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Star Trek – The Mark of Gideon (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 Mark of Gideon is in many ways a direct counterpoint to Whom Gods Destroy.

Both The Mark of Gideon and Whom Gods Destroy have what might charitably be described as “major logic problems.” Both episodes were produced on a tiny budget, with those constraints bleeding through into almost every frame of the finished production. Both stories engage with the idea of utopianism as an essential ingredient in Star Trek storytelling. Both episodes are very much third season episodes, in terms of production and construction and storytelling.

Viewing screen on.

Viewing screen on.

However, Whom Gods Destroy manages to turn all of these elements into an ambitious mess. Although far from the strongest episode of the season, or even a half-decent episode of television, there is an endearing charm to Whom Gods Destroy that carries the episode far further than it should. In contrast, The Mark of Gideon is dead at arrival. It is an episode with a striking premise and set-up that has no idea where to go from that starting point and so meanders limply and lifelessly through forty-five minutes of television.

It also offers a pretty reprehensible vision of the franchise’s utopia.

This is an accurate representation of the third season's viewing figures.

This is an accurate representation of the third season’s viewing figures.

The Mark of Gideon is a very strange episode. There is actually a lot to recommend the episode in its basic set-up. The teaser is fantastic, with Kirk beaming down to an alien world only to rematerialise on the transporter pad of the Enterprise. However, the ship seems eerily abandoned. As Kirk wanders through the corridors, there is not a soul in sight. When Kirk arrives at the bridge, he finds it empty. As the teaser closes, it seems like Kirk is the only soul on the USS Enterprise.

It is a delightfully effective teaser, in that it sets up a very clear mystery about what has happened. How could Kirk possibly be alone on the Enterprise? Where have the crew gone? How long was Kirk away? What happened during transport? It is a very eerie set up. In many ways, it feels very much like the beginning of a third season episode, one that seems irrational and even supernatural. It recalls the ghost story in The Tholian Web or the haunted planet of That Which Survives.

The game's afoot.

The game’s afoot.

In some ways, the premise most accurately resembles the plot of Wink of an Eye, in which Kirk finds himself moving around the Enterprise, but out of step with the rest of the crew. The result is that Kirk effectively finds himself existing on a parallel version of the ship with a beautiful woman who also wants to sleep with him. In Wink of an Eye, Deela wants to sleep with Kirk to repopulate her race. In The Mark of Gideon, Odona is implied to want to sleep with Kirk for quite literally the opposite reason; to contract a disease to depopulate her race.

There are more interesting parallels. In Wink of an Eye, Kirk’s journey to this uncanny realm was facilitated by tainted food and resulted in time distillation. Confronting the Scalosian Queen, Kirk seemed to have travelled to be among the fair folk. There are similar forces at work in The Mark of Gideon. Kirk is transported to a strange and eerie environment, but he does not experience time distillation. Instead, Kirk experiences “missing time.” The episode makes repeated reference to this fact.

It's a lonely job...

It’s a lonely job…

“The one thing that is obvious is that I suffered a memory lapse, during which time I bruised my arm,” Kirk reports in his opening log entry. Later, he tells Odona, “Do you know, I don’t even remember how this happened?” This gap in Kirk’s internal narrative recalls alien abduction stories. Memory loss and missing time became markers of UFO mythology following the popular abduction story told by Barney and Bettie Hill in September 1961:

Perhaps the single most important feature of the Hill case was their initial amnesia about their experience. Neither Betty and Barney remembered the abduction until after they underwent hypnotic regression, though they did have strange nightmares. Abduction re searchers alternately argue that UFO-related memory loss occurs as a result of the alien’s intervention, i.e. the aliens make the victim forget, and that the memory loss occurs as a reaction to extreme trauma. Regardless, the phenomenon of amnesia following a UFO experience or “missing time” became the central feature of most, but not all, abduction accounts.

In some ways, this could be seen as a continuation of the theme of pulp history that runs through certain third season episodes. After all, Spock’s Brain and The Cloud Minders would take Star Trek back to The Time Machine. If Wink of an Eye was Star Trek filtered through stories of the fair folk, then perhaps The Mark of Gideon takes that idea one step further. The UFO mythology could be seen as a spiritual successor to stories of the fair folk.

Well, it is kind of an alien abduction...

Well, it is kind of an alien abduction…

This is a very effective set-up, and one that plays quite well into the themes of the third season. Star Trek is clearly aware of its impending cancellation across the run, and there is a sense of dread and anxiety seeded across these twenty-four episodes. The Mark of Gideon hits on these ideas, with the image of Kirk wandering through the corridors of an empty ship. Kirk feels lost and abandoned, manning a ghost ship. In many respects, he embodies the feelings of those still working on the show, exiled to the Friday night death slot.

It is also worth noting that the basic premise of The Mark of Gideon plays into the recurring sense that a lot of the foundational assumptions of the Star Trek universe are baked into the third season. Although fans frequently deride the third season for being inferior to the first two years of the show, a lot of core Star Trek mythology is seeded in these episodes, from the kiss between Kirk and Uhura in Plato’s Stepchildren to Kang as the first truly conventional Klingon in Day of the Dove to the imagery of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

A woman in every replica Enterprise.

A woman in every replica Enterprise.

In some ways, it might be possible to trace back the myth of “Kirk the ladykiller” back to the third season. As far as both fandom and wider audiences are concerned, there is a tendency to think of Kirk as something of a deep space lothario. There is certainly some basis for this in earlier seasons; he use of his charm to overload Andrea in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, his relationship with Edith Keeler in The City on the Edge of Forever and his awkward relationship with Nona in A Private Little War.

However, the third season really cements this idea. It features some of the most iconic Kirk romantic moments. The most iconic is the kiss between Kirk and Uhura in Plato’s Stepchildren, a scene that is very much divorced from its context in the cultural memory. There is also the entire plot of Elaan of Troyius, a script that hinges on the ridiculous premise that Kirk can fall head over heels in love with the Dohlman of Elaan, but his true love will always be the Enterprise. Deela even seems to tease him about this in Wink of an Eye.

Carrying on.

Carrying on.

Kirk’s virility is something of a recurring theme in the third season. He pretty quickly establishes a family in The Paradise Syndrome, wasting little time in marrying Miramanee and conceiving a child with her. (In fact, his virility seems to come as a surprise to them both, with Miramanee shocking him by revealing her pregnancy.) More than that, the episodes Wink of an Eye and The Mark of Gideon hinge upon Kirk’s sexual potency as a plot point, simultaneously a solution to depopulation and overpopulation.

Wink of an Eye was quite candid about this, with Deela selecting Kirk to be her mate to help repopulate Scalos after a horrific disaster left the male population infertile. The episode takes considerable pride in Kirk’s sexual activity, providing a scene of Kirk putting back on his boots while Deela fixes her hair. In contrast, The Mark of Gideon is just a little more subtle. There is no explicit confirmation that Kirk and Odona had sex, but Kirk’s allusion to “what happened between [them]” seems to support the argument.

Well, that's one way to see the captain's bedroom.

Well, that’s one way to see the captain’s bedroom.

The Gideons are hoping for Kirk to infect Odona with “vegan choriomeningitis.” The episode never explicitly confirms that it is a sexually transmitted disease, but there are quite a few hints, given Odona’s desire to seduce Kirk. As such, The Mark of Gideon becomes a very weird episode in which an alien species specifically requests that Kirk visit their planet because they heard he had a sexually transmitted disease, and so set up a scenario whereby Kirk can infect a young woman while the local population watches with anticipation.

There are also shades of Elann of Troyius to the plot, with Gideons seducing Kirk using both Odona and a replica of the Enterprise. It seems like Hodin plans to tempt Kirk by giving him two loves. Nevertheless, the choice is ultimately the same. Kirk must choose between love and duty. “I do not offer my life for this purpose,” Kirk warns Hodin. “I have many plans, and I have hopes other than death for Odona.” He realises, “So that was your plan. That I would fall so under her spell that I would give up my freedom and become a willing sacrifice.”

"I mean, c'mon. This is downright creepy."

“I mean, c’mon. This is downright creepy.”

This is the dilemma that confronts Kirk repeatedly over the course of the third season. His sexuality is coveted and shared, but love itself is a trap. For all that Deela mocks the cliché of a captain deeply in love with his vessel, the third season reinforces the idea over and over again. Kirk is perfectly capable of seduction, but cannot surrender his love for the Enterprise. As The Paradise Syndrome demonstrated, the only way that Kirk could ever give up the Enterprise would be to become a different person.

With all of that in mind, it is interesting to watch the third season repeatedly reinforce the idea of Kirk’s masculinity. There is something deeply creepy about the third season’s fascination with the idea of Kirk as breeding stock and alien fascination with his virility, but it seems to have latched in both fan and public consciousness. After all, Kirk’s womanising is treated as something of an affectionate joke in both Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. As with a lot of the popular memory of Star Trek, it seems to be very deeply rooted in the third season of all places.

Infectious affection.

Infectious affection.

Still, while The Mark of Gideon shares quite a few themes and ideas with Wink of an Eye, it is a far less satisfying episode. Part of that is down to the mechanics of how the episode is put together and part of that is down to a number of deeply ill-judged creative decisions. While Wink of an Eye is charming enough to get past its basic “Scalos needs men!” b-movie plot, The Mark of Gideon coats its rather unsettling “Kirk is a walking STD farm” hook over a boring story with a number of deeply uncomfortable themes.

The Mark of Gideon explores the issue of overpopulation, which was very much a hot topic during the sixties. Following the end of the Second World War, there had been a population explosion. An extended period of peace and prosperity found populations increasing dramatically, leading various speculative individuals to wonder what might happen if such a pace of growth could be consistently maintained. It is hard to overstate just how serious a problem overpopulation seemed to be by the mid-sixties.

Deep personal space.

Deep personal space.

In January 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson touched on the issue of “the explosion in world population” as part of his State of the Union address. The Subcommittee on Foreign Aid Expenditure discussed it as a serious issue in 1965 and 1966. The stakes were presented as apocalyptic. Consider the argument of Heinz von Foerster in Doomsday: Friday, 13 November, A.D. 2026, published in 1960:

Thus, we may conclude with considerable confidence that the principle of “adequate technology”, which proved to be correct for over 100 generations, will hold for at least three more. Fortunately, there is no need to strain the theory by undue further extrapolation, because – and here the pessimists erred again – our great-great-grandchildren will not starve to death. They will be squeezed to death.

It is a powerful image, one that very much informs The Mark of Gideon. Odona describes a world where citizens struggle for space. “There is no place, no street, no house, no garden, no beach, no mountain that is not filled with people. Each one of us would kill in order to find a place alone to himself. They would willingly die for it, if they could.”

Council-ing radical action.

Council-ing radical action.

Of all the threats facing mankind during the sixties, the threat of overpopulation is a particularly interesting doomsday scenario. It is an anxiety rooted in declining mortality rates and rising birth rates, one that works on the assumption of extended periods of political stability and peaceful coexistence. It forsakes the kind of catastrophes that typically keep population numbers under control. It is effectively an apocalyptic nightmare rooted in prosperity, casting mankind as victims of their own success for overcoming the many obstacles that typically keep populations balanced.

It is an incredibly pessimistic prediction, one that suggests mankind is doomed even if the atomic bomb never drops or a plague never spreads. It is in many ways a dark twist on utopian thought; what if mankind does survive and what if that is a horrible thing? It is in many ways as firm a rejection of utopian idealism as Star Trek has ever presented, suggesting that it is possible to be too prosperous and too successful. (Notably, The Mark of Gideon embraces the franchise’s utopianism, centring on a society that wants to be admitted to the ultra-cool utopian Federation.)

Me's a crowd.

Me’s a crowd.

In many respects, this anxiety about overpopulation taps into a number of other latent fears that were running through the sixties. It is the ultimate expression of sixties apocalyptic dread; even if mankind endures, it is ultimately screwed. In The Short Life of a Dark Prophecy, Michael Smith places the theory within the social context of the sixties:

By the mid-1960s it had become clear that the general social calm that had obtained since the end of the Second World War was being disturbed. The nonviolence of the early civil-rights movement had succumbed to the desperate urban realities of racism in the North, and it seemed that the apocalyptic predictions invoked by Malcolm X and James Baldwin could no longer be discounted. The dire predictions of Silent Spring also seemed to have prophetic qualities for the population doomsayers as they observed Lake Erie dying, Los Angeles’s air turning sulfuric, and the extinction of animal species accelerating. Moreover, not only did technological developments of the previous twenty years place human existence in jeopardy, but also technology itself offered no solutions to the population problem, other than as a tool for repression. The angst of the era affected even the most apparently dispassionate scientists. The debt incurred from overpopulation, in short, led to quite a fatalistic view of the future.

In many ways, these fears about overpopulation also play into the recurring sixties about children. The sixties saw parents increasingly confounded by the choices their children were making, a fear expressed in episodes like This Side of Paradise and And the Children Shall Lead. Overpopulation taps into those same basic ideas, the underlying uneasiness about children and the risk that they pose to the established order.

"You know, aliens generally don't invite me down to their world when they want to DE-populate."

“You know, aliens generally don’t invite me down to their world when they want to DE-populate.”

As such, the issue of overpopulation was prime fodder for a television series like Star Trek. After all, the franchise had developed a reputation for slipping controversial ideas past the censors by couching them in science-fiction terms. This had allowed for the series to engage with the Vietnam War in episodes like A Private Little War and The Omega Glory, and to explore the Cold War in stories like Errand of Mercy or The Trouble with Tribbles. Although the series was not always as liberal and progressive as its reputation suggests, it was generally quite bold.

Overpopulation was understandably a thorny issue, tied as it was to concepts like sexual reproduction and religion. In fact, The Mark of Gideon ultimately finds itself skirting around these potentially controversial topics. Naming the planet “Gideon” is an obvious nod towards the religious drives behind rapid population growth, the religious orthodoxy that condemns both birth control and abortion. Kirk even broaches the issues in his conversations with Hodin, albeit somewhat obliquely.

"I'm sorry, Kirk, but the only condoms Gideon will tolerate is body condoms on its fascist guards."

“I’m sorry, Kirk, but the only condoms Gideon will tolerate is body condoms on its fascist guards.”

“Let your people learn about the devices to safely prevent conception,” Kirk urges. “The Federation will provide anything you need.” Hodin refuses to even consider that possibility, despite the stakes. He falls back on familiar pro-life rhetoric. “But you see, the people of Gideon have always believed that life is sacred. That the love of life is the greatest gift. That is the one unshakable truth of Gideon. And this overwhelming love of life has developed our regenerative capacity and our great longevity.”

Just in case the audience doesn’t quite get what Hodin is saying, the diplomat restates his point more forcefully later in the conversation. “We are incapable of destroying or interfering with the creation of that which we love so deeply,” Hodin assures Kirk. “Life, in every form, from fetus to developed being. It is against our tradition, against our very nature. We simply could not do it.” It is very much a rejection (from moral first principles) of the concepts of contraception and abortion.

"Dammit man, what will broadcast standards and practices think?"

“Dammit man, what will broadcast standards and practices think?”

It should be noted that the writers were somewhat frustrated by the limitations imposed on them. Talking to Starlog, writer George F. Slavin complained about Fred Freiberger undermining the story:

“The original thrust of the idea was a little more controversial than what he wanted, so it was diluted quite a bit to get what you’ve seen on film. Freddie liked the  basic concept, but every time we talked about it, he started watering it down!

“Finally, he said, ‘Well, do it your way, go ahead.” So, we wrote it our way, and of course after the first draft story conference, he started to water it down considerably. Wherever it dealt with the basic idea of population control — and you know how many different ways there are to do that —  he softened it. We were treading on the Catholics’ toes; we were treading on everybody’s toes! Nobody wants to do anything about the population problem.”

Slavin joins a long list of third season writers complaining about Freiberger as a producer, including Margaret Armen, D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. It fits the conventional narrative that developed around the third season in the eighties.

Oh damn, Odona.

Oh damn, Odona.

The reality is much more complex. As Marc Cushman argues in These Are the Voyages, the big block on the story was always going to come from the network. NBC was understandably anxious about dealing with these themes and ideas. Stanley Adams was Slavin’s co-writer, and had guest starred in The Trouble with Tribbles. In an interview with Starlog, Adams took a much more pragmatic view of the situation:

“Television is run by the sponsors and the advertisers. They tell you what to say, not what you should be saying. Like The Mark of Gideon. My son says, ‘Dad, you’re in a position to really say something about the overpopulation problem.’ He stood over my shoulder while I wrote  about the beehive society. Then he sees the TV version. He says, ‘What did they do?!’

“But they do it to you. When you write for TV, there’s an old expression: ‘Take the money and run’.”

From the perspective of Slavin and Adams, it is amazing that the production team got away with as much as they did. After all, the implication seems to be that Kirk left Gideon having turned Odona into some kind of plague mule. “You are no longer needed on Gideon,” she tells Kirk. “I can take your place there.” The episode presents this as a happy ending, Kirk having introduced death to a culture of near immortals.

Oh, let's Gideon.

Oh, let’s Gideon.

There is something rather discomforting about all this. The Mark of Gideon seems to argue that death is required on an impossibly large scale simply to keep society ticking along. The suffering and mortality of the individual is secondary to the needs of the larger society, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask people to sacrifice themselves so that the rest of the world might enjoy a bit more space. It is particularly disconcerting given how earnestly this argument is presented in the increasingly utopian universe of Star Trek.

After all, The Mark of Gideon is cut from the same cloth as other idealistic third season episodes like Day of the Dove or Whom Gods Destroy. The episode’s starting point is that Gideon wants to end an extended period of galactic isolation. When Hodin expresses anxiety about reaching out to the wider universe, Spock assures him, “Your Excellency, the wars between opposing star systems no longer prevail in our galaxy.” It truly is a time of galactic peace and relative abundance.

"For the record: This? Extremely creepy."

“For the record: This? Extremely creepy.”

So why is death on such a large scale treated as the only viable solution to Gideon’s overpopulation problem? Why can’t the Federation work to resettle the inhabitants of Gideon across the stars? After all, space is very big. The Federation has seemingly abolished scarcity. Why isn’t there a better solution to this dilemma than the one presented by the episode? Indeed, Kirk’s angst at the climax of the episode hinges on the fact that he does not want Odona to die. So why is he okay with millions (if not billions) of strangers dying?

There is something very unsettling about this, something which also applies to the underlying fears of overpopulation. It seems like a lot of the problems of overpopulation have alternative causes and alternative solutions. There is a strange academic detachment to most fears about population growth, with many debates on the subject featuring wealthy and developed nations effectively lecturing poorer and developing natures about how to reduce their own population growth. Tying these lectures to foreign aid, there’s a faint scent of imperialism to it.

It's always the little guys who get it in the neck.

It’s always the little guys who get it in the neck.

In some ways, reducing these problems to problems of “overpopulation” is a way of passing the buck to the disadvantaged. As Fred Pearce argues, those developing countries are not responsible for many of the gravest challenges facing mankind:

Let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions: the biggest current concern because of climate change. The world’s richest half billion people—that’s about 7 per cent of the global population—are responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent of the population are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. Virtually all of the extra 2bn or so people expected on this planet in the coming 30 or 40 years will be in this poor half of the world. Stopping that, even if it were possible, would have only a minimal effect on global emissions, or other global threats.

A lot of the challenges of posed by increasing global population have solutions that are less extreme and imperialist than population controls and stern lectures to poor people. However, those solutions involve sacrifices and compromises made by developing nations.

Operating off the grid.

Operating off the grid.

As with a lot of the complications concerning overpopulation, The Mark of Gideon is completely and utterly uninterested in delving into this uncomfortable subtext. Class and wealth seem to be immaterial on Gideon, at least as far as overpopulation is concerned. In fact, the Council of Gideon seems very willing (and even eager) to accept the sacrifices brought by mortality. The Mark of Gideon makes it clear that the people of Gideon actively want to die. This is not a solution forced upon the masses by an elite, this is a society eagerly yearning for population control.

There is something horrifying in how the people of Gideon seem to yearn for death, even the death of their loved ones and their families. Odona has volunteered for this suicide mission, treating it as an honour to bring disease and death to Gideon. There is no debate, no consideration. There is no reflection on the social hierarchy of Gideon, or the fact that so many resources were dedicated to this crazy plan that undoubtedly involved allocating a considerable amount of space to building an empty replica of the Enterprise in a world where the natives are struggling to breath.

Controlling the debate.

Controlling the debate.

“My daughter freely chose to do what she is doing, as the people of Gideon are free to choose,” Hogin assures Kirk quite late in the episode. However, that promise relies on any number of assertions that The Mark of Gideon could not possibly provide within forty-odd minutes of airtime. Kirk is only able to interact with the ruling elite on Gideon. Given the subterfuge that they employed against him, can Kirk really take them at their word? That statement has the ring of propaganda to it, much like the lies that Gideon told the Federation about its environmental system.

After all, when elites are placed in charge of enforcing measures like population control, you end up with horrific abuses of power like China’s infamous “one child policy.” What happens to Gideon if enough people do not volunteer to be exposed to the disease? Can Kirk really trust Hogin not to make exposure mandatory among social classes or structures? Will the ruling council consider themselves to be eligible for this program? What if members of that powerful group decide that they don’t want to volunteer to die?

Bald-face lies.

Bald-face lies.

To be fair to Slavin and Adams, the original draft of The Mark of Gideon touched on these questions and issues related to who exactly was going to volunteer to die and whether the ruling class would try to find an exception for themselves. As Slavin explained to Starlog:

“We had a scene with the council people  where nobody wanted to be the first to die.  but they took that out. So, Hodin comes up with his daughter, which Stanley and I thought was a little unrealistic. We wanted to go through the decision-making process as it would actually happen, when you say, ‘Who’s going to be first to die?’ Well, nobody wants to be first, let’s face it!  Freiberger got around it cutely by saying, ‘Well, Hodin will have his daughter do it.'”  According to Slavin, the dynamic scene they had written would have addressed the  Gideons’ difficult choice with greater tension and realism. “We were going to have a ‘battle royal’ go on within the council because nobody wanted to be first. Finally, the council members said to Hodin, ‘It’s your idea.’ He was finally pinned in a corner where he came up with the answer. And that’s how the duty fell upon Odona.”

This scene might have toned down some of those problems with the script, but it would still be an episode in which Kirk seemed quite happy to introduce a dangerous virus to an inhabited planet, so long as no named characters were killed in the process.

Pulling back from the larger debate.

Pulling back from the larger debate.

In some respects, The Mark of Gideon hints at some of the bigger issues around the franchise’s moral framework. After all, the third season of Star Trek is very much about setting up iconic images and concepts that will become a core part of the franchise as it goes forward. Much is made of Star Trek as a liberal and fair-minded utopia, but the franchise’s moral compass has a number of very obvious blind spots. The Mark of Gideon showcases some of those blind spots, in a way setting up what would become an even bigger moral blind spot down the line.

Star Trek likes to mine angst from moral dilemmas, but it also struggles with the ethical obligations that it imposes upon its characters. Perhaps mindful of the jingoistic imperialist politics of episodes like Friday’s Child and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, Star Trek: The Next Generation would have the franchise embrace a philosophy of non-interference. Repeatedly over the seven-year run of that show, in episodes like Pen Pals or Homeward, Picard and his crew would be asked to stand back and watch worlds die rather than interfere.

Father of the year, right here.

Father of the year, right here.

Of course, the crew would inevitably break that rule in any given episode, but the morality of the Star Trek universe tended to derive from first principles with little regard for the immediate situation. The Prime Directive was a great idea in theory, but in practice it served as justification for the Federation to stand by and watch entire worlds die. When it came to the Prime Directive, The Next Generation could often feel detached and inhuman, as if Picard were willing to watch millions or billions die to prove an ideological point.

The Mark of Gideon is setting up that faulty moral compass. The death of millions (or billions) of people is horrific, but it is treated as an abstract in order to suit the agenda of the script in question. This is an approach that reduces the morality of the Star Trek universe to a simple mathematical equation, with little acknowledgement of the very real cost. This is the kind of morality that would (in)famously drive Gene Roddenberry to argue that Starfleet was entirely correct to ask Data to submit to a dangerous experiment for the greater good in The Measure of a Man.

Kirk of fate.

Kirk of fate.

Even outside of these rather problematic issues, The Mark of Gideon is simply not a good episode of television. It lacks the energy that elevated similar episodes like Wink of an Eye or Whom Gods Destroy. The guest cast are incredibly forgettable. Sharon Acker does not have a lot of good material to work with, but she also lacks the chemistry that Kathie Browne shared with William Shatner. The role of “stalling bureaucrat” is a Star Trek cliché, but there is nothing memorable about David Hurst as Hogin.

More than that, the script is dull and repetitive. The teaser promises an exciting and weird episode, a tense mystery about what happened to James Tiberius Kirk and where the crew of the Enterprise had gone. Instead, The Mark of the Gideon jettisons the mystery almost immediately by cutting to Mister Spock and the rest of the crew on the real Enterprise. The episode would have been a lot more intriguing had it been willing to keep the focus on Kirk, rather than revealing so early that Kirk was on a duplicate ship.

Ambassador Spock.

Ambassador Spock.

Of course, the very existence of the duplicate ship is itself a ridiculous contrivance. Were the Gideons planning to keep Kirk on the fake!Enterprise forever, randomly exposing him to citizens to help kick start an epidemic? Or was the fake!Enterprise just an elaborate introductory element designed to “ease” Kirk into his role as planetary stud and STD transmitter? The real explanation is that the fake!Enterprise helped to preserve the show’s budget. The truth is that it is an unsettling premise, even if the plot justification is ultimately absurd.

Undercutting that tension would be reasonable if the plot involving Spock was in any way interesting. Instead, the sequences involving Spock on the real!Enterprise exist primarily to eat up time and to distract from Kirk on the fake!Enterprise. They serve to make the episode seem more mundane and generic than it might otherwise. The Star Trek universe is full of inefficient bureaucracy, but there are only so many empty replicas of the Enterprise built to scale on the inside of a planet.

Time out.

Time out.

The diplomatic subplot is pure padding, but that is no excuse for how lazy it seems. This is particularly apparent during a sequence early in the episode in which the senior staff make a point to insult Hogin… while he is still listening in on the channel. Scotty protests, “No matter what you say, Mister Spock, he’ll twist your meaning.” Uhura offers, “Yes, he’s infuriating, sir. How can you stand it?” Ignoring the issue of whether it would be proper for the staff to voice these concerns on the bridge at all, doing it while Hogin is on the line seems unprofessional.

Of course, this sequence exists purely for a cheap laugh. The joke comes when Hogin pretends not to hear the crew badmouthing him. “There was considerable interference with your transmission,” he states. “A lot of noise drowned out what was said.” The gag doesn’t land the first time, but the show repeats it later on in the episode. When Scotty storms off the bridge muttering to himself, Hogin offers, “I could not quite make that out, Mister Spock. Would you be so good as to repeat what you said?”

Not-quite-mellow yellow.

Not-quite-mellow yellow.

It is a bad joke of itself, but the failed attempt at broad diplomatic comedy throws off the entire tone of the episode. It is hard to laugh at ridiculous bureaucracy and stuffy officials while the episode tries to build tension around the particulars of Kirk’s situation. It seems like these sequences actively diminish the episode. The sequence in which Kirk encounters Odona dancing through the corridors should be weird and surreal, but the tone is thrown off by all the dialogue-heavy bad-joke-and-exposition scenes around it.

The Mark of Gideon is a terrible episode of Star Trek, and a terrible episode of television in general. Going by the standards of the third season, that is no small accomplishment.

9 Responses

  1. I found this episode so striking as a child – the weird atmosphere of Kirk wandering the deserted Enterprise, the creepy faces looking in on him – I was so transfixed! And yet, I had no memory of the second half – which is where the problems lie.

    Season 3 was a great season for kids, though. In a sense it paved the way for the animated series.

    • The opening is very effective. The empty Enterprise is eerie. The faces looking in are creepy.

      But you’re right. It doesn’t go anywhere. I think you’re on to something with the kids remark. I wonder if how much of the impact of the third season (and it arguably has a bigger pop culture footprint than the first two combined) is down to that factor, people watching it as kids and having stuff like the IDIC or the Klingon ship or the half-black/half-white aliens or the Tholians stick with them?

  2. One thing I think would have been interesting if this episode had been followed up on in the episode, Half a Life. In that episode Lwaxana falls in love with someone who has to kill himself at 50, as part of the planetary tradition. The overpopulation of Gideon would serve as the perfect explanation for this culture, and why some would think it is necessary.

    • I don’t know that including Gideon in Half a Life would improve the episode. Although that may be because I hate Gideon with the passion of a thousand burning suns. I think putting Gideon in that episode would weigh the story too heavily to be anti-euthanasia, because it becomes less about the individual decision and more about the world in which the individual lives. I haven’t seen Half a Life in ages; I remember it being relatively even-handed, all things considered.

  3. This is a really fascinating analysis. I’ve always thought the third season of Star Trek was the most interesting, but it’s almost dangerous to voice that opinion among classic ST fans. The “bad” episodes like this one are in many ways the most interesting and your analysis pins down a lot of thoughts I had myself but which were much too vague to be put down so precisely. I’m really glad that you mentioned the connection between population concerns of the 1960s-1970s and climate change of today. I teach a class on the history of climate change, and that exact issue is quite prominent–and also unresolved. This is possibly the best social analysis of Star Trek that I’ve ever read.

    • Thanks for the kind words Sean.

      I think there’s a lot to recommend the third season, even in terms of theme and visual style. The plotting and characterisation definitely struggles, but it’s telling how how many classic images come from these twenty-four episodes.

  4. Darren, I read your analysis over a week ago, and I have been attempting to figure out exactly how to phrase my reply. While I agree that there are certain problems with “The Mark of Gideon” on the whole I have a more positive appraisal of it.

    If this episode seemed timely in 1969, it is even more relevant in 2016, when the world population has surpassed 7 billion. That is absolutely insane. The Earth cannot support that number of people. The epidemics of starvation, disease, war and environmental collapse that are sweeping the globe are stark evidence that population control has become an absolute necessity.

    You refer to “horrific abuses of power like China’s infamous one child policy.” Unfortunately, as flawed & deeply unpleasant as these policies are, they have become a necessity. I realize that for centuries the right to have children has been regarded as sacrosanct. But I am of the firm belief that in the 21st century, when our planet is literally on the verge of collapse, it is extremely reckless & irresponsible for people to have multiple children.

    What is more cruel, forcing people to have abortions, or allowing them to have as many children as they want, children who will then endure lives stricken by poverty, disease & starvation? And why should a family that is being responsible and having just one kid be forced to suffer when valuable resources are being consumed by the couple down the block who have selfishly decided to have six or seven children?

    The ending to this episode is controversial, but at the same time it is realistic. Just as it was wrong for the Gideons to attempt to force Kirk to remain on their world to spread vegan choriomeningitis among the population, so too would it have been wrong for Kirk to have prevented Odona from taking his place and allowing the plan for mass-euthanasia to go forward. It is obvious that the Gideons have vastly different ethics & principles than that of the Federation, but does that mean they are wrong? That is why the Prime Directive was established, to prevent the Federation making such value judgments & from imposing its values on other worlds.

    If this story had been done two decades later as an episode of TNG, there probably would have been a great temptation by show to technobabble their way out of the problem. I’m glad that such a thing did not occur here. And that is why the Gideons cannot just emigrate to other planets to eliminate their overpopulation problem. That in itself would be a cheat, because the Gideons are obviously allegories for the human race, and in the present day we do not have the ability to just hop in a spaceship & find an uninhabited planet. We are stuck on Earth, and we have to deal with the reality of the situation here, no matter how pleasant.

    I know my position is very unpopular with many people, but that is how I genuinely feel about this issue.

    • No worries. It’s perfectly fair to have a discussion about it.

      I’d disagree wholeheartedly with a lot of what you said, though. I’ll acknowledge that things like sex education and condoms are good things, and that they will naturally help control population growth. And I think that they should be provided as a matter of course to anybody who wants them. And, I believe that, if they were, population growth would decrease substantially. And that would be a good thing.

      However, I find myself deeply uncomfortable with mandating population growth cuts. The one-child policy is monstrous, and there’s nothing that can be done to justify it. Similarly, setting aid according to those sorts of targets is also incredibly cynical and borders on imperialism – albeit on the edge of a cheque rather than down the barrel of a gun.

      More than that, the big sustainability issues of our time – drought, famine, climate change, urban pollution – are driven by economic and social factors that are (at most) marginally related to population growth. It’s the first world’s wealthy and middle classes who drive the industrialisation that it harming the environment and raising global temperatures, which in turn cause more food/water shortages which in turn fuel wars. And, the way things are going, cutting population only kicks the can down the proverbial road. The first world’s consumerist instincts are driven by a (relatively) small population in the grand scheme of things.

      You could solve most (if not all) of these problems by imposing a much lower burden on a much smaller number of people, but those people would be people like you and I. And make up the difference by providing sex education and voluntary contraception to those in developing countries, rather than forcing population controls upon them. More than that, committing to raising living standards in the developing world would also slow population growth; that’s precisely what has happened in the developed world.

      All of which makes me sound like a crazy socialist, which isn’t quite fair. I’d argue I’m more of a pragmatist. I also accept that none of this is likely possible given the way that people are and that large groups organise, but that doesn’t make the alternative right or (to me at least) morally justifiable.

      I think focusing on population growth as a cause of these problems rather than as a symptom (or at the very worst a tangential contributing factor) is shortsighted.

      • I very much agree with you about the importance of sex education and distribution of contraception, and I think it is insane that there is so much opposition to these things. But it is almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion about these things with religious fanatics. You’d have more luck banging your head against a brick wall.

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