Saturday, December 7, 2013

Plato's Stepchildren

The teaser for Plato's Stepchildren is really effective. A lot of this is due to Alexander, played by Michael Dunn with a twitchy nervous energy. His opening info-dump packed lines should fall flat on the screen but he makes the exposition work by portraying Alexander as someone who just cannot stop his mouth from running. "...Platonians. I'm sure you've never heard of us. Our native star is Sahndara. Millennia ago, just before it went nova, we managed to escape. Our leader liked Plato's ideas Plato, Platonius. See? In fact, our present philosopher-king, Parmen, sometimes calls us Plato's children, although we sometimes think of ourselves more as Plato's stepchildren."

At this point we're barely 90 seconds into the episode and Alexander's character is already solidly established as someone a little odd and lacking in social skills; Kirk, Spock, and McCoy certainly think so judging by the look they exchange over Alexander's head as he rambles on and on, and the trio pretend to listen politely. When Alexander says, "excuse me, someone's waiting for you," and then twitches and dances backwards out of the scene it could be taken as yet another aspect of his strange character but it isn't. The Platonians have telepathic powers, and there's another nicely handled moment when Parmen snatches McCoy's hypospray and it floats through the air (it's a shame the cleaned up prints make the wires more visible). Finally the teaser ends not on a reaction close-up of the landing party as might normally be expected, but on Alexander in pain and worried.

This really should feel tired and second hand. Just another bunch of toga wearing demi-gods, as previously seen in
Arena and Who Mourns For Adonais? but instead it feels fresh. In the space of two and a half minutes the teaser sets up some intriguing characters and has the audience asking the question all good teasers should raise; what's going on here and what's going to happen to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy?

Act one continues the trend mixing nice understated moments, the contrast between Alexander's struggle to move his chess pieces and the effortless telekinesis of Eraclitus, and bigger moments like Parmen's telepathic delirium. Ultimately your opinion of the story will depend on how you view the later acts when Parman tries to force McCoy into staying by humiliating Kirk and Spock, and later also bringing Uhura and Nurse Chapel down from the Enterprise. Personally I find the humiliation scenes go on too long. They make up the bulk of act two and it's possible to go through a whole suite of emotions while watching; anger, embarrassment (for the characters), boredom, embarrassment (for the actors), horror, embarrassment (for yourself at the fear of being caught watching Kirk pretending to be a horse). Then, after act three provides a recovery period the humiliation scenes start up again, this time with Kirk and Spock dressed in vile red and green togas. It's difficult to know how to read these scenes. The audience is meant to be outraged at the Platonian's humiliation of the Enterprise crew for their own entertainment, but it's also being done for the entertainment of the audience. At what point does the sadism of the Platonians blur into titillation for the audience? Probably around the point where Parmen brings out the implements of torture and Spock menaces Nurse Chapel with a red-hot poker and Kirk starts cracking a whip around Uhura; had someone on the production team seen a bootleg copy of The Avengers episode A Touch Of Brimstone? It went into syndication on American television in 1969.

Apart from those togas what surprises most about the story is how lush it looks. It's easy to mock Star Trek's tendency to use the style of ancient Greece as a symbol for strange alien power, but being able to pull costumes and sets from storage must allow tight budgets to be stretched further than normal and the result is some visually pleasing, and surprisingly large and complex sets. Art director
Matt Jefferies has added a small square pond behind the main throne room, and behind that is a view of greenery and a horizon. The whole set has real depth and looks bigger than Apollo's temple in Who Mourns For Adonais? although it is almost certainly smaller. In addition director of photography Al Francis lights the sets beautifully and the result is a rich and colourful world. I can't help feeling guilty for criticising Al Francis in my review of The Tholian Web because here he does sterling work.

Ultimately it's not the big set piece scenes of act two and four which stick in the memory and make the episode work, it's little moments. Bruce Schoengarth the film editor uses some great reaction shots of Philana as she smirks or looks bored or disdainful; she gets surprisingly few lines but her regular reaction shots allow her a constant presence in the story. The slow realisation that Alexander's nervous desire to constantly please is due to hundreds of years of literally being pushed around. The two fops Dioniyde and Eraclitus who mock Kirk and Spock during the revels. "Oh, how faithless and fickle." "Make up your minds." The laughter and applause which accompanies the revels and makes those scenes feel like some bizarre sitcom. Liam Sullivan's delivery of Parmen's line, "how can you let this go on?" which ends act two and Leonard Nimoy's subdued and broken Spock at the start of act three; somehow more shocking than any of the indignities inflicted on him by the Platonians.

Enterprise crew deaths: None again, a six episode run of no deaths for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 48

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