Thursday, May 19, 2016

And the Children Shall Lead: The Enterprise Crew

And now for the part of And the Children Shall Lead that was so bad it needs to be pulled up by the roots and redone altogether -- how the children and the Gorgan take over the Enterprise crew.

The trouble here -- well there are several of them. For starters, what is happening to the Enterprise  crew is not the same as what Professor Starnes recounted in his log.  Recall that first the professor (calmly) says that he is experiencing feelings of anxiety, and that everyone else is having them too, except the children.  Next, sounding tenser and tenser and more and more jittery, he says that the anxiety is getting worse and begins to sense that some unseen force is influencing them.  He starts doing things that don't make sense, orders a transport ship and, when asked what for, realizes that his mind is being directed.  Right after that he descends into gibbering madness and commits suicide. Implied here is that the Gorgan's power takes the form, first of vague anxiety, then of worsening anxiety, then of a sense that some unseen force is at work, and then of strange, irrational actions. Presumably it is when he (and the other colonists) become aware that their thoughts are being directed and try to fight it that the attack hits with full force and drives them to madness and suicide.

So if that is Gorgan's MO, something like that should be happening to the Enterprise crew.  They should start to feel uneasy, then get worse, then start doing strange irrational things and sense that they are being taken over by an external force.  Instead, first Tommy shakes his fist to short out the screen while they listen to the professor's log entry.  This is significant (and a mistake) because it is the only time they show actual power in the material realm, to make a physical thing happen, as opposed to exercising mind control and making other people serve as their puppets.*  Kirk and Spock leave the bridge, so Tommy shakes his fist and makes Sulu take them out of orbit, but continue to see the planet on the screen.  Chekov also sees it.  Uhura screams out that they are out of orbit, but they shake the fist and control her, too.  But no anxiety or awareness that they are under alien control, just unusual physical actions that they are unaware of.  In fact, George Takei gives his patented "feeling no pain" look that is as much his trademark as overacting is Shatner's.  We get something a little more like the irrationalism on the planet in engineering where Scotty points out that they are out of orbit and the engineers get into a knock-down drag-out brawl to keep him from changing their course.  But overall, everyone seems so calm, so unaware that anything is wrong that Kirk thinks he is still orbiting the planet and beams two hapless red shirts into space, only realizing his mistake when he tries to lock on and beam up the ones on the planet.  (Must keep up our body count somehow).

The children then inexplicably summon their "Friendly Angel" right there on the bridge in front of everyone!  Having been found out, he now directs the children to control the crew by summoning their "beast," i.e., the thing they fear most.  To call this part bad does not even begin to do it justice. Well, Professor Starnes final words were, "Must destroy ourselves! Alien upon us. The enemy from within. The enemy!"  I suppose you could argue that this is a response to the "Angel" awakening their "beast," i.e., the thing they fear the most and they are killing themselves to escape it.  Except that no one on the Enterprise shows the slightest suicidal tendencies.  Quite the contrary, their top priority seems to be staying alive.  Sulu thinks they are flying down a tunnel of space knives and will be killed if they change course.  Scotty thinks the engines are overloading and the ship will blow up if they change course.  Uhura thinks she is dying and buries her face in her hands, weeping.  So these are very definitely wanting-to-stay-alive fears rather than fears you commit suicide to escape.

Furthermore, these fears seem a lot more goal-directed than the fears of the scientists on Triacus. Granted, Starnes does say that he is doing things that make no sense, including calling for space ship for transport without knowing why, and that he is starting to realize that an alien is implanting these thoughts in his head.  I suppose the mass suicide could be Gorgan's way of eliminating people who are starting to figure him out and could be an obstacle to his plans.  But this is never made clear; it just seems like an outbreak of complete irrationality.  The crew's fears, on the other hand, are clearly directed toward a specific goal -- getting them to Marcus XII.  Hence Sulu and Scotty both have delusional beliefs that any deviation from course would destroy them; Uhura becomes too non-functional to call Star Fleet; and when Kirk breaks free from the Gorgan's control, Chekov is sent to arrest him.  And another inconsistency.  The crew only seem to act strangely when the children are actually present, shaking their fists.  Without the children around, they seem perfectly normal.  Were the children around shaking their fists every time their parents freaked out?  Granted, we don't know, but it seems unlikely.

And now let me get to summoning everyone's greatest fear, which is really bad, one of the worst parts of a bad episode.  Some of the fears I can kind of, sort of grant.  Scotty freaking out and hysterical over the state of his engines is just Scotty being Scotty.  Chekov's fear of disobeying an order is a bit extreme, but not completely implausible.  But Sulu thinking they are cruising down a tunnel of space knives that will slice them to pieces if they change course?  When those knives weren't there five seconds ago?  Uhura seeing a mirror on her console where there was never a mirror before, and thinking it shows a shriveled old women, even though she was young and beautiful when she looked in the mirror just this morning?  Captain Kirk's orders coming out as gibberish and the security guards not thinking this strange?  Anyone whose reason is even semi-functional would recognize these things as impossible.  My mother told me once that I was being a bit unfair to the episode, and that confronted with their greatest fear, most people aren't very ration.  And I suppose that is true, but -- space daggers, really?  Give me a break!  I could maybe buy it if they showed the characters gradually breaking down and losing their minds, but to see them abruptly going from perfectly normal to freaking out over something manifestly impossible as if someone had flipped a switch is just too much for me.

But besides that, there is the whole concept of showing everyone's deepest fear.  Or everyone's fondest wish.  Or everyone's secret fantasy.  Or any deeply hidden part of everyone's personality. Showing these deep, hidden aspects is (theoretically) a deep psychological study, but to attempt deep psychological exploration of all the characters at once mostly ensured that the exploration will actually be quite shallow.  Worse yet is attempting to cram it all between two commercial breaks.  I know of one Star Trek episode that made it work, arguably two.  The one that worked was The Naked Time.  The crew is exposed to a strange disease, spread by touch, that strips away all inhibitions and exposes secret, hidden traits.  This gives us one of the best deep psychological portraits of Spock as we see his anguish at having to deny part of his nature.  And apparently Leonard Nimoy had to fight for this characterization instead of just having Spock cry for no good reason.  Well done, Nimoy!  We might get some worthwhile insight into Kirk and the loneliness of command if only William Shatner were a better actor.  (Patrick Stewart in the same role would be sublime!)  As for everyone else, the episode doesn't bother with serious psychology, it just plays their hidden personality for fun and entertainment.  Sulu goes berserk with a sword!  Riley locks himself in engineering and sings incredibly badly!  Various instances of goofy behavior turn up here and there.  The personality quirks are fun and entertaining in and of themselves without the need for psychology.  The one that might work is Shore Leave, which features a planet where everything people think about turns real.  Most of what they think about proves more entertaining than profound -- a tiger, a war plane, a samurai, a .38, a princess outfit, Don Juan, a knight and, of course, Alice in Wonderland.

Most of the time, though, the approach attempts serious insights into all the characters at once and ends up being hopeless superficial.  A find example would be the Next Generation episode Hide and Q.  Riker is given the power of the Q and is faced with the danger of power corrupting.  He tries to use the power for good, to give his shipmates what they want most.  (All crammed into one act).  He turns Wesley into a grown man, gives Geordi his eyesight, provides Worf with a mate and offers to make Data human.  They all end up declining the gift.  I think the moral here is supposed to be that what most people want most -- to grow up, to find a mate, to achieve character development -- has to be worked for and earned or it has no real value.  Aside from the fact that that lesson doesn't work so well for eyesight, it doesn't give any real insight into their characters.  Real insight would only happen if the show had devoted an entire episode to the theme, having the characters embrace their gifts at first and then find the destination meaningless without the journey.  Where No One Has Gone Before is a vastly inferior knockoff on Shore Leave with everyone's thoughts becoming real, but it is not entertaining, just confusing and surreal.  Star Trek V has a Vulcan (revealed as Spock's half-brother) who can heal everyone's deepest pain and mostly just ends up doing a lot of  ret-conning that instead of giving insight violates the characters.  And the Children Shall Lead doesn't do it quite that badly, but the whole "waken the beast" sequence is so badly done that I personally would like to see it cut out altogether.  Or at least change the episode so that when everyone's deepest held fears start coming to life, they realize how this is exactly what happened to the scientists on Triacus.

Nonetheless, there is an even deeper problem here, one truly beyond remedy because it goes to the very core premise of the episode.  There are two story lines going on at once.  They are not exactly an A plot and a B plot,**  but one plot, the Gorgan taking over, seen from two different perspectives, the children and the crew.  Properly done, the children's story is a psychological drama, showing how the villain manipulates children to turn them against their parents. Properly done, Kirk and the crew's story is a mystery and suspense story as they struggle to understand what is going on and how to stop it before it completely destroys their minds.  It would be possible, with serious re-writing, to make the part with the Gorgan and the children work.  It would be possible to root out the entire story about the Enterprise crew and replace it with a better one that would work. But I am not sure that it is possible to do both of these at the same time.  Because strengthening one story line necessarily weakens the other.  The more insight be gain on how the Gorgan manipulates the children against their parents, the less real suspense there is in the mystery, since we, the audience will already know what is going on (and, of course, we always know that they will stop the evil plot in the end).  On the other hand, the stronger we make the mystery, they less real insight we can allow on how the children are being manipulated because it then there wouldn't be a mystery.

Furthermore, the mystery has the usual problems with mysteries everywhere, but especially in science fiction.  You have to give enough clues that the audience can look back and recognize what was going on, but not so many that the audience is jumping up and down screaming "Idiot!" at the characters for not figuring out what is going on.***   For instance, as discussed before, we need more characterization of the "band of marauders" who once lived on Triacus to give us some clues as to what is going on.  But if we say they were marauding telepaths, or that they exercised sadistic forms of mind control, or that they took people's children hostage, it would make what is going on too obvious.

So, ultimately this episode is trying to do two incompatible things at once, either of which would call for a good deal of skill to get right, while doing both at once would cancel each other out.  Then finally there is the mind bogglingly awful ending -- how they manage to break the Gorgan's power.  That will be addressed in my next post.

*Well, there is the time when Kirk orders Spock to send a message to Star Fleet and the children shake their fists and make him physically unable to comply.  But even that might be some sort of mind control at work.
**In fact The Original Series did not normally do what its successors did so often -- run two completely unrelated story lines at the same time.  It might have sub-plots or even interwoven plots, but normally all plots were related.  This, along with having a non-regular crew, was one way the original was better than its successors.
***To take other Star Trek examples, Journey to Babel used to be my favorite because of splendidly-done drama and mystery.  But looking at it now, the ending is unforgivable.  The mysterious ship trailing them and the mysterious spy on board turn out to be Orions, a group never so much as mentioned, let alone characterized, until then end of that particular episode.  This ending is properly called an asspull.  Wolf in the Fold does better. Although there is no way for the audience to guess that the murderer is actually an energy being that feeds on fear, let along Jack the Ripper, I have seen people watching this episode for the first time who figured out that the little bald man must be the killer because he keeps trying to derail the investigation.  Next Generation suffers from too many of these to name, but let us give a shout out to Man of the People as absolutely brilliant in this regard.  Watching it a second time, it is amazing how many seemingly deranged ramblings of a senile old woman, and how many seemingly bland platitudes of the evil ambassador actually turn out to be vital hints as to what is going on. 

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