“The Cloud Minders”
Teleplay by Margaret Armen
Story by David Gerrold
and Oliver Crawford
Directed by Jud Taylor
Season 3, Episode 21
Production episode 3x19
Original air date: Feb. 28, 1969
Recap: David Mack
The Enterprise comes to Ardana, the only planet that produces the substance zenite, which is needed to save its Federation neighbor Merak II from a plague that’s killing all its plant life. Ardana’s leader, Plasus, hails the ship and says he’s ready to receive them with a shindig at his fancy cloud city, Stratos, but Kirk’s in a hurry to snag the zenite, so he and Spock beam down to the mine’s entrance, instead.
From Ardana’s surface they admire the cloud city, which Spock praises as a culture of art and intellectual pursuits where all violence has been eliminated. He and Kirk are then attacked by people in coveralls and goggles.
Without moving his lips, Kirk demands to know who his attackers are. (I didn’t realize he knew kung fu!) The Troglyte miners refuse to answer, so Kirk and Spock kick their butts. During this unconvincing, poorly choreographed fight scene, the female leader’s goggles fall off, enabling Kirk to see her face.
Plasus beams down with two dudes wearing bedsheets as dresses and lopsided soufflés as hats. They chase off the Troglytes. Plasus apologizes for the Troglytes’s lousy manners, but all Kirk wants is the zenite. Why wasn’t it ready as agreed? Plasus says the Disrupters—a group of violent Troglyte malcontents who have halted mining operations on the planet—stole the zenite to lure Starfleet officers to the mine so that the Disrupters could take them hostage and use them to force Stratos to meet their demands.
Kirk, Spock, and Plasus beam up to Stratos while Plasus’s
toga-party rejects sentinels search the mines for the stolen zenite. The old man introduces his guests to his daughter, Droxine. Surprisingly, it’s Spock who smooth-talks her:
DROXINE: I have never before met a Vulcan, sir.
SPOCK: Nor I a work of art, madam.
Damn. Someone’s been taking lessons from Skipper Jimmy.
Plasus starts leading a guided tour of his city-museum. Then he pitches a fit, shouting about Disrupters, when he finds a digging tool wedged into a wall sculpture. Droxine accuses the Disrupters of wanting to “despoil” Stratos. Kirk asks why they’d want to. Plasus says it’s nothing Starfleet need worry about, and he promises to get them the zenite. Kirk and Spock are led away to guest quarters so they can take a nap.
Minutemen sentinels present to Droxine and Plasus an illegal immigrant a Troglyte arrested in Arizona Stratos without proper travel papers or identification. Plasus accuses the man of being a Disrupter and demands the names of his cohorts. The prisoner refuses to talk, so Plasus orders him secured for torture interrogation—but the Troglyte breaks free, leaps off Stratos, and plummets to his death. “How unfortunate,” Plasus says. By unfortunate he means messy.
As Kirk snoozes, Spock recaps what we already know in a voice-over. He arrives at this brilliant observation about Ardana:
SPOCK: Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership.
Apparently, Spock just doesn’t understand capitalism. How could those nice people in Stratos make all that art and wear such nice clothes if they had to pay the miners a living wage and guarantee minimally safe working conditions? Then he wonders how Droxine would react if she learned how much life sucked for the miners on the surface.
After Spock steps out to flirt with Droxine, the female miner who attacked him and Kirk sneaks into the room where Kirk is sleeping and tries to ambush him. From a sound sleep, Kirk swats away her weapon and rolls her into his bed. (Once again, kids, this is why Skipper Jimmy is The Man.) She notes he’s a light sleeper; he notices she’s wearing a new dress and cleans up well. Kirk calls Spock to help him, and his first officer comes running, followed by Droxine, who identifies Kirk’s attacker as Vanna, a former servant.
Vanna says the Troglytes believe the Enterprise has been summoned by Stratos to intimidate the miners. Kirk insists that’s untrue, but Vanna won’t listen to him. She stands for her people, who want to live on Stratos, in the light and sun. Droxine scolds Vanna, saying the Troglytes’ eyes are unaccustomed to the light, and their minds are unaccustomed to logic. Then she has a sentinel haul Vanna away.
Kirk and Spock make a case to Droxine for fairness toward the Troglytes, letting the workers share the rewards of their labor, and permitting them to benefit equally from the society that their work makes possible. Droxine won’t hear of it, and line after line of smug, elitist, racist nonsense falls from her lips. With every word she speaks, Spock’s attraction to her seems to melt away. She ends her tirade by echoing her father: how can Stratos be wrong when it’s so perfect and totally free of violence?
The very next thing we see is her father torturing Vanna while Droxine watches. I guess the Stratos-dwellers don’t consider torture a form of violence. (Must… resist… political joke…)
Vanna’s screams bring Kirk and Spock running, and when they see what’s going on, Kirk makes clear that he won’t stand by and let such an atrocity happen. Plasus and Droxine insist the Troglytes understand no other persuasion but physical coercion. They try to prove this by spouting the usual racist, reactionary nonsense that is always utilized by those who practice slavery, oppression, and torture.
Kirk insists the only way Plasus gets to use that device again is on him and Spock—a decision that Kirk warns will not be received kindly by Starfleet Command. Plasus orders Spock and Kirk to beam back to the Enterprise, or else he’ll turn this into an interstellar incident and lay the blame at Kirk’s feet. Kirk and Spock beam back to the ship, and Plasus orders his sentinels to kill the Starfleeters if they return.
Wow, good thing those Stratos folks aren’t violent, or this might have gotten ugly.
Back on the ship, Jimmy notes that time is running out for Merak II, where the botanical plague is out of control. He decides it’s time to end-run Plasus and go reason with the Troglytes himself.
McCoy craps on that idea: the Troglytes are mentally handicapped, he says, and it’s all because of the zenite. Harmless once refined, in its raw state it emits an odorless, invisible gas that “retards the intellectual functioning of the mind and heightens the emotions.” The good news is that if exposure to the gas ends, the effects wear off.
That gets Jimmy thinking: what if they give the Troglytes filtration masks? (No one says, “Great idea, Captain! That way they can all understand how badly they’ve been screwed, and then stage a really organized violent revolt,” but they should have.) McCoy whips up a prototype mask; Kirk shows it to Plasus, who refuses to believe it will do any good. He’s spent a lifetime believing the Troglytes are second-class sentients; why should he change his mind now just because someone comes along with well-documented scientific findings, peer-reviewed research, and facts? (Must… resist… political joke…)
Once again, Plasus forbids Kirk to take action on Ardana, denying him permission to deal with the Troglytes or even offer them the filtration masks. Naturally, Kirk ignores him. He beams down into Vanna’s cell to pitch his idea to her, even though he’ll be executed if he is caught. Why he didn’t just beam Vanna up to the Enterprise is beyond me.
Alone with Vanna, Kirk explains what the mask is and why the Troglytes need it. Vanna is skeptical, and she doubts the Stratos City Council will listen to her or her people. Kirk promises that once he has delivered the zenite to Merak II, he will return and intercede personally for the Troglytes. Kirk makes an impassioned plea for Vanna’s trust and gets it—as long as he’s willing to trust her to lead him deep into the mines to get the zenite.
“Okey-dokey,” says Skipper Jimmy. He stuns the sentinel who brings her lunch, she steals the guy’s transport pass, and off to the Disrupters’ house they go.
Deep underground, they meet up with Vanna’s partisans—and she betrays him. Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, when will you learn not to trust redheads? She never believed his tales of “a dangerous invisible gas,” and now she plans to use him for a hostage. She and her goons take away Kirk’s filtration mask, condemning him to breathe poison along with them. (Hm. A bunch of undereducated, working-class reactionaries abuse the intellectual, noble-minded bleeding heart who’s trying to help them. Must… resist… political joke…)
Vanna sends her people to take a message to Plasus and post guards. Once she and Kirk are alone, he gets her talking—then he throws a handful of dirt in her face, tackles her, and takes back his phaser. Hoping for some quality time with her, he uses his phaser to cave in the tunnel that leads to their chamber, sparking a Moment of Irony™:
VANNA: We’re sealed in!
VANNA: But soon the atmosphere will go. We’ll die!
KIRK: Die? From something that can’t be seen? You astound me, Vanna.
Kirk hails the Enterprise. He wants the ship to lock on to Plasus and beam him to Kirk’s coordinates without advance warning—proving that if James T. Kirk had not been a starship captain, he would have made an excellent reality-television producer.
Back in Stratos, Droxine pines for Spock and starts to doubt whether daddy knows best. Plasus insists he has everything under control and that the zenite will be delivered even if he has to kill every Troglyte on the planet to do it. (For a supposed intellectual, he doesn’t seem good at thinking ahead: who will he crap on after he kills all the Troglytes?)
On the Enterprise, Scotty and Spock have a problem: they can’t beam Plasus to Kirk until Plasus moves away from Droxine. Scotty reminds Spock that Kirk ordered this to be done “immediately,” but Spock insists they wait.
Down in Stratos, a sentinel tells Plasus that Kirk has broken Vanna out of custody. Plasus nearly has an aneurysm and curses the Troglytes. Droxine meekly defends their actions as ones of desperation, so Plasus sends her to her room. On her way out, she asks if they are so sure of themselves that they never question their methods. Then, as Droxine walks away, Plasus is transported away to join Kirk and Vanna.
An hour later, Kirk makes Vanna and Plasus dig for zenite while he holds them at phaser-point. Kirk’s temper is short, his trigger finger is itchy—someone’s got a zenite rush. Plasus grabs digging tools and challenges Kirk to a duel. Even though Kirk already has a gun, he tosses it away so he can join a knife-fight where Plasus holds both blades. This is proof either of the intellect-deadening effect of zenite gas, or the intellect-deadening effect of network memos mandating that each episode climax in hand-to-hand combat.
During the kerfuffle, Kirk drops his communicator. By a miracle, Vanna sees the light and picks up the communicator instead of the phaser. She calls the Enterprise for help, and all three of them are beamed up. In the transporter room, Spock stops Kirk from curb-stomping Plasus.
Later, Vanna delivers the zenite to Kirk on Stratos. Plasus is pissed that the masks will make all his slaves smart and uppity like Vanna. Droxine laments leaving the beauty of Stratos to take a turn working in the mines. Spock feels no pity for her, and neither do I. Kirk and Plasus trade a few more threats until Vanna suggests they both drop it. Aw, isn’t that cute and ironic—the revolutionary counseling the statesman and the starship captain in the ways of peace and diplomacy.
With just two hours and fifty-nine minutes until Merak II becomes uninhabitable, Kirk and Spock beam up with the zenite and are on their way as we… FADE OUT.
Once again, Star Trek treats us to the allegorical equivalent of a kick in the shins. The clear divides between the haves and the have-nots, the economic elites living in the clouds on Stratos and the simple-minded laborers on the ground, could not have been a more crudely drawn parable about class struggle, racism, and income inequality.
I thought that Jeff Corey did a fine job as the unctuous High Adviser Plasus, but I found Diana Ewing all but unwatchable as Droxine, which is part of why I found the idea of Spock’s attraction to her patently absurd. Charlene Polite was far better as Vanna, even if she laid the mustache-twirling on a bit thick near the end.
Normally, when I consider the special effects in these episodes, I try to remember that the show’s producers had limited technology and budgets, and I try to be forgiving when the results are a bit cheesy, but the shots of Stratos are just awful. It looks like something out of a high-school play rather than a network television series, of any era.
Obviously, this episode can trace at least some of its pedigree back to Fritz Lang’s classic SF film Metropolis. I think it should have stolen more than it did.
Although the ending implies that the Troglytes will push for better treatment and compensation as their intellects are freed from the effects of zenite gas, the resolution feels like a cop-out. By blaming all the problems on the zenite gas and fixing it with some cheap masks, the Federation seems to be saying, “We don’t care that your entire society is based on massive segregation, second-class citizens, and predatory economics, because you have something we need.” Now that it’s over, I am left wondering, “How the hell did Ardana become a member of the Federation in the first place?”
Fortunately, these are issues that were raised by later incarnations of Star Trek, which established that worlds seeking membership had to meet certain minimum standards with regard to sentients’ rights, etc. But that doesn’t erase this episode from the canon, or negate the fact that the Federation has more than a few skeletons in its closet.
Bottom line: This episode was thought-provoking but also infuriating. Its effects were hit-or-miss, its fight choreography was laughable, and its resolution morally suspect. I won’t call this one of Star Trek’s disasters, but it damned sure ain’t one of its triumphs.
David’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1 to 6)
Analysis: Dayton Ward
My partner in crime, the inestimable Mr. Mack, has done a fine job
eviscerating highlighting the rather overt message this episode conveys with respect to the seemingly eternal struggle between the ruling and working classes. As I watched this episode in the wake of what has recently transpired in Egypt as well as what continues to unfold in Wisconsin, what I see here is the potential for a truly great, thought-provoking story in the finest Star Trek tradition. What we get is instead reduced to a product of the simple, connect-the-dots template that by this point in the third season is par for the course. It’s a shame, really.
Since Mr. Mack so ably shone his sardonic light on the class-warfare aspects of this episode, I’m free to concentrate on other areas. You know, the stuff where it’s just fun to point and mock. What about that fight scene at the start of the show, eh? Kirk and Spock are lassoed? Yee, and, might I say, Haw.
As for the fight choreography, I can’t say I’ve seen anything this bad since…well…the last time Kirk got into a fight with somebody. Lookin’ at you, “Requiem for Methuselah.” Kirk and Spock and their opponents wallow in the dirt for what seems like forever. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that long, but it was long enough that I kept asking myself why Spock is screwing around with these boneheads when he could just be nerve-pinching the crap out of everybody.
Still, it’s fun to catch odd continuity gaffes in scenes like this. Watch Kirk closely in scenes where he’s scrambling on the ground. You’ll note that his boots have no heels, but when Plasus shows up and breaks up the fight, suddenly Kirk’s standing there with big ol’ heels on his very dust-free footwear. According to Inside Star Trek: The Real Story by Herb Solow and Bob Justman, William Shatner wore lifts on his boots during the original series, in order to achieve his advertised height of 5’11.” The lifts affected his posture, helping to provide Shatner with that “Kirkian swagger” we all remember.
“The more you know…”
Depicting a “city in the clouds” given the constraints of then-current special effects technology as well as Star Trek’s per-episode budget had to have presented another series of headaches and challenges for production designer Matt Jefferies. He’s able to accomplish much with limited resources and time. The use of a photo of the Hadramawt Plateau dry river basin in southern Saudi Arabia, taken by astronauts on the Gemini IV orbital mission in 1965, to represent the view of Ardana’s surface from Stratos is striking, though one has to wonder how thin the air might be in the city, given how far below the clouds the planet itself seems to be.
The only time the effect really suffers is when the captured Troglyte escapes his guards and throws himself over the railing, and we’re treated to a black, person-shaped blob “falling away” from the city toward the surface. At the other end of the spectrum is the matte shot of the city itself, “floating” among the clouds. For some reason it reminded me of the castle Gilligan visits when he’s dreaming he’s Jack climbing the beanstalk. It’s either that, or an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror of my grandfather’s old bread delivery truck. Take your pick.
As for the scenes set within Stratos, you’ll have to chalk up the realization that only four or five people seem to be living in this “city” as another consequence of the episode’s paltry budget. Still, the white wisps of smoke floating beyond the balcony almost, but not quite, sell the illusion that you’re living among the clouds. Matt Jefferies’ use of a raised transporter platform with an adjoining staircase provides a subtle reinforcement of the supposed difference in altitude. The rest of the sets are well-appointed, with the usual assortment of furnishings, statuary and wall décor we’d expect to see after yet another Supermarket Sweep of the Paramount property vaults.
What’s that? We can’t talk about the art without talking about Droxine? Okay.
To be honest, I could never stand this character. She’s nice enough to look at, sure, even if I feel compelled to save her from starvation by taking her to Five Guys and shoving a burger down her throat. At first, you think she’ll defy the stereotype of pretty yet otherwise useless women which are an unfortunate hallmark of the original series. Then she opens her mouth and you realize she’s little more than Star Trek’s answer to Paris Hilton: Vapid, shallow, and criminally ignorant of the realities permeating the society she takes for granted, and out of touch with those who labor out of sight and out of mind. Thankfully, she has something of an epiphany.
Droxine certainly has an effect on our heroes, doesn’t she? Spock’s not in her presence for more than ten seconds before he starts babbling like an idiot, and what’s the deal with him expounding at length about all the ins and outs (if you’ll pardon the expression) of Vulcan mating habits? Kirk had to pry it out of him with a crowbar when it first became an issue in “Amok Time,” as Spock was so embarrassed to discuss the matter. I guess all that is out the window when he’s confronted by a hot girl in half a dress.
Oh, that’s right, the costumes: Apparently, William Ware Theiss expended all his creative energy on Droxine’s wardrobe. Vanna fares well enough when she’s cleaned up for her scenes in Stratos, and the Troglyte uniforms look functional and unattractive, themselves a subtle means of distinguishing the working class from the robes and gowns worn by the Stratos dwellers. As for everybody else? They’re treated to whatever crumbs of Theiss’s imagination manage to fall from the drafting table. If the pajamas Plasus wears are any indication, we can all rest easy knowing that the Hugh Hefner collection survives at least into the 23rd century.
Don’t go anywhere, Spock; I’m not done with you. Those “discerning Vulcan ears” of yours might’ve heard Droxine fussing about outside your room, but they weren’t all that helpful back when the Troglytes ambushed you, or when Vanna snuck past you on her way to attack Kirk, eh? Of course, that’s just one of the many things Spock dorks up during the course of the story. Leonard Nimoy must have been chewing railroad spikes after reading the script for this episode, given how out of character Spock is required to act. His voiceover
infodump narration spends too much time focused on his thoughts of Droxine rather than helping us to understand the situation on Ardana. As it is, we’re left with a pretty black-and-white depiction of the class struggle between the “haves” living on Stratos and the “have nots” scurrying about in the mines below.
The episode certainly leaves its share of head-scratching questions, doesn’t it? I mean, how is it that an entire city of academics and other eggheads never figured out that zenite emits a harmful gas that degrades intellectual function in the Ardanan brain? At first you think that they had to have known all along, but they simply didn’t want to upset the status quo. That much would make sense, since the Stratos dwellers certainly enjoy the better end of that bargain. However, Plasus and even Vanna come off as complete skeptics when Kirk attempts to explain the situation. I suppose it could just be that neither of them wanted to wear that stupid mask Kirk offers them. How impractical is that gadget, anyway? What, the budget couldn’t afford a few frappin’ rubber bands to strap the thing around somebody’s head? Everything got spent on the sentinels’ uniforms?
By the time we get the full picture of just how far apart the two halves of Ardanan society are with respect to one another, and how the
workers union is “Disrupters” are really just making life difficult for the forks-and-corks crowd up on Stratos, it’s too late. The episode has descended into yet another low-budget talkfest that does little more than pay lip service to what could have been meaningful discourse. A topic that likely resonated with many of Star Trek’s viewers back in the day (to say nothing of being an issue of much import right now, if current events are any indication) is reduced to a few cheap platitudes (Hey, do you think that’s why they called the High Adviser “Plasus?”) about how they’ll all try to do better, blah blah blah. Does anyone really think the situation on Stratos is going to change? For that matter, how did a planet like this even manage to obtain membership in the Federation, where equality for all is supposed to be a bedrock principle? The mind boggles.
So, yeah, not one of Star Trek’s finest hours, particularly because of what it could have been. However, when you see what’s up next week, you’ll be begging us to review this one again.
Dayton’s Rating: Warp 2.5 (on a scale of 1 to 6)
Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.
David Mack also emits a steady stream of deadly, invisible gas, but it’s far from odorless.
Dayton Ward is also a work of art, though he’s more akin to those drawings you find on truck stop restroom walls. Ew.