Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Silly Monsters, III: Star Trek

Star Trek's Top Ten

I've been trying to write a Top Ten list of Star Trek episodes, you know, and getting pretty much nowhere. I've realized that while some episodes are way, way better--or worse--than others, the show's overall appeal doesn't break down like that. It's not the individual plots that makes this great myth, it's the underlying themes.

Instead of Top Ten episodes, a list of Top Ten Themes, and scenes illustrating them, is more fitting.

Some of them are "in universe" (i.e., they would be "real" to the characters themselves). Those would include themes of

And some of them come from the "real-life" perspective, i.e. the things the makers and the viewers bring to the show, including:
American/global politics of the 1960s (Cold War/Vietnam War)
Sixties social issues (racism, hippies, etc.)
Slash (fan re-interpretations along homoerotic lines)
Special Effects

(Some themes fall into both categories--friendship and physics, for instance.)

The themes surface willy-nilly, here and there, throughout the show's three years, even in the third and worst season.
You sometimes find the best illustrations of key themes in the worst stinkers of the episodes.

"And the Children Shall Lead" and Salvific Friendship

For example, the almost unwatchable "And the Children Shall Lead"--about some truly pukey children under sway of an evil lawyer, I mean alien (played by Melvin Belli, a real-life lawyer known for personal-injury lawsuits)--contains one of the best displays of how Spock and Kirk's friendship works, in one of the best of the "elevator moments" (below), those insightful scenes that occur in the privacy of the starship's elevator to the bridge. (That would be a list in itself, which doubtless someone has compiled.)

The nasty children try to take control of the bridge crew by making Kirk, Uhura, Sulu etc. experience their worst fears. Spock's deep practice of mind-control leaves him immune. (Which in itself is a theme of the show: the complex and contradictory nature of things. Spock's emotional repression is both a blessing and a curse.)

Anyway, the kids disable Kirk by making him think he is losing command. Seeing the captain frozen, Spock literally drags him off the bridge onto the elevator, where Shatner does some of his best worst acting (the man is a genius--we howl at his cheesiness and yet recognize ourselves in him at the same time).

Kirk is freaking out, thrashing around saying he is "alone, alone," which of course he is not. His Patroclus (right), Spock, is with him and restores him to sanity simply by saying his name, "Jim." (And there's another mythic theme: the power of knowing someone or some thing's true name.)

There's no way this episode makes the Top Ten Best list, or even the Top Ten Best of the Worst. There's nothing in it so bad it's good, unlike, say, in the delectably bad "Spock's Brain." But you can't fully grok Spock-and-Kirk without that scene in the elevator.

And the scene doesn't make sense without the rest of the episode, so there it is, the elements inextricably all mixed up, just like in love. As Molly Ivins said, you got to dance with them what brung you.

"Arena" and DIY

While "ATCSL" is a famously stupid episode with one noble scene, "Arena," in which Kirk fights the Gorn captain (left--sort of an erect Komodo dragon), is one long, excellent paeon of praise to the DIY philosophy, both in-universe and real-world.

For its consistency of theme and amusement value, I rank "Arena" among Star Trek's Best of the Best.

The in-universe DIY theme shows up because supposedly advanced aliens trap Kirk on a planet without any of his high-tech toys to face his merciless Gorn enemy.

The aliens tell Kirk that they will provide material he can use to kill the Gorn, and much of the plot revolves around our boy Jim figuring out what these materials might be, while he dances around in his signature bouncy style, from rock to rock, evading the killer lizard.

The materials turn out to be the elements of gunpowder--by the 23rd century, a truly outmoded technology, but one which Kirk recalls and uses to make a DIY rudimentary cannon. And then he knocks out but refuses to kill the enemy captain, thus demonstrating that humans are not such thoughtless brutes as the aliens had supposed.

From the real-world perspective, this episode can be read as a cautionary tale: as humanity gets more and more powerful, we shouldn't forget the basics, both the physical how-to basics and the moral ones that save us from ourselves.

This episode is great, too, because its message is even more potent forty years later, in the 21st century, when so many of us (myself included) rely on technology we know squat about.

And Lordy, lordy, the pleasure we get out of the dimestore rubber-lizard costume is its own justification, isn't it? It's this sort of thing that encourages, enables, empowers legions of fans to say, "Let's make our own version in the garage."

This is one of the noble basics of being human, displayed by everyone from a contrary toddler to Our Favorite Captain: the willingness to be a fool by Doing It Ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Lee here: You know, speaking of the Gorn, isn't he kind of a metaphor for the sluggish life-draining force that haunts us? He's always there, rasping and hissing, slow but immensely strong and almost impossible to kill. And yet, he's also a part of ourselves, which is why our Kirk-aspect refuses, in the end, to kill off our Gorn-aspect.
We have our dancing, hopping, clever mammalian side, and our torpid, brute-force, stiff reptilian side, and on some level they still need each other. Our Gorn-brain and our Kirk-brain, working together to form the hemispheres of life.

fresca said...

Well said! Thanks. I found this funny bit on the human "lizard brain" at The Edge from the View:
The medulla oblongata is not a wind instrument in the bassoon section of the symphony. It is the lowest and most primitive portion of the human brain, responsible for such autonomous basal functions as heart beat, respiration, and golf. Often referred to as the lizard brain because it is similar in structure and function to the brain in reptiles, a phylum not often seen wearing outlandish plaids and knickers.