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Star Trek – Elaan of Troyius (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The strangest thing about Elaan of Troyius is just how influential the episode is.

In many respects, Elaan of Troyius codified Journey to Babel as a genre of Star Trek episode unto itself, the kind of story where the crew find themselves assigned the task of ferrying foreign dignitaries around while intrigue and pseudo-science happens around them. This would become something of a template in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, even carrying over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Lonely Among Us, Loud as a Whisper, The Price, The Forsaken, Remember.

The Dohlman wants YOU!

The Dohlman wants YOU!

However, in that respect, Elaan of Troyius was simply extrapolating from Journey to Babel by demonstrating that the franchise could employ this basic storytelling model with some frequency. The innovations in Elaan of Troyius are in grafting a “sexy alien babe” narrative into that existing “ferry around” template, which would lead to future stories like The Perfect Mate, Precious Cargo or Bound. In some respects, it was prefigured by Mudd’s Women, an earlier episode about women who exert an unnatural influence over our male lead(s).

The influence of Elaan of Troyius over the rest of the franchise is quite simply astounding. Particularly given how terrible it is.

Elas, my love, it is time to go...

Elas, my love, it is time to go…

Star Trek gets a lot of credit for being progressive. A great deal of that is deserved. Undoubtedly, the bridge crew are a very diverse collection of cast and characters. The show had some genuinely cutting commentary on Vietnam and United States foreign policy in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy. The show preached pacifism and understanding in episodes like The Devil in the Dark. The show would offer some sincere (if clumsy) racial commentary in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

However, the show also had some pretty severe blind spots. The politics of episodes like The Apple and A Private Little War were much more reactionary than many fans would generally acknowledge. The handling of Uhura’s character in episodes like The Changeling and And the Children Shall Lead was generally offensive. This is to say nothing of the uncomfortable racial subtext around the introduction of the Klingons or the racial politics of The Omega Glory. Even classic episodes like Space Seed came with a healthy dose of ambient sexism.

"Aye, Cap'n, the scanners are readin' dangerous levels of background sexism."

“Aye, Cap’n, the scanners are readin’ dangerous levels of background sexism.”

Discussions of the franchise that celebrate its diversity tend to gloss over these issues. In many cases, fans will argue that the show was progressive “for its time.” This is something of a cop out, but it is also inaccurate. Uhura was seldom treated as a nuanced or multifaceted character, but other network television shows had integrated African American characters and performers into their cast. As much credit as Plato’s Stepchildren gets for its (deeply creepy) interracial kiss, the television show I, Spy got there much earlier.

With the third season, these problems become even more pronounced. The latent sexism and racism that had simmered in the background of (and occasionally bursts through in) the first two years of the show becomes ambient background noise. Star Trek becomes aggressively reactionary. It is perhaps telling that the franchise’s first female commanding officer is the anonymous Romulan Captain in The Enterprise Incident, while Turnabout Intruder closes the year (and the show) by insisting there are no women Starfleet captains.

"Mister Sulu, the Klingons went thattaway..."

“Mister Sulu, the Klingons went thattaway…”

Elaan of Troyius is really the beginning of this trend. It paves the way for the amplified racism and sexism of subsequent episodes like The Paradise Syndrome or Spock’s Brain. The basic plot of Elaan of Troyius finds the Enterprise assigned the diplomatic task of ferrying the Dohlman of Elaan to her royal wedding on the planet of Troyius. The objective of this union is to bring peace to the two warring planets and stability to a region of space claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

The title alludes to the myth of Helen of Troy, the famous legend of a woman whose beauty led to the Trojan War. However, the bulk of the story is a riff on The Taming of the Shrew, which has itself inspired a whole subgenre of stories about savage women tamed by civilised men from Pygmalion to My Fair Lady. The Dohlman of Elaan is portrayed as a violent and uncivilised brat in need of some lessons in manners. Ambassador Petri of Troyius is initially assigned the task, but it inevitably falls to Kirk in order to prepare Elaan for her regal obligations.

Starfleet General Order #3: No Diplomats to be Left Unaccompanied in the Presence of James Tiberius Kirk.

Starfleet General Order #3: No Diplomats to be Left Unaccompanied in the Presence of James Tiberius Kirk.

To be fair, The Taming of the Shrew is a text that comes with all manner of problematic elements and assumptions, even beyond those imposed upon it by the social standards of the sixteenth century – let alone the historical influences for Shakespeare’s play. Indeed, the play is now considered to be one of the bard’s so-called “problem” plays:

Regardless of its ribald atmosphere and ostensible high spirits, it incontestably portrays a woman subjected to a variety of tortures practiced more recently by the K.G.B. — incarceration, enforced starvation, sleeplessness — and thereby browbeaten and brainwashed into submission; and implicitly invites us to approve of the process and to find its outcome amusing.

Recent productions have thus tended to subvert Shakespeare’s manifest intentions; they turn the title character, Katherina, into an automaton, a Paduan avatar of a Stepford wife, or alternately, they portray her as somehow being complicit in the joke. Considerable ingenuity has been expended on making the show palatable to modern tastes, but the exercise inevitably involves violating the spirit of the text.

As such, adapting the play is a risky proposition. It involves walking a fine line between cultivating the sexual chemistry of its lead performers and playing as a crass misogynist fantasy about “taming” women to meet the expectations of a patriarchal society. Elaan of Troyius does not walk that line; it bounds across it and never looks back.

"Okay, not my best advice."

“Okay, not my best advice.”

The Dohlman is portrayed as petulant and childish, prone to throwing temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. The men around her (at least those with significant parts) are portrayed as more level-headed and reasonable, more nuanced and understanding. Early on, the script suggests some measure of equanimity, as Kirk gets frustrated with Ambassador Petri’s difficulty managing her. “You’re as bad as she is,” Kirk complains. “It’s not required that you like each other. Just do your job.” However, Petri is promptly stabbed in the line of duty, doing his job.

Kirk has to step in and teach Elaan how to behave like a lady. Elaan of Troyius presents the ruler as a petulant child. Uhura kindly vacates her quarters for the dignitary, but Elaan does not respond with kindness or gratitude. “Am I a soft Troyian fawn to need pillows to sit on? And these ridiculous female trappings. They are an offense to my eyes.” not only does the Dohlman voice her displeasure, she vents her frustration on the quarters. She tosses pillows. She throws knives at artwork. She is generally unpleasant.

Be a Dohl, man.

Be a Dohl, man.

The Dohlman behaves like a spoilt brat. There is no nuance to her character, as reflected in the script and the performance. When Elaan objects to something, she never builts up to her complaint or frames it in coherent terms. Instead, the Dohlman throws all the toys out of the pram, screaming and shouting. After that initial confrontation with Kirk in Uhura’s quarters, the Dohlman screams into a pillow. She is dressed in what is undoubtedly intended as sexy attire but which – given her conduct – comes to evoke a big purple diaper.

Kirk repeated admonishes the Dohlman by condescending to her as if she is a child. “That’s another one of your problems,” he remarks. “Nobody’s told you that you’re an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman’s body, an arrogant monster!” Later he warns her, “If I touch you again, Your Glory, it’ll be to administer an ancient Earth custom called a spanking, a form of punishment administered to spoiled brats.” All of this serves to suggest that the Dohlman is overly emotional and completely irresponsible.

"This would be much classier if I had a British accent."

“This would be much classier if I had a British accent.”

It also adds an uncomfortably creepy paternalistic subtext to her inevitable romance with Kirk. William Shatner taps into the same unsettling tone that Roger Moore would later employ in films like The Man With the Golden Gun or The Spy Who Loved Me. During one struggle, after slapping her, he tosses her down on the bed. “Now, are you going to behave or not?” he demands. Inevitably they kiss. “Captain, that ancient Earth custom called spanking, what is it?” the Dohlman asks. Kirk responds, “We’ll talk about it later.” Somehow, he does not arch an eyebrow.

To be fair, there are obvious diplomatic protocols (and common curtesies) that the Dohlman needs to learn in order for this diplomatic mission to work. “Don’t stab your husband-to-be’s ambassador in the back” would be one such example. However, Kirk seems to fixate on the smaller details. The Dohlman’s eating habits are presented as being of crucial concern, despite the fact that her staff of bodyguards seem ready to escalate to murder at even the slightest provocation. It says a lot about Elaan of Troyius that table manners are a top priority.

Kirk gives her a lot to chew over.

Kirk gives her a lot to chew over.

Of course, all of this fees rather hazy and inconsequential. If the Dohlman is so violent and unpredictable that she cannot spend more than a few minutes in the company of a Troyaan without flying into a murderous rage, what chance does an arranged marriage actually have? It makes sense that the Dohlman would be reluctant, even aggressive. However, Elaan of Troyius heightens its stakes to an absurd degree. Would anybody dare leave the Dohlman alone with ruler of Troyius? That sounds like a recipe for even more murder and warfare. It is a bad idea.

More than that, Elaan of Troyius struggles to explain why Kirk should be particularly invested in any of this. There are several obvious answers; the most obvious is that Kirk would want to see the end to a brutal long-running conflict between Elas and Troyius. However, Elaan of Troyius pushes things a little too eagerly in pursuit of stakes. “You have as much at stake as I have,” Ambassadore Petri states. “Your superiors made the statement that failure of this mission would be as catastrophic for Federation planning as it would be for our two planets.”

"Cover your (Amb)ass..."

“Cover your (Amb)ass…”

“Federation planning” seems rather vague. What exactly are the consequences of Kirk’s failure in this particular mission? Starfleet does not get a shiny new base in the Troyius system? Given that the alternative is a war between Elas and Troyius that has the potential to claim countless lives, it is really hard to get particularly shaken up by any disruption to “Federation planning.” More than that, there is something a tad uncomfortable in the implied suggestion that Kirk cares more about “Federation planning” or his reputation than innocent lives.

Inexplicably, Elaan of Troyius continues to push this across its runtime. As Ambassador Petri lies recovering in Sickbay, Uhura interrupts his conversation with Kirk. “The Federation High Commissioner is on his way to Troyius to attend the royal wedding.” The implication is that this somehow raises the stakes for Kirk and his crew somehow, despite the fact that the audience hase never actually met “the Federation High Commissioner” and that the show has never really devoted too much time to exploring the workings or politics of the Federation.

"Look, compared to the last diplomatic ferrying mission we had, this is working out quite well."

“Look, compared to the last diplomatic ferrying mission we had, this is working out quite well.”

More to the point, Elaan of Troyius introduces a whole host of stakes in its second half. Kirk finds himself falling in love with the Dohlman, whom he is sworn to give away. The Enterprise finds itself under attack from a Klingon vessel. With all of that going on, the script to Elaan of Troyius feels rather clumsy and weighted. Why is it so important for Ambassador Petri to stress that “Federation planning” is in jeopardy? And why would a Troyaan argue that “Federation planning” was somehow more important than Troyaan lives?

There are other awkward moments in the script. In particular, writer John Meredyth Lucas struggles a bit with exposition. He waits until about half-way through the episode to introduce the plot point about the Dohlman’s tears, and he does so in the most clumsy of manners. Treating the Dohlman, Nurse Chapel asks, “Ambassador, if Elasian women are that vicious, why are men so overwhelmingly attracted to them? I mean, what magic do they possess?” It is a line that feels lifted from a cheesy after school special about the dangers of Elasian women.

"I'm detecting potentially dangerous levels of exposition."

“I’m detecting potentially dangerous levels of exposition.”

That comparison certainly feels appropriate. As author David Mack concedes of the episode, it is a deeply problematic piece of television:

Let’s not mince words: this episode is about as sexist, chauvinistic, and borderline racist as original series Star Trek gets. It plays on stereotypes of women in general and Asian women in particular, and it depicts Kirk’s slapping of Elaan as a righteous act.

Mack is entirely right. Elaan of Troyius peddles in all manner of unfortunate stereotypes and assumptions that are never questioned or challenged.

Dagger of the... not-mind.

Dagger of the… not-mind.

The Dohlman is a sexist archetype. The producers cast France Nuyan in the role, a Vietnamese-French actress and model. The casting of Nuyan adds an uncomfortable ethnic exoticism to the episode’s portrayal of the female character. As Daniel Bernardi argues in Star Trek and History:

After giving in to Kirk’s power, Elaan, like the cunning and manipulative dragon lady of classical Hollywood cinema, returns the favour by capturing his heart. The Asian-alien’s tears contain a bio-chemical agent that, when touched by a man (even aliens like Kirk), forces him to fall deeply in love with her. After she manipulates Kirk into desiring her, Elaan becomes submissive, gentle, loyal, even willing to die with him, by his side, as the Klingons ruthlessly attack the Enterprise. It is at this point in the narrative that the other stereotype of the Asian female comes into play – that of the submissive Asian slave. In the end, Elaan does anything Captain Kirk requests, politely and adoringly obeying his demands and orders. Her dragon lady tactics were only used so that she could assume a position she truly desired: the submissive mistress of a white knight.

It is worth noting that Elaan appears in episode that heavily features the Klingons, who are another iconic (and unfortunate) Asian caricature at this point in the show. Given that the Vietnam War was still raging and the tensions that existed with Communist China, the politics of this portrayal are questionable at best.

Men are from Terra, women are from Elas...

Men are from Terra, women are from Elas…

Elaan of Troyius is singularly disinterested in its leading character. There is a version of the story that invests Elaan with some sense of individuality and complexity. After all, the Dohlman is travelling far from home on a mission of peace, to marry into the culture of her sworn enemy. That has to take a toll. Although Elaan of Troyius does not get too bogged down in the specifics of the situation, it seems that this union was not Elaan’s idea. Elaan is just going along with it, whether out of a reluctant sense of duty or because she has no choice.

There is an interesting conflict here. In many respects, the Dohlman seems to be a powerful figure. She commands a great deal of respect in Elasian society. Beaming on board as part of her entourage, Kryton instructs Kirk and Spock to kneel before Elaan. “Do honour to the Dohlman of Elas,” he instructs. It appears that there can be no negotiation. When Kirk and Spock whisper, he cuts across them. “Permission to speak was not given.” To the viewer watching the episode for the first time, Elaan appears to be the ruler of Elas.

Knees must.

Knees must.

However, over the course of the episode, it slowly becomes clear that this is not the case. Elaan is not necessarily a willing participant in this peace negotiation. Ambassador Petri states that his services were requested by “[Elaan’s] council of nobles and the Troyius Tribunal.” When Petri leaves, Elaan protests, “I will never forgive the council for putting me through this torture.” It is not clear whether she is referring to the lessons in manners or the whole damn charade. Given her anger at the situation, it would seem to be the latter.

There is an interesting story to be told here. After all, arranged marriages are a complicated affair. More than that, they were (and arguably still are) a reality for certain political classes. In that light, the Dohlman becomes a mych more interesting character. What must it feel like to be auctioned off as the price for peace? What does it feel like to abandon everything you took for granted so that you can spend the rest of your life with a stranger on a world you have never visited populated by a people you hate?

A measure of Elas resort.

A measure of Elas resort.

These are intriguing questions, but Elaan of Troyius has no interest in them. The only time that the episode really broaches any concerns about the way Elaan has been treated is from the perspective of James Kirk. “Could you do that?” she asks him. “Could you give me to another man?” The audience is asked to feel empathy for Kirk giving her away rather than for Elaan being given away. Kirk is the figure of sympathy, while Elaan herself is treated as an object to be traded and with little agency of her own.

There is an uncomfortable subtext running through Elaan of Troyius that the Dohlman is just highly manipulative and that she is simply emotionally manoeuvring Kirk into submission. Inevitably, Kirk comes in contact with the Dohlman’s tears, which are enough to make any man fall head over heels in love with an Elasian woman. However, the earlier conversation between Chapel and Petri frames this as a method of social control, a deeply creepy way in which Elasian women subjugate their menfolk.

"Although, now that you mention it, that diplomatic report did use the word 'bro' a lot."

“Although, now that you mention it, that diplomatic report did use the word ‘bro’ a lot.”

That is certainly how Elaan of Troyius chooses to play it. The moment of vulnerability between Kirk and Elaan is quite touching. “I don’t know how to make people like me,” she confesses. “I don’t want everybody to hate me.” It is hardly a banner moment for female empowerment, but it gives Elaan more personality than she has at any point before or after. This plea makes Kirk sympathetic to her. He comes in close. She cries. He touches her tears. He is smitten. Initially, it appears to be bad timing that leads to this situation.

However, Elaan’s demeanour changes following that contact. Elaan knows she has Kirk under her power. Indeed, the episode even seems to suggest that she might have planned for something like this. Certainly, it is not long before the Dohlman tries to leverage that power for her own short-term goals. “It was no accident,” she states. “I chose you, and you chose me. I have a plan. With this ship, you could completely obliterate Troyius. Then there will be no need for the marriage. And in gratitude, my people will give you the complete rule of this system.”

Stroking his ego.

Stroking his ego.

To be entirely clear, Elaan states that this attraction was “no accident” and that she has “a plan.” That plan, which hinges upon a man who is biologically enslaved to her, involves implicating her lover in genocide. Elaan of Troyius paints its central guest star as a manipulative and cajoling shrew. “What kind of a mind could think of such a thing?” Kirk wonders. Obviously not the kind of mind that a sane person would leave alone with the rule of Troyius. Elaan flaunts her power over Kirk. “You cannot resist my love, my love.”

This is an incredibly twisted and skewed portrayal of gender relations, one that falls back on the old misogynistic stereotype of women as manipulative schemers who use sex and sexuality to bend innocent men to their will. In its portrayal of the Dohlman, Elaan of Troyius draws from a host of deeply problematic inspirations. Most obviously and most blatantly, it casts Elaan as a deep-space Jezebel, an exotic alien woman who uses her powers of seduction to tempt a wise ruler to foolish action

Elaan back.

Elaan back.

Although John Meredyth Lucas is credited on the script, the writer claims in Star Trek memories that Elaan of Troyius was inspired by another prominent member of the production team:

It was Gene Roddenberry’s story on which I based my script. And I particularly liked its romance angle, because there wasn’t much of an opportunity to do that kind of story on the show. I also liked the physical battle stuff, between the Klingons and our guys.

This certainly seems to fit with Gene Roddenberry’s thematic concerns. Elaan is a seductive female character who exists to tempt Kirk away from righteousness and duty, like Nona in A Private Little War.

"The plot device is broken, Cap'n."

“The plot device is broken, Cap’n.”

In many respects, Elaan of Troyius speaks to the production realities and concerns of the third season as a whole. Notably, the episode is set entirely on the Enterprise itself; there are only a few brief glimpses of the Klingon bridge on the viewscreen towards the climax of the episode. As with the half-formed version of Tombstone that appeared in Spectre of the Gun, this is an obvious budget-saving measure. A significant portion of the third season would unfold on the standing Enterprise sets because of the budgetary restrictions imposed by NBC.

However, more than that, the episode speaks to the larger goals of Fred Freiberger as executive producer. Freiberger has been drafted in to replace John Meredyth Lucas as executive producer on the show, with Gene Roddenberry stepping away between seasons. Freiberger was more of a producer than a writer. A lot of the early third season episodes were written by veterans of the first two seasons no longer working full-time on the show. Freiberger seemed less interested in the particulars of Star Trek than the generalities of television.

"Who set the lighting to mood?"

“Who set the lighting to mood?”

Most obviously, Freiberger was consciously attempting to grow and broaden the audience for Star Trek, at least as far as the network was concerned. The goal seemed to be to deliver episodes targetting viewers who would not traditionally be interested in a show about a starship warping through the galaxy. This is reflected in the begin production of the season with Spectre of the Gun, an episode that (superficially at least) played to Freiberger’s earlier experiences producing popular Western television.

To be clear, this is not a bad idea on paper. Star Trek was dying. The viewing figures were not what the network wanted them to be. Freiberger’s first priority was to ensure the long-term survival of the show, and that was simply not feasible by appealing to the existing viewer base. Of course, it could legitimately be argued that Star Trek was dead anyway, and that Freiberger’s energy might have been better spent reassuring that base. That is very much what drove the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise, which faced many of the same challenges.

"It's my necklace on the line."

“It’s my necklace on the line.”

Rather than pandering to the base, Freiberger made a conscious effort to try new things. The only issues was that these efforts tended to backfire. Spectacularly. Elaan of Troyius was one such example. It was an episode squarely aimed at an audience long-neglected by Star Trek. Quoted in The Fifty Year Mission, Freiberger explained:

It was fun, but part of the reason we did that one was because the network had told us that they had done a survey and discovered that although there were a lot of female science-fiction fans, women generally are terrified of space. They needed stability, they needed surroundings; they’d rather be in valleys than on tops of mountains. So we tried to get the women, which is why we did a romantic story. We tried to reach that audience we couldn’t reach otherwise, but we didn’t succeed.

It is certainly a loft goal, and it makes a great deal of sense. Elaan of Troyius might easily be rewritten as a pulpy romance paperback about a spoilt princess who falls in love with a working-class no-nonsense military officer. Of course, Elaan of Troyius fails spectacularly on those terms, reducing its female lead to a sexist and racist cliché.

"What, you mean my new James Dean haircut isn't going to attract the viewers?"

“What, you mean my new James Dean haircut isn’t going to attract the viewers?”

It should also be noted that Freiberger and the network seem to fundamentally misunderstand their audience. Star Trek has a strong female fanbase. The campaign to save Star Trek that had helped to secure the show a third season was masterminded by a female fan named Bjo Trimble. The first Star Trek fanzine, Spockalania, kicked off during the first season under the editorial oversight of Devra Michele Langsam and Sherna Comerford. From its earliest days, Star Trek fandom was actively engaged in traditionally female activities like “fan fic” and “slash.”

The female fans were already there, arguably more engaged in organising their fandom than their male counterparts. It was quite clear what those female fans wanted from Star Trek. If Freiberger and the network were correct to generalise on gender by assuming that women wanted romance from Star Trek, then Elaan of Troyius missed the points. If fandom wanted romance from Star Trek, that romance was of the kind featured in The Enterprise Incident rather than Elaan of Troyius. Spock was the bigger sex symbol than Kirk.

He could warn Kirk about this until he's blue in the face...

He could warn Kirk about this until he’s blue in the face…

Elaan of Troyius might have been an attempt to draw a larger female audience outside that fanbase, but it seemed highly unlikely that those female audience members would be staying home late on Friday night to catch a new episode of Star Trek. More than that, the special effects demands of the battle between the Enterprise and the Klingon ship towards the climax of the episode meant that Elaan of Troyius had to be pushed back to almost half-way through the season. Any chance of attracting a new audience was lost.

The logistical difficulties of shooting and editting that climactic confrontation between the Enterprise and the Klingon ship demonstrate why Star Trek generally avoided space battles. Staging those (rather modest) combat sequences with actual models was a labourous process that extended the post-production of the episode for weeks and weeks. As much as Star Trek fans might argue that the franchise appeals to a more intellectigent school of science fiction, there were practical considerations that limited the kind of stories that the franchise could tell.

"We're trying a new symbol on for size. This way it looks pointy and fast."

“We’re trying a new symbol on for size. This way it looks pointy and fast.”

Indeed, these arguments that Star Trek had always been a more intellectual style of science-fiction tended to gloss over the fact that the series indulged in pulpy action at every opportunity. Fleets of ships and giant space battles were not possible within the practical and budgetary limitations of the time, but Star Trek could get away with a lower key action sensibility. Arena could pit William Shatner against a man in a giant green lizard suit. Space Seed could have Kirk wrestle Khan in Engineering. Amok Time could have Kirk and Spock fight to the death.

It is true that Star Trek embraced high concept and intellectual science-fiction storytelling, but it is disingenuous to suggest that Roddenberry or the production team were disinterested in the pulpy trappings of contemporary science-fiction entertainment. The show’s wardrobe and stunt choreography was pure pulp. The long post-production process on Elaan of Troyius suggests that the only reason the show did not feature more space-based combat was because of the restrictions imposed by budgetary concerns and the rigorous television schedule.

Disappearing man.

Disappearing man.

In fact, Elaan of the Troyius is the only episode of the original Star Trek to pit the Enterprise against a Klingon ship in combat. There were elements of that in the background of Errand of Mercy, but not with the same amount of focus. This gives Elaan of Troyius a certain cultural cache, as future writer David A. Goodman confesses in These Are the Voyages:

It was with great pride that when I was watching Crimson Tide and Denzel Washington’s character says “Remember the Star Trek episode where they’re battling the Klingons and he calls Scotty and says he needs more warp power.” Even though it sounded like it could be any number of Star Trek episodes, I knew that it was, in fact, only this one.

It is a very fun piece of trivia, and it is interesting to wonder if that trivia might account for why Elaan of Troyius has lingered in fandom’s mind despite the fact that it is self-evidently terrible. “The Enterprise versus the Klingons” is a Star Trek staple, but this is the only episode in which fans get to see the Enterprise engage a Klingon ship one-on-one head-to-head in a high stakes climactic battle. It was bound to make an impression on hardcore fandom.

Scotty was growing increasingly frustrated with contestants from The Crystal Maze sneaking into Engineering...

Scotty was growing increasingly frustrated with contestants from The Crystal Maze sneaking into Engineering…

The only other notable detail of Elaan of Troyius is that it is the only episode in the history of the franchise to be written and directed by the same person. To be fair, this happened with reasonable frequency when the series was adapted for cinema: Leonard Nimoy was credited on the story of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a movie he also directed; William Shatner had a similar level of involvement in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier; Nicholas Meyer worked on the screenplay and directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

However, Elaan of Troyius remains unique in the annals of the Star Trek television franchise, written and directed by former producer John Meredyth Lucas. Lucas had written earlier episodes like The Changeling and Patterns of Force. He had also directed The Ultimate Computer. More than that, Lucas had been in charge of overseeing the final stretch of the second season, although he did not resume the post going into the start of the third season. Lucas is frequently overlooked in terms of the sheer breadth of his contributions to the franchise.

"Mister Scott, would you care to assist me in performing surgery on an antimatter reactor?"

“Mister Scott, would you care to assist me in performing surgery on an antimatter reactor?”

There are a number of reasons why it would be uncommon for a television writer to direct their own script. Many of these issues are tied into traditional views of the industry, which treat writers as the authors of a television show. Writers are tasked with overseeing an entire season of production, managing the competing demands of different scripts and maintaining character and tonal continuity across multiple instalments of the same season or series. Dorothy Fontana, Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon; they all thought in terms of the big picture.

In contrast, television had historically treated the director as a staff member responsible for curating an individual script through the process of production. Even then, the writers were frequently actively involved in the process. Whereas Star Trek was being produced at a point when film directors like Alfred Hitchcock were beginning to be seen as auteurs crafting a unique artistic vision, television directors were frequently seen as foremen working on the production line. Leonard Nimoy once explained that the imperative for a Star Trek director was “get it done fast.”

A man and his ship.

A man and his ship.

This view held for a long time in television. Even today, some television directors feel that their contribution to the process is underrated. Director Marcos Siega argues:

Television is tough. Most writers, if they read this, will say, “Well, it’s a writer’s medium.” And I think yes, that is true. It started as a hundred percent a writer’s medium and I think directors are considered more like traffic cops. They come in and make sure everything’s running smoothly and you get the footage and you get what you need.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Even today, when big directors do television, they tend to did in and out. Martin Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire. Neil Marshall on Game of Thrones. David Slade on Hannibal.

Cushioning herself.

Cushioning herself.

To be fair, this attitude has changed a great deal in the twenty-first century. Television directors like the Russo brothers or Alan Taylor or Michelle MacLaren have captured the attention of the press and the public, elevated to big budget film production. More than that, directors like Cary Fukuyama and Steven Soderberg have curated entire seasons of prestige shows in order to build a more auteur model of television. On television, writers like Vince Gilligan, Chris Carter, David Chase, Ronald D. Moore and Matthew Weiner have taken to directing their own scripts.

Indeed, the changes to television production infrastructure render it highly unlikely that Elaan of Troyius will remain unique in this respect for much longer. Certainly, Bryan Fuller’s recruitment of veteran Star Trek writer and director Nicholas Meyer to work on his new television series would seem to suggest that Meyer might work on both sides of the traditional writer/director divide. However, it is very telling that Elaan of Troyius represents the only occasion of an episode written and directed by the same person in the first fifty years of the franchise’s history.

Engineering a deadly plot.

Engineering a deadly plot.

Discussing the episode with Starlog, John Meredyth Lucas argued that his practical experience on both sides of the camera made it easy to wear both hats:

“It’s easy for me to direct my own material,” Lucas explains, “because I’ve never looked at my work as sacred. I’m about to make a statement which will unendear me to every writer, but it’s almost impossible for me to shoot a script precisely – my own or anybody else’s, because you see targets of opportunity. This is justifiably a very sensitive point with writers, but it’s also true that you wouldn’t hire a director if you expected him to precisely photograph a piece of paper.

“When you’re directing, you see things in a slightly different slant. When you’re sitting in an office, you don’t see the set that has been designed. Locations dictate certain changes. This is not rewriting for the sake of rewrites, but it’s impossible to imagine what can happen. You have to adapt to every situation.”

There is a sense that Lucas is probably a stronger director than he is a writer, although a lot of the problems with the script for Elaan of Troyius were inherited from Gene Roddenberry original ideas.

Tearing her lovers apart.

Tearing her lovers apart.

More tot he point, Elaan of Troyius continues the trend of third season episodes largely curated and overseen by established Star Trek veterans rather than demonstrating a more “hands on” approach by producer Fred Freiberger. While the other executive producers who steered Star Trek tended to put their own fingerprints on the work, Freiberger initially seemed quite happy trust established veterans to handle the specifics of the production while he tried to steer the show towards big ideas.

Producers like Gene L. Coon and John Meredyth Lucas had their own idea of what they wanted Star Trek to be. Gene L. Coon was very interested in Star Trek as a political allegory, in working through the imperialist subtext of the show and in exploring the Klingons as a potential recurring adversary. John Meredyth Lucas was more intrigued by the idea of space as something alien (and even hostile) towards our lead characters. In contrast, it is hard to summarise Freiberger’s vision for Star Trek beyond “we should find a way to make it more popular.”

All's affair in love and war.

All’s affair in love and war.

Of course, Freiberger would go on to become a very polarising and very divisive figure within the history of Star Trek. In reality, a lot of the issues for which Freiberger is blamed were largely inherited with the show; Freiberger could not increase the budget on the third season or convince NBC to give the series a better time slot. Freiberger had a point when he sharply rejected the blame for leading Star Trek to cancellation:

The show was cancelled because our ratings were never good in prime-time. Our share of the audience ran between 25 to 28, all three seasons. It was only when the show went into syndication so that the kids could view it at 5 or 6 in the afternoon that it became a smash. Of course, today, a 25 share puts a series in the Top Ten.

The third season of Star Trek was always going to be the last. Freiberger has attracted an unfair volume of criticism for his contributions to the franchise. At the same time, there is a sense that Freiberger opens himself up to all manner of smaller (and more justifiable) criticisms about the particulars of how he ran the show. Freiberger had some good ideas, but the third season repeatedly demonstrates that he struggled to implement them.

"Don't worry. I'm sure next week's episode will be much better."

“Don’t worry. I’m sure next week’s episode will be much better.”

As such, it is odd that his tenure should begin with a couple of episodes that broadly tie into his desire to make Star Trek more popular, but during which he largely defers to the aesthetics and particulars of his two predecessors. It is a very strange place for the third season to begin.

18 Responses

  1. Darren, the missing link in a discussion about “Elaan of Troyius” is the Have Gun, Will Travel episode “Ella West.” You may not be able to locate a copy of the TV version, but the radio version circulates freely online. In that episode the manly protagonist Paladin is recruited to tame a shrewish woman on behalf of her husband-to-be. He conquers her willfulness, increases her femininity, teaches her table manners and she even falls in love with him in the end. It was written by – of course – Gene Roddenberry.

    You are right that Trek fandom has told itself many fictions about about Trek’s progressiveness; is there any more baseless than Roddenberry the feminist?

  2. Star Trek fans often seem ashamed of its pulp heritage, looking down on other sci-fi properties for having the same pulp attributes and claiming that Trek is a more “serious” franchise. I suspect that part of the fandom backlash against J.J.’s Trek films is that they are open about its pulp and space opera status. I feel this openness works to the franchise’s benefit, a lot of the later series seemed to suffer from taking pulpy ideas like parallel worlds, time travel and possession and engaging with them in a sterile and awkward fashion. NuTrek wholeheartedly commits to the pulp and the result is more enjoyable and honest experience, while still engaging with relevant issues in a more organic fashion IMHO.

    • Yep. You’d swear that Kirk was always the model of professionalism on the original show, or that the series was always high-minded and even-handed. It was, but perhaps less often than most fans would concede. If Roddenberry had the budget or the technology at his disposal, I’d have no doubt that you would have seen something like Star Trek 09 or Into Darkness, although probably with even clumsier political/social commentary.

      I love the Abrams era movies, which seems to put me in the minority of Star Trek fans. They’re not my favourite iteration of the franchise by any measure, but I like them more for the knee-jerk fandom hatred of them. “This is not the kind of Star Trek I want!” is not the same as “this is not Star Trek!” And I think that Star Trek and Into Darkness do an excellent job of “blockbuster” Star Trek, which is very much their mandate. (Certainly better than Insurrection or Nemesis, which were clearly aspiring to something similar.)

  3. Is it just me, but TNG did remake this episode with The Perfect Mate. A woman is scheduled for an arranged marriage, but then her original teacher is injured, so she has to work and ends up falling in love with true Captain. I know that Rene echevaria, he came up with the story, is a huge fan of TOS, so I wonder if he wanted to write his own version and improve on it.

    • Yep. I think The Perfect Mate is a much stronger version of this particular story, while still… problematic in some respects. And Echevaria is an unsung hero of the TNG/DS9 era, although he tends to get overshadowed by Moore.

  4. “Spock was the bigger sex symbol than Kirk.”

    What’s hilarious about this was that, from a certain perspective, Spock was (and in the new movies is) much more of a romantic male lead cliche than Kirk is – the brooding defrosting ice king that Jane Austen popularised. The other big cliche male lead is the ladykiller in love stereotype, which despite his pop culture persona doesn’t really fit Kirk either.

    I do wonder how much the prior history between Shatner and France Nuyen played into this episode. They’d worked together on stage a decade earlier in ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ (Shatner gives a surreal but entertaining account of this in his autobiography.)

    • That’s a fair point about the sex symbol ness.

      I knew that Shatner and Nuyen worked together on The World of Suzie Wong, but don’t know much about the precise context. Any details you can remember, off the top of your head? Shatner is a great storyteller.

  5. Why is it important to the Federation that Elas and Troyius be in a stable relationship with one another? It is mainly because Dilithium crystals in the system are common as dirt. This is not revealed until later in the episode and proved to be an important plot point. There were at least three intertwining story lines in this episodes

    While there are undoubtedly sexist overtones here, I felt that Elaan’s temper tantrums were partially justified. She and Kryton were a couple, and implications are that they were very happy together. The diplomatically arranged marriage would mean they could no longer be together. I’d be upset in her position, too. I felt for her.

    There are hints near the end of the episode that she was fully capable of exercising common courtesy all along. She politely offers her necklace to Scotty. I did not get the impression that she was “tamed” by Kirk. There just wasn’t enough time for such a transformation. It felt instead that she was snapped out of her funky mood and back to reality by watching the Enterprise face certain destruction from the Kingons.

    • Did the Federation know about the crystals? I thought it was a surprise to Kirk when the necklace turned out to contain dilithium?

      • This was my thought too. Once the crystals thing was revealed I thought “So THAT’S why the Federation is so invested in making peace here!” It seemed apparent that the Fed knew about this, which is why they sent someone to attend the wedding, but wasn’t telling anyone their reasons – including the Enterprise – so as to keep it under wraps. (And for that matter, had the Klingons discovered this as well?)

        If this was the motivation, it definitely was hugely understated. But if you look at those elements as related clues, the conclusion seems undeniable.

  6. William Shatner and the exotic France Nuyen were reunited yet again in a 1974 KUNG FU “A Small Beheading,” playing husband and wife. He is a ship’s captain wed to the niece of the Chinese Emperor eager to avenge the death of his nephew, her brother, at the hands of David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine, acting impulsively to the nephew’s shameful murder of his blind Shaolin teacher Master Po (Keye Luke). With his red hair, Scottish burr and muttonchop whiskers, Shatner was completely unrecognizable, earning a short lived series for his efforts, 1975’s 19th century-set BARBARY COAST.

  7. This is an awful review. This is a beautifully done episode, touching, full of romance and adventure and exoticism, and let me make this clear : many of us don’t give a damn if a single voice, Edward Said, tried to demonize exoticism or Orientalism. That’s a completely unnuanced approach, and academics had better learn damn fast that we in the rest of the world don’t step to to their petty bourgeois obsessions and diktats.

    There is genuine style to this episode. The musical cues add intrigue and mystique. It’s fascinating to finally see Uhura’s quarters and much of her African art.

    You failed to focus on the conflict between a nomadic-royal system of hierarchy, and Kirk as a representative of equality who is having none of such class arrogance. Kirk comes from a post-scarcity and post-class society where the customs of inequality and feudal deference have absolutely no place. Kirk is spot on in telling her to behave like a civilized human being, meaning one who respects others like equals. Note how she asserts that courtesy is not for inferiors. Kirk corrects her, and correctly, that courtesy is for everyone.

    She comes from a culture where she has been trained to respect strength, which Kirk has. But in her deeply divided class society, such strength is always linked with the top position of a hierarchy, whereas Kirk embodies strength in equality, which baffles her. Kirk doesn’t destroy the Klingon whom he defeated, which goes against her cultural equation that strength is domination. Kirk is so far from such nonsensical warrior machismo that he openly and proudly declares that if turning tale and running will accomplish his mission, he’ll gladly do it. Arguably, this is why Elaan falls for him; his strength is exotic to her, because of its source in equality.

    • That’s a completely unnuanced approach, and academics had better learn damn fast that we in the rest of the world don’t step to to their petty bourgeois obsessions and diktats.

      That’s a weird bit of anti-intellectual classism out there to start with.

      That said, I’m glad you got more out of this episode than I did. Good for you.

  8. “Elaan of Troyius is really the beginning of this trend. It paves the way for the amplified racism and sexism of subsequent episodes like The Paradise Syndrome or Spock’s Brain.”

    As a correction, those episodes actually preceded this one.

    • As a correction, you’re likely thinking of broadcast order rather than production order. Don’t worry, it can be complicated, but these reviews are written in production order.

  9. Rewatching this one recently and I came away with the feeling that the script feels like it was written from someone who understood the big picture but failed to get the details right. For example, I find it absurdly silly that the Federation has no idea that one of these two planets has an abundance of dilithium crystals until the point that the script uses the deus-ex-necklace (even still, I can’t be entirely certain which planet has the wealth of resources and how killing Elaan furthers the Klingon’s plan to get hold of them). I also feel like this is a stretch of third season episodes that really undergird and affirm the “Kirk makes love to the girl of the week” trop. Seasons one and two had a lot of former girlfriends, Kirk smooching various androids/aliens into submission, but it wasn’t always Kirk chasing the ladies like we see in season three.

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