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Star Trek – The Lights of Zetar (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 Lights of Zetar is another third season ghost story.

The third season of Star Trek is populated with these weird stories about long-dead souls refusing to pass on. There is Kirk’s haunting of the Enterprise in The Tholian Web, the dead world of Scalos in Wink of an Eye, the replicas of the long-dead Losira in That Which Survives, the title character in Requiem for Methuselah, the escapes into the past in All Our Yesterdays. It is almost as though the third season is working through its anxieties, a season television trapped between two cancellations.

Flash of inspiration.

Flash of inspiration.

The Light of Zetar features yet more death and destruction. The mangled bodies inside the Memory Alpha facility, contorted over the furniture. The lone survivor, screaming in agony. The eponymous spectral apparition that “cannot be a phenomenon of nature.” The inhabitants of Zetar, rendered non-corporeal through the destruction of their world, refusing to acknowledge that they have truly been dead for thousands upon thousands years. The argument that Mira Romaine must sacrifice herself so that the Zetar might live.

More than a ghost story, The Lights of Zetar is an exorcism story.

More like Memory Omega.

More like Memory Omega.

The Lights of Zetar is notable for a number of reasons. Perhaps most striking is the creative team. The Lights of Zetar is credited to writers Jeremy Tarcher and Sheri Lewis. Lewis is very much the headline name here, as much a special guest writer as Harlan Ellison on The City on the Edge of Forever or Richard Matheson on The Enemy Within. Sheri Lewis is particularly notable as the creator of Lamb Chop, the beloved children’s entertainment figure that left quite a large mark on popular culture.

Lewis is also notable for being one of several women writers to work on the third season, with producer Fred Freiberger working very hard to encourage and engage with female writers on the show. Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that the much larger volume of female writers on the third season of Star Trek contributed to the season’s unique feel and perspective. The third season of Star Trek is often maligned, but the show is more experimental than it had been before. Episodes like Is There in Truth No Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web are testament.

Not quite a glowing review.

Not quite a glowing review.

As Shari Lewis explained to Starlog, the episode had a rather strange development life-cycle:

“I spoke to Freddy Freiberger [the third  season’s producer], who immediately gave me an appointment,” Lewis recalls. “I went in, and we described the story. He said, ‘I love it, but it’s too close to something we have coming down the pike. A writer is working on something similar.’

“He said, ‘But, do come up with another one, particularly one that has some comedy to it. We’re not doing enough comedy!’ I  went home and told my husband, so then we  came up with another one. When I went into the meeting with the second story, they said, “Oh, the first story didn’t work out. We want to buy yours!’ They bought my first story after all.”

Ultimately, the “something similar” never materialised, and the result is one of the weirder episodes of Star Trek ever produced.

It's a Mira fainting spell...

It’s a Mira fainting spell…

It is also worth noting that Fred Freiberger was looking to do a comedy episode. One of the more frequent criticisms of Fred Freiberger as producer on the third season was his ambivalence to comedy on the show. This pointed criticism comes from writer David Gerrold, who pitched a couple of ideas for comedy episodes in the third season that were rejected; they were subsequently developed for Star Trek: The Animated Series as More Tribbles, More Troubles and Bem.

It seems highly likely that Freiberger’s reluctance to commit to comedy episodes early in the season was a gesture of deference towards Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Although Roddenberry was no longer working on the show, he was a source of input and advice for Freiberger early in the third season. After all, Roddenberry had been a very vocal champion of episodes like Elaan of Troyius or The Paradise Syndrome. More than that, Freiberger was consciously trying to be respectful of the show that he inherited, and that meant being respectful of its creator.

"Boy, this place is dead today."

“Boy, this place is dead today.”

During the second season, Roddenberry had objected loudly and repeatedly to an increased emphasis on comedy in episodes like I, Mudd, The Trouble with Tribbles and A Piece of the Action. Roddenberry seemed to think that second season producer Gene L. Coon was introducing too much levity into the series, and undercutting the credibility of Star Trek as a science-fiction show. It doesn’t matter than these three episodes were infinitely stronger than The Omega Glory or Assignment: Earth. Roddenberry did not want comedy in Star Trek.

However, Roddenberry had grown increasingly distant over the course of the third season, and Freiberger was increasingly left to his own devices. While Roddenberry would return to script The Savage Curtain and Turnabout Intruder, Freiberger was largely free to chart his own course over the final third of the season. After all, if Gene Roddenberry had objected to the inclusion of comedy in Star Trek, it seems highly unlikely that he would have encouraged contributions from a writer largely seen as a children’s entertainer.

"But no funny business, you understand?"

“But no funny business, you understand?”

Indeed, Lewis’ involvement in both Lamb Chop and The Lights of Zetar would prove frustrating to a certain brand of Star Trek purist. Fred Freiberger was still being asked to justify asking her to write for the show to Starlog in the eighties:

Speaking of “The Lights of Zetar,” why was Shari Lewis, an actress, given the assignment?

Shari came to us with The Light of Zetar. Her husband worked with her. Now, that story in any other show would have been cut off like seven different times. We kept working with her more than anybody else, and finally got a script.

But why give her the advantage over a more qualified writer?

Because she came with a lovely concept; a life form that was lights. Why wouldn’t I do that? Anyway, Shari wanted to be cast in the lead female role! I eventually cast Jan Shutan.

Note how the interviewer presses the question. It should be noted that the interviewer never asked why The Mark of Gideon was assigned to an actor, Stanley Adams, who had appeared in The Trouble with Tribbles. After all, Adams had never created either his own show or a beloved public persona.

"Maybe I can learn to communicate psychically..."

“Maybe I can learn to communicate psychically…”

Indeed, The Lights of Zetar hits upon themes and ideas that feel very personal to Shari Lewis. Looking at the episode, it is tempting to frame it in terms of her own experiences. After all, Lewis had originally wanted to play the role of Mira Romaine, although the part eventually went to Jan Shutan. As such, there is something appealing about reading some of Lewis into the character of Romaine. Naturally, such a reading is highly reductive and the script was heavily revised internally, but there is some weight to the idea.

Over the course of The Lights of Zetar, Mira Romaine is repeatedly denied her own voice. Indeed, the eponymous spectral phenomenon is plotting to use Romaine as a puppet. When the entity attacks the Enterprise at the start of the episode, it affects various crewmembers in different ways. It controls Sulu’s arms and paralyses Chekov’s gaze, but it takes Romaine’s voice. When Scotty and Kirk rush to Romaine, they find the young officer making strange (and impossible) sounds. Later in the episodes, the Zetar speak to Kirk through Romaine.

"Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut."

“Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut.”

When Starlog asked Lewis about her inspirations in writing the episode, she spoke in similar terms, as if the idea just came through her:

One wonders where the story’s exorcist theme came from. “There are two kinds of  writers,” she states. “Those who are  conscious of what they’re writing and others who write what wells up. This particular story just occurred to us. I didn’t think of it  in those terms.”

Unlike the politics that drove Adams and Slavin to write The Mark of Gideon, it seems like The Lights of Zetar is more personal.

Lighten up.

Lighten up.

It is very difficult to talk about Shari Lewis without discussing Lamb Chop. The sassy sheep had been with Lewis for a long time; she was a part of Lewis’ first pilot for Desilu, providing a convenient historical overlap with the Star Trek franchise even before Lewis pitched an episode for the show. Lamb Chop first came to attention as part of the ensemble on The Shari Lewis Show. A variety show built around Lewis’ talents as a ventriloquist, Lamb Chop was very much the breakout star.

Indeed, the puppet soon took on a life of its own. Much like Star Trek itself, cancellation was little more than an inconvenience for Lamb Chop. The hand puppet would not remain dead for long. Shari Lewis came back to national attention in 1992 with an entire series built around the character, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along on PBS. The show become an essential childhood memory for an entire generation of children and Shari Lewis would go on to win five consecutive Emmy Awards for her work on the series.

Healthy red glow.

Healthy red glow.

In her final years, Lewis was very candid about the relationship that existed between herself and Lamb Chop, particularly during the difficult days following the cancellation of The Shari Lewis Show:

What has been the most difficult time in your career?

Well, in ’63 all of children’s programming turned to animation. All of it. I was very fortunate that I had long-term contracts with The Sahara in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. So, although it was extremely difficult to know that my entire field had crashed around my ears, it was very interesting to move into the casinos. I opened for Jack Benny and Donald O’Conner and many other wonderful stars.

It was also devastating. I went to Great Britain in that same period and did 18 shows a year for BBC. In order to do my children’s work, I had to leave the country…it was very saddening. The only bout with depression that I’ve ever had was at that period.

What was your most unusual experience with Lamb Chop?

Lamb Chop is so much my alter ego that she sometimes gets out of hand and says things I wouldn’t even dare think to myself. When she first met Desi Arnaz, he was sitting with his feet up on the table and was rather rude. She told him so in no uncertain terms. And that was the first time I really had to stay aware of what she was going to say, because she speaks for herself.

Have you ever used Lamb Chop in a personal situation to deal with a challenge or win an argument?

No, no, no. When my first network show was canceled in ’63, that was the only time I ever went to Lamb Chop and cried with her. But it hasn’t happened since.

It is a fascinating dynamic between creator and creation, a demonstration of how certain concepts and ideas can take on a life people the material. It seems like perfect fodder for a Star Trek episode.

"Look, it could be worse. You could have been cast in And the Children Shall Lead."

“Look, it could be worse. You could have been cast in And the Children Shall Lead.”

These kinds of anecdotes have amassed into an entire mythology about the relationship between Lewis and her puppet. Matt Weinstock offered a summary of the popular perception of this dynamic:

A small mountain of lore has accumulated on the subject of Lewis’s connection with Lamb Chop—it’s been suggested that she smuggled the puppet along on her honeymoon and that she insisted producers flying her places purchase a seat on the plane for Lamb Chop—but it’s hard to tell how much of it’s apocryphal. Lewis herself confessed that after The Shari Lewis Show was cancelled in 1963, she “went to Lamb Chop and cried with her. But it hasn’t happened since.” Even once seems like a lot, though, and Lamb Chop’s Play-Along often seems to be referring to that moment of demented codependency, presenting situation after situation in which Lamb Chop is jonesing to get away from Lewis.

As such, it seems fair to frame The Lights of Zetar in terms of this relationship. It is a story about a woman who finds herself being used as a puppet by something else, having others speak through her and for her.

"Don't worry. It's perfectly normal for the three most senior officers to talk about a junior officer's brainwave patterns."

“Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal for the three most senior officers to talk about a junior officer’s brainwave patterns.”

It should be noted that the eponymous lights are not the only entities that aim to speak for or through Romaine. Repeatedly over the course of the episode, the male characters seem to talk around or over Romaine, denying her agency or authority. This is most apparent in her relationship with Scotty, which is presented in a manner that is rather awkward. “I didn’t think Mister Scott would go for the brainy type,” Chekov observes. Sulu responds, pithily, “I don’t think he’s even noticed she has a brain.”

When Romaine is attacked by the lights, Kirk orders her to go to Sick Bay. However, Scotty repeats that order to Romaine in the most condescending manner possible. “Now you just do what Doctor McCoy ordered.” Indeed, by virtue of his relationship with Romaine, Scotty repeatedly presumes to speak on her behalf as a sort of translator. In Sick Bay, Scotty addresses her like a child, “Come on now, Mira. We must help the doctor. Tell us what happened.” It almost sounds like Scotty is going to offer her a lollypop at the end.

Scotty is just a little clingy.

Scotty is just a little clingy.

Indeed, Scotty quite patronisingly refuses to believe anything she says about having strange visions or feeling a connection to the entity, despite the fact that she collapsed on the bridge when confronted with it. Given Scotty’s own encounters with weird space phenomena in episodes like Wolf in the Fold or The Changeling, his skepticism seems a little absurd. Nevertheless, Scotty continually downplays Romaine’s concerns. He assures her it is “strange tricks [that] a space trip can play on [her] mind” and “pure bunk.”

Towards the climax of the episode, Romaine finds herself drawn into the briefing room for a meeting with Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The characters proceed to talk at length around her. “Now this is how we’ll proceed,” Kirk tells her. “Mister Spock has all the information available to us about our attackers. Doctor McCoy has access to Starfleet’s exhaustive files on you. A comparison of the two may turn up some improbable connection which may protect you and ourselves. All right, gentlemen? Doctor McCoy, will you proceed?”

Romancing Romaine.

Romancing Romaine.

Indeed, The Lights of Zetar ultimately concludes with the crew showing Romaine inside a pressure chamber and turning up the pressure past the point that a human body should be able to withstand. “Jim, you realize the pressure needed to kill the Zetars might kill the girl too,” McCoy informs Kirk. “The pressure is dangerously high, Captain. It may damage her.” It is a very powerful climax, particularly coming from a writer who had acknowledged struggling with depression following the cancellation of her high-profile television show. Sharri Lewis understands pressure.

Still, as interesting as these elements are, there is something quite frustrating about them. It is often quite difficult to tell when Star Trek is calling out sexism, and when it is indulging it. Indeed, based on episodes like Elaan of Troyius, The Paradise Syndrome and The Enterprise Incident, it is hard to tell when the Star Trek production team is calling out sexism and when they are casually indulging in it. The crew’s dismissive attitude towards Romaine might be a criticism of the way that professional women are treated… or it might be background noise.

Scotty could repair anything. Except the human heart.

Scotty could repair anything.
Except the human heart.

After all, The Lights of Zetar was heavily reworked by producer Fred Freiberger and script editor Arthur Singer. Indeed, Lewis herself was somewhat ambivalent about the finished product:

Her feelings on the episode overall are mixed. “I found working with Mr. Freiberger wonderful, but the story editor did things to our story that didn’t make me enormously happy. The script as it exists is, I think, less good than as we wrote it. I also wasn’t happy with the female lead.”

To be entirely fair to Freiberger and Singer, Lewis was quite candid about wanting to play the role of Romaine, so she has something of a vested interest in that criticism. At the same time, there is some merit to her observations.

Kirk spots a plot hole.

Kirk spots a plot hole.

Romaine does not feel like a fully-formed and three-dimensional character, which make it hard to root for her. Part of this is down to the fact that Romaine is largely passive while most of the episode happens around her, and part of this is down to the fact that the script does little to imbue her with a sense of personality. Romaine lacks the kind of dynamism that makes other third season guest stars like the Romulan Commander or Deela so interesting to watch. Some of that is down to Jan Shutan.

There is also the fact that the episode offers little characterisation of Romaine beyond “Scotty’s girlfriend.” There are suggestions of more, of course; Romaine is independent and assertive in her early conversation with Doctor McCoy, she is apparently a top expert in her field having landed a sweet assignment on Memory Alpha. However, the episode is primarily interested in Romaine through her relationship with Scotty. In fact, Kirk’s opening log entry waxes lyrical about how magical their relationship is.

"Apologies, Captain. I appear to have accidentally caught a rerun of Spock's Brain. Avert your gaze."

“Apologies, Captain. I appear to have accidentally caught a rerun of Spock’s Brain. Avert your gaze.”

This is something of a stock criticism of the episode, to the point that Freiberger found himself defending the decision in an interview with Starlog:

But why is Scotty out of character? Can’t a guy be in love and still love his machines? Can’t he be with a woman who’s so attractive, he’s gonna fall in love? We wanted to do a love story and we said, “Hey, let’s give Scotty a break.”

You know, everyone on the show wanted more stuff. Chekov would come up. He wanted more. Sulu wanted more. Uhura would want more. Of course, they’re actors… why not? But its difficult when you’re doing a show. To keep McCoy and Kirk and Spock involved enough with the other people was tough enough. To keep the other actors happy, we would try to give them meaningful things to do. The characters were good, but you can’t always do it. Sometimes you hurt the story flow.

In many ways, the emphasis on the relationship between Scotty and Romaine speaks to Freiberger’s tastes as an executive producer.

"Um... now might be a good time to talk about what happened to my last girlfriend back on Argelius II."

“Um… now might be a good time to talk about what happened to my last girlfriend back on Argelius II.”

The third season of Star Trek is not an ensemble by any stretch of the imagination. The focus is still very much on Kirk and Spock as the lead characters. However, there is also a willingness to focus on the supporting cast and to give the smaller players their own little moments of characterisation and development. Spectre of the Gun devotes considerable time to Chekov, separate from the rest of the team. For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky heavily leans on McCoy as a character. The Way to Eden… was almost a character script for McCoy.

However, it is telling how Freiberger decided to put an emphasis on these characters. For Freiberger, it seemed like character focus meant romance. Chekov’s small character beats in Spectre of the Gun hinge on his romance with an imaginary lady. McCoy gets a terminal diagnosis in For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, and responds by falling in love and getting married. The Enterprise Incident emphasises a romance between Spock and the Romulan Commander. Love is very much in the air this season.

"I don't think this episode is quite what Fred had in mind when he said he wanted a lighter episode."

“I don’t think this episode is quite what Fred had in mind when he said he wanted a lighter episode.”

In interviews, Freiberger explained this shift in emphasis as part of a conscious attempt to attract new viewers to the series. After all, Star Trek was broadcasting in the graveyard slot of late Friday evening, at a point when most of its established younger audience was in bed. If the series was going to survive, Freiberger reasoned, it needed to attract a new and different kind of viewer:

Our problem was to broaden the viewer base. To do a science fiction show, but get enough additional viewers to keep the series on the air. I tried to do stories that had a more conventional story line within the science fiction frame.

It is certainly a laudable goal for a dying series. It should also be noted that Star Trek fandom (like most genre fandoms) has a history of being openly hostile to attempts to popularise the franchise; just look at the reactions to Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Still, there was something a little off about Freiberger’s attempts to make the series more accessible.

"No wonder we're doing an exorcism episode. We've been assigned the graveyard shift."

“No wonder we’re doing an exorcism episode. We’ve been assigned the graveyard shift.”

In many ways, Freiberger was more of a veteran television producer than a Star Trek visionary. His interviews tend to suggest a very conventional understanding of television production and audience appeal. Most notably, there is Freiberger’s repeated assertion that his emphasis on romance was necessary to attract female viewers to the series, hinging on the crass generalisation that women like romance and do not appreciate science-fiction. That is why Kirk fell in love in Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome.

While there was undoubtedly demographic evidence to support Freiberger’s logic, the execution feels patronising and condescending. The hypothetical female viewer described by Freiberger in these discussions (who like romance but hates space) seems very unlikely to tune in for a romantic story set in space. Nobody was every going to watch Star Trek on a Friday night because there was some added romance. Those viewers who objected to science-fiction on principle were highly unlikely to be “tricked” by advertisements of Kirk kissing a lady.

The Romaines of the Day...

The Romaines of the Day…

In many ways, the romance between Scotty and Romaine feels just as condescending and patronising. The Lights of Zetar opens with Scotty and Romaine already in love. The episode never explains why the two characters are attracted to one another or what they see in each other. The audience never gets to see them spend any time together beyond dealing with the threat of the week. Even at the end of the episode, the audience does not get to see what happens to Romaine. She is simply gone by the start of The Cloud Minders.

It makes Romaine feel like another disposable woman in a third season full of disposable women. Miramanee and her unborn child were killed off at the end of The Paradise Syndrome so that Kirk could be back in command of the Enterprise for the start of The Enterprise Incident. McCoy apparently left Yonada at the end of For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky without even informing Natrina that he had been cured of his terminal illness, but at least he does break up with her.

The brain waves of the operation.

The brain waves of the operation.

Romaine… just disappears. After all, it is not as though her job is still waiting for her on Memory Alpha. It seems highly unlikely that the Federation would casually reopen what is effectively the site of a mass murder. However, The Lights of Zetar does not explain whether Romaine will remain on the Enterprise or travel back to Earth. It does not explain what will happen to her relationship with Scotty, despite the episode’s strained insistence that the two really truly love one another. She is just never heard from again.

To be fair, The Lights of Zetar was broadcast at a point in time where television was largely episodic. Within that framework, the “love affair of the week” is an expected trope. After all, Kirk was able to hook up freely and easily with Deela in Wink of an Eye and Odana in The Mark of Gideon. Even Spock got to have a flirtation with the Romulan Commander in The Enterprise Incident. However, those episodes took care to actually write the love interests out of the episode in the final act, albeit to varying degrees of success.

"Captain, do you find it odd that none of our love affairs seem to last longer than a single week?" "No, why do you ask?"

“Captain, do you find it odd that none of our love affairs seem to last longer than a single week?”
“No, why do you ask?”

There is something frustrating about how little agency or development that The Lights of Zetar affords Romaine. Instead of actually developing her, providing an arc with a clear beginning and end, Romaine is instead treated as a plot device so inessential that she can be dealt with off-screen in the gap between The Lights of Zetar and The Cloud Minders. For all that Scotty claims to love her, he never mentions her again. Romaine would have to rely on non-canon sources like Memory Prime or Debt of Honour for closure.

Still, despite these significant issues, there is something intriguing about The Lights of Zetar. As with so many late third season episodes, The Lights of Zetar is more interesting than it is good. In particular, there is something quite interesting about the decision to effective structure the episode as a ghost story in space. To be fair, the first season of Star Trek was never as rational as most fans would argue, but the third season of Star Trek repeatedly hints and references the paranormal and the irrational, as if the universe itself is coming undone.

The haunting of Memory Alpha.

The haunting of Memory Alpha.

The eponymous entity is revealed to be the non-corporeal form of a long-dead civilisation, continuing the theme of genocide and extermination that runs through the third season. There is a sense that the entity might get along well with the lost relic of a dead civilisation in That Which Survives, the soon-to-be-extinct-turned-fair-folk Scalosians in Wink of an Eye, or the death-seeking Gideons in The Mark of Gideon. They could visit the ruins of Cheron from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Zetar was destroyed “long ago.” When Kirk demands that the entity identify itself, it states that it is “the desires, the hopes, the mind and the will of the last hundred of Zetar. The force of our life could not be wiped out.” The Zetar are just too stubborn to die, unwilling to realise that they are extinct. Refusing to accept an inevitable death, the Zetar mirror other third season guest aliens; the defense system in That Which Survives or Bele and Lokai from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Well, Sulu, you did point a giant bullseye on the planet.

Well, Sulu, you did point a giant bullseye on the planet.

In a way, it also reflects the show itself, fighting an inevitable cancellation. NBC had cancelled Star Trek at the end of its second season, but the show had refused to stay dead. Even with the third season commissioned, the series was constantly under threat. The Lights of Zetar was one of two episodes commissioned as part of a mid-season interim pick-up, with the possibility of the final six episodes still up in the air as the episode was written. Star Trek understands Kirk when he assures the Zetar that “all things die.”

The Zetar are ghosts. As such, The Lights of Zetar is an exorcism story. The malevolent entity speaks through Romaine in a manner similar to the demons from other exorcism stories. It lays claim to her body. “She cannot stop us. You cannot prevent it.” It is a set-up common to these sorts of stories, from The Exorcist through to The Conjuring II. The episode is quite overt in acknowledging the tropes and conventions of this kind of story, even if it does work hard to place them within the show’s existing science-fiction framework.

"The power of physics compels you!"

“The power of physics compels you!”

When the Zetar first take control of Romaine, Kirk demands that they name themselves, one of the most common devices when dealing with demons. “Who are you?” he insists. When they evade, he presses the point, “Then what are you?” When the Zetar speak through Romaine, their voice is deepened as if to underscore the supernatural element of what is occurring. In fact, when she is first struck down, she makes some unnatural noises that sound almost like she is speaking in tongues. “What’s that you’re sayin’?” Scotty inquires.

Indeed, when Kirk is trying figure out why Romaine has been targeted, he turns to her teenage years. “Any history of psychosomatic illness?” Kirk asks. McCoy responds, “Occasional and teenage routine incidents.” Kirk follows up, “Any evidence of involuntary or unconscious telepathic abilities?” McCoy answers, “None.” It fits quite comfortably with the school of paranormal thought that suggests poltergeists are simply the expression of teenage extra-sensory perception.

Colour me excited.

Colour me excited.

Indeed, the episode constantly and repeatedly zooms in on Romaine’s eye, as if to offer the viewer a window to her soul. The episode was directed by Herb Kenwith, a director with over a decade of experience but who was new to science-fiction. He explained his approach to the episode to Starlog:

“There was an effect I really wanted that they couldn’t do at the time. The girl — Jan Shutan, a lovely actress — has things happening to her brain, I believe. I wanted to do a thing where the lens would go right into  the pupil of her eye, then go into her brain to  see the images, but we couldn’t do it. I said,  ‘Let’s do it backwards; let’s start real close on the eye, then pull back, and we’ll reverse the film.” It would be as though we were dollying in, but we couldn’t do that! Of course, today, they can do all those things.

“Aside from that, this wasn’t an occasion for many directing tricks. I requested certain things about colors for the outer world people. I didn’t do anything with the girl’s face turning green or the distorted speech,” he  states. “I guess they spared me! We worked on the spaceship set with them whirling around on chairs and looking at the screen.”

As with other directors who worked on the third season, like Marc Daniels on Spock’s Brain or Ralph Senensky on The Tholian Web or John Erman on The Empath, there was a sense that the director was largely working a conveyor belt system designed to complete an episode on time and on budget. To a large extent, that was true of all television at the time; but it was particularly true on the third season.

"Now let's never talk of this again."

“Now let’s never talk of this again.”

The Lights of Zetar is an odd episode of Star Trek. It is uneven and flawed, but it fits quite well with the larger season as a whole. There is something endearing about the unique tone of the third season of Star Trek. A space exorcism story is just weird enough to work in that context. It is a messy and clumsy piece of television that struggles to define its central character, and which considers a romance of the week to count as characterisation for Scotty. Nevertheless, there is something very charming in its dysfunction.

10 Responses

  1. That’s a fascinating and insightful link you make between Shari Lewis’ ventriloquism and the script she wrote! This is the kind of thing I come to you for; you often add so much insight into the context under which the episode was made. Marc Cushman tries to give us a tiny bit of context by telling us which was the top song the week they filmed the episode, but you add SO much social and political context, letting us know what the preoccupations of the time were.

    I write TOS fan fiction under another name, and I have had the experience of a character’s taking over the story and coming up with things that it wouldn’t occur to me to say. It’s partly fun and partly disconcerting when it happens; I know intellectually that everything the character says comes out of my own mind, but sometimes they say things that I truly wouldn’t have thought without them. Most of the writers of fiction I’ve talked with have had that experience, so I don’t think the fact that Lamp Chop sometimes said things that Lewis would never have said means that there’s something strange or mentally ill going on. Or maybe all writers of fiction are mentally ill. 🙂

    You say, “After all, if Gene Roddenberry had objected to the inclusion of comedy in Star Trek, it seems highly likely that he would have encouraged contributions from a writer largely seen as a children’s entertainer.” I think perhaps you meant to say “highly UNlikely”?

    I’m a woman who’s read science fiction all my life; I owe half of my personality to Bob Heinlein. 🙂 The weird thing is, my mother has never liked science fiction and always thought it was weird that I liked it, but she loved Star Trek. She’d loved fairy tales as a girl, and Star Trek seemed to appeal to her in the same way that fairy tales once had, even though she disdained other science fiction. If two such different women as my mother and I liked Star Trek, then the show was plenty appealing all by itself; it didn’t need Scotty falling in love to make us like it. It is true, though, that my mother had a crush on Kirk, so maybe that was part of it for her. She thought it was very strange that I both identified with and had a crush on an alien. Yeah, me and millions of other fangirls, Ma! 🙂

    • To quoth Lusa Simpson:

      “I had no idea Disco Stu was so complex.”

    • Good spot on that “likely”/”unlikely” typo! Corrected.

      And apologies if I implied that Lewis was mentally ill. I certainly did not mean to, outside of her own acknowledged battle with depression. After all, Leonard Nimoy opens chapters of I Am Spock by imaging a dialogue between actor and character, which doesn’t seem too far removed from the relationship between Lewis and Lambchop, although obviously that dialogue was more external.

      I think you raise an interesting point about storytelling and fiction in general. I have a personal theory that there are two kinds of storytellers: those who construct elaborate stories like clockwork sculptures in a manner that is mechanical and logic; and those who see themselves as a conduit through which story flows, who treat stories as akin to a game of marbles in which they set events and character in motion to watch what happens while casting themselves as almost detached observers.

      (I am quite fond of writer Alan Moore’s belief that he created the fictional character of John Constantine so perfectly that the character even escaped into the real world. Various other writers have claimed to have had strange and fleeting encounters with the character, from spotting him in the street to seeing him eating a sandwich.)

      • I like your thoughts on storytelling. I have tried “constructing” stories, and other people seem to like them okay when I do that, but to me those stories always seem somewhat cold, without real heart.

        My best work comes when a story grows organically, and I’ve had things fit together beautifully at the end, with all the disparate threads tying themselves together, in a way that was NOT consciously planned, and yet somehow it all resolves itself in a way that makes it seem as if it HAD to have been planned, or it wouldn’t all have fit together so well. I’m afraid of examining this too closely, for fear of running into the centipede problem. 🙂

        I made a couple of new adventures for the computer RPG “The Witcher,” and new adventures are basically playable short stories. The first adventure I made was very organic, whereas I planned the second one out carefully. While people seem to like both of these adventures, and while the second one was more polished (because I learned so much in the making of the first one), overall the first one has been more successful than the second one. Heart seems to matter more than polish.

        I think I’ve learned my lesson; I’m more successful when I work organically than when I plan things out. It takes so much more trust — in myself or in fate or in the process or whatever — to work organically, but it’s so much more satisfying. For me. Obviously, I only speak for me.

  2. It is fascinating running through this season, maybe more so because it was so uneven and thus distinctive. I’m bewildered how few of these stories I’ve heard of! I mean everyone knows ‘Spock’s Brain’ and ‘Turnabout Intruder’ (and I’m really looking forward to that review) but some of these feel very obscure.

  3. I posted my own blog of “The Lights of Zetar” (http://defendinglightsofzetar.blogspot.com) only yesterday and just found yours a few minutes ago! TLOZ isn’t every Trek lovers cup of tea (many, in fact, very much dislike this episode), so I can appreciate the critical and unbiased approach you take at reviewing the story which differs from the more personal perspective my blog is written from. It’s good to see different points of view from writers. Good job!

  4. “My God! It’s full of stars!”

    The reflection of the lights in the extreme close up shot on Mira’s iris seems inspired by the reflections in David Bowman’s helmet in the reaction shots of the star-gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If not intentionally, then at least drawing from the new cinematographic lexicon that Kubrick’s film introduced to science fiction. In both cases, a clever way to visually convey Mira and Bowman’s horror at observing something so overwhelmingly incomprehensible.

    But the lights–just like that other prominent piece of 2001 imagery in the third season, the monolith in The Paradise Syndrome–and the motivations of the alien minds behind them, are given an interesting, but altogether ordinary science fiction explanation later in the episode that removes their incomprehensibility. Kubrick knew the potency of merely pointing towards that which lies outside the limits human understanding.

    P.S. Excellent review, as always.

    • Yep. And obviously 2001 casts a long shadow over The Motion Picture as well.

      But you’re right, I probably should have mentioned it here.

  5. I thought Lieutenant Romaine came off pretty well in the episode. She starts off insecure and unsure of herself, but the climax is punctuated by her demand that she be allowed to live her own life as she battles the creatures controlling her mind, creatures that try to kill Scott only to be prevented by Romaine’s will.

    On top of that, the episode directly criticizes the men talking above and around her, as Scott and Kirk both call out Scott glibly dismissing Romaine’s visions as a big mistake.

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