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Star Trek – And the Children Shall Lead (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.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

– Bob Dylan, The Times, They Are A-Changin’, 1964

Either you Gorgan, or you be gone.

Either you Gorgan, or you be gone.

And the Children Shall Lead is a notoriously terrible episode of television.

It is also another reminder that the sixties are coming to an end, and (with them) Star Trek. For a so that is widely considered progressive and utopian, Star Trek often seemed to struggle with its perspective on the various social issues of the sixties. Fans might point to episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy as sweeping condemnations of the Vietnam and the Cold War, but they tend to gloss over the patriotic defence of United States foreign policy in episodes like A Private Little War or The Omega Glory.

"I regret to inform you, Captain, that the script is indeed 'that bad'."

“I regret to inform you, Captain, that the script is indeed ‘that bad’.”

Star Trek seemed very strongly divided on the countercultural movement. In many ways, Spock spoke to a generation of young people distanced from their parents and disenfranchised from the status quo, while the franchise imagined a bright future in which people of different colours and creeds worked together. On the other hand, the show was also quite anxious and condescending about the threat counterculture posed to the establishment, as demonstrated in episodes like Operation — Annihilate! or This Side of Paradise.

Although The Way to Eden tends to get treated as the third season’s definitive statement on the hippie movement, And the Children Shall Lead is a much more patronising and reactionary response. It is a fifty-minute public service message about the dangers that radical ideas pose to young minds and why those young minds should never dare to question their elders, who almost certainly know best.

A healthy green glow...

A healthy green glow…

In many ways, the sixties ended in 1968. The year marked a transition point, in many ways. Martin Luther King was shot in early April 1968, more than a month before Spectre of the Gun went into production; appropriately enough, the episode would be rerun on the anniversary of his assassination. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in early June 1968, while Elaan of Troyius was in production. Although the sixties had been a turbulent decade, there was a sense that the lid had come off of something.

The sixties were marked by social protest, but those protests exploded over the summer. This season of unrest got off to an early start with the murder of three protesters (and the wounding of twenty-seven others) by police officers in Orangeburg, South Caroline in February 1968. Following the death of Martin Luther King in April 1968, there were high-profile riots in Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Kansas City, Wilmington and Louisville. This is to say nothing of student riots in Paris in May 1968 or the disruption of the Democratic convention in August 1968.

And the children shall command.

And the children shall command.

In Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind charts the death of the sixties in a broader cultural context over the years of 1968 and 1969:

“It was as if, at the moment of ripeness, the dark blossoms of decay were already unfolding. Psychedelics were on their way out, acid had been laced with speed to make a paranoia-inducing drug called STP. Haight-Ashbury was already being decimated by speed and smack, and Hollywood was getting ready to take a fast ride down the cocaine highway. There was a sense of closure, that an era was over, that people had gotten away with a lot for a while and, for the more apocalyptically minded, that the Grim Reaper was going to cut them all down. “It was the end of the ’60s,” says [Richard] Sylbert. “All over town you could hear the toilets flushing.”

This was also true of the countercultural movement itself. Members staged a mock funeral to mark the Death of the Hippie in October 1967, the end of the Summer of Love. What followed might be best described as a Season of Fear.

A dead world.

A dead world.

The times changed quickly. In June 1969, Easy Rider served as a eulogy for counterculture, suggesting that there was no place left for that sort of “freedom” in contemporary America. The Manson family murders would take place in August 1969, providing a grotesque mirror to the hippie movement. Much the iconography was the same; with Manson’s long hair, his abuse of psychedelics, his fixation upon “free love.” The Manson murders served as vindication for those parents long concerned about the potential dangers of the hippie movement.

The literal end of the sixties was marked by the Altamont concert in December 1969. A free concert featuring the Rolling Stones, Altamont was notable for the ensuing carnage. Hell’s Angels had been hired to provide security at the concert, paid in $500 worth of beer. Tensions between the crowd and the gang escalated over the course of the concert, culminating in the death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter when he tried to charge the stage with a revolver. There were three other accidental deaths and up to 850 injuries.

Grave concerns.

Grave concerns.

In Getting High, John Charles Chasteen contends that the Manson family murders and Altamont brought an end to the decade, serving as a culmination of the unrest that had been stirring over the previous year or so:

Altamont seemed to crystalise a national reaction against the counterculture. Soon, the Sixties were over. All the in-your-face hippie disrespect for traditional values, the brazen burning of draft cards and flags – but not bras, although the legend continues – had stoked the anger of those who identified with those values. The 1968 murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, grim reminders of JFK’s traumative 1963 assassination, had particularly shocked the nation. Neither event was linked to the counterculture, but both fuelled a fear that things were spinning out of control. Militant “Black Power” had overshadowed the cause of black civil rights, with its stubbornly nonviolent, hymn-singing marches. The last years of the 1960s were punctuated by race riots and angry, ongoing protests against the Vietnam War, including the disruption of Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention by Yippies and other demonstrators. Students seized buildings at major universities and were besieged by the police, making “campus unrest” a grave concern in national polls.

These accounts of the late sixties point to 1968 and 1969 as a point where America seemed caught in a cycle of chaos and unrest. It is no surprise that 1968 has become a stock point of comparison to 2016.

The children are our future.

The children are our future.

At the same time that counterculture was tearing itself apart, there was a corresponding strong resurgence in political conservatism. Emerging as the Republican nominee in 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon was a survivor of the sixties culture wars. He had lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960, but the times had changed enough that he was in prime position for the last presidential election of the decade. In his acceptance speech, he argued:

As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all this way for this?

Nixon offered an apocalyptic vision of America, a country on the verge of collapse due to internal discord and strife. In many ways, Nixon positioned himself in a manner similar to Donald Trump accepting the nomination in 2016, arguing the America needed a strong paternal hand to guide it back towards a greatness that had been lost in an era of civil and social unrest.

Flag waving.

Flag waving.

It should be noted that this outlook clearly resonated with certain members of the Star Trek production team. Although the Manson murders and Altamont were still in the future at the time that the third season entered production, there was a palpable anxiety hanging in the air. In These Are the Voyages, author Marc Cushman alleges that Roddenberry was eager to tackle that unrest from his own perspective as a former police officer:

In addition to these, a story Roddenberry had been kicking around, but had yet to assign, dealt with an examination of a society’s interaction with its police. This particular story was of great interest to Roddenberry, the former cop, who was bothered by images on the nightly news of protesters and police clashing, and hearing the younger generation routinely refer to police officers as “pigs.”

Roddenberry would later characterise himself as a liberal and a social progressive, but his writing for Star Trek could be quite conservative in outlook. The City on the Edge of Forever advocated against pacifism and for the concept of a just war. A Private Little War treated Vietnam as a necessary evil. The Omega Glory presented an essential American structure against Asian aggressors, its parallels as obvious as they were uncomfortable.

Kids these days, wit their ritual chanting and their demon summoning.

Kids these days, wit their ritual chanting and their demon summoning.

All of this explains And the Children Shall Lead, a story that Fred Freiberger inherited from Roddenberry when he took over the show at the start of the year. And the Children Shall Lead distils all of these social anxieties into a fifty-minute morality play, with Gorgan serving as a metaphor for the kind of fears that would later be personified by Charlie Manson. Gorgan is a predatory alien who lures children away from their parents for the purpose of destroying society. In And the Children Shall Lead, the children are complicit in the murder of their parents.

The dialogue is quite consciously framed in terms of the late sixties moral panic about the breakdown of social order. “Must destroy ourselves!” Starnes protests when Kirk stumbles upon the bodies of the colonists. “Alien upon us. The enemy from within. The enemy!” This idea of the “enemy within” plays into those fears, with the out-of-control children presented as a threat to the stability of the colony. Kirk pauses a moment to take it all in. “All this. Self-inflicted. Mass suicide.” It is the same fear of social collapse that informed Operation — Annihilate!

Kirk certainly isn't picking up good vibrations.

Kirk certainly isn’t picking up good vibrations.

As if to underscore the sixties aesthetic of the episode, Kirk finds himself unsettled by the site of the mass suicide. When Spock notices his lack of composure, Kirk gently shrugs it off. “I’m fine. Just some sympathetic vibration with what happened here.” It is a moment that suggests a very sixties “one-ness” with the universe, as if an individual can be in tune with the world around them. It recalls the tone and mood of The Immunity Syndrome, the episode that posited the entire universe as a single unified organism.

And the Children Shall Lead really amps up the moral panic about children led astray by evil forces. Kirk first realises that the children are being directed by Gorgan when Spock and McCoy reflect on the nature of evil. “Evil does seek to maintain power by suppressing the truth,” Spock observes. “Or by misleading the innocent,” McCoy chimes in. Later, Kirk and Spock debate the culpability of the children in this whole mess. There is serious debate as to whether or not Kirk and Spock are justified in choosing to kill the children.

Seduction of the innocent.

Seduction of the innocent.

“Spock, they’re not the alien beings,” Kirk insists. The unspoken assumption is that killing them would be okay if they were. “They’re children being misled.” Spock is having none of it. Far less sympathetic to the counterculture than he was in This Side of Paradise or will be in The Way to Eden, he warns Kirk, “They are followers. Without followers, evil cannot spread.” Kirk insists, “They’re children.” He reiterates, “They don’t understand the evil that they’re doing.”

It is a decidedly unsettling debate, not least because Spock seems to advocate for treating the children as enemy combatants. And the Children Shall Lead even goes so far as to allow Spock to win that argument. Kirk concedes that social stability justifies the potential sacrifice of these innocent children. “We’ll have to kill them,” Kirk acknowledges, before their conversation is interrupted by Chekov. As the youngest of the leads, Chekov is in his own way treated as a misled child.

Another cliché you can Chekov the list.

Another cliché you can Chekov the list.

In the context of 1968, And the Children Shall Lead feels horribly ill-judged. After all, three university students had been shot by law enforcement officials at Orangeburg in South Carolina in February 1968And the Children Shall Lead comes dangerous close to endorsing the officers responsible, arguing that the use of lethal force against “misled” youth is justifiable if those young people are deemed to pose a threat to the social fabric. It is an extraordinarily reactionary position for Star Trek to take.

Even leaving aside the particulars of whether And the Children Shall Lead accepts capital punishment for “misled” youth, it is a very patronising and condescending way to look at the counterculture movement that did have some legitimate concerns about the direction of the United States as a whole. Presenting all the younger members of that movement as hoodwinked or misled is a patronising way of discrediting their viewpoint, ignoring valid criticisms about the foreign and social policies enacted by the government in the years following the Second World War.

Time for reflection.

Time for reflection.

Moving beyond the tasteless theme of the episode, and its reactionary political rhetoric, And the Children Shall Lead is a notoriously ropey production. The script is lazy and inconsistent, full of dialogue that sound awkward and holes so large that Sulu could fly the Enterprise herself through them. There are any number of obvious mistakes and concerns that should have been caught long before the episode entered production, let alone on the set as the production team brought the script to life.

Just a few of the many gaps in the script’s plot logic: if kids can control minds, such as they do when directing/hijacking the ship, why do they need to use nightmares against the crew? why didn’t they just command their parents to kill themselves? why don’t they just trick Kirk into thinking that he has won and let themselves continue on the way? how does Kirk know the name “Gorgan” when he confronts the children on the bridge, given that the name had not been used in dialogue to this point?

In Sulu's defence, this is only marginally more ridiculous than "giant green space hand."

In Sulu’s defence, this is only marginally more ridiculous than “giant green space hand.”

This is to say nothing of the laziness of the conceits that drive And the Children Shall Lead. Continuing the third season’s trend of casual sexist, And the Children Shall Lead suggests that Uhura is most afraid of losing her beautiful good looks. She is also apparently the only member of the senior staff to keep a mirror at her work station. Similarly, Sulu is afraid of giant swords in space. However, Sulu is not so worried by those giant swords that he feels the need to comment upon them to anybody else. He only mentions them when Kirk tries to change course.

With all of this going on, it is worth noting that William Shatner invests wholeheartedly in the script. Watching And the Children Shall Lead, Shatner is very clearly trying to invest a sense of larger-than-life drama into the script, despite the limitations imposed upon the episode. His early freakout in the cave with Spock is vintage Shatner. It is impossible to convey through text. “Oh, that’s strange…. thaaat’s… very-strange. I’m getting-a-feeling-of-anxiety in this place… It doesn’t sound very… scientific-does-it? But it’s strongest… right here.”

This is the good stuff. Right here.

This is the good stuff.
Right here.

Shatner’s performance style is somewhat controversial. There are elements of fandom that object to the actor’s heightened and campy delivery of dialogue. However, it should be noted that Shatner only tends to really engage in that hammy campy theatrical style when given a weak script. It is hard to point to a good script that is undercut by Shatner’s signature style. Indeed, some of the series’ weaker scripts are elevated by the sheer level of commitment that Shatner invests in them. Shatner is the best thing about The Omega Glory or And the Children Shall Lead.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that Shatner can do. And the Children Shall Lead is a very shoddy piece of work from beginning to end, the central theme feeling uncomfortably reactionary and the script itself refuse to cohere into anything resembling sense or logic. It is one of the weakest episodes that the show every produced, although it should be noted that it is not unprecedented. And the Children Shall Lead is not a grotesque aberration that came out of nowhere. It deserves to be evaluated alongside other episodes like The Apple or The Omega Glory.

This also seems to have been Leonard Nimoy's response on reading the script.

This also seems to have been Leonard Nimoy’s response on reading the script.

As with a lot of the issues with the third season, a scapegoat is quick to present itself. The cast and crew were fast to blame producer Fred Freiberger for the mess that the episode became. Consider Leonard Nimoy’s interview with Star Trek Lives! interview:

When we were doing the script, maybe one of our worst ever, with the kids in the third season, And the Children Shall Lead, I thought it was terrible — terrible … So I went to Fred Freiberger and said, “Well, we’ve got some problems with the script.” He said, “This script is going to be what Miri should have been.”

Well, Miri was a lovely story, lovely story, beautifully told and beautifully played. And we had all loved Miri as an episode. And he was saying that Miri was a piece of trash. … There’s no communication. That’s when death starts to set in.

Leaving aside subjective judgements about the quality of Miri, there is a sense that Nimoy is placing an undue amount of blame at the feet of Freiberger. After all, the script had been commissioned by Roddenberry and shepherded by Robert Justman before Freiberger even assumed the role of producer.

Everybody has a hand in it.

Everybody has a hand in it.

As with the problems with The Paradise Syndrome, Freiberger makes a convenient target for criticism of the episode. The truth is that a lot of the issues with the episode have nothing to do with the decisions made by Fred Freiberger. Freiberger did not choose to purchase a script with such an unsettling reactionary theme, that decision was made by the previous production team. The episode was always going to happen, in some form or another. It was always going to look particularly cheap, owing to the season’s infamous budget cuts.

Certainly, Freiberger deserves criticism for how the episode turned out; there were a number of bad decisions made during production that are explicitly his fault; Freiberger and Singer should have caught the script problems, and Freiberger does deserve the blame for casting Melvin Belli as the Gorgan. However, much like the superficial production issues with The Paradise Syndrome, are those really the biggest issues with the episode? There is no denying that these aspects fail to improve the episode, but could And the Children Shall Lead ever be salvaged?

Not quite flavour of the month...

Not quite flavour of the month…

In keeping episode’s engagement with the zeitgeist, it was Freiberger who decided to cast famed lawyer Melvin Belli as the monstrous Gorgan. Belli was a minor celebrity, owing to his role in high profile cases like the prosecution of Jack Ruby. Ruby was the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, putting Belli only a few degrees away from the Kennedy assassination as one of the crucial events of the sixties. However, this was not Belli’s only point of intersection with the sixties cultural zeitgeist.

Belli would find himself drawn into the Zodiac case in October 1969. Belli appeared on a local television talk show hosted by Jim Dunbar, taking phone calls from somebody claiming to be the infamous San Francisco killer. The call was quickly disavowed by people familiar with what the real Zodiac sounds like. It was traced back to Napa State Hospital, a psychiatric institution in California. Later that same year, Belli would involve himself in the planning (and aftermath) of the Altamont concert. Belli was very tied into the sixties, particularly the end of the decade.

He really lights up the screen.

He really lights up the screen.

Interviewed by Starlog, Belli mostly had fond memories of working on the production, securing the role after the production team had cast his son to play one of the children:

“I honestly forget who called me,” he admits, “but I do remember they were initially interested only in Caesar to play one of the children. Once my son was cast, somebody thought it would be a great idea to have me as the villain. I accepted immediately.

“I enjoyed myself immensely” the famed lawyer continues, “and I was struck by the professionalism of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and all the rest. They were very professional — yet were imbued with a great sense of fun.

“The most fun for me personally was my ‘melting’ death scene. Even though they had taken casts of my face much earlier, the makeup required for the scene still took the better part of the morning. They would shoot for a time, pause, then take me back to makeup to make me look more hideous. I remember they built up my nose with putty and made my jowls sag with each successive stage. Then, it was back to the soundstage to shoot some more.”

It is a very charming story, and Belli’s appearance in And the Children Shall Lead effectively ties the lawyer into another key piece of sixties history and iconography.

Green with envy.

Green with envy.

There was just one problem with all of this. Belli could not act. It is far too easy to take an actor’s skill set for granted. After all, many celebrities have attempted to transition into the profession, only to discover that it requires a very particular talent. Belli was a notoriously stagy lawyer, one well-known for his showboating and grandstanding. These attributes are useful for an actor, but they are not enough of themselves. An actor needs a good memory and a strong sense of character. It seems that Belli struggles with both.

It seems like Belli struggled with his dialogue. The episode certainly suggests as much. Gorgan tends to repeat himself, going off on tangents and meandering to his point. For example, consider his first directive to the children, “Marcos Twelve has millions of people on it. Nearly a million will join us as our friends. The rest will be our enemies. Together with our other friends who will join us, we will defeat our enemies as we defeated them on Triacus. A million friends on Marcos will make us invincible.”

Engineering a discussion.

Engineering a discussion.

His voice has also been heavily edited in postproduction, an obvious attempt to make Gorgan seem more imposing than he might otherwise be. It is an embarrassing moment for the franchise. Interviewed by Peter David in 1996, James Doohan singled out the hiring of Belli as an example of the kind of mistakes that plagued the third season:

Melvin Belli didn’t know how to act. How in the hell did he ever get the job? I don ‘t know. Was he someone’s friend or something? This is the sort of thing that went in the third year, when Gene wasn’t looking after things.

Again, there is an example of the narrative that has been crafted around the third season of Star Trek, which suggests that all the mistakes can be traced back to a careless production staff and the absence of Gene Roddenberry. Of course, the casting of Belli was nowhere near the biggest problem with And the Children Shall Lead.

"Captain, I believe H.R. talked to you about this...?"

“Captain, I believe H.R. talked to you about this…?”

In keeping with the funereal tones of the third season, there is a very mournful quality to And the Children Shall Lead. The episode is essentially presented as something akin to a space-age ghost story. It opens with the Enterprise visiting a colony where all of the adults have committed suicide. It falls to Kirk to bury them. Later in the episode, two security personal are beamed out into the void of space while the Enterprise is travelling at warp. They are lost to the stars.

There is also the none-too-subtle implication that Gorgan himself is a predatory ghost. Attempted to account for what has happened, Spock advises Kirk, “According to the legend, Triacus was the seat of a band of marauders who made constant war throughout the system of Epsilon Indi. After many centuries, the destroyers were themselves destroyed by those they had preyed upon.” There is, naturally, a grim prophecy at the end of this narrative. “It warns that the evil is awaiting a catalyst to set it again into motion and send it marauding across the galaxy.”

Dead to the (strange new) world...

Dead to the (strange new) world…

Gorgan is implied to be the evil spirit that guided those marauders. It is even suggested that Gorgan makes his home in a cave just away from where Kirk finds the bodies; Kirk senses a great deal of evil in that cave. With all of these little details, And the Children Shall Lead feels very much like a ghost story, which fits quite comfortably with the tone of the season around it. The third season of Star Trek seems to be exploring its own inevitable death through these weird ghost stories; tales like Spectre of the GunAnd the Children Shall Lead and The Tholian Web.

This sense of inevitable death bleeds through the realities facing the production team. As with a lot of third season episodes, the Enterprise seems almost abandoned in And the Children Shall Lead. The corridors seem quiet, particularly compared to early seasons. Most Starfleet crew members in the episode are there to serve a particular purpose, with very few extras available in the background of a given shot. The Enterprise almost seems a ghost ship, quieter than she was in the earlier seasons.

Ghost's clear.

Ghost’s clear.

Then again, it seems entirely appropriate. Like so many episodes around it, And the Children Shall Lead is an episode about the death of the sixties.

 

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12 Responses

  1. “It is a decidedly unsettling debate, not least because Spock seems to advocate for treating the children as enemy combatants.” This episode would also seem to be a reaction to Vietnam. The My Lai Massacre had occurred in the previous year in which many children were killed. Given your point that A Private Little War seemed to be conceding that Vietnam was a necessary evil, then perhaps this episode seeks to reinforce that point. After all, the Gorgan could be seen as a metaphor for Communism.

    • That’s a great point, actually. I hadn’t made that connection. Dammit, I feel stupid now. 🙂

      Thanks for pointing it out, actually. (And I think that The City on the Edge of Forever is another great “Vietnam is a necessary evil” episode.)

  2. No wonder people don’t bring up episodes like “And the Children Shall Lead” or “The Omega Glory” when discussing Star Trek themes; They tend to suck hard.

    • Yep, but they provide a clear counterpoint to the narrative of Star Trek is a singular bastion of progressiveness. Star Trek was progressive in many ways, but not as much as fans tend to claim, and there’s also a tendency to overlook the show’s more reactionary tendencies.

  3. In fairness Cold Tactician Spock has been a part of his character since the beginning. Remember he urged Kirk to kill Gary Mitchell while it was still possible. I know I’ve said it before I find the Spock we see on the show, with his mix of conservative and liberal elements much more interesting (fascinating?) than Hippie fanon Spock.

    • That’s a very fair point about Spock, actually. But I think that Spock is a different character at this point in the show than he was at the beginning, in that we’ve reached “breakout sex symbol Spock” period of the show.

      • True enough. I think the more coldly pragmatic element of Spock’s character does re-emerge from time to time even later on – the forced Mind Meld with Valeris in ‘The Undiscovered Country’ certainly fits this more ruthless side to the character.

      • That’s a fair point.

  4. Dreadful story, but an interesting grace note is that one of the girls was played by Pamelyn Ferdin, who was the voice of Lucy in several of the “Charlie Brown” TV specials/movies, who later got into a wee bit of criminal trouble for her role as an animal rights activist.

  5. I have extremely vague memories of watching this one on TV many years ago. The only things I really remember were the bit where Sulu is terrified of changing the Enterprise’s course because he thinks the ship is surrounded by giants knives & daggers, and the end where Gorgon’s face melts. The rest I must have blotted out of my mind.

    I had to look on Wikipedia to find out exactly who Melvin Belli was. And, wow, he actually got hired for this role because of his notoriety for working as Jack Ruby’s defense attorney? That’s nuts. That’d be like oh, Rick Berman casting OJ Simpson defense attorney Johnny Cochran to appear in a late 1990s episode of DS9 as the leader of the Pah-wraiths. “If the Federation won’t commit, then Bajor had better quit!” 😛

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