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Star Trek – The Cloud Minders (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 Cloud Minders is another reminder of the third season’s unique ability to produce memorable Star Trek.

There is something about the third season of Star Trek that draws fandom’s imagination to it. The general consensus is that the season is a disappointment filled with lacklustre episodes, questionable characterisation and crippling cutbacks. Nevertheless, the third season is also the source of a lot of the franchise’s core iconography like the Klingon D7 cruiser introduced in Elaan of Troyius or the IDIC in Is There in Truth No Beauty? That is to say nothing of the little curiosities sprinkled across the season.

Above all else.

Above all else.

Garth of Izar and Axanar are one such example, tied to the clumsy and awkward Whom Gods Destroy. Nevertheless, the concept of the “Battle of Axanar” was enough to launch a high-profile fan film that would become a flashpoint for twenty-first century fan productions. Indeed, there has even been speculation that Garth of Izar might be the commanding officer (although not the protagonist) in Bryan Fuller’s Star Trek: Discovery. This is not bad for concepts tied to an episode of which nobody seems particularly fond.

The same is arguably true of The Cloud Minders. It is a very clumsy and flawed piece of television, with a number of sizable script-related issues. However, it also has a number of very memorable visuals and ideas that have allowed it to take on an oversized place in the cultural memory of Star Trek.

Clouded judgement...

Clouded judgement…

During the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise, producer Manny Coto made a number of extended homages to the continuity of Star Trek. Again, it is worth noting that a surprising amount of these references came from the third season. In a Mirror Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror Darkly, Part II were perhaps the most obvious example, a late season two-parter positioned as both a prequel to the second season Mirror, Mirror and a sequel to The Tholian Web. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Coto’s fourth season drew from the iconography and memory of classic Star Trek. Early in the season, Borderland reintroduced Orion Slave Girls, who had featured in both The Cage and Whom Gods Destroy. In fact, Coto was so in love with the concept that he built an entire episode (Bound) around it towards the end of the year. Coto was also fixated on the character of Colonel Green, a minor character who appeared in The Savage Curtain, building an aborted multi-part episode around the character and incorporating him into Terra Prime and Demons.

Demons in the dark.

Demons in the dark.

As it turned out, Enterprise was cancelled after the end of its fourth season. However, Coto never got to tell all the stories that he wanted to tell. Among them, a multi-episode arc that would have been set on the cloud city of Stratos:

I have numerous plans. The most interesting that come to mind are an arc that would deal with the founding of the first starbase. Also, I want to do a multi-part arc that takes place on the cloud city Stratos. And I really want to visit Denobula and to possibly do a couple more mirror universe episodes which I envision as almost a series within a series. But the central theme of the season would have been the true founding of The Federation.

Coto’s fascination with Stratos seems rather strange, given that few fans would hold up The Cloud Minders as an example of the original Star Trek at its very best. Nevertheless, the imagery is striking. It is no wonder that the location tends to pop up in fan-made lists about what they’d like to see again.

"Expectations for a return visit to Stratos are sky high."

“Expectations for a return visit to Stratos are sky high.”

In many ways, this is a testament to the production design on The Cloud Minders, which is absolutely beautiful. The third season of Star Trek suffered from a number of crippling budget cuts, which affected a variety of episodes across the year. Some episodes (like Spectre of the Gun and The Tholian Web) turned this limitation into a strength. Other episodes (like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Spock’s Brain) were deeply undermined by it. Still, the show was occasionally capable of reminding viewers of how good it could look. Plato’s Stepchildren was one example.

The look and feel of The Cloud Minders feels quite unique in the context of Star Trek. There is a very retro-futurism look to it, as if the episode is imagining a vision of the future lifted from a much earlier period of science-fiction history. This is a recurring theme of the third season, which takes a great deal of pleasure in bending and distorting the storytelling tropes of Star Trek. Over the course of these twenty-four episodes, Star Trek seems to offer a whistle-stop tour of the history of weird fiction, as if contextualising Star Trek within that history.

Enemy mine.

Enemy mine.

Episodes like Spock’s Brain and Wink of an Eye (and even this one) riffing on the work of H.G. Wells. Episodes like Wink of an Eye and The Mark of Gideon draw on folklore around the fair folk and UFOs. Episodes like The Tholian Web, That Which Survives and The Lights of Zetar stop just short of embracing the trappings of the paranormal to tell deep-space ghost stores. Even Is There in Truth No Beauty? borrows quite heavily from the philosophy of horror and science-fiction legend H.P. Lovecraft, while Whom Gods Destroy recalls an Edgar Allan Poe short story.

The look and feel of The Cloud Minders feels like something lifted from the twenties or thirties. There is something very pulpy about it, something that would not feel out of place in a Flash Gordon comic or film. This is reflected in the Art Deco design of Stratos, as well as the costuming and design of the various characters. Plasus is dressed in long flowing robes with a grey beard, even his name suggesting Greek mythology. Droxine is dressed in one of William Ware Theiss’ most memorable outfits, a midriff baring foil dress complete with a flowing silver cape.

As above, as not below.

As above, as not below.

Even the more relatively contemporary aspects of the episode’s production design feel pulpier than usual. The Troglyte miners all wear bright red jumpsuits, but also “shields” to protect their eyes from the light above the ground. These heavy visors feel rooted in a very science-fiction b-movie aesthetic. Indeed, they recall the visor worn by Captain Cold, the comic book villain created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino in June 1957. The design choice might go back even further to the distinctive cycloptic gaze of Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The floating city itself feels like an artifact from a more classic school of science-fiction. The idea of a floating city is a very old concept; in some respects it harks back to Christian depictions of heaven as a city among the clouds. Jonathan Swift included a floating city in Gulliver’s Travels, in the form of Laputa. Of course, Gulliver’s Travels was a clear influence on Star Trek, with its use of imaginary foreign locations as vehicles for commentary on contemporary culture. However, floating cities were quite popular during the twenties and thirties.

The Bespin laid plans...

The Bespin laid plans…

During the twenties, science-fiction writer Hugo Gernsback build the concept into his novel Ralph 124C 41+. In fact, Gernsback described these floating cities as the epitome of leisure, in terms that fit quite comfortably with the depiction of Stratos in The Cloud Minders:

“This,” explained Ralph, “is one of our many vacation cities that I hope will soon dot every part of the world. People are living entirely too intensely nowadays and with the many functions that they have to perform, with all the labour-saving devices they have, their lives are speeded up to the breaking point. The business man or executive must leave his work every month for a few days, if he is not to become a wreck. Heretofore we have sent him to the mountain tops or to the seashore; there he found no rest. The noise, even on top of the mountains, due to the aeroflyers and other vehicles, did not give a man a real rest. On our floating city there is absolute rest. There is no noise, no excitement, not even a wireless telephone.

“This city, 20,000 feet above the ground, is floating in a perfectly clean and uncontaminated air. This air, while less dense than that further down, is renewed automatically every few hours. It is invigorating, just the same as mountain air with all its benefits.”

To be fair, the idea of floating cities as the site of decadent luxury makes a great deal of sense. What could be more decadent and luxurious than a city that floats in the clouds? Even getting past the heaven imagery, a floating city would by definition sit literally above it all.

Rising up.

Rising up.

The floating city is a very classical science-fiction image. After all, Stratos is at best the second most popular floating city in modern science-fiction. The most enduring image of a “Cloud City” in contemporary popular culture is Bespin from Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. As with a lot of the stylistic trappings of those films, producer George Lucas was consciously emulating the look and feel of thirties pulp fiction; those old film serials and well-worn magazine covers.

It is almost as though Kirk and Spock have travelled back through time. Although the special effects used to realise Stratos in the original broadcast episode are corny, even by the standards of sixties television. However, that shot of Kirk and Spock standing on the surface of Stratos looking up at the city in the sky feels like it might easily have adorned the cover of some twenties or thirties science-fiction magazine, perhaps with an accompanying story written by Benny Russell.

Getting tied up in local power struggles.

Getting tied up in local power struggles.

This overlap with the work of Hugo Gernsback is interesting, serving as another example of the third season allowing Kirk to essentially travel through the history of science fiction by visiting the themes and imagery of various key figures. In Is There in Truth No Beauty?, the show took a page for the work of H.P Lovecraft; the episode featured an alien whose very appearance was enough to drive men mad, while also suggesting that the insanity was driven by the pain and noise of existing within the galaxy.

H.G. Wells has been a major influence on the season as well. Wink of an Eye borrowed its premise from Wells’ The New Accelerator, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century short story about a drug with the ability to radically accelerate its user. The season premiere was Spock’s Brain, an episode largely driven on a combination of b-movie clichés and a gender-driven riff on a core premise of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine with the strained relations between Morgs and Eymorgs. The Cloud Minders also borrows from that element of The Time Machine.

That's all they can stand till they can't stand some mortae...

That’s all they can stand till they can’t stand some mortae…

Hugo Gernsback was a key figure in the history of science-fiction, to the point that the origin of the term can be traced back to him. As Patrick Parrinder explains in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction:

“Science Fiction” owes its name – though certainly not, as has sometimes been claimed, its existence – to Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback invented the term ‘scientifiction’ in 1926 to characterise the contents of Amazing Stories, one of the many magazines that he edited. Three years later, he switched to the more euphonious ‘science fiction.’ The widespread adoption of the latter term is signalised by the re-christening of the rival magazine Astounding Stories (originally Astounding Stories of Super-Science) as Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938. For many years after this the term remained exclusively attached to magazine fiction and to the anthologies which reprinted such fictions; it was only in the 1950s that the SF label began to be applied to paperback novels.

Of course, Gernsback is a controversial figure in his own right, particularly with regards to accounts of his own history and his treatment of writers published in his magazines. However, he remains an important part of the genre’s history.

"No, Bones. I refuse to leave until I can justify a foolhardy interventionist action."

“No, Bones. I refuse to leave until I can justify a foolhardy interventionist action.”

Even outside of the floating city itself, The Cloud Minders feels very much like a piece of old-school science-fiction. The stylings and the trappings feel retro even by the standards of the late sixties. This is most obvious in the performance of Jeff Corey. Corey’s delivery is incredibly stagey, even moreso than Shatner’s performance style. However, Corey is simply playing into that clumsy sci-fi dialogue that belabours character and plot exposition with little regard for naturalism. (Naturalism is itself overrated when the episode features a city floating on a cloud.)

“Do you think that Captain Kirk and his very attractive officer will feel that we’re responsible for their injuries?” Droxine asks her father at one point. Plasus forces a chuckle, responding, “All this time I thought you were worried about our diplomatic relations.” Later on, his banter with a captive is similarly forced. “I came to make repairs,” the captive states. “And you shall make them by giving us the names of the Disrupters,” Plasus responds. No flies on him. “I know nothing,” the suspect states. Plasus counters, “I would advise you to increase your knowledge.”

"Oh boy. The Captain has taken some foolhardy interventionist action."

“It would appear that the Captain has taken some foolhardy interventionist action.”

There is a very forced quality to all of this dialogue, almost as though the English language itself is being bent out of shape by characters who do not sound like real people. In a more grounded episode, this dialogue would seem absurd and ridiculous. However, the cheesiness here feels appropriate, with the drama taking on a charming larger-than-life quality by virtue the production’s heightened aesthetic. There are points at which writer Margaret Armen takes it all too far, but the clunky dialogue plays into this retro feel.

There is a certain poetry to some of the dialogue spoken by the characters, rich with metaphors and allegories that in no way resemble actual conversation. When Kirk insists that he needs to get the precious mineral within the next few hours, Vanna responds, “Hours can be centuries, just as words can be lies.” When Kirk tells her about the gas, Vanna protests, “It’s hard to believe something which is neither seen nor felt can do so much harm.” Kirk observes, “But an idea can’t be seen or felt. That’s what’s kept the Troglytes in the mines all these centuries, a mistaken idea.”

Material problems.

Material problems.

The pulpy old-school aesthetic is reinforced by what might be the corniest act break in the run of the series, as Kirk lies sleeping and Vanna approaches him brandishing a mortae. It is a very cheesy sequence, one that feels almost like the act-out of an old film serial or the cliffhanger at the end of a Batman! episode. In fact, the next act seems to fade right back in at the very next frame. This leads the second sequence of Kirk wrestling in bed with a knife-wielding woman in as many episodes. A lot of Kirk’s romantic reputation developed over the course of this third season.

Even the allegory at the heart of The Cloud Minders feels decidedly retro, as if plucked from a twenties or thirties science-fiction film. While not quite as obvious as the message at the heart of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the moral of The Cloud Minders is framed in such literal terms that it harks back to the earliest days the genre. This is a story in which the cultured inhabitants of Stratos are positioned as literally an upper class, exploiting the labour of a literal lower class.

A stab in the dark.

A stab in the dark.

Again, this feels very much like an homage to classic science-fiction. Annette Kuhn argues in The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema that the story draws quite heavily from a classic of twenties science-fiction:

Another episode, The Cloud Minders, reworks Metropolis’ oppositions of high vs low, intellect vs labour, light vs dark. Here, the Enterprise crew must obtain a rare mineral from the planet Ardana, which is currently engaged in a fierce struggle between the cloud minders, the ruling class who live in a magnificent city high above the ground, and the Troglodytes who mine the mineral deep within the bowels of the planet. As in Metropolis, enmity between rulers and workers is extreme, the rulers insistent that the workers are mentally inferior, incapable of ruling themselves let alone of sharing power with the cloud-dwelling elite. Again, as in Metropolis, a mediator must be found to resolve the divisions.

To be fair, this a fairly universal theme in science-fiction, given the genre’s flexibility and tendency towards allegory. But the retro stylings and the classic aesthetic do invite the comparison.

The sexual tension is in the Stratosphere.

The sexual tension is in the Stratosphere.

Still, the theme of The Cloud Miners is very relevant to the sixties. In fact, it is very relevant today. If Let That Be Your Last Battlefield distils racism to its purest ideological form, then The Cloud Miners does something similar for the issue of class within a capitalist system. The suggestion that the lower classes are being stoked by manipulative “disruptors” spoke to sixties about myriad social movements that many credited to communist sedition. Martin Luther King was wire-tapped by the FBI under suspicion of associating with communist collaborators.

Plasus attempts to dismiss the Troglyte movement as the work of “a small group of Troglyte malcontents.” Accoridng to Plasus, the Troglytes are simply being manipulated and provoked by these “disruptors”, who are operating according to a sinister and secret agenda. “All the other Troglytes are completely dominated by them. It’s the disrupters who are responsible for their refusal to continue mining for zenite.” The appeal of this belief is quite obvious. If this revolution is the work of outside actors, the root causes do not need to be addressed.

Rocky road to equality.

Rocky road to equality.

To a certain extent, this reflects a common reactionary attitude towards various progressive social movements. There is a tendency to dismiss or belittle theses campaigns as the work of a few rowdy agitators seeking to undermine the established order rather than engaging with the underlying problems. The John Birch Society infamously insisted that the civil rights movement was being driven by communist agents hoping to establish a “Negro Soviet Republic” on American soil. It was an argument that at once appealed to patriotism and dismissed the civil rights movement.

The Cloud Minders aired at a point in time when these social movements threatened to tear the country apart. The sixties was a turbulent decade, marked by protests and upheaval that threatened the status quo. Towards the end of the decade, those movements took an apocalyptic turn towards riots and civil unrest. The establishment was uncomfortable enough with the peaceful protests organised by Martin Luther King, let alone more militant wings of the civil rights movement like the Black Panthers.

Shady operations...

Shady operations…

While a lot the debate about social strife in the sixties tends to focus on the civil rights movement, issues of class were creeping into the American consciousness. Class is a touchy subject in America, in large part because it runs counter to the myth of self-invention that informs the American dream. People emigrate from countries with rigid class structures to America, in the hope that they might be able to break free and strike out on their own terms. The existence of a firm class culture would run counter to that myth.

Still, class became an issue in the sixties, following on from the prosperity of the fifties. Unemployment and poverty were on the rise through the early part of the decade. In January 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson used his first State of the Union to declare “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” In early 1968, Martin Luther King would launch The Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at drawing awareness to the suffering of the disenfranchised. King’s last book proposed a solution to poverty.

Cities in the sky.

Cities in the sky.

In Coming Apart, writer Charles Murray argues that the sixties brought popular attention to the existence of a lower class in American public life:

At the time, the poor were not seen as a class, either by other Americans or in their own eyes. The poor were working-class people who didn’t make much money. They were expected to participate in the institutions of American life just as everybody else did. When white Americans thought about the lower class, a lot of them thought in terms of race – that’s one of the bad realities of 1960. Insofar as they thought of a lower class among whites, they had in mind people at the fringes of American life – the broken-down denizens of the Bowery and Skid Row, or the people known as white trash. In the years after 1960, America developed something new: a white lower class that did not consist of a fringe, but of a substantial part of what was formerly the working-class population.

This is very much the context in which The Cloud Minders was broadcast, addressing a subject that was still relatively new to American public consciousness.

Wrangling with forces beyond their control.

Wrangling with forces beyond their control.

Ironically, the commentary at the heart of The Cloud Minders has only gotten more relevant as time has marched on. In the western world as a whole, the economic gap between rich and poor has broadened significantly. And it just keeps growing. Although the overall poverty rate has dropped four percent in the fifty years since the launch of the “war on poverty”, people are more likely to be affected by poverty and unemployment while in their prime working years. Americans are aware of the growing divide, but do not rank it as a pressing concern.

The Cloud Minders touches on this idea repeatedly. During a rather corny sequence early in the episode, Spock pauses to ruminate on the nature of this society. He is genuinely curious as to how much or how little the inhabitants of Stratos seem to know about what happens on the surface of the planet. “If the lovely Droxine knew of the young miner’s misery, I wonder how the knowledge would affect her,” Spock observes. Spock seems to imply that Droxine would likely feel empathy for the lower classes, if only she were aware of their suffering.

The robe less taken...

The robe less taken…

One of the episode’s cleverer (and crueller) twists is the reveal that Droxine is entirely aware of what is happening. She knows the suffering of the people on the planet below. She just doesn’t care. She has become numb to it. Plasus does not torture Vanna in private, he does it in broad daylight in a public part of the city. The episode never suggests that Vanna’s punishment is meant to be public spectacle; certainly no crowd gathers. What happens is even more unsettling; people just walk on by, ignoring the pain and suffering being inflicted. People are wilfully oblivious.

To be fair, The Cloud Minders seems to suggest that it is not only the inhabitants of Stratos who turn a blind eye to the suffering of the lower classes. Repeatedly over the course of The Cloud Minders, audience members are reminded of the fact that Ardana is a member of the the Federation. “Ardana is a member of the Federation,” Kirk advises Plasus, “and it is your council’s responsibility that nothing interferes with its obligation to another member of the Federation.”

Tortured prose.

Tortured prose.

Indeed, Ardana has been conscripted to help solve the plague on Merak II precisely because it is a Federation member. This makes it clear that the Federation believes in a redistributive policy alien to Stratos itself. However, the Federation seems to have been oblivious to what is happening on the planet. Even Kirk seemed to miss it on his prior visit. Kirk insists that he “didn’t have time to look around.” Still, there is a sense that far too many people, even beyond Stratos itself, have turned a blind eye to what is a glaring and transparent problem.

Stratos seems to rise higher and higher above the lower class who serve to keep it afloat. Even the way that people talk about economic (rather than racial) equality has not evolved that far from the sixties. Much like Plasus blames the “disruptors” for unrest among the Troglytes, politicians like Glenn Beck still accuse “communists and anti-capitalists” of stoking movements like Black Lives matter. While there have been undeniable steps forward in areas like civil rights, there is a still reluctance to talk about economic inequality in contemporary America.

Struggles of the working class.

Struggles of the working class.

To be fair, there is a sense that the conversation might finally be happening. The failed presidential campaign of Bernie Saunders did a lot to destigmatise the word “socialist” in American political discourse. However, Donald Trump was still able to attack Saunders as a “socialist-slash-communist” while Lindsey Graham could take a cheap shot by joking that Saunders holidayed in the Soviet Union. Surveys suggest that Americans are less likely to vote for (and more likely to vote against) a socialist on principle than any other label.

In that context, The Cloud Minders seems striking for an episode of television that aired in 1969. It rather unambiguously advocates for a more just society with a more even distribution of wealth. Although Star Trek: The Next Generation would reimagine the Federation as a socialist utopia, it is fascinating to see Star Trek broach these ideas in such an overt fashion at a point when the Cold War was still ongoing; particularly when the show had been fond of stock anti-communist parables in episodes like The Return of the Archons or This Side of Paradise.

Child of privilege.

Child of privilege.

Indeed, it should be noted that Star Trek is typically far less progressive and liberal than most fans would argue. While fans can point to episodes like Errand of Mercy or Day of the Dove as critiquing the Vietnam War, it is just as easy to point to episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever, Friday’s Child, The Apple, A Private Little War or The Omega Glory as patriotic defences of American foreign policy. The handling of youth counterculture in episodes like This Side of Paradise, And the Children Shall Lead and The Way to Eden felt quite reactionary.

Even episodes that embraced progressive ideas seemed reluctant to commit. The Turnabout Intruder was clearly intended as a condemnation of sexism, but ended up as a tone-deaf example of such prejudice. For all that Let That Be Your Last Battlefield points out the absurdity of racism, it seems to suggest that those struggling against racism share some of the blame for the ensuing social unrest. Star Trek could often seem quite stern, told from the perspective of a well-intentioned and loving parent staring with bewilderment at a confusing world.

Keeping Kirk in the dark.

Keeping Kirk in the dark.

So it is no surprise that The Cloud Minders fumbles the ending of the story. Kirk seems to magically solve inequality by distributing gas masks. The story was originally conceived by writer David Gerrold. Talking about the broadcast episode in These Are the Voyages, Gerrold was unsatisfied by how Armen wrote the ending:

Armen’s final version did not please David Gerrold. He complained, “She turned it into ‘If we just get the little slaves to wear these little masks they’ll be happy working in the zenite mines and they won’t bla, bla, bla; the rest of us can be happy living in the clouds.’ Philosophically, what they did to it is they butchered it. It was no longer a subversive statement that we cannot live in castles of privilege and think that we can get away with it without paying a price. There is a price to pay.”

It should be noted that Gerrold was a much younger writer than most of the rest of the staff working on Star Trek. It makes sense that his politics would have a more radical and progressive bent to them, and that the production team would feel rather uncomfortable following his ideas to their logical conclusion.

Phaser-point diplomacy.

Phaser-point diplomacy.

Naturally, Gerrold had conceived of a radically different ending to the episode in question. Gerrold had originally wanted to end the episode with Kirk forcing the upper and lower classes to negotiate with one another, acknowledging that it would be a long a gruelling process. Gerrold outlined this ending in The World of Star Trek:

In the end, as the Enterprise breaks orbit, Kirk remarks on this, as if inaugurating the problem-solving procedure is the same as solving the problem. He pats himself on the back and says, “We’ve got them talking. It’s just a matter of time until they find the right direction.” And McCoy who is standing right next to him, looks at him and says, “Yes, but how many children will die in the meantime?”

This answer was not a facile one; the viewer was meant to be left as uneasy as Kirk.

It would certainly have been a bleak ending for Star Trek, even by the standards of a third season where a significant portion of episodes have ended in either attempted or realised genocide. It is an ending that Gene L. Coon would have struggled to realise, and it had no chance of getting past a more conservative producer like Fred Freiberger.

Tension on board.

Tension on board.

The production of The Cloud Minders was a long and convoluted process, even by the standards of the third season as a whole. There are three credited writers on the story, with David Gerrold sharing a credit with Oliver Crawford on the story while Margaret Armen was credited on the script. That is quite a diverse array of Star Trek talent, an episode built from bits and pieces thrown together by the writers of The Trouble with Tribbles, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield and The Gamesters of Triskelion. No wonder the result is something of a mess.

The Cloud Minders would lead to something of a rift between producer Fred Freiberger and writer David Gerrold. Along with D.C. Fontana and Margaret Armen, Gerrold would be one of the architects of the narrative that cast Freiberger as the “bad guy” in the context of the third season. While Freiberger moved on to other projects after the third season of Star Trek, Gerrold, Fontana and Armen would remain actively involved in the franchise. All three wrote for Star Trek: The Animated Series. As such, they got to set the narrative around the franchise.

Get him to the Greek... fashion outlet. Quickly.

Get him to the Greek… fashion outlet. Quickly.

As with Armen’s account of a producer who reduced Star Trek to little more than “tits in space”, Gerrold’s account of Freiberger emphasises the producer as an outsider who does not understand the series. In Starlog, Gerrold recalled his first encounter with Freiberger:

The first time I met him, he had seen exactly six episodes of the series. His first words to me were, “I saw your show this afternoon, Gerrold, The Trouble With Tribbles. I didn’t like it. Star Trek isn’t a comedy.”

I have to admit something here. That did not endear him to me.

It is a very telling introduction. Gerrold makes it clear that Freiberger has no frame of reference for Star Trek. He then has Freiberger denigrate a (rightly) beloved episode. Finally, he has Freiberger impose his own vision of what Star Trek should be, at the expense of somebody who actually wrote for the show.

Red lights.

Red lights.

During the seventies and eighties, a narrative built up around the third season that blamed Fred Freiberger for its many shortcomings. This account was largely driven by the stories told by those who remained involved in the running of the franchise. After all, Fontana and Gerrold were heavily involved in the early days of The Next Generation. In contrast, it was very easy for the fandom to treat Freiberger as a transient element. It was not until the nineties that the narrative began to change with Herb Solow and Robert Justman’s Inside Star Trek.

To be fair to Gerrold and Fontana, there is a reason that fandom venerates these writers. Fontana is one of the best writers to have worked on the franchise, and her work as script editor on the first two seasons ensured a consistency that was sorely lacking in the third. Gerrold is one of the most genuinely progressive writers to work on the franchise, as his story for The Cloud Miners and his aborted script for Blood and Fire demonstrates. Gerrold is also a hugely accomplished science-fiction writer in his own right and one of the franchise’s best comedy writers.

Late season slump.

Late season slump.

There is definitely some legitimacy to these criticisms of Freiberger. Freiberger lacked the understanding of Star Trek shared by earlier producers like Gene L. Coon and John Meredyth Lucas. Freiberger was more of a generic television producer than a science-fiction expert. Freiberger was a little bit lost in terms of the universe and its characters, particularly after Robert Justman left around Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. More than that, Freiberger had a patronising view of audiences, insisting romance was the only way to lure female viewers.

However, there is also a sense that Freiberger has been blamed for factors outside of his control. The loss of key personnel like Gene L. Coon, Gene Roddenberry and Robert Justman was not his choice. The budget cuts that crippled the series were not his choice. A lot of the decisions that he made early in the season were in part driven by deference to and respect for Gene Roddenberry, including commissioning sexist and racist scripts like Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome.

Masking his disappointment.

Masking his disappointment.

Even in this particular case, there is a sense that Gerrold might be misblaming Freiberger. Freiberger did decline to produce More Tribbles, More Troubles and Bem, the two comedic episodes pitched by Gerrold. However, Freiberger was not the only creative voice who objected to comedy. Gene Roddenberry had protested second season episodes like I, Mudd, The Trouble with Tribbles and A Piece of the Action, which contributed to his declining relationship with then-producer Gene L. Coon who loved those episodes. Tellingly, Gerrold worked on the first two of those three.

It seems entirely reasonably that Freiberger declined a comedy script from David Gerrold out of deference to Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry might not have been executive producer at this point, but Freiberger trusted his input on the show. Roddenberry’s enthusiasm seemed to be the driving force behind Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome, while Freiberger would have Roddenberry write the scripts for The Savage Curtain and The Turnabout Intruder, two of the last three episodes produced.

Unwashed and somewhat slightly fazed.

Unwashed and somewhat slightly phased.

In fact, The Cloud Minders arrived at a point in the season where Freiberger seemed willing to make the show his own. Despite his reluctance to commission comedies early in the year, he had reached out to Shari Lewis to commission a light-hearted comedy episode for the show that eventually developed in another direction towards The Lights of Zetar. In an interview with Starlog, Freiberger claimed to have been a champion of Gerrold:

Gerrold called one day and said he’d like to bring in a story. I didn’t know him, but Bobby Justman said, “This is the guy who did Trouble with Tribbles.” I said, “Gee, let’s have him in.” He came in with a story and I liked the concept very much… and we gave him the assignment. He wrote the story, and my story editor, Arthur Singer, said, “Cut him off. Terrible. Amateurish job.” I said to Bobby, “How many credits has this guy had?” Bobby says he thinks the only  other show he wrote that was produced was the Tribbles. I said, “Well, he is kind of an amateur, but let’s try to work with him.”

Again he came in. Gerrold talks about that brilliant thing he did… how Kirk stood by and let everybody solve their problems.  That’s basically a violation of everything dramatic in any of my training in terms of doing a series. Anyway, he brings in the script again, and if I can recall my story editor’s words… it was “a dull, polemical tract and  boring philosophical discourse.” He said, “Cut him off.” I said, “No, let’s work with him. He did that other show.” So Gerrold did another version, which, in our opinion, was still very bad. Both Bobby Justman and my story editor said, “Why waste any  more time?” I said, “Let’s go with him,” and pulled in Ollie Crawford. I figured if I put a good dramatic writer together with a kid who had a good science-fiction concept, it could work.

Ollie worked with him. Finally, it didn’t work out. We brought in Margaret Armen  who did the final script. It never came out as  well as… it’s one of those concepts that I felt was just wonderful… just didn’t work out all  the way.

In Freiberger’s defence, this account seems to fit with his approach to the third season. Freiberger was willing (or was forced) to commission scripts from outsiders. He frequently encouraged them to develop the stories themselves with input, rather than taking the scripts in-house and rewriting them. It was this model that had led to weird and wonderful episodes like Is There in Truth Non Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web from first-time writers.

Silver St. (of the) Cloud.

Silver St. (of the) Cloud.

It seems that Robert Justman was just as critical of Gerrold’s work as Freiberger had been, but Gerrold has never criticised Justman as brutally and as scathingly as he has criticised Freiberger. Of course, Justman has a much longer and more distinguished career in terms of Star Trek, and certainly had a much better grasp of the fictional universe than either Fred Freiberger or Arthur Singer. More than that, Justman would return to the franchise in later years, remaining part of the extended Star Trek family in a way that Freiberger did not.

Gerrold’s frustration is entirely understandable. His ending is much stronger and more effective than the ending that made it to screen. He is right to be upset about how the story was treated, just as he is right to be upset at the way Blood and Fire was treated during the first season of The Next Generation. At the same time, it is hard to see how Gerrold would have had an easier time pitching the script to any producer who wasn’t Gene L. Coon. Roddenberry was unhappy with Gerrold’s second season work, and Justman questioned his abilities. And Coon was long gone.

Get to the point.

Get to the point.

With all of this drama happening behind the scenes, Margaret Armen was drafted in to write the script from the original story pitch. Armen had delivered the scripts for The Gamesters of Triskilion and The Paradise Syndrome. She was seen as reliable and efficient. According to These Are the Voyages, she was being auditioned for the role of staff writer. She offered her account of events in an interview with Starlog:

“Freddy Freiberger called me in,” Armen remembers, “and said that he had two writers, he didn’t tell me who, from whom he had gotten this story. He said, ‘I don’t  want you to look at the teleplay, Margaret. It doesn’t work. It’s all philosophising and talk. We need something with action. It’s a good basic theme and a good basic story, and we’re going to tell you the story. From that, we want you to start from scratch and do a scene breakdown and hopefully, a  teleplay.’ All they told me was that part of  the society was living on the planet’s surface in great luxury, and the larger part of the society was down in caves working like slaves and kept that way.

“As I say,” she continues, “I never saw David Gerrold’s work [outline] nor did I see Oliver Crawford’s, so I don’t know that it was static and didn’t work. I wondered how in the world I could add action into this philosophical notion, and that’s why I added the gas in the caves which numbed the people’s minds so that they appear to be stupid. For all I know, the story’s first draft and teleplay may have been even more acceptable than mine, but mine happened to be what the producer wanted.”

The teleplay was not to the satisfaction of the production team, so Armen was not brought on to the writing staff. Not that there would be a writing staff for much longer. The teleplay to The Cloud Minders is very much a Margaret Armen script, which accounts for the awkward dialogue, the clumsy exposition and the reliance of pulpy cliché. However, in spite of these flaws, The Cloud Minders is easily Armen’s best work on the show.

Purple prose.

Purple prose.

Most notably, Armen struggles with the voices of her characters. In particular, she does not seem to understand Spock. Indeed, the absence of either Dorothy Fontana or Robert Justman at this point in the process shows through. Spock’s behaviour is stunningly out of sorts. Most notably, Spock flirts shamelessly with Droxine. It is a character decision that carries over from Freiberger and Singer’s revisions to The Enterprise Incident, but Spock’s flirtations feel particularly awkward here.

Much like The Paradise Syndrome, Armen is unable to communicate necessary information through action or dialogue. As a result, The Cloud Minders resorts to giving Spock a cheesy expository voiceover in the same way that The Paradise Syndrome gave Kirk some cringe-inducing internal monologues. Some of the exposition is quite effective, particularly as Spock ponders if Droxine is knowingly complicit in the corrupt system. However, there is something distinctly out of character in having Spock’s internal monologue describe “the lovely Droxine.”

Spock's deeply personal log.

Spock’s deeply personal log.

More than that, Spock and Droxine have an extended conversation about pon’farr. Droxine asks “You only take a mate once every seven years?” Spock is practically a public safety announcement. “The seven-year cycle is biologically inherent in all Vulcans. At that time, the mating drive outweighs all other motivations.” Droxine asks the question many Spock fans were pondering, “And is there nothing that can disturb that cycle, Mister Spock?” Spock shameless flirts, “Extreme feminine beauty is always disturbing, madam.” Oh, how coy.

Given the difficulty that Kirk had in getting Spock to discuss pon’farr in Amok Time, it seems a rather strange (albeit highly sensuous) conversation. “Even we do not speak of it among ourselves,” Spock had warned Kirk during that second season episode. As such it seems strange that either Spock would bring the subject up with Droxine, or Droxine would have encountered information about the subject from some other source. Then again, all the later Star Trek shows do treat pon’farr as common knowledge.

Sharp observation.

Sharp observation.

There are quite a few moments like this, where it seems like The Cloud Minders struggles with its characters and plot beats. The climax of the episode is particularly ridiculous, hinging on Kirk intentionally giving himself brain damage to prove a point to both Plasus and Vanna. In theory, it sounds like a great example of showing rather than telling, but it is also incredibly risky. What if Kirk killed Plasus? What is Plasus killed Kirk? What if everybody killed everybody else? It is a clumsy example of the episode straining to provide an action-driven climax.

There are very serious issue with The Cloud Minder, most of them in terms of plot and dialogue. The episode certainly isn’t anywhere near as ambitious and bold as the story pitched by David Gerrold. At the same time, it is an iconic piece of Star Trek. In terms of visuals and imagery, The Cloud Minders is one of the most memorable episodes of the original run. It also deals with big questions, and bold science-fiction ideas, even if it offers a somewhat trite solution to this dilemma.

This Plasus us.

This Plasus us.

The Cloud Minders is not a brilliant piece of Star Trek, but is an ambitious and distinctive one. That seems to be the tone that the third season is striking most consistently.

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9 Responses

  1. “The existence of a firm class culture would run counter to that myth.” I have always found this myth very amusing, as I grew up the South where class structure was very much a thing, and arguably still is. There were the plantation owners, the poor whites, and the African Americans. The plantation owners pretty cleverly demonized slaves to make the poor whites feel superior and on the same level as the plantation owners, even though poor whites were actually much closer to slaves.
    .
    “Gerrold had originally wanted to end the episode with Kirk forcing the upper and lower classes to negotiate with one another.” It sounds like he wanted to pay homage to probably the most well respected Science Fiction film at the time, Metropolis.

    • I think I allude to it in the review, but I couldn’t find the speech. There’s a great Martin Luther King speech about how racism serves to conceal classism, because it allowed poor whites to insist that they had a better lot in life than poor blacks, that they were not at the bottom of the proverbial hill. It’s a very interesting and well-argued point, and the more I look at issues like class and economics, the more truth I think there is too it.

      And you’re right. There’s a very definite (and very strong) Metropolis vibe to the whole episode. I love Metropolis.

  2. In Freiberger’s defense, I think the network would have balked at Gerrold’s original version. The network didn’t want episodes that were too political, because they didn’t want to upset either the audience or the advertisers. Freiberger was well aware of these concerns and had a pretty good feel for how much the network would swallow. Star Trek couldn’t put on anything it wanted; it could only put on what the network would allow.

    The way I make the whole Spock/Droxine thing make sense to myself is by thinking that Spock has watched Kirk use his charisma to accomplish mission-related goals for the past several years, and Spock is a VERY intelligent man. He’s watched Kirk flirt with women to distract the woman, to secure her help, to gain more information about the situation, to stall for time, and so on, so he knows this is a tactic that can be used successfully.

    Now there’s clearly something happening on Ardana that Kirk and Spock need more information about, but Plasus gives them meaningless reassurances that they’ll get the xenite they need but no actual information. Droxine seems drawn to Spock, so I figure Spock flirts with her to try to get information out of her, since he’s watched Kirk do the same thing so many times. That’s probably not what the script intended us to think, but that’s how I rationalize it in my own mind, to keep from throwing things at the TV. 🙂

    • I’m very sympathetic to Fred Freiberger generally. Or at least I hope I am. I don’t let him off the hook, I think, but I try to understand why he made the decisions that he did. And I can understand a lot of why he didn’t give David Gerrold the free reign that the latter wanted. Partly because of the realities of television production at the time and partly because Gerrold was really still a whipper-snapper who didn’t seem to play particularly well in teams, which is an essential part of writing for television.

      I just find it interesting that Gerrold was one of the most genuinely progressive writers to work on Star Trek, and he struggled to make himself heard, in spite of the show’s reputation for progressivism. The same thing would happen with Blood and Fire on The Next Generation.

      (I suspect that Gerrold’s the most progressive senior creative figure until Bryan Fuller, with the possible exception of Rene Echevarria. Who does not get enough credit for his little choices.)

  3. The Encyclopedia Shatnerica (mostly jokingly) implies ‘The Cloud Minders’ was inspired by the behind the scenes friction between Shatner, Nimoy and the rest of the cast. Though I suppose that is class politics of a sort!

    This is another one I can’t really remember. Beautiful imagery though, like something out of ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’.

    • Yep. The third season has a lot of that. Generic plot, beautiful imagery. I think there’s a reason that so much of it lingers in the memory, despite the season’s (somewhat unfair) reputation.

      I had never heard of Encyclopedia Shatnerica, but now I’m googling it. I love William Shatner as a pop culture touchstone, more myth than man. And I like the idea that the episode is about Shatner/Nimoy. Which one is the one doing all the work for none of the reward?

      • It is alluded to as part of the ‘High Chair Controversy’ a bizarre 1967 conflict over the size of folding chairs on the Star Trek set – apparently Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley had notably better chairs than the supporting players and when Koenig was able to parlay his popularity into getting a similar perk the others started demanding equal heights (to use a Pratchettism.)

        I know what you mean about the man and the myth. ‘The Encyclopedia’ is a lot of fun, even if it is not quite as good as ‘Up Till Now’ (the Encyclopedia can be a bit catty while Shatner’s autobiography is self deprecating.) What they both do is give you a suprisingly good and absolutely fascinating glimpse into the career of a very long working actor who started in the Golden Age of Television in the late 50s and has done everything in every genre. This is the same man who stared in both ‘Judgement at Nuremburg’ and ‘Big Bad Mama’.

        I’m sure there are many other actors who have similar resumes, but the advantage of Shatner is that we get to hear it.

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