January 18, 2017
So fair warning on two counts:
Plato’s Stepchildren is another of those classic Star Trek stories that everyone has heard of, and in a lot of ways it’s based on a theme that’s often repeated throughout the franchise: intrepid crew meets omniscient aliens who use their ineffable power to fuck with people, omniscient aliens must be taken down a peg and justice is restored. It’s a well-worn and dependable formula.
On the other hand, though, this episode also includes a variety of some of TOS’s most explicit statements about both the perceived backwardness of its contemporary audience, and broader thesis statements about the underlying messages of Trek.
So the trouble starts when the Enterprise answers a distress call from Platonia, peopled by a race (if you can call 38 eugenically-chosen people a “race”) of functionally-immortal aliens who have based their society on the teachings of Plato, absorbed during a millennia-ago trip to Earth. Unfortunately, the Platonians don’t seem to have absorbed the full range of Platonic ideas, specifically hand-waving the parts about peace and justice in favour of living lives so contemplative and “simple” (for a certain value of “simple” that means “extreme luxury and every whim satisfied”) that they’ve gotten too lazy to maintain immune systems. This is what brings Kirk, Spock, and Bones to them in the first place: their self-styled philosopher-king has gotten a tiny cut and developed a deadly bacterial infection. Bones easily fixes this with basic medical science, and the Platonians reward them by turning them into their newest telekinetic playthings.
Did I mention that the Platonians also have telekinetic powers, which they mostly use to play games and torture people?
So, “playthings” is too mild. In fact, the lone exception to the Platonians’ superpowers is a little person named Alexander (played by Michael Dunn, who we awarded Performance of the Episode about three minutes in), who seems to be kept around to mock, torture, and push around.
Again, there are a lot of really disturbing moments in this episode. There are a number of scenes that amount to straight-up torture, which are absolutely carried out for the amusement of the Platonians. But here’s the thing: the whole thing is a set of super-unsubtle metaphors. The Platonians’ powers are the dangerous influence granted by wealth and privilege, and the way that when one part of the population has an obscenely disproportionate level of either, they will use it to oppress and harm those who don’t. When offered the power he’s been so long denied, at the point where our heroes figure out how to out-brain their oppressors, Alexander turns it down: “I don’t want to be like them,” he tells Kirk, after Kirk has laid out as explicit an endorsement of Trek’s futuristic socialism and extreme inclusiveness as I’ve ever seen in Original Trek. “Where we come from,” he tells an incredulous Alexander, “size, shape, or colour makes no difference, and no one has the power.” “The power,” here, being literally their tormentors’ superpowers, but they may as well be handing a printed indictment of the rich white supremacist elite right through the fourth wall and directly into the viewers’ living rooms.
Add to this the fact that this episode contains the famous First Interracial Kiss (though it’s under undeniably disturbing circumstances and may or may not be the “first,” historically), we can’t exactly call this episode subtle. But we can appreciate it for both its timeliness and how ahead of its time it managed to be.
June 23, 2017
June 14, 2017