Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (October 18, 1968)

"Is There in Truth No Beauty?" 
Writer: Jean Lisette Aroeste
Director: Ralph Senensky
Producer: Fred Freiberger

This episode is always tough for me to judge, because it's got some excellent sci-fi concepts and some really nice character exploration, but the execution stumbles and falls due to writing that doesn't trust the audience to figure things out for themselves.

The premise is there is an alien race called the Medusans, who are extremely civilized, culturally advanced, intellectually gifted, etc and who take to problems of navigation like a fish to water. Unfortunately their race is a non-corporeal shapeless mass of light who's form is so alien to human comprehension the sight of them drives people mad, HP Lovecraft style.

The Medusan ambassador is brought aboard the Enterprise accompanied by a telepath, Dr Miranda Jones -- played by Diana Muldaur in a rare example of a returning guest star in a different role. It kinda irks me that the series just decides to say "Oh yeah, human telepaths are a thing" out of the blue, but I guess the second pilot established ESP was legit, so that's fine I suppose. It at least established that she had to study with the Vulcans to learn to control her abilities. Anyway, she's supposed to communicate the ambassador's wishes to the humans around -- turns out she can interact with him fine because she's blind, which is played like a big reveal way down the episode's runtime (she can "see" with the aid of a sensor net she wears as part of her ensembles).

Most of the episode is given over to a few things - one is that all the men on the ship keep remarking on how beautiful Miranda is and trying to make it with her (except Spock of course). The other is that Spock can potentially meld with the ambassador due to his mental abilities but Miranda is fiercely jealous. Basically, y'know, the super "ugly" ambassador is a real chill dude, but the super "beautiful" telepath is all jealous and bitter and full of hate. Do you get the theme? Get it?

Things get out of hand, and the climax of the episode is the Medusan ambassador entering Spock's body so as to interact with the crew to save the ship when it's lost in space due to a spell of madness having fallen on a character who saw the ambassador's true form.

The character study of Miranda Jones is very well rendered, an excellent portrayal of jealousy and bitterness and self-loathing. But the continual use of the words "beauty" and "ugly" to describe the various characters not only as rendering the episode's theme extremely obvious (why isn't this episode called "Eye of the Beholder"?), but also makes the Enterprise characters seem very crude. The Medusans are ugly? They're incomprehensible to the human psyche and madness inducing, but I don't know if that really qualifies as "ugly". Generally you need some kind of standard of beauty to compare to, don't you? The fact that the crew also find it, like, hard to believe that Miranda is kind of an awful person just because they're so attracted to her? I get that the message is all about like, surface level appearance versus inner character, but making the lead characters super shallow is a kind of shitty way to go about that. Seeing them all trip over themselves trying to get with Miranda isn't much fun.

The episode's pacing is occasionally sluggish, but it's balanced by the fact that this is a very creative episode in terms of its cinematic style. The relatively lightweight script is ably reinforced by inventive visual techniques, including the light patterns created for the Medusans, the fish-eye lens POV shots to indicate the induced madness, and various other novel experimentations from the usual Star Trek shooting style. 

Ultimately, though, this can't save the episode, which often has a meandering feeling, creating different character dilemmas to pad out its running time, because its central idea doesn't have enough depth in it to sustain the entire hour. A bit ironic in an episode about being shallow.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage:

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