Thursday, September 08, 2022

Star Trek: "And the Children Shall Lead"

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.

1 comment:

  1. The absolute worst Trek show, as you suggested in your review on "Spock's Brain".

    I won't repeat what you've already stated.

    A waste of $176,349 ... but it did pay for that cool new rec room set (which was rarely seen, including a later redress as the ship's arboretum).


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