The Good: Fine concept, Good music, Interesting character work, Mostly good acting
The Bad: Ridiculous execution of concept, Supplemental characters and acting are terrible
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Enterprise finds a colony that should be dead very much alive, they fall victims to spores that take control of their minds and hearts.
One of the nice things about being a true original is that when you create something new that is enduring and genuinely unique, regardless of anything else, you can say you were the first. While the first execution of an idea may not always be the best, it becomes the concept that all of the subsequent ideas that use the same elements are based on, even if only unconsciously. The Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise," which may not be perfect by any means, succeeds even until today as being relatively unique, completely clever and the first of its kind.
The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Omicron Ceti III, a planet where colonists were sent and where the crew expects to find a dead, abandoned colony because the planet was bombarded by deadly Berthold Rays and no ship could arrive in time to save the colony when the problem was eventually detected. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy are thus shocked to find the colonists alive and well and completely happy on the planet with no signs of being dead. Intrigued, in part because a young blonde colonist named Leila Kalomi once knew Spock and is clearly attracted to him, the landing party soon falls victim to plants that emit spores. The spores rewire the nervous system to allow the host to survive the Berthold rays and also stimulate the pleasure centers in such a way that the hosts are put in a near-constant state of bliss. As a result, Kirk soon loses control of his crew and his ship and he must figure out a way to end the control of the spores as his crew becomes overwhelmed and abandons the Enterprise to certain destruction.
"This Side of Paradise" does a lot that is right on, executed perfectly. First, the spores are a great idea; they are a well-conceived adversary in that makes perfect sense. The spores are scientifically viable, controlling animal life to spread seeds that will create more plants, in exchange providing a valuable service to the host organism. It's clever and it works and it's an idea that has a sophistication to it that goes well above and beyond the normal operations of a television show.
Moreover, following on the heels of episodes like, "The Naked Time" which contain the same "loss of control and inhibition" elements, "This Side of Paradise" offers the chance to distinguish the actors involved by forcing them to reinterpret a state of joy. So, whereas Sulu was active and somewhat crazed in "The Naked Time," here he is laid back and easygoing without a care in the world. George Takei gives a wonderfully different performance to make the two afflictions completely different.
On a character level, this is explored wonderfully with Spock. Spock was deeply conflicted in "The Naked Time;" losing his barriers there meant that he was allowed to feel guilt over not expressing love for his human mother, it allowed him to collapse under the weight of the conflict between his Vulcan and human halves. In "This Side of Paradise," Spock is put in a state of bliss. There is no conflict, there are no questions, he simply is truly and unabashedly happy. Seeing him smile is almost unnerving and watching him mouth off to Captain Kirk is actually quite funny.
A great deal of the episode, then, is held up by the performance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Nimoy is able to illustrate some genuine acting depth as he takes Spock on an emotional journey from emotionless to blissful to furious and back. He makes the transitions seem effortless and always in character, making the episode flow wonderfully around him.
Sadly, the superficial characters in this episode are poorly acted. When one crewman mouths off to Kirk about the fact that he is part of the shipwide mutiny to abandon the Enterprise, his performance is stilted and somewhat silly. Instead of being dramatic, it comes across as melodramatic and obvious. Similarly, near the end of the episode, there are several fight scenes and they are almost all overly choreographed and disappointingly acted.
What continues to save "This Side of Paradise," then, is the essential conflict of the episode. The spores do very little harm, save to the militaristic structure of StarFleet, and provide any number of benefits for the colonists. Fighting the influence of the spores, then, becomes an argument between freedom and order with Captain Kirk ironically taking the stand for freedom by destroying order in the hopes of reasserting his own control over his crew. The idea here is not that the spores are even all that bad, it is instead that they are simply robbing people of the full range of the human experience to service their own needs. That, I feel, is smart and it is well-executed here.
Captain Kirk, performed by William Shatner, then becomes more a means to a plot end rather than a genuine character. However, his cunning and devotion make him downright heroic in this episode and his performance is quite good.
Notable as well about "This Side of Paradise" is the music. While the plants may not be the most convincing special effect ever, the music is distinctly different from most Star Trek episodes. Like the music in "Shore Leave," "This Side of Paradise" employs a lighter score that supports what is happening with the characters as they lose their inhibitions.
All in all, this is a solid episode that is enjoyable and continues to be enjoyable even years later. It is great for anyone who likes science fiction or a clever scientifically-based story. While it might not be for those who like high drama, it will certainly keep the attention of anyone who enjoys lighter television.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.