by Jay Johansen | Jan 2, 2014
For some reason I got in a mood to watch Star Trek lately. So I was watching a bunch of the old original series. I saw most of these when they were first aired 40-something years ago, and I suppose I've seen a few again since, though my memories are mixed.
It really struck me that in some ways, Star Trek has held up very well. I see a lot of old science fiction where the technology is obviously dated. It's supposed to be set hundreds of years in the future, but the computers all display plain text, white on a black background. They drive cars with internal combustion engines. Etc. I've read many science fiction stories that were written in the 1940s and 1950s that are set hundreds or thousands of years in the future but where the people talk about nuclear power as an amazingly advanced discovery. Like it didn't occur to the author that in the time his story is set, nuclear power will be a 500-year-old technology, and would either be hopelessly outdated by then or, if nothing better was invented in all those centuries, would at the very least be seen as commonplace.
But Star Trek, even though written over 40 years ago, does not show these anachronisms. The ship is powered by matter/antimatter combustion, something still far in the future. They have teleportation machines, and replicators that somehow synthesize their food in an instant. Perhaps more subtly but just as important, the control on their machines do NOT look like the knobs and dials of 1960s machines, their headphones do not look like 1960s headphones, etc. I'm hard-pressed to think of something on the Enterprise that really looks out of date. Well, the one thing that struck me was that they have spray bottles that look just like the spray bottles used for kitchen cleaners. I'm sure that's where they got them to make the show. But you could probably argue that that's a perfectly good technology that is likely to survive for hundreds of years, just like we still use cups and forks and hammers little different from what was used hundreds of years ago.
All that said, many of the episodes did have some rather glaring plot holes. Sometimes the behavior of the people didn't make much sense. Other times the science or technology didn't quite hold together. For example:
Warning: There are some spoilers here. But I think the people most likely to read this article are Star Trek fans, and you've seen all these episodes already.
Synopsis: The Enterprise visits a remote planet to conduct a medical check on the husband-and-wife archaeological team studying the ruins of an ancient civilization there. It turns out that the wife is not really who she appears but a shape-shifting alien disguised as the wife. The husband knows all about this and has been living with the creature for several years. The creature needs salt to survive, and their supply of salt is exhausted, so it begins to kill members of the Enterprise crew to consume the salt from their bodies.
But ... Small issue: The Enterprise is a huge ship, we are repeatedly told it is one of the largest and most advanced in the fleet. The Enterprise is to the Federation about what an aircraft carrier is to a 21st century nation. Why would such a ship be sent for such a trivial mission as conducting routine medical examinations of two people? That would be like the United States sending an aircraft carrier halfway around the world so the ship's doctor could give an annual medical checkup to a couple of archaeologists in New Guinea. That seems very unlikely.
But bigger issue: Why did the alien disguise itself, and why did the husband go along with the disguise? The whole point was that the alien needed salt. When the Enterprise arrived, why didn't the archaeologist just openly say, "Look, I've found this creature here on this planet. It's the last of its species, an extraordinary scientific find. It needs salt to survive and I've run out of salt. Can you give me a bunch of salt?" The Enterprise's mission is supposed to be to "explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations". Wouldn't they be not just willing, but anxious to help preserve a unique alien specimen by doing such a simple thing as supplying salt? If they had just done that, the alien would never have had a reason to attack anyone. It lived with the archaeologist for several years without harming him because he was able to supply it with salt. If it hadn't started killing people, the Enterprise crew would have had no reason to harm it, and given their mission, every reason not to harm it. And surely the archaeologist knew all this. No reason was ever given during the show why they tried to keep the alien's existance secret. So the only thing that drove the plot was that the archaeologist and the alien did something incredibly stupid and dangerous for no apparent reason.
Synopsis: Harry Mudd is operating an interstellar match-making service: He finds planets where there are more women than men and gets some of the women to travel to planets where there are more men than women for purposes of marriage. We are given to understand that there are mining colonies and other "rough" planets with few if any women. To assist in the match-making process he has some drug that makes women incredibly beautiful and appealing to men. But the ship he is travelling in is not properly registered and his "master's papers" have been revoked, so the Enterprise pursues his ship and in the chase his ship is destroyed and the Enterprise's dilithium crystals -- a crucial component of the power system -- are damaged. The Enterprise rescues Mudd and the women from the ship just before it is destroyed and then heads for a nearby mining colony to replace the dilithium crystals. When they arrive Mudd convinces the miners to demand the women instead of cash for the dilithium crystals. Kirk at first refuses but eventually has no choice but to give in to the blackmail.
(By the way, this episode really shows the difference between the world view of the original series and the world view of the later series. The whole program is obviously a morality play about the role of women in society. The key question it asks -- and it's not subtle about this, one of the women gives a speech at the end where she flat out says this -- is, Is the proper role of a woman to cook and clean and generally support a man in his career, or is it to be beautiful and alluring and to satisfy a man's sexual desires? Kirk then wraps up the episode by saying that a woman can and should do both. Can you imagine The Next Generation posing such a question with those two choices as the only ones considered?)
But ... There are a host of plot holes in this story. For starters, they present Mudd's match-making service as something sleazy and nefarious. But what, exactly, is wrong with it? How is it different from any of the computer dating services that millions of Americans use today? It's quite clear that both the men and the women want to be paired up with potential matches. Nobody is being kidnapped or anything. So what's the problem?
Mudd's only actual crime is that his ship failed to transmit a "registration signal" and that, after he is caught, it is found that his master's papers have expired. For this a military ship gets involved, and they pursue him in a way that leads to the destruction of his ship and damage to the Enterprise? That seems rather excessive. He is guilty of the equivalent of driving without a license plate and with a revoked driver's license. Would this lead the army to send a tank to pursue him, blow up his car, and run the tank at speeds that damage its engine? Why?
Why is the "beauty drug" illegal? This is never explained. Are there dangerous side effects? Or does the Federation have some law against women trying to make themselves prettier?
Why did the miners have to blackmail Kirk to allow the women to stay on their planet? It was said several times in the program that the women were not charged with any crime, just Mudd. So if the women had just said, "Hey, we want to stay on this planet," what legal right would Kirk have had to tell them no? Why would he want to? Why would he care? If a navy ship picked up some survivors of a sinking ship and was planning to bring them back to the U.S., but along the way they stopped for repairs in Guam and these people said they wanted to stay in Guam, why would anyone tell them they couldn't?
In the climactic final scene -- spoiler alert! -- Mudd is forced to tell the miners about the beauty drug. He shows them one of the pills. One of the women, whose last dose is wearing off, grabs the pill, swallows it, and becomes beautiful again. Then Mudd reveals that this pill is not real but is just a dummy made from gelatin, because the Enterprise confiscated his supply of the pills. (The point being that she always had this beauty within her, the pill just gave her the confidence to bring it out.) Okay, I understand that if the pill is illegal, government officials would confiscate it. But why would they give him fake pills in exchange? When the government confiscates cocaine, they don't give the drug dealers simulated fake cocaine. Of course the real reason was so Evie could swallow the pill thinking it was real, but it just didn't make sense.
Synopsis: The Enterprise discovers a planet that appears to be an exact duplicate of the Earth. Except on this planet, people were experimenting with a drug to extend life, that failed spectacularly. Everyone on this world now dies when they reach puberty, so the world is populated entirely by children. The landing party find themselves infected with the virus. As they race to find a cure, the children steal their communicators, cutting them off from contact with the ship. Without access to the ship's computers, finding a cure is doubly difficult.
But ... The episode begins with the revelation that this planet is a duplicate of the Earth in atmosphere, mass, and geography. We see the planet from orbit and the land masses look exactly like the Earth. But once the landing party beams down to the planet, this is never mentioned again, and has no apparent relevance to the plot. It is never explained how this came to be. What are the odds against the natural forces of volcanoes and earthquakes and plate tectonics and so forth, purely by chance, causing one planet to look exactly like another? An evolutionist would have to stop there. A creationist could say that God could create a duplicate planet, but why? If there was some reason why this was necessary to make the story work, we might just accept it as a premise, but it has no apparent connection to anything in the story. I'm left wondering if in earlier versions of the script this had some significance, or what.
We're told that the children have been living alone on this planet for 300 years, but that their food supplies will run out in six months. Did the people really have a 300-year supply of food in storage at the time the virus wiped out all the adults? I don't have statistics on what our food supplies are today, but I doubt there's anything like a 300-year supply -- even allowing that children are only a fraction of the population. You might suppose that the children are not entirely dependent on preserved food but are able to do some farming or hunt small animals or pick wild fruit and berries, but then the issue of the food running out goes away, or at least gets more complicated. If they can farm and hunt for part of their food supply, why not all of it? And it's awfully convenient that the Enterprise just happened to arrive just as this huge food supply was about to run out.
One could question what a person would be like who was biologically still a child but who had lived for 300 years. The children in the episode are all pretty wild. They behave like someone might expect children to behave who were left without adult supervision for a few days. But would they stay that way for hundreds of years? Also, while some children, left to their own, run wild and fight and vandalize and so on, there are plenty of others who sit quietly and read and play quiet games. But in this story we see only the first group.
When the children steal the communicators, cutting off contact between the landing party and the ship, the crew is in dire straits. But, (a) When they presumably knew how important the communicators were, why did they leave them all in one un-guarded room? Normally we see the crew carrying their communicators on their belts. But here for some reason all six members of the landing party not only took their communicators off their belts, but they all left them in the same place. They apparently went out of their way to make it easy for the children to steal them. And (b) Once the people on the ship realized that they were out of communication with the landing party, why didn't they just beam down some more communicators to the last known location?
© 2014 by Jay Johansen
No comments yet.