Thursday, May 1, 2014

TOS Rewind #63: "Plato's Stepchildren"

Today we tackle Plato's Stepchildren (11/22/1968)

Our podcast is here:

Unlike our previous episode, this was never one I enjoyed much as a kid. I think I can appreciate the episode's virtues slightly more today. Maybe.

I have to wonder what Shatner and Nimoy thought when they read this script. "You mean, I have to crawl around and act like a HORSE?!" All in a day's work I guess.

We find ourselves back in another story about power corrupting: and man, how these people are corrupt! The acting is often bad this time around and Parmen just doesn't impress as a villain. The constant humiliation that Kirk and Spock (particularly Spock) have to endure has a point, as far as it goes, but the payoff just isn't there at the end. Parmen turns out to be a coward when faced with Kirk gaining the telekinetic powers and just weasels his way out of the situation. There's some twisted (for 1968) things the characters have to do and we get the message loud and clear that the Platonians are a bunch of twisted assholes and have been that way forever. The problem is that the situation just doesn't make for a compelling episode of Star Trek, even if you put aside the costumes and the "horseplay." It seems hard to believe that no one in Starfleet wanted to come back here and do something with this powerful substance but it's probably best that the Platonians be largely forgotten going forward for the sake of the viewers at least.

Michael Dunn, as Alexander, partially redeems the episode. Dunn delivers a dramatic performance and is quiet convincing, especially when Kirk offers Alexander the power to overthrow Parmen. The exchanges between Kirk and Alexander seem genuine and have just a bit of the spirit of Trek. The idealism that living in the world of the Federation means not having to put up with people like the Platonian pricks. Well at least that's the idea. These good scenes are almost undone however by Kirk's line at the end of the episode, "I have a little surprise for you." Ouch. I remember Dunn from the 1965 film, Ship of Fools where he managed to stand out with another cast of scenery-chewers.

Also memorable is Spock's "Bitter Dregs" song (yes!). Just be glad Shatner didn't sing it. The kiss, though forced by the Platonians, is important for TV history and Nichelle Nichols plays the scene well.

There are too many ridiculous elements to list here, and perhaps it was best for the writers not to even try to explain much of what happens in this episode. There's one scene where Kirk calls the Enterprise and Scotty just says that things are "stuck." They could have at least tried to make some bogus techno-babble beyond "the ship is broken, Captain".

The enhanced effects were fine but since much of the episode happens on the planet, there wasn't much to see.


Eric's take:

To be fair, there aren't many original Trek episodes that would've been a satisfying follow-up to "The Tholian Web," and I don't think any of them come from the third season. That said, I found on rewatching "Plato's Stepchildren" that it is not as ridiculous as I remembered. Our podcast covered the episode well, but there are three points that bear repeating.

First, the premise of the story is interesting, that a spacefaring jet set (space set?) visits Earth during the time of Classical Greece and happens upon Plato. They dig his ideas, and the colony they set up after they leave Earth is modeled on Plato's Republic. As it turns out, however, their republic is conspicuously perverted, which forms an intriguing basis for the episode.

Next, the scenes where Kirk and Spock are forced to debase themselves (e.g. the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum song and dance duet) are cringe-worthy. I still find them rather painful to watch, but it occurred to me that that is the purpose of those scenes. Parmen's stated intention is to humiliate Kirk and Spock, so it follows logically that they are made to act in humiliating ways. And our reaction (disgust, embarassment, etc.) is exactly the kind of reaction that is supposed to be evoked.

Finally, it could easily be argued that the late Michael Dunn, who played Alexander, steals the show. (He outdoes Shatner in scenery chewing, and that's saying something.) When I've thought about this episode over the years, it is Alexander who I remember. Dunn's performance is superb, utterly convincing and at the same time endearing. He was a noted character actor who also played, to great effect, Dr. Miguelito Loveless in The Wild Wild West, a Spy/Western TV series that ran concurrently with original Star Trek. Sadly, Dun passed away in 1973 at the much too young age of 38.

So there we have it. Although it remains among the less-notable episodes, upon reconsideration, "Plato's Stepchildren" is not as ridiculously campy as it seems.

Next time: "Wink of an Eye"

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