For the original Star Trek, we come to the final episodes that, I think, at least allowed the series to go out on a high note.
S03E21 – “Requiem for Methuselah”
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, in search of a cure to a disease ravaging the Enterprise, beam down to a world whose only occupants are a man with extremely rare and unknown artistic treasures and his young ward.
Taken at surface value, this is one of the finer episodes in the series. The idea is rather remarkable, and the execution’s not half bad either. Because of this episode and the interests it plays into, I’ve long since learned more about Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Brahms. Now I know the two personalities do not line up, nor do their works, but I didn’t know that at the time. It’s a minor quibble. I’m more curious as to why Spock would know so much about Brahms, whose works are highly emotional, as was typical at the height of the Romantic Era. Interesting, no? In any case, I applaud the idea of an immortal character of this sort. I love that sort of thing. Add in some swords, it’s no wonder I love Highlander.
The only part of this episode that really falls flat for me is the love story. I get it, but unlike Kirk’s romance with Edith Keeler, I don’t buy it here with Rayna. It’s out of nowhere and just rushed. I sort of get it from her, once you know her story, but not from Kirk. That said, the exchange at the end between Spock and McCoy is extremely well done, and it’s a wonderful touch that Spock would help Kirk to forget her.
S03E22 – “The Savage Curtain”
Kirk and Spock are teamed with Abraham Lincoln and Surak against four of history’s most notorious in order to determine which is stronger: good or evil.
On the surface of it, this episode could be played badly, as high camp. Heaven knows this episode has been made fun of by outsiders since it aired. But once the stage is set, the larger themes come to life as only Star Trek could pull off. Genghis Khan… everyone’s heard of him. Gives leverage to the other three. Colonel Green is presumed to be part of the genocidal massacre during the same period as Khan. Zora is an unknown, but we’re given enough to understand she’s in like company. The fourth — Kahless — is a name we’ll hear again as Star Trek unfolds in later incarnations. He is to the Klingon Empire as Surak is to Vulcan, the fathers of their entire respective civilizations and ways of life. Once more, we see the seeds of the future being planted in ground that no one yet knew was still fertile.
In the first act after the introduction, there’s an exchange on the bridge that really stands out to me. You see, in our current generation, people take offense for things of the past instead of growing past them and letting them heal. It’s been magnified out of proportion to the point where merely quoting a figure of history will get a person socially crucified on the internet for “siding with” something else in history that went wrong in association with the quoted individual. This kind of appropriation of history in the guise of “learning from it” does nothing but reopen old wounds, ultimately making things worse than they were the first time. Being a book blogger who reads other book blogs, I see this sort of thing all the time when dealing with historical fiction or with a book written in a time, place, or culture where such things are going to happen. People forget that history isn’t so cut and dried. It’s nuanced because every human who ever lived is nuanced, from the most saintly to the monstrous. It’s why Mark Twain, for example, is verboten in classrooms and on the banned book lists despite having stood up against racism in his own time. Word choice. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this. This is the exchange in question from this episode:
LINCOLN: What a charming negress. Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property.
UHURA: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words.
KIRK: May I present our communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura.
LINCOLN: The foolishness of my century had me apologizing where no offense was given.
KIRK: We’ve each learned to be delighted with what we are. The Vulcans learned that centuries before we did.
SPOCK: It is basic to the Vulcan philosophy, sir. The combination of a number of things to make existence worthwhile.
In some parts of the world, and especially in the United States, racism is a big problem with long roots in the origins of our country. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote of equality for all men, and he verbally espoused such, but he had none of the courage of conviction and lived with the shameful double standard because to do otherwise would sacrifice his own otherwise comfortable lifestyle. His crimes in this regard are well known. A lot of people today like to push Lincoln into a similar category because of a technicality, which gives this scenario a double edge. Abraham Lincoln was an Abolitionist; it was his election that caused the country to split apart. When that happened, the idea of freeing slaves, moral though it was, fell into the same category that it had for the generation previous: it was a political inconvenience when it came to immediate cause of holding the nation together in a time of civil war. That point of unity, the continued institution of slavery, and everything that goes along with it, makes a lot of people angry for all of the right and obvious reasons. Here’s the thing: ultimately, Lincoln still made the right choice. We can debate until we’re blue in the face about the technicalities, but when the formal surrender was signed, the law that was true for the northern states for almost two years at that point now held for the entirety of the country, permanently ending the institution of slavery. Reconstruction was a spectacular failure after the fact as Lincoln was assassinated before he could implement his own plan, but that’s hardly his fault. The point is that his actions transcend the man and remained powerful symbolism at the time this episode was written, over a century later. Now consider that this episode aired in the era when contemporary civil rights leaders were being assassinated, just as Lincoln was, drawing that parallel front and center to the viewing audience of Star Trek, already predisposed to hearing and understanding that message. Hopefully we can at least agree on that much, so Lincoln himself ceases to be an offense.
Let’s continue with the second edge. The word choice in the script that “Lincoln” is apologizing for is archaic, long since considered offensive by modern standards of the 1960s. It was a neutral word in its own time, but the institution of slavery made it offensive when used by the bigoted, a tradition that was magnified in the era of Jim Crow between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. Is it right to pick better words? Absolutely. If you go out of your way to pick harmful words, that’s a fight waiting to happen. But is it more important to carry and perpetuate that hatred, or can we take a moment to change the automatic response? Let’s spin this around to a different civil rights issue, one that has nothing to do with race. If someone were to call me a “tranny,” a “sissy,” or a “ladyboy,” for example, I’d be more than a little upset too, and rightfully so. But… it’s on me to consider the context and accept any offense, real or merely perceived. Sometimes it’s insult, and sometimes it’s simply ignorance that can be gently corrected. Keep in mind, no one likes to be accused of being wrong or stupid either, so that’s just going to keep the fight going for all of the wrong, stupid reasons. Word choice is the beginning of diplomatic and civil communication, which in turn is the first tool in the kit if we’re going to move forward as a species. The other half of such communication is to understand intent, which is what Lt. Uhura — our communications officer — demonstrates here. And watch her eyes when she says this line. Acting prowess notwithstanding, Nichelle Nichols is saying something that’s true to her heart in this moment. She doesn’t get much stage time, so she’s making it count where it matters most. So again I ask: is it more important to be angry, or is it more important to heal? Sometimes there is a just time and place for both. As time goes on, that is rarely the case. Gaps must be bridged if progress to be made. In this script, there is both acknowledgment of the wrong and enlightened response to it where no harm was intended. It’s a teachable moment, setting a higher example. Perhaps it’s not perfect, but I, for one, applaud the idea all around. Dwelling in hatred serves no one.
S03E23 – “All Our Yesterdays”
Trapped in the historical ages of a dying world, Kirk is arrested for witchcraft, and Spock finds love where he least expects it.
It seems that no matter how else anything plays, nothing says “backward civilization” quite so well as when someone cries out: “Witch!” Being a practicing heathen myself, I can’t tell you how alarming it is that such things still happen in the early 21st century. And yet, the ideas of both witches and those who persecute them are considered laughable in theory… until you meet either one. Funny how that works. You know what else is funny? The witch you meet tends to be mostly harmless, while the persecutor is the standard closed-minded, hate-filled stereotype you find in every bigot. As with any other civil rights matter, atrocities committed in the name of hateful and willful ignorance just keep mounting. But then, it takes a special kind of blind to read a medieval, lethal dogma literally in a so-called enlightened era. It’s the same kind of fear that keeps people separated by the color of their skins, or has any given group of people believing that their way is the only way.
Mariette Hartley as Zarabeth is one of the most memorable guest stars in the entire original series, her character being to Spock what Edith Keeler is to Kirk. In fact, author A. C. Crispin wrote a couple of novels that serve as sequels to this episode, revealing that Spock and Zarabeth had a son. It’s not canonical, of course, but it’s fun to think about. What’s equally interesting is how Spock regresses to a more primitive, emotional state due to being in the past of this alien world while still somehow maintaining a veneer of logic. A thin veneer, but it’s still there. It makes me wonder: just how in tune with a world does he have to be for that to be accomplished? Is this a side effect of all that enlightened meditation he does? All I know is it’s a little weird to watch McCoy play counterpoint to this and be the one that makes sense, and it’s highly gratifying from a dramatic perspective. It speaks a great deal for their friendship.
S03E24 – “Turnabout Intruder”
A vengeful woman from Kirk’s past switches bodies with him and attempts to take command of the Enterprise.
As mentioned a couple of episodes back, this is the age of the Civil Rights Movement, and things were getting dicey. This episode was meant to highlight the women’s rights aspect of it, but still walk that balance of giving our crew an opponent of the week. Dr. Janice Lester wants command of a starship so badly, but she lacks the emotional stability to have it. She blames Starfleet for being a boys only club… and Kirk agrees. I get that it’s necessary for the dynamic thrust of the plot, but… let’s point out that Captain Pike’s first officer was a woman. Clearly, she went through command school and will be shortlisted for a command of her own. Given the time frame, she should have one now. She was likely given her command about the same time Kirk was. This story point doesn’t line up, compounded by the fact that there’s a callback to the episodes that feature her, regarding the only death penalty in Starfleet. If not for this, I’d say this was a good attempt to help balance the scales a little bit. The idea was there, but the execution wasn’t quite right.
I always have such mixed feelings about the core of this episode. It’s certainly well acted (and sufficiently hammed up, in Shatner’s case) and believable all around. The crew’s loyalty to Kirk, especially from Spock, is perfectly on point. But I approach this episode from another angle that, quite frankly, was never going to be a point of consideration from Roddenberry or anyone else on staff. As a transgender woman, I hear these ravings pouring out of Dr. Lester’s mouth about how it’s better to be dead than in a woman’s body… and it makes me sad knowing how many of my trans sisters take their own lives because they cannot reconcile the emotional cacophony of dysphoria, and how many of my trans brothers fall into the same despair because they agree with Dr. Lester’s words, though for different reasons. Perhaps it’s a classic case of the grass being greener over the septic tank. I don’t know. All I know is, regardless of how clearly unhinged she is, it hurts to hear her denounce the very dream I have, even though the original point of the glass ceiling is one that needs shattering. Likewise, it’s weird to have her pronounce that her dream in pursuit of her goal is my living nightmare. This very same dichotomy will be seen later, from a different point of view, when Data meets Spock in season five of The Next Generation. Data’s fondest wish is what Spock detests most about himself: humanity. It’s a philosophical and emotional spiral waiting to happen, believe me. I trust I’ll be forgiven if I’m less than objective about this one. I never shy away from this episode. The older I get, the more complex it becomes, and there are times when I can reconcile the point of original intent with my own thoughts and emotions.
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And this, my friends, brings us to the end of The Original Series that started it all, but we will not yet be saying goodbye to it. I’ve got a little something more being prepared for the next Trek post. If you’re curious, you can click over to the landing page to see what I’ve got planned, coming in a few days time. Once that’s posted, then we’ll begin Star Trek: The Animated Series.
From this point forward, everything will be in chronological order by air date rather than production order. That means that where series overlap, I’ll be going back and forth. If a movie happens in there somewhere, it’ll be slipped in accordingly.
I hope that all of you who are reading these are having as much fun as I am, even in spite of the occasional hard-hitting note of personal resonance here and there. The journey is far from over.