Thoughts on third-season Star Trek (OS)

So last year while I was tackling The Aliens Are Here, Netflix lost streaming rights to Star Trek. As I didn’t want to pay to watch the third season I bided my time until I could rent the DVDs from Durham Library and finish the series in three weeks (I have about two weeks to go). I’d have preferred weekly viewing — there’s a lot of bad episodes this season — but I’d sooner save the money.

The series is a far cry from S1. There’s nothing I’d consider classic or really good. That said, it’s better than I expected. I’ll get into more detail when I finish the season but I wanted to take today and look at two famous episodes, one better than I remembered and one worse.

“Plato’s Stepchildren” is best known for having the first interracial kiss on TV. The Enterprise arrives on a planet ruled by psionic immortals whose past visits to Earth exposed them to Greek philosophy. They’ve modeled themselves on Plato’s ideal society, except that Parmen (Liam Sullivan), the leader, is a brutal tyrant. He smugly proclaims a society that grants authority based on mind-power is ideal — which has totally nothing to do with his having the strongest mind, no sirree!At the bottom of the hierarchy is Alexander, a dwarf played by Michael Dunn, the great Dr. Loveless of Wild, Wild West. Alexander has no psi-power, he lacks the physical perfection of the other Platonians, so he assumes they look down on him as an inferior. It’s only when they start torturing Kirk, Spock and McCoy that Alexander realizes it’s not him — they’re bullies who’ll push around anyone they can dominate.

The episode isn’t great. They spend far too much time on the Platonians tormenting the Enterprise crew, using their tremendous TK power to manipulate them like puppets (the interracial kiss is one example of that). But Dunn’s performance makes up for much of that. So does Sullivan, who does a fine job playing an arrogant, entitled prick. Despite it’s footnote status in TV history, I hadn’t thought much of this episode, but the acting redeems it some.

“Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” is another famous one, routinely brought up when clueless people complain about Star Trek getting all political and woke and shit. This episode shows the Trek-verse was always political, but that doesn’t make it good.

The alien Lokai (Lou Antonio) is captured trying to steal a shuttle. Then his pursuer, Bele (Frank Gorshin) shows up, demanding custody of Lokai, a revolutionary he claims has killed untold numbers of Bele’s people. Lokai replies that he’s a political refugee: Bele’s people kept his in slavery and after it ended, they were still denied full rights. Bele insists that if they didn’t gain full equality it’s because they weren’t equal.The twist: while the two men see themselves as separate races, to Kirk and Spock, having the white and black sides of their face reversed is a trivial thing. To Bele and Lokai it’s everything. When they return to their homeworld and find race wars have wiped their people out, they can’t give up — Lokai keeps running and Bele can’t stop pursuing.

Coming in the late 1960s, after increasing racial conflicts, protests and riots (the Watts riots of 1965 were still a vivid memory), the message is clear: two races fighting against each other can only bring death and destruction. We have to get past black and white to colorblindness or we’ll ravage our world like the aliens did. And besides, is there really that much difference between us?

As presented here, it’s a bad message. It reminds me of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s quote that if the elephant has its foot on the mouse’s tail, neutrality only benefits the elephant. Bele’s people did keep Lokai’s as slave; near the end, as they return to their homeworld, Bele gloats that Lokai’s race have been penned up enclaves or ghettos where they can be controlled. Watching today, I can’t but see Bele as the bad guy.

The show doesn’t seem to think so. At one point we see Lokai rabble-rousing on the lower decks by describing his people’s suffering to the crew; Spock listens with a frown but nothing comes of it. It’s meant to imply that Lokai’s just a race hustler; Kirk comments at one point that while his followers may have died, Lokai obviously didn’t (of course one could make the same point about Enterprise red shirts …). Bele gets to dine with Spock and Kirk; Lokai doesn’t.

It feels like the script is siding with the people — and there were many — who just wanted all the racial conflict to stop. And not stop by putting an end to racism, but by having those angry black people just settle down and be patient. Don’t stir up violence by asking for equality. As this Martin Luther King quote says, it’s like asking the Israelites to just keep baking bricks — stop stirring up Egypt by demanding freedom!

So not the searing commentary on then-contemporary politics it’s meant to be.

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Filed under TV

3 responses to “Thoughts on third-season Star Trek (OS)

  1. Pingback: Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy! | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: A Bite of "The Apple" ⋆ Atomic Junk Shop

  3. Pingback: Better than I expected: the original Star Trek’s third season | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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