Friday, July 15, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback: Star Trek's "This Side of Paradise"

This week, I want to highlight my all-time favorite episode of Star Trek (The Original Series), the first season entry entitled "This Side of Paradise," directed by Ralph Senensky and written by D.C. Fontana (from a story by Fontana and Nathan Butler).

Set on Stardate 3417.3, this 25th episode of Star Trek (which first aired March 2, 1967) saw the U.S.S. Enterprise arrive at planet Omicron Ceti III. The crew expected to find the colonists assigned there dead, due to exposure to poisonous Berthold Rays, but instead, everyone on the planet appeared healthy, happy and content. The rub, of course, was that alien plants - spores - were keeping the human colonists alive. But the spores were strange symbionts which had also taken away the colonists' will to work, to produce, to do anything but experience bliss. An idyllic existence or a trap, an inhuman nightmare?

As Captain Kirk puzzled this mystery out, Spock encountered an old flame, Leila Kalomi (played by the lovely Jill Ireland). On Earth - hell - even in public, Spock could never acknowledge that he loved this young woman, but once infected by the Omicron spores, Mr. Spock could finally do just that. He could go all emotional, even engage in...ahem...sex. He could finally be happy. Unfortunately, when the deleterious spores were transported aboard the Enterprise, they caused a suddenly euphoric crew to mutiny, leaving stubborn Captain Kirk all alone on his ship, determined to remove the influence of the spores once and for all...

"This Side of Paradise" came about late in the first season, after the series original story editor, John D.F. Black had departed. So had the series' second story editor, Steven Carabatsos. Gene Roddenberry approached D.C. Fontana about Nathan Butler's story, and told her that he wanted a major re-write on it, and that if she could do it on time and to his satisfaction, he would promote her to story editor. She did the job. And how.

Originally, the story had involved George Takei's character, Mr. Sulu, and was called "the Way of the Spores. Dorothy Fontana, whom I interviewed in 2001, told me how she changed the episode: "I read the script and Gene wanted to know my opinion about it. I thought about it and realized that there were a couple of things that weren't working. The love story really had to be about Spock because the situation of the spores offered an opportunity for us to get to his emotions. And as a result of the character switch, the love story just worked."

"The other thing was the technical part of the show," Fontana recounted to me. "How do the spores infect the people? In the original story, you had to go into a cave where the spores were, to be compromised. The answer to that problem was, simply, don't go into the cave! But if the spores were ubiquitous, if they were all over the planet in this flower form, you couldn't escape them. They were going to get you one way or another."

As anyone who has seen this episode (and who hasn't?) can attest. The coda on the bridge is one of the most emotional and touching of the entire Star Trek canon. Spock admits he has never before been happy. If you don't get a lump in your throat over that line (and Nimoy's brilliant delivery...) you really are a Vulcan with green ice-water in your veins.

"The spores gave us an opportunity to see the softer side," Fontana considers, "to find out about the emotions Spock could have."

In the process of this exploration, Star Trek got one of its most memorable episodes. There are so many wonderful scenes in this show, apart from the coda. One of the most memorable involves Kirk's knock-down drag-out fight with Spock in the transporter room, wherein he attempts to goad his first officer by insulting his lineage and saying "You have the gall...to make love...to...that girl!" What classic Shatner-ian delivery! And what character fireworks.

Another great moment in the coda is Kirk's reflections on Omicron Ceti III. "Maybe we weren't meant for paradise," he suggests, and this is a line that resonates all the way through the Star Trek franchise. As late as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Spock seems to be thinking about this. He hangs a painting in his quarters - the expulsion from Paradise. A reminder to him, at that point, that all things must end.

There are a number of wonderful Star Trek episodes worthy of remembrance for my new blog series Cult TV Friday Flashback. Among them, "The Trouble with Tribbles," "Amok Time," and "City on the Edge of Forever," but I wanted to start with my favorite Trek, and one which I think is grossly underrated, perhaps because it doesn't feature Klingons, Romulans, Gorns, time travel or tribbles. No episode of Star Trek better captures the feelings of the series' dramatis personae than this one. And few are as heartfelt or as dramatic as "This Side of Paradise."

7 comments:

  1. I like this feature! Keep it up!

    I haven't watched much old Trek in the last, oh say, 25 years ... so I needed a refresher course in this episode. I remembered Kirk haranguing Spock into a fight and all the hippy-dippy stuff ... but I forgot the ending until I went to startrek.com and checked out the synopsis.

    "Using subsonic sound waves, the two officers manage to bring around the rest of the crew and colonists. Now that the colonists realize that the spores have prevented them from making any real progress and accomplishments, they plan to relocate where the plants do not grow."

    You suppose this was a subliminal lecture against marijuana? The main legitimate danger I've ever seen in the stuff is that it kills off ambition.

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  2. Thanks for the thumbs up on the Friday Cult TV Feature. I intend to make this a regular feature (along with Toy Flashback Thursday and Catnap Tuesday). It gives me some purpose.

    Star Trek was always commenting on mind-altering substances. "This Side of Paradise" might indeed be a comment on weed. The episode "The Naked Time" saw the entire crew drunk from a virus that looked like alcohol intoxication.

    But you know, I think the main underlying theme here, drawn out by Kirk's line about expulsion from paradise, is the need to have purpose in life. This was a recurring Star Trek obsession. In "I Mudd," the crew was stuck on a planet where thousands of hot women androids would tend to their every wish...but they didn't want their wishes tended to. In "The Cage," the Talosians offered Captain Pike a world of pleasant illusion; he preferred harsh (but purposeful...) reality. And on it goes. Whenever I need a big motivational speech to get back to work, I just remember the words of Kirk in "This Side of Paradise: (roughly paraphrased)"..."Maybe we can't stroll to the rhythm of the lute, but must march to the beat of a drum..."

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  3. not an actual comment on the episode, i just like that its named after a classic scott fitzgerald novel (and yes, i know trek is full of literary allusion, but still). fitzgerald is one of my favorites, and his sublime stories of the roaring twenties are so alien and fascinating to me that they are like sci fi.

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  4. Kolinahr710:32 PM

    Outstanding commentary!! My favorite episode as well. I wondered if there was supposed to be an underlying meaning behind Spocks' comment in TUC in regards to the painting. Wonderfully said.

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  7. Zosima4:53 AM

    One of the most touching scenes in the entire series is when Spock has to reveal to Leila that he has lost the spores. It's perfectly played by both actors. Spock obviously can't act as if nothing has happened between them, so he allows himself just enough emotion to be tender, that hint of a smile when he says "you couldn't pronounce it" just nails it. Thanks for your wonderful blog.

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