Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Cloud Minders”

The Cloud Minders
Written by Margaret Armen
Story by David Gerrold and Oliver Crawford
Directed by Jud Taylor

Season 3, Episode 21
Production episode: 3×19
Original air date: February 28, 1969
Star date: 5818.4

Mission summary

To combat a devastating botanical plague that threatens the non-botanical life on Merak II, Enterprise heads to Ardana, a Federation world that possesses unobtainium zenite, the only thing in the universe that can save the trees. Upon arrival, they’re invited to the cloud city Stratos for an audience with the High Advisor Plasus, but they’re in too much of a hurry for pomp and circumstance. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock beam down directly to the zenite mine entrance to pick up the prescription they ordered from drugstore.com and get on their way. However, they do spare some time to gaze admiringly at the city floating above and discuss its utter devotion to art and purely intellectual pursuits.

When they come down from the clouds, they realize that their zenite consignment isn’t waiting for them. Instead, they’re lassoed by a group of visored miners called Troglytes. Fortunately most of their attackers are wearing red jumpsuits, and thus are easily dispatched, but Kirk has more trouble wrestling with their leader, a woman in a blue jumpsuit. Or maybe he just likes rolling in the dirt with her. The fun is interrupted when Zeus, er, Plasus beams down with two guards dressed in shower caps and sheets. They shoot one of the Troglytes but the others escape. The High Advisor apologizes for the incident and gets them up to speed on the local political unrest; he blames the Disrupters, “Troglyte malcontents,” for confiscating the zenite consignment.

KIRK: They agreed to the delivery. Your council assured us of it.
PLASUS: They agreed obviously as a ruse to get valuable hostages.
KIRK: Hostages? For what purpose?
PLASUS: To force the council to meet their demands.

Plasus sends his Shower Cap Squad to look for the zenite and convinces Kirk and Spock to chill on Stratos during the search. In the Council art gallery, they look over the balcony. It’s a long way down. Spock comments, “Remarkable. The finest example of sustained antigravity elevation I’ve ever seen.” Make that the second finest; he stands corrected a moment later when Plasus’ daughter walks in wearing an outfit with remarkable lifting properties of its own. Plasus introduces Droxine as “one of our planet’s most incomparable works of art.” Kirk nods–of course there’s a beautiful woman in this episode. But in a strange turn of events, she’s more interested in Spock.

DROXINE: I have never before met a Vulcan, sir.
SPOCK: Nor I a work of art, madam.

Plasus takes them on a tour and becomes incensed when he finds a trowel stuck in the wall beside a work of modern art; frankly, it was an improvement. Droxine and Plasus lament that the rebels are spoiling the city and have no appreciation for fine art, but brush aside Kirk’s inquiries about the Disrupters’ demands. The captain reminds him of his responsibility to the Federation and the lives at stake if they can’t stop the botanical plague in time. Plasus sends him and Spock to their room with a Shower Cap Sentinel, as Droxine pouts: “Do you think that Captain Kirk and his very attractive officer will feel that we’re responsible for their injuries?”

Another sentinel walks in with a prisoner–a Troglyte without a transport card or a work permit to be in Stratos. Plasus accuses him of making that cutting artistic criticism with his “cavern implement” and questions him about the Disrupters.

TROGLYTE: I know nothing.
PLASUS: I would advise you to increase your knowledge.
TROGLYTE: That is not possible for a Troglyte. The Stratos city dwellers have said it.

Plasus orders the miner be secured to “the rostrum,” which sounds pretty ominous. The Troglyte thinks so too because he breaks free and heads back to the mines as quickly as possible–by leaping over the balcony and making like Wile E. Coyote. “Bummer,” Plasus says, more or less.

In their quarters, Kirk naps while Spock meditates and carries on a bizarre monologue in his head:

This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrasts. Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership. Here on Stratos, everything is incomparably beautiful and pleasant. The High Advisor’s charming daughter, Droxine, particularly so. The name Droxine seems appropriate for her.

Whatever that means. But wait, there’s more:

I wonder, can she retain such purity and sweetness of mind and be aware of the life of the people on the surface of the planet? There, the harsh life in the mines is instilling the people with a bitter hatred. The young girl who led the attack against us when we beamed down was filled with the violence of desperation. If the lovely Droxine knew of the young miner’s misery, I wonder how the knowledge would affect her.

The cutaway shots of the Disrupter leader show she’s just as confused as we are at Spock’s ruminations. Exposition delivered, Spock moves to the next room where he finds the lovely Droxine puttering around. She must have been reading slash fiction, because she remarks, “Mr. Spock, I thought you had accompanied Captain Kirk to the rest chamber.” He tells her she was making too much noise. “What fascinating ears you have, Mr. Vulcan,” she says.

“The better to hear you with, my dear.”

“What discerning eyes you have, Mr. Vulcan!”

“The better to inexplicably fall in love with you, my dear.”

Those aren’t exact quotes, but they get the point across. Meanwhile, the Troglyte woman enters Kirk’s quarters, failing to realize that it’s risky to give him the home field advantage. She holds her trowel to his throat, but in no time at all he’s awake and pins her beneath him.

FEMALE TROGLYTE: Release me.
KIRK: So you can attack me again? That would be foolish.
FEMALE TROGLYTE: Call the guards if you’re afraid, Captain.
KIRK: I’m not afraid. In fact, I find this rather enjoyable.

He foolishly agrees to let her go if she answers some questions. When she gets up she goes for her trowel again and the struggle continues. Just next door, Spock and Droxine are now discussing the Vulcan sex drive. You know, which Spock once described as “a thing no out-worlder may know except those very few who have been involved. A Vulcan understands, but even we do not speak of it among ourselves. It is a deeply personal thing.”

DROXINE: You only take a mate once every seven years?
SPOCK: The seven-year cycle is biologically inherent in all Vulcan’s. At that time, the mating drive outweighs all other motivations.
DROXINE: And is there nothing that can disturb that cycle, Mister Spock?
SPOCK: Extreme feminine beauty is always disturbing, madam.

The Vulcan is Spock-blocked when he finally notices that Kirk is having trouble with a woman in the bedroom and rushes to his aid. Droxine follows and it turns out the two women know each other. But the foursome probably won’t be double-dating anytime soon; the miner’s name is Vanna and she used to work for Droxine’s family until she got tired of turning letters for Plasus’ favorite game show and decided to buy a trowel.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, Vanna is convinced that Plasus summoned Enterprise there to intimidate the Disrupters, even though Kirk insists they’re just there to pick up some zenite. “Starships do not transport cargo,” she says. Ha!

Droxine butts in to tell Vanna that there’s no room for her or the other Troglytes in Stratos or their “perfectly balanced social system,” disappointing Kirk and Spock with her shortsightedness. Vanna is taken away and held on the rostrum, where Plasus shows that violence isn’t completely missing from the cloud city by torturing the woman with energy rays. She screams, interrupting Kirk and Spock’s discussion of the etymology of the term “Troglyte.” The captain puts an end to Plasus’ interrogation, but the High Advisor sends him back to his ship. After Kirk and Spock beam up, he orders the Shower Cap Sentinels to kill Kirk if he returns.

With only twelve hours left to stop the botanical plague, Dr. McCoy busts the case wide open. He studies a zenite sample and discovers that in its raw form, it releases an odorless, invisible gas that lowers intelligence and increases violence. The Troglytes have been breathing it for their whole lives, which is why their mental faculties are so limited, but the effect will wear off once they’re no longer exposed to it. Kirk can’t wait to share the good news, but Plasus refuses to allow him to talk to Vanna or offer to trade filter masks to the Troglytes in exchange for the zenite. That’s never stopped Kirk before–he assumes full responsibility for defying Plasus’ orders and Starfleet regulations and beams down to Vanna’s cell with a mask and a proposal.

KIRK: Vanna, I’ve brought you a gift. There’s a dangerous gas in the mines that affects the development of the Troglytes exposed to it for a period of time. This mask will prevent any further damage.
VANNA: Gas from zenite?
KIRK: Yes.
VANNA: It’s hard to believe something which is neither seen nor felt can do so much harm.
KIRK: That’s true. But an idea can’t be seen or felt. That’s what’s kept the Troglytes in the mines all these centuries, a mistaken idea.

She eventually agrees to trust Kirk’s promise to help mediate between the Troglytes and the Council after he delivers the zenite. They get the drop on one of the sentinels and take his transport card to return to the mines. There, Vanna and her Troglyte friends get the drop on Kirk. She’s played him again! She takes his mask and phaser and makes the captain dig for zenite with his bare hands. Vanna’s buddies would rather kill Kirk, but she wants to keep him as a hostage.

KIRK: How long do you plan on keeping me here, providing Midro doesn’t kill me, of course?
VANNA: Until we have help in the mines and our homes are in the clouds.
KIRK: That’s quite a while. Longer than I expected.

Kirk surprises Vanna and they fight again; he really does seem to enjoy their tender moments together. He gets his phaser back and uses it to create a rockslide to seal them into the cave together. Kirk orders Spock to transport Plasus to their coordinates, for “a demonstration on the effects of unbelieved gas.” Plasus is understandably miffed at being kidnapped in the middle of lecturing his daughter on her suspect taste in men.

Unfortunately, the gas takes effect very slowly, though it has a noticeable effect on Kirk. To speed things up a bit, he orders Plasus to dig for zenite. When the oxygen in the enclosed cavern starts to run out, Plasus taps into his violent side; he challenges Kirk to a mortae duel. Kirk accepts and tosses his phaser aside, but Plasus kind of cheats by keeping both trowel-dagger-things for himself. While the two men struggle to the death, Vanna snatches Kirk’s communicator and calls Enterprise for help. Spock beams the three of them up to the transporter room, Kirk and Plasus still strangling each other. The captain knocks Plasus out and calls his experiment a success.

Back on Stratos, Droxine has come around. She suggests that they call the filter masks “protectors,” and Spock humors her. She plans to go down to the mines to find “beauty in the knowledge that lies below.” When she asks him what Vulcan’s like and comments that she’d like to visit it one day, he is conspicuously silent.

Vanna finally delivers the zenite, as promised, and persuades Kirk and Plasus to forget the whole unpleasant business in the mines, which will cut down on their paperwork. With only two hours and fifty-nine minutes left to save Merak II, Kirk and Spock get out of there while the getting’s good, leaving Droxine to gaze after them thoughtfully.

Analysis

I recalled “The Cloud Minders” fondly for its interesting setting in the cloud city, its questioning of class barriers, and a rare chance for Spock to woo a woman. I appreciate the first two aspects even more because of my love for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; however, I now perceive the latter as one of the episode’s biggest drawbacks. First of all, I’d remembered Spock having a previous relationship with Droxine, but I must have conflated it with “This Side of Paradise.” Without that prior connection, he just falls for her too quickly, though their romance could have been much worse. No matter how uncomfortable their interactions make us, their brief flirtation is practically Victorian: they merely exchange pleasantries and compliments and never even touch each other–it’s a purely intellectual pursuit for them. In fact, I’ve pretty much decided for myself that Spock is really just being polite to Droxine to improve their odds of getting the zenite. Very logical, really. Yes, that explains everything, doesn’t it?

The zenite is another considerable problem, of course. Once again, there is only one mineral in the entire universe that can save a planet from a deadly illness, yet despite how much zenite Ardana trades with other planets, they can’t get it anywhere else. Doesn’t Stratos keep any extra in stock? What kind of a business are they running there, anyway? It also shocks me that in all this time no one has actually studied the stuff and realized that it’s potentially dangerous. Granted, Ardana had no reason to suspect zenite had such dire side effects, and it’s also possible that the Council was simply suppressing the knowledge. In which case, it’s more perplexing that they were ever admitted into the Federation at all given their treatment of the Troglytes. Is zenite so important that the Federation simply looked the other way? What is zenite even used for when there isn’t a plague?

I found the obvious comparisons between Droxine and Vanna most interesting of all. They’re two women of about the same age who live wildly different lives just because one was born into the mines, the other into privilege. Fair-haired Droxine is meant to be seen as the “good” one, while Vanna is clearly the enemy because she has black hair. Though Droxine is glamorized in her improbable gown and everyone says she’s beautiful, Vanna’s dress–in a darker shade of blue that matches the color of her mining jumpsuit–gives Droxine a run for her money, and the miner even slips into a more comfortable–and revealing–white minidress when she’s imprisoned. Though the Stratos-dwellers are supposed to be smart, Droxine doesn’t think for herself until Spock forces her to question everything she knows about her society. She simpers and fawns over Spock, coming off as rather simple-minded. In contrast, Vanna is passionate and clever, a strong woman of action. A natural leader. It’s a matter of opinion, but she is much more attractive to me than the passive Droxine. Charlene Polite is also a fabulous actress, playing Vanna as contemptuous and evil while still making her sympathetic and sexy–a striking difference from Diana Ewing’s vapid performance.

Incidentally, medical site flexyx.com tells me “droxine” is “a theophylline derivative with broncho- and vasodilator properties. It is used in the treatment of asthma, cardiac dyspnea, and bronchitis.” So how is her name appropriate for her, except in the later sense of the breathing masks?

Then we have the social commentary, which is really the heart of the episode. Though this is a transparent indictment of class distinctions between the haves and have-nots, and may have spoken to the racism and prejudice of the 1960s, it fits much better as a criticism of slavery. Even the title, “The Cloud Minders,” has a double meaning–both to describe the intellectual denizens of Stratos, and to point out the fact that they were minding the Troglytes as masters mind their slaves. With slavery a hundred years in the United States’ past at the time of broadcast, this seems like an outdated subject to moralize on. Though I suppose basic human rights never go out of style.

It may just be the recent run of awful episodes, but “The Cloud Minders” wasn’t too bad. It had some great dialogue, a terrific setup, and some wonderful character moments. Plus it was fun to see Scotty nearly pull off a site-to-site transport. I thought that’s what he was going to do, so I was confused when he said he’d like to see Plasus’ face and Spock told him he’d be able to. I guess it was a little too early for that technology in Star Trek.

By the way, why does Plasus know how to fight? I thought Kirk would beat him easily, but the High Advisor was pretty handy with those mortae.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: Perhaps this episode wouldn’t have appeared as mediocre as it did without its strong echoes of two great works: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.  All three explore the consequences of strict class systems without mobility, yet the moralizing in Metropolis and The Time Machine doesn’t feel half as cheap as it does here.

As if commissioned by a task force for the Great Society, “The Cloud Minders” invokes the accrued disadvantages of generations of prejudice to explain the violent rebellion (which seemed an awful lot like race riots, but maybe I’m reading too much into it). I wonder how close to home this felt in 1969. The cultural turbulence was real, but unfortunately the science fictional treatment of it here isn’t worthy of much more than an eye-roll. Like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” the racial parallels aren’t so much undertones as they are completely on the surface (no pun intended). The troglytes, emotional and sometimes violent in their desperation, aren’t born that way. It’s because of their environment. But if they had the same opportunities that the cloud-dwellers had, well, they’d be just as smart and artistic and accomplished. Their disadvantages are purely systemic. It’s society, man.  Unfortunately, these otherwise entirely reasonable and sympathetic arguments are made with inelegant, embarrassing dialogue, punctuated by the ponderous silences of someone taking an acting note too far. The worst line was McCoy’s observation that “It’s pretty hard to overcome prejudice.” What wisdom, sir. What wisdom.

There’s nothing like a good idea in a hollow narrative to undermine your message.

I guess it’s pretty late in the series to be whining about this, but I don’t know why the third season thinks it needs a female guest star every week. Diana Ewing and Charlene Polite were about as talented as last week’s Mary Linda Rapelye and her “accent.” Droxine might have been an android–I kept checking to make sure she blinked–and her disturbingly skinny figure inspired an alternate ending in my head where all the Stratos-dwellers needed were cookies. Vanna was better by comparison, but if that’s enough for you, I have this great movie with Paris Hilton you should watch. I didn’t buy the Spock/Droxine chemistry* at all, either. I love how the conversation path the two follow goes from social observations to Vulcan mating habits in, what, ten seconds flat? I prefer at least some subtlety–instead it stuck out like a Where’s Waldo: Castaway Collection.

And Kirk’s behavior is just inscrutable. He spends the entire episode trying to upend society by Teaching Lessons, when he could have just beamed into the cave, grabbed the zenite, and made his way to the botanical disaster planet. You can come back and start a worker’s revolution later, dude.

It was fun to see a new transporter effect, at least, and it was reasonably watchable. I have to at least give it credit for having its heart in the right place–between the head and hands.

*Wait for it…noooow you get it.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3

Best Line: VANNA: But soon the atmosphere will go. We’ll die.
KIRK: Die from something that can’t be seen? You astound me, Vanna.

Syndication Edits: Segments of Kirk and Spock’s fight with the Troglytes; Droxine and Plasus discussing Kirk and Spock before the Troglyte prisoner is brought into the Council gallery; part of Plasus’ interrogation of the Troglyte; Vanna and Kirk discussing whether or not Starfleet ships carry cargo; Kirk confronting Plasus about torture; Captain’s Log, Star date 5819.0; Kirk telling Plasus about McCoy’s discovery about the zenite; part of Kirk’s discussing with Vanna in her cell; Spock’s Log, Star date 5819.3; Kirk calls Enterprise a few times in the cave before Spock picks up; and Spock and Scotty talking about needing Plasus to be alone before transporting him.

Trivia: In The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold provided some details on his original story on which this was based, “Castles in the Air.” In his version, a shuttlecraft carrying Kirk, Spock, and Uhura was shot down on a mission to collect dilithium crystals for Enterprise. But a dispute between the skymen and the “Mannies,” Manual Laborers on the surface, threatens the flow of crystals and opens their eyes to difficult environmental conditions that the workers faced. Kirk ultimately forces the two sides to talk, but the ending is not so clearly hopeful. Another title considered for the episode was “Revolt,” which sounds much more like a DS9 episode.

Kirk’s line “Who are you? What is the meaning of this attack?” was accidentally forgotten in filming but was dubbed in later. Some broadcasts eliminate the dialogue entirely.

This episode contains a rare internal monologue with overlapping clips summing up the episode’s plot.

A two-part prequel episode to “The Cloud Minders” was planned for Star Trek: Enterprise, featuring the cloud city Stratos, according to Executive Producer Manny Coto.

Stratos was designed in a rough sketch by Matt Jefferies and built out of green foam, white glue, and cotton.

Set decorator John Dwyer rented metal furniture to serve as the metal sculptures in Stratos.

The aerial view of the river from Stratos is the Hadramawt Plateau dry river basin in southern Saudi Arabia, as photographed by Gemini IV astronauts in 1965.

Other notes: Jeff Corey (Plasus) was one of Leonard Nimoy’s acting instructors and directed segments of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery,” as did Nimoy.

James Blish’s novelization of this episode is titled “The Cloud Miners.”


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 20 – “The Way to Eden.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 22 – “The Savage Curtain.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

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 fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.