I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.
He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes. For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.
I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional. The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis. Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.
So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.
That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however. In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet. Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see. All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures. Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways. The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.
Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence. One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.” A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death. In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others. Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.
I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium. Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time. That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.” The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented. Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare. I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.