Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Paradise Syndrome" (October 4, 1968)

Stardate: 4842.6

The U.S.S. Enterprise visits a wild and natural M-class planet that is imperiled by a colossal, approaching asteroid.  The inhabitants of the planet (in some sources: Amerind) are all Native American tribes from Earth’s distant past.

Upon beaming down to the beautiful planet, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) reflects on the idyllic, simple, and peaceful nature of the world. Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) calls his musings a “Shangri-La Syndrome” and says it is the result of over-work and stress.

The landing party, which also includes Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), soon encounters a strange silver obelisk in a forest clearing, but its purpose and origin are not plain. Before beaming up, Kirk visits the obelisk alone one final time, and accidentally activates a trap-door entrance.

Once inside the under-structure, Kirk’s memory is wiped by a computer panel. On the surface, Spock and McCoy -- unable to find the missing Kirk -- are forced to abandon the search, and contend with the approaching asteroid.

An amnesiac Kirk soon finds his way out of the obelisk or “temple,” and becomes “Kirok,” a new tribe-member. Because of his advanced knowledge, he is soon made the medicine man of the Native American tribe, and married to the chief’s daughter, the lovely Miramanee (Sabrina Scharf).  This new arrangement does not meet with the approval of the former medicine man, Salesh (Rudi Solari).

Meanwhile, Spock is not able to stop the asteroid’s approach, and realizes that the strange writings on the obelisk may hold the key to saving the planet, and Captain Kirk too.

The third season of Star Trek (1966-1969) undeniably had a rocky start with the silly (but quite colorful) “Spock’s Brain.”

But the follow-up two episodes -- “The Enterprise Incident” and “The Paradise Syndrome” -- put truth to the lie that the third season was all bad, or generally of a low quality. These are two outstanding episodes, superbly acted, and brilliantly told.

In terms of “The Paradise Syndrome,” this story is something a relief for those who analyze and wonder about Star Trek canon and galactic history. Throughout the series thus far, the Enterprise has encountered, inexplicably, parallel worlds all over the galaxy. There are parallel Earth’s discovered in “Miri” and “The Omega Glory.” And Earth cultures such as Ancient Rome spring up on distant planets, as well, in stories such as “Bread and Circuses.”

Up until now, no compelling answer has explained this mystery.

“The Paradise Syndrome” proposes a fascinating solution. Basically, it posits the existence of an alien race known as “The Preservers” that seeded the galaxy with endangered humanoid forms. Apparently, this very advanced race had a special interest in Earth, and seeded Native Americans on the world encountered in this story.

But if the Preservers -- so technologically advanced -- possessed the equivalent of Genesis technology, they might have terra-formed, literally, a new Earth for the world in “Miri,” since that planet possesses the same dimensions and continents as our world. That’s just my speculation, of course, but the introduction of the Preservers allows for a deeper understanding of Star Trek and its galaxy. It is fodder for endless speculation.

It’s true that The Preservers aren’t a perfect answer for the mystery, but it’s a far better one than the series had yet provided, and look, here it is in the derided third season.

Moving beyond this point of continuity, “The Paradise Syndrome” is a great Kirk story, and a heart-breaking one at that. Here, the amnesiac captain finds love with the gentle and sweet Miramanee, and even conceives a child with her. But by episode’s end, both his wife and unborn child are dead, destroyed by Salesh’s vengeance (and Kirk’s inability to activate the obelisk’s force field.) Even though this ending is likely a foregone conclusion, given TV formulas of the 1960s, the climax is of great emotional impact.

The best quality about “The Paradise Syndrome,” however, isn’t even the pathos over Kirk’s tragic loss. Rather, it is the episode’s excavation of the man’s general or overall character. This story forces viewers to reckon with the fact that even without his memories, Kirk is recognizable as the same man he has always been.  He’s still a natural leader. He’s still brave, and ingenious.

He’s still got, of course, an eye for beautiful women. 

And, finally, Kirk possesses enough self-confidence to believe, perhaps, that he is a God. How else to explain, after all, the things that he knows, but that his people, the Native Americans, do not?

It seems very true to the Kirk character that even seeking a simple life and escape from responsibility -- hence the aforementioned Shangri-La Syndrome -- he should immediately step into a void and become a leader, accepting new responsibilities. Spock said that captaining a starship is Kirk’s “first, best destiny” in The Wrath of Khan (1982), but what he may also be stating, it seems to me, is that Kirk is a leader, and must always lead. 

Even without explicit knowledge of the Enterprise, or Starfleet Command, Kirk proves that idea true in this story.

Although my next remarks will likely prove contentious for some, I find Kirk’s relationship with Miramanee in “The Paradise Syndrome” more emotionally affecting than his just-as-doomed relationship with Edith Keeler in “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Perhaps this is so because in “The Paradise Syndrome,” Kirk truly lets down emotionally, casting aside the weight of the universe (and the timeline) and just gets to be…human. His relationship with Miramanee doesn’t seem forced or arbitrary (see: “Requiem for Methuselah,”) and it is believable to me that this man, far away from a life of constant danger and command, would seek out so kind and sweet a soul as Miramanee. 

I feel that Kirk admires Edith’s mind, and is attracted to her strength and resolve too. But his love of Miramanee seems somehow more genuine, or real. Accordingly, I find the episode’s climax absolutely devastating, as Kirk sits at her bedside, as she -- and their child -- die.  Kirk doesn’t have to “choose” to save a lover in this story. Instead, he is fully human, like any of us, watching and unable to prevent it as a love one is taken from him. With Edith, Kirk always knows, at least on some level, that he has to be the captain. With Miramanee, he can just be James Kirk.

Of course, your mileage may vary. And the stories aren’t in competition, either. I just mean to suggest that I find Kirk’s relationship with Miramanee to be the most affecting “love story” for the character of Kirk.

The good qualities of "The Paradise Syndrome" very much outweigh the bad ones.  For instance, the plot device of the obelisk force-field device seems strangely believable, in light of the Preservers’ predilections. Yet, on the other hand, it seems odd that the notes in the phrase “Kirk to Enterprise” would prove the exact “key” to opening the obelisk’s trap door.

Another great moment in the episode involves Spock’s attempt to mind-meld with Kirk, and re-assert the Captain’s identity. Only it’s easier said than done. Spock discovers what we all know by now James Kirk is an extremely strong-willed and stubborn individual.

Next week, the third season's quality drops radically and suddenly for the worst episode in the canon: “And the Children Shall Lead.”


  1. Anonymous1:24 PM

    I love this episode. Back to some ideal paradise, and on the other hand your normal life as the career man, such a philosophic choice.


  2. Have the Preservers ever been mentioned again in the later shows or any of the novels? It's an excellent idea. I would also have loved someone to tackle a "What If?" style tale. What if Miramanee had not died!

  3. John, wonderful review. This is a fascinating episode because, as you stated, we see Kirk as a man and not a starship captain. I do agree with you that Miramanee is more emotionally affecting than Edith Keeler in "City on the Edge of Forever". Spock's mind-meld scene is a special moment in TOS regarding Kirk. Your review is a nice companion to any viewing of this memorable third season episode. The Preservers are an engaging idea.


  4. John,
    I am not even going to mince words, or try to sugarcoat it. "The Paradise Syndrome" makes me cry, each and every time I watch it. Miramanee is presented as such a pure and beautiful soul. Throughout the episode, we can literally feel Kirk being pulled from her. It is inevitable that he must return to his world. Yet he is allowed this moment of happiness, which takes place over weeks and even months - among the few times in the series, or any series in those days, where a single episode takes place over such an extended period of time. Kirk's relationship with the people of the village grows, and yet, even Salesh represents the "threat" that Kirk must leave this paradise; that it is not his to hold.
    When Spock's mind meld is successful, and Kirok becomes Kirk once again, he is no longer the man who spent time on this world. He is James T. Kirk again, and William Shatner's delivery of one single line to Miramanee, "...if that's what you want," is heart-rending. They are words spoken to her by a stranger, a starship Captain's attempt to placate some dying native girl on a faraway planet.
    I cannot speak highly enough of Gerald Fried's stirring and utterly perfect musical score for this episode. It is every bit as poignant as the story it serves.
    I agree with your posited argument: both Edith Keeler and Miramanee have tragic fates; yet only Miramanee's death moves me so emotionally. She sacrificed herself for love, for a man she could never truly know. Edith Keeler's fate is tragic because she never knew of it; Miramanee's is tragic because she knew exactly what she was doing. Love itself is so fleeting and ephemeral. Love itself is Paradise.

  5. I agree with much of your review, John, with one further thought. I think Kirk's romance with Miramanee is really affecting in a different way than his romance with Edith Keeler--not because he chooses Miramanee, but because SHE chooses HIM. Or rather, they are chosen for one another by tradition, assuming he finds her acceptable. Yes, he finds life idyllic with her, but there's a serpent in the garden here, just as there was with Edith: Kirk doesn't have a devastating choice to make here as he did with Edith, but he is aware that something is wrong that he can't express or describe.

    Kirk knows how to do a lot of things instinctively but doesn't know HOW he knows, and this clearly bothers him throughout his amnesiac time. He wanders away from Miramanee at one point and she recognizes he's disturbed by something, so she chooses that moment to tell him she's pregnant. This foreshadowing device subtly informs the audience that this idyll is doomed.

    The only flaws I find in this episode have to do with the fact that Spock and Uhura are musicians, and I think one of them would stumble on the idea of hieroglyphic music much more readily than occurs in the episode. I wish McCoy's dialog with Spock had been elevated above the level of "Now you've done it!" haranguing.

    The idea of aliens like the Preservers was based on a current of popular thought that arose among a tangle of conspiracy theories and speculations about the UFO craze (there were a LOT of "sightings" in this period), Roswell, Area 51 and the Devil's Triangle. The idea that some advanced interstellar beings had deposited earthlings here and periodically returned to observe us--which spawned "Mysteries of the Gods" and many similar speculative documentaries--was pretty mainstream and common.

    Gene Roddenberry, along with numerous sci-fi writers, seemed to have an affinity for various versions of the lost Eden story. Secular humanism and objectivism both rested on the foundational idea that humans were not meant to remain in paradise because it is in man's nature to know, strive, and grow. This episode is another working of that premise.

    I agree with Steve about Fried's tremendous score. There's a tragic, affecting trombone motif that underscores Miramanee's death that is never heard anywhere else again.

    1. Thank You, Sheri.
      I think you very eloquently stated what I was trying to get at - Kirk knows there is something wrong, yet can't determine what it is. He is constantly being pulled both away from and towards Miramanee.
      That trombone motif gets me every single time as well.

  6. Before I became a Star Trek fan and watched every episode, I would catch the occasional episode here and there, and they were usually not the best examples for a novice viewer. This was one of those episodes. It's mostly Kirk falling in love with a Native American woman, which could have been the plot for any number of Westerns at the time. But once I saw it in context with the rest of the series, I realized how good it was. I also loved the explanation of the Preservers after seeing the first two seasons in sequence. Another point that I never see mentioned anywhere is that the special effects improved by the third season. We mostly see the new CGI stuff today, but I think there's some impressive effects in third season episodes like this one and The Tholian Web.