Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”

How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth
Written by Russell Bates and David Wise
Directed by Bill Reed

Season 2, Episode 5
Production episode: 22022
Original air date:  October 5, 1974
Star date: 6063.4

Mission summary

In an ominous beginning, a mysterious space probe takes a scan of Earth’s system and then self-destructs. The Enterprise’s mission is to trace the imploded propulsion system’s destructive matter trail to its origin and find out where it came from and who sent it.

They don’t make it very far before they find a huge “crystalline ceramic” ship twice the size of the Enterprise. It’s pretty far away but they can’t get any closer for inspection–some kind of “globular force field,” firm yet flexible, has entrapped them. As the offending ship becomes more visible they realize it looks like a giant winged snake. Needless to say, it’s not anyone the Federation has had contact with before.

Luckily, this week’s minority helmsmen is Walking Bear, not Sulu, and he recognizes the ship’s design immediately: it looks kind of like the winged serpent Kukulkan.

The alien ship responds excitedly at the recognition.

KUKULKAN: I was angered because I believed you had forgotten me. But one in your midst knows my name. You will be given one chance to succeed where your ancestors failed. Fail me again and all of your kind shall perish.
KIRK: Mister Walking Bear, how do you know who’s aboard that ship?
WALKING BEAR: I am a Comanche, Captain. I’ve studied the histories of many ancient Earth peoples, especially my own. That ship out there bears a strong resemblance to a god in Mayan and Aztec legends, Kukulkan.


To prove a point, Kukulkan makes McCoy, Scotty, Walking Bear, and Kirk vanish. They reappear in a South American jungle-city, complete with obelisks and a ziggurat at the center. They must be somewhere inside the other ship, but it makes a convincing illusion nonetheless. Now’s Walking Bear’s chance to explain:

WALKING BEAR: Before he left, Kukulkan gave the Mayas a remarkably accurate calendar. He told them to build a city according to its cycles. On the date the city was finished, Kukulkan was supposed to return. The Mayas built their city and waited. Kukulkan never appeared.
KIRK: Kukulkan must have visited several ancient peoples on Earth. But each one used only parts of his knowledge to build their cultures.
MCCOY: Does that mean they all tried to build something like this?
WALKING BEAR: Yes, sir. But they all failed.
KIRK: If no one on Earth built this city exactly right, then that’s why Kukulkan never came back. The entire city is our key.
WALKING BEAR: Kukulkan said he would appear only when we learned its purpose.
KIRK: Then there has to be some sort of signaling device here.

Thank goodness our heroes can figure out what generations upon generations of cultures from vastly different swaths of the globe cannot! They immediately discover that the heads of the serpent figures at each corner can be swiveled to point to the top of the pyramid. Now the sun’s rays are redirected to a single point at the top of the structure, sending out a huge beam, like a galactic lighthouse. Ta-da!

After centuries of extremely disappointing worshipers, Kukulkan’s finally gotten the kind of crushable underlings he can rely on. He reveals himself to Kirk, problem solver of the galaxy, in all his winged serpent glory. Then he demands their obedience:

KUKULKAN: I am your master. I may do with you as I will.
MCCOY: Do you think we belong to you?
KIRK: Bones, Scotty, quiet.
KUKULKAN: It is as I thought. You have forgotten me and strayed from the path I set for you.
KIRK: You say that we forgot you. How can you expect us to regard you as a deity if we don’t remember you?
KUKULKAN: If you do not know me, then it is my task to teach you.

Oh, brother. Now they’re all transported to some kind of space zoo–perhaps even a menagerie–with each creature trapped in a tiny cage, but deluded by some kind of virtual reality setup into believing its in its natural environment. When Kirk gives Kooky the smack-down on the prime directive and messing with other species’ cultures, the god plays the pity card:

KUKULKAN: I have been alone all my life. Destruction fell on my race before your kind had discovered fire. Creatures like these have been my only companions. I have seen you on many worlds. Savage, war-like, filled with self-hate, destroying yourselves in the end. At last I decided to help. As an experiment, I visited your Earth and tried to teach peaceful ways. I left, intending to return when I was summoned, but you never sent for me. Finally, I sent a probe. And what did I find? Warriors.

Uh, okay? Very interesting. Yes. Anyway! There’s a Capellan power-cat in a cage! That’s kind of cool, right? Yeah, let’s focus on that: so this cat is untamable, hates captivity, and releases serious voltage when confined. But he’s drugged to the gills or something and purring happily in his cage. Kooky explains that he captured the cat when it was just a kitten, and coddled it to accept slavery, just as he had hoped the Earthicans would. When Kirk bristles, Kooky declares that they have ruined his “dream” and he’ll have to teach them a lesson.

Meanwhile, Spock has figured out that the forcefield holding the Enterprise is only flexible so far. If they try to push on opposite directions, though, it should be rigid enough to burst through. And sure enough it works! The Enterprise slingshots out of the bubble, infuriating Kooky. Kirk and McCoy figure out what’s going on and decide to throw a little chaos into the mix and give Spock more time to get the ship to safety. They pull the plugs on whatever’s doping up the power-cat, and in short order the electric kitty is rampaging around the zoo, breaking cages everywhere. Kooky freaks out in a panic and McCoy whips up a sedative. The Enterprise starts firing on Kooky’s ship, disabling his central power core, and so Kirk uses the hypo sedative on the power-cat, taking a nice jolt of electricity in the process. The cat, subdued, grooms itself peacefully.

This show of wacky hijinks has at least gotten Kooky’s attention.

KIRK: You think of us as being small creatures like this one. Are we really that inferior to you?
KUKULKAN: No. But the violence of your kind surpasses even that of the power-cat.
MCCOY: We’d be fools if we didn’t know that. But we also have been using our minds and trying to learn to live in peace.
KIRK: Because we have minds, we can’t be what you wanted us to be. If we fail or succeed, it has to be our own doing. Intelligent life is too precious a thing to be led by the nose.
KUKULKAN: But you are my children. I hoped I could teach you, help you.
KIRK: You did, long ago, when it was needed most. Our people were children then. Kukulkan, we’ve grown up now. We don’t need you anymore.
KUKULKAN: I will let you go your own way. I have already done what I can.

And now everything is back to normal. On the bridge, Kirk and Spock summarize the various historical gods that Kulkukan was–Kukulkan, Quetzalcoatl, the Chinese dragon (yeah… that one?), etc. They’re happy to leave but for a pang of regret:

KIRK: It’s sad. Think what we could have done with his knowledge. But the price was just too high.
MCCOY: I think I know how he felt, Jim. There’s a line from Shakespeare.
KIRK: Yes, Bones, I remember it. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.


This won a Best Children’s Programming Emmy? What was it up against, Clockwork Orange?

Maybe it’s just hitting my already-at-max-capacity tolerance for bullshit, but this episode managed to include just about every Star Trek trope I’ve come to loathe: all-powerful alien space douches, ancient gods turning out to be aliens, super advanced races collecting pets for their zoo, human beings compared to children who need to make mistakes to learn from them, teching the tech to get the ship out of danger, the crew figuring out in seconds what centuries of stupid normal people never could, etc. These aren’t just dead horses, they’re zombie horses, forced to walk the television screen again and again. Why won’t some poor writer do the compassionate thing and lay them to rest forever?

And speaking of poor writers, there should be a special place in hell for people who not only shoehorn in Shakespeare with such hamfisted sloppiness, but do so in pursuit of a pun. That last exchange between Kirk and McCoy was, I think, a new dialogue low.

There’s absolutely nothing redeemable here. I have racked my brain and cannot come up with a single positive thing to say. It’s not atrociously bad, I guess–the offensiveness quotient is actually surprisingly low, and there’s nothing morally repugnant to bring it to the level of, say, “Plato’s Stepchildren”–but I just don’t understand why I’m supposed to be interested in anything that’s happening. If Kukulkan really came to Earth just to drop some puzzles and then is sad that no one figured them out, well, so? That’s possibly the least compelling reason for alien visitation that the show’s ever broached before.

Kukulkan himself acts like a psychotic, ranting and raving and demanding absolute devotion. Even Apollo in “Who Mourns for Adonais?” had a more nuanced characterization, and his loss at no longer having worshipers seemed a little more meaningful. I had no sympathy for the great serpent god, not even in the end. I wasn’t even sorry he was lonely. Who’d want to hang out with that jerk?

Ugh. And that’s all I’ve got. I guess I could mention that the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, especially the snake sculpture that winds down the steps and creates that mesmerizing slithery shadow, is pretty badass. Very, very cool.

There, some filler. It’s like I’m learning from these guys every week!

Torie’s Rating: Impulse Power (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: All right, that does it. I’m done.

I pretty much stopped caring about this episode seven minutes into  it, when the plot did a 180 from a riveting faceoff against the unknown to the same tired old CRAP that show writers have been peddling since season 2 of the original series. The gods are real! They visited Earth long ago! Worship them! Oh, please. How is it all these aliens didn’t run into each other?

I loved the first seven minutes of this episode. The probe approaching Earth and sending a signal into outer space was so ominous. It reminded me of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, only in this case, instead of whales the probe is looking for Mayans. Fortunately good old Ensign Walking Bear is conveniently on duty to appease the angry god Kukulkan. Yeah, okay, whatever.

It was a great setup, with the Enterprise trapped in that bubble, powerless against a strange enemy ship. I was really curious how they were going to get out of that mess, but then it went so very wrong. Here’s another lonely god who was only trying to help out–basically an overprotective parent punishing his children for forgetting to send Father’s Day cards for the last 800 years. On top of that, for some reason he’s keeping a menagerie of bizarre alien animals (gee, we’ve never seen that before!), which are plugged into the Matrix, and he tests the Enterprise crew with a puzzle that Kirk manages to solve in a matter of minutes, though it has stumped entire civilizations of really smart people for centuries. He’s probably good with Rubik’s Cubes, too. I guess no one ever thought to climb that pyramid, huh? I don’t blame them, there were a lot of stairs. For good measure, Kirk stops a rampaging Pokémon reject and talks sense into the whiney snake god. All in a day’s work for Captain Awesome.

Why did Kukulkan  select those particular crew members anyway? They didn’t exactly have anything in common, other than their gender and the fact that they’re the main cast, plus Walking Bear, who didn’t even get the honor of figuring the puzzle out for himself. No wonder he always looks so sad.

I liked the idea of an alien who has a ship that looks like him, kind of like the Shadows on Babylon 5–though of course I don’t know why a flying serpent god would need a starship. And I believe this is the first time we see the tractor beam in the series; it’s been used before, but never with an accompanying visual effect. There were also three wonderful lines in this miserable script, but they don’t make up for the clumsy dialogue explaining the oh so clever Shakespearean quote from which the episode title was derived. It’s almost as if the writers took that line and worked their way backward, throwing in plot ideas from various episodes to try to fill 22 minutes.

Too bad there was no one on the production team to say, “Hey guys, we’ve done that story before. A lot.”

As Kukulkan might say, Hissss!

Only one more episode to go. Thank the gods.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 1

Best Line: MCCOY: Just once, I wish he’d let us use the stairs.

Trivia: This is the episode that was submitted to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and won Star Trek‘s only Emmy (for Best Children’s Programming).

You can apparently see tribbles and a Horta among the animals in the zoo (though I didn’t see them).

I did, however, notice a cell in which Uhura was painted white. Yikes.

William Shatner recorded his lines separately from everyone else, which partly explains his butchered pronunciation of “Kukulkan.”

The line about Vulcans having been visited by aliens who “left the wiser” was an intended jab at humans.

Other notes: This script is mainly D.C. Fontana’s fault. Russell Bates had written a script about parasites, but Fontana was more interested in something that took advantage of his full-blood Kiowa Native American background. David Wise was added because of his TV experience and encouraged Bates to drop the parasites angle and just go with what Fontana asked for. The only thing to survive the original script was Dawson Walking Bear.

It was intended in part as an homage to Bates’ good friend Gene L. Coon, who had written “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and who had died recently.

As a Kiowa, Bates wanted to write about Plains Indians (hence Walking Bear being a Comanche), but since American audiences can’t be counted on for subtlety, they decided to drop the original story of the Plains Thunderbird and go with a more well-known Native American deity, the winged dragon. The options were Varicocha, Quetzalcoatl, and Kukulkan. They wound up choosing the last because the hard “K” sound reflected the Kiowa, and the Kiowa were loosely related to the Mayans.

The remark that Kukulkan was also Egyptian and Chinese was an attempt to combat skepticism about “savages” in Mesoamerica crafting such advanced cities. Bates:  “So, the story about Kukulkan became that Kukulkan visited all races of mankind, taught them his knowledge, and then departed. Now the story said that nobody on Earth invented a damned thing! They all got their knowledge from somebody else!”

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 4 – “Albatross.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 6 – “The Counter-Clock Incident.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.