Friday, April 7, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "The Paradise Syndrome" (October 4, 1968)

"The Paradise Syndrome"
Margaret Armen
Director: Jud Taylor

Producer: Fred Freiberger

When people talk about which episodes of Trek's third season are actually worthwhile, this is one that often comes up. "The Paradise Syndrome" has some problems, mostly pacing issues and some unfortunate - if well meaning - racial stereotyping. But ultimately, it is one of the better produced and written instalments of the season.

Essentially, the scoop is there's a big asteroid heading for a Class M world, and the Enterprise has to stop it using it's deflector beam. Transporting down to check out the planet, the main trio discover it's inhabited by descendants of Indigenous Americans - "a mixture of Navajo, Mohican and Delaware" according to Spock, which is basically a way for the writers to say "this is a mishmash of stereotypes we didn't do much of any research on".
Turns out they were planted here by an advanced alien culture hundreds of years ago to prevent the extinction of their culture on Earth -- an intriguing sci-fi notion that causes McCoy to muse "I always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered through the galaxy," which is a fantastic way of lampshading that particular Trekkian trope.

Anyways, Spock notes that the planet is inexplicably free of craters or any other evidence of meteoric activity, and the trio finds a giant obelisk whose construction is utterly beyond the capable of the planet's inhabitants and that should be mystery solved right there but when Kirk opens his communicator it's distinctive ringtone opens a trapdoor and he gets zapped with a beam down in a control room. Spock and McCoy can't find him and Spock argues to McCoy that they don't have time to search for him or rescue him because they have to go divert the asteroid - explaining that the longer they wait the more power it will take to do so, until it is impossible. So they leave, fly off to the asteroid and totally fail to deflect it, and McCoy spends the rest of the episode bitching to Spock, questioning his every command decision, and generally just whatever Spock wants to do, he is opposed to it.

Meanwhile, on the planet, Kirk has amnesia. He's discovered by the indigenous people, and because they found him in "the temple", he must be a god. He's named "Kirok", is betrothed to the chief's daughter, made into the tribe's "medicine man", and he's expected to perform the rites at the temple that will stop the "sky" from "falling". The previous medicine man did not know the rites - but now he's lost everything and sees "Kirok" as his enemy. While "Kirok" improves the lives of those in the tribe by teaching them irrigation, crop rotation, giving them oil lamps, etc etc. Unfortunately, "Kirok" doesn't know the damn rites either, because he's not a god, and when the asteroid is about to fall onto the planet he and his wife - Miramanee, who is carrying his child - get stoned by an angry mob. Miramanee and her child die, but "Kirok" is saved by the timely arrival of Spock & McCoy.

See, all this has been happening for months, while the Enterprise has been following the asteroid and Spock attempting to decipher the glyphs on the obelisk. Turns out it's a high power deflector - duh - activated by a musical tone. They deflect the asteroid, the world is saved, but Kirk's "wife" and unborn child are dead.

So, it's a big tragedy for Kirk, and it's a pretty intelligent and well written episode all things considered. It's got good moments for all the major actors, and it's also well produced -- with good and ample special effects, location shooting (the only occurrance in season three), lots of costumes and sets (that obelisk must have been expensive). So what's the problem here?

Well, if you've been paying attention, there's a lot to unpack. First up, the entire episode is based on the idea that Kirk feels "at peace" as Kirok, a world of no cares where he can just relax. The "return to nature" trope gets of course paired with the "noble savage" trope, depicting life among the indigenous peoples as essentially utopic. They handwave away any notion of accuracy by intentionally making them mixed tribes, but of course it is worth saying that none of the major characters are played by Indigenous actors. Of their names, only Salish has an Indigenous root (it is in fact the name of a people, like naming a white character "English"), while Miramanee sounds Semitic and Goro is a Japanese name.

And then once we get past the depiction of their lifestyle as "simple and idyllic" (try living a hunter/gatherer lifestyle btw and tell me how idyllic you find it), we get to the white saviour stuff. Now, granted, the episode doesn't 100% embrace this trope because "Kirok" proves hilariously inept at being a "god", but it does show him bringing multiple advances to the people in the time he is there -- as well as depicting the people as reacting to them in awe. They are overwhelmingly portrayed as simpletons, viewing each advancement with superstitious wonder. Despite being on this planet for 500 years, the transplanted peoples have not advanced one bit in their culture or technology (aside from having clothes made by a Hollywood costume department of course). This fits into a presumed narrative of the Indigenous peoples of America being essentially too stupid to figure out how civilization works and waiting for the white man to come bring it to them. Of course, in reality, the reasons for the simpler technological status of the American peoples has to do with complex historical and cultural factors, as well as the state of the native flora and fauna of the continent, which did not promote urbanization and industrialization to the degree that factors on the Eurasian and African continents did. Which is all to say, if you dropped a bunch of Navajo, Mohicans, and Delaware onto another planet and left them there for 500 years, there's a good chance they might look a bit different when you checked on them.

Nevertheless, this is a largely good episode, coming early in the season before the true existential despair had overwhelmed the cast & crew. If you can stomach it's extreme white liberal man's picturesque idolization of Indigenous cultures, you should be fine.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

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