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Star Trek – The Paradise Syndrome (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.

As with Elaan of Troyius, it feels like The Paradise Syndrome casts an awfully long shadow for such a simply awful episode.

Much like Elaan of Troyius before it, The Paradise Syndrome marks out what will become a particular subgenre of Star Trek episode. To be fair, Elaan of Troyius had a much greater influence; it demonstrated that the basic “Enterprise ferries diplomats” plot from Journey to Babel was something that could be repeated, throwing a healthy helping of “our hero falls for an alien princess” into the mix. In contrast, the basic template defined by The Paradise Syndrome is a lot more specific.

Going Native American.

Going Native American.

The Paradise Syndrome effectively posits a “what if…?”, wondering what might happen if Kirk gave up adventuring to settle down into a more mundane existence. It is an idea that Star Trek: The Next Generation would revisit to much greater effect in The Inner Light. It is also the basic template employed by Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II during the final season of Star Trek: Voyager. It is very rare to point to Voyager and argue that it executed an idea much better than the original Star Trek, but this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

The Paradise Syndrome is also (and unavoidably) a clumsy racist misfire of an episode.

"That'll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better."

“That’ll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better.”

It has become a cliché to describe Star Trek as a “space western.” After all, the third season premiere was built around that very premise. Spectre of the Gun threw Kirk and his crew back into the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, offering a searing indictment of narratives of violence. Spectre of the Gun was an apocalyptic deconstruction of the whole “Star Trek as a space western” idea, suggesting that the frontier myth was baked into the show’s premise as something akin to a franchise original sin.

Unfortunately, it seems like The Paradise Syndrome missed the memo. The episode is very much an unironic celebration of the idea of Star Trek as a “space western”, positing our heroes as galactic frontiersmen who come into contact with idealised (but primitive) native cultures that are explicitly modelled upon and likened to Native Americans. Our hero comes to live among these people, integrating into their society and advancing their culture with his more learned understanding and ideas.

"Excuse me, but what does God need with a Starship?"

“Excuse me, but what does God need with a Starship?”

The Paradise Syndrome is an unapologetic white saviour narrative couched in a clumsy mishmash of stereotypical Native American imagery. It is offensive on just about every level, an awkward and patronising portrayal of Native American culture that demonstrates only the most superficial understanding of their beliefs and traditions. As Amy H. Sturgis outlines in If This Is The (Final) Frontier, Where Are The Natives?, the episode is tonedeaf and ill-judged:

Not only does the episode paint a portrait of Native Americans as noble savages incapable of progress, but it also suggests all Indigenous Americans comprise one homogeneous culture. Preproduction fact-checkers from the Kellam de Forest Research Company advised Roddenberry about problems in the script, such as blending unlikely (and warring) Native nations together and calling for costuming completely unrelated to any of those tribes. Rather than revise the script for accuracy, however, Roddenberry and the writers of Star Trek presented a generically bland and internally inconsistent “Indian” identity for the villagers.

That is a fairly damning indictment of the episode, but it is also entirely justified. The Paradise Syndrome presents a hazily defined Native American culture that seems to have been frozen in time for almost half a millennia. In the time since those Native Americans were removed from Earth by “the Preservers”, their understanding of the universe has not evolved or developed. They remain a racial fantasy of an idyllic “primitive” culture.

"We've seen Pocahontas, right? How about Avatar?"

“We’ve seen Pocahontas, right? How about Avatar?”

McCoy identifies the inhabitants of the planet as “American Indians.” Spock offers a half-hearted handwave to explain why their culture is so generic, stating that these people are “a mixture of Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware.” In short, they are a convenient stand-in for Native Americans, cultivated from the most superficial notions about the community held by middle-class white European settlers. The Paradise Syndrome devotes more energy to excusing its own ignorance than it does to developing its native population, and that is very little to begin with.

The Native Americans feel like they wandered out of a movie from the thirties or forties. They speak in a weird and broken English. It seems a strange choice. Why would they speak English at all, given they do not seem to recognise Kirk as a European settler? Of course, the script needs them to speak English so Kirk can understand them. However, why must they speak in broken English? Surely after all of this time, the Native Americans have found a way to converse that doesn’t involve using the simplest English phraseology for complex events?

"Look, based on all our previous experiences on seemingly idyllic planets, I am absolutely certain that there is nothing wrong with this one."

“Look, based on all our previous experiences on seemingly idyllic planets, I am absolutely certain that there is nothing wrong with this one.”

For example, consider the sequence in which Kirk first proves himself of value to the native population. Miramanee arrives carrying a young boy who fell into the lake and almost drowned. “Lumo brought him up quickly, but he doesn’t move,” Miramanee states. Is it so hard to believe that a Native American character does not understand a word equivalent to “breath”? It happens again later, when Miramanee tells Kirk that she is pregnant. “I bear your child,” she states. That is the most awkward way of breaking that news imaginable. It feels so false.

All of this is incredibly condescending, with the script straining to portray the Native American characters as primitive and backwards. The performances do not help. The actors deliver their lines in a consciously stylised manner. They pause in the middle of sentences, as if struggling with English, despite the fact that they have been speaking it forever. The actors affect horribly ill-judged accents. The characters talk around one another. “Tribal priestess and medicine chief are always joined,” Salish states. “He is medicine chief now,” Miramanee responds.

Tribe, tribe again.

Tribe, tribe again.

This is offensive on the level of Mickey Rourke’s infamous Japanese impression. The Paradise Syndrome reduces its Native American population to simpletons who have seemingly been waiting an eternity for a white saviour to fall from the sky. Kirk is apparently the first local to suggest the possibility of irrigation, despite the fact that he has only been living there for a couple of months. Kirk also comes up with the concept of a lamp. Kirk also proposes the concept of “food preservation”, ignoring the historical evidence that Native Americans were quite good at that.

This is to say nothing of the terrible plotting. Kirk suffers from the kind of convenient amnesia frequently employed in stories like this, but somehow remembers the mechanics of CPR, the finer details of food preservation, and the mechanics of lamp construction. These are all portrayed as instinctive for a man who cannot remember his own name properly. Kirk can do all this very quickly, while the Native American population never seems to have ht on the idea. There seems to be a rather unfortunate implication underpinning the episode.

Kirok and roll.

Kirok and roll.

This is all the more infuriating because The Paradise Syndrome manages to be grossly insulting about Native American culture at the same time that it is shamelessly romanticising it. “It’s like discovering Atlantis or Shangri-la,” Kirk reflects on beaming down the alien world, suggesting that the indigenous population is little more than set dressing for Kirk’s romantic fantasy about discovering paradise. The entire world becomes nothing but a tool through which Kirk can live out his idealised fantasy of a more “grounded” existence.

At the same time, Kirk is presented as a saviour to these people. “Miramanee has said that you appeared to her and to her handmaiden from the walls of the temple, just as our legend foretells,” the Elder states. Kirk is presented as a messianic figure to the Native Americans. It initially seems that Kirk is being set up as a false prophet, because he cannot replicate the rituals enacted by his tribal forebears. Kirk has stumbled into a situation for which he is grossly unprepared and for which there may be horrible consequences.

"I am Kirok, hear me roar!"

“I am Kirok, hear me roar!”

However, the end of the episode follows through on that “white saviour” narrative when the local population turns against Kirk. They promptly stone Kirk, killing Miramanee. However, they are then scared away by the arrival of Kirk via transporter. Even when Kirk is revealed as a false prophet, the indigenous people are still painted as backwards primitives. However, Kirk and Spock still manage to find a way to save the planet and the tribe. Kirk fulfils the narrative role of a “white saviour” after all.

This type of narrative is extremely common in popular culture. Kirk’s arc here has appeared in many classic and celebrated films. Dances With Wolves would win seven Oscars of twelve nominations for playing out this narrative, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kevin Costner. Daniel Day Lewis would garner quite a few awards for putting his own slant on the arc in The Last of the Mohicans. More recently, Avatar would become the highest-grossing movie of all time by painting its native population blue.

All a (Mira)man(ee) could want.

All a (Mira)man(ee) could want.

There is an element of guilt and shame underpinning all of this, as if presenting a white saviour can redeem centuries of abuse. As Shari M. Huhndorf argues in Going Native:

Over the last century, going native has become a cherished American tradition, an important even necessary means of defining European-American identities and histories. In its various forms, going native articulates and attempts to resolve widespread ambivalence about modernity as well as anxieties about the terrible violence marking the nation’s origins.

That element is certainly central in The Paradise Syndrome. As recently as Spectre of the Gun, Kirk affirmed his own roots on the American frontier; it seems likely his ancestors were part of such oppression. Does this offer absolution?

Kirk gets settled.

Kirk gets settled.

There is something incredibly patronising and condescending about all this, dressing up Native American culture in stereotypes so that it can play to a white man’s affectionate fantasies about a “simpler” existence. Many fans of Star Trek would argue that the series is progressive and open-minded, but where was that progressiveness here? It is not even as if the oppression and victimisation of Native Americans in the United States was simply a relic from the country’s distant past.

This oppression was still actively happening while The Paradise Syndrome was in production and when it was broadcast. The consequences of those centuries of abuse still linger today. As such, using a grotesque parody of Native American culture to allow Captain James Tiberius Kirk to experience a world “so peaceful, uncomplicated, no problems.” The romanticised depiction of Native American life in The Paradise Syndrome in no way reflected the realities for Native Americans in the late sixties.

A touching moment.

A touching moment.

As Lee Irwin noted in Freedom, Law, and Prophecy, the aftermath of the Second World War had not been kind to Native Americans:

Displacement from reservation lands in the mid-1950s to forced relocations in urban environments, as epitomised by the 1954 Mennominee Termination Act, further added to disorientation and spiritual loss as many families were paid to move into large cities where promised job opportunities and employment failed to materialise. Thousands of indigenous people found themselves alienated from reservation life, living in “red ghettos” where crime, poverty and alcoholism escalated to extreme proportions. In 1959, a court case between the Native American Church and the Navajo Tribal Council resulted in a ruling from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that “the First Amendment applies only to Congress. … No provision in the Constitution makes the First Amendment applicable to Indian nations nor is there any law of Congress doing so.” This decision severely limited the freedom and legal rights of Native peoples to seek redress from religious oppression or discrimination.

Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, it often felt like the concerns of the continent’s indigenous population had been forgotten or ignored.

An enlightened future.

An enlightened future.

In lat 1967, a year before The Paradise Syndrome was broadcast, the California State Advisory Commission on Indian Affairs published their Progress Report to the Governor and the Legislature:

If American Indians are a minority, they are a minority with a difference. Of course, Indians face problems common to all minorities — jobs, homes, and public places are not as accessible to them as to others. Poverty and deprivation are common. Social acceptance is not the rule. In addition, Indians seem to suffer more than occasional mistreatment by the instruments of law and order both on and off the reservation.

The last couple of years of the decade found Native Americans fighting for recognition, with the founding of the American Indian Movement in 1968 and the occupation of Alcatraz Island in November 1969.

"You know, I bet studio executives would love this."

“You know, I bet studio executives would love this.”

At the same time, the descendants of the European settlers were appropriating a mishmash of Native American culture as the basis for the “new age” movement, an approach to spirituality that would grow increasingly popular in the later decades of the twentieth century. In fact, the influence of this cultural appropriation would be keenly felt on a number of high-profile nineties science-fiction television series, due to the influence of executive producers like Chris Carter on The X-Files and Michael Piller on Star Trek: Voyager.

This plays into the funereal theme of the third season of Star Trek. In many ways, the show’s final season marks the passing of the sixties into history and finds the crew wandering a universe that seems a lot smaller and less wondrous than it once was. Of course, the third season of Star Trek wrestled with its own pending cancellation, but it was also broadcast against the backdrop of Richard Nixon’s electoral victory, the social turbulence of 1968 and the death (or hibernation) of the countercultural movement. John F. Kennedy’s “new frontier” was rescinding to memory.

"Captain, I find your Casual Friday attire grossly inappropriate."

“Captain, I find your Casual Friday attire grossly inappropriate.”

In its crass and cynical exploitation of Native American culture, The Paradise Syndrome seems to surrender the ground that had been occupied by idealistic countercultural forces to the pandering cynicism of the “new age” movement that would fancy itself a spiritual successor. As Timothy Miller notes in Hippies and American Values:

The New Age movement is not a very pure preservation of hippiedom; as Andrew Kimbrell has observed, the new age movement has focused on individual, not social, transformation; and a visionary quest for personal alternatives without compassion for the oppressed is only a fragment, even a parody, of the hip agenda. Nevertheless, the New Age movement is probably the most substantial remnant of hip culture we have.

In many ways, The Paradise Syndrome seems to prefigure these shifts. Kirk’s engagement with the Native American population is not about making a better world or improving the situation for everybody, it is about satisfying his own personal desires. The radical social changes proposed by the counterculture movement give way to self-obsession.

Strange new world.

Strange new world.

The implication is that this entire world exists purely for Kirk to feel satisfied and comfortable in himself. He looks at this paradise and sees his own needs satisfied. Taking in the view, he reflects, “No problems, no command decisions. Just living.” There is no social commentary here, no compassion for a population oppressed by Kirk’s ancestors. There is instead a privileged white man using this native population for his own sense of fulfilment. Even Miramanee and his unborn child are disposable, to be thrown away once he has played out that fantasy.

A recurring theme of the third season is the passing of the sixties into memory, whether reflected in the “bad trip” of Spectre of the Gun, the fear of youth culture in And the Children Shall Lead, or the hippy panic of The Way to Eden. In its own way, and very much unintentionally, The Paradise Syndrome fits very comfortably within that template. The third season provides a mirror to the times around it, but it does not offer a particular flattering reflection of contemporary America.

Green with cultural envy.

Green with cultural envy.

Even beyond its problematic portrayal of Native American culture, The Paradise Syndrome is an immensely problematic work. It is essentially a story about James Tiberius Kirk laying down his burdens and stepping away from the command of the Enterprise. It certainly feels like an appropriate story for the final season of Star Trek, much like the apocalyptic tones of Spectre of the Gun felt appropriate. It is also interesting to wonder what Kirk might actually want in life beyond command of a starship.

It is a very interesting story. In fact, it is so interesting that this idea would drive a substantial portion of the feature film franchise. Star Trek: The Motion Picture asked whether Kirk could ever be happy off the bridge of the Enterprise. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had Kirk contemplate growing old. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had Kirk throw away his career in order to save his friend. There is a lot of drama to be mined from the premise. In fact, The Ultimate Computer had even touched lightly on the theme at the end of the second season.

Collapse from exhaustion. And a light zapping.

Collapse from exhaustion.
And a light zapping.

However, there were basic limitations imposed by sixties television that would make it very difficult to tell that story within an episodic framework. Most obviously, Kirk would need to end the episode back in command of the Enterprise, because the network wouldn’t want to risk confusing viewers who missed that particular episode in an era before video recording. As a result, it would be impossible for Kirk to retire completely, because he would have to be back in command of the ship for the start of The Enterprise Incident.

These limitations made it difficult to tell a story about Kirk stepping away from the Enterprise. They did not make it impossible. Indeed, The Next Generation would take the core idea of The Paradise Syndrome and weave it into a beautiful Hugo-winning science-fiction fable. The Inner Light is pretty much everything that The Paradise Syndrome would ever want to be, only… good. Similarly, Voyager would manage something similar with its seventh season two-parter Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II.

I'm sorry, Spock. But Voyager did it better.

I’m sorry, Spock. But Voyager did it better.

So, while telling the story that The Paradise Syndrome wanted to tell was always going to be tough, it was not impossible. However, the episode is constructed in the most clumsy manner imaginable. After all, this is a teleplay written by Margaret Armen, the writer responsible for The Gamesters of Triskelion. Given that Armen’s first scripting assignment had seen her spectacularly mess up a fairly straightforward premise, it was too much to expect her to handle a riskier set-up.

The Paradise Syndrome makes every possible mistake in telling a story like this. The script comes up with numerous lazy shortcuts that undercut any narrative weight to the story, following a simplistic “cause and effect” logic that leads to a deeply unsatisfying episode. Why does Kirk leave the Enterprise? Oh, he has the type of amnesia that people get on television! Why don’t Spock and McCoy bother to look for him? Oh, there’s a deadline involving an asteroid! Why doesn’t McCoy stay behind and look for Kirk while Spock deals with the asteroid? No idea!

"All these plot devices are humming along fine, Cap'n."

“All these plot devices are humming along fine, Cap’n.”

Things become more complicated when the episode has to get Kirk back to commanding the Enterprise at the end of the episode. Kirk has a pregnant wife on the planet. He is happy. He has found love. Why would he give all of that up? Why wouldn’t he simply take his family with him when he leaves the planet? These are all good questions. The Inner Light comes up with a number of very clever and internally consistent answers to those challenges. In contrast, The Paradise Syndrome follows the path of least resistance.

Miramanee and her unborn child are stoned by the Native American population at the climax of the episode, in a sequence that is at once grossly offensive and narratively uninventive. This is incredibly lazy writing from Armen, one that reduces Miramanee to nothing more than a plot device to be discarded once the episode is finished with her. She is the ultimate disposable woman, a love of Kirk’s life who can be written into an episode to generate some tension and written out when it is time for the credits to roll. Miramanee is the second such lover in two episodes.

Take my wife, please.

Take my wife, please.

According to memos published in These Are the Voyages, Gene Roddenberry was a big proponent of this element of the episode:

The magic – and I agree with [Bob Justman] we want it in every script – will be in this script if the Kirk-woman-Tahiti premise is told well and excitingly and with all the poignancy inherent in the wife and child aspect which, again, I think is worth fighting to keep. It couldn’t happen to Matt Dillon, but it can legitimately happen to us, since we are space travelers.

There is something deeply uncomfortable with Roddenberry’s attitude towards women, as emphasised by his encouragement of Elaan of Troyius.

"I'll never forget you, just like... what was her name...? The Dohlman? I want to say 'Helen'?"

“I’ll never forget you, just like… what was her name…? The Dohlman? I want to say ‘Helen’?”

To be fair, the callous treatment of Miramanee as nothing more than a plot device is just the biggest issue with Margaret Armen’s writing. There are countless other issues with the script and direction. The Paradise Syndrome is an offensive episode on many levels, but also purely in aesthetic terms. It is racist and sexist, but it also just terrible television. Watching the episode, it occasionally feels like the various people involved in the production of the episode lacked any fundamental understanding of how the medium works.

The episode does not work on a scene-to-scene basis. When Kirk goes missing, Spock pauses to explain the concept of an asteroid to McCoy using two rocks that he found on the ground near the Obelisk. It is a very crass visualisation of the crisis that drives the episode, one that feels quite beneath Spock’s rigourous scientific understanding. More than that, it treats both McCoy and the audience as idiots, unable to grasp the basic concept that a gigantic space rock hitting a planet populated by innocent people might be a bad thing.

"This is the amount of intelligence required for this analogy to be justified."

“This is the amount of intelligence required for this analogy to be justified.”

Armen’s dialogue is just terrible, as is her sense of character arcs. The subplot involving Spock on the Enterprise is incredibly clumsy. The tension and the stakes are set up in a single scene, and resolved through exposition in another. Towards the end of the hour, McCoy visits Spock in his quarters. “You’re blaming yourself for crippling this ship, just as we blamed you,” he bluntly states. “Well, we were wrong. So were you. You made a command decision.” That is effectively a whole character arc, played out in toto, in four sentences and twenty-three words.

It is often said that drama is about showing rather than telling, but The Paradise Syndrome cannot even tell properly. There are other examples where The Paradise Syndrome has half of a good idea, but utterly flubs the execution. There is a time jump right in the middle of The Paradise Syndrome, which is a great idea in theory. Audiences are used to television shows unfolding with an immediacy and dynamism, so slowing things down catches the audience off-guard.

"Miramanee? Sorry, Jim never mentioned you."

“Miramanee? Sorry, Jim never mentioned you.”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would prove very effective at incorporating time skips into its episodes. Stories like ExplorersThe Visitor and The Quickening made great use of expanding the timescale of an episode to cover weeks or months or even years. It adds a sense of scale. In theory, it should enrich The Paradise Syndrome. It should allow the Enterprise to get used to life without Kirk and it should allow Kirk to properly integrate into the Native American community.

Unfortunately, the execution of this time jump is just clumsy. The logical place to put such a time jump would be at an act break. Fading to black is a nice visual cue for the audience. When the episode is aired on television, the commercial break would provide a nice sense of time passing. Unfortunately, for reasons entirely unclear, The Paradise Syndrome declines to put the time skip at an act break following either the crippling of the Enterprise or the marriage of Kirk to Miramanee. Instead, the nearest act break is given over to a fight between Kirk and Salish.

Feelin' the sideburns.

Feelin’ the sideburns.

Instead, the time jump is conveyed through dialogue. It would be quite easy for viewers to miss the importance of McCoy’s line (repeating what the character already know) that Spock that he has been obsessing over the Obelisk for “fifty-eight days.” Similarly, the growth of Kirk’s sideburns are a nice continuity touch, but a bear would do a much better job at demonstrating the passage of time. It would be entirely possible for casual audience members to believe that The Paradise Syndrome unfolded over a few days or a week rather than two whole months.

Equally clumsy are the extended voice over sequences in which William Shatner explains what Kirk is thinking to the audience. Waking up on the floor of the Obelisk, Kirk ponders, “Where am I? What place is this? What are these? I feel should know. They’re familiar and yet unfamiliar. How did I get here? Who am I? Try to remember.” As with the sequence in which Spock explains how asteroids work to McCoy, it feels like The Paradise Syndrome simply does not trust its audience.

"This is not my beautiful wife."

“This is not my beautiful wife.”

More than that, the episode doesn’t seem to trust William Shatner to convey the information through his performance. The Paradise Syndrome employs this awkward voice over at two more points in the plot, in a way that seems patronising and condescending. There is even a sequence of Kirk hugging himself as he thinks, “I have found paradise. Surely no man has ever attained such happiness.” It is a shame that the episode feels the need to signpost all of this. William Shatner is actually trying very hard, but is consistently undercut.

To be fair, a certain portion of the blame belongs to director Jud Taylor. Taylor shoots the episode like he is filming a particularly lurid and tasteless soap opera that just happens to feature Native Americans on an alien planet menaced by a fast-approaching asteroid. The Paradise Syndrome is not a script with a lot of action and tension, so Taylor heightens what little tension remains. Taylor cannot resist signposting Salish’s anger and jealousy towards Kirk, to the point that one act break closes on Salish staring out at the camera, as if urging the audience to “boo” him.

Obelisk is more.

Obelisk is more.

The Paradise Syndrome is also demonstrates the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the Star Trek franchise. Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece had been released shortly before The Paradise Syndrome entered production, and had caught the attention of everybody working in the industry. It pushed a lot of expectations about science-fiction, to the point that Leonard Nimoy even acknowledged it in an article for The Daily Variety:

I watched 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey film and my mouth watered at the remarkable effects shots. Taking nothing away from Kubrick, Star Trek would be showing re-runs in January if we tried to include opticals like these in our weekly fare. Even if there were money in the budget to pay for them, the need to complete the project by air date precludes producing this kind of painstaking work.

After all, the extended post-production on Elaan of Troyius for a fairly small-scale space battle demonstrated that Star Trek could not hope to compete on that level. Nevertheless, 2001 would be a major influence on the franchise. When Paramount brought the franchise to the big screen, Gene Roddenberry would position 2001 as a major touchstone for The Motion Picture.

A monumental homage.

A monumental homage.

Even within The Paradise Syndrome, the Obelisk cannot help but evoke the iconic Monolith. The single most expensive prop ever produced for the original Star Trek, the Obelisk conjures up images of the silent Monolith looking down upon mankind. This similarity is reinforced by the connection of the Obelisk to “the Preservers.” Much like the mysterious aliens in 2001, the Preservers are presented as an alien race that have painstakingly and carefully curated and guided life in the galaxy.

Spock offers this information through an info dump. He tells McCoy, “They passed through the galaxy rescuing primitive cultures which were in danger of extinction and seeding them, so to speak, where they could live and grow.” McCoy suggests that this even accounts for some of the obvious production limitations imposed upon the original Star Trek. McCoy reflects, “I’ve always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered through the galaxy.” Spock agrees, “Apparently the Preservers account for a number of them.”

Spock lutes while the Enterprise burns... her engines out...

Spock lutes while the Enterprise burns… her engines out…

As with Return to Tomorrow, the idea of the Preservers finds the show dabbling in the kind of “ancient astronauts” pseudo-science that Erich von Däniken had popularised with the publication of Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, but which had a longer history stretching back through Louis Pawles and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians and even the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It is a very simplistic theory designed to account for the evolution of mankind and the technological advances of so-called “primitive” situations.

As such, its incorporation into The Paradise Syndrome is incredibly crass and condescending. The implication seems to be that the Native American civilisation featured in the episode could never have survived without the interference of a beneficent “more advanced” culture to help protect them from a hostile and dangerous universe. Given that Native American culture was unequivocally harmed and almost destroyed by contact with the supposedly “more advanced” European settlers, this feels ill-judged.

Two minds.

Two minds.

It also serves to demonstrate that Roddenberry was something of a hypocrite, prone to mythologising himself and distorting his own contributions to Star Trek. In his later years, Roddenberry would roundly dismiss the “ancient astronauts” theory as part of the core “humans are great” philosophy of the Star Trek franchise:

We have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids. Human beings built the pyramids, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.

Much like Roddenberry’s desire to take credit for the diversity of the original Star Trek cast, this feels like historical revisionism. Later Star Trek episodes like The Chase would embrace the theory of ancient astronauts, but Roddenberry led the way by championing scripts like Return to Tomorrow and The Paradise Syndrome.

Doesn't scan.

Doesn’t scan.

Indeed, The Paradise Syndrome would become the site of its own battle over historical narratives and revisionism in the context of the original Star Trek show. Gene Roddenberry was no longer actively involved in the day-to-day production of Star Trek, although he was still sending script feedback and championing particular writers and viewpoints. The day-to-day running of Star Trek had fallen to Fred Freiberger, a veteran producer with little material experience in science-fiction television.

Freiberger would become something of a boogeyman to Star Trek fandom in the years following the cancellation of the original Star Trek show. Unlike core Star Trek production team members like Gene Roddenberry or Dorothy Fontana or David Gerrold, Freiberger never quite cultivated the base. Freiberger never appealed to fans in the same way that Roddenberry would. As such, Freiberger became a convenient scapegoat for the decline and death of the original Star Trek. Freiberger was blamed for everything that went wrong with the third season.

Breathing room.

Breathing room.

Freiberger has talked at length about living with that spectre haunting him. Speaking in Inside Star Trek, Freiberger compared the legacy of working on Star Trek to his time in a German prison camp:

My ordeal in a German prison camp only lasted two years. My travail with Star Trek has spanned twenty-five years and still counting

That helps to give a sense of just how disproportionate the hatedom from Star Trek fans can be, particularly for a franchise that is built on the idea of peace and understanding. Brannon Braga can empathise.

"In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don't destroy the one named spock. "

“In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named spock. “

Never mind that the real problems with the third season were beyond Fred Freiberger’s control. Freiberger could not restore the production budget that had been brutally slashed by NBC. Freiberger could not secure Star Trek the Monday night slot that Gene Roddenberry had so desperately wanted. Freiberger could not stop Gene L. Coon from taking a more stable job on It Takes a Thief. Freiberger could not diffuse the rising tensions between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

Star Trek was already a lame duck, and there was nothing that could be done to save it. The fact that the show had secured the third season was a minor miracle. Freiberger may not have been the best choice to steer the ship through this troubled season, and he made more than his fair share of mistakes, but the hatred that he attracts is heavily disproportionate. However, it seems quite clear why Freiberger has attracted this sort of hatred. During the third season, Freiberger found himself butting up against members of the Star Trek establishment.

Ominous musical sting.

Ominous musical sting.

In any argument on the original Star Trek, it seems like siding against Dorothy Fontana or David Gerrold is sure to be a losing proposition. Some of these decisions were undoubtedly creative mistakes made by Freiberger, but there is also a sense that the Star Trek establishment treated Freiberger as a convenient scapegoat. Margaret Armen fed into that, elevating Roddenberry and belittling Freiberger in a Starlog interview about the episode:

“Working with Gene was marvellous, because he was Star Trek,” she remarks, “and he related to the writers. Fred came in and to him Star Trek was ‘tits in space,’ and that’s a direct quote. I was in the projection room seeing an early episode, I’ve forgotten the reason, and Fred came in. He had been signed to produce and was being briefed. He watched the episode with me, smoked a big cigar and said, ‘Oh, I get it. Tits in space.’ That didn’t sit well with me at all, but I got along well with Fred. With him, I did The Paradise Syndrome. Of course, Gene was the executive producer in an advisory capacity, and he really had the last say on approving story ideas. So, I think it was actually Gene who accepted that one, because I feel The Paradise Syndrome was one that Fred would have let go.”

To be fair, the “tits in space” remark does not paint Freiberger in a particularly flattering light. But it is not as if episodes like What Are Little Girls Made Of? or Space Seed or any other number of episodes paint Star Trek as a particularly feminist or enlightened environment. After all, Roddenberry was a huge champion of the Taming of the Shrew plot in Elaan of Troyius or the disposable woman in The Paradise Syndrome.

The prognosis is not good.

The prognosis is not good.

Painting Freiberger as the bad guy for not wanting to produce The Paradise Syndrome seems a little disingenuous, and speaks to the way that the producer became an all-purpose whipping boy for certain elements of the production team who were less than satisfied with the way that the third season worked out. Blame travels a lot faster than credit. Freiberger’s reluctance to commit to The Paradise Syndrome almost speaks highly of him; certainly, he seems to have better taste than Gene Roddenberry did.

Of course, this is just the first example of Freiberger coming into conflict with the writing staff. Some of the future examples are even less flattering. That said, no producer who would have cut The Paradise Syndrome from the production order can be entirely evil.

8 Responses

  1. “The Paradise Syndrome” is one of the ST episodes that I never saw when I first discovered the show as a kid watching reruns in the early 1980s. I don’t think I saw it until around 2002 or so.

    For me, a major criticism of this episode (setting aside the stereotyping of Native Americans, which was a HUGE problem) was that Kirk gets amnesia, marries a woman, lives with her for two months, gets her pregnant, sees her & their unborn child die a violent death, then returns to his position as Captain of the Enterprise… and none of this is ever mentioned again. Something like this should have had a significant, lasting impact on Kirk, but it’s completely forgotten about after this episode.

    Now obviously I was looking at “The Paradise Syndrome” from the perspective of early 21st Century television, when storytelling was starting to become very serialized, with storylines & character arcs continuing though multiple episodes. Obviously this is significantly different from TV in the late 1960s, which was extremely episodic, and each week’s story was completely stand-alone. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a Star Trek episode from 1968 by the standards of 2002. But, as you accurately point out, Miramanee is treated as such an utterly disposable character and given such a pointless death that it makes the resetting of the show back to the status quo so terribly and clumsily blatant ever by the standards of the day.

    I sort of had the same problem with “The Inner Light,” in that you would have expected the events of that episode to have left Picard permanently changed on at least a few levels. But at least “The Inner Light,” as you noted, was a well-done episode, and that makes it somewhat easier to forgive the lack of lasting character development resulting out of it.

    • I have less of an issue with The Inner Light never coming up again, because I can see Picard repressing it more skilfully than Kirk. Kirk was all emotion, but Picard was more restrained and controlled. (See Sarek, for example.) I think Picard’s trauma about what happened with the Borg only really came out in later confrontations with them. Without some instigating factor, I can see Picard rather skilfully burying his grief. But, as you note, I’m likely making excuses because it’s a better episode.

      The Paradise Syndrome is just a cardboard world filled with cardboard people and a cardboard wife and cardboard unborn child so Kirk can live out his “white man’s burden” fantasies. At least in The Inner Light, there’s a sense that the community lives on through Picard and that his memories serve them, more than they serve his dreams. If that makes any sense.

      • Yes, that all makes perfect sense, Darren. Thanks for your reply.

      • I don’t mind The Inner Light either-Picard’s character forever altering based on a random probe the Enterprise happens to come across isn’t good character development-it’s a contrived, thin excuse for it. If they’d realized it would change Picard’s character, they never would have made it. And Trek fans would have suffered for it.

  2. I always thought “I bear your child” was said because the censors in the 60’s didn’t allow certain words on TV, and I think “pregnant” was one of them. Didn’t Lucy have to say that she was “in the family way” on “I Love Lucy,” because “pregnant” was forbidden?

    One of the things I love about TOS is that it’s a time capsule from fifty years ago. In some areas, it’s as fresh now as the day it was made, but in other areas, it’s very dated. The clumsy treatment of Native Americans in this episode is one of those dated elements. Nowadays, anyone in Hollywood would know that treating people this way would produce a backlash, but in 1968, most people simply didn’t think about it; many minority groups were effectively invisible. Looking at some of the dated elements of TOS helps us to see how far our culture has moved in fifty years … and to rejoice that it has.

    • Interesting. I did not know that. It seems strange that a married couple could not say the word “pregnant”, but could say it in another way. Then again, it’s not as if this type of censorship ever really makes sense.

      I appreciate the difference in time between the show’s broadcast and the world as it is today. But there were movements at the time trying to raise awareness of Native American history and exploitation. I think, from reading These Are the Voyages, that it was repeatedly pointed out by DeForest Research that the portrayal was stereotypical and ill-informed.

      It’s like the portrayal of Uhura. Her existence is inherently a good thing, and she was an inspiration to lots of young black women. But that doesn’t buy the show a pass when other contemporary (or earlier) series like Julia or I, Spy had given their African American characters much more to do as a matter of course.

      • Good point. The portrayal of Native Americans in this episode is beyond problematic. That implies some merit in it. I can find very little in Paradise Syndrome. It’s a patronizing, oversimplified, 1-dimensional portrayal. The textbook definition for how not to portray Native Americans.

      • The I Love Lucy anecdote was actually the first thing that came to my mind upon hearing about the episode’s reluctance to use the word pregnant.
        In fairness, the episode in question was broadcast in 1952, nearly 16 years before The Paradise Syndrome, so I don’t know if that rule would have still been in place by 1968. It definitely wouldn’t surprise me if it was. Either way, this is an awful, deeply problematic episode.

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