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.
VANNA: Yes. Our demands have just begun.
Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 56