Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “Plato’s Stepchildren”

“Plato’s Stepchildren”
Written by Meyer Dolinsky
Directed by David Alexander
Season 3, Episode 12
Production episode 60043-67
Original air date: November 22, 1968
Stardate: 5784.2

Captain’s log. The Enterprise responds to a distress call from an uncharted planet, one on which Spock’s sensors detect no life. They are greeted by a very short humanoid named Alexander, who provides a massive infodump about how they are the Platonians, and they travelled to Earth during the height of Greek civilization after their own sun went nova, and then colonized this world after Greece fell. They apparently follow Plato’s teachings, and Parmen, their current philosopher-king, calls them Plato’s children, though Alexander thinks it would be more accurate to call them Plato’s stepchildren.

That would make a dandy title…

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

The distress call was for Parmen, whose leg is horribly infected after he scratched it. McCoy treats him, though he’s shocked when Parmen telekinetically wields McCoy’s hypo. Parmen’s wife, Philana, explains that there are only 38 of them, and they’re immortal. However, because they never get sick, their resistance is low, so a simple scratch could be fatal.

However, Parmen’s infection makes him delirious and in his fever, his telekinetic powers go binky bonkers, affecting not only the landing party and the furniture in the room, but also the Enterprise in orbit. After a great deal of effort, which gets McCoy thrown into a wall and Alexander almost strangling himself, he’s sedated and everything calms down.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Kirk wants to go back to the ship, but McCoy wants to stay with his patient until the fever breaks. Alexander leads Kirk and Spock to a guest suite. He explains that he’s the only one who has no telekinetic abilities—he’s a throwback—and is stunned to learn that Kirk and Spock come from a place where nobody cares what size, shape, or color you are.

McCoy reports the fever has broken and the infection is almost drained. Kirk wants to beam back, but Scotty reports that all the ship’s instrumentation is frozen and they’re locked in orbit. (Why Scotty waited until Kirk actually called him to report this rather major issue with the ship is left as an exercise for the viewer.) Kirk goes to Parmen to ask him to free the ship and let them leave, but Parmen doesn’t like Kirk’s attitude and so steals his phaser and makes Kirk slap himself over and over and over again.

William-Shatner-Slapping-Himself

After that, Kirk goes back to the suite. Communication with the Enterprise is completely cut off, and Spock is quite sure that the Platonians have no intention of letting them go. Parmen and Philana then force the landing party to walk to the throne room, where they are presented with gifts in gratitude for saving Parmen’s life: the shield of Pericles for Kirk, a lyre for Spock, and a scroll belonging to Hippocrates for McCoy. Parmen then asks forgiveness for his earlier behavior, and promises to release the Enterprise soon. However, he requests that McCoy remain behind to be their physician.

McCoy refuses. Parmen insists and can back it up with his telekinesis. Kirk and Spock are released, but they won’t leave without the doctor.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

So Parmen decides to torment them. He forces McCoy to watch while Kirk and Spock put on laurel leaves and are forced to perform: dancing, singing, play-acting, quoting bad poetry, crawling, rolling on the floor, and generally making total fools of themselves.

Between bits of foolishness, Kirk orders McCoy not to give in no matter what, and when Parmen asks McCoy if he’ll reconsider, McCoy simply says, “I have my orders.”

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

So Parmen continues, making Spock do a flamenco dance around Kirk’s prone form, then making him first laugh, then cry.

Alexander pleads on their behalf, saying he’s ashamed to be a Platonian. So they get him in on the act, making Kirk go on all fours and whinny like a horse while Alexander rides him. I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, KIRK WHINNIES LIKE A HORSE OVER AND OVER AGAIN WHILE SOMEBODY RIDES HIM!

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Eventually, Parmen and Philana get bored and send the landing party and Alexander back to the suite. Spock is withdrawn from the trauma of being forced to be emotional, making it harder to maintain his usual control. (At one point, he crushes a gold chalice.) McCoy considers giving in, but Kirk won’t let him.

Alexander is impressed with their resolve. The Platonians are treating the landing party the same way they treat Alexander, but they fight back. And now Alexander realizes that it’s not him, it’s them. He breaks a vase, and threatens to scratch them so they get infected and die, but Kirk won’t let him throw his life away. Alexander is touched—no one’s ever put his life ahead of their own before.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Alexander also reveals that the Platonians didn’t develop their mental powers until after they started eating the native food. McCoy scans Alexander and then compares that scan to the data he took of Parmen. It turns out that they both have kironide in their system—a native element that’s a powerful energy source—but in Parmen it’s interacted with his pituitary gland to grant him the telekinesis. But Alexander’s pituitary gland is stunted, so he doesn’t have the powers everyone else does.

Now the Platonians’ keeping the place secret makes sense: anyone who eats the food can gain the telekinetic powers.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

McCoy synthesizes a kironide injection for all of them. (Yes, McCoy can put together a hypo that gives humans super powers with what he has in his medikit.) He injects himself, Kirk, and Spock, but Alexander refuses—he has no desire to become like the other Platonians. Spock is concerned that it will take a while for the kironide to take effect.

They’re interrupted by the transporter: Uhura and Chapel materialize, but they are unable to talk (though they are obviously trying to) and then they are forced out of the room. Kirk grumbles that apparently the three of them alone aren’t entertaining enough.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

The Platonians then force Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Chapel to change into Greek clothing similar to those of the Platonians. They are made to perform for the entire population of Platonius (and also McCoy, who’s sitting with Alexander in the audience).

Spock is forced to sing a really mediocre song to Uhura and Chapel, then the women are forced to lay down while Kirk and Spock run back and forth between them. Eventually they settle on Spock with Chapel and Kirk with Uhura. Chapel gets her lifelong wish to kiss Spock, while Kirk and Uhura are also forced to lock lips. Chapel is disgusted that this is how that has happened.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Kirk and Spock are then forced over to a bench filled with weapons. Kirk picks up a bullwhip while Spock grabs a hot poker. Even as Kirk cracks his whip (probably not a euphemism), Alexander takes advantage of everyone’s distraction to grab a knife and try to kill Parmen—but Philana stops him. However, before Parmen can make Alexander kill himself, Kirk’s and Spock’s fancy-shmancy kironide powers kick in, and they toss aside their weapons and keep Parmen from controlling Alexander.

However, when Alexander tries to kill Parmen, Kirk stops him, urging him not to become like Parmen. For his part, Parmen is humbled by Kirk sparing his life when he knew that Parmen had every intention of killing him and his crew in the end.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Parmen tries to apologize, but Kirk and Spock don’t buy it for a second. They agree to stay hidden, and Kirk reminds them that they can re-create their powers at a moment’s notice. Parmen agrees, and the landing party beam back alongside Alexander. When he contacts the Enterprise, Kirk tells Scotty that he has “a little surprise for you” while kneeling down next to Alexander, which apparently somebody thought was funny.

Fascinating. McCoy says that forcing Spock to be emotional is damaging to him, which is sorta true? Kinda? But not really?

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

I’m a doctor not an escalator. McCoy is unwilling to be the Platonians’ physician, though after watching his two best friends act like total bloody idiots for twenty minutes, he finally gives in and agrees to do whatever Parmen wants as long as he stops torturing his crewmates.

Hailing frequencies open. Uhura confesses that she’s always looked to Kirk for strength when she’s been afraid in the past, right before she sucks face with the captain.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty gets to whine a lot about how the Platonians have messed up the ship.

No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. Kirk gets put in a himation that exposes a quarter of his manly manly chest, while Chapel and Uhura are put in elegant gowns, the former’s being quite revealing (as is Philana’s). Spock’s himation covers his chest, but his legs look good… 

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Channel open. “To us, killing is murder. Even for revenge.”

Kirk, lying through his teeth and not making sense. (Revenge makes it more like murder, not less.)

Welcome aboard. Barbara Babcock returns to the front of the camera as Philana for the first time since playing Mea 3 in “A Taste of Armageddon.” She’s also done voiceover work in “The Squire of Gothos,” “Assignment: Earth,” and “The Tholian Web,” and will do so again in “The Lights of Zetar.”

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Michael Dunn plays Alexander. He was a finalist for the role of Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” but lost out to Clint Howard.

Liam Sullivan, Ted Scott, and Derek Partridge play other Platonians, while we get recurring regulars Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, and Majel Barrett.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Trivial matters: This episode is best known as having TV’s first kiss between fictional characters where one is white and the other is black, making it very controversial for 1968. According to Nichelle Nichols, the plan was originally to film two versions of the scene, one with the kiss and one without, the latter to be used to air in Southern states, but Nichols and William Shatner conspired to sabotage the non-kiss version so it’d be unusable. Eventually, the crew gave up and they just went with the kiss.

This episode was not shown in the UK until the 1990s, but not because of the interracial kiss, but rather because of the elements of torture. The BBC refused to show “Miri,” “Whom Gods Destroy,” and “The Empath” for similar reasons.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Surprisingly, Leonard Nimoy himself wrote “Maiden Wine,” the song Spock sings to Uhura and Chapel. (More surprisingly, Nimoy actually admitted publicly to writing that song.) A full version was recorded for the 1969 album The Touch of Leonard Nimoy. (Your humble rewatcher will now pause to restrain himself from making a “bad touch” joke.)

This is the only script for the show by veteran TV writer Meyer Dolinsky, who was one of the many working TV writers Gene Roddenberry courted in the early days of the show. It’s almost hard to believe he was never asked to write another.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

To boldly go. “Bitter dregs…” HOLY CRAP, WHY DOES ANYONE THINK “SPOCK’S BRAIN” IS THE WORST EPISODE WHEN THIS EMBARRASSMENT EXISTS??????

I mean, yeah, okay, interracial kiss, blah blah blah, but even that’s a tempest in a teapot. They’re not kissing because they want to, they’re kissing because the Platonians are assholes who want to torment them. Kirk doesn’t even keep his eyes closed during the kiss. It’s just the latest in a series of humiliations, and it’s just stupid. The Chapel-Spock kiss is more effective from a story perspective anyhow, since Chapel really has wanted to be intimate with Spock since all the way back in “The Naked Time,” and this is so totally not the way she wanted it to happen.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Anyhow, is there anything redemptive about this episode? I guess. I mean, Michael Dunn’s Alexander is actually a character of great dignity, especially given his most undignified place in Platonian society, and he actually undergoes an impressive character growth, as he learns how to fight back. He makes several speeches, and Dunn delivers them in a refreshingly easygoing manner that makes them far more emotional than histrionics would have conveyed.

It’s also nice that the landing party makes no kind of fuss over his shortness—at least until the tacky “little surprise” line at the end, which manages to undo most of that tolerance for the sake of a cheap and meager laugh.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

What else? Barbara Babcock is always magnificent, but her part is pretty poor and doesn’t make good use of her talents, as she mostly just delivers exposition and gives sultry stares during the torture scenes.

But ultimately none of it matters, because HOLY CRAP, THIS EPISODE IS HORRIBLE. The dialogue is awkward and clunky, with sentences not following from one to the other. Everyone talks in infodumps, from Alexander in the beginning to Parmen in the end, and it’s all leaden. Liam Sullivan’s Parmen has no bite to him as a villain whatsoever.

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

And then there’s the entire middle part of the episode during which William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy abandon all pretense of dignity and act like total fools in a manner that is supposed to be humiliating to the characters, but is far more humiliating to the actors, from Kirk slapping himself over and over and over and over as we fade to commercial to the mind-bogglingly awful “Maiden Wine” to Kirk’s fun with bullwhips to Spock’s flamenco dancing. The moment when Alexander rides Kirk like a horse while the latter whinnies every four seconds is quite possibly the absolute nadir of Star Trek as a franchise, and yes, that includes “Profit and Lace.”

Star Trek, original series, season 3, Plato's Stepchildren

Worst of all, we learn in this episode that McCoy can give everyone super-powers with something he can throw together with the equipment in his medical tricorder! This is a major thing that, amazingly, has absolutely no consequences going forward! What the ever-loving hell?

I’m sorry, I know I’m not usually this histrionic in these rewatches, but it boggles my mind that this episode is solely talked about in terms of the damn kiss, when the kiss isn’t even all that big a deal, and also this episode is so incredibly horrible! This is the single worst episode of any Star Trek series, and one of the worst hours of television ever produced. Guh.

 

Warp factor rating: 0

 Next week:Wink of an Eye

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest story is “Right on, Sister!” in Limbus Inc. Book 3, a shared-world horror anthology that also includes novellas by Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, David Liss, and Laird Barron. It’s edited by Brett J. Talley and published by the fine folks at JournalStone.

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