Friday, November 5, 2010

Even Historical Significance Cannot Save "Plato's Stepchildren!" (They Should Have Used Take 1!)

The Good: Historically relevant, Catchy music, Moments of performance
The Bad: Lack of character development, Overused concept, Poor executions, Pointless, Plot
The Basics: When Kirk and Spock are manipulated by telekinetic aliens who want McCoy to stay with them, boredom ensues, ruining an historic milestone that made Star Trek relevant.

It's always fun catching a celebrity on one of their bad days. Honestly, I have not encountered too many celebrities when they are at their worst, though it seems when I do, I sure get the worst of them! I've had many nice, brief exchanges with almost every main actor from the Star Trek franchise and I cannot think of a single one who has not been friendly with me as I've gotten things autographed. The last time I encountered Nichelle Nichols, though, I caught her on a bad day and our exchange was based on material from "Plato's Stepchildren" and the cheating of history. We all have our bad days.

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Platonius, a planet with a small colony of intellectuals with telekinesis and no immune system. So, they are able to control objects with their will alone, but not fight off simple diseases. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to Platonius, where McCoy easily cures Parmen, the leader of the colony. McCoy, however, does not wish to stay on Platonius and Kirk and Spock soon learn that the dwarf, Alexander, who does not possess telekinetic abilities is essentially kept as a slave and jester. Parmen uses his powers in an attempt to leverage McCoy to stay by forcing Kirk and Spock (later joined by Chapel and Uhura) to sing, dance and otherwise humiliate themselves. McCoy attempts to stop the humiliation of his friends by giving them the powers the Platonians have, but his attempt may come too late to save Alexander or the dignity of his friends!


When I was in sixth grade, I was in an extended studies program at school and I was so enthusiastic about Star Trek (because I was just getting into it) that I was very much an obsessed fan. My extended studies teacher soon became quite disenchanted with my Star Trek references and when we finally got around to studying the 1960s, I was so psyched, but the first words out of the teacher's mouth after introducing the '60s were "And I'm not going to spend the next month hearing about Star Trek, got it?" To which, I responded, "But it's historically important," which led to her saying, "Tell me one way it's 'important.'" It was fun to smartly reply, "It has what is acknowledged as the first interethnic kiss shown on network television." I taught my teacher something in that round.

One wishes that such a historic event came in a much better episode than this one, but alas, it is what it is. One also wishes that it were all it could be hyped as. There is much artwork (photography) culled from this episode of the first interethnic kiss, when Kirk and Uhura are forced to kiss by Parmen, but much of the artwork utilizes the first take. It is well documented, by Bob Justman and (on the Season 3 DVD set by) William Shatner that there were two takes done of the kiss, the full side shot that clearly shows Uhura and Kirk kissing and the second take that does not have lip contact and at the critical moment, moves the camera around so the viewer sees Kirk looking up at Parmen as opposed to actually kissing Uhura. The second take (despite what some might want to believe) is the one that was used in the episode and it is frightening now to see how bad it actually looks and yet, it's the historical milestone achieved by Star Trek: the first (not-really-)kissing of a black woman by a white man on network television. Oooh . . . steamy!

It's hard to take this historic non-event seriously now, especially considering that it is cheated. It's even harder because the episode is so very, very bad. Star Trek viewers have seen powerful god-figures before throughout the series with episodes like "The Squire Of Gothos" and "Who Mourns For Adonais?" and the idea behind the episodes seems to most commonly be: find and neutralize the power base to defeat the enemy. "Plato's Stepchildren" finds McCoy easily diagnosing the Platonians to discover the source of their power and he quickly finds how to co-opt it. Simple, reused, overdone plot.

But the time it takes is time well-wasted. "Plato's Stepchildren" is about how Parmen and the Platonians use their powers to abuse Kirk and Spock. The officers are not so much humiliated as they are mocked. The actors, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, are punished for no discernible crime by singing ridiculous songs and chants and having to interact with props being flown around on fishing wire. The result is an episode of Star Trek that seems to mock itself.

There is no character development here. McCoy has, in the past, illustrated himself as a man of principle, so when he stands firm against leaving the Enterprise to come be the doctor on Platonius permanently, this is not a change from his established character. Moreover, it's not even a remotely interesting dilemma. And it does not make any real sense; why Parmen and his people - who seem so interested in intellectual pursuits - cannot learn medicine seems an especially ridiculous conceit to make this episode work. Moreover, one would suspect that a people who have compromised immune systems and big brains would be more likely to want just the supplies and the information on how to manufacture and/or use them as opposed to the people intruding to deliver them!

Parmen and his wife, Philana, are monolithic intellectual snobs masquerading as villains. They are as generic in their villainy as Chapel and Uhura are in their resistance to the humiliating plays the Platonians subject them to. I mean, seriously, Chapel ought to just be happy to be off the ship at this point! And hey, hasn't she pined for Spock for years?! This is the gold mine for her, she gets to leave the confines of the ship and kiss Spock, if it were in character, one would think she'd be running to the opportunity, not resisting it. Anyway, in the context of the episode, the force seems forced.

And it also makes no real sense. As Chapel moves to kiss Spock, she speaks of how she does not want to kiss him. Telekinesis is mind over matter, not mind over thought, which works well. Parmen and the Platonians (which should have been a 60's rock band!) reasonably manipulate the bodies of the crewmembers they beam down, but what doesn't make sense is that they are able to manipulate their minds, too. Spock and Kirk sing humiliating and silly songs. That's not a function of telekinesis. See the problem yet?

If the Platonians have more than telekinesis (which in the episode they are not granted explicitly), they could simply use their mind control powers to get McCoy to stay as opposed to going through the elaborate and pointless abuses that follow. If they are limited to telekinesis, which the episode states they are, they ought not to be able to get the wonderful musical numbers out of everyone. That this is misapplied within the episode is especially problematic.

And the actors seem to realize this is a terrible script. None of the cast gives a performance they should be proud of. From the passionless presentation of the kiss to the muted reactions to it, especially DeForest Kelley's kind of bland portrayal of McCoy as sitting and watching the spectacle, this episode is a nightmare on the acting front.

The only decent acting and likable character work comes from Michael Dunn as Alexander. He portrays a very realistic victim of prolonged abuse and his acting when Parmen and the others are manipulating him is actually heartwrenching to watch. He has a wonderful physical sense to him that allows him to truly let loose and play upon the viewer for empathy. He makes an otherwise awful episode slightly more bearable.

But it is not enough. Thematically, the Star Trek franchise tackled such issues later on with Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Outcast" and even more explicitly with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's steamy lesbian kiss in "Rejoined," all of which came in much better episodes. And the hype over the kiss in "Plato's Stepchildren" is now just lingering hype to get people to sit through this awful episode. The best effect of it is that it might have desensitized the world enough such that when younger people like me heard that some stations in the South were not carrying the interracial marriage of Dax and Worf on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine we had to actually think about why that might be. We couldn't have gotten there without the pioneers like we had with Star Trek. It's a shame they didn't do it better, though.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third and final season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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