Monday, July 8, 2013

TOS Rewind #56: "The Paradise Syndrome"

Today we get down with The Paradise Syndrome (10/04/1968)

The podcast for this episode is right here:

Eric starts us out:

"The Paradise Syndrome" is an interesting episode. Not because it's particularly good--it's just average--but rather because of Kirk's interaction with the "primitive" civilization on the planet.

We discuss many of the reasons to criticize this episode in our podcast, but as I've given it more thought, what annoys me most is the way Kirk interacts with the indigenous tribe to which he comes to be regarded as a god. The environment on the planet is described as idyllic, a paradise like Shangri-La, and Kirk praises the tribal elder for the prosperity of their fields and the happiness of their people. Why, then, does Kurok (Kirk's memory blurred god name) feel the need to fuck with it?

He introduces new ways to preserve food, makes an oil lantern, and describes plans to build a canal. In short, he raises their level of technology and is clearly intent on raising it much further. Again, why? The tribe is productive, healthy, and content. Why mess with that? The answer that is implied is that increased technology is necessarily good. Kurok is helping these people. We need look no farther than our own, bloody history, however, to see how the meeting between Native Americans and more advanced technology was anything but helpful to them. And while we've gained many comforts, conveniences, and benefits, thanks to our level of technology, it has also forced us to sacrifice a great deal and put ourselves in danger in many ways: overpopulation, environmental destruction, weapons of mass destruction, new and lethal pathogens, compromised food and water supply, pandemic poor physical health, unremitting stress, and disconnection from the natural world to name a few.

There can be no doubt that this is a complex issue, and I acknowledge that it is unrealistic to expect any one-hour TV drama to do more than scratch the surface. What bothers me is that the idea that technological advancement is good is presented in "The Paradise Syndrome" as axiomatic. Nitpicky? Perhaps, but to paraphrase an old saying, the devil is in the subtext.

We're all Kirok!!!!!!

As I remarked on the podcast, I have long had a special loathing for this episode. I don't really ever remember liking it that well and remember groaning when I would happen upon this episode on TV. Just as some of the series has gotten worse with age, could this one have gotten, better?

Let's break it down a bit. First, the good:

The fundamental idea for this episode is actually pretty solid. The story of an ancient advanced race of space-faring people saving/moving humanoids around the galaxy to explain all those very similar-looking people gets more fleshed out here. Of course, this idea is a very convenient way of avoiding expensive costumes and makeup but at least there is some thought behind it.

The subplot with Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew trying to stop the asteroid has some good character moments between Spock and McCoy. Naturally the long period of time it takes for this part of the storyline to unfold allows events back on the planet with Kirk to proceed, but the writers had to do something to keep the gang busy.

The episode does not look at all cheap. The decision to shoot on location, even if it's in L.A. at Andy Griffith's fishing hole, gives the show a richness it often lacks when they're depicting scenes off the ship. The shots outdoors look cinematic; HD really makes these scenes look good, thanks to the show's use of 35mm film. Also, the set and props of the alien obelisk look great. The exterior of the obelisk was not used anywhere else in the series and looks impressive. The American Indian costumes, no doubt borrowed from Paramount's collection, also look good. Funny enough, this may be one of the best-looking episodes of the third season.

For the first time in a while, I noticed that the musical score is mostly new for this episode. The show reused music cues throughout much of the second season so it's nice to hear something different, even if the score relies a bit too much on musical cliches to depict the idyllic life of the tribe.

The not-so-good.

The portrayal of American Indians is perhaps, by the standards of the time, average, but by modern standards:  not so great. Eric pointed out many problems with the attitudes about the "backwards" ways of the people on the planet. The one dodge they could perhaps come up with is that Kirk has lost his memory and doesn't realize he's violating the Prime Directive. The way the show slants things however is that everything Kirk introduces to "improve" the tribe's way of life is a net good. Unlike other episodes where there is meddling with other cultures, we don't really see the downside of what Kirk does. Sure, the asteroid is deflected, but one comes away from the episode wondering what damage was done to the tribe.  Other than Salish losing his girlfriend, that is.

Speaking of Miramanee, she bugged me. I think the person playing her was fine but the Miramanee character was written purely as the "dumb pretty American Indian girl" as the love interest for Kirk's visit to paradise. Ahem. I think they could done a lot more with this character. I also found it harder to empathize with her after the way she dumps Salish, her previous lover. Miramanee seems to have few feelings about the matter and just shrugs as she takes up with Kirk, who, even with his brain zapped, is a smooth operator.

Shatner. Now, depending on your point of view, the performance of Shatner in this episode could go in the plus or minus column. If you're not a fan of Bill's style of acting then you're really not going to like it here. There are moments that are relatively restrained (Miramanee's death scene) but other times Shatner goes pretty far over the top; the dramatic scene near the end where Kirk yells into the wind as well as the earlier bits where Kirk is doing this reverb-filled voiceover (sounds like his "musical" ventures sometimes!). Which can be entertaining, again depending on your liking of Shatner. As for me, the Shatner scenery chewing used to bug me a LOT but I now appreciate it for what it is; you have to embrace the performance somewhat to really appreciate the character of Kirk or for that matter, the spirit of the original series. I think that for many years I allowed the camp of these scenes to obscure anything positive about this episode. Yes, the episode is middling and has problems, but I've definitely upgraded it in retrospect.

The new effects make this episode look even better. The asteroid and the phaser effects are well done. This is one of those episodes where I would not want to go back to the old shots.

Next time: "And the Children Shall Lead" (God help us)

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