Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" (October 20, 1966)

Stardate 2712.4

The U.S.S Enterprise approaches the frozen world, Exo III, which was the last known location of Dr. Roger Korby (Michael Strong), a renowned scientist described as “The Pasteur of Archaeological Medicine.”

Aboard ship is Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Roddenberry), Korby’s hopeful fiancée.

To the surprise of everyone, including Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a signal from Korby is received. Miraculously, he has survived for five years on the inhospitable world.

Kirk and Chapel beam down to the planet surface and discover that Korby has discovered, in the planet’s deep caverns, the remains of an ancient Civilization -- “The Old Ones.”

Among other achievements, these highly-advanced (but now extinct…) beings could create perfect android duplicates of human beings. Even more impressively, they could transfer consciousness from human form to mechanical form.

Kirk is concerned, however, because Korby’s androids, including Ruk (Ted Cassidy) and the lovely Andrea (Sherry Jackson) have developed signs of independent will.

Korby creates an android duplicate of Kirk to assume command of the Enterprise, planning to take his discovery of androids out to the far reaches of the galaxy, beginning at a colony, Midas 5;  a world “abundant with raw materials.”

Penned by the great Robert Bloch (1917-1994) to feature strong H.P. Lovecraft overtones (particularly in the mention of the “Old Ones,”) “What are Little Girls Made Of” makes for an effective episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) first season.

Christine Chapel’s engagement to Dr. Korby provides the narrative’s emotional hook, and Ted Cassidy’s hulking Ruk supplies plenty of menace. Without exaggeration, Cassidy (1932-1979) is a huge man, and he dwarfs the other actors. He tosses William Shatner across various sets like a rag doll, and projects not just malevolence, but inhuman strength.

Meanwhile, Sherry Jackson’s Andrea proves both tragic and gorgeous, and Kirk comes off particularlytoo. Specifically, our beloved captain displays his resourcefulness -- and thorough understanding of his first officer -- by dooming his android double with a subconscious racist message (“I’m sick of your half-breed interference, Mr. Spock.”) This is the only clue the intrepid half-Vulcan requires to understand that his captain is in danger.

The quality that proves most compelling about this Star Trek episode, however -- especially in light of future “generations” -- is the anti-technology theme running through it.

Even though Korby has transferred his human consciousness into an android body, he is still depicted as being a slave to machine nature; to programming that makes him a “monster.”  The episode’s final point is that “something doesn’t survive the process” of transferring human consciousness to a machine.

Today, that idea seems antiquated and fearful, especially as man and machine grow closer than ever to an inevitable merging.

Hopefully we won’t become the Borg.

Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Technology Unchained” idea is not yet in full effect here, clearly, and throughout the Original Series, one can detect a certain level of wariness and concern about new technology supplanting man.

In “Court Martial,” for example, a lawyer rails against the idea of computer testimony being utilized in a court case. 

And in “The Ultimate Computer,” a thinking computer is seen as both a job killer and a competitor for superiority. Its Achille’s Heel is the fact that it lacks a human conscience and moral barometer

The same is true here. 

No middle ground can be forged with Dr. Korby and his androids, though it would be beneficial, perhaps to do so. '=

Clearly, they can’t be allowed to assume control of a Federation Colony. But shouldn’t Federation scientists study the life-saving principles discovered by Korby’s party?  Andrea, Ruk, Brown and Korby, despite being androids, are still individuals. The episode successfully writes itself out of a nuanced solution by having all these individuals die by either attacking humans (and be phasered..) or committing suicide.  The moral debate their existence raises seems to die with them, at least so far as this episode is concerned.

I’m firmly an Original Series fan in terms of my preferences, but this blog retrospective is about an objective look back at a 50 year classic.  And objectively speaking, this is another arena in which Star Trek: The Next Generation is plainly superior in its commitment to and exploration of its creator’s humanist values.

There, in episodes such as “11001001,” “In Theory” and “Measure of a Man,” the android Data (Brent Spiner) explores his humanity and his rights. If he had been activated in Kirk’s time -- on Stardate 2712 or thereabouts -- he likely would have been met with suspicion and fear. 

Next Gen episodes such as “Redemption” Part II display the fact that some Starfleet officers carry hostility towards artificial life into that 24th century era, but “What Are Little Girls Made Of” trades in outright paranoid possibilities; android duplicates infiltrating human populations and assuming control of them. There is no discussion of the idea that these machines have consciousness, and therefore the right to exist.

Kirk also talks about the idea that machines can’t feel love, tenderness, or sentiment here. Again, when one looks at Data, that’s a difficult argument to make. Data possesses a moral barometer (as we learn in the “Descent” two-parter), and a finely-developed sense of friendship.  He is not a loveless, unsentimental monster bent on human conquest.

I think there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Trek generations and their views of technology. The original is conservative, viewing new developments as potentially dangerous, and demanding that humans remain (as they have been) in control of their technology.  

The Next Generation is much more progressive, assuming a position of equal rights for all, and noting that whether biological or mechanical, we’re “all machines.”

In terms of production, “What are Little Girls Made Of” is a real triumph. The split-screen scenes in which the two Captain Kirks share a dinner table are virtually flawless. 

The android-making process is a little silly and fanciful, but unforgettable.  What’s with all the spinning table?  But I absolutely appreciate the horror overtones of the process. Basically, a life -- like a golem -- is created from a hunk of proto-form plastic or clay.  It lives, but it doesn’t possess a soul.

Or does it?

One area where the production falls down on the job: the hunk of cave ceiling Kirk pulls down and uses to protect himself from Ruk. I’m sure it is unintentional, but by golly it really does look like a giant phallus.  

Was nobody paying attention?  How did this make it to air?

I have written before that the original Trek is incredibly kinky, yet I don't think that this prop was intentionally made to resemble a phallus.  

In terms of deliberate kinkiness, "What Are Little Girls Made Of" has plenty to crow about, elsewhere. Andrea is, plainly, a mechanical "geisha," created to love and service Korby. Chapel pins him down on this "relationship." When he asks if she thinks he could love a machine, she replies "did you?"  

That verb tense and word choice suggests sexual intercourse, rather than emotional attachment. The point is established. She's a pleasure-bot.

Finally, the supporting cast-members don't have much to do this week, but nonetheless, Nichelle Nichols again makes the most of her limited screen-time. 

When Chapel learns that the love of her life is still alive, and that she will soon see him again, Uhura leaps up from her station on the bridge and hugs her friend. It's such a spontaneous gesture of love and support, and a testament to Uhura's humanity. 

Next week: “Miri.”


  1. John,

    "What Are Little Girls Made Of" is an episode which shouldn't work but somehow does. From the moment we see Ruk, we're a step ahead of our protagonists. We know that something's off about the creepy assistant guy. We surmise immediately that Andrea is a fembot. Nobody is surprised at the episode's climax. And yet...

    The denouement of the episode is haunting, both in Korby's backstory and Kirk's reply to Spock's question. Michael Strong's performance really sells the moment; his tears an ironic twist on all that has come before.

    I'm not quite sure that the point here is judging mechanical creatures as beings with rights and humanity. The real point seems to be the loss of our humanity when we take our reliance of technology too far, to the point where we ourselves are the technology. When I see how ubiquitous smart phones have become, to the point of wondering if most people could give you directions without Google Maps, I begin to realize the point of what The Original Series was getting at. Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999 dedicates its entire narrative to a boy who desires a machine body, but over time begins to see for himself that being human is preferable if the cost is his own humanity...his very soul.

    This episode also establishes a well-worn trope of the Star Trek universe in all of its iterations: if a character is introduced with the line "His techniques were required reading at The Academy," the dude is probably trouble.


  2. Great analysis about the vast difference in approach to technology (and artificial life specifically) between the generations of Trek. It is interesting to note that this is the second early episode ("The Man Trap" being the other), where a very backward, even reactionary philosophy is on display. Of course, that would evolve.

    I have always favored classic Trek because of its visual pop, great music, (as opposed to the dialed down non-melodic scores of Next Gen), and as you point out, its kinkiness. That sexiness was lost in future incarnations of Star Trek, until J.J. Abrams brought it back.

    On that note, I fully admit I re-watch this episode for the sole purpose of seeing Sherry Jackson.

  3. I love "What Are Little Girl's Made Of" for its pulp and cinematic qualities. A good part of this must be credited to its visuals: The ice world, big & tall sinister android, sexy android, subterranean catacombs, android duplication chamber, "mad" scientist, and so on. It looks like something writer/producer David L. Hewitt might have come up with had he been given the budget.

    As for the story, well, it is simple but memorable in that it sticks with you long after you've turned the channel. While I appreciate your points, John, about The Next Generation having a more thorough and sophisticated approach to the themes of humanity and such, I think that what works best is a script which gets one thinking as opposed to what one should think. "This is what happens when we mash-up humanity and technology for the implied benefit of mankind."

    For me, that's not exploration; it's lecture.

    Besides, "What Are..." is just a grand horror-like tale: Part scary, especially if you are young when you see it, part thoughtful and provocative. I'll take that over a turgid essay, which TNG all too often wrote.

    Majel Barrett is a fine actress; her scene in the dining chamber with the android Kirk shows what she is made of. When Nurse Chapel talks about her relationship with Dr Korby, the viewer gets a real glimpse of love and loss. A computer voice doesn't paint as effective picture simply because it lacks that nuance; and a face and body language to interlace more detail. It's a scene rarely talked about when discussing this episode. Android Kirk's punchline ("Androids don't eat, Miss Chapel") is a punch in the gut, for both Chapel, who speaks of human feeling, and the viewer, who is reminded of both the darkness within these chambers, and the theme of encroaching technology. Wonderful stuff, punctuated with much needed humour, with easily the funniest line in the episode: Dr Korby enters the chamber as Chapel and Android Kirk are wrapping up; as the latter dryly explains a robot's non need for organic nutrients, the doctor editorializes it all with: "He has your sense of humour!"

    The music by Fred Steiner (there's that guy again) is memorable, to say the least. The "Ruk" theme is for the ages... and the "Old Ones". All those horns! As a matter of fact, when I'm on the "war path" my built-in music player blasts that theme. The performance of the music is what gives it its two-punch (the two percussionists in the orchestra that day earned their pay). Steiner's music sizzled for that series, and is no small contributor to Star Trek's standing.

    Speaking of no small contributors to the success of this series, special kudos must go to production designer Matt Jefferies and his extensive cavern sets. It is a remarkable achievement in its vertical thrust in addition to the horizontal. There's no flat floor here. Characters make their way up and down the catacombs. As a structure there is actual engineering; its not just the usual tent or dome of standard caves for television, but a set built up from the floor. Crested with a memorable precipice. Apparently Jefferies was very happy with his work on this episode (complete with the set count), and he had every reason to be. He designed for the script's implied horror, and not just for the production's schedule and practicalities.

    Robert Bloch wrote the script, but it was heavily rewritten, not only by him but by John D.F. Black, and again by Roddenberry, who did a big rewrite and further polishes. The script was being rewritten even in post production! Hence the obvious sound-booth job in my pet scene described above (Chapel: "Go ahead. Eat.")

    "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" went way over budget, not only due to the physicality of the production but by the long shoot, complete with crew overtime. The final amount, a large sum for a one hour show in 1966: $211,061

    A haunting episode.