Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Paradise Syndrome”

The Paradise Syndrome
Written by Margaret Armen
Directed by Jud Taylor

Season 3, Episode 3
Production episode: 3×03
Original air date: October 4, 1968
Star date: 4842.6

 

Mission summary

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy beam down into a nature documentary. The captain and doctor immediately fall in love with the rustic setting; despite astronomical odds, the planet is identical to Earth right down to the pine trees, honeysuckle, and metal obelisk in a clearing. No wait, that’s new. Its composition and the markings on the strange building are alien, but there’s no time to study it because a moon-sized asteroid is heading for the planet. They’re on a tight schedule if Enterprise is to have any chance of diverting it.

The landing party scopes out the native inhabitants they hope to save and are surprised to discover an American Indian settlement on the lake shore.

SPOCK: A mixture of Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware, I believe. All among the more advanced and peaceful tribes.
KIRK: It’s like discovering Atlantis or Shangri-la. Mr. Spock, is it possible there’s a more evolved civilization somewhere else on this planet, one capable of building that obelisk or developing a deflector system?
SPOCK: Highly improbable, Captain.

The whole situation is already highly improbable, but they roll with it. And what was that about a deflector system? Never mind, it probably isn’t important. They prepare to return to the ship, but first Kirk wants to examine the suggestive structure once more. Or perhaps he’s just reluctant to get back to work, tempted by the “peaceful, uncomplicated” way of life.

Kirk stands on a platform around the obelisk and calls the ship. No sooner does he say “Kirk to Enterprise” than he falls through a trapdoor and lands in a darkened chamber with lots of fancy consoles. He pulls himself to his feet and accidentally presses the “electrocute operator” button. Bolts of electricity zap him and he collapses. Outside the obelisk, Spock and McCoy look for their missing captain. Spock, now in command, insists they don’t have time for hide-and-seek. If they can’t stop the asteroid from colliding with the planet, Kirk will die with everyone else. They can come back for him when the tragedy has been averted.

Kirk wakes up in the obelisk chamber with amnesia and a bad case of voiceover, unable to recall his identity or how he got there. In a daze, he stumbles toward a set of stairs and a panel opens to the outside. He emerges just as two native women approach. They greet him: “We are your people. We’ve been waiting for you to come to us.” Lucky!

As Enterprise shudders along at warp nine to a rendezvous with the asteroid, Kirk is questioned by the Tribal Elder and his medicine chief, Salish, in their lodge. The Elder tells the befuddled Kirk of a prophecy:

Our skies have darkened three times since the harvest. The last time worst of all. Our legend predicts such danger and promises that the Wise Ones who planted us here will send a god to save us, one who can rouse the temple spirit and make the sky grow quiet. Can you do this?

If someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes.

Kirk doesn’t even know his name, but he could be a god, sure. All signs point to yes when he revives a drowned boy with an interesting interpretation of CPR after Salish had already pronounced the victim dead. This is grounds for a medical malpractice suit, but the Elder settles for revoking Salish’s license and making Kirk the new medicine chief. Perks of his new job include a shiny headband, as well as the Elder’s daughter Miramanee, the woman who found Kirk at the obelisk. Salish is miffed.

Enterprise reaches the giant space cauliflower asteroid in bad shape, its dilithium circuits damaged from pushing the engines past their limits. Their deflector beam barely budges the massive rock, so Spock moves them into its path, retreating before it at impulse power until they can concentrate phaser fire to break it apart.

Miramanee cozies up to her betrothed and brings him new clothing, but for the first time Kirk’s uniform shirt doesn’t come off so easily. He’s also more interested in scooping out a gourd and finding out more about the Wise Ones and the temple he came out of. The secret of how to use the temple when “the sky darkens” was passed on by tribal medicine chiefs, from father to son. Unfortunately Salish’s dad was as much of a loser as he is—he died without sharing his information. Oops. The Elder pops in to check on his daughter and future son-in-law and asks Kirk for his name. The amnesiac captain can only remember a couple of sounds, which the old man interprets as “Kirok.” Eh, close enough.

Enterprise‘s fails in its attempts to destroy the asteroid and the power drain burns out the warp drive, to Scott’s chagrin. Unable to effect repairs without returning to a starbase, Spock decides to limp back to the planet at impulse with only a four-hour lead on the asteroid, on the off-chance that he can figure out something useful about the alien obelisk in time to be of any good. The trip will only take them 59.223 days, and the Vulcan doesn’t plan to get much sleep for most of it no matter how much McCoy nags him.

A funny thing happens to Kirok on his way to his wedding: Salish attacks him with a knife. Kirok fends off the jealous man, but Salish cuts his hand and sees him bleed: “Behold a god who bleeds!” (If that’s all it took, why bother with the miracle test in the beginning?) Everyone’s at the lodge waiting for Kirok though, so he’s the only one who beholds it. Kirok leaves him behind to go get hitched, decked out in ritual face paint and a feathered cloak of many colors. Kirok blissfully settles into married life with Miramanee, the voice in his head saying “I have found paradise. Surely no man has ever attained such happiness.”

Obviously this means the good times can’t last. Months pass, and he is still troubled by dreams, half-remembered memories of his other life in the “strange lodge which moves through the sky” and guilt that he isn’t there. Then Miramanee drops a bombshell—she’s pregnant. As shocking as that is, an even bigger bombshell is on the way: the asteroid is about to reach the planet. When the skies finally darken, the people look to Kirok for salvation, but he can’t figure out how to get back inside the obelisk and “make the blue flame come out.” Not even screaming “I am Kee-rok!” seems to have an effect.

Back on Enterprise, Spock’s obsessive examination of the obelisk has paid off and he can finally translate the expository writing on the walls.

SPOCK: The symbols on the obelisk are not words. They are musical notes.
MCCOY: Musical notes? You mean it’s nothing but a song?
SPOCK: In a way, yes. Other cultures, among them certain Vulcan offshoots, use musical notes as words. The tones correspond roughly to an alphabet.
MCCOY: Were you able to make sense out of the symbols?
SPOCK: Yes. The obelisk is a marker, just as I thought. It was left by a super race known as the Preservers. They passed through the galaxy rescuing primitive cultures which were in danger of extinction and seeding them, so to speak, where they could live and grow.
MCCOY: I’ve always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered through the galaxy.
SPOCK: So have I. Apparently the Preservers account for a number of them.
MCCOY: That’s probably how the planet has survived all these centuries. The Preservers put an asteroid deflector on the planet.
SPOCK: Which has now become defective and is failing to operate.

Spock and McCoy beam down to find Kirok and Miramanee being stoned by their people. The sight of the Starfleet officers scatters the attackers, allowing them to tend to Kirok. They order Nurse Chapel down to come down with an emergency medical kit, and it’s a good thing they do because she notices the injured woman lying right next to the captain who needs even more help. With only fifty minutes to impact, Spock uses a Vulcan mind meld to help Kirk regain his memory. The technique works and they compare notes on the obelisk, the deflector mechanism.

Spock explains that musical notes or “a series of tonal qualities” can open the obelisk. Kirk recalls his actions before falling inside, flipping open his communicator and saying “Kirk to Enterprise.” The door slides open and they enter. Spock presses the correct sequence on a console to trigger a deflector beam from the top of the obelisk, which easily pushes the asteroid away to trouble another planet somewhere.

With the planet and ship out of danger, all that’s left is for Kirk to comfort Miramanee on her death bed, promising that he will always love her.


Analysis

The real paradise syndrome here is the Star Trek writers’ ongoing fascination with Eden-like planets and a yearning for simpler times. Though they thankfully refrain from invoking Eden this time around (they’re saving it for an even worse episode), the story fits the usual mold: an idyllic, Earth-like planet with primitive people and no demands other than simple living. (Whatever happened to man needing a challenge, Captain?) On this side of paradise, Kirk enjoys an overdue vacation while his responsibility literally hangs over his head—though he would never have taken time off without the Preserver-induced amnesia. (Hopefully the engineer who installed that “memory beam” in the obelisk got fired.) It seems that something in Kirk’s wiring just won’t allow him to enjoy a carefree life, a common theme all the way through Star Trek Generations. At least Kirk doesn’t ruin the American Indians’ perfect way of life as he is also prone to do… except for pretending to be a god and teaching them about irrigation and interior lighting, which they somehow couldn’t figure out on their own in over 600 years.

The setup has some promise, but on further reflection “The Paradise Syndrome” has plot holes you could drive an asteroid through. Briefly ignoring the mere presence and portrayal of Indians, the story just doesn’t make any sense. What is Enterprise doing there in the first place, if they didn’t even know who lived there? Why go out of their way to save a random planet from its natural end?

I found the shipside scenes of their attempts to redirect the asteroid and Spock’s translation of the Preserver language the best aspects of the episode, even if they cheated by having Spock consider musical languages because of his familiarity with “certain Vulcan offshoots”. (You mean…Romulans?) I was very impressed by the effects shot that tracked along Enterprise as it retreated ahead of the massive rock, not to mention the design of the obelisk itself. The problems they faced—a crippled ship and ineffective weapons—provided a sobering reminder of the dangers of space and their own limitations, and Scott’s frustrated coaxing of the warp engines offered a welcome dose of humor to an otherwise uninspired script. There were a few other subtle touches that indicate they put at least a little thought into this, such as Kirk’s bushy sideburns after two months without his barber, and the prominent deflector dish on Enterprise finally revealing its purpose.

But there’s the big issue of the Preservers, which unfortunately are little more than a weak excuse for lazy storytelling in this and other episodes where the crew encounters other humans. When you get down to it, there’s no reason to use American Indians, and plenty of reasons not to. They could have been replaced by any other alien race that was worth saving, although perhaps this is a way around the Prime Directive—not that a conflict with the rule was ever mentioned. It might make sense if the point of the episode were to introduce the Preservers as a recurring plot thread; however, the advanced race is presented as an afterthought and is never mentioned again in Star Trek. That’s probably for the best. (And no, Shatner’s novel Preserver isn’t Star Trek canon.)

The episode also talks about a prophecy, which appears to be fulfilled by Kirk’s arrival. Yet the prediction of “the Wise Ones” contradicts the fact that the medicine chief is supposed to know the secret of the temple. If someone is trained to use the deflector, why promise that a god will come to save them? Either they’re psychic (which could explain “Kirk to Enterprise” being the equivalent of “Open Sesame”) or they were setting themselves up for the inevitable Preserver maintenance guy on routine inspections. Where did the Preservers go, anyway? Who preserves the Preservers?

One other thing really irked me: Spock’s resorting to using rocks to illustrate how they were planning to divert the asteroid. I know McCoy’s just an old country doctor, but he isn’t an idiot. The viewers at home likely didn’t need the grammar school demonstration either, even the ones who were actually in grammar school at the time.

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

Torie Atkinson: The moment this episode opened onto a pristine wooded landscape I began to hear, in the back of my mind, the rendition of “Row Your Boat” that so scarred me as a Trek fan. Turns out I wasn’t that far off…

I can’t even begin to talk about this episode without confronting the staggering racism in the “American Indians” depicted. Let’s get this out of the way: the inhabitants of Amerind (*groan*) are at worst offensive caricatures, and at best the manifestation of the bizarre, creepy fantasy that the indigenous peoples we proceeded to nearly exterminate are some paragon of blissful tranquility. The idea that American Indians represented a Biblical paradise of unvarying rusticism is both stupid and offensive.

While the “noble savage” can be traced to the beginning of the modern era, the quaint idealism espoused by Kirk here (“so peaceful, uncomplicated”; a kind of “Atlantis, or Shangri-La”) seems to me a very particular early American myth. Today we call it primitivism and it’s not okay. But Hollywood made a killing by caricaturing American Indians in this way, and that’s probably why Paramount had so many of these costumes lying around. It’s critical to keep in mind that there is not and never was any monolithic American Indian, and Spock saying that these are the combination of the “Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware” completely fails to recognize how different those cultures were. (Also warlike! And matrilineal! But whatever.) The fact that we never see any other tribes (or even villages) is confusing and weird.

Also they’re all white actors. Great job, Star Trek.

“The Paradise Syndrome” is a fantasy, pure and simple. It pushes aside pesky things like the horrors of first contact in order to fetishize an (imaginary) back-to-nature ideal and project that onto a convenient culture. Our captain is just so stressed, you see, and what he needs is a simple life with a simple woman (so simple she can’t figure out how to take off his shirt) to have simple children with and live out the rest of his days in peaceful simplicity. Did I mention how simple?

It’s all ridiculous, of course, because it implies not just that technology alone somehow creates conflict, but that Captain Kirk would thrive in this kind of world. We’ve seen time and time again in “The Menagerie,” “This Side of Paradise,” and “The Gamesters of Triskelion” (am I forgetting any?) that men like Kirk—and he’s all of us, remember—cannot survive without conflict. It’s imperative that he have something to struggle against, something to aspire to, and something to stimulate his desire for knowledge and achievement. Without goals and without the innate human need to reach higher and farther than the last time, men become empty, hollow shells of themselves. It was baffling to me that the Kirk we have seen so often wax poetically about how struggles make us human is presumed here to have, all along, desired tedious complacency. I don’t buy it. It doesn’t make sense for Kirk and what we know of him and it doesn’t make sense to me in my experience as a living person. People need challenges. It’s one of those themes that I feel Star Trek has always gotten right, and here it is so wrong.

In the scope of things, though, that wrong seems almost trivial amidst the other huge wrongs. Kirk, as the “civilized” white guy is clever and smart (he made a lamp, guys!) and a born leader and just so goshdarn awesome. They have stoves, apparently, and yet can’t figure out how to make a lamp on their own? As the trope goes, “What these people need is a honky.” Combine that with the fridge stuffing of Miramanee and you get one of the more appalling episodes in the franchise (so far…). I was frankly shocked that they not only allowed Kirk to get married, but allowed this woman to carry his child. Of course, then they have to kill her off to ensure that Kirk remains heroic (and unattached).

More than “Spock’s Brain,” even, “The Paradise Syndrome” had some of the most painfully idiotic dialogue in the series. They reach the obelisk and Spock finds the “incised” symbols (they’re raised, actually) and thinks they’re “some form of writing.” You don’t say. Once Kirk disappears into the obelisk, Spock becomes Bill Nye and uses rocks to show Dr. McCoy the asteroid problem. Do they not cover physics in the medical school of the future? I also love when Miramanee reveals that, yeah, Salish probably should know how to activate the temple, but they only tell one guy at a time and the last guy died with the knowledge. This is why you have back-ups, people.

Completely buried under all those things, however, was the spark of an interesting twist: what if Starfleet and its captains were the space douches? We’ve seen before that a “god” is usually just an advanced alien species, and here that’s Kirk. What if they are the ones upsetting the balance, playing power games, and trying to prove a point? What if “trying to help” backfires? There was a great (unrealized) opportunity here to see that trope turned on its head.

I also liked the idea of writing based on music. Phonetics aren’t so far off, really, and so many cultures have strong oral traditions. Why they decided to reinforce this idea by having every appearance of Spock include a bass line, I cannot say.

I know that the end is supposed to be tragic, but it felt completely forced. There’s no denouement at all; the fade to black is abrupt and startling. I didn’t feel anything at Miramanee’s death because the two of them exchanged maybe five words before they became engaged (did she even know his name at that point??), and then their “happiness” seems to involve frolicking in the forest. (Hilariously, this trope continues forty years later—it’s even in the Twilight movies.)

The one truly outstanding aspect of this episode was Spock. His struggle to accept the consequences of his high-risk gambling is moving and authentic. He tries to be Kirk, really, and it doesn’t suit him. I liked the way that he and McCoy mourned for Kirk in their own way and allowed themselves, in part, to become closer because of it.

Maybe if you just cut those parts out and splice them together I will watch it again?

 

Torie’s Rating: Warp 1

 

Best Line: SPOCK: “His mind. He is…an extremely dynamic individual.”

 

Syndication Edits: Spock’s log entry 4843.6; Kirk’s first appearance in the tribal lodge; Salish walks to the lake after Miramanee dumps him and Kirk makes a lamp; McCoy leaving Spock’s quarters after they argue about the obelisk; Miramanee’s discussion of her joining meaning “the end of darkness”; part of Kirk’s fight with Salish after he first says “Behold the god who bleeds!”; after the joining, an establishing shot of the ship retreating before the asteroid, Spock thinking, and McCoy entering the Vulcan’s quarters; some of Kirk and Mirmanee’s antics in the forest; following a commercial break, another establishing shot and McCoy entering Spock’s quarters again; Salish and the others begin stoning Kirk while Miramanee climbs the platform; Miramanee telling Spock she saw Kirk emerge from the temple.

Trivia: The original outline for this episode was titled “The Paleface” (groan) and differed in many details, some of which might have benefited the filmed episode had they remained. The planet Amerind (ugh) was in a meteor and asteroid belt (only implied by Kirk and Spock’s dialogue in the teaser) and instead of an obelisk, the deflector was a totem pole with its controls hidden in a “haunted” underground cave. Kirk’s amnesia is caused by a head wound and Spock beams him and the American Indians to Enterprise to save them. Miramanee survives with Kirk’s child.

Other notes: Alternative explanations for the prevalance of humanoid life in the galaxy were proposed in “Return to Tomorrow” and TNG’s “The Chase.” Some fans have speculated that the representative of the ancient alien race at the end of the latter episode could be a Preserver, which isn’t supported or refuted by any episode.

The director, Jud Taylor, acted in shows such as The Fugitive and directed episodes of numerous genre series and TV films, including Weekend of Terror, Search for the Gods, and Return to Earth.

Sabrina Scharf (Miramanee) appeared the next year in Easy Rider. Rudy Solari (Salish) appeared in The Outer Limits (with Leonard Nimoy) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, while Richard Hale (Tribal Elder Goro) appeared on Thriller.

The lake in this episode is the Franklin Reservoir near L.A., immortalized in television as Andy Griffith’s fishing hole.

 


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 2-“The Enterprise Incident.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 4-“And the Children Shall Lead.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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.