Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth”

“How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth”
Written by Russell Bates & David Wise
Directed by Bill Reed
Animated Season 2, Episode 5
Production episode 22022
Original air date: October 5, 1974
Stardate: 6063.4

Captain’s log. A probe scanned Earth and then self-destructed. It left a disruption trail that the Enterprise can track, and they do so, eventually finding a ship on the same course as the probe. The ship is twice the size of the Enterprise, it’s surrounded by a huge energy field, and it’s made of crystalline ceramic. The alien ship surrounds the Enterprise with a force globe that traps them, even though they were travelling at warp when they were surrounded by it.

The ship then hits the Enterprise with some kind of beam. Kirk orders phasers to be fired, which stops the beam from hitting them, but they’re still trapped and still being probed.

Then the ship’s energy field changes shape, and the ship now appears to resemble a serpent-like being, which Ensign Dawson Walking Bear at the helm recognizes as Kukulkan, a Mayan deity.

Only then does the ship communicate, expressing gratitude that someone on the Enterprise remembers the deity, who then transports Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Walking Bear over to the other ship. Walking Bear says that legend has it that Kukulkan went away and would some day return. It seems the probe was that return…

The ship becomes a re-creation of an ancient city of some sort. Kukulkan instructs them to learn the purpose of the seeds he had previously sown on Earth. The landing party recognizes bits from many Earth cultures. Walking Bear explains that Kukulkan told the Mayans to build a city according to the calendar he provided them, and when they finished it, he would return.

Kirk theorizes that Kukulkan went to several civilizations on Earth and gave them instructions on how to build his city, and he never returned because nobody got it completely right.

There’s a pyramid at the center of the city. Kirk climbs up its huge staircase, while McCoy, Scotty, and Walking Bear stay on the ground surrounding the pyramid. Walking Bear realizes there are three serpent-head statues at the four corners of the pyramid, and Kirk finds a piece of stained glass on top. Kirk instructs the others to turn the serpent heads toward the pyramid, at which point they catch the sun’s rays and reflect them onto the stained glass. When all four beams hit the glass, there’s an explosion of color, and a winged serpent appears. This is Kukulkan, daring them to use their weapons on him—they must hate him because they fired on him. Kirk assures him that they don’t hate him, they were just defending themselves after he fired first. Kukulkan archly points out that he’s their master and he can do what he wants. Okay, then.

Kukulkan then transports them to what looks like a zoo. Each creature is in a cage but is mentally in their natural habitat. It turns out the landing party was as well. Kukulkan explains that he is the last of his species. He went to Earth to teach them peace, hoping that they would construct his city properly and summon him. They never did, so he sent the probe, finally, and found what he deems a savage, warlike race.

On the Enterprise, Spock figures out how to escape the globe, and the Enterprise is free. Which is handy, as that action distracts Kukulkan from trying to kill the landing party. While he’s distracted, McCoy suggests freeing the Capellan power-cat that Kukulkan has captured—those animals, which give off an electric charge, hate captivity, and if it realizes it’s caged, it’ll run rampant.

That’s precisely what happens. Kukulkan is livid, more so when the Enterprise fires on Kukulkan’s ship, damaging it. The power-cat moves to attack Kukulkan, and Kirk uses one of McCoy’s hypos to tranquilize the animal.

Kirk speechifies to Kukulkan, and convinces him that humanity doesn’t need his help anymore, and that progress is better accomplished naturally than when being led by the nose. Kukulkan agrees and lets the quartet go.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Spock discovers that the globe Kukulkan uses is only elastic in one direction at a time, so he uses the physical push of the Enterprise and the pull of the tractor beam to shatter it.

Fascinating. When asked by McCoy if Vulcan was ever visited by aliens like Kukulkan, Spock says that they were, and the aliens came away from the experience much wiser.

I’m a doctor, not an escalator. The day is saved by McCoy, who recognizes the Capellan power-cat (no doubt from when he was stationed on that world) and also provides the tranq that keeps the cat from zapping Kukulkan.

Hailing frequencies open. Uhura expresses concern over why Spock isn’t trying to locate the landing party, and Spock snottily points out that he needs to focus on getting the Enterprise free, and why isn’t Uhura monitoring the alien ship like he asked? (Loversspat, maybe?)

Ahead warp one, aye. No Sulu in this one so we can have Walking Bear as the helmsman.

I cannot change the laws of physics! The sum total of Scotty’s contribution to this episode is to figure out that you can turn the heads of the statues.

Forewarned is three-armed. The sum total of Arex’s contribution to this episode is to turn on the viewscreen once.

Channel open.

“You don’t deserve it, Yeoman, but you’re getting a few days’ bed rest.”

–McCoy showing off his bedside manner right before Kukulkan kidnaps him.

Welcome aboard. The only extra voices beyond the big three are Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and James Doohan as everyone else: Scotty, Arex, Walking Bear, and Kukulkan.

Trivial matters: The episode’s title derives from Shakespeare, specifically King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child—Away, away!” Kirk and McCoy quote the line at the episode’s end.

Nobody told William Shatner how to pronounce “Kukulkan,” and since the actors didn’t all record their dialogue together, he pronounces it differently than everyone else. (Then again, that happened with DeForest Kelley several times on the live-action series, and he was in the same room as everyone…)

The Capellan power-cat presumably comes from the same world that we saw in “Friday’s Child.” McCoy was established as having once been assigned to Capella in that episode, and he’s the one who recognizes the animal.

Walking Bear appears in the novels The Fire and the Rose and Allegiance in Exile, both by David R. George III.

Co-writer Russell Bates is Kiowa, and while he pitched several stories to the animated series, D.C. Fontana didn’t go for any of them, instead asking him to pitch something that made use of his Native heritage.

Gene L. Coon, the show-runner for the second half of season one and the first half of season two of the live-action series, had died in 1973, and he and Bates were close friends and colleagues. Bates patterned the story after “Who Mourns for Adonais?” as a tribute to Coon.

To boldly go. “Intelligent life is too precious a thing to be led by the nose.” I want to love this episode a lot more than I actually do. But I do like it a lot.

My main source of adoration is that we get the gods-were-really-aliens trope, but it isn’t a god from Europe or North Africa, as is often the default in such tales. The only deities even mentioned in the episode, beyond Kukulkan, are Quetzalcoatl and the dragons of Asian myth.

My main issue, unfortunately, is yet another use of the gods-were-really-aliens trope. Yes, co-writer Bates patterned the story after “Who Mourns for Adonais?” as a tribute, but the line between tribute and copy is a bit fuzzy here, and Bates and Wise dance on both side of it quite a lot.

I do find it hilarious that a 1973 kids show is more willing to give us a Native character and actually identify his nationality (Comanche), something a 1995 live-action spinoff of this show couldn’t manage. And just in general, I like Walking Bear as a character, even though his primary function is to provide exposition. But his secondary function is the same as that of Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov: it ain’t just white folks who have gone out into space.

Still, the story itself is pretty standard. I find it particularly hard to swallow that the whole reason why Kukulkan never came back after providing his “gift” is because it never occurred to anyone to rotate a few statues? I guess? I dunno, it’s kind of weirdly specific, and by itself isn’t really much of a sign that you’re a maturing civilization. Or that you’re dedicated to your god, for that matter.

I will give James Doohan credit on this one, his voice work is excellent. Walking Bear, Scotty, Arex, and Kukulkan all have distinctive voices. In addition, William Shatner’s work is much improved. His speech to Kukulkan is delivered with much more passion than the actor was able to arse up earlier in the animated run.

On the one hand, this is a total retread of “Who Mourns for Adonais?” On the other hand, we get a cool flying serpent instead of Michael Forest in a shiny toga, which is trading up.

Ultimately, while I have to ding the episode for repetition of a very old theme, I love the look at non-white religious traditions. It’s nice to see the alien species actually checking out the humans in pre-colonial America and Asia for a change…

Warp factor rating: 7

Next week:The Counter-Clock Incident

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at Zenkaikon 2017 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania this weekend, alongside fellow author Charles Dunbar; actors Steve Blum, John Patrick Lowrie, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Ellen McLain, and Sonny Strait; performers Cosplay Burlesque, Cosplay Pro Wrestling, the Slants, Uncle Yo, and Greg Wicker; and cultural presenter Kuniko Kanawa. His schedule can be found here.

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