Monday, September 05, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Miri"

Stardate: 2713.5

ThEnterprise encounters an Earth-style distress S.O.S. and traces its origin to the third planet of a system hundreds of light years from Earth.  The planet is an exact duplicate of Earth as it existed in the 1960's. The planet, however is sparsely populated.

A landing party beams down to the planet and discover that all the adults on the planet are long-dead.  Strangely, there are packs of wild children still alive; children who are actually 300 years old, but who contract a deadly disease upon the onset of puberty

As Kirk (William Shatner) and the others learn, piecing together information from a teenage girl name Miri (Kim Darby), this strange set of circumstances came about when scientists on the parallel Earth undertook a project in “life prolongation.”

When Kirk, Bones (De Forest Kelley), Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) and the other humans in the landing party contract the disease, they realize they have only days left before the onset of dementia and an agonizing death.  

And unfortunately, Miri’s friends have stolen their communicators as part of a game, because these ancient children don’t like “grups” (grown-ups). Now they can’t even contact the ship for help in determining if an antidote is fatal.

Finally, Kirk must confront the children about the truth of their existence, and a disease that extends childhood…but never allows one to grow up.

“Miri” is a strange and affecting Peter Pan story. It acknowledges that there’s a strange duality in being young. 

For a time, it seems that childhood lasts forever…and we want it to do so. There is nothing more like paradise than the first day of summer vacation…the promise of so many days ahead filled with endless play and games. 

But then, as adolescence looms, it seems we can’t grow up and become independent fast enough. Childhood seems like a prison at that point, not the ultimate freedom. We count the days until we can escape curfews and house rules, and chart our own destiny.

What once seemed like paradise now seems like damnation.

This episode of Star Trek (1966 – 1969) takes as the title character a young woman, played beautifully by Kim Darby, who has half-crossed that bridge from childhood to adulthood. Childish things are now behind Miri, and she longs for an adult life. But because of the disease on her planet, she will never reach that threshold. 

When Miri grows up, she dies. She has waited quite a long time to reach a destination that she will never see, at least for any length of time. This is her tragedy, though the good people of the Enterprise help her escape the trap. Her dilemma, however, is haunting. Miri is very much alone when Kirk and the others first meet her, an outcast who doesn't belong to the world of adults or the world of children.

In a way, Miri is the female counterpart for Charlie Evans ("Charlie X"), and so this segment is thus the second episode in Trek's first season that contends with adolescence as a time of great capriciousness. 

The notion of children running a society on their own, often quite cruelly, is a science fiction and literary trope. We saw the concept play out in William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, for example. After Trek, the idea appeared on other science fiction series, including The Starlost (1973) and the episode "The Children of Methuselah."

This situation encountered by the Enterprise in “Miri” could be a metaphor for many things, but it seems a perfect reflection of human life. 

What children don’t always recognize in their longing to “grow up” is that adulthood -- while freeing in terms of decision-making and independence, at least for a while -- is also about shackling one’s self to a certain set of variables or responsibilities. 

You need a job. You need a place to live. You need a car. 

The freedom you imagined is, instead, a kind of soul death where your childhood dreams go to curl up and die.  

This is especially true for those with an artistic bent. Want to be a musician, a writer, or an actor? Be prepared to do a lot of lousy jobs to support your dream. Few kids imagine that truth.

Similarly, the Grups in “Miri” are combative, delusional monsters who just want to fight with another. This seems to suggest that brand of the freedom represented by adulthood is wasted on grown-ups. 

Once ensconced in maturity, grown-ups long for the childhood they once had -- like the disfigured Grup with his broken tricycle -- and now spend their days acting like raving maniacs. 

Miri describes Grups as people who burn, yell and hurt people, a good indictment of some bitter grown-ups, especially today. When one looks at the anger seething right now in this country, one has to wonder what our children make of the so-called "adults."

Like last week’s story, “What Are Little Girls Made Of,” there is a distinctly conservative bent to this episode of Star Trek

The people of Miri’s planet made a grave mistake when they sought to change nature; to pursue immortality through their life prolongation project. They showed hubris or pride in believing that they could over-write nature’s plan, and for their folly the planet was destroyed. They thought they could substitute their wisdom for the wisdom of God or Mother Nature.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy provide an antidote that restores the previous status-quo; giving the children a natural life-span to live out, rather than the dreamed-of immortality. In other words, they re-boot in the society in terms of its original design.

The message is quite explicitly that science, medicine and technology can go too far, and so should be viewed warily. It’s funny for a show about the future -- one that depends so fully on advanced technology -- to take this view, but I understand it.  

Star Trek is about human beings learning to face the mysteries of the final frontier while maintaining their essential human nature. And that nature, episodes such as “Miri” remind us, is mortal. The fact that we grow old and die is part of our essential make-up. Indeed, we count our lives as worth living in part because we realize they won’t last forever. What drives us is the need to achieve great things in the time given us.

Still, I wouldn’t be averse to living for 200 years or so, assuming no plague is created by doctors in giving me that opportunity…

“Miri” is also a kind of second (or is it third?) pilot for Star Trek, in that it is the first in an intended series of “Parallel Earth” stories. 

In these (projected) money-saving type stories, the Enterprise encounters planets that are duplicates of Earth, but ones that veered off of our “chosen” destiny in some key way. 

In “Miri,” the quest for immortality releases a deadly plague that is a “veritable soup of bacteria” destroying the human race, mostly, at a 1960s level of technological development.  

From a production standpoint, these stories are cheap to do because they utilize standing studio sets.

However, I think we can be grateful that no other “Parallel Earth” stories are told in quite this fashion, with the Enterprise encountering exact duplicates of our planet in the distant heavens.  

“A Piece of the Action” and “Patterns of Force” are about alien worlds contaminated by contact with Earth culture, rather than planetary duplicates that spontaneously exist in other solar systems. 

“Bread and Circuses” isn’t set on a duplicate Earth, but rather an alien planet that mirrors the rise of human culture on Earth. Perhaps that’s splitting hairs, but I think it would be awful if Star Trek featured every few weeks, a duplicate Earth. I'm glad the series didn't go that way.

“Miri” does set a trend in Star Trek storytelling in terms of another factor: language.  

In this episode, Kirk and his crew encounter children who have adopted their own slang or vocabulary.  Not merely “Grups,” but “Onlies” and Foolies” too.  The crew must decipher these words as part of their method of understanding another culture. This notion recurs in “The Omega Glory” with the Yangs (Yankees) and Kohms (Communists), and even in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) with V’ger (Voyager).  

The answer to each story’s particular riddle involves an understanding of language, in all cases, a mangled “code” that no longer functions entirely as it should. The key is to crack the code.

1 comment:

  1. A touching story. Pollard and Darby are excellent, even though they are playing much younger than their respective character's ages.

    "Miri" is yet another episode that came together more completely for me when I saw it in my mid teens. It was as though I was watching it for the first time.

    Trivia: Trek's studio-mandated episode budget at this point was $193,500 but "Miri" came in at $206,815 ... and grabbed about 25 million viewers when it first aired.

    Your point about "language" is an important one. Excellent review, by the way.


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