Monday, November 17, 2014

TOS Rewind #67: "Whom Gods Destroy"

Today we take a look at: Whom Gods Destroy (1/3/1969)

Our podcast, full of amazing insights as always, is here:

As I mentioned to Eric and Rob while we were recording, I appreciated this one slightly more this time around than I did when I watched these on TV growing up. I remember feeling a basic "meh" when I discovered this episode was next on the local TV station's seemingly random rotation. As the years went by, the station showed Trek more or less on either production or original airdate order but in the early years of syndication they weren't so organized. Who knows, maybe they were still running 16MM film prints (yes, they used to do this and yes I am old) of this series and whatever Viacom mailed them is what they had to put on the air. Truly a mystery for the ages. I do distinctly remember a jump in picture quality at some point where I assume there was a changeover from those old prints to video copies more closely transferred from the original materials. The 16mm prints were heavily duplicated and were printed on film stock that tended to fade severely. I've seem some of these that are quite pink today. We do have it good today where what we can cue up on Netflix or Blu-Ray far surpasses what was ever seen in the 1960s on television.

The story for this episode is fairly ridiculous and there are plenty of opportunities to poke holes. The idea that this miracle drug the Enterprise is carrying will "cure all mental illness" is a convenient, if laughable way to establish some high stakes. But these stakes are never really mentioned again other than the drug being there to cure Garth. The story also seems somewhat padded out; there are stretches where nothing much happens other than some of the characters acting "crazy".While I enjoyed watching Steve Ihnat chew the scenery is amusing and Shatner has to mostly sit there and take it. What was disappointing about the Garth character is the lack of background. We get a couple of details about his past as a fleet captain but not enough of the dots are connected between his "glorious" past and his current madness. Unfortunately a flaw of the teleplay. The character of Marta, while having no real background at all is at least a somewhat interesting character. As female characters go, she's pretty awful but at least she has something to do and is a little bit unpredictable in her batshit crazy ways. Yvonne Craig plays well with what she's given and sells the performance. Again, this is all relative but this part could have been far worse. The rest of the "patients" at the Trek equivalent of a super-max asylum are complete non-entities. We really have no idea why they're locked up other than to be used as henchmen for Garth and become fellow "Masters of the Universe".

It's said that Nimoy had misgivings about this episode and he was right to. Spock, while having a few good zinger lines of dialogue, acts uncharacteristically dense when the showdown between Garth and Kirk occurs. In the end, I have to chalk up with episode as another lost opportunity. The show could have made some sort of statement about mental illness, our treatment of it, and perhaps even the pressures of a starfleet captain like Kirk and Garth. That may sound like a tall order but Trek has often been at its best when it has something to say. That something unfortunately didn't make the final draft.


And now Eric gets his shot:

With “Whom Gods Destroy,” we are two thirds of the way through the third and final season of original Star Trek. And while this episode isn't awful, there is a pall over it from a great opportunity lost.

The plot, that Kirk and Spock get trapped in an insane asylum (Elba II in this case), is a blatant rip-off of “Dagger of the Mind” from the first season, right down to reusing the prop chair with the whirly lights. But in spite of this, I found an interesting question that the episode brings up: What is the psychological toll of being in command? The question is raised by the fact that the former Fleet Captain of Starfleet, Garth of Izar, is one of the few incurably insane inmates of Elba II. (The Fleet Captain, by the way, is in charge of the entire fleet and is equivalent to the rank of Admiral.) As Garth notes in the episode, being Fleet Captain was a weighty responsibility, and he was one of the first starship commanders before that. In fact, as was also noted, he was so exceptional as a starship captain that he became the model for all of those who came after. It is reasonable to assume, then, that his stress load was quite high, enough that some kind of psychotic break would be within the realm of possibility.

Unfortunately, the writers and producers chose to attribute Garth's breakdown to being taught by the inhabitants of Antos to heal an injury through “cellular metamorphosis.” This isn't an absurd proposition, but the episode would be much more interesting and resonant (and believable) if Garth's insanity was caused by a mental weakness. If this were the case, how would it affect Kirk? He clearly admires Garth, so how would he react upon learning that his hero is just as flawed and susceptible to breakdowns as anyone else? Wouldn't Kirk then start to question his own stability? We could have had a really engaging look at how command is psychologically demanding and perhaps damaging, and it would have been a great opportunity for developing Kirk's character. Alas, it was not to be.So, while “Whom Gods Destroy” is not among the worst episodes of original Trek, I do regret that its potential was wasted.

Next time: “Let That be Your Last Battlefield”

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