Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "And the Children Shall Lead" (October 11, 1968)

Stardate 5029.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise responds to a distress call on the planet Triacus, where several scientists, led by Professor Starnes (James Wellman) have recently settled.

After beaming down to the planet to investigate, Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) find all the adults at the settlement dead, apparently via some form of poisoning. Dr. McCoy concludes the deaths were a “mass suicide.”

The only survivors of the tragedy are several children, who seem to possess no awareness -- or grief -- over the deaths of their parents. 

The children -- Tommy (Craig Hundley), Mary (Pamelyn Ferdin), Steve (Caesar Belli), Don (Mark Robert Brown) and Ray (Brian Tochi) -- are brought back to the Enterprise, where Kirk hopes to question them.

Unfortunately, McCoy reports that the children are suffering from “Lacunar Amnesia,” meaning that they can’t recall the traumatic deaths of their parents.

Secretly, the children are actually being controlled by a malevolent alien being, Gorgon (Melvin Belli), a life-form who has been hidden on Triacus for generations until recently unearthed in a cave.

Gorgon now hopes to take the children to a colony planet, Marcos XII, where more young ones can join his cause. He dreams of a universe to “rule,” while the children have a universe to “play in.”

When Kirk attempts to stop Gorgon, the children use a strange ability to stop him. They tap into the deepest fears of the crew, thus immobilizing them, and allowing the evil to spread, unabated.

“And the Children Shall Lead” is my candidate for worst overall episode of Star Trek (1966-1969). 

The performances here are terrible, or at the very least, not well-calibrated, and the story’s primary crisis rests on the Enterprise crew once more facing its innermost insecurities/fears, a well-worn theme on the series (see: “The Naked Time.”)  Additionally, the episode is unforgivably sloppy in a lot of ways, making “And the Children Shall Lead” the proverbial hot mess.

In terms of performances, “And the Children Shall Lead” features what may be the single worst guest performance on the entire series.

Melvin Belli, a famous attorney, plays Gorgon, the 23rd century equivalent of a cosmic child predator. Belli reads his lines in an excessively wooden, declarative manner, and fails to convey either charm or menace.  Since his character “seduces” children into doing evil, the former is certainly a necessity for this role. Gorgon should be soothing, smooth, cajoling and encouraging to the children.  Instead, he is cold and patronizing, and those are the qualities, of course, that the children are trying to escape from in regards to their parents.

Why would these kids -- lonely and estranged from their families -- want someone else to boss them around?

Once more -- as we also saw in “Spock’s Brain” -- Shatner and Kelley don’t fare well in the lesser episodes.  I proposed in my review of that episode that the worse the material, the more Shatner “commits,” giving the material far too much.  We see the same problem in play here.  Captain Kirk’s moment of “anxiety” in the cave is strange and over-the-top, but the scenes the character shares with Dr. McCoy are some of the worst in the episode.

Kirk and McCoy seem mad at each other over something, though they are not, technically at odds.  

Their scenes all feature a strange and unnecessary combative-ness. Kelley, like Shatner, seems to tend towards expressing anger or irritability when contending with weak material. The scenes between Kirk and McCoy in “And the Children Shall Lead” thus consist, basically of beloved characters yelling at each other, with no real underlying motivation.

“And the Children Shall Lead” boasts some promise, though that potential vanishes quickly.  The opening, high-angle shot, which finds Kirk and the other landing party members coming across the “mass suicide” of the Starnes party is bracing, for instance. 

And the idea of the young and innocent being “seduced” by evil is an incredibly powerful and timely concept.  In some ways, Star Trek was truly ahead of its time contending with this particular issue. What the series perceived here as the ultimate terror -- “the alien among us…the enemy from within” -- predicts perfectly (and unnervingly…) the downside of the 1970’s.

Consider: the episode concerns madness or darkness in our very families, ensconced at the center of our emotional, personal, and professional lives.  We saw such terror in real life with Charles Manson and his “family” in the notorious murders of 1969 (well-after this episode had aired…).

Basically in both cases, we see a figure (Gorgon/Manson) with a dark past (prison conviction/entrapment in the cave) now loose and free to inspire “followers,” who conduct evil in his name, according to his plan.  Kirk gets it exactly right here, in his musings about evil.  It cannot possibly succeed -- or spread -- without followers; without those who listen.

Although it is unsettling to realize it, the events on Triacus -- a mass suicide by poison ingestion -- also forecast another family community and its grim fate: Jonestown, in Guyana, in 1978. There, people willingly ingested poison, because they believed in their leader, and could not see the evil that he represented.  “And the Children Shall Lead” depicts the mass-suicide of another family community; one overcome by anxiety and distrust.

It is easy to dismiss or mock “And the Children Shall Lead” as a poorly-done episode of Star Trek, but the great tragedy here is that its faulty, shabby execution cloaks the fact that the episode eerily predicts some of the darker turns in the culture in the disco decade.  “The Way to Eden” is a second meditation on that idea, and likely a superior episode.

But instead of focusing, for instance, on the Generation Gap -- Starnes vs. Starnes -- in a way that might have illuminated the dark side of the counter-culture movement at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, “And the Children Shall Lead” leaves behind its disturbing subject matter to focus instead on the psychological foibles of the Enterprise crew.

Kirk fears losing command. Uhura fears aging. Scotty fears that his perfect engines will lapse into imperfection and so-forth.  Sulu fears piloting through space swords…

To put this another way, a story about how evil might bloom in our homes and hearths becomes instead a story about taking back command of a hijacked starship.

As I hope you can detect, that’s the wrong focus for this story. “And the Children Shall Lead” should have been one of the bleakest, most darkly prophetic of all Star Trek tales, instead of the formulaic “junk” show that it is now widely remembered as.

What else is wrong here, besides the poorly-calibrated performances and off-the-mark narrative? 

Well, the episode is unforgivably sloppy.

The planet is named Triacus, but is pronounced in different ways throughout the episode by William Shatner, and other cast members.

Uhura’s console -- for the first time in series history -- houses a mirror where a blinky-light computer panel should be -- just in time, conveniently, for her to view herself old and infirm.  

And then there’s the matter of Gorgon’s name, which Captain Kirk is inexplicably aware of before he should be. 

The UFP flag, finally, looks unforgivably cheap -- like a Dollar Store yard decoration -- and thus its very presence deflates the solemnity of the Starnes funeral.

And again, the Starnes funeral should be a heart-in-throat show-stopper. Again, even the shots are there to suggest it could have been: A camera moves, in close-up, gravestone to gravestone, allowing the audience to read the names of the dead. But the darkness of this premise -- in which a “happy ending” is represented by children “processing” their grief in tears and cries -- is again undercut by weirdness, like the choice for Gorgon’s wardrobe. 

So, the ultimate alien evil has a preference for…feathers?

On a nuts-and-bolts level, the story is poorly constructed too, and I suppose that’s why, ultimately, I feel it is the worst of the series. 

For instance, Spock concludes, at one point that the murder of the scientists was "induced by an outside force” but he provides no proof, evidence, or logic for this remarkable and surprising conclusion.  The character of Spock is used, simply, to carry the plot forward, even though Spock, at this juncture, should have no such firm suspicions.  The whole scene reminds me of how, in Lost in Space’s later episodes, the Robot would suddenly possess miraculous knowledge of alien planets and life-forms, despite having hailed from Earth at the same time as the Robinsons. He was a convenient voice for the writers, and Spock serves the same function here.

Star Trek is usually clever enough to avoid such clumsy plotting and exposition.

“And the Children Shall Lead” leads Star Trek’s “worst of” catalog because it is sloppy, over-the-top, and obvious. 

But I suppose I truly like it so little because I can see that the episode could have been something quite remarkable: a study of the souring of the Hippie Age as the sixties became the seventies. 

That’s an episode of Star Trek that could have been one of its ten best, not one of its most disappointing.

Next Week: “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”


  1. Sheri5:47 PM

    This is also my candidate for Worst Star Trek Episode, John. It is a sensible premise with a story that wanders into the weeds, as is typical of the clunkers that characterized the Fred Freiberger era. As I've noted elsewhere, the third season wasn't so much worse than the first two as the mythology suggests, but its clunkers were notably worse than previous ones. This one isn't fun, crazily colorful, or infested with memorable lines. There's no way to even play a drinking game with And the Children Shall Lead. Just half a script that Freiberger apparently pulled out of a drawer and said, "Here's half a script, let's do something with it!"

    There is a definite division in quality between the portion of the story given to the children versus that given to the adults. The major problems with the plot are threefold: 1) A lack of consequences if the Gorgon succeeds. Okay, he takes the kids to a colony where he'll attract more kids to rule, and therefore . . . what? The end to the Gorgon's means isn't presented or discussed. 2) There's no peril during, or as a result of, the children taking over the ship. The crew are locked in their individual fears to keep them at bay but there's no strain on the engines, the crew aren't murderously set against each other, there's no clear suggestion they'll abandon ship or be killed or marooned. People see, hear and think stuff, and then . . . ? 3) The crew is given nothing to actually do. The children's mysterious affect and behavior arouses concern but there's no problem to solve, no action to take, no investigation is conducted, no reports come in of similar occurrences elsewhere to suggest the Gorgon's influence is going viral. The children are found, their behavior is odd, the crew are concerned, the crew hallucinate, the end.

    Beyond Shatner's (and Kelley's) tendency to overcompensate for risible material, the way they seem to be performing in a different episode from everyone else suggests a storyline ended up on the cutting room floor. What were they arguing about and where was this story going before it was edited with a chainsaw and pasted together out of sequence, leaving us a strangely hostile Kirk, an irritable McCoy, and a bunch of people who know things before they can know them? The director appears not to have been in control of the material, the shape of the performances, or the episode.

    Of course the stunt casting of Melvin Belli didn't help. Belli reputedly was known for his charisma in the courtroom, which must have tempted someone to experiment, but Belli didn't help anyone here. I've read that instead of studying and committing his part to memory, he thought he should try read on the spot and perform spontaneously, an approach only an experienced actor should attempt. Why didn't Freiberger sound him out in advance and disabuse him of any wacky notions he might've had? He ends up reciting instead of acting the part and isn't persuasive, seductive nor insinuating in the way a Pied Piper needs to be.

    It's too bad that this intriguing kernal of a story doesn't get explored and fleshed out so it really is about something. Cult movements notorious enough around Hollywood at the time to have possibly inspired this story included the Source Family, which sent young female members to youth hangouts to seduce potential recruits. The area was a major recruiting base for Hare Krishna, which began in 1966 and had widespread notoriety by 1967. And anyone in Sci-Fi and Hollywood circles was familiar with L. Ron Hubbard, or at least his "Dianetics", which was significantly and widely read.

  2. John,
    No arguments here. I never liked this one as a kid, and only watched it as an adult while reading "These Are the Voyages" and viewing each chapter's corresponding episode.
    I don't remember in which of the many behind-the-scenes Star Trek books I've read that the following anecdote appears: While watching the dailies, someone remarked that DeForest Kelley only has three acting styles. Right eyebrow up, left eyebrow up, and confused. That's a gross exaggeration, but the remark apparently drew chuckles from those in the room.
    I actually saw Mr. Kelley once, at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, sitting on a bench inside the mall (he looked very much like any other man waiting for his wife to finish shopping in a nearby store). He wore a patterned silk scarf around his neck, a brown leather jacket, and boots. I decided to leave him alone, but I should have said hello. I missed my one and only chance to speak to him.
    As for Melvin Belli (and another dailies story), it was Gene Roddenberry who, watching the rushes of Gorgan, decided that the performance was so awful that his voice should be distorted and his features blurred with special effects. Just think of all the damage Gorgan could do if he had Facebook and Twitter at his disposal!
    Finally, for what it's worth (you knew this was coming and who am I to disappoint?), the Lost In Space comics from the 90's ret-conned the robot's origins, stating that his computer systems utilized cannibalized alien technology from the Roswell crash and Area 51, in an attempt to explain the robot's detailed knowledge of alien life forms.
    Sounds good to me!

  3. On the other hand the "Hail Hail" chant is memorable. Was Pamelyn Ferdin in EVERYTHING?

  4. While I appreciate everyone's dislike for this episode, I never disliked it as much as most others (I hold that honor for Plato's Stepchildren). This episode plays out that fear we all have of "what happens to the one I love when they become addicted to something that's ultimately self-destructive". Parent's of the 1960's had that fear as they saw their children turn on, tune in and drop out. Parent's realed with fear that perhaps my child might become like a member of Charles Manson's Family, someone so attracted by the very strangeness of an individual that they become charismatic and can make even the best of us turn evil.

    Honestly, I always liked Belli's stilted performance. It's an odd choice but it works for me. He was an interesting combination of authority and wish fulfillment, sort of like a perverted Santa Claus that kids are drawn to...he gives me presents but he judges my ability to do good and bad first). The stilted performance conveyed the control the Gorgon had over the children's minds regardless that we could easily recognize the Gorgon was evil. That ability to control make Belli's character quite scary in my opinion.

    Therefore I think your assessment of the Gorgon as cult leader is right on the money. He easily manipulates the minds of the innocent to do terrible things and manipulates the minds of the wise to question the very reality around them.

    That fear must have been on the minds of many parents at the time. Many children of the middle class lived happy, privileged lives during the post-war boom, even as they feared the A-Bomb going off at any moment. Parents thought their children would be like them, embrace the American dream something came along to pervert the minds of their children.

    Paranoia ran thick and heavy in the 1950's and 1960's and this episode plays into that fear of "what will happen to our children if they don't follow us in the post-war lifestyle we've made for ourselves". I asked my father once what he thought of the late 1960's and he admitted that the attitude of the young was so foreign to him that he sincerely thought the world would quickly come to an end. I suspect that a parent with children in the 1960's saw this episode as a powerful cautionary tale. Those of us who grew up after the 1960's can't have that same reaction. Before my daughter was born, I could watch the movie "Titanic" and not shed a tear. Now, it's exceptionally difficult for me to watch the same film knowing how many families perished. Same thing with this episode I believe.

  5. I know I am the only only one in the universe who likes this episode. Yeah, that's right. I can't really mount much of an artistic or technical defense for it.

    I liked the concept, and the Gorgon kind of creeped me out in a good scary way. Like the above poster, I enjoyed Belli's bizarre performance and I really do like his dialogue and the creepy chant the kids do. I guess this is episode is for me what "Spock's Brain" is for you.

    Keep in mind I am the odd person out in another way too. I like the third season. Five of my top ten episodes are in the third season, "All our Yesterday's" (my all time fav). "The Empath", "The Paradise Syndrome", "Is There No Truth in Beauty", and "Day of the Dove". I also really like "The Tholian Web", "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky", "The Enterprise Incident", "Wink of an Eye", and "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield".