to their principles.

        And, to be clear, I’m not advocating for creationism to be taught on par or equivalent to evolution or anything like that. Or for teaching a child the Earth is flat. I would probably argue that involving children in dangerous religious practices (declining blood transfusions) is de facto child abuse. I’d argue for the integration of children into shared classrooms that respect religious faith. But I have no problem with somebody in my office wearing a crucifix or a hijab, blessing themselves at meals or praying at certain times of day.

        I much rather live in the version of Starfleet presented on Deep Space Nine than that in Star Trek or The Next Generation, where Sisko’s first assumption when Kira starts praying is to acknowledge her faith rather than to assume there’s an evil computer exploiting and enslaving her civilisation as Kirk would or to behave like her culture is going through an “immature” phase like Picard does. In the real world, I suspect issues like global warming would have a much higher penetration if any debate on science weren’t reflexively framed as science-vs-religion.

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