Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"The Way To Eden:" Star Trek's Space Hippie Episode (Not As Bad As I Remember It!)

The Good: Bits that just aren't as bad as I remember
The Bad: Well, the acting, characters, forced tension, most of the plot, Dialogue, Execution
The Basics: When Captain Kirk takes aboard a band of space hippies, they intrigue Spock with their search for Eden before they attempt to hijack the ship and take everyone there.

It occurs to me that "The Way To Eden" was probably the final episode of the original Star Trek I had to see and the first time I saw it, it was larger than life on a big screen at my very first Star Trek convention. Truth be told, I've no idea why anyone in their right mind would want to drag out what is consistently rated as the worst episode of the original Star Trek to play before an audience of Trekkers, but it afforded me the opportunity to see it and it lived down to all the terrible things I had ever heard about it. The thing is, when I sat down to rewatch it again recently, it wasn't as unrelentingly horrible as I remembered it being and while it's not at all good, I can think of at least two episodes that I'd rate worse than this one.

After chasing down a stolen cruiser, the U.S.S. Enterprise beams its crew aboard and discovers they have taken aboard a small band of revolutionaries led by Dr. Sevrin, a visionary who wants to find Eden, which he believes is a very specific planet. While Sevrin is confined due to a medical condition, his followers roam the ship preaching to the crew about casting off the authority of StarFleet and rejecting technology and they play music for everyone. Spock seems to empathize with them and goes so far as to make finding Eden a pet project and when he succeeds, Dr. Sevrin hijacks the ship and takes the Enterprise careening toward the planet where everything might be perfect.

If the basic plot sounds familiar, it is not surprising: it is essentially the same plot that was used in the disastrous cinematic outing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I'm unsure why the less popular episode were tried as cinematic outings, but it seems like until the films stuck to the "kill the villain" format religiously, they recast some of the lesser episodes as film. "The Way To Eden" is usually rated in fan polls as the worst (or in the bottom three) episodes of Star Trek. And it is pretty hard to go against public opinion on this one. Dr. Sevrin and his band are pretty much hippies in space and this episode is often referred to as "The Space Hippie Episode."

And that is, perhaps the biggest problem with "The Way To Eden;" it is horribly dated. There are two episodes of Star Trek where the Enterprise spends time at 1960's Earth that feel less dated than the appearance of counterculture folk drawling their way through cliched insults like "Herbert." Yes, the big insult that labels Captain Kirk as a square among the followers of Dr. Sevrin is "Herbert." And that's kind of painful to watch.

The other thing that makes this episode so painful is that Spock seems to empathize with them and there is actually some tension between Kirk and Spock as a result. By this point in the series, Kirk and Spock have each put their careers and lives on the line for one another at least three times each. Here the writers, producers and director are asking us to believe that the credible threat to the Enterprise and the bond between Kirk and Spock are a bunch of space hippies?! C'Mon!

And in that, the writers missed out on a key opportunity to do some genuine character work. While Chekov is tapped to have a young love interest, a former classmate who is now one of the followers of Dr. Sevrin, rumors abound that originally, Dr. McCoy's daughter was going to be one of the followers of Dr. Sevrin. But here is something that could have actually turned the episode into something decent and enduring; McCoy has never liked the military mindset of StarFleet before. If any significant character might leave the ship and crew behind, it seems like it would be McCoy, which he did just ten episodes prior. And the idea of McCoy both leaving to become a part of Paradise and forge a bond with his estranged daughter, that might have made the episode resonate in a way that Chekov getting the girl for an episode does not do.

The episode is also ridiculously problematic on a thematic level. Dr. Sevrin is characterized as a renowned scientist in the field of acoustics and with giant ears like he has (seriously, the fakest looking prosthetic ears ever!) it's believable. He is a man who deplores technology and is looking for the contentment of Eden, which one would think would make him something of a pacifist. Yet when it comes time to jailbreak and incapacitate the crew, he uses the very technology he claims to abhor. This brings to mind the problematic ending to Wizards (click here for that film's review!) where pacifism is ultimately portrayed as a stalling tactic.

The problem here is compounded by the ridiculousness to the guest characters. "The Way To Eden" has a virtual band of stellar rejects who have colorful tattoos and wear minimal clothes and behave like spoiled brats. Any sympathy anyone associated with Star Trek might have had for the counterculture movement is not at all evident in the way the show portrays their version of that subculture. Instead, the characters are universally ridiculous, bratty and capricious when they're not being pseudo enlightened and obsessed with finding Eden.

In addition to the chants, the songs presented in the episode are just head-shaking bad and they are performed rather amelodically by such talented people as Charles Napier. Napier is fairly well known now for doing voice-over work and he provided one of the voices on The Critic, but in this episode of Star Trek, he is laid back and wacky and the role does not suit him.

Indeed, what probably makes "The Way To Eden" seem so unrelentingly bad to those who can't sit through it a second time is that even if one finds some appreciation for the concept of including the rebellious counterculture phenomenon into an episode of Star Trek, the acting is universally bad in this episode. The guest performers are unconvincing and sometimes so far beyond hammy they could start their own chain restaurant and the regular cast of Star Trek seems to approach their performances with a posture and bearing that implies "I can't believe I'm being asked to do this! The check had better clear this week!"

But it's not all bad; the end resolves itself in a way that is actually fairly adult and implies a level of understanding about the counterculture movement that was remarkably accurate.

The truth is, though, this is a dated episode and because it lacks a decent plot, character development or anything remotely resembling good acting, the episode is a flop and one no one need subject themselves to.

[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 films and episodes, organized by production order or by best to worst, check out my index page for listings of my reviews by clicking here!

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

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