Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Lights of Zetar”

The Lights of Zetar
Written by Jeremy Tarscher and Shari Lewis
Directed by Herb Kenwith

Season 3, Episode 18
Production episode: 3×18
Original air date:  January 31, 1969
Star date:  5725.3

Mission summary

The Enterprise has some newly designed hardware for Memory Alpha, the central repository for all Federation knowledge both cultural and scientific. To help with the installation is Lieutenant Mira Romaine, a beautiful young specialist that Scotty has taken quite a liking to. This concerns Kirk:

KIRK: When a man of Scotty’s years falls in love, the loneliness of his life is suddenly revealed to him. His whole heart once throbbed only to the ship’s engines. He could talk only to the ship. Now he can see nothing but the woman.

Good thing he’s archiving that thought in a log for the bureaucrats back home!

But before they can give him any dating advice, a series of strobe lights flashes across the viewscreen. It seems at first to be some kind of storm, but the speed and precision with which it moves betrays a kind of intelligence.  It closes in on the Enterprise and engulfs the bridge and her crew in sparkly lights.

The sparklies seem to find Lt. Romaine appealing, so they enter her body, demonic possession-style. In her eyes we see the same shiny-eye effect from “Where No Man Has Gone Before“–never a good sign. She collapses. When the sparklies disappear, everyone has a different complaint: Uhura could not use her arm; Sulu could not speak; Chekov could not see. It seems that the lights affected a different part of everyone’s brain–all except Romaine, who instead emitted a terrifying, open-mouthed noise as she came to and doesn’t remember a thing.

Fluency in the Black Speech is, of course, run-of-the-mill space acclimation behavior. No cause for alarm.

McCoy takes her to sickbay but they can’t seem to find anything wrong with her. He snaps at her for being “uncooperative” and not having answers, but Romaine seems frightened by the experience. Scotty (who has abandoned his station to be with her) reassures her that it’s just “space legs,” or adjusting to her first deep space voyage. Nothing to be concerned about!

Meanwhile the sparklies are headed right for Memory Alpha, which has absolutely no defense network in place.

KIRK: No shields?
SPOCK: None, Captain. When the library complex was assembled, shielding was considered inappropriate to its totally academic purpose. Since the information on the Memory planet is available to everyone, special protection was deemed unnecessary.
KIRK: Wonderful. I hope the storm is aware of that rationale.

At least Kirk can see the plot holes. The sparklies, however, don’t give a damn–they head straight for Memory Alpha, hover around a bit, and then head away. At that very moment Lt. Romaine sees a vision of dead aliens on Memory Alpha. Must be a coincidence. You know. Space legs.

When the Enterprise arrives at Memory Alpha, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty beam down to the surface, where they find that the entire Memory Alpha computer bank is fried–“a disaster for the galaxy”–and all the men and women stationed there are dead. Except one: a faint life reading reveals one woman, barely alive, speaking in the same garbled tongues that Romaine spoke on the bridge when the sparklies attacked. She collapses dead soon after.

KIRK: What did she die of?
MCCOY: Severe brain hemorrhaging due to distortion of all neural systems, dissolution of autonomic nervous system. All basic personality factors, Captain.

They really like the word “autonomic,” don’t they. Also, what’s a “personality factor?”

Kirk orders Romaine to beam down with them. Confronted with the death she had foreseen, Romaine becomes extremely agitated. She begs the captain to get them all out of there because the sparklies are returning, but no one believes her. (If only there were some way to check…) Finally Sulu hails them to let them know that yes, the sparklies are coming back for seconds, and they need to get off the planet. They all beam up just fine except Romaine, who gets stuck in transit. Scotty is able to finesse the transporter system and get her back with them just in time. She is visibly shaken by the episode, though, and confides in Scotty how terrified she is of what’s happening to her. Scotty patronizingly explains that it’s just the “weird tricks” of space, and she didn’t actually see the dead, it’s all just a fabrication of the mind. There there, little lady. Nothing to be worried about at all, everyone sees visions of the dead on long space voyages.

As they leave Memory Alpha the sparklies start to follow them.  No matter how they change course, the sparklies change course with them. It is then that Spock realizes that this “storm” isn’t even one life form–it’s ten distinct life forms, all traveling closely together. Kirk tries to contact them and offer a message of peace, but the sparklies are clearly made of pure evil. Kirk fires a warning shot, which doesn’t deter them at all. So with no other choice, he fires the phasers directly at them–and the sparklies halt their approach. But at the same moment Romaine crumples and collapses to the ground. Scotty frantically tells Kirk not to fire the ship’s phasers again, or they could kill Romaine! Man, that routine space sickness is touchy.

Kirk convenes an interrogation investigation to find out what the sexy lady/sparkly connection is, with McCoy, Spock, Scotty, and Romaine herself. They publicly go over her psychological profile (again, where are the HIPAA laws?) and McCoy informs us that while she has no history of ESP or visions, she is known to be especially “pliant” when learning new things or being in new situations.  While it might make her a fun date it doesn’t especially reveal anything about the sparkly connection–until McCoy whips out her “hyperencephalogram.” And you can’t argue with that many syllables!  Somehow, her brain wave pattern has been altered, and Spock recognizes the change right away: her new brain wave pattern exactly matches that of the sparklies!

Romaine confesses her visions to the group, the most recent of which was one of Scotty dying. Kirk has an idea, though:

KIRK: They’ll be here very soon. They may destroy you and us as they did Memory Alpha. You are especially susceptible to their will. But we have one chance to survive. Don’t resist. Let them begin to function through you. If we can control that moment, we have a chance. Will you try?
MIRA: Tell me what to do.

The group heads to the medical lab’s anti-grav chamber just as the ship is penetrated by the sparklies. Kirk, Scotty, McCoy, and Spock watch as the aliens slowly take over her body. She is able to resist at first:

MIRA: I am Mira Romaine. I will be who I choose to be. I will.

But soon a creepy voice uses her to communicate with Kirk. It explains that they are from the planet Zetar.

KIRK: You can’t be from Zetar. All life was destroyed there long ago.
ZETAR: Yes, all corporeal life was destroyed.
KIRK: Then what are you?
ZETAR: The desires, the hopes, the mind and the will of the last hundred of Zetar. The force of our life could not be wiped out.
KIRK: All things die.
ZETAR: At the proper time. Our planet was dying. We were determined to live on. At the peak of our plans to go, a sudden final disaster struck us down. But the force of our lives survived. At last we have found someone through whom we can live it out.

Kirk attempts to explain that, hey, you get one life to live, and even if it’s cut short by unexplained widescale planetary catastrophe, you don’t suddenly get the right to take someone else’s life for your own. But the Zetarians are real sticklers for this one point and threaten to kill them all if they don’t give up Romaine to them.  Kirk’s not going to give up that easily, though, and decides it’s time for her to get into the decompression chamber to force the nasty Zetars out. Scotty volunteers, because he knows that Romaine can’t kill him. He picks her up and places her into the chamber and is thrown across the room–but he’s still alive.

Once she’s in there, they turn on the anti-gravitation device, to enhance the cool factor, and then slowly increase the pressure in the chamber. It might kill Romaine, but it’s a risk they’re willing to take. Slowly but surely the demons are forced out of her, and the day is once again saved.

Later, the men decide to pat themselves on the back for another job well done, while discussing whether love had anything to do with Romaine’s ability to fight off the aliens and preserve her own identity. This is generally accepted to be a possibility, and all present agree that her work on Memory Alpha will be beneficial to her health.

KIRK: Well, this is an Enterprise first. Doctor McCoy, Mister Spock and Engineer Scott find themselves in complete agreement. Can I stand the strain?

Analysis

No one told me Star Trek had a Pink Floyd laser show! You guys.

Despite the strong horror elements and serviceable cast, the episode falls short, as so many of this season’s do. The plot’s as translucent as the sparklies. Why would the Federation hold all its knowledge in one place and not have a back-up? I’m surprised it wasn’t planet Eminiar Alexandria. (Also, an entire planet and all it has is a digital library? What’s on the rest of the world, generators?) The whole anti-gravitation-oh-wait-we-changed-our-mind-decompression-sounds-cooler solution made no sense to me. These sparklies can clearly move both in the vacuum of space and through the hull and interior of the Enterprise. Why would pressurization exorcise them? Or, even if it could, why couldn’t they just pass through the wall the same way they got into the ship? But really, my favorite part was the ending, where everyone congratulates each other on strengthening Romaine’s “ego structure,” and then decides that the best thing to do is send her, presumably alone, down to the planet where she had visions of everyone dying horribly (which she failed to stop in time).  At least we know if she starts to go crazy no one one will waste resources believing her.

Mira Romaine is an odd character. On the one hand, she’s got some chutzpah (talking back to McCoy!) and takes a pretty big risk at the end, putting her self-control and personality on the line for one of Kirk’s gambles. She’s brave, that’s for sure: while the rest of the bridge cowers in fear before the mighty sparklies, she confronts them and even steps closer, curious. (Kirk has his hands over his eyes like a big baby.) And yet everyone she meets talks down to her, dismisses her abilities and strengths, and regards anything she says with skepticism if not outright disbelief.  Scotty says she’s got “space sickness”; McCoy treats her like a recalcitrant child; and Kirk continues to refer to her as “the girl” even after she saves all their asses. The worst moment was Sulu’s remark that Scotty probably hasn’t “noticed she has a brain.” Really, Sulu? The first line we get from Scotty, he says she’s the smartest woman that has ever come on the ship. The sexism here didn’t even make internal sense. Romaine herself, though, felt genuine–frightened by the events that surrounded her but remaining more or less courageous throughout. I wish she had more lines, for god’s sake, to at least hide the fact she was clearly window dressing.

Scotty’s attachment to her seems fairly innocent (if sudden and inexplicable), but I did like watching her warm up to him as the episode went on. In the beginning she smiles politely a lot, which is behavior most women have performed at some point or another; but by the time freaky things start to go down, she turns to Scotty for strength and their attachment feels less arbitrary. As silly as it was, I liked Kirk’s speech about love that opened the episode–I only wish it had come at the end, when it wouldn’t have seemed so forced by the hand of exposition. I still would never in a million years buy that as “love,” and I wish they hadn’t tried to force that down our throats with the little epilogue about how it was Big!Magical!Love! that saved her and not her own willpower and strength.

“Zetar” did tackle one of my favorite tropes, though: identity. The Enterprise‘s only hope is for Romaine to give up who she is long enough to coax out the Zetarians, while still maintaining enough of a grip on herself to anchor her in reality. She’s terrified, and who wouldn’t be? Would you put your personality on the line? Not your life or your body, but your awareness of self and everything that makes you the person that you are?  Watching the Zetarians speak through her was creepy. Not well-it-was-the-’60s-creepy, but this-is-really-creepy-rightnow. And given the show’s insistence on hitting the reset button, I was actually worried that the Lt. Romaine we knew wouldn’t make it. It was kind of incredible to watch her struggle against these forces, and repeat to herself: “I am Mira Romaine. I will be who I choose to be.” It’s exactly what the Zetarians want, of course–the ability to live out the lives they were denied. But like all super-evolved energy sparkles, they’ve become so distant from their humanoid existence they don’t even recognize the horror of what they’re asking:

KIRK: The body of the one you inhabit has its own life to lead.
ZETAR: She will accept ours.
KIRK: She will not. She is fighting for her own identity.
ZETAR: Her mind will accept our thoughts. Our lives will be fulfilled.
KIRK: Will she learn the way people on Memory Alpha learned?
ZETAR: We did not wish to kill.
KIRK: But you did kill!
ZETAR: No. Resisting us killed those people. We did not kill them.
KIRK: The price of your survival is too high.
ZETAR: We only want the girl.
KIRK: You can’t have her. You’re entitled to your own life, but not another’s.

You can’t have immortality. You can march to the ends of the earth, but it will not save you–everyone must die, as unfair as the circumstances may be.  Accepting that fate is part of being human, tragedy and all. That the Zetarians are incapable of confronting that reality shows just how far they’ve drifted from the people they once were. It’s a theme that deserves a better episode than this.

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

Eugene Myers: This episode has all the elements of brilliant Star Trek, including first contact with a new civilization, a threat to the Enterprise, and unexplained deaths. There’s also some excellent dialogue and character interactions, an attractive guest star, and simple but effective visual effects. So why isn’t it one of the better stories? Well, the episode also inherits many of the problems that often trip up the writers, primarily sloppy plotting, slow pacing, and inelegant exposition. And in the end, perhaps drawing on all these familiar threads from previous episodes only makes it less memorable; I certainly had little recollection of this one, another casualty of the third season.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of “The Lights of Zetar” is Scotty’s forced romance with Mira. By now, viewers know that when Scotty finds love, trouble soon follows–and he’ll probably end up being thrown across the room. There are some touching moments, and Scotty’s infatuation is kind of cute to watch, but it’s also a bit uncomfortable, like watching your parents flirt with each other. This isn’t helped by the fact that everyone on the ship notices it and comments on it, turning the whole situation into comedy relief. I couldn’t believe it when I heard Kirk’s log entry:

When a man of Scotty’s years falls in love, the loneliness of his life is suddenly revealed to him. His whole heart once throbbed only to the ship’s engines. He could talk only to the ship. Now he can see nothing but the woman.

That doesn’t belong in a log entry, Captain. And if you’re just thinking it, then why can we hear you?

I was disappointed that Scotty became so distracted by Mira, like a pubescent teen with his first girlfriend. Perhaps I was even more bothered that Mira didn’t seem to feel quite so strongly for him, making him look a bit obsessive. He’s usually so competent and together, it seems out of character for anything to make him care about Enterprise less. It’s kind of like we’re witnessing a seedy affair in progress. It also would have been nice if this relationship could have been explored over the course of several episodes–unheard of in most episodic television of the Sixties–or at least this episode. Ultimately, we didn’t really need it, except to sell the idea that the power of Scotty’s love is what saves her, as opposed to her own strength of will.

Most troubling of all is the overall attitude toward Mira. Despite her status as a professional officer, she’s mainly treated as Scotty’s girlfriend and an inexperienced, “pliant” woman. In fact, at some point early on they start referring to her as “the girl,” and that sticks right to the end. Even worse, they start talking about her instead of to her when she’s in the same room, and even Scotty makes excuses for her and patronizes her like a child. When she sticks up for herself, perhaps a bit too strongly, she’s criticized for being rude and uncooperative. If she’s really so poorly suited for space travel, why is she in Starfleet and on Enterprise? (Of course, given their track record, it sounds like she’d be perfect for command since she’ll break down at the slightest provocation–exactly who you want in charge of over 400 lives and an expensive ship.)

Then there are the Zetarians, who don’t really amount to much when all is said and done. They are the remnants of a race that for some reason have to kill people in search of a potential host. There’s no real explanation for why Mira makes a good vessel for their incorporeal consciousness, except perhaps for her fabled “pliancy.” They say that “resisting us killed” the scholars on Memory Alpha, so she survived because she didn’t fight their control? Great. (In fact, though many people die, we only see the Zetarians affect the minds of women. What’s up with that?) And finally, the Zetarians literally just go away… Or are they destroyed? Not really clear on that. The end drops very quickly and their antigravity/depressurization plan comes out of nowhere and doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I think the best read of “The Lights of Zetar” is as a horror story. This is a classic possession tale, with the young woman occupied by malicious spirits. The creepy moaning sounds, yawning mouths and wide eyes, and green-tinged faces would fit right into a ghost story, and Mira even floats in mid-air a la The Exorcist. The whole procedure to purge the aliens from her body in the antigravity chamber is akin to exorcising demons, with scientific technobabble instead of Latin prayers and holy water.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed many things in this episode. The idea of a library planet is terrific, and it’s great that Mira is given the awesome responsibility of rebuilding it. Kirk’s attempts to communicate with the Zetans and then warn them off with a shot across the bow is textbook first contact procedure, a rarity given his tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. Even the tedious briefing room scene was fascinating, as they worked out what was happening to Mira (and somehow reading flashing lights on a computer console…), and there were some terrific lines, including the episode’s punchline. I most appreciated one moment in particular, where Mira is berating the doctor in Sickbay.

MIRA: I want to know why too. You’re the doctor, you tell me. This is a new experience for me.
MCCOY: This whole thing is a new experience for all of us.
MIRA: All of you are accustomed to new experiences. It’s part of your work. I’m not.

All of this is a reminder that space is freaking scary, and not everyone should be out there facing the unknown. There’s no shame in that, even if they think less of her for it.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2

Best Line: CHAPEL (in her best Scottish brogue): With a bedside manner like that, Scotty, you’re in the wrong business.

Syndication Edits: None

Trivia: In the original outline, Lt. Romaine was Scotty’s new engineering assistant and she was as much enamored of the ship and its workings as he was. She had also always had visions and some form of ESP. Memory Alpha was “Memory Seven,” and Scotty’s defensiveness of Romaine extended to him punching Spock when he seemed to berate her with questions. The sparklies cancelled out gravity and sound and shocked the crewmembers as if through an electrical charge. In the end, Romaine was placed in a cryogenic chamber, not a decompression chamber.

Other notes: Shari Lewis, who co-wrote this episode with her husband, was a huge Star Trek fan and considered it a dream come true to be able to write for the show. Ms. Lewis was of course a brilliant puppeteer and children’s television host, most famous as the star of The Shari Lewis Show and, much later, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. She wanted to play Mira Romaine herself, but they went with Jan Shutan instead.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 17 – “That Which Survives.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 19 – “Requiem for Methuselah.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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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 Tor.com 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.