Thu
Dec 9 2010 12:19pm

Star Trek Re-watch: “Plato’s Stepchildren”

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenPlato’s Stepchildren
Written by Meyer Dolinsky
Directed by David Alexander

Season 3, Episode 10
Production episode 3x12
Original air date: November 22, 1968
Stardate 5784.2–5784.3

Recap: Dayton Ward

The Enterprise arrives at an unknown planet in response to a “desperate distress call,” even though the ship’s sensors detect no life. But, the world is apparently home to rich deposits of a rare element called kironide, which seems to be of some value, since Kirk, Spock, and McCoy waste no time beaming down to see what’s what. They materialize inside the lobby of Caesar’s Palace (before the renovations, the Forum shops, and Celine Dion’s amphitheater) and are immediately confronted by a disembodied voice asking if they’re from the Enterprise.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenThe voice belongs to a diminutive human male named Alexander, who sings, dances, plays games and even lets the Wookie win. He explains that he and those who live here are from the Sahndara star system, whose sun went nova millennia ago. They managed to escape, and the group’s leader, Parmen, had such a kink for the philosophies of Plato that they modeled their society after his teachings, and refer to themselves as “Platonians,” “Plato’s Children,” or…wait for it…“Plato’s Stepchildren.”

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenAlexander leads Kirk and company (more like he’s pulled by an unseen force) into a grand hall which looks to be a casting call for History of the World, Part I. They’re immediately greeted by an attractive woman, who directs McCoy to an obviously ill man at the center of the room. The man is suffering from a massive infection stemming from a scratch on his leg. McCoy tries to administer a hypospray, but can only stand by as the device lifts from his medical pouch and injects the other man as of its own accord. (No, that wasn’t fishing line or anything attached to the hypo. You’re imagining things.)

Meanwhile, Alexander is talking to the woman, Philana, imploring her to play nice with the new arrivals. They’re here to help, after all, right? They deserve better than to die…t?

Uh-oh.

While McCoy treats Parmen, Kirk treats us to a log entry explaining the history of the Platonians, and how they actually traveled to Earth after their planet was destroyed, arriving during the time of Plato and Socrates. After the fall of the Greek civilization they adored so much, they left Earth and came to this planet, keeping alive the spirit of Plato as they crafted their own society.

I guess we should be happy they didn’t show up in Rome during Caligula’s reign, eh?

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenAfter watching a few more displays of various Platonians’ psychokinetic abilities, Kirk and Spock ask what that’s all about. Philana’s answers are pretty evasive. McCoy asks why they don’t have their own doctors, and we’re told the Platonians are the result of a massive eugenics program on their home world. Ah, eugenics. Those always work out, don’t they? One byproduct of the program is extreme longevity: Philana is over 2,000 years old...but you can tell she’s had some work done. Apparently the eugenics which spawned the Platonians isn’t all that, as they’re susceptible to infection from the slightest cut or other minor injury.

Parmen, gripped by his affliction and delirious, starts throwing psychokinetic mojo around the room and breaking stuff. Everybody ducks and covers. The effects are even felt in orbit, with the Enterprise being rocked by massive turbulence.

Star Trek episode After managing to sedate Parmen, McCoy wants to wait for his patient’s fever to break, so Alexander takes Kirk and Spock to a guest room. He tells them that he’s the only one who doesn’t have the Platonians’ odd powers, and is envious of the civilization Kirk represents—where nobody seems to be such a bunch of tools. (Well, except for those Tellarites. Can’t take those guys anywhere.)

After Alexander is summoned, Spock and Kirk note that with the effort the Platonians have taken to keep their existence secret, it’s unlikely the Enterprise will be allowed to leave. (No kidding. Really?) When McCoy arrives and announces he’s cured Parmen, Kirk calls for beam up, but Scotty reports that ain’t happenin’. The ship’s systems are frozen, it’s locked in orbit, and they can’t send a message to Starfleet. Wow. Who’d’ve thunk it?

Star Trek episode Kirk confronts Parmen and tells him to quit acting like a douche. Parmen responds by making Kirk repeatedly slap himself. Now prisoners of the Platonians, the landing party is prevented from contacting the ship. Without warning, they’re pulled via psychokinetic leash back to Parmen’s chamber, where Philana tries to woo them with a few trinkets—the shield of Pericles for Kirk, a kithara for Spock, and Hippocrates’ little back book of home remedies for McCoy. You know, just stuff they had lying around. Parmen tries to play off his earlier antics as being due to his illness, but when the landing party tries to leave, Parmen demands that McCoy remain behind as the Platonians’ physician. It’s a swank job with all sorts of perks and an awesome bonus package, but McCoy refuses, so Parmen reverts to JerkMode. As McCoy watches, Kirk and Spock are forced to sing and dance for Parmen’s amusement. Kirk orders McCoy not to submit to Parmen, no matter what happens.

The games continue, with Parmen pulling Kirk’s puppet strings and making the captain crawl and squirm all over the floor while Philana looks on. (Is actress Barbara Babcock merely conveying her character’s amusement, or trying not to crack up at Shatner’s scenery-chewing? You decide!) Kirk, naturally, refuses to bend to Parmen’s will.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenOnce Kirk’s had enough and blacks out, the fun turns to Spock, first forcing him to dance before stripping the Vulcan of his emotional control. When Alexander protests the landing party’s mistreatment, he’s forced to ride Kirk like a horse.

(This is where I pause the DVD, stop writing this recap, and start perusing Craigslist for other freelance writing gigs.)

(And…we’re back.)

As Spock deals with the vulnerability of the emotional outbursts he was compelled to provide for Parmen, McCoy tells Kirk that he’ll stay if it will keep everyone else safe. Kirk sees through Parmen’s lies, knowing the Platonians can never allow anyone to learn of their existence. Alexander, angry at what he’s witnessed, wants to kill Parmen and all the others, but Kirk talks him down, and then the captain starts plotting. Did the Platonians always have their powers? No, Alexander answers. Their abilities began manifesting six months after arriving on this planet, and Spock reasons that the source must have something to do with the indigenous foods. McCoy samples Alexander’s blood and compares it to readings he already has for Parmen’s. The key is a huge difference in the level of kironide in the two men. Parmen is loaded with it, whereas Alexander has virtually none. “Take me to your dealer!” Kirk shouts, as McCoy readies a concentrated dose of kironide and injects the landing party. Alexander refuses the offer of an injection, not wanting to become like Parmen and the others.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenThen things get interesting when Lieutenant Uhura and Nurse Chapel beam down from the Enterprise. Obviously, they’ve heard about the hopping club down on the surface, and want to get in on the action. No sooner do they arrive than the two women are whisked away. Kirk figures Parmen’s wanting to spice up the shenanigans a bit. That cad.

Later, Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Chapel show up for the Platonians’ toga party. They try see if the kironide is generating any psychokinetic ability, but so far it’s a no go. Then the wall at the front of the chamber parts to reveal Parmen and Philana, along with McCoy, Alexander, and a small party of Platonians. Tonight’s to be a celebration, you see, in honor of welcoming McCoy into the fold. Kirk, doing his best to look tough in a sparkling off-the-shoulder minidress, tells Parmen he’s still got to convince the doctor to stay. Parmen, of course, has other ideas.

First up, Spock gets to serenade Uhura and Chapel. I had to suffer through it, so here are the lyrics to the little ditty:

Take care young ladies, and value your wine
Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime

Deeply they’ll swallow from your finest kegs
Then swiftly be gone
Leaving bitter dregs.
Bitter dregs

With smiling words and tender touch
Man offers little and asks for so much
He loves in the breathless excitement of night
Then leaves with your treasure
In cold morning cold morning light
In cold morning light.

Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren(For the record, I think this might work better if you set it to the tune of the “Irish Drinking Song” from Whose Line Is It Anyway? If not, there’s always puncturing your eardrum with a pair of chopsticks from Panda Express.)

Once that’s over, the Enterprise quartet is paired off, Kirk with Uhura and Chapel with Spock. Chapel and Spock are forced to kiss, followed quickly by the captain and Uhura and the Kiss Felt Round the World. (See Mr. Mack’s analysis for more on this “event.”)

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenPhilana, apparently all hot and bothered and wanting things to get a move-on, nudges Parmen to kick the festivities up a notch, and he responds by calling forth a table containing a whip, knives, hot pokers, and other party favors. Kirk picks up the bullwhip and Spock grabs a poker, with Parmen directing them to use the weapons on Uhura and Chapel. Everyone’s so enthralled with the proceedings that none of them sees Alexander swipe a knife from the table before trying to make his way to Parmen. Unfortunately, he has all the subtlety and stealth of an orangutan on Red Bull, and Philana is able to stop him with ease. Parmen forces Alexander to turn the knife on himself, but at the last moment the blade is redirected, much to the Platonians’ collective surprise.

PARMEN: Who did that?
KIRK: I did! Suck it, Parmen! (Okay, we’re paraphrasing here.)

Aw yeah. It’s on now.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenKirk and Parmen face off in the ultimate battle o’ wills. Parmen sends Alexander after Kirk with the knife, but the captain’s able to turn him away. Parmen and Kirk play Dwarf Ping-Pong until the captain gets the upper hand. Alexander is all set to slice Parmen open like Thanksgiving turkey but Kirk pulls him back, reminding Alexander that he doesn’t want to sink to Parmen’s level. Now properly pwned, Parmen tries to convince Kirk the Platonians will behave. Kirk, naturally, thinks Parmen is shoveling bovine excrement, and warns Parmen that anybody who comes calling in the future will have the Kironide Smackdown on speed dial. Kirk contacts the Enterprise and orders Scotty to beam up the landing party…along with Alexander, who gives Parmen the finger before blowing this popsicle stand.

(That last part always gets cut out of the reruns, but you can trust me. It’s there. Would I lie to you?)


Ugh.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenWhile “Plato’s Stepchildren” is not quite as ludicrous as “And the Children Shall Lead” (still my pick for Worst. Episode. Ever.), it’s still downright embarrassing and at times borderline painful to watch. The Platonians, despite professing to adore the philosophies and teachings of one of our history’s most influential figures, are little more than a gang of recalcitrant children who are all in desperate need of about six consecutive days’ worth of corporal punishment, ideally while being forced to watch a marathon of Supernanny episodes. The final “showdown” between Kirk and Parmen is nowhere close to satisfying, given what the landing party is forced to endure, and the idea that Parmen simply rolls over at the end after one demonstration of Kirk’s newfound powers is utterly ridiculous. This story practically screams “Follow Up!” but that, thankfully, never occurs.

Of course, worse things are still lurking in the shadows as we progress through the season, right? Shields up and brace for impact, folks….

Dayton’s Rating: Warp 1.5 (on a scale of 1 to 6)

 

Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren

Analysis: David Mack

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenThis episode starts out well enough—a bit cheesy, of course, with the togas and whatnot. Until the telekinesis starts, it feels like a retread of “Bread and Circuses,” yet another excuse to use surplus costumes and props from the Paramount lot’s warehouse.

The first hint of the threat posed by the Platonians is well handled. During Parmen’s delirium-induced telepathic frenzy, I was impressed by Kirk’s heroism as he puts himself between Parmen and Alexander, defending the smaller man without hesitation. (I don’t recall having ever seen that moment before, which makes me wonder if it was one of the series’ infamous “syndication edits,” which were made to trim certain episodes’ running times to allow for longer commercial breaks in reruns.) This moment is echoed later in the episode when Kirk talks Alexander out of a suicidal plan, prompting Alexander to remark, “That’s the first time anybody ever thought of my life before his own.”

Near the end of the earlier scene, however, as Parmen is psionically choking Alexander (I guess he found the little man’s lack of faith disturbing), Kirk orders McCoy to break Parmen’s concentration by shaking him; under the circumstances, a punch in the junk would have seemed more appropriate, but I suppose that would have been a no-no on 1960s network television.

One of the most powerful moments in this episode just breezes past us today, but in 1968 it was a bold statement. When Kirk tells Alexander, “where I come from, size, shape or color makes no difference,” it captured the essence of a just society, one based on equality and merit, and it summed up perfectly what Star Trek is about.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenThen, starting from the moment when Kirk brashly confronts the recovered Parmen, the episode turns into an S&M aficionado’s dream come true. (Bullwhips and hot pokers? I can already hear George Takei saying, “Oh, my!”) Kirk is  made to slap himself silly, he and Spock are forced to dance like idiots and put on PG-13 sex shows with Lieutenant Uhura and Nurse Chapel, and so on. (Though I have to ask: if Parmen and company left Earth 2,300 years ago and have lived in isolation hundreds of light-years away ever since, how did they make Kirk and Spock sing a ditty containing lyrics alluding to Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” published in 1872? Or compel them to quote from Sonnet LVII by William Shakespeare, published in 1609?)

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenBut it’s not just the casual, humiliating violence that the Platonians inflict which makes this such a spectacle of sadism—it’s the perverted smirks on the faces of all the Platonians (except Alexander). They seem not just to be amused by our heroes’ suffering; they act as if they are actually getting off on it (which probably explains why this episode was banned from broadcast or sale in the United Kingdom until 1993). Just as grotesque as the Platonians’ physical abuse of Kirk is their emotional and psychological torment of Spock. But nothing tops the embarrassment of watching Kirk forced to bray like a horse while being ridden by Alexander.

At that moment, Parmen asks McCoy, “How can you let this go on?” I imagine that in November 1968, there was a Paramount executive asking the exact same question of Gene Roddenberry and Fred Freiberger.

Considering certain practices that the ancient Greeks made infamous, Kirk and company should count themselves lucky the afternoon’s entertainment stopped there.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenWhich brings us to … The Kiss. Much has been said and written about Kirk and Uhura’s telekinetically forced kiss in this episode. It is often referenced as the “first interracial kiss on American network television.” An excellent bit of scholarship on the wiki-based Star Trek reference site Memory Alpha demonstrates that this is not precisely correct, and that it would be more correct to describe it as “the first kiss between a fictional white male and a fictional black female to premiere on American network television.” It’s also worth noting, as that article points out, that this isn’t even the first interracial kiss in Star Trek’s production history. Several weeks before this episode was filmed, production had wrapped on the episode “Elaan of Troyius,” in which William Shatner kissed Asian-American actress France Nguyen. (For various reasons, though “Elaan of Troyius” was the first episode filmed for season three, it ended up being the thirteenth to air.) There is some debate as to whether the kiss between Shatner and Nichols ever occurred, or if it was faked with a clever camera angle. Both actors insist the kiss did happen; they also tell an amusing anecdote about deliberately flubbing some alternate takes in which they were to have stopped short. (Read the article at MA for more information about this.)

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenWhich brings us to…the kironide. Supposedly a rare source of tremendous energy, it is the secret ingredient that gives the Platonians—and, later, our heroes—potent psionic abilities. First, if kironide is a known compound, how has this property never before been discovered? Second, if it’s so rare, how is McCoy able to prepare three high-dosage injections of the stuff from his traveling medical satchel on a moment’s notice? Third, if all it takes to give ordinary humans powerful telekinetic abilities is a shot of kironide, why have we never heard of this substance again in canon Star Trek for 42 years? Wouldn’t you think Starfleet would be keen on harvesting this stuff and having doses ready for its secret agents, front-line troops, away team commanders, and other key personnel? Wouldn’t there be a robust black market for it? If it’s this awesome, why don’t they continue to use it? There are so many plot holes and unresolved questions raised by its use in this episode that it makes my head spin.

In any event, the kironide solution sets up a scene involving Alexander that cements his claim on the story’s moral center. Offered an injection of the compound that would give him powers to rival those of Parmen, Alexander rejects it. He makes clear he has no wish for power, no desire to become his own enemy. He wants freedom, not revenge.

The visual effects in this episode are surprisingly good for their time. There’s no sign of the wires used to hurl the telekinetically affected objects. In a pre-CGI era, results such as these were triumphs of practical filmmaking. The limited budgets of Star Trek’s third season remain evident, however, in this episode’s minimalist sets and small cast. Whether cost constraints played a role in the absence of Sulu or Chekov from this episode is unclear, but it is one of the few third season entries without at least one of them manning their posts on the bridge.

David Alexander’s directing seems a touch sloppy, unfortunately. Though there were a few nice uses of camera movement and a handful of artfully composed shots, much of his composition and blocking for the episode felt pedestrian and uninspired. There are several instances in which his medium and close shots do not cut together well because of careless mistakes, such as missing props or background players, or mismatches of lighting or blocking.

Finally, here are two amusing bits of trivia:

First, Leonard Nimoy wrote the song “Maiden Wine,” which he performs in Act Four.

Star Trek episode Plato’s StepchildrenSecond, Barbara Babcock, who played Parmen’s wife, Philana, previously guest-starred on Star Trek as Mea in “A Taste of Armageddon,” and she provided voice performances for such episodes as “The Squire of Gothos” (as Trelane’s mother), “Assignment: Earth” (as the Beta V computer), and “The Tholian Web” (as Commander Loskene), and she would return later in season three to give voice to Zetar in “The Lights of Zetar.”

Final analysis: This is an embarrassing and frequently cringe-inducing episode. At times it was hard to watch. In retrospect, that might have been the producers’ intention, but it still doesn’t make it a fun hour of viewing. Despite its flaws, unanswered questions, and excesses, there are still some satisfying moments in “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and they keep this from wallowing at the absolute bottom of Star Trek’s barrel…but only just barely.

David’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1 to 6)


Next episode: Season 3, Episode 11 — “Wink of an Eye.” U.S. residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.


Dayton Ward looks better in a toga than Bill Shatner.

David Mack is pretty sure that if these really were Plato’s stepchildren, the great philosopher would have beaten them all with his belt and kicked them out of his house.

13 comments
Kurt Lorey
1. Shimrod
OK. I read through this thing (thank goodness I didn't have to watch the episode too) just to fondly remember actor Michael Dunn, whose work on Wild, Wild West and (briefly) Get Smart was always a fun treat for me to watch.

Still, William Shatner as "the horse" does kind of sum up something about his emotive style of acting, eh?

And, that's NOT a toga! hahahahahaahahahahahaah
David Mack
2. davidmack
Yeah, I know they're not really togas, but this episode was so bad that I couldn't motivate myself to look up what they were really called. (Though I did describe it at one point as a "sparkling off-the-sholder minidress.") Would you happen to know what these unflattering garments are actually called?
rob mcCathy
3. roblewmac
1. I Rememberd this being kinda good on rewatch it was not
2 but it is creepy how the actors move. Like they are REALLY being pulled somewhere. So hats off for that
3. but there is huge plothole or ten
4 a planet of only 38 people that have had faster than light travel for over two thousand years and they forgot a medic?
5 Jim NEVER should have violated the prime directive and taken Alexander with them. Poor little guy fell though a wormhole and became DR Loveless.
Kurt Lorey
4. Shimrod
Your name for the outfit is probably as good as any, David.

I imagine costumes like that derive from the Sword & Sandal era in Italian cinema. Since that era was during the mid-60s, maybe Paramount had a few of their own (in rayon) laying about? Still, Shatner just didn't fill it out quite the same as Steve Reeves did, for example. Maybe...this episode was a tribute to Italian Sword & Sandal movies? Nah.

And Gene, whatzzup with Majel's costume?? Can one say "dowdy"? At least compared to Nichelle and Barbara. I could have made her look more appealing.

One last thing. Leonard Nimoy. Did you ever seriously think you could carry a tune? Really? For those who haven't yet lived, please track down Leonard doing a little ditty called Bilbo Baggins. You may never insult Shatner's acting again. Well, maybe?
firstgentrekkie
5. firstgentrekkie
"why have we never heard of this substance again"

Er, because it would remind us of this episode, and no one still living wants that.
rob mcCathy
6. roblewmac
hah! maybe but even the federation has finite resorces and this planet falls under "these lunkheads are too much trouble"
john mullen
7. johntheirishmongol
Michael Dunn was always a pleasure to watch. One of the few smaller actors that wasnt just on for a gimmick, but because he really could act.

I did want to note that the reason that kironide disappeared was the same reason that midichlorians disappeared.

Barbara Babcock had a lot of credits over the years, mostly as the special guest star or victim. She was a solid reliable performer who never got a lot of attention, but kept getting jobs because she was always believable. Unlike the guy who played Parma, who was absolutely awful.

One of the things about Shatner as an actor is that his performance is very dependant upon who he is playing against. If you watch him with good actors, he is very good but if you watch him with bad actors he can be awful.
rob mcCathy
8. roblewmac
Yes you can blame Shatner's acting for a lot but by GOD not this! Do you think anybody said "Bill we want to be a HORSE but a refined Horse!"
firstgentrekkie
10. Bluejay Young
As far as the Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, I didn't hear that this was their first contact with outworlders since they'd left. I always assumed they'd pulled a spaceship or two out of the sky for their amusement over the decades.

Call me tone-deaf, but I have never minded Nimoy's singing. He was a bass trying to sing tenor, and needed some serious coaching on breath control. But it's not unlistenable.

"Maiden Wine" is a paraphrase or variation of a traditional song called "Maiden's Lament" or "A Sprig of Thyme".

The first interracial kisses on television were in the 1950s... between Mr. and Mrs. Ricky Ricardo. Nobody minded for the same reason that Cuban and Native American baseball players were allowed in the major leagues while Afro-Americans were excluded.
firstgentrekkie
11. HelenS
I always rather liked Nimoy's singing, dang it. Though even at a very young age I knew that wine did not come in kegs, and that those darned kegs were dragged in to rhyme with dregs.

I think I figured the Lewis Carroll and such were brought out of the heads of the Enterprise folks, rather than being put into their mouths by magic (sorry, I mean psi power).

The basic Greek garments were the chiton and the himation
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiton_(costume) and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himation). "When the himation was used alone (without a chiton), and served both as a chiton and as a cloak, it was called an achiton." That ought to cover all the basses, I mean bases.
firstgentrekkie
12. wwwFriend
Read the new biography about Michael Dunn. It is really good and has a bunch of cool pictures. You won't believe what an amazing life he lived. Google the title: The Big Life of a Little Man - Michael Dunn Remembered.
firstgentrekkie
13. ScottyM1967
Awesomesauce. Just an FYI, though, (geek alert! geek alert!) Spectre of the Gun was the first episode of the season filmed, not Elaan of Troyius.
firstgentrekkie
14. forty something
For all you Michael Dunn fans: Did you know he is in a movie that wasn't released until 2007?! The movie is titled Man in the Mirror and it is available on amazon.com. (Be careful not to confuse it with the Michael Jackson film by the same name.) Michael Dunn has the main role and he is in it from beginning until end. Martin Sheen is also in it and he plays nine different roles. Most of the movie was filmed in 1970 with some additional footage filmed in 2006. The movie shows the World Trade Center in three stages - being built, finished, and then the NY skyline without it. It is a great movie that sat unfinished for some 35 years, and should have gotten much more publicity than it did. Frank Weston won a couple of awards for this movie but not too many people have even heard of it. Dunn's new biography - The Big Life of a Little Man, Michael Dunn Remembered - should also get more publicity. He lived an interesting life and one chapter in the book was actually even written by him. It too is available at amazon.com.

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