Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Apple

You'll learn to care for yourselves, with our help. And there's no trick to putting fruit on trees. You might enjoy it. You'll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves, work for yourselves, and what you create is yours. That's what we call freedom. You'll like it, a lot. And you'll learn something about men and women, the way they're supposed to be. Caring for each other, being happy with each other, being good to each other. That's what we call love. You'll like that, too, a lot. You and your children.”

Regardless of Captain Kirk's optimistic speech at the end of The Apple, all the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI are probably doomed. 

Once snake headed machine demi-god Vaal has been defeated the planet has a population of 15; literally. Normally the reality of having a handful of extras to suggest an entire population would mean making some allowance for artistic licence. The townsfolk of The Return Of The Archons make some vague references to “the valley” and although other towns are never mentioned it's safe to assume they were out there somewhere on Beta Three; full of people surprised to suddenly find the peace of Landru withdrawn. Likewise in Miri there are probably other cities and other children on the planet. In The Apple the story doesn't work if Vaal is a machine with multiple heads in other villages across the planet. Vaal's energy levels are drained first by acting against the Enterprise in orbit, and then by having to reinforce its shield against the ship's phasers. Vaal dies because it can't top up its energy when Kirk stops the villagers feeding Vaal. If there are other villages to feed the machine then its energy cannot be depleted.

So there's a single village on Gamma Trianguli VI. But could there be more than 15 villagers? Are the rest off looking for whatever it is Vaal uses as fuel (it's never clear but at feeding time it looks as if the villagers are dropping in the exploding rocks which kill one of the Enterprise landing party, that Vaal uses these as fuel makes some sort of sense). This also does not seem to be the case. “These are the people of Vaal,” says Akuta when he brings the landing party to the village. Kirk asks, “where are the others,” and Akuta replies, “there are no others.” Kirk is talking about children, but Akuta doesn't know that, he doesn't even know what children are (Vaal has forbidden love, it's that sort of snake-headed machine demi-god), so when Akuta says “there are no others,” he can only be telling the literal truth. There are no hunting parties out looking for fuel for Vaal. No one else is out gathering fruit. What you see is what you get. And what you get at feeding time are 15 people. Eight men and seven women. Even if 15 people is enough to keep the population level up there are going to be lots of cyclops running around and bumping into trees within a few generations.

Also note that number; 15. It's all very well for Kirk to go on about how the feeders of Vaal will like learning about love but simple maths suggests one unlucky man is going to be left out while the others pair up to learn about kissing. Let's hope Vaal's lesson in killing didn't stick.

Also, Gamma Trianguli VI is a deathtrap. Three security guards are killed. One by a plant that spits poison darts, another is struck by lightning, and the third treads on an exploding rock. The way the lightning targets the landing party suggests it must be under Vaal's control. But if Vaal controls the weather then it's also responsible for the remarkably mild climate (“a planet-wide average of seventy six degrees”) and with Vaal switched off the weather is going to become unpredictable; winter's coming, and the feeders of Vaal are not dressed for snow. Or maybe the plants will get them. Judging by the way the plants take pot-shots at the Enterprise crew they were some sort of Vaal controlled defence mechanism, which means they are now growing wild and removed from Vaal's controlling influence. Or maybe the unlucky feeders of Vaal will tread on one of the exploding rocks which can be found all over the surface.

None of this would matter if The Apple wasn't framed as a moral debate between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy about whether it was right to set the villagers free from Vaal's influence, and if the episode didn't conclude that setting them free was the correct course of action.

SPOCK: Captain, I'm not at all certain we did the correct thing on Gamma Trianguli Six.
MCCOY: We put those people back on a normal course of social evolution. I see nothing wrong in that.

This debate about freeing the feeders of Vaal doesn't work because that's not the decision Kirk has to make during The Apple. Kirk's decision is whether or not to destroy Vaal in order to free the Enterprise. When it becomes clear to Kirk that there is no alternative he doesn’t hesitate to save his ship; Vaal must die. Spock and McCoy's debate about whether the villagers should be freed to develop on their own terms or left as they are is just hot air. Vaal will be shut down, and as a side effect of this the villagers will be left to fend for themselves.

It's surprising to see a Star Trek episode miss its own point so badly. The focus of The Apple should be on Kirk weighing the lives of the 500 Enterprise crew against the 15 people living on the planet. The odd thing is, in the early stages of The Apple it does look like this is going to be the moral dilemma. Kirk is in an odd maudlin mood and indulges in some self-flagellation when Mallory becomes the third landing party member to be killed.

KIRK: Kaplan. Hendorff. I know Kaplan's family. Now Mallory.
MCCOY: Jim, you couldn't have stopped any of this.
KIRK: His father helped me get into the Academy.
SPOCK: Captain. In each case, this was unavoidable.
KIRK: I could've prevented all of it.
SPOCK: I don't see how.
KIRK: A walk in paradise, among the green grass and flowers. We should've beamed up at the first sign of trouble.
SPOCK: You are under orders to investigate this planet and this culture.
KIRK: I also have the option to disregard those orders if I consider them overly hazardous. This isn't that important a mission, Spock. Not worth the lives of three of my men. I drop my guard for a minute because I like the smell of growing things, and now three men are dead. And the ship's in trouble.

It's a mystery why the episode backs away from examining the decisions Kirk must make to keep the Enterprise safe and instead turns into a confused Garden of Eden allegory. Admittedly there's not a great deal of drama in asking if Kirk would let his ship and crew be destroyed (hint, no). It's also possible someone was worried about making Kirk look harsh and unheroic if he unambiguously came out and said he would always put the Enterprise first. More likely this is one of those occasions when I've got the benefit of 45 years of hindsight. It's easy for me to say The Apple is focusing on the wrong part of the story. I'm not in the middle of a crunch period with Robert Justman standing on my desk demanding the completed script now!

Whatever the reason, it quickly grates when Spock and McCoy keep harping on about the correct moral choice regarding the feeders of Vaal. Not least because no one ever thinks to ask the villagers. It's a debate conducted entirely above the villagers' heads. The lowest point comes when a fourth landing party member is killed by the feeders of Vaal (their god has ordered them to murder the landing party in a final attempt to remove the bad influence of these people who keep kissing each other). Standing over the dead body of Marple Spock smugly announces, “They've taken the first step [towards achieving their full human potential] they've learned to kill.” It's meant to be a powerful moment but it just makes Spock look like a petty point scorer. A man is dead Spock, try to show a little decorum rather than going “hey look this dead body I'm standing over proves McCoy is wrong!”

Vaal was always going to be destroyed, it has to be to save the Enterprise. There is no other option. Vaal has backed Kirk into a corner. It has disabled the ship and is trying to kill the landing party. The fate of the feeders of Vaal is an irrelevance. Ironically Kirk comes closest to nailing down the futility of the constant debate when he says, “gentlemen, I think this philosophical argument can wait until our ship's out of danger.” But it doesn't wait and the writers end up making Kirk look like a hypocrite because they give him lines like, “we owe it to them to interfere.” Kirk's speech at the end about how great it is that the feeders of Vaal can now have babies and pick their own fruit just seems stupid. He shouldn't be pretending he was doing them a favour when what he was actually doing was saving the Enterprise.

Enterprise crew deaths: Hendorf (poisoned by a dart spitting plant), Kaplan (struck by lightning and vaporised), Mallory (treads on an exploding rock), and Marple (clubbed to death).
Running total: 34

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