Saturday, September 10, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "The Lorelei Signal"

The fourth episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974) is "The Lorelei Signal" by Margaret Armen, author of "Gamesters of Triskelion," and "The Paradise Syndrome" on the original series.

In this story, the U.S.S. Enterprise explores the Taurean solar system and hopes to investigate a long-standing mystery.  Specifically, every 27 years, a starship disappears near this section of the galaxy...never to be heard from again.

Soon, the Enterprise falls into the same trap.

The lovely women of planet Taurus II transmit a signal that hypnotizes all the males aboard the Starfleet vessel.  When Kirk, Spock, Bones and a landing party of men beam down, they are immediately drugged by the beautiful, technologically-advanced sirens of this world, and then forced to wear head-bands which cause rapid aging, and which drain their life-forces.  The women of this world thrive on that life force, and need it to survive...

On board the Enterprise, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) assumes command of the Enterprise and promotes Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) to the role of chief medical officer.  Then, Uhura leads a landing party of female security officers to the planet to rescue the helpless males...

"The Lorelei Signal" utilizes as its source material the Greek myth about sirens who call to passing sailors, and then lead them to their doom.  The sirens appear in Homer's The Odyssey, but a variation of these beautiful (but deadly) creatures also appears in German folklore, which accounts for the title of this Star Trek episode.  In Germany, "Lorelei" (or sometimes Loreley) is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine.  It is also the name in folklore of a "feminine water spirit" associated with that rock.

The myth of the siren has been a near constant in science fiction television circles.  Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) -- which shot in 1973 -- featured a great variation called "The Guardian of Piri," in which the Siren was a computer, and its call was heard by all on Alpha, save for Commander Koenig (Martin Landau).

Star Trek featured another, perhaps-less memorable variation of the idea in the 1997 Voyager tale: "Favorite Son," involving Harry Kim (Garrett Wang).

Some folks have complained, vis-a-vis "The Lorelei Signal" that the alien sirens might have just asked for help from Starleet, rather than abduct and drain male passers-by.

Although this is true, it isn't a particularly strong criticism in terms of the Star Trek universe.  Alien races in "Wink of an Eye," "Mark of Gideon," "The Corbomite Maneuver" and many, many other installments might also have just asked for help, rather than act in what might be interpreted in hostile fashion. That's not the point.

The point is that alien races think differently than we do, as human beings.  The arc of every Star Trek is to begin with distrust, hostility and confusion, and end with rapprochement and understanding.  "The Lorelei Signal" conforms well to this outline, and it seems silly to slam it on the basis of a criticism one could apply to probably fifty Star Trek episodes over six TV series.

I've always appreciated this episode for the opportunity it presents regarding Lt. Uhura. As I child, I remember reading that she was fourth-in-command of the Enterprise after Scotty, although I suppose Lt. Sulu could make an equal claim. Still, I would have very much enjoyed seeing Uhura take command in an Original Series episode or three, though it was not to be.  I do find it unfortunate that the only opportunity she gets in the center seat arises because ALL the men are incapacitated.  That's a bit insulting.  Uhura should command because she is a highly-qualified officer, plain and simple.

On the other hand, this Star Trek episode is extremely forward-looking because it portrays female security officers in action.  The original series never hinted at the existence of female security officers, though by the time of The Next Generation, Tasha Yar commanded the Security Division on Enterprise-D.  Still, as late as the 1990s, women in Star Trek were still seen smashing crockery over the head of the bad guy, rather then engaging in fisticuffs ("Q-Who") or phaser play, a fact which makes this episode all the more important.

One other negative observation about this particular installment: the purse strings are showing.

I love Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett as much as any Trekker, but they not only voice their regular characters here, but the computer, the female security teams, and the alien sirens.  There's no attempt to disguise these voices (save for in the case of the ship's computer), and so throughout the whole episode, it sounds like only two women are talking.  Maybe one other actress could have been hired to play a role?

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