Friday, September 09, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Plato's Stepchildren"

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, especially given the recent passing of Nichelle Nichols -- 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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Wishing for a Sears Christmas Catalog

File this one under "the good old days." Way back, almost fifty years ago, as the holiday season neared, department store giant Se...