Friday, September 09, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Elaan of Troyius"

Stardate: 4372.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise is assigned a delicate diplomatic mission. The starship must ferry the ambassador from Troyius, Petri (Jay Robinson), and the barbaric Dolman of Elas, Elaan (France Nuyen) on a slow cruise to Troyius.

During the mission, Petri will gloom the difficult Elaan for life on Troyius as the bride of the Troyian leader. 

At stake are the peace and stability of the star system that houses both worlds.

Making the journey difficult, a Klingon D-7 cruiser shadows the Enterprise’s every move.

Soon, Elaan attempts to murder Petri, leaving Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to step in and complete the ambassador’s attempts to make the impulsive dolman ready for polite culture. His efforts are complicated by Elaan’s tears. These tears act like a kind of “biochemical” love potion, and Kirk is soon impacted by them, his thoughts clouded.

As Kirk battle with his feelings for Elaan, a traitor sabotages the Enterprise, and he and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must determine why the wedding/alliance is of such importance to the Klingons.

“Elaan of Troyius” is a controversial entry of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) third season. Written and directed by John Meredyth Lucas, the episode features action and humor aplenty, and is based on many literary sources. It endures, finally, as a statement regarding Kirk’s strength of character (and superhuman?) resolve.

The central problem, of course, involves the fact that the episode -- to our eyes in 2017 -- plays as abundantly sexist. At one point in the action, Kirk notes that Spock’s planet (Vulcan) is the only world in the galaxy that can make the claim that it possesses logical women. That remark is sexist on its face.  

The overall plot -- that a woman must change her entire life and culture, to exist in polite society (and please a man) -- similarly might easily be interpreted in this fashion.

However, I do resist this interpretation, and would encourage others to do so as well.

Facts are facts: “Elaan of Troyius” was produced nearly fifty years ago. Thus it arose from a completely different historical context than the one we deal with today. Accordingly I don’t necessarily see the benefit or wisdom of judging a half-century old work of art by today’s standards, except to note that the episode appears, in 2017, out-of-date in terms of its approach to gender.  

Context -- the setting around the work of art -- is crucially important to any fair-minded assessment and understanding of that work of art.  What remains so amazing about Star Trek is the fact that it so often was ahead of its time (and still is…). That remarkable fact actually makes the more overtly sexist shows (“Mudd’s Women,” or “Elaan of Troyius”) seem doubly disappointing, I suppose. Star Trek gets so much right, so much of the time, that when it gets something wrong, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

 “Elaan of Troyius,” to some eyes, reflects the time the episode was made, and not the enlightened era the stories are supposed to represent (the 23rd century). 

But why re-litigate a work of art from fifty years ago by today’s beliefs?  I fear very few works of art would pass such a test. This is why I do not favor, as I have written before, the application of the Bechdel Test to productions made decades ago. What’s the point of doing so? Decades ago we hadn’t made the progress we have made now.  Are we supposed to shun works of art that, made fifty years ago, don’t pass today’s benchmarks? That’s what I fear could happen.

I would hope that all of us can acknowledge that yes, aspect of this episode are quite sexist by today’s standards, but, simultaneously, that the episode wasn’t made in our modern environment, either. We can acknowledge the sexism, without judging the creators of the episode, or the episode itself, harshly.

So the question we must address about this episode explicitly involves Elaan. I fully acknowledge that Kirk’s line of dialogue about women is sexist, but is the depiction of Elaan sexist, overall? 

Well, one could make the argument that it is not. 

After all, Elaan embodies the high ideal of self-sacrifice for her people, choosing to live in marriage with a person she has every expectation she will despise. This act of sacrifice actually saves two planets: Elas and Troyius. This action proves that Elaan is not a prop or a pawn, but a remarkable leader. 

It is sexist, I suppose, that Elaan is expected to bend her entire identity to her groom (who presumably is fine the way he is?); to adopt his culture and beliefs. But the fact of this sexist “deal” only makes Elaan’s virtue even greater, from a certain perspective.  She is the one losing out (both in terms of her freedom and culture), and therefore deserves great respect for choosing, as she does, the “needs of the many” over the “needs of the one” (herself.)

This is not to claim that Elaan is a saint. She knowingly seduces Kirk. She attempts to murder Petri. She recommends the wholesale destruction of her enemies. These are not the actions of an enlightened ruler. But in the end, Elaan follows through on her promise; on her duty and responsibilities.  I think it is too much to ask that she not entertain other possibilities, or that she “like” her destiny.  That seems sexist in its own way.

In many ways, this story is really all about duty. Kirk finds that the cure to Elasian tears is “duty;” his responsibilities to the Enterprise, and to Starfleet’s chain of command. He does not succumb to Elaan because duty is foremost on his mind. He too is a wise leader.  Elaan learns, through her association with Kirk, that duty is her highest responsibility as well. They have a lot in common, and these shared qualities have nothing to do with a love potion

The distasteful aspects of the episode -- Kirk’s line about women, which is a stereotype since it does not acknowledge or recognize women as individuals, and his slapping of Elaan -- are present here, no doubt.  Kirk also threatens Elaan with a spanking.  I’m not an apologist for these moments, excusing them, or wishing them away into the corn field. They exist because of the context of the late 1960’s and because of the literary sources underlining the episode. 

The Taming of the Shrew, first written in the 1590’s, is about a man, Petruchio, who bends a non-compliant woman, Katherina, to his will. He basically breaks down her individuality, freedom, and identity to make her suitable. “Elaan of Troyius” casts Kirk as Petruchio, and Elaan as Katherina, but with a unique difference. 

Kirk only reluctantly, and under orders, comes to the task of “preparing” Elaan for her new life.  And Elaan, in adopting alien customs, prevents war, and perhaps the annihilation of two cultures.  The stakes are huge, here, and both characters act in a way beyond the “self,” or above any overriding desire to conform to social norms. Kirk and Elaan act as they do -- in much the same way as their literary counterparts -- in other words, for peaceful, enlightened reasons. 

The title of the episode, “Elaan of Troyius” is a lame, on-the-nose riff on the Helen of Troy story (The Iliad), and that work of art is another sexist tale, perhaps. Helen is a prize in that tale; one that is stolen, and one that must be reclaimed. She is the cause of a great war, not the resolver of a war, so that’s a key difference too. 

I would argue that Elaan actually possesses a great deal of agency, because, in the end, she chooses a path that will benefit Elas, Troyius, and the Federation, even if is at her personal expense. 

This is the strong aspect of the episode. The weakest aspects see Elaan acting like a child, not an adult. The innuendo is that all women are children who must be set right, at any cost, by a strong adult man like Captain Kirk.

Perhaps the best way to view Elaan, in this episode, is as a space-age Cleopatra. The historical Cleopatra is remembered as a wise ruler who, through her careful alliance with Rome, maintained Egypt’s independence from Rome for a lengthy duration. She maintained the prosperity of her country by managing its economy and currency, and is believed to have been a true renaissance woman, with an intense interest in the arts, as well as science.

The character Elaan, who we meet at the start of this episode is a savage, it seems, in terms of personal behavior (table manners, anger management) but like Cleopatra, she becomes the focal point of Empires (the Federation, Elas, Troyius), and through her actions stabilizes an entire sector of space, likely for years.

So is the sexism of “Elaan of Troy” a disqualifying aspect? Or is the exploration of two leaders -- joined by a duty that robs them, in a sense, of relationships and connection -- enough to overcome the sexism?  I can’t make that call for you, or anyone. Mileage will vary.

I will note that, personally, I typically find Star Trek: The Next Generation much more sexist, in some  important ways, than the original series ever was. There, in the 1980's -- a full two-decades later -- the primary female characters (Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi) were both care-givers, and still breaking crockery on enemies'  heads  instead of using phasers, or hand-to-hand late as the fourth season). Both characters were defined, early on ("The Naked Now"), for their hidden lust for the leading men (Picard and Riker).

There are two aspects of the episodes, beyond the gender issue, that are really terrific.  The first is the humor.  The moment here -- in which Spock and McCoy intrude on Kirk and Elaan locked in a passionate embrace – is hysterical, and the humor stems from character. Spock and Bones know well Kirk’s reputation as a lady’s man.

Finally, the episode's final battle with the Klingons is tense and well-orchestrated, a dramatic high point.

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