Thursday, November 7, 2013

For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky

This is just bland. It's a story which exists purely to fill its scheduled 48 minutes of airtime. Star Trek has done worse episodes, and sillier episodes, and more misconceived episodes, but it's difficult to think of a story which shows less ambition.

This is an episode full of generic moments which happen simply because they always happen in an action adventure series. The most original element of the story is Yonada a closed world sealed inside an asteroid while the descendants of a doomed race travel to a new planet. Original is of course a relative term. This is original for Star Trek but generation ships are something of a hoary cliché in science fiction and, as always, the residents of Yonada don't know they are in a generation ship. In 1966 David Gerrold submitted a two part outline called Tomorrow Was Yesterday about a generation ship on a collision course with a star, again the inhabitants of the ship thought it was a world; this is mentioned not to suggest anyone plagiarised David Gerrold's idea but to show how it was simply one of those ideas which floated around.

Beyond that everything is
Star Trek by numbers. Yonada is run by a computer called the Oracle who uses instruments of obedience to monitor what the inhabitants say and think. The Oracle is the worst kind of mixed messages ruler doing 180 degree mood changes when required by the script. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy first arrive it punishes the landing party, “learn what it means to be our enemy before you learn what it means to be our friend,” then welcomes them, “it is the will of the Oracle that you now be treated as honoured guests.” Later when Kirk and Spock go back into the Oracle room it sentences them to death. Despite this exchange earlier.

KIRK: Thank you, Mister Spock. To our good friends of Yonada.
SPOCK: We are very interested in your world.
NATIRA: That pleases us.
KIRK: Good. Then you wouldn't mind if we looked around?
NATIRA: Not at all. The people know of you now. [to McCoy] Are you well enough to go about?
MCCOY: Perhaps not.
NATIRA: Then why not remain here? Rest. We will talk.
MCCOY: You are very kind.
NATIRA: You are free to go about and meet our people.

Would it have hurt Natira to add that the Oracle room was off limits? It's never clear if the computer is malfunctioning. Spock makes a throwaway reference to “a weakness in one of the eight tubes,” but this is in the context of correcting Yonada's navigational error so could just refer to a problem with the engines. The Oracle appears to be functioning normally. It seems the Fabrini just wanted their descendants to be bossed around by a computer with the nature of a fickle two year old. It doesn't really matter. The Oracle is switched off towards the end of the story and plays no further part in the proceedings.

Worshiping the Oracle is Natira, high priestess of the people. Doctor McCoy falls in love with her. When D. C. Fontana wrote
Friday's Child she used the situation on Capella to examine McCoy's character, his compassion and his determination to help people even at the cost of his own life. Here McCoy falls in love simply because one of the characters needs to stay on Yonada and learn its secrets. The choice of McCoy makes no difference to the character or the story. It is utterly arbitrary, apparently made simply on the basis that this season Kirk and Spock have already have had love stories. It doesn't matter. The person wandering around Yonada called Doctor McCoy doesn't bear any relation to the character of the same name who appears in other Star Trek episodes. This Doctor McCoy discovers a world whose inhabitants are kept in deliberate ignorance of their true place in the universe. This Doctor McCoy witnesses a man killed for talking about something he did in his childhood. This Doctor McCoy discovers the ruling planetary computer monitors the thoughts and speech of the woman he loves, and can inflict pain on her should she say or think something forbidden. Does he rail against the system of Yonada and try to bring it down? No. He chooses to join this world and has the instrument of obedience implanted in his head, and seems to take seriously Natira's offer, “you can share that world with me, rule it by my side.” That fatal disease he's caught must really be messing with his brain.

Because that's the other big idea of the episode. Doctor McCoy is dying of space-plague. Except he isn't. At the end of the story Spock finds the Fabrini have a cure, so McCoy's incurable fatal disease goes away with no long term effects on his character.

Those are the big problems with the story, but there are plenty of little ones. The Enterprise finds Yonada because the Oracle (presumably) fires missiles at the ship. So, this secret closed world disguised as an asteroid is flying through space and drawing attention by launching attacks at anyone who comes near? And it's not only McCoy who is acting out of character. After McCoy tells Kirk about his illness he says, “I'll be most effective on the job in the time left, if you'll keep this to yourself.” Kirk's first line after the opening titles is, “Captain's log, stardate 5476.3. I have just had the sad duty of informing Starfleet about Doctor McCoy's condition and have requested an immediate replacement.” It takes Kirk the length of the
Star Trek theme to decide not to keep McCoy in his job, and tell everyone at Starfleet about McCoy's illness. No wonder McCoy is so keen to leave the Enterprise if that's how Kirk is behaving. And, while we're nitpicking, it sure is lucky that when Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Natira are trapped in the Oracle room looking for the Book of the People the Oracle decides to slowly cook them instead of using the electric shock which proved so effective on the other two occasions it was used.

Cross out some names and this is
Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. The Seaview encounters a strange floating island containing survivors from Atlantis who are drifting across the ocean to a new home. Richard Basehart, David Hedison, and this week's guest star, travel to neo-Atlantis where this week's guest star (who is dying from a disease which is incurable but not distressing to any watching viewer) falls in love with a priestess of the God of Atlantis. Neo-Atlantis is in danger of being washed into a giant whirlpool, and this week's guest star works out how to steer the island to safety. Out of gratitude the priestess of the God of Atlantis uses her arcane knowledge to cure the
disease which is incurable but not distressing to any watching viewer, and neo-Atlantis resumes its journey across the ocean while this week's guest star returns to the Seaview.

Oddly, in the middle of all this is one of Star Trek's few sensible debates about the Prime Directive.

SPOCK: Captain, informing these people they're on a ship may be in violation of the Prime Directive of Starfleet Command.
KIRK: No. The people of Yonada may be changed by the knowledge, but it's better than exterminating them.
SPOCK: Logical, Captain.
KIRK: And the three billion on Daran Five.
SPOCK: Also logical, Captain.

One of the worst aspects of the Prime Directive was the way later Star Trek series treated it as a force of galactic natural selection. As if the highest expression of Federation morality was to stand around watching less advanced races suffer or die. Here it takes Kirk and Spock five lines to cut through that nonsense.

Enterprise crew deaths: None again.
Running total: 48.

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