Saturday, July 4, 2009

Star Trek--"Plato's Stepchildren"

“Plato’s Stepchildren” is known almost solely for featuring the alleged first interracial kiss. I think that means most people have mercifully blocked out the rest of the episode from their collective conscious. I certainly wish I could. But there are two major issues to address regarding the episode.

I have to start with the kiss. In recent years, it has been said by both William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols the kiss never really happened. The camera changed angles after the scene shown above, so we never saw lips locked. Now, I only have one peeper left and it has seen (no pun intended) its better days, but Shatner’s and Nichols’ lips are touching in the barest of ways in that photo, so I say the kiss happened.

But I am skeptical the kiss can be called the first interracial kiss on television. It is more likely the first kiss between a fictional white man and a white woman. Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nancy Sinatra greeted one another on a live show a year previous. Lucille Ball and Cuban Desi Arnez, owners of Desilu, the production studio for TOS’ first two seasons, had been smooching on television since the early ’50’s. I do not want to detract from the kiss’ due importance, but I am interested in its accurate labeling.

Now that is out of the way, my second point is how absolutely gruesome “Plato’s Stepchildren’ is to watch. I could flip a coin between it and “The Empath” as the most unpleasant viewing in TOS for the same reason. I am going to save most of my comments on pointless torture for my review of “The Empath” while talking about the more apt aspects of torture here. Suffice to say--and I will note it when the time comes--what I say about “The Empath” applies here, too.

I have had the unfortunate distinction of viewing parts of Salo, an Italian film which is still banned in most of the civilized world at one time or another. Australia still bans its sale. You can find a DVD of it from seedier internet dealers, but I urge you not to look. Your life will be much brighter without it. The story is about a group of young men and women being held captive in Nazi occupied Northern Italy in 1944. They are subjected to all manner of brutal, humiliating torture for which they hold up strongly against their tormentors. It is only towards the end when they are forced to sing “Happy Birthday” to their head tormentor that they emotionally break down. After all the physical pain they have suffered, it is this simple act that hurts the most.

It is grossly disturbing. It has stuck with me for nearly ten years now and it has ruined “Plato’s Stepchildren” which I did not particularly care for to begin with. While our heroes are subjected to physical pain here--Kirk forced to slap himself, for instance--it is the humiliating acts that get me. The dances, limericks, Kirk used as Alexander’s horse-all that reminds me too much of Salo. It bothers me more than seeing physical pain inflicting by pointless torture even though that is unpleasant enough to avoid like the plague even in a fictional show or movie.
The powers that be tried to water down the appeal to the baser sexual emotions, but it is there. The forced kisses are not any different than forced sex. They are still violations of Uhura and Chapel’s person. Honestly, Chapel probably even more so considering her crush on Spock. When the bullwhip and the hot poker came out, the scene lost all pretense of hiding sexual aggression. All right, maybe it is my Christian prudishness boiling to the surface. This did pass muster in prime time network television, albeit at 10 PM on Friday night but I am not eager to see it.

As for the episode itself, it is another instance in which Earth aspects are present in deep space, although there is a decent explanation here, even if the aliens say they espouse Plato’s teachings when they really do not. The whole plot of our heroes being held captive for the amusement of super powered beings has been done before. So has them being judged worthy because Kirk spared some’s life. To my knowledge, no one has ever addressed the plot hole that anyone can have the telekinetic powers as well since they are artificial. Perhaps everyone at Trek central is pretending this story never happened.As harsh as I have been, there is one bright spot. I enjoyed Michael Dunn as Alexander. He is one of the rare TOS guest stars who gets to play a major role in an episode. He was a great actor who overcame his disabilities and poor general health to carve out a career for himself while avoiding the typecasting you would expect a dwarf to be forced into. I remember him best as Dr. Miguelito Loveless, the archenemy of James West and Artemus Gordon on another favorite, The Wild Wild West. But Dunn was also a Tony Award winning sage actor. Very impressive.

Rating: * (out of 5)

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