Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Elaan Of Troyius

John Meredyth Lucas was Star Trek's renaissance man. He produced the episodes from Journey To Babel to The Omega Glory, wrote The Changeling Patterns of Force and the teleplay for That Which Survives, and directed The Ultimate Computer and The Enterprise Incident. He also wrote and directed Elaan of Troyius. It would be interesting to know the combination of circumstances which allowed John Meredyth Lucas to write and direct his own episode; a degree of creative freedom not given to anyone else on Star Trek or any of the subsequent spin off series. The combined fee for John Meredyth Lucas to write and direct might have been less than the cost of paying him as a writer and hiring a separate director. That might have been appealing during production of another episode which looks like it is pushing the boundaries of Star Trek's strained finances with alien make-up, a lot of speaking parts, extensive costume requirements, and a brand new Klingon ship model.

Whatever the reason for allowing John Meredyth Lucas to direct as well as write it represented good value for money. He's a very functional director in terms of shot composition but he gets some brilliant performances from his actors. France Nuyen's portrayal of Elaan is charismatic and she makes Elaan likeable. This sometimes requires working against the intention of the script which is quite an acting challenging considering the man directing her performance also wrote her lines. When she's eating her dinner after stabbing Ambassador Petri the intent of the script seems to be "look at this awful woman" but she gives Elaan a strength which works against the undercurrent of the scene and makes her lack of interest in good table manners admirable. France Nuyen also throws away some lines which could have been played more broadly. "So, Ambassador Petri is going to recover? That is too bad." And a great zinger at Gene Roddenberry's concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

KIRK: It's been my experience that the prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.
ELAAN: It's not in my experience.

Contrast France Nuyen's delivery with the way William Shatner overplays some of his lines and facial expressions. He and Jay Robinson, playing Petri, bounce off each other to try and wring as much humour as possible from their scenes together and the result is Petri never feels like a real person. He's a caricature of an oily diplomat, rather than an oily diplomat. The best thing about France Nuyen's performance is that her presence seems to force William Shatner to raise his game and in the second half of the episode we see a more subdued performance from him than we have for some time. For the rest of the cast it is largely business as usual. Not to be dismissive of the hard work they put in each week but, for example, DeForest Kelley long ago worked out exactly how to play Doctor McCoy and there's nothing in this episode to challenge his acting ability. Likewise Leonard Nimoy knows exactly how to deliver his performance and without breaking Spock's emotionless facade he is expertly able to inject whole worlds of suffering into a line like, "Captain, the Dohlman is dissatisfied with the quarters provided."

John Meredyth Lucas' script starts out as
The Taming Of The Shrew via Pygmalion in space before becoming something marginally more nuanced in the second half. John Meredyth Lucas has cited the Helen of Troy myth as a source, unsurprising given the Helen/Elaan Troy/Troyius naming. If that is the case then the myth has been carefully inverted because the kidnapping of Helen of Troy by Paris caused the Trojan war while here the marriage of Elaan to the ruler of the planet Troyius will bring peace. Elaan's situation is more that of a European princess being married off to an eligible prince in the name of diplomacy; similar to Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleeves to provide England with a potential ally in case of a Roman Catholic attack.

The Taming Of The Shrew is a good starting point for a Star Trek script is a whole separate question. Academics have spent years arguing if Shakespeare's play is misogynistic or a satire of the views espoused by the male characters in the play, and some Star Trek blog on the internet is not the place to debate that issue. There are uncomfortable lines in the script. Nurse Chapel's line "if Elasian women are that vicious, why are men so overwhelmingly attracted to them? I mean, what magic do they possess?" is particularly offensive because it's dialogue written by a man for a female character assuming that some women are so awful the only way they can ensnare a man is by trickery. Kirk's slapping of Elaan is unforgivable. No doubt similar scenes can be found in any number of contemporary shows but Star Trek is unfortunate enough to have endured and what would have been acceptable on broadcast is now dated and uncomfortable to watch. As fans we want Star Trek to be better than it sometimes is, and it's disappointing to be reminded that the series was written and produced by sixties men, mostly, and reflects their attitudes.

That said thanks to France Nuyen Elaan often comes across less as a shrew to be tamed than as a strong woman frustrated by finding herself trapped in a situation which renders her powerless, and there's a case for arguing that her most unappealing behaviour is an act to try and get the wedding abandoned. She switches tactics when this doesn't work and plan B is to use a biological advantage, as Petri explains, "it's biochemical. A man whose flesh is once touched by the tears of a woman of Elas has his heart enslaved forever.

Based on how
Star Trek has told stories in the past, acts three and four should feature Kirk becoming increasingly obsessed with Elaan while Spock and McCoy fret and speculate about the change in his behaviour, and worry about whether to relive him of command. McCoy's search for an antidote to Elaan's tears would be the resolution to this plot crisis when he cures Kirk of his obsessive love. That this doesn't happen is of some credit to John Meredyth Lucas. Instead there's a sub-plot about a Klingon attempt to destroy the Enterprise, and Elaan, to gain control of Troyius; a planet naturally rich in dilithium. Kirk puts his command duties before his love for Elaan and by doing so proves his point that responsibilities and obligations come before personal wishes. In the end Elaan is not some broken woman who is fixed by teaching her how to hold a knife and fork properly and say please and thank you. She's a person in her own right who learns that the honour she values so highly takes many different forms. Best of all she learns this lesson not from a long winded speech from Kirk, as was the case with the Vians in The Empath, but from observing the way he behaves. She learns that very Star Trek lesson that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

Enterprise crew deaths: One, engineer Watson killed by Kryton as he sabotages the warp drive.
Running total: 50

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