Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Plato's Stepchildren" (November 22, 1968)

Stardate 5784.2

The Enterprise responds to a medical distress call on an M-class planet. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) beam down to the surface of that world to discover that the leader of a humanoid colony, Parmen (Liam Sullivan), is ill, and that the colony has no physicians.

The colony, the crew-men learn, consists entirely of “philosophers” who visited Earth’s Ancient Greece, and became followers of Plato’s ideals. They settled on this world, and, essentially, became immortal, dedicating themselves to philosophy…and their own glorification. These aliens also developed staggering mental abilities.

One colonist who does not share the telekinetic powers of the Platonians is a dwarf named Alexander (Michael Dunn), who is badly abused and exploited by his people. 

When Dr. McCoy refuses to remain on the planet as the colony’s doctor, Parmen and the other Platonians resort to the ongoing torture and humiliation of Kirk and Spock to get him to agree to their terms.

Soon, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) are beamed down from the ship to share in the sadistic festivities as well.

The only chance to escape the psychic grip of Parmen involves a mineral called “Kironide,” which Dr. McCoy believes is the source of the Platonians’ power.

“Plato’s Stepchildren” has its stalwart defenders, I realize, but I am not one of them. Although I admire the performance of Michael Dunn, as Alexander, I find the episode, generally-speaking, an embarrassment.

I must state my bias about this episode, up front.

I will never forget the horror of watching this episode for the first time. I was perhaps ten years old, and working hard to convince my parents that Star Trek was a series of great quality and value. I was becoming a Star Trek fan, and trying to bring them in on my interest.  One night, we brought dinner to the family room to eat with a rerun of Star Trek, and to my chagrin, this episode aired.

I was mortified at the bad singing. I was mortified at the mule imitation. I was embarrassed by the Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-Dum act.  To quote Nurse Chapel in this episode, I just wanted to “crawl away and die.”

Beyond the ceaseless, individual moments of character humiliation, which I don’t feel are well-performed, I was embarrassed by the poor science fiction involved in this tale.

Aliens who can make strong-minded people kiss one another, and sing and dance, with a thought?

I might accept that possibility as a development of human mental abilities, but then, in “Plato’s Stepchildren,” McCoy gives Kirk and Spock an injection of Kironide so they can harness the same abilities in short order, and defeat an enemy of not only superior powers, but superior experience with those powers, and superior numbers. 

Can anyone say deus ex machina?

And in the middle of it all is Alexander, who becomes -- in the final scene -- not only the pawn of Parmen, but of Kirk as well. All of the earlier discussion about how wrong it is to treat other people like puppets is undone by the fact that Alexander becomes the focal point of the final battle, a ping-pong ball between Kirk and Parmen. It's true, Alexander started it, but still...

To cap it all off, the episode ends with a stupid “short” joke. Kirk says he is beaming up a “little surprise” for Scotty (James Doohan), meaning Alexander the dwarf.  

Even as a kid, I realized that this joke -- and most of what preceded it, frankly -- was borderline offensive, and excessively stupid.

I am open and willing to acknowledge that my embarrassment and dislike for “Plato’s Stepchildren” was magnified enormously by the fact that my parents witnessed this travesty with me, and that this episode became part of their “first impression” of what Star Trek is. 

I will own that fact, certainly.

Nevertheless, I believe my criticisms about the episode remains valid. “Kironide” is a writer’s crutch that allows Kirk and Spock to get on equal footing -- real fast!  -- with Parmen and his sadistic friends. 

And I have just never believed that this medical miracle was something that McCoy could conjure (in what…a minute?) or that it would almost instantaneously work.

Or that it would allow Kirk and the others to win the day.

I also don’t believe that, after Kirk departs from this planet, Parmen or the others would refrain from using their abilities.

Nor do I understand why it was necessary to bring in Plato, Greek culture, and all those particular accouterments. The ancient Greek touches, to me, only succeed in adding a new level of camp to the goings-on.  

I do understand, of course, what the episode attempts to accomplish. It’s true that there are some moments of value worth pointing out, but I still don’t feel that they add up to make a good episode. 

It is no exaggeration to state that “Plato’s Stepchildren” isn’t about sadism, but rather about how to respond to the feelings that arise from being a victim of sadism. There’s a well-done scene here in which the taciturn Spock must grapple with his feelings of rage and helplessness after being grievously exploited by Parmen. 

This is a powerful moment, indeed. Spock understands so little of emotions, and human nature, and here must now deal with the trauma of his forced behavior, and a sadistic agenda.

I also appreciate Dunn’s performance, and Alexander’s dignity, as a character. He chooses not to take “the power” of the others, because he realizes that the power makes monsters of people. This too is a powerful recognition. Alexander does not want to be like his tormentors, even though he could make them pay for their cruel actions and behavior. 

What a great message to send in the turbulent sixties.  One evil does not need to be repaid with a second evil.

This is a perfect Star Trek sentiment, in my book, as is Kirk’s comment to Alexander that he hails from a world in which “size, shape and color” make no difference.

And then, of course, there’s the famous kiss.  

Many historians and fans term the forced kiss between Kirk and Uhura in "Plato's Stepchildren" the first interracial one on prime-time American television, but that’s not exactly accurate. My understanding is that this is the first kiss between a black female and white male character on an American prime time drama, but that other interracial kisses preceded it. 

Regardless, I believe it is wonderful and important that Star Trek broke this barrier, and depicted such a kiss.

However -- at the risk of reader brickbats -- I find the staging and acting around the kiss to be incredibly hammy and over-the-top. And we don’t even really see the two characters touch lips! Also, it is disturbing to me that this kiss is clearly intended as a humiliation.  

I submit that the kiss would have been more worthwhile -- and even more historically important -- in a context that didn’t also include whips, and flamenco dances of death.

I do understand the value of the “kiss” moment, and its historical importance, but I feel that, like so much of the episode, it is in the service of an excessive and not-very-good story. 

The endless humiliation that Kirk and Spock endure in this episode is not entertaining to me, but I can understand why it is present; to make a point about dignity in the face of sadism, or torture. It’s not that I need to be comfortable, or that I can’t handle feelings of discomfort. My concern is that the performances are genuinely bad and embarrassing in these moments. The staging, the sets, the acting, and the specific nature of the humiliations all seem…campy.

Basically, this is the tale of aliens who humiliate Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Chapel, and who are only stopped when their own power is turned against them. Spock's subplot adds some meat to those bones, but not enough. The aliens are not well-drawn. The telepathic powers are not handled in a way that is believable. And it ends on a stupid joke.

Again, I know I could defend this episode. 

I could note, approvingly, that "Plato's Stepchildren" features an important benchmark in TV history. I could note that it re-establishes Star Trek’s commitment to diversity (in its treatment of Alexander, and Kirk’s remark about shape, size and color). I could even note how it adds more to Spock’s knowledge of emotions.

And yet I will be honest: I cringe every time I watch "Plato's Stepchildren." 

This is one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek, and one that I would count as one of the five worst installments in the series. 

Next week, the high-concept “Wink of an Eye.”


  1. John,
    I feel your pain. I had a similar experience in watching The Outer Limits episode "Cry of Silence" with my family. Not the episode I would have chosen, but back then, we were at the whims of whatever the programmers chose to rerun on that particular night. My family laughed so hard I never mentioned The Outer Limits ever again!
    As for "Plato's Stepchildren," cringe-worthy is putting it mildly. Barbara Babcock is lovely; I've always been a fan of Liam Sullivan, and Michael Dunn steals the show and delivers some wonderful moments. However, none of this makes me want to re-watch the episode on blu ray.
    The legendary stories from behind the scenes about that kiss is much more entertaining than the episode itself. Leonard Nimoy was scripted to kiss Uhura until Bill Shatner stepped in, declaring "If anyone's gonna kiss Uhura, it's gonna be me!" Nimoy wasn't too happy about that. Shatner supposedly crossed his eyes on many of the takes, rendering the "fake kiss" takes to be unusable. What we see onscreen is purportedly the only take in which he didn't cross his eyes. After the episode aired, Nichelle Nichols was shown (by Gene Roddenberry) a letter from a man in the Southern part of the U.S. which read "I am against the mixing of the races, but anytime a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets his arms around a gal like Lt. Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it!"
    At least Spock finally got to kiss Uhura in 2009, many times...and we finally learned Uhura's first name!

  2. Anonymous7:21 PM

    As a child, I found this cringe-worthy too, particularly the "Tweedle-dee/Tweedle-dum" routine (seen now, it seems hopelessly outdated. Who would remember such crap in the 23rd century). Very little of interest happens either. Other rather dumb episodes such as "Spock's Brain" are a lot more fun. Many Trekkers are a bit more sympathetic because it's an important ep for Nichelle Nichols.

    The episode is bad alright, but fortunately, it's not bad on the level of second season eps of "Lost in Space". It was kind of painful seeing you trying to seriously review such campy crap. Thanks for making it to Trek's 3rd season. Next Generation is celebrating it's 30th anniversary soon. Hope you review it too!

  3. I have to say, although this episode is risible in many ways, it had a much different impact on some of us on first airing, and for some years after. There is a fair amount of good in "Plato's Stepchildren": its core message is that without purpose, people turn indolent and then malevolent; and intelligence is no indication of goodness.

    You know, John, even the "little surprise" remark is one of those things I think *sounds* as if it should be politically incorrect, but it isn't. Think about it a moment: Alexander is a little person whose presence will be a surprise to Scotty. "Little person" was just coming into usage but most people had not heard the term and still used "dwarf" and "midget", which is why I think that line was not excised from the script. I have no doubt that the production asked Michael Dunn for his reaction but also consulted with Billy Barty--who, besides being a working actor for decades, founded Little People of America and liaised with many Hollywood productions in that capacity.

    My understanding was that Shatner insisted on being the one to kiss Uhura because otherwise the network and the producers could have copped-out if controversy arose. It would have been easy to point out Spock was a space alien and thus kissing Uhura was not a big deal, but Kirk kissing her in 1968 was taking the subject head-on! Just as it should have been. Star Trek had gotten around the interracial problem earlier in "Mirror, Mirror" by having Uhura sexually menaced by Sulu--because pairing off two minority individuals averted the fearmongering about miscegenation that underpinned racist controversy. Many TV and film productions copped out in just that way, and I have to say Shatner was right: if they were going to do it, they should go all out. It wasn't actually the first televised interracial kiss, but considering the threats Sammy Davis, Jr. received when he planted a kiss on the cheek of a white woman on his variety show, Star Trek deserves credit for going ahead--and this is certainly the most memorable one from the time.

  4. I always interpreted the episode to be about the treatment of slaves. The slave owners have all the power and are apathetic in their treatment of those who they consider sub-human. It's interesting to consider that Alexander is of the same race but is treated differently because he can't absorb the chemical for the same reason that he's small. Therefore, he's "less" a person than his masters, which is reinforced by his physical size.

    When the masters don't get their way, they enslave, torture and debase those who stand in their way. Finally, the tables are turned and the slaves are liberated. They are of equal standing as their captors and so to end this abuse, they fight back.

    Even though Kirk and Uhura are both "slaves", the meaning of the interracial kiss loses some of its power but it remains a very powerful moment in TV history (even if it's a bit of a cheat since the characters are forced to do it and you never see their lips meet).

    Like many have already stated, this episode remains one of my least favorites just because it's no fun watching people being exploited and humiliated for half and episode's running time. I can admire what it was trying to say but I just can't bring myself to enjoy it.

  5. My wife and I watched this episode last night. I had not seen it since reruns in the 80's. I did not find ti to be as risible as some Trek fans. I thought it was very entertaining, and did not find Kirk's last "joke" to be offensive, seeing as how he and Alexander had already shared their true feelings about size and discrimination based on appearance. I found McCoy's disgust at having to watch his Captain and two "best friends" be humiliated and treated as slave playthings to be very moving, and relatable. While the episode does not exactly win on science terms, it is a very effective morality tale. (I also love how, when Scottie communicates with Kirn, telling him of the issues the Enterprise is having, Kirk asks him (and I paraphrase), "try to use full engine thrusters to escape orbit and get out of there." to which Scottie replies something like "I already tried that Sir" as if to say, "I only call you if I already tried everything!" Hilarious. That is engineers for you! I think there are far worse episodes of OG Trek.