Star Trek Re-Watch: “Plato’s Stepchildren”

Plato’s Stepchildren
Written by Meyer Dolinsky
Directed by David Alexander

Season 3, Episode 10
Production episode: 3×12
Original air date: November 22, 1968
Star date: 5784.2

Mission summary

In response to some distress signals, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to the surface of an unknown planet. They’ve beamed right into a hall of some kind, adorned with Greek columns and statues. Contrary to the sensor readings, the building seems to indeed be inhabited–by some horrible monster! An intimidating shadow greets them, but ominous music cues aside it’s really just a lighting trick and it turns out to be Alexander, a chipper and talkative dwarf.

KIRK: Who are the inhabitants of this planet?
ALEXANDER: Oh, Platonians. I’m sure you’ve never heard of us. Our native star is Sahndara. Millennia ago, just before it went nova, we managed to escape. Our leader liked Plato’s ideas Plato, Platonius. See? In fact, our present philosopher-king, Parmen, sometimes calls us Plato’s children, although we sometimes think of ourselves more as Plato’s stepchildren.

Now that the premise, background, and title are explained, you don’t even need to see the episode!

No really. Don’t. Please don’t. As if recalled by an invisibile yo-yo, Alexander is dragged to another room where Parmen, the leader, reclines on a couch with his wife Philana. Parmen is in a great deal of pain and a massive infection has overwhelmed his system. He says it was just a flesh wound a minor cut and McCoy can’t understand how it got so out of control. The doctor offers a hypospray, but the hypo flies out of his medipouch and Parmen administers it himself–with his mind.


Meanwhile, two men in tunics play psychokinetic chess. Well, semi-psychokinetic–poor Alexander has to move half the pieces himself. After the game, Alexander turns quietly to Philana and whispers: “They came to help. They deserve better than to die.”


McCoy tries some educated guesswork to concoct a cure for Parmen while Philana explains the history of their people. When their planet went nova (who knew planets could do that?) millenia ago, the Platonians transported to Earth and settled in with the ancient Greeks. With the death of the Greek civilization (death? You’d think a comet struck it!), they left Earth (somehow…) and founded their own planet in the image of Plato’s Republic (sort of?).  A eugenics program left only 38 remaining people “bred for contemplation and self-reliance. And longevity.” Philana herself is 2300 years old. Because their psychokinetic powers mean they “scarcely have to move anymore, let alone work,” they don’t have resistances to–well, anything. Their sleek physiques seem to belie this assertion, but let’s just go with it. Their lack of resistances is how a simple cut is jeopardizing Parmen’s life..

Unfortunately, these powers are subconscious and only mostly controllable. In Parmen’s pain-wracked delerium, invisible hands throw furniture and choke Alexander while invisible turbulence rattles the Enterprise. McCoy shakes Parmen and is barely able to get him to pass out before strangling Alexander. Because that’s what professionals do.

McCoy wants to wait for the fever to break, so Alexander escorts Kirk and Spock to another wing of the complex. Alexander is fascinated by the outsiders, and Kirk is rather curious himself:

KIRK: Where is everyone?
ALEXANDER: They’re all in chambers, meditating.
KIRK: Alexander, are there other Platonians like you?
ALEXANDER: What do you mean, like me?
KIRK: Who don’t have the psychokinetic ability.
ALEXANDER: I thought you were talking about my size, because they make fun of me for my size. But, to answer your question, I’m the only one without it. I was brought here as the court buffoon. That’s why I’m everybody’s slave and I have to be ten places at once, and I never do anything right.
SPOCK: How does one obtain the power?

What power? The power of voodoo! Who do? You–Er. Anyway. Alexander explains that everyone else had these powers pretty much as soon as they were born. He hates it here as the “court buffoon” and becomes enthralled with Kirk’s description of the Federation as an equal opportunity kind of place. But he’s called away just as McCoy enters, grinning. Parmen’s fever has broken and he’s going to be just fine.

Kirk takes the opening to hail Scotty and ask to get far away from this place. But the Enterprise’s transporters aren’t working and they can’t communicate with Starfleet. Furious, Kirk storms into Parmen’s hall once again and demands that his ship be released. (I should note that at this point Alexander is playing a lyre, yet singing a song about “Pan’s horn.” Just… what? Lyre? Panpipes? Horn? AUGH.) Parmen, visibly insulted by the accusation (but not denying it), decides to teach Kirk a lesson about respect: he uses his psychokinetic powers to whip away Kirk’s phaser, and then forces Kirk to continually slap himself. He then mocks, “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!” Well, okay, he doesn’t, but he might as well.

In the guest room later, after suffering through the beating of his life, Kirk cannot hail the Enterprise anymore:

SPOCK: Parmen wouldn’t have treated you so brutally if he had any intention of releasing you or the Enterprise.

So we don’t get to figure ANYTHING out on this episode? *harumph*

Then the invisible yo-yo strikes again, first with McCoy, and then with Kirk and Spock, forcing them to return to the main hall. Parmen and Philana have taken a softer tone. Philana expresses gratitude for the doctor saving her husband’s life, and offers each of the men a gift. For Kirk, the shield of Pericles; for Spock, a kithara; and for McCoy, Hipprocrates’ collection of ancient Greek cures. Kirk thanks them for the gifts but wants to know if the Enterprise is free yet. Dodging the question, Parmen asks forgiveness for his earlier behavior, which he calls the result of his illness-induced “disturbed” state. Kirk agrees but again asks after the ship, and finally Parmen cuts to the chase: he wants to keep McCoy. Forever.

McCoy’s not interested, but Parmen’s kind of pushy–he forces McCoy to his side and decies to “persuade” the good doctor: by torturing his friends. And us. Mostly us.

Kirk and Spock are forced to put on laurel wreaths and dance around while singing:

KIRK: I’m Tweedledee, he’s Tweedledum.
SPOCK: Two spacemen marching to a drum.
KIRK & SPOCK: We slith among the mimsey toves, and gyre among the borogoves.

Kirk tells McCoy not to give in, no matter what they do to Kirk. So they torture him some more–this time with straightforward pain, and then by having Spock flamenco around him until he seems about to crush the captain’s face with his boot. Spock backs off and begins laughing hysterically. But once Kirk mentions that Vulcans can’t handle emotion (NICE GOING, KIRK), Spock begins sobbing uncontrollably.

Alexander protests: “Parmen, they saved your life. I’m ashamed to be a Platonian. Ashamed!” But that just pisses off the philosopher king even more, and Parmen forces Alexander to mount Kirk and “ride” him like a horse, all while Shatner makes horsie noises.

I don’t even… I just… wow. Then Parmen asks the question we are all asking at this point: “How can you let this go on?”

Later in the guest room, Spock is on the brink of madness trying to rein in his hatred and emotion. McCoy offers to stay and end this whole thing, but Kirk knows Parmen would never let them escape because Starfleet would retaliate. Meanwhile Alexander is wracked by guilt:

ALEXANDER: I should have warned you. They were treating you the same way they treat me. Just like me, only you fight them. All the time, I thought it was me, my mind that couldn’t move a pebble. They even told I was lucky they bothered keep me around at all, and I believed them. The arms and legs of everybody’s whim. Look down, don’t meet their eyes. Smile. Smile. These great people, they were gods to me. But you showed me what they really are. And now I know, don’t you see. It’s not me, it’s not my size, it’s them! It’s them! It’s them!

He starts to freak out a little bit but Kirk tells him not to throw his own life away–thus earning Alexander’s admiration forever, because “that’s the first time anybody ever thought of my life before his own.” Awww.

But back to work: they discover that the Platonians gained their power about six months after arriving on the planet, and about three months after running out of supplies. So the source of their power must have been something native to the planet, like food. McCoy senses something could be to that, and takes a blood reading from Alexander to compare to Parmen’s. It looks like Parmen has high doses of kironide in his system, and because it’s broken down by a pituitary hormone, Alexander probably doesn’t have the power for the same reason that he’s a dwarf. McCoy whips up a double-shot of this kironide and injects both Spock and Kirk, but Alex declines. He wants nothing to do with their horrible powers–all he asks is for an escape, if they’re ever able to get off the planet.

Suddenly, two figures beam into their room: it’s Lt. Uhura and Nurse Chapel! They are, however, promptly dragged away by the invisible strings.

After the break, Kirk and Spock–dressed in tunics and wearing laurel wreaths–run into Uhura and Chapel, in “Greek” robes and Lady Gaga-esque makeup. They don’t know why they’re all there, but they know it can’t be good! Kirk and Spock try to test out their powers on a plate of fruit, but it doesn’t budge. Instead, a curtain rises revealing bleachers. A whole audience is assembled to watch the show.

Kirk taunts them, but Parmen is just getting started. First, he forces Spock to “serenade” the ladies:

Take care, young ladies, and value your wine
Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime
Deeply they’ll swallow from your finest kegs
Then swiftly be gone leaving bitter dregs
Ah, bitter dregs
With smiling words and tender touch
Man offers little and asks for so much
He loves in the breathless excitement of night
Then leaves with your treasure in cold morning light
Ah, in cold morning light

That’s actually pretty saucy, all things considered, but all I can hear in my head is “BILBO BILBO BILBO BAGGINS!

Parmen whips out a second reclining couch, puts one of the women on each of them, and has Kirk and Spock go back and forth between them as if they were two-timing lovers. But then things take a turn for the… something. While Kirk is wrapped around Uhura and Chapel holds Spock, the Platonians force each couple’s faces closer and closer together. Chapel begs for them to stop because she “feel[s] so ashamed”:

CHAPEL: For so long I’ve wanted to be close to you. Now all I want is to crawl away and die.

Just like the audience! It’s like poetry, isn’t it?

Finally, they are forced to kiss. Meanwhile, Uhura is over monologing at Kirk. She’s “afraid,” but reminds herself of all the times that Kirk’s courage has rubbed off on her, and takes that as inspiration for her most difficult mission yet: being kissed by the Shat. Clumsily executed and awkwardly edited, they finally kiss.

But Philana is bored, so Parmen decides it’s time for the pièce de résistance: a sadomasochistic orgy!

A table of toys appears and Kirk goes for the whip while Spock goes for the hot poker. Both approach their ladies menacingly but Kirk manages to get out a rant before it’s too late:

KIRK: You’re half dead, all of you! You’ve been dead for centuries. We may disappear tomorrow, but at least we’re living now, and you can’t stand that, can you? You’re half crazy because there’s nothing inside. Nothing. And you have to torture us to convince yourselves you’re superior.

McCoy begs for them to stop, but Alexander believes actions are stronger than words. He grabs a knife and lunges at Parmen, who unfortunately catches him in time to stop him. Then he turns the knife of the poor guy. But suddenly the spell is broken–it’s Kirk! He has the power!

Parmen desperately tries to send the knife-wielding dwarf at Kirk, but Kirk is able to send him back until the blade is nearly at the king’s throat. Parmen begs for his life, and Kirk decides to spare it:

ALEXANDER: Parmen, listen to me. I could have had your power, but I didn’t want it. I could have had your place right now, but the sight of you and your Academicians sickens me. Despite your brains, you’re the most contemptible things that ever lived in this universe.

Parmen blubberingly apologizes, but Kirk knows he’s not being sincere and wants assurances about what will happen when other starships pass through this sector.

PARMEN: There’s no need for concern. They’ll be safe. Of late, I have begun to think that we’ve become bizarre and unproductive. We are existing merely to nourish our own power. It’s time for some fresh air. We shall welcome your interstellar visits.
KIRK: I don’t believe you.
SPOCK: That would be highly uncharacteristic. We must expect, Parmen, that the moment we leave here, your fear would be gone and you would again be as sadistic and as arrogant as your twenty five hundred years have made you.
KIRK: Just remember, we can recreate that power in a matter of hours, so don’t try anything.
PARMEN: Understood, Captain. And you’re right, none of us can be trusted. Uncontrolled, power will turn even saints into savages, and we can all be counted upon to live down to our lowest impulses.
KIRK: You’re very good at making speeches, Parmen. Just make sure that this one sinks in.


Ghastly. Absolutely ghastly from beginning to end.

Where do I even start? What exactly is the worst part? The comically melodramatic music? The over-the-top performances? No, no, the award goes to the script–shambling, dreadful, and possibly the new low of the series. It is, I think, properly summarized by Parmen: “How can you let this go on?” Yes, how? I am wondering, now, how “Spock’s Brain” even compares–that was boring, but “Plato’s Stepchildren” is loathsome in just about every way. The only thing that sets it above is its attempt–albeit faint, and albeit failed–to communicate Roddenberry’s vision of the future.

In Alexander’s world, he is the “buffoon”–but more properly he is a slave. He’s abused, hated, and perhaps worst of all, ridiculed (I’ll come back to this). He asks Kirk if, where he comes from, there are people like him: without “the power” and with his size. And Kirk’s answer is one of the clearest expressions of the Star Trek vision we have: “Alexander, where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference, and nobody has the power.”

Alexander’s size would be no obstacle to him in the Federation, okay, yes–but I think the last bit is more telling: “Nobody has the power.” A truly egalitarian society means that everyone has power equally, and no one individual or group has enough of it to arbitrarily or cruelly oppress anyone else with. This is an ideal, not a reality, much like Plato’s Republic. But it’s an ideal that even the most power-hungry Commodores are aspiring toward, and one that holds Kirk’s world together. Nobody has the power, because everyone has the power. The real strength is in their number, in their cooperation, and in their unity. No one is more powerful than the least powerful among them, because all would share the burden of that powerlessness together. It’s a spirit of both community and comity that to the viewer works only as an occasionally ludicrous science fiction show, but to Kirk represents the only world he could possibly imagine living in.

Whether you agree with that particular vision as viable or even appealing, it’s a lot more fair, just, and reasonable than the sham republic Parmen and Philana claim to live in. The problem with a philosopher king is that he’s still a king, and his power is still so great as to be oppressive. Alexander argues that our trio should let Parmen die because then the others will feud and fight for the spot he leaves behind. Classy, right? Parmen believes that they inhabit “the most democratic society conceivable” because the psychokinetic power allows personal freedom beyond one’s wildest imaginations, “if the mind is strong enough.” But democracy is about more than personal freedom. A truly democratic society must protect the freedoms of the weak as much as it protects the freedoms of the powerful–a message that may have felt stronger during the civil rights movement of 1968 than perhaps it does today. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this episode is also the one where Kirk and Uhura kiss.

As far as the “power” is concerned, I found it really interesting that Parmen’s weapon of choice isn’t simply pain or coercion, but humiliation. Each of his antics–forcing Kirk and Spock to dance, Kirk to writhe around on the floor, Spock to laugh and cry, and–god I can’t believe I would willingly reference this again, but Alexander riding Kirk like a horse–is meant to humiliate and denigrate them. In the end for the BDSM orgy bit, Chapel tells Spock that she is “so ashamed.” Parmen doesn’t need to hurt Alexander in the physical sense to keep him in check–he just needs to embarrass him, a pattern of ridicule so perverse and ingrained that Alexander doesn’t recognize he’s a victim until Kirk tries to fight it himself. After enough time, Parmen doesn’t even need to actually humiliate him anymore. Alexander internalizes that treatment, comes to believe he has deserved it, and manufactures his own angst and pain without Parmen’s help. This kind of torture is both disturbing and devastating.

And that’s about all I can tease out of this otherwise execrable episode.

Less weighty thoughts: was anyone else surprised that the censors had a problem with the Kirk-Uhura kiss and not Spock’s overtly sexual song? Were Uhura and Chapel supposed to be wooed by that, or just embarrassed for him? And I know the Shat is intimidating, but why is Uhura scared out of her mind about kissing him? You’d think she were facing a firing squad with her speech about fear and courage.

Torie’s Rating: Full Stop (on a Warp scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: This is absolutely dreadful. As soon as Alexander started explaining the episode title in the teaser, I knew we were in for it. I must have blocked out most of the awful stuff from my previous viewings, because all I really remembered was the Greek motif, Alexander, and Kirk and Uhura’s kiss–for which this episode is notorious. But as progressive as that historic moment might have been, and how well intentioned the episode’s theme of acceptance, this episode can only inspire boredom and disbelief. In fact, I dozed off at several points, partially from sleep deprivation and partially as a defensive mechanism. Sadly, I had to go back and watch what I had missed, which wasn’t much as it turns out.

Where to begin the litany of failures in this episode? It’s perhaps easier to mention what I did like. Alexander’s character really stood out not because of his height but because Michael Dunn played his role with the perfect blend of resignation, sadness, and eventually righteous anger. He has a pivotal role, one which should have been even more prominent, and he turns in the best performance of anyone. Instead, he’s used to deliver extraneous exposition and lingers mostly in the background, where he watches the events unfold with the same horror and pain that viewers at home must have felt. No wonder we sympathize with him.

Alexander’s sobering speech about what it’s like to live with the Platonians is a high point in the episode: “Look down, don’t meet their eyes. Smile. Smile.” Anyone who has ever been discriminated against or ridiculed can relate to his experience. His obvious surprise and relief when he realizes that Kirk accepts him wholly as he is is heartbreaking.

KIRK: Alexander, are there other Platonians like you?
ALEXANDER: What do you mean, like me?
KIRK: Who don’t have the psychokinetic ability.
ALEXANDER: I thought you were talking about my size, because they make fun of me for my size.

Unfortunately, he also has the bad habit of spelling things out, because the writer clearly doesn’t believe in subtlety. In general, I enjoyed Alexander’s relationship with Kirk and how gentle the captain was with him–only to feel betrayed by Kirk’s joke at the end, which Alexander actually smiles at:

Mr. Scott, prepare to beam us up. I have a little surprise for you. I’m bringing a visitor aboard.

Then again, perhaps Alexander is just grinning and bearing it again, because Enterprise is his ticket out of there.

In principle, Spock’s attempts to wrestle with forced emotions were an excellent touch, and makes his actions under Platonian control feel like even more of a violation. I didn’t remember that Nurse Chapel and he were also forced to kiss, but this is doubly devastating because Spock really doesn’t want it (or is constantly fighting to control his feelings for her) and Chapel does want it, but not under those conditions. Spock also delivers my favorite line in the entire episode, his response to Philana’s ill-conceived question about how old she looks: “Thirty-five.” His delivery of that line and Kirk’s reaction is priceless.

Of course, the rest of the episode exacts a hefty price. This episode is embarrassing for everyone involved. The way Kirk, Spock, and Alexander are forced to act is demeaning enough to watch, but it’s far harder to take because their body language is laughable and far too much time is spent on their horrible antics. The premise itself is even more laughable than watching Kirk slap himself or a hypo fly out of McCoy’s pouch on a wire: How exactly can the Platonians force people to say or feel things if they’re “psychokinetic”? I suppose this is a step up from telekinetic, in that they can manipulate emotions and thoughts as well, but it doesn’t seem all that well-developed. On top of all that, there isn’t much story here. All the information is handed to Enterprise crew upfront, so there isn’t much left for them to figure out on their own (or hook the viewer), and the resolution is ridiculously easy and unsatisfying.

The weird philosophizing and overwrought speeches don’t help matters either, though I suppose this could be one interpretation of what a planet of academics might be like. The basic idea that the Platonians are more vulnerable because of their dependence on their power has promise, but it doesn’t make medical sense for a simple scratch to be life-threatening–at least, not for that reason. And if this were true, why do they have so many sharp things like knives and breakable pottery? I would have liked it if this had been explored in a more believable way. At one point, Alexander says he doesn’t want to “lie around like a big blob of nothing” while things are done for him, which suggests that the Platonians should be out of shape since they never do any physical activity, kind of like the people on the Axiom in WALL·E. Instead, they look like Barbara Babcock!

Speaking of Philana, she seems to get a little excited by Kirk and Uhura’s kiss, doesn’t she? Then she appears to be jealous. Is it because she fancies one (or both) of them, or does sex with her husband get boring after hundreds of years (assuming they don’t have a platonic relationship)? Given her name, I expect the latter. Even that would have been an interesting take on this, if this society were somehow more hedonistic because of their powers, or a more realistic and thoughtful perversion of the principles under which they were founded.

Basically, not much makes sense in this episode (How did the Sahndarans get to Earth and leave again? Why does Parmen know French? And Lewis Carroll? And flamenco dancing?!) and, appropriately enough, it all feels forced. If I were more generous, I would suggest that the screenwriter was going for a meta approach, trying to demonstrate that the actors are puppets too, demeaned more and more as season three continues, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. I don’t think he had much in mind at all.

Eugene’s Rating: Full Stop

Best Line: KIRK: Alexander, where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference.

Syndication Edits: Spock and Philana talking about whether the psychokinetic powers go off when they sleep; Kirk trying to protect Alexander in the initial fight, and Alexander encouraging him to just let Parmen die; part of Kirk and Scotty’s discussion, and part of Alexander’s song about “Pan’s horn”; Kirk’s initial plea for the Enterprise to be released; some Kirk-slapping; the trio discussing the situation and trying to contact the ship; part of the conversation among the three about Spock trying to cope with his emotions; Uhura and Chapel’s first appearance; the second verse of Spock’s song.

Trivia: The original draft of this episode was titled “The Sons of Socrates” and began with the Enterprise getting shaken down by Parmen’s psycho powers. Kirk was paired with a young yeoman who fancied him and Uhura got the good doctor McCoy. Uhura, not Spock, sings the song, and Spock beats up McCoy. The doctor then suckerpunches him. Chapel and the random yeoman into Kirk have a girlfight, just to balance out all that manliness.

The episode did not air in the UK until 1993 (!), due to its “sadistic elements.” This was apparently also true of “The Empath,” “Whom Gods Destroy,” and to a lesser extent, “Miri.”

Leonard Nimoy wrote that song himself.

The Kiss: As you probably all know by now, despite popular belief the Uhura-Kirk kiss was not the first interracial kiss on television. That would go either to The Little Rascals, or, if you want adults, any episode of I Love Lucy. The first white-black kiss was Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. the year before on Movin’ With Nancy. If you just mean fictional, then yes, it counts.

Memory Alpha quotes Nichelle Nichols on some of the circumstances arounding it, all of which are a hoot and worth checking out.

Other notes: Michael Dunn, who played Alexander, is probably most famous for appearing in Ship of Fools and his recurring role as a charming villain in The Wild, Wild West. He was ridiculously accomplished: in college by 16, Tony-nominated by 29, and Oscar-nominated by 31. Sadly, he died so very young just a few years later at 38 from pulmonary heart disease, the result of the spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia that was responsible for his stature.

Barbara Babcock of course is a Star Trek veteran. She played Mea 3 in “A Taste of Armageddon,” and was the voice of Trelane’s mother in “Squire of Gothos,” the Beta 5 computer in “Assignment: Earth,” and Loskene in last week’s “The Tholian Web.” She’ll appear one more time as the voice of Zetar in the upcoming “Lights of Zetar.”

Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 9 -“The Tholian Web.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 11 – “Wink of an Eye.” 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.