Monday, June 11, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Defectors?

A defector is a person or (character in a drama) who allegedly renounces allegiance to one nation, state, or other political entity.  That defector may be courageous for abandoning or leaving behind a dangerous or evil ideology, or may be considered a traitor or betrayer to his own kind.
Because the motives of a defector cannot always be easily parsed, there’s often a question in drama about his or her true allegiance.  If a person renounces all they have known and loved – down to their very home, family and laws – how can you trust them?

That is the terrain that defectors on cult TV largely play.  Often, a defector is susceptible to suspicion and concern because those whom he or she defects to can’t always be sure they aren’t being fed misinformation or outright lies.

During the long history of the Star Trek franchise, the logical half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has at least twice been considered a defector.  In both circumstances, of course, we learn that this is not at all the case, but initially the suspicion is raised. 

In “The Enterprise Incident,” when the Enterprise illegally crosses the neutral zone, Spock acquiesces to Romulan orders and agrees to take command of the Enterprise from Captain Kirk (William Shatner), even while very publicly entertaining the possibility of a future life in the Romulan Empire.  Of course, this defection is a ruse, and the eminently trustworthy Spock is really operating under top-secret Starfleet orders.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s two-part episode “Unification,” the matter of Mr. Spock’s allegiance comes up again.  When Ambassador Spock disappears from the Federation, there are rumblings and rumors that he is actually on the planet Romulus, having defected there.  Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) leads a secret mission to the Romulan home-world to determine if Spock’s defection is real, but not before facing the unpleasant task of telling Spock’s dying father, Sarek (Mark Lenard) that his son may be a traitor to the Federation.

In Space: 1999’s (1975 – 1977) Year One story “The Last Enemy,” there’s actually a double (trick) defection.  During a war between Beta and Delta, a Bethan vessel, the Satazius, sets up a firing position on Earth’s traveling moon.  After the Satazius, is damaged in a counter-attack, Satazius’s commander, Dione (Caroline Mortimer) seeks sanctuary at Moonbase Alpha and promises to help defend the base. Her defection is a ruse, and she is really only buying time to launch another strike against Delta.  At episode’s end, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) apparently defects from Alpha to Satazius, but his plan is a far more cunning – and destructive – ruse.

The premises of both Star Maidens (1975) and Logan’s Run (1977) involve defectors.  In the former, two men, Shem and Adam flee a matriarchal society in hopes of finding a more equal civilization on Earth.  In the latter, Logan and Jessica flee a city where death is imposed at age thirty, and hope to become citizens of a quasi-mythical place called “Sanctuary.”

In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s “Olympiad,” Buck (Gil Gerard) was tasked with helping a defecting athlete, Jorex Leet (Barney McFadden) escape from his repressive home world during the athletic gathering.  The story is a thinly-disguised Cold War parable, with a citizen from a repressive East Bloc country attempting to leave the Iron Curtain and make it to America.  What complicates this defector’s journey to the “west” (or Earth, in this case…) is an explosive device lodged in his body and remote controlled by a villainous guardian, Allerick (Nicholas Coster)

On V: The Series (1985), a Visitor named Willie (Robert Englund) defected from the alien fleet and became a dedicated member of the human resistance. Willie’s defection caused problems, however, in a later episode ("The Return"), when he encountered the Visitor love of his life aboard the mother ship and had to face the emotional consequences of his decision.

The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) featured a terrific and largely-underrated episode titled “The Defector” in which the Enterprise rescued a Romulan admiral, Jarok (James Sloyan) from the Neutral Zone and was retrieved by the Enterprise-D.  Captain Picard experienced great difficulty determining if Jarok was a Romulan “plant” to spread false data to Starfleet, or a deeply committed man who fled his people and his family over his belief that war was imminent, and he alone could stop it.   

In the brilliantly-vetted Beast Wars animated series of the 1990s, two of the most intriguing and well-developed characters, Blackarachnia and (my favorite) Dinobot, were actually defectors from Megatron's Predacon ranks.  What ultimately distinguished these two characters on the program was the fact that though they sided with the Maximals under Optimus Primal, they still went about things in their own unique fashion, utilizing tactics that Optimus, Rhinox and Cheetor didn’t always approve of.

In a more earthbound, human setting, “the defector” also proved a staple of J.J. Abrams’ espionage series Alias (2001 – 2005).  Both the Russian spy, Julian Sark (David Anders) and Sydney Bristow’s mother, Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) at times “played” at being defectors to the West, but boasted hidden motives and agendas.


  1. Great list of some exceptional episodes, especially those in the Star Trek universe, on the subject, John. Well done.

    1. Thanks, Michael,

      As I go through these "themes," I find it endlessly fascinating to see how different franchises handle the theme, and over variations on the same notion. It's intriguing that twice Spock has been considered a "defector" and in both instances, the Romulans are involved...

      All my best,

    2. "It's intriguing that twice Spock has been considered a "defector" and in both instances, the Romulans are involved..."

      How very true. Indeed, it seems byway of his mixed heritage, he's been questioned and held under suspicion more than anyone else, and by both sides of the lineage. Recall that he's very much doubted by hate-filled crew member in 'Balance of Terror' (written by Paul Schneider) when the Romulans are caught testing out their new weapon. And when his earthling mother reminds Spock of the times he was taunted by the other (full-blooded) Vulcan kids as a child in 'Journey to Babel' (written by D.C. Fontana, the now well-known woman writer Roddenberry gave a chance to with Star Trek). Fascinating subject, John.

    3. Hi Michael,

      I agree with you. As we saw in "Balance of Terror," prejudice is still very much a real thing in the Star Trek universe, and by din of his alien nature, it seems, Spock is -- as you say -- b"questioned and held under suspicion more than anyone else, and by both sides of the lineage." It's a tremendously intriguing facet of Star Trek, in my opinion, and one that hasn't really been addressed very frequently. I'd love to see the leitmotif picked up by the new Star Trek movies...

      Great insight here, my friend...


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