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Star Trek – Plato’s Stepchildren (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.

Another third season episode. Another iconic episode.

As with a lot of third season episodes, Plato’s Stepchildren is easily reduced to a selection of imagery and iconography. It is one of the episodes most likely to be cited as an “important” moment in the cultural evolution of Star Trek, full of clips that are likely to pop up on documentaries covering the history of television. Plato’s Stepchildren is an episode that has permeated popular culture, in large part due to a singular and memorable image that ultimately has very little to do with what the story is actually about.

"A kiss can be even deadlier, if you mean it."

“A kiss can be even deadlier, if you mean it.”

There is something frustrating about this. It feels inappropriate that Plato’s Stepchildren should have become such an important part of the history and the mythology of Star Trek. Not only is Plato’s Stepchildren offensive in ways that deliberately and brutally cut against the imagery that is so lauded, it is also a terrible piece of television in its own right. As with a lot of the third season of Star Trek, it seems like the mythology of the show is brushing up against the quality of the show itself.

Plato’s Stepchildren is memorable and important, but it is all boring and offensive. It encapsulates a lot of the third season, all in all.

"I can see you."

“I can see you.”

Of course, the most iconic moment in Plato’s Stepchildren is the kiss that occurs between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols in the final act. It is a moment that has been discussed and dissected time and time again, often cited as one of the single most important moments in the history of television. It contains “what is often cited as American television’s first scripted interracial kiss.” The story has become something of a television urban legend, to the point that articles debunking the claim have become more common than reports citing it unironically.

Nevertheless, that image of Kirk taking Uhura in his arms and pressing his lips against hers has become one of the iconic Star Trek moments. Much like the heavy-handed black-on-one-side-white-on-the-other aliens in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the moment is an essential part of the franchise’s progressive credentials. It is a reminder of just how much of what Star Trek fans (and even casual viewers) consider to be “essential Star Trek” is rooted in these final twenty-four episodes.

"Stop me if you've heard this before."

“Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”

Of course, the kiss between Uhura and Kirk was not the first interracial kiss on television. It was not even the first white-on-black kiss on television. British television was way ahead of American television in this regard. In 2015, a recording of the BBC play You in Your Small Corner demonstrated an interracial kiss was broadcast back in 1962:

“I was astounded … it was so explicit really,” said the BFI’s TV programmer, Marcus Prince, who discovered the historic kiss while researching an event. “I looked at the date and realised its significance.”

The kiss, between actors Lloyd Reckord and Elizabeth MacLennan, predates by six years the famous kiss between Kirk and Uhura in the third series of Star Trek, the first on US TV. It was also broadcast two years before a kiss between doctors on the British prime time soap Emergency Ward 10.

However, the British Film Institute would discover an even earlier example while trawling through the archives investigating that broadcast. An even earlier interracial kiss was found in the ITV play Hot Summer Night, broadcast as early as 1959. This predated Star Trek by almost a decade.

"Wow, LARP-ing is fun."

“Wow, LARP-ing is fun.”

Even before the recovery of You in Your Small Corner and Hot Summer Night, British television demonstrated a much more progressive attitude towards interracial relationships. The soap opera Emergency Ward 10 featured such a kiss in July 1964. According to actor Joan Hooley, it was something of a non-issue:

A lot of people spoke about it more ten years later than they did at the time it was happening. So, it was much later that it occurred to me that I was part of history. I find it odd to have to admit that I was part of history because I don’t see why there should be anything to do about it. I don’t think there should have been all this fuss about it.

Of course, the racial politics of Great Britain were very different from those of the United States, so perhaps they are not directly comparable. Nevertheless, Enoch Powell would make his memorable anti-immigration Rivers of Blood speech in April 1968, so it is not as if race relations in the United Kingdom were particularly idyllic.

Sorry. I'm ruining the moment, aren't I?

Sorry. I’m ruining the moment, aren’t I?

Even excusing those black-and-white interracial kissed from high-profile British television productions, there were a number of popular and widely-seen interracial kisses on American television in the intervening years. There is a strange tendency when discussing these (very) public displays of affection to suggest that the only real interracial kiss is between a black person and a white person, a tendency that discounts the experiences of other minorities living in the United States.

I Love Lucy had featured numerous kisses between real-life husband and wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball during the fifties; Arnaz was hispanic, which opens up debates about race, identity and ethnicity. (Arnax was reportedly considered a “white Cuban.”) Into the sixties, shows like The Wild, Wild West and I, Spy featured interracial kisses between Caucasian men and Asian women long before Kirk and Uhura encountered the Platonians in Plato’s Stepchildren.

Hold on a moment.

Hold on a moment.

As Marcus Berkmann concedes in Set Phasers to Stun, the episode did not even feature the first kiss between a white man and a black woman to be broadcast on NBC:

The legend has been a little simplified. ‘Interracial’ seems to be defined here only as black and white. Kirk himself had kissed the Vietnamese actress France Nguyen only a few weeks earlier, in Elaan of Troyius (filmed first, but shown later). David McCallum had kissed an Asian actress in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. back in 1966. And in the more lax arena of light entertainment, the notably white Nancy Sinatra and the unambiguously black Sammy Davis Junior had greeted each other on-stage with a friendly slobber over a year earlier in a variety special called Movin’ With Nancy. That was on NBC too.

Nevertheless, the mythology around the episode endures. Much like many casual fans will insist that they heard the like “beam me up, Scotty”, the mythology of Plato’s Stepchildren is never going away.

Walking around in circles.

Walking around in circles.

There are a lot of mental gymnastics required to make Plato’s Stepchildren seem particularly noteworthy in the annals of televisual history. “The first interracial kiss” is a much snappier description than “the first kiss between a white fictional man and a black fictional woman who are established characters on a weekly American television series.” That just doesn’t carry the same level of accomplishment about it, and it is easy to see why the first looser descriptor caught on so easily.

However, this urban legend contributes to one of the most persistent myths about Star Trek. The franchise has a lot of cultural cache stemming from its progressive vision of the future, but the truth is that Star Trek has rarely been as progressive as the reputation that it has cultivated. The truth is rather more complicated. It is great that the character of Uhura was an inspiration to young black women like Whoopi Goldberg or Mae Jemison, but that does not excuse the appalling treatment of the character in episodes like The Changeling.

"Well, Spock, now I know how our Yeomen feel."

“Well, Spock, now I know how our Yeomen feel.”

The realities of Star Trek are often quite different from the legends cultivated around it, by figures like Gene Roddenberry. The show was the product of dozens of different writers with dozens of creative views; some of those views were progressive, while some were reactionary. For every criticism of Vietnam in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy, there was an endorsement in A Private Little War or The Omega Glory.  Episodes like Operation — Annihilate!, And the Children Shall Lead and The Way to Eden demonstrated a reactionary streak.

Despite the franchise’s long-standing reputation for being progressive and open-minded, it would take the franchise fifty years to feature a homosexual character. For all that the JJ Abrams movies are maligned by fandom for their perceived betrayal of the franchise’s core values, it was Doug Jung and Simon Pegg who ultimately revealed that Sulu had a male partner in Star Trek Beyond. That should not be a progressive real in 2016, and there is a sense that the franchise was allowed to skate on that purely by reputation.

Play on.

Play on.

Indeed, even the interracial kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren is a compromised victory. The kiss itself has built up its own mythology, with tales of how uncomfortable NBC were about it and how they plotted to cut it out. In Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols credited Shatner for keeping the kiss in the episode:

The next day they screened the dailies, and although I rarely attended them, I couldn’t miss this one. Everyone watched as Kirk and Uhura kissed and kissed and kissed. And I’d like to set the record straight: Although Kirk and Uhura fought it, they did kiss in every single scene. When the non-kissing scene came on, everyone in the room cracked up. The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable. The only alternative was to cut out the scene altogether, but that was impossible to do without ruining the entire episode. Finally, the guys in charge relented: ‘To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.’ I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.

It should be noted that this version of events is somewhat contradicted by William Shatner’s account in Star Trek Memories, which suggests that the lips of the two actors never met in the cut that made it broadcast; Shatner and Nichols position themselves so as to conceal the contact.

Spock's reenactment of Spock's Brain went down a treat.

Spock’s reenactment of Spock’s Brain went down a treat.

However, even allowing that the kiss did happen, and even allowing that it was among the first such kisses to appear on network television, Plato’s Stepchildren still feels like a cop-out from the production team. The episode is written in such a way that the kiss is ultimately incidental to the plot. The kiss could easily have been written out of the episode at any point. It could have been trimmed before shooting the episode, with another display substituted in its place. It could have been reworked in post production.

More than that, there is a tackiness to the whole sequence that does not befit a progressive television milestone. Kirk does not kiss Uhura of his own volition. This is not his love affair with Miramanee in The Paradise Syndrome or even with Elaan in Elaan of Troyius. The kiss between Kirk and Uhura is not a gesture of love or attraction, but instead a humiliation. It is a way of embarrassing and demeaning both Kirk and Uhura, which feels like a rather unpleasant subtext for the kiss.

Dance, monkey, dance!

Dance, monkey, dance!

Indeed, Daily Variety noted as much in their scathing review of the episode:

However, before bigots rush in to damn or the liberals to praise, it should be pointed out that there was quite a cop-out in the Meyer Dolinsky script. As the starship commander, Shatner most reluctantly smooches Miss Nichols, a beautiful femme, and only because he is compelled to it by the villain’s evil powers. This neat little compromise acquits Shatner of crossing the line, because he has no control of his senses, the scripter is saying, in effect. Nor is Miss Nichols to be blamed, because she, too, is under the spell of the diabolical heavy.

Plato’s Stepchildren rushes to wash its own hands of the kiss.

Music to his ears.

Music to his ears.

There is something rather cowardly about that, as if Plato’s Stepchildren is pandering to the kind of bigots who would write letters to networks protesting such a kiss. There is a “get out of jail free” card attached to the display of affection, as if to reassure those viewers with delicate sensibilities that Kirk most definitely will not be kissing any more black women in later episodes. Rather than simply accepting the reality of interracial relationships, Plato’s Stepchildren presents its interracial kiss as an aberration.

It would have been much more progressive for the series to have Kirk or Spock or McCoy kiss an African American actress in a scene that was consensual and legitimate. Would it have been so hard to cast an African American actor in the role of Natrina from For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky? Why couldn’t Lieutenant Mira Romaine be black in The Lights of Zetar? Then again, it had been too much for The Paradise Syndrome to cast an actual Native American to play Kirk’s lover Miramanee.

The Wreath of Kirk.

The Wreath of Kirk.

To be fair, it is possible to mount a defense of the decision to portray the kiss as non-consensual, regardless of the awkward subtext. Guest star Barbara Babcock made such a defense in an interview with Starlog:

“That was the most complex character that I played on the show,” she says proudly. “Somebody gave  me the video as a present. The main reason that episode is so famous is because it was the first time on television that there was an  inter-racial kiss— Nichelle Nichols and  Shatner kiss.

“Remember, this was 1968, and the only reason NBC allowed them to kiss was because my character was controlling them and forcing them to kiss through the power  of my mind, but ‘in reality’, Kirk and Uhura didn’t want to. They passed the censors that way by having it be something that was imposed on them against their will!”

Still, it feels very much like pandering. Even if these compromises were necessary, they severely undercut the franchise’s reputation for bold progressivism that is build in large part on this episode.

"It could be worse, Captain. They could have asked you to perform The Transformed Man."

“It could be worse, Captain. They could have asked you to perform The Transformed Man.”

However, even getting past the kiss, Plato’s Stepchildren is a terrible episode of television. The plotting is superficial to non-existent. The Enterprise arrives to tend to a wounded leader on a distant world, only to discover a decadent society. This society decides that it wants McCoy to remain on the planet, and so enacts a series of brutal humiliations for Kirk and Spock in order to force McCoy to agree. These powerful jerks force Kirk and Spock to dance, force Kirk to quote Shakespeare, make Spock laugh. This continues for forty minutes.

To be fair, Plato’s Stepchildren has a fairly elaborate back story. It has a large number of moving pieces, even if those moving pieces mirror earlier stories like Where No Man Has Gone Before or Who Mourns for Adonais? Perhaps owing to its similarities to those earlier episodes, the script is not interested in mining those elements for story. Plato’s Stepchildren is very heavy on exposition, with characters just dumping out information quickly rather than sharing it organically.

Kirk horsing around.

Kirk horsing around.

Alexander lays out the entire history of the Platonians in the opening scene, in his third line. “I’m sure you’ve never heard of us,” he tells Kirk. “Our native star is Sahndara. Millennia ago, just before it went nova, we managed to escape. Our leader liked Plato’s ideas Plato, Platonius. See? In fact, our present philosopher-king, Parmen, sometimes calls us Plato’s children, although we sometimes think of ourselves more as Plato’s stepchildren.” It feels very forced.

Similarly, Kirk fills in the missing gaps during his opening log entry directly following the opening credits. “When their planet novaed, millennia ago, they transported themselves to Earth in the time of Socrates and Plato. After the death of the Greek civilisation they idolised, they came to this planet and created for themselves a utopia patterned after it.” In these opening minutes, it feels like the script is rushing through basic set-up. However, the problem is that Plato’s Stepchildren really has nowhere to go once it gets past this exposition.

Shields up.

Shields up.

As with Day of the Dove, another iconic episode with a fairly broad plot, there is a lot of repetition and padding to the episode. Day of the Dove extended its runtime with a large volume of pointless sword-fighting scenes between the Klingon and Starfleet crews, which started to feel a little generic. Plato’s Stepchildren does something similar, with its extended torture and humiliation of Kirk and Spock. It feels like the episode has made its point with the shot of Kirk slapping himself, but it just goes on.

To be clear, the issue is not with the humiliation and torture itself. After all, there are plenty of Star Trek episodes that feature extended and disturbing scenes. Even earlier in the season, The Empath subjected Kirk and McCoy to pointless brutality at the hands of the Viians. Chain of Command, Part II would become one of the franchise’s very best episodes, in part because it did not flinch from the torture and humiliation heaped upon Captain Picard. The problem with Plato’s Stepchildren has little to do with the sadism directed towards the crew.

Up against the wall.

Up against the wall.

Instead, it is the sense that Plato’s Stepchildren has nothing particularly interesting or exciting to say about that sadism once it gets past the opening few minutes. The torture of Kirk and Spock is just as boring and pointless as the day-to-day existence of the Platonians. Kirk alludes to this in his closing lecture, warning, “You’re half crazy because there’s nothing inside. Nothing. And you have to torture us to convince yourselves you’re superior.” However, the repetition makes the episode feel dull.

This is particularly the case when Uhura and Chapel beam down to the planet. Their arrival feels largely pointless and superfluous, an attempt to add more variables to the torture sequences in order to keep things from seeming too stale. Again, the script avoids story in favour of repetition. Instead of exploring what the Platonians are doing to the Enterprise through the eyes of Uhura and Chapel, the two women simply materialise and take part in the episode’s third extended “public humiliation” sequence.

Fair game.

Fair game.

Ironically, Plato’s Stepchildren is actually one of the better looking episodes of the season. The third season of Star Trek suffered from budget cuts and other production limitations, which hemmed in episodes like Spock’s Brain. A lot of the season was shot using standing sets, with a high volume of bottle episodes scattered across the season. Only The Paradise Syndrome and All Our Yesterdays utilised location shooting. As such, the elaborate production design on Plato’s Stepchildren makes for a sharp visual contrast.

It seems like a lot of money was spent on the episode, with lavish sets and beautiful costumes. Given how mundane and repetitive the episode is, it is interesting to wonder whether than money might have been better spent elsewhere in the season. There are a number of impressive special effects sequences in the episode, demonstrating the power of the Platonians who have taken up residence on the planet. Ironically, these came to cost the production team even more money when they caused time overruns.

Sitting this one out.

Sitting this one out.

Discussing the episode with Starlog, guest star Liam Sullivan recalled that Plato’s Stepchildren was unable to meet the time constraints imposed upon the third season as a whole:

“Those FX ate up precious filming  time. We were scheduled for a six-day shoot, which was impossible. Shooting  ran a full day over schedule and the poor  director was being pushed by everybody  ‘upstairs’ to go faster. However, he  couldn’t make the technical crew work any  faster, as they were having their own problems. As a result of those overtime problems, my close-up in the final scene, my  comeuppance, was never shot. David Alexander was very upset over that, but he had no choice. There just wasn’t any time.  They were practically turning the lights  off behind him!”

It feels like all of this effort might have been better invested elsewhere in the troubled season. As it stands, Plato’s Stepchildren is ultimately a terrible episode that looks really pretty.

A blip on the radar.

A blip on the radar.

Underneath that pretty exterior, there is a core of anti-intellectualism. Plato’s Stepchildren is in many ways an episode about class warfare, but class warfare rooted in anti-intellectualism. The Platonians are repeatedly identified as “Academicians” by both Parmen and Alexander. The Grecian trappings of the episode, and the references to Plato and Socrates, mark the Platonians as educated and distinguished. Parmen talks about how the Platonians value “the will of the stronger mind” above the traditional strength of “weapons and fleets.”

The power in Platonian society rests in the mind. “My dear Mister Spock, I admit that circumstances have forced us to make a few adaptations of Plato, but ours is the most democratic society conceivable,” Parmen assures his guests. “Anyone can, at any moment, be or do anything he wishes, even to becoming ruler of Platonius if his mind is strong enough.” Parmen sounds like he is describing an autocratic system, where power flows to those deemed to have the best minds.

Hey, look, everybody's having fun.

Hey, look, everybody’s having fun.

This anti-intellectualism was not lost on those involved in its production. These Are the Voyages quotes a memo from Joan Pearce at DeForest Research suggesting that the script should tone that aspect down a little:

WOW! This is perhaps the most violently anti-intellectual script we have had. Where is the evidence of all this thought and meditation? Is this hell-hole the end result of philosophical thought — or the logical extension of Plato’s essential Fascism as set forth in The Republic? Advise hanging the rap firmly on Plato — or all of us intellectuals will run foaming at the mouth to The CBS Friday Night Movie.

The finished version of the episode retains a lot of this anti-intellectual subtext, firmly suggesting that the development of intellect comes at the detriment of humanity.

Scott gets a shakedown.

Scott gets a shakedown.

Plato’s Stepchildren did not emerge from nothing. The episode fits quite comfortably with a recurring theme bubbling across the run of the original Star Trek show. In general, Star Trek seemed quite wary of intellectuals and experts, reflected in a number of different ways. Kirk had little patience for civilian advisors in episodes like The Galileo Seven or The Deadly Years. The show was anxious about the idea of more highly evolved humanity, as demonstrated in episodes like Where No Man Has Gone Before or Charlie X.

Most glaringly, Star Trek had been very anxious about advances in technology and automation. Robots represented a fundamental threat to the Federation in What Are Little Girls Made Of? and I, Mudd. Artificial intelligences enslaved populations in The Return of the Archons, The Apple and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. These themes arguably coalesced most effectively in The Ultimate Computer, when Kirk faced the prospect of being rendered redundant by a machine. Kirk felt an anxiety familiar to many blue collar workers in the sixties.

"He hasn't got a leg to stand on."

“He hasn’t got a leg to stand on.”

More than anything, Star Trek seemed to fear idleness. As Paul A. Cantor contends in Gilligan Unbound:

This particular episode is deeply biased against any notion of aristocracy. Almost as if the writers had read Hegel, Platonius is presented as a planet of many masters and one slave, emphasising Hegel’s central criticism of aristocracy, namely, the idleness of the masters. When the slave is given the chance to acquire his own psychokinetic power, he refuses because he does not want to “just lie around like a big blob of nothing and things done for [him].” Even the philosopher-king concludes at the end: “we have become bizarre and unproductive.” Unproductive is one of the most serious criticisms that can be leveled against a culture in Star Trek, which generally takes a bourgeois view of galactic developments. In the ideology of Star Trek everybody in the universe is supposed to be putting in a hard day’s work, and aristocratic luxury and leisure are frowned upon and derided.

Indeed, this fear of idleness informed the anxiety over the counterculture movement in This Side of Paradise.

It is reassuring to know that the Theiss Titilation Thesis applied as much to male cast members.

It is reassuring to know that the Theiss Titilation Theory applied as much to male cast members.

Plato’s Stepchildren returns time and time again to the idea that Platonians have allowed themselves to become stagnant. When McCoy first examines Parmen’s wounded leg, he reflects, “I don’t understand. This should have been attended to immediately.” Parmen dismisses the physician’s concerns, “Sheer ignorance.” This idleness puts the community at risk, even from basic infections. “We scarcely have to move anymore, let alone work,” Philina tells Kirk. “That’s why you have no resistance?” he asks. She responds, “A break in the skin or a cut can be fatal.”

Plato’s Stepchildren suggests that the Platonians have become too fixated upon their intellectual development rather than the physical world, the kind of rhetoric frequently employed in criticism of experts and intellectuals. Alexander is scathing in his criticism of Parmen towards the end of the episode. “The sight of you and your Academicians sickens me,” Alexander advises the disgraced ruler. “Despite your brains, you’re the most contemptible things that ever lived in this universe.” It mirrors Kirk’s criticism of the Viians at the end of The Empath.

Dagger of the not!mind.

Dagger of the not!mind.

This fits quite comfortable with the definition of anti-intellectualism as outlined by historian Richard Holfstater in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963:

The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life.

Holfstater suggests that there is a long and rich history of such anti-intellectualism in American history and culture, and there is a sense that Plato’s Stepchildren very much belongs as part of that tradition.

Inject a little life into it.

Inject a little life into it.

That tradition is very much alive today, in American culture and outside of it. There is a strong anti-intellectual slant to criticisms of Barrack Obama and the politics of the Tea Party. During the referendum on the British exit from the European Union, Michael Gove famously insisted that the British people had “had enough of experts.” In many ways, the Platonians presented in Plato’s Stepchildren play as a grotesque parody of those “experts” who have devoted so much time to developing their intellect that they have lost any sense of decency.

There is a sense that these attitudes are firmly rooted in the politics of the late sixties. There is a strong reactionary feeling to Plato’s Stepchildren in its condemnation of “Academians”, recalling the moral panic over the protests and drug use that were taking place on college campuses over the course of the decade. While the United States was fighting the Vietnam War and facing massive civil unrest, the feeling was that colleges had become a hotbed for decadence and idleness.

Highly illogical.

Highly illogical.

It is tempting to think of Star Trek as inherently intellectual in nature. After all, it is a science-fiction show about space exploration. It has a long history of inspiring work in the STEM fields, with generations of scientists and researchers inspired by its vision of the future. There are certainly points in the history of the franchise when the production team were consciously intellectual, most notably during the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation as overseen by Gene Roddenberry.

However, the original Star Trek was much more blue collar. Kirk was much less of a renaissance man than Picard or Sisko or Janeway, for example. Although intelligent and cunning, Kirk was a lot more emotional and instinctive than his predecessors. As controversial as JJ Abrams’ reinterpretation of Kirk in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness might be to certain fans, it is impossible to imagine an interpretation of Picard or Sisko or Janeway that would be so dynamic.

Puppets who can see the string.

Puppets who can see the string.

Over the course of his life, Kirk is a much more grounded and working class character than the three captains who would follow him. Kirk is the only Star Trek captain to face his own redundancy; tellingly, he faces that prospected repeatedly in The Ultimate Computer, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk feels very much like a man working a job on the frontier than Picard or Janeway. He is much less of a parental figure to his crew than any of the leading characters who followed.

Indeed, the original cast sees more ebb and flow than any other Star Trek cast. McCoy becomes a regular character only in the second season. Chekov first appears in the second season. Kirk becomes an admiral. Chekov is first officer of the Reliant. The Enterprise is a training ship, under command of Spock. Sulu is captain of the Excelsior. More than any other cast, the original Star Trek crew captures the sense of a shift staff. They are manning their posts, working their stations. They do not really become a family until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Communicating with the common man.

Communicating with the common man.

Kirk is a character who speaks for certain working-class American ideals in a way that Picard, Sisko and Janeway do not. As such, it makes sense that the character would give voice to certain working-class anxieties bubbling through the sixties. Kirk is wary of advances in computing and automation, not least because they threaten his own job. Kirk is anxious about intellectuals who lack practical and emotional experience. Kirk is literate and well-read, but he does not base his decisions on that intellectual knowledge in the same way that Picard or Janeway might.

In some ways, this is a reminder that Star Trek is not a singular entirely cohesive entity. The franchise changes and evolves as it grows. The third season of the original Star Trek is a point of transition, with episodes like The Empath and Day of the Dove serving to set up the utopian idealism that Gene Roddenberry would incorporate into The Next Generation. Those episodes present a vision of a hyper-evolved humanity that managed to create a “utopia” in the twenty-third century.

Shady goings-on.

Shady goings-on.

At the same time, Plato’s Stepchildren feels like something of a throwback to the dominant tone and mood of the first two seasons of the show, when Kirk was inherently skeptical of the utopias presented to him in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or This Side of Paradise or The Apple. Kirk even explicitly describes the Platonian society as a “utopia” early in the episode. As a grounded character, the version of Kirk presented in the first two seasons is wary of claims that paradise exists. Presented with utopia, this version of Kirk wonders about the price tag.

Plato’s Stepchildren reveals an interesting irony at the heart of the Star Trek franchise. For all that the franchise claims to be utopian in outlook, that has never been consistent. Building upon episodes like The Empath and Day of the Dove, the first two seasons of The Next Generation present exactly the sort of utopia that Kirk would happily tear down. In those first two seasons, the crew of the Enterprise seem not too far removed from the Platonians. They are superior, powerful, and heavily intellectual.

Harping on.

Harping on.

The Federation’s plan to disassemble Data in The Measure of a Man mirrors the abuse that the Platonians heap upon Alexander in Plato’s Stepchildren. It should be noted that Gene Roddenberry famously objected to the plot of The Measure of a Man, insisting that Data should willingly submit himself for disassembly in the name of the greater good. Picard was oblivious to the implications of the Federation’s request until Data and Guinan explicitly spelled that out to him.

The Next Generation in some ways came of age at that point, recognising that the cold and intellectual utopia of the Federation should never blind itself to basic decency and dignity. The Measure of a Man learned to temper that utopian intellectualism with a warmer humanism, a decision that enriched a show struggling to find its voice. Plato’s Stepchildren runs too far in the opposite direction, feeling like a slice of reactionary anti-intellectualism arguing that any attempt to develop intellect inevitably diminishes empathy and compassion.

Alexander the pretty great.

Alexander the pretty great.

In some ways, this bleak and cynical outlook is supported by the first two seasons of The Next Generation, when episodes like Lonely Among Us, The Last Outpost and The Neutral Zone seem to embody all of Kirk’s worst fears about the Platonians. However, these are very much an aberration. The later years of The Next Generation represent a firm rejection of Plato’s Stepchildren‘s knee-jerk reactionary anti-intellectualism, suggesting that intellect can be balanced with kindness.

The result is that Plato’s Stepchildren ultimately feels rather retrograde, looking backwards in more than just its production and costume design.

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6 Responses

  1. “it was Doug Jung and Simon Pegg who ultimately revealed that Sulu had a male partner in Star Trek Beyond” Yet even here Star Trek dropped the ball. The film cut a scene where Sulu and his husband kiss, which suggests that the filmmakers are still too scared to truly have a homosexual couple. I’m trying to think back to that scene, and I may be not be remembering correctly, but don’t they just hug? Honestly, they could just be close friends in that movie.

    “However, the original Star Trek was much more blue collar. Kirk was much less of a renaissance man than Picard or Sisko or Janeway, for example.” Honestly, I always thought of Sisko as an every man type. The original pitch for Deep Space Nine was The Rifleman in space after all. Sisko always came across as a builder to me, which would explain his love of cooking.

    • Sisko is interesting to me, because I always read him as a veteran or a soldier. He is introduced as a survivor of Wolf 359, and his journey to war-ravaged Bajor always reminded me a bit of those stories (or perhaps even clichés) about former soldiers who settle in countries recovering from war in a way that mirrors their own trauma. I guess I always kind of saw Sisko as more of a re-builder than a builder.

      Whereas Kirk always had that sort of blue collar “I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t doing this thing I’ve done since I was young” attitude to him, this constant fear of being replaced or outmoded or unadaptive. I don’t doubt that Picard or Sisko or Janeway (or even Archer) could enjoy a long second career outside of the command chair as an archeologist or builder/farmer or scientist (or, I don’t know, stuffy old paternalistic bureaucrat), but there’s always this sense that Kirk doesn’t know how to do anything but command and adventure.

      And that’s a fair point about Sulu. But it’s still a huge step forward for the franchise. There is no reason that this shouldn’t have been possible in the TOS-era films or the very early Berman-era show, but it is still more progressive than the franchise has been on the point to date. In terms of contemporary blockbusters, it still represents a bolder depiction of homosexuality than Ghostbusters, which was very ambiguous on the matter of Hofstadter’s orientation. (To the point that cast and crew seemed to reluctant to explicitly confirm that Hofstadter was a lesbian in interviews, while still hinting strongly.)

      • I suppose it is a step forward, but it annoyed me that during Kirk’s opening log about romance in the air, we were only shown heterosexual characters. What I would really like to see when it comes to gay characters in Star Trek would be an homage to Balance of terror. Have Kirk presiding over the wedding of two gay characters, right before the plot begins.

      • It’s certainly a fair point. And it’s nowhere near as progressive as it should be.

        But on the other hand, it is more progressive than the franchise has been to this point, and so I think it’s fair to acknowledge it as a step in the right direction. And it’s far more progressive than something like Ghostbusters, which conspicuously buried Holstadter’s sexual orientation and Independence Day: Resurgence which obliquely hinted at its two gay characters before killing one of them off.

        Yes, Star Trek should do better. But I think that Star Trek Beyond still deserves recognition for doing better.

  2. An interesting review.

    I have to admit I’m not entirely convinced by the anti-intellectual argument. I always thought the Platonians, with their total cultural stagnation and hedonism were slightly tweaked versions of the arch-typical decadent aristocrats, their philosopher king background little more than trappings to give an excuse for mighty mental powers. In fact the Greek connection and bullying makes me think far of college fraternities and sororities than actual intellectuals, or even negative stereotypes of intellectuals.

    Even Kirk has a certain ring of Teddy Roosevelt to him – and he was, along, with Woodrow Wilson, the most intellectual of the 20th century American presidents (Clinton was also highly educated but more of a closeted intellectual so to speak.)

    I’d also place Sisko the engineer as being much closer to Kirk than either man is to Janeway or Picard.

    • That’s a fair point about the Greek imagery and fraternities. I hadn’t twigged that at all. Good spot.

      I definitely agree that Sisko is much closer to Kirk than Picard or Janeway, although I don’t think Sisko has the same set of anxieties. Unlike Kirk, Sisko never seems particularly nervous about being replaced or rendered redundant; indeed, he quits at one point and plans his retirement at the end of the run. He even cedes his role as Emissary in Accession, although he does later fight to take it back.

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