Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Way To Eden

Space hippies! Like Lazarus from The Alternative Factor, The Way To Eden is perceived as being locked in an eternal struggle with Spock's Brain over which is Star Trek's most notoriously bad episode. Actually watching both stories is an anticlimax because neither represents Star Trek at it's worst. The pair are not the most stupid episodes ever, or the most boring, or the ones which most completely fail to tell an ordered story. In the end they are just a pair of below average Star Trek episodes; and statistically 50% of all Star Trek episodes must be below average. Admittedly some episodes of Star Trek are more below average than others. Spock's Brain and The Way To Eden both stand out as representatives of everything which went wrong with Star Trek. The tone of Spock's Brain is the problem. For the first time the series seems to have taken on a Batman like self-mocking quality, and if the show is mocking itself then by extension it must also be mocking the viewer. "You actually like this stuff? But look how stupid it is!"

In the case of
The Way To Eden the most obvious problem is the concept; Captain Kirk versus the space hippies. It's a symptom of the way Star Trek dumbed itself down that what used to be a strength of the series, its ability to comment on contemporary issues with allegory, has now become a weakness.

Star Trek always aspired to for stories to have a ripped-from-the-headlines element and given the events of 1968 an episode about youth in revolt becomes as inevitable as a story about overpopulation, or the loss of jobs to machines. It's a good technique for generating stories but it's not a guarantee of success. Mirror, Mirror one of Star Trek's best episodes isn't an allegory of anything. The Ultimate Computer worked at the time, and still works today, because, "we're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine," but what lets the story down is some fuzzy characterisation. With the distance of history Star Trek's endorsement of the war in Vietnam in A Private Little War just seems muddle-headed, but it must have been actively offensive to any watching 18 year old worried about the imminent arrival of their draft card. "War isn't a good life, but it's life," indeed.

The Way To Eden stumbles is that its use of hippies is incredibly lazy. These space hippies are not an allegory they're just hippies. It's all to easy to imagine someone seized on the description of "23rd Century Flower Children," from D. C. Fontana's outline for a story called Joanna and expanded those four words into an episode which relied on a whiff of topicality to add freshness to what would otherwise be routine Star Trek. The creative process appears to have stopped right after some said, "hippies are in the news, we should do a story about them". The result is a compilation of 1968-style hippies greatest hits; they have crazy lingo that grups can't understand, they dress strangely, they sing constantly, they scorn authority figures, they have a sit-in in the transporter room, and the scene of them outside sickbay demanding to see Doctor Sevrin is meant to look like the protests outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention/the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square/Paris (unfortunately being made at the fag-end of the third season means there's no money for extras so Doctor Sevrin's five followers are being held back by two security guards and Chekov, the scale of the protest is small enough to be laughable).

Significantly what these hippies don't do is is mess around with mind altering substances. Doctor Sevrin is probably meant to be an amalgam of various counter culture figures; Ken Kesey, or someone from the Yippies, or
Timothy Leary; Sevrin is explicitly referred to as an academic Doctor. In one way or another they and the hippie movement are associated with the use of drugs although you'd never realise that from watching The Way To Eden. This is understandable considering NBC's Standards and Practices Department would never allow it, but it highlights the limited ambition of the script. No one involved in writing The Way To Eden has any interest in the counter culture movement or exploring why people attempt to drop out or rebel against the system, or imagining how this might happen in the future.
Phyllis Diller and Bob Hope: The Last Hippies on Earth... in 1997
They just want to do a story about hippies because hippies are in the news. In 1967 a television special called
The Phyllis Diller Happening was broadcast which featured Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Sonny Bono, and Cher in a sketch called The Last Hippies on Earth…in 1997. Frustratingly the sketch isn't online but I'm willing to bet that if it ever becomes available it won't hit any different beats to The Way To Eden (slang, protests, sit-ins, etc) because the people responsible for The Way To Eden don't understand the difference between exploring a contemporary issue and lazily referencing something the viewers at home have heard about.

This sense of laziness and limited ambition runs right through the script. The initial set up is promising; Sevrin is insane, his followers are naive, the Enterprise crew resent the disruption to the smooth running of the ship, and Spock attempts to act as a bridge between the two camps but over the course of the episode nothing changes. Characters do things because the plot doesn't work if they don't.
The Way To Eden apes the complexity of a story like Charlie X but doesn't seem to understand what this means for the characters. It means that when Irina, Chekov's ex girlfriend from Starfleet Academy, wants to help Sevrin take over the Enterprise she should feel guilty about manipulating the feelings he still clearly has for her. Choosing between Sevrin and Chekov should cause Irina emotional conflict but it doesn't. At the end of the episode she and Chekov have a reconciliation of sorts and her betrayal is never mentioned. Irina and Chekov's feelings for each other, and Irina's part in Sevrin's takeover of the ship are two separate plot strands and nobody involved in writing the episode saw any reason why these plots should intersect. In the same way there should be consequences for Rad when he tells Sevrin that he knows Sevrin's plan to use ultrasonics against the Enterprise crew will kill, and not stun. Sevrin has lied to his followers, and Rad acknowledges that lie and is complicit in the attempted murder 430 people. Yet the script continues to paint all Sevrin's followers as naive dupes led by a lunatic, as if Rad hadn't even spoken.

The problems with
The Way To Eden ultimately come down to a sense that Star Trek has been massively simplified. In Charlie X the script and the actors work to make the audience realise that although Charlie is the antagonist of the episode he's not evil. What happens to Charlie is for the best but also a tragedy; and the audience is capable of realising this without having it pointed out to them directly. In Errand Of Mercy the script emphasises both the differences and similarities between Kirk and his Klingon opposite Kor as does the script for Balance Of Terror when comparing Kirk and the Romulan commander but no one feels the need to lecture the viewer. By contrast The Way To Eden steps on any potential moment of subtlety. "His name was Adam," says Spock in one of the most plonkingly awful lines of the script when the landing party find the body of one of Sevrin's followers; poisoned after eating deadly fruit. As in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield the Enterprise is reduced to a galactic taxi with Kirk and the crew unwilling spectators. There's no conflict for Kirk here, no decision for him to make. He just sits around unable to take any action.

The Way To Eden contains glimpses of a better story. When McCoy tells Kirk Sevrin is a carrier for Synthococcus novae, a lethal disease which evolved due to Star Trek's "aseptic, sterilised civilisations" we now think about antibiotic resistant diseases like MRSA. In writing about a charismatic leader who establishes himself as the manipulative guru to a group of hippies The Way To Eden prefigures Charles Manson and his Family. Film Editor Fabian Tordjmann does brilliant work at the end of act three. Adam starts singing as Sevrin's deadly ultrasonics incapacitate the Enterprise crew. "Steppin' into Eden. Yea, brother. Steppin' into Eden." As Adam grins and sings with two unnamed female hippies we cut to a tracking shot of the bridge with the crew lying on the floor and the song continues, slightly filtered to suggest we are hearing it through a speaker on the bridge. "No more trouble in my body or my mind. Gonna live like a king on whatever find. Eat all the fruit and throw away the rind. Yea, brother." Finally we cut to a big close up of Doctor Sevrin who says, "now we may leave." 

Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 56

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