Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Cloud Minders

The ghost of Castles In The Sky haunts this episode. Castles In The Sky was David Gerrold's outline for the episode which became The Cloud Minders and David Gerrold considers Castles In The Sky to be superior to the episode which bears his name; probably not unreasonably. The circumstances of how The Cloud Minders came to be written are widely available on the internet but the short version is that producer Fred Freiberger disliked Castles In The Sky and teamed David Gerrold up with Oliver Crawford to write a revised story outline. Fred Freiberger then decided to start again from scratch by giving Margaret Armen a very broad outline of the story and asking her to produce a revised story treatment which was built up into the finished teleplay. Knowing about the existence of Castles In The Sky makes it difficult to see The Cloud Minders properly because it's too easy to start comparing the finished episode with its unmade precursor; The Way To Eden suffers from a similar problem once you know it is based on an outline from D.C. Fontana for a story called Joanna.

Actually the quality of The Cloud Minders surprises. In the sub-genre of Star Trek stories that David Gerrold called Mary Worth stories (the Enterprise meddles "her way across the Galaxy, solving problems as she goes," The World Of Star Trek) The Cloud Minders comes out very well. It's comparable to A Taste Of Armageddon but lacks that story's sense of place. In A Taste Of Armageddon we meet several representatives of the High Council of Eminiar VII, as well as assorted extras done up as guards and civilians. The Cloud Minders is a little more sparingly populated. Representing the population of Stratos the cloud city is Droxine and Plasus, Droxine's father, and that's it. Still, Stratos may have a low population density but it feels like a real place. Matt Jefferies' sets look lavish, and they are unusual in being split level with a balcony area up some stairs; director Jud Taylor makes good use of this layout. Stratos itself comes via Laputa the flying island from Gulliver's Travels. Margaret Armen ditches the satire of Jonathen Swift's novel for a more obvious metaphor of the ruling class living literally in the clouds, high above the working class they rely upon to sustain their lifestyle.

There may not be many characters but they are well defined. The characters in The Cloud Minders are some of the most interesting and complex we have seen in the third season. Droxine begins as one of Star Trek's more vapid characters, she is considerably less interesting than her costume which is one of William Ware Theiss' more extraordinary designs, but by the end of the story she has questioned her father's actions, expressed a desire to go to the mines, and realised the cost of her pampered lifestyle. Plasus has also changed but for the worse. Through the episode his diplomatic mask slips and by the end he's much more entrenched in his views and open in his bigotry against the Troglytes. Best character of all is Troglyte leader Vanna an angry revolutionary who sometimes even gets frustrated by the limited intelligence of her fellow Disruptors ("can you do nothing but argue?" she snaps at Midro when he suggests killing Kirk and is unable to grasp the value in keeping him alive). It's pleasing to note that at the end of the episode she is the least affected by exposure to the zenite gas. When Kirk and Plasus start brawling she's smart enough to work out what has happened and uses Kirk's communicator to call for help.

The Cloud Minders is also a good story for Kirk. He starts out understandably reluctant to get involved in the dispute with the Troglytes. Then he takes a stand against Plasus' use of torture to locate the missing zenite. Finally he makes a command decision to place the need for zenite above his duty not to interfere with the government of Ardana. His suggestion of masks to counter the effects of the gas is more pragmatic than altruistic and his impatience to get the urgently needed zenite to its destination leads him to mistakenly trust Vanna, who promptly takes him hostage. The scene where Kirk forces Plasus and Vanna to dig zenite with their bare hands is surprisingly shocking and works because it shows how the zenite gas brings out an ugly, cruel side to his personality. It's important to establish the effects of the gas to the viewers as well as Plasus and Vanna, and the best way to do that is to show Kirk behaving as he did in The Enemy Within; to show the gas bringing out the same side of his personality revealed by the transporter malfuction. By contrast Spock seems to get a week off. He's given a lengthy, and unusual, voice over to speculate about social inequality on Ardana but that's his most significant action. For most of the rest of the episode his involvement tends to be restricted to acting as the voice of conscience when debating with Plasus and Droxine about their treatment of the Troglytes.

The ending of The Cloud Minders is pleasantly mature. In A Taste Of Armageddon when Kirk destroys the war computer on Eminiar VII he instantly changes their society. His intervention has an immediate and noticeable effect and he changes their world for the better, although long term peace between Eminiar VII and Vendikar will still depend on the locals. The same is true of other Mary Worth stories like The Apple or The Return Of The Archons. At the end of the episode their respective societies are already visibly different. The Cloud Minders shows how long social change can take. Although Ardana can never be the same after the events of The Cloud Minders the world has not changed overnight. Plasus and Vanna have not become friends after their shared experience. They do not suddenly understand the other's point of view. If anything the lines separating the pair have become more clearly defined. Plasus and Vanna have both begun to realise that the masks will make all Troglytes articulate enough to argue the injustice of the current system and the case for fairer treatment. What's going to happen on Ardana is right, but right doesn't mean pleasant or nice or easy. As Plasus and Vanna argue and snipe at each other we see that the immediate future on Ardana is going to be difficult.

PLASUS: They will all be like her. Ungrateful, vindictive.
VANNA: Yes. Our demands have just begun.

Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 56

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