It’s one thing for television producers to torture their fictional characters, but it’s quite another when they torture their hapless viewers. Unfortunately, that’s the result of this pointless, turgid, plodding episode. “Plato’s Stepchildren” is among the “bitter dregs” of the third season, if not the entire series.
Here’s the plot: The intrepid Enterprise crew responds to a distress call from a small society of aliens with psycho-kinetic powers who torture Kirk and Spock to force McCoy to make a permanent house call. The crew discovers the chemical source of the aliens’ power, juices themselves up with a super high dose, and beats them at their own game. The end.
Oh, wait. And Kirk slaps himself silly, gets ridden like a horse by a dwarf, does a little ditty with his Vulcan first officer, writhes around on the floor quoting Shakespeare, and puckers up with Uhura (whoa! interracial kiss!). Spock is made to laugh and cry, sing really badly, and kiss Nurse Chapel (whoa! interspecies kiss!). McCoy – and the audience – suffer the worst fate … having to watch it all (whoa! universal torture!).
Now, be honest. If you hadn’t seen the episode, you’d think I was making this up, wouldn’t you?
Liam Sullivan after reading the script
It’s So Pointless
To paraphrase Khan, this episode is so pointless. What do we learn about our characters? About the human condition? About the Star Trek universe? Almost nothing. We already know Kirk is strong-willed, Spock is ashamed of displaying emotion, Uhura is perpetually frightened, and Chapel is horny for Spock.
Unlike superior episodes where our heroes lack control of their actions and emotions for various reasons – such as “The Naked Time,” “Amok Time,” and “This Side of Paradise” – we gain no new insights into their inner psyches in “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The only thing worse than watching them be humiliated is watching them act out of character, such as when Spock becomes so angry at his treatment that he smashes a vase in his hand (cliché alert!). Logically, he was not responsible for his own actions and therefore has no reason to be humiliated or angry. He has stated numerous times anger is a useless and counterproductive emotion.
Now that’s a kiss
The characters without any character – Parmen and Philana — are as insipid and one dimensional as they are supercilious and condescending. The Vians tortured McCoy to test the bounds of friendship and self-sacrifice … Khan tortured Kirk to recruit Enterprise officers to build a new empire … and the Talosians created the illusion of torture to feed off their captives’ raw emotions. The Platonians do it for … what? Fun? Sport? If they get off on other’s humiliation, why aren’t they constantly luring Federation ships to their planet?
In short, our villains have no redeeming qualities or realistic motivations. This is completely counter to Roddenberry’s oft-stated belief that there are no bad guys, only individuals with different viewpoints and ideas. It’s another sure sign of how he had checked out in the third season.
The only character who demonstrates depth, makes difficult choices, and grows in this episode is Alexander. He makes real discoveries about who he is, what he wants to be, and what’s within his power to do. He is at first vengeful toward the other Platonians, then accepting, then pitying. He chooses to remain true to himself. In other words, he displays a full range of human emotion – we can care about him — in contrast to the cardboard cutout characters of Parmen and Philana.
All of these shortcomings could have been overlooked if we had been treated to an outstanding performance, a rip-roaring adventure, or a special effects extravaganza. But alas, no. Instead we get 25 seconds of Kirk giving himself the Zsa Zsa treatment and nearly three full acts of humiliation scenes.
A Bit of Trek Philosophy
OK, so maybe there a few worthwhile themes in this episode – the corruption of power ("Uncontrolled power will turn even saints into savages, and we can all be counted on to live down to our lowest impulses"), the acceptance and celebration of differences (“Where I come from, size and color make no difference”), and self determination (“If I want to do something, I’ll do it for myself! If I want to laugh or cry, I’ll do it for myself! You can keep your precious power!”) It’s just that they are so poorly executed.
Thanks I needed that
We’ve already discussed Meyer Dolinsky’s contrived and hollow script, but what about the rest of the production? Among the highlights are the energetic and engaging score by “Star Trek” theme composer Alexander Courage. It was the last original score done for the series (with the exception of the “songs” composed for “The Way to Eden”).
Michael Dunn is convincing as Alexander. Liam Sullivan (Parmen) and Emmy-winning actress Barbara Babcock don’t have to much to work with. No one smirks more convincingly than Babcock, playing her second character on “Star Trek” – her first was Mea-3 in “A Taste of Armageddon” (she also did voice work in four other episodes).
David Alexander’s direction is serviceable, but as with much of the third season, there is a claustrophobic and insulated feel to the episode. Alexander apparently had a knack for drawing the short end of the stick — his other “Star Trek” directing assignment was the aforementioned “The Way to Eden.”
The patented Babcock smirk.
As for the remastering, the planet looked great and the scale of the Enterprise in orbit was the most convincing since “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” However, the ship’s bat-out-of-hell orbital approach seemed way off – looked like it was going to circle the planet in about 3 seconds. The display on McCoy’s tricorder was nicely done, as was the “wobbling” of the Enterprise, which at least approximated the movement on the bridge. The lighting of the ship is almost perfect now, but the surface seems a tad off – almost has a chalky blue hue to it, as opposed to a more “shiny” metallic finish. And it’s movement often still strikes me as “unnatural.”
Quibbles and Bits
I laughed out loud at the end of the episode when Kirk reached to the back of his toga and whipped out his communicator! I guess the Platonians know how to accessorize. Kirk at one point says the Platonians original planet “novaed” – I’m not a scientist, but I think only suns can do that. I’m not a grammarian either, but I don’t think nova can be used as a verb.
Anyone else think Kirk let Parmen and gang off a little easy? No Talos IV treatment for them?
For all you masochists out there, you can hear Leonard Nimoy sing the full version of his self-penned song “Maiden Wine” on the LP “The Touch of Leonard Nimoy” (DOT, 1969). “Bitter dregs” indeed. (Just kidding!)
[Anthony’s Note: Check out MaidenWine.com]
“Plato’s Stepchildren” is among the worst episodes of the series, with little character development, even less message, and one of the worst singing performances ever (only joking!).
He recorded 5 albums. FIVE!