Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TOS Rewind #71: The Lights of Zetar

Today, let's take a look at The Lights of Zetar (1/31/1969)

Here's the podcast:

Eric gets the first crack at this one:

The term, “mehpisode,” which I coined in my last review, fortunately doesn't apply to “The Lights of Zetar.” It definitely has some problems, such as Scotty's patronizing sexism, but the basic idea behind the episode is decent science fiction, and the story is reasonably well told.

The theme of aliens inhabiting and/or taking over a human's body is hardly new. (You don't have to go any farther than “Return to Tomorrow in the second season.) But the idea was presented in an interesting, if unnerving, way in “The Lights of Zetar.” When I was much younger, I was disturbed by how the Zetarians use Mira Romaine to communicate, and the way the woman on Memory Alpha dies is still a bit unsettling. One aspect of this episode that is not disturbing, however, is that the tension mounts in a measured way that doesn't seem contrived. And the idea of Memory Alpha is really cool, so the drama connected with it being destroyed is genuine. It reminds me of the ancient Library of Alexandria that was burned in the first century BC.

But now we come to the problems. First, it is established early on that Mira Romaine is being ferried to Memory Alpha, so why do they act like she's a permanent crew member. Is it a big deal that she has trouble adjusting to deep space starship duty? She won't be doing it for long. Further, at the end of the episode, the Zetarians are driven out by pressure. No basis for this is offered. Some sort of scientific explanation is badly needed, even if it's pseudo-science or techno-babble. Finally, the worst part of this episode is the way Scotty behaves.

Don't get me wrong, Scotty is one of my favorite characters, but they have him acting wildly out of character in this episode. To begin with, he is shown fawning over Mira Romaine in Sickbay when he should've been in Engineering. Seriously?! One thing that was crystal clear in the original series is that Scotty would never abandon his post in Engineering, especially in an emergency. It is a gross bastardization to suggest otherwise. But what is much worse is that the writers and producers portray him acting like a condescending, sexist douchebag to Romaine. In the other episode where he is smitten (“Who Mourns for Adonais”), he is overly protective of Lt. Palamas, but he is also respectful. When watching “The Lights of Zetar,” however, it's hard to imagine any woman putting up with the demeaning sexism Scotty shows Mira Romaine, cooing at her like a child and dismissing her concerns without taking her seriously. But she does accept this treatment without complaint, which just ratchets up the glaring misogyny. And the fact that it's a show from the 1960s is no excuse.

So the overt and offensive sexism is a serious black mark on this episode, but the strength of the story and the way it's told are better than many third season installments. As I've mentioned in other reviews, this smacks of damning with faint praise.


Today's episode actually has a decent idea or two behind it. The concept of a group of aliens who have been reduced to energy beings is a solid science fiction story foundation. Unfortunately the concept isn't really, ahem, fleshed out nearly enough to make the idea really compelling as a science fiction story. The details behind the Zetar beings are mostly left out until some rushed explanation near the end of the episode. The episode already used its budget to depict the aliens, why not devote some of the running time to exploring what the Zetarians are about? Well, they had to make space for the awful Scotty/Romaine romance!

Okay, look,  I love the Scotty character, as I've said before. More Scotty isn't usually a bad thing. However, in this episode, I wanted his scenes all left on the cutting room floor. I would be the last to deny Scotty some character development in the form of a relationship with someone who's not the Enterprise engines, but this goes so far overboard that we never want more Scotty scenes. And that's a shame. Scotty was overdue to get some romance, but not at the expense of his integrity as a character. It all goes back to the old problem of Third Season character writing. Spock shouldn't be played like a total asshole and Scotty shouldn't be a pandering,  unprofessional, love-sick schoolboy.  The Mira Romaine character is fine, really. She's obviously a professional who has her own life and all that but the way she's treated by everyone on the Enterprise is so sexist. It's as if we have to rely on Scotty's feelings for her to take her seriously as a person in the episode. There's the Enterprise patriarchy for you. 

As I said before, the basic idea here is good but isn't developed well enough. This isn't helped by the way the the main characters, until they happen to think of throwing Romaine into a pressure chamber, seem so ineffectual. Because so little is explained, this becomes another episode where Kirk and the rest are just along for the ride, waiting for things to be revealed. We the audience are often a step ahead of the main characters. It's back to the problem of the story following some sort of rules. Another thing that bothered me is that the aliens story didn't seem to know whether it was trying to be science fiction or a ghost story in space. The way that the half-baked "premonition" scenes were done makes us think this is being done by spooky ghosts. Which is it? It's fine to have horror movie-style atmosphere and other elements in science fiction--that can be very effective--but the writer just didn't seem to want to figure out what this one was all about, which is also a shame. Some of the scenes with the Zetarians and the aftermath of their attacks are well done while creating suspense. Plus, the idea of Memory Alpha, the galaxy's great library, is pretty cool. Maybe they should rethink the whole "no-defenses" thing. Heck, even the smallest town library in America has a lock on its front door. 

In the end, they had all the components of an at least good episode of Star Trek. The show runners just couldn't be bothered to make the effort to give it to us. And that's a cryin' shame.

Next time: “Requiem for Methuselah”

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