Saturday, May 7, 2016

Star Trek: And The Children Shall Lead

So, with our country facing the very real possibility of Donald Trump as President, why am I suddenly writing about a particularly bad Star Trek episode that first aired way back in 1968?  I suppose I can give three reasons, though hardly excuses.  First, I need something to take my mind off Trump for a while.  Second, it says something about And the Children Shall Lead that both SF Debris and The Agony Booth both list it as the worst Star Trek (Original Series) episode ever, edging out even Spock's Brain.

I am inclined to disagree.  The trouble with Spock's Brain was that it was just bad.  The trouble with And the Children Shall Lead was that it had the potential to be something better and utterly, completely failed.  I find it to be less fun to review something that is just bad than something that has flaws but could be better.  How much imagination does it take to say, "This is bad?"  But looking behind the flawed story for something better that could be there -- now that is intriguing.*  Third and finally, I have been doing some lawyer work related to social services taking children from their parents, which always drives home the ambiguity in children's attitude toward their parents.  On the one hand, children naturally resent their parents.  Parents are always making rules and restrictions and keeping children from doing what they want.  On the other hand, children naturally love their parents and are devastated at being separated from them.  And the Children Shall Lead plays on that ambiguity, though not very well.  I will also cite to other works that play on the same theme, better than And the Children Shall Lead, although I would not truly call any of them all that good.

Consider Spock’s Brain.  The episode is about a planet in an ice age in which all the men, known as Morgs, live on the surface in a Paleolithic culture while all the women, known as Eymorgs, wear miniskirts and thigh boots and live in an underground cavern full of super high technology, run by a super computer that does all their thinking for them.  Not explained – where little Morgs and Eymorgs come from.** The Controller of the Eymorgs’ computer has worn out so they need a new one.  So naturally their high priestess pilots a super high-tech one person ship to intercept the Enterprise, beams on board, pushes a button that knocks everyone unconscious, and steals Spock’s brain to operate their computer.  Thanks to her extraordinary surgical skill, he survives long enough to be put on life support, but unless they put it back, he will die within 24 hours.  They trace the ship’s trail to the planet and beam down, only to discover that with a computer doing all their thinking for them, the Eymorgs have completely forgotten how and become utter, world class ditzes.  (It is really disturbing how often Star Trek identified attractiveness in women with ditziness).  But there is a device that programs the Old Knowledge into the Eymorg high priestess, although the effect wears off before long.  McCoy uses the device on himself and replaces Spock’s brain, without any serious thought to the fact that they are (1) destroying an entire civilization that way, and (2) denying Spock the chance to live 10,000 years (but without a body, as controller of a computer).

If there is anything of value that can be salvaged from that episode then I, for one, cannot detect it.  And the Children Shall Lead is a different matter.  It has elements that have worked quite well in other cases – the Enterprise approaching a ship/colony/ outpost only to find everyone dead under very strange circumstances and then the same strange things starting to happen to the crew as well, the apocalyptic log warning of their predecessor’s fate, the creepy legend that turns out to be true – as well as an attempt to look at children’s ambiguity toward their parents – that mixture of resentment and love, with love prevailing in the end.  But in the end what they wind up with is not a real story, but the skeleton of a story with no flesh on its bones.  Or, perhaps, with some generic substance trying to pass itself off as flesh but failing.  So maybe why some people dislike And the Children Shall Lead more than unabashedly bad episodes like Spock’s Brain is that it falls into the Uncanny Valley of Star Trek episodes.  Instead of being an actually good episode, or an irredeemably bad episode, it is sort of a lifeless automaton impersonating a good episode just closely enough to inspire revulsion.

So, on to And the Children Shall Lead, in detail.

*Hence my fascination with reviewing False Memories, with a particular emphasis on all the dangling clues that go nowhere and how they might be put to better use.

**It is true that Eymorgs kidnap Morgs and keep them as slaves, controlled by belts that inflict extreme pain if they disobey.  Morgs refer to Eymorgs as “the givers of pain and delight.”  The delight part is never directly addressed.  My Star Trek Concordance assumed that it had something to do with their pain belts that could give delight as well.  But other people have commented the women have never needed high tech gadgetry to give men delight, and that maybe besides punishing disobedient Morgs, they may reward good ones . . .

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