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Star Trek – Is There in Truth No Beauty? (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 third season of Star Trek is very odd. It stands quite apart from the previous two seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for this; a new executive producer, the loss of veterans from the first two seasons, production limitations imposed by a slashed budget. Star Trek was never a lavish show, and it always faced production challenges, but those challenges were never more acute than during the third season. In a lot of cases, that oddness is not a good thing. And the Children Shall Lead and Spock’s Brain are very strange pieces of television, but not in a good way. They are clumsy, cheap, ill-judged and ill-advised.

Healthy green glow.

Healthy green glow.

At the same time, that strange vibe of the third season is not inherently bad. There are a number of episodes produced during the third season (particularly during this stretch of the third season) that feel weird and odd, but also refreshing and exciting. Episodes like Is There in Truth No Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web have an eccentric and ethereal quality to them that feels quite removed from the first two seasons of the show. They are also three of the strongest episodes of the season, feeling adventurous and playful.

After all, for all that the third season is maligned, it is surprisingly influential. The third season of Star Trek contributes a great deal to the language and iconography of the franchise, perhaps as a result of the unusual constraints and production realities that inform it. Is There in Truth No Beauty? is an odd little tale, but it is also a clever and effective metaphor that explores grand ideas in the classic Star Trek tradition.

Jonesing for for some Diane Muldaur.

Jonesing for for some Diane Muldaur.

One of the big issues with the third season of Star Trek was that the production team suffered something of a brain drain. Gene Roddenberry resigned in protest over the rescheduling of the show to Friday nights. This meant that he was much less engaged with the running of the show, although he was not gone entirely. Roddenberry still made a point to meddle in the day-to-day running of the series. Roddenberry advocated for certain scripts like Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome, and interfered rather directly with Is There in Truth No Beauty?

At the same time, a host of writing talent departed. Gene L. Coon and Dorothy Fontana are two of the most underrated and influential Star Trek writers ever, and they were responsible for quite a large number of classics across the first two seasons of the show. However, Coon had accepted a job on It Takes a Thief at the start of the year, limiting his ability to contribute to the third season. Fontana had stepped aside as script editor, and the way that her script for The Enterprise Incident had been handled left her with little desire to contribute more scripts to the third season.

Spock, always a trusted add visor.

Spock, always a trusted add visor.

Certain writers were carried over from the second season. Margaret Armen had been responsible for The Gamesters of Triskelion during the second season, and the production team tapped her to write The Paradise Syndrome and The Cloud Minders. David Gerrold would pitch quite a few story ideas for the third season, including ideas that would later develop into More Tribbles, More Troubles and Bem, but his only on-screen credit would be developing the story for The Cloud Minders. John Meredyth Lucas wrote Elaan of Troyius.

With that in mind, the production team had to look outside of the established pool of Star Trek writers to find new scripts. This undoubtedly contributes to the weird tone of this run of episodes, as the production team are working with episodes written by writers with little (if any) experience writing for television in general and science-fiction in particular. The Empath was the first (and only) script written by Joyce Muskat. The Tholian Web marked the start of Judy Burns’ long career in television.

Thinking inside the box.

Thinking inside the box.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? was written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, a reference librarian at UCLA. She would go on to contribute the script for All of Our Yesterdays later in the season. As Aroeste explains, it was almost by chance that she found herself pitching for Star Trek:

“I met someone at a party whose brother I had known and who was in the screenwriting business, and he said, ‘Oh, you should get in touch with my agent,’ gave me her name. So, I did that,” Aroeste told Blastr. “She said, ‘well, why don’t you send me a short description of the episode you have in mind, and we’ll see if I can do anything with it.’ She liked it and sent that to the producers, and they liked it.”

It is easy to see why the producers liked Is There in Truth No Beauty? It was set exclusively on the Enterprise and featured a small guest cast, which made it cost effective in this troubled third season. However, despite these elements, Is There in Truth No Beauty? is a very strange episode.

"Let's Keats this to ourselves, eh?"

“Let’s Keats this to ourselves, eh?”

Is There in Truth No Beauty? is a very literate episode. Even the title is an allusion to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, which closed on the poet’s reflection that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The episode feels like a very literary style of science fiction, one driven by big ideas and meaningful dialogue. Is There in Truth No Beauty? has an endearing lyrical quality to it, skilfully probing the human condition while focusing on character development. It is a story populated with profound conversations and fleshed-out individuals.

In other words, Is There in Truth No Beauty? is precisely the sort of literate high-brow science-fiction to which Star Trek aspired. There are, of course, plenty of earlier examples. Episodes like Conscience of a King and Dagger of the Mind had cribbed their titles from Shakespeare as a sort of literary bona fides. Stories like Where No Man Has Gone Before and What Are Little Girls Made Of? wrestled with what it meant to be human. Scripts like Return to Tomorrow and By Any Other Name had characters talk around it in flowery dialogue.

"We do all we Khan to make guests feel comfortable."

“We do all we Khan to make guests feel comfortable.”

It is not that Is There in Truth No Beauty? does anything particularly novel of itself. Indeed, several key sequences feel like familiar Star Trek standards at this point. The dinner hosting Miranda Jones feels very much like the dinner for Khan Noonien Singh in Space Seed, particularly with all the simmering tensions bubbling beneath the jovial atmosphere. Marvick’s deranged hijacking of the Enterprise leading to catastrophic consequences recalls Bones’ drug-induced insanity in The City on the Edge of Forever.

However, there is something interesting in how Is There in Truth No Beauty? puts all of these elements together. It is a surprisingly quiet episode of Star Trek, particularly given that it features a madman hijacking the Enterprise and flying it outside the galaxy, not to mention a later sequence in which Spock freaks out and tries to murder the bridge crew. However, the material stakes of Is There in Truth No Beauty? always feel secondary to the character dynamics and interactions. There is a lot of talking and discussing, and a (relative) minimum of action.

"It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed."

“It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed.”

After all, The Enemy Within had wedded its high-concept reflection on the dualistic aspects of human nature to a literal conflict between the two halves of James Tiberius Kirk. Arena presented its reflections on the pointlessness of conflict through the prism of Kirk’s fight against a giant reptile. Even Let That Be Your Last Battlefield would centre its race relations allegory around a plot that found the Enterprise hijacked. In contrast, the big scenes in Is There in Truth No Beauty? are quiet conversations, whether the dinner to welcome Miranda or Kirk’s failed seduction.

The result is an episode that feels in many ways like a distillation of the series’ science-fiction bona fides. Indeed, Is There in Truth No Beauty? feels almost like one of those early experimental tie-in novels from Bantam or Pocket Books in the sixties and seventies, from a time before those lines were standardised into a recognisable house style. It is not difficult to imagine Is There in Truth No Beauty? as a science-fiction short story or novella rather than a Star Trek episode.

"What's in the box?"

“What’s in the box?”

This literary quality is apparent even in the character of Ambassador Kollos himself. Kollos is a being impossible to render on screen, a creature so far beyond the realm of human perception that to gaze upon him is to invite madness. It is a very literary idea, with obvious antecedents in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft or Robert Chambers. Kollos is very much a contemporary twist on that classic Lovecraftian concept, one that strips away (or at least interrogates) the idea of “monstrosity” that underpins Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

Of course, Star Trek has pre-existing ties to the Lovecraft in the form of Robert Bloch. Bloch had been a fan and student of Lovecraft, and it is no surprise that Bloch’s contributions to Star Trek would serve to tie the series to Lovecraft’s vast and horrifying cosmology; the “Old Ones” are referenced in Bloch’s scripts for both What Are Little Girls Made Of? and Catspaw, while Wolf in the Fold is essentially the story of a madness that travels between the stars. Bloch’s horror-tinged writing fit quite comfortably with the howling empty universe that marked much of the first season.

Lighten up.

Lighten up.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? offers a different sort of homage to Lovecraft. It is not as literal as the references that Bloch incorporated into his own first and second season scripts. Aroeste is not seeking to tie Star Trek into the framework of the larger Lovecraft mythos via references to an overarching continuity. Instead, Aroeste is taking some of Lovecraft’s core ideas and building her own science-fiction allegories around them. It is a very clever and very literate approach that plays into the idea of Star Trek as belonging to the rich tradition of weird American fiction.

Much like the “Old Ones” of Lovecraft’s vast cosmology, to gaze upon a Medusan is to invite madness. It is an alien that cannot be depicted on screen, save for a weird sequence of flashing lights and abstract imagery, as if the camera itself cannot process what a Medusan would look like. It is perhaps the most alien and abstract creature depicted on Star Trek to this point, which is no mean accomplishment for a series that featured the Melkotians in Spectre of the Gun. It is a shame that the later Star Trek shows would move away from that imaginative style.

Talk about getting into her head.

Talk about getting into her head.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? builds upon other ideas tied to Lovecraft’s work, most notably the strong connection that exists between perception and sanity. In a great Lovecraftian twist, the insane Marvick decides that the only place to find peace from the chaos of existence is outside the galaxy itself. This plays into the Lovecraftian theme of life itself as hostile, as Gavin Callaghan argues in H. P. Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia:

I would suggest that the moon-ladder and all other “bizarre conceptions” witnessed by Danforth at the end of Mountains of Madness represent just such a projected image: a cosmicised version of what Lovecraft elsewhere calls the “snarling chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life” in The Lurking Fear. “Life” is the operative word here: not the terror of the oblivion, which Lovecraft in any case welcomes, or the pain of death, but rather the terror of existence itself, as brought into being and nourished via the mother, and created during the primal act.

Driven mad by his exposure to Ambassador Kollos, Marvick seeks comfort in the vast empty space that exists between galaxies. When Kirk asks where they are, Marvick assures him that they are “beyond the boundaries of the galaxy. We made it. We’re safe.” Ranting and raving, Marvick speaks like a Lovecraft protagonist driven insane by some hidden knowledge about the universe. “They come in your dreams! That’s the worst! They suffocate in your dreams!”

A whole galaxy of terror.

A whole galaxy of terror.

(In keeping with the sense that Is There in Truth No Beauty? is part of a weird American science-fiction tradition, guest star David Frankham had appeared in an episode of The Outer Limits with a few similarities to this episode. Don’t Open Until Doomsday saw the actor playing a character menaced by a hideous alien hiding inside a box. Of course, the actual mechanics of the episode differed significantly from those on display in Is There in Truth No Beauty? Nevertheless, the superficial similarities underscore the script’s strong science-fiction underpinnings.)

However, while Lovecraft used his themes to craft horror stories, Aroeste riffs on them to touch on big ideas about beauty and reality; about perception and image. Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that Is There in Truth No Beauty? is one of the most feminist episodes of the troubled third season, particularly in its exploration of the character of Miranda Jones. Seeing and perception are one of the episode’s major themes, particularly as they relate to the treatment of professional women.

Kirk rose to the occasion.

Kirk rose to the occasion.

Repeatedly over the course of the episode, Miranda Jones finds her beauty the subject of debate and discussion by her male colleagues. Even the crew of the Enterprise are guilty of objectifying Jones, reducing her to their expectations of a pretty woman. “I can’t understand why they let you go with Kollos,” Kirk remarks at one point. “The male population of the Federation. Didn’t someone try and talk you out of it?” This sets the tone for the conversation, during with Kirk and McCoy spend more time discussing her appearance than her profession.

It seems like Jones is surrounded by men who would diminish her. The male characters repeatedly insist that she behave like a woman, as if that is incompatible with her being a professional. At another point, Kirk advises her, “Sooner or later, no matter how beautiful their minds are, you’re going to yearn for someone who looks like yourself, someone who isn’t ugly.” However, things get really heated during her confrontation with Marvick, who insists that she give up her vocation and her life in order to be with him.

Somebody hasn't read his workplace harassment guide book.

Somebody hasn’t read his workplace harassment guide book.

“Why don’t you try being a woman for a change?” Marvick demands. The sequence between Marvick and Jones still resonates decades later, as Marvick expresses the entitled attitudes that one might expect from an emotionally immature young man unable to cope with the notion of female independence. As far as Marvick is concerned, Jones has no agency of her own; she needs to recognise her predetermined role. “I understand that you’re a woman and that I’m a man, one of your own kind, and that Kollos will never be able to give you anything like this.”

It is worth noting the minor detail that Marvick helped design the Enterprise. It is a nice touch of itself, an example of the script’s fannish attention to continuity and world-building. It also explains how Marvick is able to hijack the ship so easily. However, it also fits thematically. The Enterprise is frequently characterised as female; “her”, “she.” This is most notable in Bones’ recommendation that Data “treat her like a lady” in Encounter at Farpoint. As such, Marvick is a man who designed his own woman, after a fashion. He is attempting something similar with Jones.

Marvick is a maverick.

Marvick is a maverick.

The confrontation between Marvick and Jones is a wonderfully scene, highly charged and astutely observed. It hits on issues of male entitlement and female empowerment that are still relevant half a century after the episode was broadcast, elevated by two superb guest performances. David Frankham is great as Marvick, but the episode very much belongs to Diane Muldaur as Jones. Muldaur is one of the franchise’s most superlative recurring performers, and Is There in Truth No Beauty? offers the actor the meatiest material of any of her appearances.

Muldaur is fantastic as Jones, playing a woman who has hardened herself against the world. It is revealed early in the script that Jones is telepathic, a nice nod to the show’s sixties sensibilities. However, Muldaur’s performance suggests a paradox. Constantly exposed to the emotions of others, Muldaur positions Jones as detached and disengaged. Jones apparently spent time on Vulcan, and Muldaur’s performance occasionally mirrors that of Leonard Nimoy. Rather than totally burying Jones’ emotions, Muldaur instead suggests that they are simmering.

Doctor Jones, Doctor Jones, calling Doctor Jones.

Doctor Jones, Doctor Jones, calling Doctor Jones.

This is the second of three roles that Muldaur will play in the Star Trek franchise, having previously appeared in Return to Tomorrow. According to director Ralph Senensky, Muldaur was not the first choice to play the part:

The other half, the role of Miranda, was more difficult. We checked out Jessica Walter, but she was not available. Other availabilities were checked with no success. Now Star Trek had a standing rule that guest stars could not repeat unless they were coming back to play the same role. At this point I daringly suggested we bring back Diana Muldaur (who had guest starred the previous season in Return to Tomorrow, about which the less said the better) and that we put her in a black wig. That suggestion was finally accepted.

Muldaur was far from the first performer to break that particular rule. Mark Lenard had appeared in Balance of Terror and Journey to Babel. William Campbell had done The Squire of Gothos and The Trouble with Tribbles.

McCoy's toast is toast.

McCoy’s toast is toast.

Jones challenges the men around her, refusing to conform to their expectations. “How can one so beautiful condemn herself to look upon ugliness the rest of her life?” McCoy toasts. “Will we allow it, gentlemen?” Miranda doesn’t quite point out that it is not McCoy’s place to “allow” her choice, instead teasing, “How can one so full of joy and the love of life as you, Doctor, condemn yourself to look upon disease and suffering for the rest of your life? Can we allow that, gentlemen?” It is a very pointed response; McCoy seems to get the message.

One of the more interesting aspects of Is There in Truth No Beauty? is the episode’s willingness to complicate Jones as a character, rather than reducing her to a one-dimensional martyr. Jones is shown to be hyper-sensitive when it comes to her profession, particularly insecure around Spock. At dinner, she accuses Spock of wearing a piece of jewellery to spite her. This is a ridiculous notion. “I doubt that Mister Spock would don the most revered of all Vulcan symbols merely to annoy you, Doctor Jones,” Kirk observes.

Miranda-ising her.

Miranda-ising her.

Jones’ insecurity makes a certain amount of sense, particularly given the way that the men around her belittle and patronise her. After all, both Kirk and Marvick seem to suggest that she has no place committing to the life that she wants to lead. With that in mind, it is only rational that she should be wary of Spock as a potential challenger or replacement. However, that wariness becomes paranoia. Is There in Truth No Beauty? offers a surprisingly complex approach to Jones as a character. She is nuanced and developed, but not idealised.

Jones has agency and character, she is not simply an embodiment of an ideal. Jones is shown to be flawed, in ways that are reasonable understandable given the way that people behave towards her. However, unlike the flaws affecting the Romulan Commander in The Enterprise Incident, these flaws do not undermine or undercut Jones’ power as a feminist character. By treating Miranda Jones as a fully fleshed-out human being, Is There in Truth No Beauty? only emphasises its own themes and ideas.

"They call this 'the Kirk Manoeuvre'."

“They call this ‘the Kirk Manoeuvre’.”

In keeping with the literate tone of Is There in Truth No Beauty, David Greven argues in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek that the episode could be read as a feminist and postcolonial reinterpretation of The Tempest:

In a way that anticipates the final episode of the series, Turnabout Intruder, Miranda openly chafes against male rule. In a manner that would be surprising in any series of this era, she vehemently competes with Spock alternately challenging him about and chafing against his own ability to communicate with Kollos. Most interestingly of all, during the obligatory scene in which Kirk hits on her (in an arboretum this time!), Miranda, far from succumbing to his charms, exhibits no sexual interest in him whatsoever. If this episode is a version of The Tempest (“O brave new world,” a character quotes), it is Shakespeare’s valedictory play with Prospero – the white imperialist male ruler, who colonises the planet of his abhorred slave Caliban – excised. This is The Tempest with Miranda, Prosperos’ daughter, and Caliban-Kollos as the protagonists: woman and the sub-altern given centre stage.

In many ways, Is There in Truth No Beauty? embodies the raw potential of Star Trek. It is an optimistic humanist fairy tale that finds a feminist riff on one of the classic seafaring legends. It imagines a future rich with potential.

Live long and Prospero.

Live long and Prospero.

Of course, this is the third season of Star Trek. There are issues. Although the most feminist episode of the season to this point, Is There in Truth No Beauty? inevitably hits one or two sour notes. The most awkward moment comes late in the episode, when McCoy reveals that Jones is actually blind. It is a very clever and poetic twist in its own right. It plays into the themes of the episode, the idea of perception and beauty. More than that, it makes perfect sense in the context of Jones’ relationship with Kollos. It is, to quote Spock, an “elegant solution.”

There is something very clever in the revelation that Jones gets around her disability using a sensor net embedded in he dress. The symbolism is quite rich. Jones literally dresses herself up as a sighted person, effectively disguising her disability. More than that, to take off her dress represents a different kind of nudity. In undressing, Jones exposes herself to the people around her. Fittingly, Jones removes the dress towards the end of the episode, as she tends to Spock. Her disability revealed to the crew, her vulnerability showing, Jones is in many ways naked.

Dressing down...

Dressing down…

The problem is in how the episode treats her disability. Jones processes the world through that complex sensor net sewn into her dress, affording her a unique manner of “seeing” the world. “I am standing exactly one metre, four centimetres from the door,” she tells Kirk. “Can you judge distance that accurately? I can even tell you how fast your heart is beating.” However, McCoy refuses to allow her to navigate the ship with Kollos. “I realise that you can do almost anything a sighted person can do, but you can’t pilot a starship.”

This seems like an arbitrary restriction, given everything else that Jones can do. It would be one thing if Jones and Kollos were going to fly the ship like an X-Wing, ducking and weaving through asteroid fields while relying on sight to navigate. However, that is not how Star Trek traditionally portrays navigation, and it is not how Is There in Truth No Beauty? treats it either. Spock flies by pushing buttons; mapping a course, responding to readouts. The Enterprise navigates through sensor grids not unlike those weaved into Jones’ dress.

That revelation certainly blindsided everyone.

That revelation certainly blindsided everyone.

As such, there is no reason why Jones should not be able to navigate on behalf of Kollos. If anything, Jones’ unique understanding of distance and space would give her a unique edge. Indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to tacitly acknowledge this fact, with Geordi LaForge serving as navigator during the show’s first season. Indeed, it seems like the only reason that Jones cannot fly the Enterprise is because she is not listed in the opening credits. Spock is the main character of the two, so the script has to justify giving him something to do.

There is another issue with the episode’s portrayal of Jones. Late in the episode, Kirk heavily suggests that Jones was responsible for what happened to Spock. “What did you do to him on the Bridge?” Kirk demands. “Did you make him forget to put the visor over his eyes?” It is a bold accusation, one that seems to come out of nowhere. Jones’ professional jealousy of Spock occasionally leaned into paranoia, but having Kirk make those accusations so boldly feels ridiculous. The implication risks turning Jones from a flawed and insecure human being into a monster.

A stunning display.

A stunning display.

The episode is ultimately ambiguous on the matter. It is possible to read the episode so that Jones did give Spock a telepathic push, but it is also possible to read the episode so that Kirk is just being paranoid and overprotective. This ambiguity does not enhance the episode. It feels like the script offers just enough evidence to support Kirk’s accusation, which would seriously undercut Jones as a character. After all, if Kirk was wrong to make the accusation, it does not paint him in a very flattering light.

Of course, it is very hard to prove anything, given how ambiguous Jones’ telepathy must be. The revelation that Jones is telepathic is very much a piece of sixties pseudo-science, harking back to the studies of ESP in Where No Man Has Gone Before. After all, there is no indication in the episode that Jones is anything other than fully human. Although somewhat strange given the (relatively) rational outlook of the spin-offs, there is a sense that Star Trek believes that some humans might legitimately have psychic powers. It is a very sixties show, after all.

This is Spock's brain on acid.

This is Spock’s brain on acid.

Then again, Is There in Truth No Beauty? fits reasonably well in the context of the third season, the sense that the sixties are slowly dying. Marvick’s mental breakdown presents him as something equivalent to an acid casuality of the late sixties, the drug-fueled revelry of the sixties turning sour. Marvick recalls an academic whose consciousness expanded so far that it snapped. It helps that the wide-angle lenses and the perspective shots and the quick quites all evoke the televisual and cinematic language of the “bad trip.”

After all, Spock’s initial encounter with Kollos is presented as enlightening and enriching for both of them. The episode suggests that both are experiencing new possibilities, their minds wandering and expanding. Spock smiles. Spock quotes Byron. Spock seems to flirt with both Uhura and Jones. Spock is very much one, with both Ambassador Kollos and with the universe as a whole. He is able to navigate the ship without a frame of reference. In many ways, it plays like an idealised depiction of psychedelics as “consciousness expansion.”

"I'm freaking out!"

“I’m freaking out!”

However, this cannot last. Spock is eventually exposed to Ambassador Kollos in his purest form. This causes Spock to freak out and go insane. He becomes violent and uncontrollable. He has a mental breakdown. The problem is that his mind has turned too far inwards. “Unless Miranda can look down into his mind and turn it outward to us, we will lose Spock,” McCoy states. This is very much the flip side of the sixties psychedelic experience. This is the hangover, the bad trip. As with the rest of the third season, it feels like the sixties is coming to an end.

While Is There in Truth No Beauty? was the work of a novice writer, it benefits hugely from the experience of veteran director Ralph Senensky. When discussing Star Trek, it is quite common to overlook the contribution made to the franchise by directors. There are lots of reasons for this. Most obviously, television criticism tends to treat the writer and producer as the televisual auteur rather than the director. While film directors are regarded as the author of the finished product, television directors have historically been considered hired hands.

And always wear sun visors.

And always wear sun visors.

The classic mode of television production relied on tight schedules and deadlines; the cliché is that the director was effectively the foreman on a conveyer belt. It was the director’s job to keep the production on schedule, to keep the actors moving, to prevent costly overruns. The pre- and post- production periods were typically overseen by the producers rather than the directors, who were often hopping between different episodes or even different series. With this kind of pressure, television direction was traditionally more conservative than film direction.

To be fair, this attitude has changed a great deal since the late nineties. With shorter season orders and higher television production value, directors have become a more appreciated and integral part of the television production process. Directors are now helming entire extended seasons, or managing spectacle on the scale of a blockbuster production. Still, historically speaking, there is a tendency to overlook or ignore the contributions made by directors to classic television. A lot of their work is taken for granted.

Transporting viewers to another world.

Transporting viewers to another world.

However, Ralph Senensky stands out as one of the best directors to work on Star Trek. He was also one of the most distinctive. Aroeste’s script for Is There in Truth No Beauty? is unique, but Senensky’s direction is also distinctive. Despite (or perhaps because of) the dialogue-driven nature of the script, the direction of Is There in Truth No Beauty? is particularly kinetic. Senensky keeps the camera moving, and puts it in unusual positions. Given that the episode unfolds entirely on the standing sets of the Enterprise, that is no small accomplishment.

There is a dynamic quality to the direction and editing. This is obvious even in small sequences like Marvick running away following his attempt to murder Ambassador Kollos; the camera chases him through the corridor, but cannot keep up with the energetic madman. That same shot is effectively contrasted with the later sequence of Spock visiting Ambassador Kollos; this time the camera is able to keep pace with Spock. These two sequences form a nice visual shorthand, cuing the audience into Spock’s visit to the Ambassador. They also help to build tension.

Something fishy is going on here...

Something fishy is going on here…

Senensky also shoots the “freak out” sequences with a wide-angle lens, giving those scenes a disorientating quality. The cuts in those sequences are quick and brutal, helping to keep the audience off-balance. Perhaps most notable is the way that Senensky shoots from the perspective of Marvick and Spock during their moments of insanity. It is a very adventurous decision for Star Trek, a franchise that is traditionally quite conservative in terms of direction. However, it works very well. Senensky uses these sequences as an effective visual metaphor.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? asks its audience to sacrifice their position as objective viewers and put themselves in the shoes of Marvick or Spock as they wrestle with their insanity. These subjective shots play upon the title of the episod; as Miranda Jones herself points out, and as the episode suggests by revealing her to be blind, “beauty” is ultimately a subjective concept. “What is ugly?” Jones challenges Kirk at one point. “Who is to say whether Kollos is too ugly to bear or too beautiful to bear?”

We have lift-off.

We have lift-off.

More than that, it could be suggested that by inviting Marvick and Spock to share a perspective with the television audience at home, the episode effective “breaks” their perception. Is There in Truth No Beauty? alludes repeatedly to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and this might be a very self-aware example. Lovecraft’s characters are frequently driven insane by the revelation of truths that are too big for them to process. In asking Marvick and Spock to see the Enterprise through the same camera as the audience, do those characters skirt a universal awareness?

This subjectivity is most apparent in the quick shots of Ambassador Kollos, who is represented through a sequence of abstract visual effects quickly cut into certain scenes. It should be noted that these special effects are not composited into the container that holds Ambassador Kollos; instead, they flash directly in front of the camera, as if the audience is staring right at the Medusan and the Medusan is staring right back. It is a bold choice, one that again puts the audience in a very subjective position, looking at the characters head-on.

Talk about being green with envy.

Talk about being green with envy.

For his part, Senensky was not particularly happy with the integration of these special effects into the episode. He explained to Starlog:

In the third season, the scripts weren’t always ready and there was the nonsense — which up until that point hadn’t been non- sense — when time is of the essence and the actor is now starting to say you have to rewrite this or that line. I always felt that with the production staff of the last year, the tenor had changed. With Is There in Truth No Beauty?, there were some cuts made in post-production that, for my money, were schlock, horror cuts. They hadn’t been in the script, were not in the concept and were thrown in by [third season producer] Fred Freiberger. He kept cut- ting back to the box, the container, with lights flashing. You didn’t need it. That’s underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Because they weren’t planned cuts, they became arbitrary and rather like jump- cuts, which I’ve always resented. That was the third season’s problem. The real tightening of the budget was the first thing, and then, probably having to do with those budgetary cuts, the calibre of the writing went down.

Senensky makes a reasonable argument. There is a sense that Freiberger did not trust the audience. However, those special effects shots do contribute to the general sense of ethereal weirdness that drives so much of the episode.

That is some really great framing.

That is some really great framing.

Even outside of the big showcase sequences, Senensky demonstrates a keen understanding of the script. Senensky’s direction plays into and enhances the core themes of the story. His framing choices are particularly astute. Most notably, the framing of Jones during the celebratory dinner held in her honour. Senensky consciously and repeatedly frames Jones through the gap between Scotty and Marvick, creating the impression of a woman being hemmed in and restricted by men.

At the same time, Is There in Truth No Beauty? does suffer from some questionable creative decisions that were made without Senensky’s input. The most glaring of these issues comes in the final scene, with Spock and Jones in the transporter. In the script, Kirk leaves the room before Spock transports Ambassador Kellos. However, the sequence is awkwardly edited to suggest that Kirk leaves the room after Spock transports Ambassador Kellos. This creates a continuity issue. It suggests that Kirk might have been exposed to Kellos during the transport.

Captain of his destiny.

Captain of his destiny.

As with the insertion of the abstract imagery symbolising Ambassador Kollos, the change was made in postproduction outside of Senensky’s control. Discussing the scene, Senensky lamented:

Finally the last scene of the film. Was it possible there would be no further reasons to cause me anguish? What could possibly be done in postproduction to a simple scene in the Transporter Room?

Did you catch the gross error? The script and my director’s cut had Kirk say, “Peace”, and then he exited. Who decided to have him hang around, without a visor, which wouldn’t have protected him anyway because he was human? I have run out of scorn!

It is admittedly a small detail, but it does speak to the lack of attention that was being paid at certain points in the production of the third season as a whole.

Drinking it in.

Drinking it in.

The third season of Star Trek is interesting for many reasons. In many ways, the third season is treated as a failure. Fred Freiberger is still blamed for the perceived decline of the show, with many fans and critics accepting that there was a sharp drop in quality from the first and second seasons. The third season of Star Trek is openly discussed as a disappointment by everybody from the fans to the creative team. Whether or not this reputation is entire fair, it definitely exists.

However, this sense of failure belies the huge influence that certain key elements of the third season have over the rest of the franchise. The third season of Star Trek introduces a large number of concepts that really shape and define the franchise as it will live on long after the broadcast of The Turnabout Intruder. To pick two obvious continuity-drive examples, The Enterprise Incident really encouraged the show to look beyond Starfleet while The Day of the Dove in some ways established a template for later appearances from the Klingons.

As cold as eyes.

As cold as eyes.

There are lots of smaller continuity details scattered across the season. The Lights of Zetar introduces the concept of “Memory Alpha”, which would give its name to a website so ubiquitous that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung would consult it when writing Star Trek Beyond. Kahless the Unforgettable first appears in The Savage Curtain. Even in Is There in Truth No Beauty?, it is confirmed that Uhura’s name translates (loosely) as “freedom” in Swahili. Despite its reputation, the third season builds a lot of the finer details of the larger Star Trek universe.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? introduces two major concepts that will be of considerable interest to the franchise as it develops. Most obviously, and most controversially, the episode introduces the Vulcan “IDIC” symbol. Spock wears the medallion to dinner with Jones, and then wears it again at the very end of the episode. The medallion symbolises “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”, a succinct summary of the franchise’s idealism and in some ways a clear set-up of the utopia that Gene Roddenberry would truly begin to craft with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

IDK about the IDIC.

IDK about the IDIC.

The inclusion of the medallion was an idea that came directly from Gene Roddenberry, and it was massively controversial. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy took exception to Roddenberry’s plans to monetise medallion by selling replicas through his company “Lincoln Enterprises.” According to Ralph Senensky, this disagreement ground production to a halt:

Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had very strong objections to a portion of the scene we were scheduled to do that day and were refusing to film. Since the objection was to dialogue involving a piece of jewelry that Gene Roddenberry had designed, he was summoned to the set. (I have since learned that Leonard Nimoy first phoned producer Fred Freiberger to tell him of the problem. When Freiberger refused to take any action, Leonard called Roddenberry.) The morning was spent in a round table war with the six characters involved in the scene plus Gene and me. But the battle was strictly Bill and Leonard vs Gene. Bill and Leonard felt Gene was using the scene as a promotional commercial for a pin he had designed; the pin was part of Leonard’s costume. Gene vehemently denied these accusations, but the guys were adamant in their refusal to be a part of something they considered to be commercially oriented. The final result of the long morning’s angry combat was that Gene agreed to rewrite the scene. That meant it could not be filmed that day.

In many ways, this is an example of Roddenberry at his most cynical and hypocritical. The producer had tried to incorporate the medallion into Spock’s Brain, but that did not work out. He simply took the next available opportunity to publicise his money-making scheme. After all, Roddenberry was not even a particularly active producer on the show at this point. Showing up to get Spock to sell his wares seems a very crass manoeuvre.

"These will be listed in our Fall catalogue."

“These will be listed in our Fall catalogue.”

In Star Trek Memories, William Shatner outlined his own objections to the scene, painting an almost sympathetic portrait of Fred Freiberger and a cynical take on Roddenberry:

I got my script change, read the new scene and with my jaw still hanging open, I called Fred down to the set, asking him, ‘What’s this IDIC thing about?’ I knew that Lincoln Enterprises would soon be selling these things, and there was no way that I was going to muck up a perfectly good story line just so we could include Gene’s rather thinly veiled commercial. With that in mind, I flatly refused to do the scene. Freiberger hemmed and hawed about the difficulties involved in re-revising the script, but as I spoke to him recently for this book, he finally admitted that he was actually relieved that I wouldn’t do the scene. It was probably the first time in history that a producer was glad to be dealing with a ‘difficult’ actor…

Leonard and I had both seen through Gene’s marketing ploy, and one after another we’d refused to play the scene. Still, when Gene came to the set, he did his very best to push it through. To his credit, Roddenberry was completely honest about the situation and didn’t try to mask his free publicity scam behind any half-baked creative half-truths. He simply stated that Lincoln Enterprises would soon be marketing these medallions, and that he’d really appreciate our cooperation in getting the product into this storyline.

While Roddenberry undoubtedly had every right to make a living, it seems disingenuous for the writer to return to the show he abandoned in our to boost his own mail-order business. The Ferengi would be proud.

Medallion man.

Medallion man.

Indeed, the ruthlessness with which Roddenberry embraced this capitalist endeavour stands in sharp contrast to the socialist utopianism that he would profess in his later years with The Motion Picture and The Next Generation. In I am Spock, Leonard Nimoy argued that the sequence cheapened Spock as a character and the series as a whole:

Although I didn’t appreciate Spock being turned into a billboard, I at least felt that the IDIC idea had more value than the content of the original scene. We filmed the scene as Gene had rewritten it. But the whole incident was rather unpleasant; Roddenberry was peeved at me for not wanting to help his piece of mail-order merchandise get off to a resounding start, and Fred Freiberger was peeved at me for going over his head.

It is not a story that paints a particularly flattering picture of Gene Roddenberry, instead suggesting that the franchise creator was something of a huckster and conman willing to jeopardise long-standing relationships and the perceived integrity of the show in order to make a quick buck.

Blind to Kirk's charm.

Blind to Kirk’s charm.

In some ways, the controversy over the “IDIC” speaks to the contradictions of Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry is a complicated figure in the history of Star Trek. It is tempting to paint Roddenberry as a visionary with a unique insight into the potential of mankind, painting a utopian vision of the future that spoke to millions. At the same time, it is just as tempting to paint Roddenberry as a charlatan prone to self-mythologise while belittling and diminishing the contributions made by others to his legacy. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Roddenberry does himself few favours. Many of his public statements are readily falsifiable. Roddenberry claimed to want a diverse depiction of the future, telling a story about how he struggled against the network to present an international ensemble; the truth is that NBC advocated for the diversity of the cast, overruling Roddenberry. Roddenberry claimed that NBC were not ready for a woman in a position of authority like Number One in The Cage; the truth is that NBC were uncomfortable with Roddenberry casting his mistress is so prominent a role.

Everything is under control here.

Everything is under control here.

It does not help matters that Roddenberry tended to downplay the contributions of others. His character assassination against Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever is legendary. Gene L. Coon’s contributions to the Star Trek mythos are largely undervalued, likely in part due to Roddenberry’s self-publicising. William Shatner has been quite candid in his assessment of Roddenberry, “He was a chiseler who wanted a cut of outside money his cast earned, demanded to be called ‘master,’ and prohibited poor Nimoy from using a company pencil.”

This is to say nothing of Roddenberry’s involvement in some of the franchise’s more ill-judged moments. Roddenberry would cultivate a narrative that presented him as a utopian pacifist, but he was also heavily involved in some of the series’ more patriotic pro-Vietnam episodes like A Private Little War and The Omega Glory. Roddenberry might argue that Star Trek was a feminist show, but he was also one of the chief advocates for scripts like Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome. At times, it seemed the series succeeded despite Roddenberry.

Glass act.

Glass act.

However, there is also a sense that Roddenberry did contribute something of worth, despite his crass and exploitative tendencies. The philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” might have arrived as part of a desperate sales pitch from a producer who had stepped away from the series when it needed him most, but that does not mean that the phrase is entirely without merit. It might be a cynical cash-grab, but it also speaks to something that fans truly love about the series and the franchise.

This is the complicated legacy of Gene Roddenberry. The man was in some respects a charlatan and a huckster, a questionable writer and an untrustworthy business associate. However, he also played an instrumental role in creating something that spoke to audiences on a fundamental level. Roddenberry created Star Trek. His role in defining it and expanding it might be exaggerated, his skill at writing for it might be highly debatable, but Roddenberry did offer an inspiring and utopian vision of the future.

Out of this galaxy.

Out of this galaxy.

Even the “IDIC” itself has a value beyond that published in the catalogue for Lincoln Enterprises. It means something to the fans of the series. As Jennifer E. Porter reflects in Star Trek Conventions as Pilgramage, the iconography has taken on an almost religious quality:

During Star Trek conventions, fans come to perceive, articulate, and embody IDIC. “Just look around you,” one man at the Trek 30 convention told me, “everyone here is different. Infinitely so. This is it. This is IDIC.” A woman later told me much the same thing. “Star Trek,” she said, “gives a positive, hopeful outlook for the future. People are treated equally, not judged by race or colour. It’s evident at conventions – no one cares who or what you are – you’re just another Trek fan!”

It is heartwarming. It is tough to take that away from fans, difficult to argue that this feeling of contentment and satisfaction is somehow diminished because it all originated in a money-making scheme concocted by a producer trying to sneak some free advertising on to the show.

The real McCoy.

The real McCoy.

As such, Roddenberry’s legacy is problematic. Indeed, a lot of the legacy of the original Star Trek is problematic. This tends to get obscured in the myths that build up around the franchise, and it is important to acknowledge these issues without diminishing the inspiration. Uhura might have inspired black women like Whoopi Goldberg and Mae Jemison, but that does not insulate the show from criticism in how it treated her character in episodes like The Changeling. The kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren was still important, but it was not as important as many claim.

The “IDIC” symbol is perhaps the best example of the problematic legacy of Gene Roddenberry. It is an item of incredible symbolic importance that also speaks to the less savoury aspects of its creator. These two sides of the IDIC cannot be completely divorced from one another, nor can they be entirely reconciled. It is possible for the icon to speak at once to the utopian idealism of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, while also reminding the audience of just how flawed Gene Roddenberry actually was.

Seeing red.

Seeing red.

Although the IDIC is by far the most prominent piece of mythology introduced in the episode, it is not the only element of Is There in Truth No Beauty? that will leave a lasting impression on the Star Trek franchise as a whole. The other legacy of Is There in Truth No Beauty? is buried quite deep in the episode, so deep as to be invisible to the audience watching at home. Nevertheless, it is another example of the franchise’s future manifesting itself in the midst of this troubled third season.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? features what is intended to be the prototype for the holodeck. Roddenberry would be a major proponent of the holodeck, even before introducing it in The Next Generation. Roddenberry was fascinated by the idea of an entirely artificial environment on a starship. It is suggested that the arboritum area that Kirk and Jones visit in Is There in Truth No Beauty? was intended to be an artificial environment in the style of the holodeck. It would lated be introduced more skilfully in The Practical Joker and Encounter at Farpoint.

Blooming miracles.

Blooming miracles.

As Jon Peddie outlines in The History of Visual Magic in Computers:

While the Holodeck was not in the Original Star Trek Series it was first introduced in Star Trek: The Animated Series, as Uhura, Sulu, and McCoy get trapped in it in the animated episode The Practical Joker. The concept of the Holodeck goes back even farther. Roddenberry had wanted to do something like in Is There in Truth No Beauty? but the closest they could come to it back in the days of the original series was to have some plants and lighting, which would simulate a non-spaceship environment.

As such, the episode sews the seeds of what would later become the holodeck.

Back petalling...

Back petalling…

Although the artificial environment in Is There in Truth No Beauty? is a long way from the later marvels of the holodeck, it is still a reminder of how much of the future of the franchise can be traced back to this weird and dysfunctional third season. Star Trek was facing cancellation at the end of the year, and the third season strikes an appropriately funereal tone. However, there is also a strange sense, watching the season with the benefit of hindsight, that the show was preparing for the future; for a life beyond these three seasons.

Is There in Truth No Beauty? is a strange episode from a strange season. However, it is also proof that what is strange can also be beautiful.

11 Responses

  1. Interesting, insightful write-up. This is another episode that I haven’t seen in a long time, but your piece has me keen to watch it again. I never picked up on the thematic similarities to Lovecraft’s work. I was probably distracted by the name Medusan, which I’ve always felt was much too on-the-nose.

    • Yep, it’s a little heavy-handed, but I like the recurring mystical/mythology themes of the third season. The Tholian Web as ghost story. Wink of an Eye as a fairy story. It’s almost as if the Star Trek universe is breaking down, with what little semblance of rationality existed evaporating over the course of the season.

  2. This is one of my favorite third-season episodes–the intellectual “big ideas” and the literary quality are exactly the reasons why. I must say this is also one of your all-time best Star Trek analyses, at least of the ones I’ve read.

    • Thanks Sean! I appreciate the kind words. Is There in Truth No Beauty? is a massively underrated episode, one that is forgotten far too often in discussions of the third year.

  3. Caught this episode on broadcast tonight; the Lovecraftian aspects struck me. What an excellent piece of commentary you’ve written; the context (the closing of the ’60s) and the production backstory (Roddenberry’s complex nature) that you provide are illuminating and entertaining. Thanks for your research and for writing this.

  4. At the end Spock is operating the transporter beaming Miranda and the Medusa to the other ship, we see Spock wearing the red shield during the beaming process yet we see that Kirk has been watching with his naked eye and is apparently unharmed. Is this an error, and I don’t see how the closed Medusa box could be harmful while being transported.

  5. Even the title is an allusion to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, which closed on the poet’s reflection that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.

    Possibly, but it’s a direct quote from the opening verse of “Jordan (1)” by George Herbert.

    Who says that fictions only and false hair
    Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
    Is all good structure in a winding stair?
    May no lines pass, except they do their duty
    Not to a true, but painted chair?

    Seems to be a bit of anti-anti-intellectualism, a refutation of the idea that scientific study or accurate knowledge takes the wonder out of the world. It could also be a counter, 3 centuries early, to “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” (not as good a counter as “When I Heard the Learn’d Poet, but that one got the benefit of being written afterward).

    Not very many Star Trek titles took snippets of lines from obscure poems as opposed to Biblical / Shakespeare / common turns of phrase.

    The Ensigns of Command comes from “The Wants of Man” by John Quincy Adams
    Where Silence Has Lease comes from “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert W Service
    Who Mourns for Adonais is from “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (arguable, maybe not super-obscure as Shelley is well-known, but I imagine more English and Americans have not heard of this particular poem than have).

  6. Great analysis of what I consider to be one of the series’ best episodes. And the title also is a quote from poem “Jordan (I)” by George Herbert.
    The 3rd season has been too long underrated and indeed many episodes contributed to the canon of Star Trek. It was also the show’s most topical season with “The Enterprise Incident,” “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” “Mark of Gideon,” “The Way to Eden,” and “The Cloud Minders.” And the 3rd season had IMHO some of the series best episodes – “Spectre of the Gun” (Gene Coon aka Lee Cronin’s variation on “Arena”), “The Paradise Syndrome,” “Elann of Troyius,” “The Empath,” “The Tholian Web,” “Requiem for Methuselah,” and “All Our Yesterdays.” The 3rd year has many of my favorite episodes and while the 1st season is often considered the best (with many outstanding episodes no doubt), the show was still finding its way and I enjoy the 2nd and 3rd years the most.

    • Yep. I think I make a thesis statement as these reviews develop that the third season of the original Star Trek is really where the modern Star Trek franchise can trace a lot of its roots – honourable Klingons, utopian idealism, IDIC, Kirk-as-lover, etc.

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