Tuesday, May 17, 2016

And the Children Shall Lead: The Children

And now for the part of And the Children Shall Lead that definitely did not work, but could have been made to work, but only with a major overhaul -- the children, and how the villain turns them against their parents. To understand how poorly And the Children Shall Lead meets this challenge, consider other attempts to take it on.

In the early 1990's, three movies came out in short succession, each featuring a villain who seeks revenge against an adult enemy by turning their victim's children against their parents.  In the 1991 film, Cape Fear, a former convict seeks revenge on his lawyer for intentionally botching his defense.  In the 1991 movie Hook, the villain is, indeed, Captain Hook, and the hero is Peter Pan, now grown up and with children of his own.  In the 1992 movie The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, an obstetrician's widow blames his suicide and her resultant miscarriage on the woman who exposed him as sexually abusing patients.

I am not saying that any of these movies were particularly good, but the flaws lay elsewhere than the villain manipulating children against their parents.  All managed to show that part reasonably well. None were generic. All were psychological pieces about how this particular villain manipulated these particular children against their particular parents.  All of them showed actual family dynamics and children's interactions with their living parents.  The characters were given actual individual personalities and their relationships with one another were addressed.  And in the end in all these cases, the children's love for their parents proved stronger than their resentments, and they rallied to their parents when it became clear that the villain meant the parents actual harm.

And the Children Shall Lead did none of these things. Clearly, there could be no serious exploration of the children's interaction with their parents, since their parents were dead.  Their overall family dynamics were never addressed.  Furthermore, all the movies about villains turning children against their parents limit themselves on one family and one or two children.  Star Trek is taking on five children and five different families here, which is perhaps an unsupportable challenge.  But the episode does not even attempt to meet it.  The children have no real characterization as individuals; they are simply shown as the Gorgan's puppets.  Nor do we ever get to know the parents at all.  So we never get to see how the Gorgan turned the children against their parents to the point of not even caring that they were lying dead all around them.

Admittedly, we do get some hints when Captain Kirk tries talking to the children about their parents. He asks them about Triacus and they make clear that they did not like it. He says their parents didn't like it either.  The children say that they did and one adds, "Parents like stupid things."  Nurse Chapel points out that parents like children and Mary says, "That's what you think."  Kirk takes up the theme by saying their parents took them to Triacus because they loved their children and would miss them if they were apart, and wouldn't the children miss their parents, too.   That is apparently Getting Too Close because Tommy abruptly starts them imitating a swarm of bees.  Then he asks for more ice cream and Kirk says it would spoil their dinner.  Tommy says, "See what I told you? They all say it."  Kirk sends the younger children away and talks to Tommy alone. Tommy admits that he saw his father earlier that day and he was very upset but Tommy doesn't know why.  Tommy also complains that the grownups were too busy and never had time for them.  All of this suggests that the villain is controlling them by manipulating their resentment of adults and their rules. This is reinforces when the "Friendly Angel" tells the children, "No one will tell us where to go, when to sleep, where to eat. The universe will be mine to command, yours to play in."  So it would appear that he entices them with promises of a world without rules or restraints, where they can play and eat ice cream to their heart's content and never have to worry about bedtime or school.

This may be reinforced in the one place where we get a hint of individualism, which is also one where I find a nit I just can't resist picking.  Nurse Chapel holds up a handful of cards to offer the children their favorite flavor of ice cream.  Four immediately grab their favorite card.  Three boys rush up to the replicator, followed by Mary.  The small white boy holds back.  Nurse Chapel gives him a random card and offers him a "surprise."  Much to his disappointment, it is coconut and vanilla, "both white."  She says that was an unpleasant surprise and offers to let him choose is "pleasant surprise."  He picks chocolate wobble and pistachio, so she hands him the chocolate wobble and pistachio card.  Then he adds peach, so she hands him the chocolate wobble pistachio and peach card!  And it isn't as if she had a huge catalog of cards; she had a number that she could reasonable hold in her hands.  And by an extraordinary coincidence, they included four children's favorite flavors, chocolate wobble and pistachio and chocolate wobble pistachio and peach!  I shouldn't dwell on this, really.  It doesn't go to the core premise here.  It could easily be remedied by having her push a few buttons.  But it annoys me, somehow.

Nonetheless, this scene is the only time we really get to see any of the children as themselves, instead of as tools of the Gorgan.  (It is also really the only time we see anything at all of any child other than Tommy or Mary).  It ain't much, but we learn a little more about the small white boy (apparently named Stevie).  We learn his favorite flavor of ice cream -- chocolate wobble, pistachio and peach. Unsurprisingly, it takes a large bowl to accommodate all that.  It seems most likely that his parents do not normally indulge his taste for chocolate wobble, pistachio and peach ice cream, let alone in such large quantities!  This is actually hinted at when he hesitates at grabbing any card at all, and then first asks only for chocolate wobble and pistachio, only adding the peaches as an afterthought.  Most likely his parents limit him to chocolate wobble and pistachio and he has never dared ask for peach, knowing that the answer would be no.  Showing all the others grab the cards while Stevie is left out, and the boys crowd in ahead of Mary also hints somewhat at the pecking order among the children. Add one or two more such incidents and work them into the conversation with the Gorgan and you may actually start to get a sense of how he turned the children against their parents.

All of which can make another point.  One piece of evidence that Stevie's parents do not indulge his taste in ice cream is that he is not morbidly obese.  And given the quantity and combination of ice cream he uses, I am surprised that he doesn't get a stomach ache!  Children may resent the restrictions their parents place on them, but often the restrictions are there for a good reason.  The best parents in the world still have to impose unpopular rules and make unpopular decisions sometimes.  Children resent these restrictions, even if they are absolutely necessary and in the children's best interests.  The Next Generation episode Imaginary Friend  explores this aspect by having an alien being see the Enterprise from the perspective of a child -- an unusually naive and free-spirited child.  She concludes that humans are so cruel and arbitrary that they should be destroyed.  Picard persuades her to spare them by explaining the necessity of such rules.

Still, it is an idealization to assume that adults always get it right.  Parents have adult responsibilities that keep them from giving children the attention children want.  Sometime legitimate and essential adult responsibilities sometimes to result in children being overlooked.  The best parents in the world still make mistakes sometimes.  And not all parents are the best in the world.  Sometimes parents get too caught up in their own problems and neglect their children or lash at at them unjustifiably.  Some families are flat-out dysfunctional.

The movies I mentioned acknowledge as much.  The villains do not only play on children's resentment of legitimate authority, they work on the parents' real failings. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is the mildest example.  It deals with a happy marriage and good parents, nonetheless facing the disruptions that are inevitable when a new baby joins the family.  The others paint a darker picture.  Hook shows a grown-up Peter Pan neglecting his children for work and unable to deal with children's natural playfulness.  Cape Fear shows a seriously dysfunctional marriage and a teenage daughter acting out.  The villain is easily able to appeal to her simply by being forbidden and a form of defiance. Or consider the first season episode Miri.  All the parents are missing because of a disease that greatly slows the aging process in children, but causes them to go insane and die when they hit puberty.  Children do not cry for their parents because (1) their parents died 300 years earlier, and (2) before dying, they went mad and leave the children in terror of "grups," "burning, yelling, hurting."

The same dynamic can be at work here.  Even if we assume that the parents on Triacus were all good parents and the families all happy and healthy families, let's not forget that the parents, like the ones in Miri, were experiencing growing anxiety, moving from vague uneasiness to serious tension to a descent into madness.  It seems a reasonable assumption that this caused their parenting skills to deteriorate.  Growing edginess might lead parents to snap at their children for no good reason.  At first it would not be too common or severe, and they would apologize afterward.  But as the anxiety grew worse and worse so (we may assume) did the quality of parents' interaction with their children.  As they descended into madness, presumably the parents ignored their children altogether and reacted in wild, irrational ways if the the children approached them.  This would give the Gorgan ample (and justified) resentment to work on.  And consider the diabolical nature of what is happening here.  The Gorgan is provoking anxiety in the adults that cause their parenting skills to deteriorate and then plays on the resentment this breeds in the children to alienate them further.

Of course, there would have to be some indication of this in the program.  Besides showing a few normal childish resentments of grownup rules and restrictions (like Stevie and his ice cream), show the children start to warm up to the Enterprise crew and be relieved that they are not wild and irrational like their parents.  We actually see a few hints of this as well, particularly when the black boy knocks over their flag (placed over the parents' graves) and politely apologizes, or, on the Enterprise, Captain Kirk asks the children if he can join them and Mary politely says, "Please do." All of this suggests that they really are not bad children underneath, just being manipulated.  Instead of the vague, generic complaints about their parents, how about some specific complaints about their erratic behavior?  What about a little reluctance with the "Friendly Angel," saying that these "grups" are nice, not crazy like their parents.  And as the Gorgan starts to take ahold of them, the children start to see the Enterprise crew as being crazy, just like their own parent.

Finally, the way Tommy disrupts the conversation when Kirk seems to be Getting Too Close is theoretically well done, but needs further explanation.  It would require Tommy to have some special tie with the Gorgan and be responsible for keeping the younger kids in line, in a way that is never shown in the episode.

In short, a villain turning children against their parents is certainly doable, but it was not done at all plausibly in this episode.  I believe this element could be salvaged, but only with a lot of work and change.

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