Fear & Xenophobia: The Balance of Terror, Then and Now

Xenophobia and Racism are two common themes addressed throughout Star Trek – not just The Original Series, but throughout all of its incarnations as well.  The Balance of Terror, the fourteenth episode of the Original Series, is no exception and very directly addresses these concepts.  The plot of this episode revolves around a game of wits between the Enterprise and a Romulan ‘Warbird,’ after the Romulan ship had been suspected of targeting Federation outposts at the border of what’s known as the Neutral Zone, separating Federation and Romulan space.


*Retro print by Juan Ortiz*

The episode’s plot very clearly serves as an allegory for the Cold War, right down to its title which doubles as a 1950s reference to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.  A phrase famously coined by Lester Pierson when stating, “the balance of terror has replaced the balance of power.”  However, as opposed to simply mirroring the political stalemate between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Star Trek takes the commentary to a level that addresses the fear and xenophobia that ran rampant during the Red Scare.

First and foremost, commentary aside, this episode did an excellent job of evoking emotion, building tension, setting up a suspenseful game of tactical cat and mouse, and establishing an equal foil to Captain Kirk in the Romulan Commander (played by Mark Lenard who would later be cast as Spock’s father, Sarek).Balance-of-Terror  Some may find this a particularly slow episode, focusing more on the introspection of our lead characters and building tension in the plot than action, however to me it evokes a sense of nostalgia for the days when TV shows or movies didn’t have to consistently ‘wow’ us with shiny things and explosions.  I digress, however, as you may have pieced together, this is one of my favorite episodes.

Nobody aboard the Enterprise has a good idea of what a Romulan looks or acts like, only basing their knowledge off of archaic prejudices and fears from a war that took place over a century prior to this story.  However, when we are given our first glimpse the Romulan commander, it is quickly evident that the newly encountered race bears a strong resemblance to Vulcans, shifting attention over to the Enterprise’s first officer Spock.

Despite the fact that Spock’s Vulcan heritage is separate and different from the Romulan’s, aside from common ancestors, the initial fear of the mysterious new race boils over into a strong sense of racism and hatred towards Spock – specifically embodied by one Lieutenant Stiles who had family that served in the Earth-Romulan War.

While this part of the story mirrors attitudes of the masses during the Red Scare and the fears people had towards Communism that led to blacklists and McCarthyism, I would argue that the message still holds strong, if not stronger, today.  Not only do we still see the words ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ thrown around as insults and dirty words, but our post 9/11 society has given way to a new level of institutionalized prejudices and profiling.

Today, within the masses of our culture and society, there still exists a deeply rooted fear of the unknown or different that, in many people, transcends into hatred and bigotry. Today, we’ve seen this firsthand through through political debates over LGBT rights that have led to comparatively higher proportions of LGBT youth to attempt suicide.  We’ve seen it in the unfettered attacks (both physical and verbal) on people who look different than us because of their perceived resemblance to “terrorists,” like the Wisconsin Sikhresist_the_welfare_state_print-r0c4851666b44445080c48a2337d539d0_2ixs_8byvr_324 Temple shooting.  We’ve seen it in the degradation of the Islamic religion to an insult, by using the word, ‘Muslim,’ to verbally attack others.  We see it in the news in the declaration by some extremists of our first black president as being ‘not American,’ a ‘terrorist,  a ‘radical socialist’ (despite fairly status-quo and middle of the road policies and ideals), and using his race as an insult.  We see every day it in the frequent and unnecessary vilification of the poor and those on welfare, the depiction of immigrants as numbers instead of people, the growing intensity of nationalism and strong allegiances to invisible borders – the list could go on and on.




By no means do I want to deny the progress and steps we’ve taken forward in the issues in our society, but I believe that as we grow more and more self-aware and accepting of tolerance as a society, the the more important a powerful message such as the one found in The Balance of Terror becomes.  As we make stronger and more concerted efforts to eradicate our own prejudices, we should be that much more introspective and critical of ourselves when we witness these challenges to progress.west-boro-baptist-church-1

One specific aspect of The Balance of Terror that I found particularly effective is the depiction of the Romulan commander, and the scenes aboard the Romulan Warbird.  It’s one thing to display scenes of xenophobia and racism on the Enterprise and tell us that it’s wrong, but it’s a completely different and more poignant tactic to show us why it’s wrong by giving us the other side of the coin.  The Romulan commander is shown to be an effective and conscientious leader, only differing from Kirk in that he serves a different side and comes from a different culture.  This paints a picture of a universe in which neither side of a war or conflict is ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but simply forced to fight on the whim of a few political rulers/leaders that feel a sense of aggression towards one another.  This is a universe in which men and women are motivated to fight by propaganda, misunderstandings, and fear of the unknown.  This is a universe not at all unlike our own.

“I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

– Romulan Commander (to Kirk)

Idealism vs. Realism: The Galileo Seven & Leadership

What makes a leader?

While posing several unique moral and ethical questions, Star Trek’s sixteenth episode, The Galileo Seven, particularly takes at hard look at the role of a leader while juxtaposing the personas and philosophies of two very different commanders.

Martin Chemers, a social psychologist who specializes in leadership and team/organizational effectiveness, provided what many experts consider to be the definitive definition of leadership, positing that it is a “process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

Throughout Star Trek, we see both Kirk and Spock exemplify Chemers’ definition, however the two characters starkly differ in their philosophies on how to lead.  On one hand, Kirk acts as the idealist, while on the other Spock counters as the realist; simply put: emotion vs. reason or logic.  Many of the challenges faced in Star Trek are met by the teamwork between Kirk and Spock and by how their differing philosophies compliment each other in the end.  However, The Galileo Seven attempts to illuminate the contrast between these two, and the need for their cooperation, by separating them in isolated situations.

The plot of the episode separates Kirk and Spock right away through the shuttlecraft Galileo.  The Galileo, containing Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, and four other members of the crew, crash lands on a planet, out of range from the Enterprise’s sensors, after investigating a “quasar-like formation” (a quasar is the name given to an energetic and active galactic nucleus, more information here).


While on the surface of the planet, Spock quickly takes command of the situation, although his strictly logical leadership style comes off as heartless and callous as it clashes with the fears of the surviving members of the crash.  With the daunting fact that the damaged Galileo cannot sustain all seven crew members if they attempt a take-off, and the growing improbability of contact with the Enterprise, Spock’s treatment of the fellow survivors comes off as cold and calculating – treating humans as capital, or numbers, rather than living beings.

Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, Kirk faces the task of taking on a ‘needle in a haystack’ search for his lost crew members and friends, while the clock ticks to get much needed medical supplies to a Federation planet ravaged by plagues.  Famous for his refusal to believe in a no-win scenario, Kirk whittles away at time as he searches for the Galileo seven despite unreliable sensor readings through the quasar phenomenon.  Kirk truly believes he can find his friends and colleagues while still delivering the medical supplies in time.  This belief, much to the dismay of Commissioner Ferris whose job is to see the supplies arrive on time, is carried by Kirk’s unchallenged optimism and idealism.


Referring back to Chamers’ definition of leadership, throughout the course of this episode, Kirk and Spock do not exemplify individuals who are able to use their social influence in enlisting the aid and support of others to accomplish their goals.  The two spend much of the episode at odds with members of their team and refusing to come to terms with their own infallibility and shortcomings.  However, it is this contradiction of leadership wherein lies the true theme of this story.

Together, the characters of Kirk and Spock represent two parts of what makes a great leader.  This allegory is challenged as the two split apart, acting out separately as individual sides to the same coin.

In a Forbes article from April of this year, contributor Micha Kaufman, looks at this concept from an Entrepreneurial standpoint.  He points out that, without idealists, “there would be no innovation, no fresh ideas that change the world,” and without realists, “no business could hope to sustain itself.”  With that in mind, Kaufman puts forth the idea that an Entrepreneur, or a leader, must strike a balance between the two in order to create a successful start-up or lead a successful business.  This notion remains unchallenged outside of the business world – holding just as true in the space opera scenarios of Star Trek as in the daily lives of you and me.

Individually, Kirk and Spock are able to progress through the story just long enough before they must meet each other halfway in order to succeed and overcome the challenges they face.  This proves that together they can strike the balance between realism and idealism or logic and emotion, bring out the best of each quality from each other, and motivate and inspire the rest of the crew.

[Star Trek: The Original Series]: S1Ep11&12: The Menagerie (Parts 1 & 2)

The only two-part episode during Star Trek’s Original Series run, “The Menagerie” episodes aired, respectively, November 17th and November 24th 1966.  This episode allowed the Star Trek producers to ease the pressure and cost of putting out a new episode every week by reusing footage from the unaired pilot (“The Cage”) and splicing it in with some newly shot scenes.  This also allowed Roddenberry to work around the network and make his original vision of the series still part of the overall cannon.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Spock kidnaps the crippled Capt. Pike, hijacks the Enterprise and then surrenders for court martial.

It might also help to know the synopsis for the original pilot, “The Cage,” from which the scenes were spliced into this episode (also from IMDB):

Capt. Pike is held prisoner and tested by aliens who have the power to project incredibly lifelike illusions.

The new J.J. Abrams films have really increased the public’s exposure to the character of Captain Pike, however, back in the 1960s, this two part episode served the viewers as both an introduction to Pike, and his relationship with Spock, as well his send off from the series.  In “The Menagerie” Spock’s loyalty to his former captain trumps his own self-preservation as he risks everything to bring the now crippled Captain Pike back to the planet and the aliens who held him hostage many years ago.  The reasoning behind this is slowly unraveled as we are taken through the on-ship court martial procedure of Spock, while the limits of reality are tested and pushed as the mysterious aliens, known as the Talosians, take part by distorting the lines of what is and what isn’t an illusion.

Blurring Lines 47 years before Robin Thicke...

Blurring Lines 47 years before Robin Thicke…

The fact that this episode took a much slower pace than any of its predecessors, telling its story through the lens of a procedural drama, and that the plot focused on telling Pike’s story may have turned off some of the show’s more casual viewers or those who were interested in seeing more of Kirk and the current crew.  However, in my opinion, this episode represents a controversial theme that was decades ahead of its time, one that we are still afraid of and is still uncomfortable to discuss openly today, and not without good measure: the rights of life and death during end-of-life care.

This is by no means an issue to take on lightly, and I won’t pretend that a liberal arts graduate from the University of Minnesota who runs a Star Trek blog is the foremost authority on the topic.  However, at the very least I hope to incite open discussion on something growing increasingly relevant in a post-healthcare overhaul society, and a culture of inflated stimulations, addicted to buzzwords and the 24-hour news network.

The plot of of The Menagerie, aside from the political side-stories, boils down to the question of what course of care should be taken for the ailing, former-captain Christopher Pike, who has been rendered disfigured and paralyzed due to delta ray exposure during a maintenance accident.

Post-accident, Pike is left paralyzed and horribly burned

Post-accident, Pike is left paralyzed and horribly burned…

On the other hand; post-time travel (according to JJ Abrams), Pike is left looking a lot like Bruce Greenwood...

…on the other hand; post-time travel (according to JJ Abrams), Pike is left looking a lot like Bruce Greenwood.

Wheelchair-bound, and unable to communicate other than through a series of beeps through his chair, Pike is receiving care simply to prolong life as much as possible. His physical state parallels the status quo of end-of-life care in our society today; aiming to elongate life at the expense of costly procedures, trauma and hardship to the family, and, depending on the situation, pain for the individual receiving care.

Throughout the course of the episode, Spock’s plan is unraveled.  He sees Pike as a shell of his former shelf; his current physical state acting as a cage for the soul trapped inside.  Spock hopes to use the Enterprise to end Pike’s suffering by allowing him to live out the rest of his natural life with the Talosians, who can grant him the illusion of being who he was before the accident, and living out his days with the girl he fell in love with on that planet long ago.

Spock’s ideology in pursuing this plot hinges on the concept of end-of-life Palliative care.  Palliative care is the medical care provided solely to ease pain and the stress and symptoms of serious illnesses – this is most recognized in our society as Hospice care.

Today, debates on end-of-life care are far ranging and, many times, hard to decipher.  As I mentioned before, our increasing need for stimulation has given greater power and weight to the 24-hour news networks, who revel in twisting and contorting facts in their continued quest for ratings.  Since the advent of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (aka the ACA & aka ‘Obamacare’), the debate has taken a new position in the spotlight.  From the “right-to-die” movement to the Sarah Palin ‘death panel’ ordeal, and now to more current conversations regarding the taxpayer cost of life-elongation treatments, the issue has definitely evolved.

A recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that, “unwarranted” end-of-life care, which doctors in the study refer to as “futile,” is costing people and hospitals millions at different levels.  The study found that, “68% of the patients who received futile treatment died in the hospital, 16% died within six months and the rest remained in chronic poor health.”  (Soucre: United Press International article: ‘Study: Futile end-of-life care costs millions, not warranted‘).

I understand that end-of-life care is by no means a black and white issue.  On paper, looking towards palliative care becoming the norm seems reasonable and more cost-effective, yet we still can’t speak for every unique case, and we also must remember that we are not talking about numbers, but people.  This is what makes me wonder if there is a middle ground – something that will prove to be efficient and humane, while still avoiding futile and unwarranted procedures.

A new bill introduced in Congress, sponsored by U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA), would shift the focus away from end-of-life emergency care by creating more incentives and focus on end-of-life counseling and preventative care. This specific bill, the Care Planning Act of 2013, aims to “reimburse medical professionals for the time invested in these end-of-life conversations, develop a public information campaign, and develop quality metrics to measure the effectiveness in delivering the desired medical care.”  In other words, the bill will create a medicare and medicaid benefit for patient-centered and personal care counseling, reimburse medical professionals for providing voluntary, structured discussions about the patient’s goals and treatment options, all while providing resources for public and professional education regarding care planning.  Aside from this new bill, we’ve seen many efforts to encourage progress in this area, specifically, through the Affordable Care Act and its provisions increasing access to preventative care, expanding medicaid and creating state healthcare exchanges, bolstering insurance coverage for hospice and palliative care, and providing pre-planning educational materials in an attempt to diminish last minute, costly, emergency treatments.

In the end of “The Menagerie,” Captain Pike is given the choice to return to his life of limited existence, or to revisit the Talosians and live out the rest of his life comfortably and on his own terms.  Despite knowing the latter choice is simply an illusion, Pike chooses comfort over his current life of despair.  This question mirrors countless present day dilemmas in which we must ask ourselves, who is truly benefitting from these aggressive, life-prolonging procedures?  In the end, this episode suggests that it is not always the individual who is being treated.  Spock’s plan for Pike wrapped up nicely by the end of both parts of “The Menagerie,” despite needing two full episodes to convince everyone else he was pursuing the right path.  This episode took us through many shades of moral and philosophical grays, and can by no means act as a catch-all answer to questions of this matter in real life.  However, one thing I do believe we can take from this is that accepting our own mortality may be one of the hardest challenges life has to offer.  Allowing a friend or family member to face that challenge may be painful for the rest of us – nevertheless we must realize that it is their choice to make.

MN Fringe Fest Review: ‘Stuck in an Elevator With Patrick Stewart’

I luckily heard about this show on a whim, casually glancing through the acts featured at the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival.  The Twin Cities is second only to New York City in live theater per capita, and is the third largest theater market in the United States after NYC and Chicago, so quite a few acts will unfortunatley roll through town under my radar.  I’ve always taken pride in our state’s welcoming atmosphere to on-stage shows, thus I had to kick myself over the fact that it took me until 2013 to finally make it out to the Fringe Festival.  With this mindset, I endeavored to make it to at least one show – and being a Star Trek blogger (or super-fan, as some may say) and seeing an advertisement in the Minnesota Daily for ‘Stuck in an Elevator with Patrick Stewart,’ I knew what I had to do.

To be completely honest, I really had no idea what to expect on the day when I walked into the Redeye Theater in downtown Minneapolis for the show.  While I understood the basic premise (from the Fringe Fest website), I wasn’t quite sure what tone the show would take:

A renowned actor, torn between the London stage and Hollywood, and the sharp but awkward teenager who idolizes him, challenge each other’s hopes and fears amidst the chaos of a sci-fi convention in 1988.

The synopsis doesn’t give too much away, and the title could have us believe that this had the potential be no more than a goofy situational comedy and series of nerdy exchanges between Patrick Stewart and a Trekkie that is annoying him.  However, that notion could not be further from the truth.  While there were many bits of comedy – very clever and funny bits, for that matter – there was so much more in the realm character drama, emotion, and depth throughout the production that really gave the whole thing a truly genuine sense of heart.

It’s known that Patrick Stewart wasn’t a huge fan of being involved in Star Trek during the first season or two.  He hated being thought of as an “unknown Shakespearian actor,” and felt that Hollywood was beneath what he really wanted to be doing amidst the world of the stage.  ‘Stuck in an Elevator with Patrick Stewart’ shows him at that point in his life, addressing Daniel, a diehard fan of the show that he sees as a simple escapist fantasy – all while, as the title implies, stuck in an elevator.

I absolutely loved the message that the escapism implied throughout the play is not only simple childish fantasy, but can provide hope and inspiration to those who may lack the opportunity for these in any other form.  The exchanges between Patrick Stewart and the character of Daniel tackle issues ranging from mental isolationism, emotional abuse, and bullying to integrity of character, redemption, and Shakespeare.

What truly touched me , was how this production demonstrated that something seen as trivial or even childish by some, can truly mean so much to others.  For the character of Daniel, Star Trek gave him the means to believe in himself, and to believe that good can really exist in the world.  This idea can translate to almost anything and apply to nearly anyone. To me, personally, Star Trek represents much of my childhood with my Father who recently passed away earlier this summer, it has translated to my relationship with my wife who shares my passion for all things nerdy, and it continues as a source of hope and optimism for a better world.  Star Trek is not for everyone and I understand that – however you do not need to be a Trekkie, to appreciate the themes and the ideas conveyed in ‘Stuck in an Elevator With Patrick Stewart.’  It is so much more than a simple Star Trek story – it is a human story, the meanings that Daniel, and that I, myself, place on Star Trek could apply to a book, an event, a piece of artwork, or an old trinket to any other person.

I believe that the play sold out all of its showings at the Redeye Theater, and I know it has received stellar feedback across the board.  The cast was excellent, the production was outstanding, and I would highly recommend it.  Check out The Theatre Cosmic’s website and their facebook page for more info on this show and their other productions as well – and let’s hope that this cast and crew get another chance to perform in the near future.

Star Trek: Renegades; New Independent ST Project

In this new era of Star Trek, we’ve seen much attention paid to the original series cast specific to the J.J. Abrams universe.  While this is great, and I love the new films and the attention it’s brought to Star Trek as a whole, the new universe has left little room for any growth of the ‘Prime’ universe that we all know and love to continue in any on-screen format.

Enter the team of Star Trek: Renegades.  Star Trek: Renegades is a new project being put together by several Trek alums, including Tim Russ (Tuvok) and Walter Keonig (Checkov), and aiming to serve as a pilot proposal to CBS as a new TV series or a potential web series.

Synopsis (from indiegogo):

Ten years after Voyager’s return from the Delta Quadrant, the Federation is in crisis. Someone has caused space and time to fold around several planets, all of which are the Federation’s main suppliers of dilithium, essentially cutting off the supply for several millennia.  Starfleet’s methods to stop those responsible have been ineffective. This necessitates more drastic measures, some of which are outside the Federation’s jurisdiction. It now falls to Admiral Pavel Chekov, head of Starfleet Intelligence, and Commander Tuvok, Voyager’s former security officer and new head of the clandestine Section 31, to put together a new covert, renegade crew – primarily comprised of outcasts, rogues and even criminals.  But can they refrain from killing each other to accomplish their task? That may be the bigger question…

This is the same team that put together the film, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, a couple of years ago, starring Walter Keonig, Nichelle Nichols, and Alan Ruck, and set a few years after the opening scenes of Star Trek: Generations.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it on youtube here.  This film is just an awesomely nostalgic, well-done yet unfortunately underfunded, little project that won several online awards and pumped up countless Star Trek nerds.

I love the fact that this group truly has a love for Star Trek.  You can see by the time and effort they put into these projects that provide virtually no returns that they are definitely working for the fans.  They have already exceeded their fundraising on Kickstarter, raising over $240,000 and are working on an indiegogo campaign to raise more to try and put out the best product possible.  They’ve already surpassed their $20,000 initial goal, but are looking to raise as much as possible to build extra set and add more shooting time.  They have some pretty cool deals for supporting too, including digital downloads, DVDs, Blu Rays of the final product, prop replicas, autographs, posters, name in the credits, among other awesome awards.  Check out their official website here and consider supporting their indiegogo campaign here.  Help keep the independent spirit of Star Trek alive!

[Star Trek: The Original Series] S1Ep9: Dagger of the Mind

First broadcast on November 3rd, 1966, the 9th Star Trek episode, “Dagger of the Mind,” takes its title from a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth – one of several Shakespearian references throughout Star Trek’s long run and various incarnations.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Kirk and psychiatrist Helen Noel are trapped on a maximum security penal colony that experiments with mind control and Spock must use the Vulcan mind-meld to find a way to save them.

“Captain, we’ve met. Don’t you remember the science lab Christmas party?” – Dr. Helen Noel

You’ll have to pardon my vulgarity here, but a Star Trek episode aiming its social commentary towards our prison system serves as a veritable wet dream for a sociologist who specialized in criminology and deviance and decided to apply those skills to writing a blog about Star Trek.

According to Dagger of the Mind, the universe of Star Trek has established prisons as penal colonies, and on the colony that this particular story takes place, a man by the name of Dr. Adams has revolutionized prison theory and the Federation’s systems of punishment and corrections.  As Kirk explains, “Dr. Adams has done more to revolutionise, to humanise prisons and the treatment of prisoners than all the rest of humanity had done in forty centuries”  These methods, however humane they may seem, are not without contention.

“A cage is a cage, Jim.” – Dr. McCoy

“Dagger of the Mind” premiered at a very timely period of national discourse relating to prisons and prisoner’s rights.  The 1960s marked the beginning of the Prisoner’s Rights movement in the U.S., with prisoners taking cues and language from the Civil Rights movements in an attempt to demand better treatment.  From about 1960-1980, prisoners incessantly challenged every aspect of prison policy and programs through civil rights suits in federal courts all across the country.  This movement directly influenced the judicial branch to abandon their ‘hands-off’ approach to incarceration, and began limiting the powers of congress and the executive branch in this regard.  While prisons and prisoners saw dramatic increases in the quality of living and treatment during this time, the movement and reforms hit a plateau during the 1980s, under the ‘tough-on-crime’ President, Ronald Reagan, and has since become overly politicized and politically dangerous for officials to attempt reforms.

Dr. Adam’s prison in “Dagger of the Mind,” seems very tranquil and humane on the outside, but once inside, Kirk and Dr. Noel find that the staff employ some very questionable techniques through the power of suggestion.  Using a device called the neural neutralizer, Dr. Adams discovered a method to forcefully implant thoughts and feelings into a prisoner’s mind, taking away the ability for them to think freely for themselves (which he uses to force Kirk to fall madly in love with Dr. Noel).  The process is an extreme parallel to the entire concept of incarceration, or restraint on an individual’s external liberties, specifically our freedom of locomotion.  While Kirk and Dr. Noel are stuck on the planet, Spock debuts his Vulcan Mind Meld technique to read the mind of an escaped prisoner (who is revealed to be a former Doctor on the planet who opposed the experiments), to discover the true danger that Dr. Adams presents.

"Just so you know guys, I can read minds.  Maybe that would help?"

“Just so you know guys, I can read minds. Maybe that would help?”

The prisoner’s rights movement gave way to a larger socio-philosophical question to the societal norms in our prison systems; should we should look at incarceration just as punishment or as an opportunity for rehabilitation?  Rehabilitative efforts started strongly in the 1970s and even continued through the 1980s despite decreased popularity, however the effort was effectively killed during the presidential election of 1988 due to the Willie Horton Scandal (which also helped to kill Michael Dukakis’ campaign).  While participating an a weekend furlough program, Horton abused his privileges and twice-raped a local woman, assaulted her fiancé, and stole their car.  He was ultimately recaptured and sentenced to two life sentences, however the issue became a huge talking point for George H.W. Bush and the Republicans, especially since the incident happened in Michael Dukakis’ home state of Massachusetts and through a program supported by Democrats.  If public opinion on rehabilitative programs hadn’t already shifted during the Reagan administration, any support they might have had went down with Dukakis’ failed presidential bid.

The neural neutralizer on Dr. Adams’ prison planet seems to resemble the rehabilitative efforts in a post-prison-rehabilitation society such as our own.  It appears humane on the outside, but truly serves as the forceful removal of certain rights and liberties.  As the topic of prison reform is scary to the public, its even scarier to our leaders – we want the peace of mind that prison is humane, yet we really don’t want to know what is truly going on.

The techniques used in “Dagger of the Mind” remind me of modern efforts toward chemical castration, and other medical procedures to reduce crime and criminal behaviors.  Chemical castration has become controversial and is seen to some as cruel and unusual punishment, however the issue is not as black and white as the one presented in “Dagger of the Mind,” which makes it all the more interesting, both socially and philosophically – for example, can chemical castration, when offered as a choice instead of incarceration, actually be seen as more humane?

“Dagger of the Mind” opens up an entire can of worms when it comes to prison and rehabilitation commentary, much of it is years ahead of its time.  What I described here barely scratches the surface of the complex moral debates and history of prison reform and prisoner civil rights.  Today we are at a political standstill when it comes to prison reform – but with mass incarceration across the country, unnecessary sentences for petty drug crimes (the whole outdated War on Drugs as well, for that matter), and the exploding costs of not only keeping prisoners but the death penalty as well, we are long overdue for increased public discourse on this topic.  I urge you to stay informed and encourage your elected officials to bring this to the table.

[Star Trek: The Original Series] S1Ep8: Miri

Star Trek’s 8th episode, “Miri,” aired on October 27th, 1966.  “Miri,” was the first of many Star Trek episodes to stir up controversy, this one to the point of being banned in the UK for being “too distressful.”  In all fairness, the episode does contain several unsettling Children of the Corn-esque elements – complete with creepy children chanting and all.  “Miri” guest stars Kim Darby (famous for staring alongside John Wayne in the 1969 western, True Grit) as the episode’s title character.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

The Enterprise receives an old style SOS signal and finds on arrival a planet that is virtually identical to Earth. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Yeoman Rand beam down to the planet only to find that it is inhabited solely by children. Kirk befriends one of the older children, Miri, but they soon learn that experiments to prolong life killed all of the adults and that the children will also die when they reach puberty. They also learn that the children are in fact, very old. Soon, the landing party contracts the virus and has seven days to find a cure.

What this episode does (and potentially why it was seen as so distressful in the UK) is take the beloved classic play, Peter and Wendy (better known by newer incarnations as Peter Pan), and gives it a twist straight out of The Twilight Zone. The story quickly establishes a reverse-Neverland setting which introduces us to the gang of pre-pubescent old-folks (mentioned in the synopsis), who are in reality over 300 years old, but have yet to physically age due to the experiments of their elders.

Making Kirk into more of a ‘cougar-hunter’ than potential statutory rapist

This episode creates a world not only where children don’t grow up, but one where they can’t.  Puberty means death, and anyone post-pubescent is doomed to rapidly deteriorate into madness and die within seven days of arriving on the planet.

And looking like this

While looking like this

An interesting science fiction element to this episode is that it exhibits various facets closer to a dystopian story as opposed to the usual space opera setting of Star Trek.  By setting the story on an exact replica of Earth (which, oddly, is never quite explained in this episode) and using humans as the antagonists, the writers created a world that very well could have been Earth – almost serving as a warning as many dystopian tales tend to do.  This element serves to craft a social commentary on experiments of human life and playing God – nothing incredibly new to the Star Trek universe, even this early on in the series – but more interestingly, it allows us as viewers to take an outsider’s approach, through Kirk and the landing party, to the social warnings presented throughout the episode. Doing this allows for the writers to flip Roddenberry’s optimistic vision on its head, and ask the question, what if Earth didn’t unite and reach for the stars to better ourselves through exploration?  What if we instead tried to use science to artificially better ourselves at home?

On the flip side of this story, there is a very human element looking at biological and social-emotional development in children, specifically relating to prosocial behavior such as empathy and sympathy.  Psychologist Dr. Lawrence Kutner, writes in his article, How Children Develop Empathy, that empathy is a skill that children learn.  He continues on to point out that infants and toddlers show signs of empathy and altruism at early ages, however this behavior should be fostered through teaching and parenting.  We don’t quite know how old the children in “Miri” were when all the adults died out and how truly slow their rate of biological development has become, but the gang of children that plots against the away team appear (at least at first) to be devoid of any basic principles of empathy and sympathy.

The nature of these children could also very easily tackle issues of innate humanity; are humans, by nature, kind and altruistic or are we inherently “evil”?  We as a society like to look at this question and point to the center, painting a more neutral picture of innate humanity to be shaped one way or the other through various combinations of our biological and sociological development.  Because of this view, those of us who develop much closer to being intrinsically “evil,” are looked at as abnormal.  They are seen as having behavioral disorders such as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) or Psychopathy, or given names such as ‘psychopath,’ or ‘crazy.’

It’s possible the gang of children in “Miri” were meant to represent psychopathy in children.

Especially this kid

Especially this kid

Many adults would prefer to refuse to believe psychopathy exists in children as it is a terrifying and ugly concept to face, however, a University of Chicago study shows that callous and cold children show dysfunction in similar areas of the brain as psychopathic criminal offenders.  This begs the question, if abnormalities such as psychopathy develop early on in childhood, are they learned, socialized disorders, or do they stem from root natural causes?

The children in this episode definitely display callous and even criminal behavior representative of psychopathy as they steal the away team’s communicators, kidnap Janice Rand, and attempt to physically beat Kirk.  However, despite the bleak atmosphere of this episode, we are given a taste of Roddenberry optimism at the very end:

(FYI, “Grups” is a slang term the children came up with for “grown-ups.”)

“Look at the blood on my face. Now look at your hands. Blood on your hands. Now who’s doing the hurting? Not the Grups, it’s you hurting, yelling, maybe killing, just like the Grups you remember and creatures you’re afraid of. You’re acting like them, and you’re going to be just like them unless you let me help you. I’m a Grup, and I want to help you. I’m begging you, let me help you or there won’t be anything left at all. Please.”

Through this soliloquy, Kirk digs a path into the children’s deeply rooted, untouched, innate empathy, appealing to their humanity and showing them that what they’ve become is no better than what they initially feared.  In swaying them, this episode ultimately postulates that humans (or at least children) are not inherently “evil,” but that, once we have strayed from the path of kindness and altruism, it is possible to be brought back.