“...a uniquely portable magic.”: Metamorphosis

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Love is possible.

The obvious way to open this post would be with some cheekily prescient call-forward to Star Trek First Contact, the consensus-second-best Star Trek movie, in which Zefram Cochrane (who is introduced here) plays a significant role. However, that essay is going to be wild and crazy enough without having to deal with baggage from “Metamorphosis” on top of it all, so let's leave the future to the future for now.

“Metamorphosis” is a significant improvement over last episode, which is typically the case when Gene Coon is writing. What's more interesting, however, is that this is very much Gene Coon for the second season: Building off of themes he introduced in “The Devil in the Dark” and clearly noticing the show's landscape has been permanently altered in the wake of the bombshell that was “Catspaw”, “Metamorphosis” is the first clear, concrete step forward Star Trek has taken since, well, Coon's last episode. It's not perfect, not even the best script we've seen from Coon so far, and the particular kind of faults it has mean it's ultimately less than successful, but this is still very much the sort of sign we should be looking for from Star Trek at the start of its second consecutive year on the air.

Charmingly, Coon's next step from burning the show to the ground and challenging it to justify its existence and prove it's capable of behaving in a peaceful, constructive manner is to give it an incredibly straightforward and intimate love story. Not a fake romance plot, like Nurse Chapel swooning over Doctor Korby just long enough to provide necessary drama in a floundering episode or when Kirk shacks up with any of his Desilu-mandated girls-of-the-week, but a real, actual love story between two people that takes a serious, mature look at what that concept is, how it's expressed and how its interpreted. The Companion loves the stranded Zefram Cochrane, but is only capable of displaying her affection by keeping him alive and providing for him. But that's not the kind of companionship he really needs, which prompts her to similarly maroon Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the commissioner. Cochrane can't see this as love, because The Companion is not a being like himself, and when he finds out the truth he recoils in horror. And, in an actually lovely speech from Kirk, without doubt one of his most memorable scenes in the show so far, he points out to both of them that true love can't be one-sided and that two people must be joined as equals for it to exist.

This speech is a watershed from Kirk, and his depiction in this episode is crucial to continuing his extradiegetic challenge given to him by Coon in “Arena” to grow and mature Star Trek. Much like in “the Devil in the Dark”, Kirk starts out angry and frenzied, even considering destroying The Companion if it means freeing the trapped shuttlecraft. But he is reminded by McCoy, in one of his best and, frankly, most welcome lines to date that “perhaps being a soldier for so long” has caused Kirk to forget he's “also trained as a diplomat”. This is one the one hand the first evidence we've seen that Starfleet may actually be more than an interstellar police department, but also a direct invocation of the very themes Coon seems to have been working with over the past year. However, this statement is worth parsing out: Firstly, Kirk doesn't actually act especially like a diplomat here. There are no regulations, concessions, compromises or ultimately pointless political sleight-of-hand, and Star Trek on the whole still seems fairly suspicious of diplomacy and bureaucratic politics (indeed the only reason I'm not pitching a fit over Commissioner Hedford is she's very clearly meant to be just another obstructive bureaucrat in the mould of Ambassador Fox in “A Taste of Armageddon” or Galactic High Commissioner Ferris in “The Galileo Seven”).

It's also telling, and not entirely for good reasons, that the preferable opposite of “soldier”, according to Star Trek is, apparently now “diplomat”. Use of that sort of word, in addition to terms like “Federation” and “negotiation” means the show is really starting to solidify that its world takes place in a Western-style representative democracy, and in a world where it's not entirely clear that's an especially desirable form of government. I mean this is definitely better than the enlightened despotism Khan offered us back in “Space Seed”, but we're already, in 1967, in an era where notions like “government the way the US works is an inherently positive thing and should be the goal of all civilized societies” are starting to be put into question. It's impossible to ignore the growing counterculture movement in the US and it's staunch anti-war roots that put the blame for contemporary civil unrest not really unfairly square at the feet of the US government and military, even if we are less than a year out from it's ultimate implosion, and Star Trek sticking its fingers in its ears and pretending this isn't happening is worrying and dangerous.

This might have been OK if Star Trek was openly willing to problematize its own setting, like other shows of the time were, but it's really not clear that it is. The crew in “Metamorphosis”, having been through the howling exorcism of Coon's first half-season, seem like they're at a midpoint between the crass moralizing of the Roddenberry era and the idealized role models they'll eventually be remembered as. Kirk is definitely meant to have the moral high ground, but only after he stops thinking like he's at war all the time. Even Star Trek's most obvious television peers, Raumpatrouille Orion and Doctor Who, (not to mention The Prisoner, even though it's not quite as linked to Star Trek as the other two series), were doing stories overtly about questioning this sort of status quo. The major problem is going to come when Star Trek becomes a utopia and falling back onto Western-style democracy as the teleological ideal future for humanity is going to prove...problematic.

But this is a theme that, while it's introduced here, is best dealt with in full force when it starts to become an overt influence on the series, and there's an episode coming up later in the season that discussion will be ideal for, so we'll return to it then. Especially since “Metamorphosis” has a few problems of its own that hold it back from *quite* achieving greatness. The most obvious and troubling one is that, of course, the love story Coon tells is blatantly heteronormative. Spock says, upon discovering The Companion is female, that this “changes” things somewhat, as if it would have been impossible for a male entity or a life-form that doesn't conform to binary notions of gender to love Cochrane. The Commissioner's big emotional moment comes when she calls out Cochrane on her deathbed for resenting and hiding from love when someone like her remained lonely and unloved all her life. It's a wonderful scene that's promptly ruined by her contrasting this with her profession, which she says she was always good at, as if it's impossible for a woman to be loved and be successful at her career at the same time. I mean, I have to give Star Trek credit: It continues to amaze me with its ability to find ways to be insultingly reactionary decades ahead of its time. That said though it's probably a bit unfair of me (though not overly, I should think) to expect Coon to pull something with Star Trek in 1967 that fiction today can't even regularly and reliably pull off.

There's also the issue that, thanks partially to the episode's pacing problems (we once again get lines repeated almost verbatim, redundant bits of exposition and scenes that don't quite logically follow from each other) Kirk's final speech to The Companion about love isn't as clear as it needs to be. There is a troubling implication that The Companion is unable to truly love because she's not human, where I think the point should be (and was intended to be) that the problem is she and Cochrane are unable to be together in their current forms. The former snaps back not just to heteronormativity but borderline xenophobia and threatens to undo the good work done by the rest of the plot, so let's politely ignore it and look at the other possibility. The latter is a statement about not just the unattainability of love for these specific characters, but also the show on the whole thanks to the structure it's imposed on itself. There's a longstanding tension in some genre works between the spheres of the mythic and the mundane, and a notion these have to by definition be irreconcilable, this speaks to: The easy example would be to compare this to Kirk's numerous complaints in the past about being unable to sustain a meaningful relationship thanks to his shipboard duties and responsibilities, an interpretation facilitated by the fact the small, intimate world of the asteroid offered by The Companion is contrasted with the vastness of the universe offered by Kirk, but I prefer to read this as an indictment of Star Trek's hit-and-miss relationship with the mundane and a claim from Coon that the show is perfectly capable of handling it, but just needs to handle it with more depth and maturity than it has so far.

Because Star Trek actually has the potential to be the show that finally unites these two seeming polar opposites (well, OK, Raumpatrouille Orion probably did this first, but Star Trek can go even further, if for no other reason than it will last longer). It's given us plenty of evidence that it can even this early. Just as The Companion and Cochrane need not be forever apart, Star Trek need not feel it's unable to experience love and happiness in the distant reaches of outer space. Uniting the two then, just as The Companion unites with Hedford and, because she loves him, Cochrane, is just as much the metamorphosis described by the episode's title as the Commissioner's transformation. And, just like that one, it is an expressly magickal transformation, perhaps a transmutation, if you will: While Spock tries to explain The Companion in electrical terms, nothing it does is really in any way comparable to the behaviour of electricity. No, The Companion creates matter, life, out of nothingness, and she doesn't do it because she's some distant, objective God: Rather, she does it because of, and through, her love. Her fusion with Commissioner Hedford then, which is also tacitly compared with her blossoming relationship with Cochrane, becomes a spiritual union. This isn't so much an ascension to a higher plane, which could be read as either unsatisfyingly vague or implicitly pop Christian: It's more, as the title would suggest, growing into someone and something wiser and aware of its existence as part of a larger whole. This is the first step towards formulating a true mysticism for the cosmic age.

Comments

trekker709 3 years, 10 months ago

Enjoyed the analysis. Among other things, the way you trace the mindset changing from soldier/police to diplomat through these episodes…would make for an interesting course / book (?) Seems like Trek intentionally gives only bits and pieces of the Federation’s organization, and shows its flaws as well as strengths: as you note there is a constant distrust of bureaucratic politics. To me though, Trek typically located the potential for evil in each individual—the Enemy Within, rather than demonizing any and all forms of government, as if anarchy or libertarianism would work. Maybe I’m misreading you on that issue.
Kirk’s speech on humans ‘needing obstacles to strengthen us or we weaken and die’ is a recurring TOS theme, yet Cochrane didn’t get lonely for the first 150 years –? doesn’t quite work.
I can understand why you might describe the plot as “heteronormative” but to me the term Companion could also suggest homosexuality, especially since Cochrane fully accepted merging with the entity until he was told it was a female lover. The union could be gay or interracial marriage. On the other hand, Zefram and Nancy remain isolated from society, showing the limitations of the time. Nice treatment of the spiritual union / mysticism aspect. The scene near the end with Hedford holding up her multi-colored scarf to the light was a beautiful touch.

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Jacob Nanfito 3 years, 10 months ago

It's interesting that although Star Trek was, as you note, being made during the rise of the youth and anti-war movements but still seems to be extolling 1950s style Cold War "Containment" values -- militarism and heternormativity as the means to stabile societies; a patriarchal overtly "traditional" form of masculinity; oversexualized women as a source of chaos and destruction, etc.

Being (I presume) older men and of that earlier generation, do you think Rodenberry and Coon were purposefully resisting the increasing radicalization of US culture? Or do you think they were just writing what they knew or trying to appeal to a mass audience (many of which were firmly against radicalized movements)?

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 10 months ago

That's a good take on it. I picked up the heteronormativity mostly from Kirk and Spock's behaviour (along with Commissioner Hedford's comments) but Cochrane's actions could certainly be taken the way you see them. Of course, this would probably also add a "going back into the closet" subtext to the resolution when he decides to stay with the transformed entity.

As for the political critique, I wish the show was actually a bit more clear on this issue. I agree it's probably first and foremost about individuals, but the thing for me is that ignoring the setting on the one hand and then calling it a utopia on the other(as it is wont to do) causes it no shortage of serious problems in the mid-late 1960s (as the next episode will rather grimly demonstrate).

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 10 months ago

I think Gene Roddenberry didn't give a toss, to be honest with you. His writing reveals him to be so willfully blinkered and clueless at this point in time I'm not sure he was aware of the implications and consequences of anything he said or did.

Gene Coon I think was as progressive as he could get for the time and place he was writing: Mid-1960s United States mass-market television. He may not have been blatantly radical, but he does strike me as someone comfortably centre-left, which still says a lot on 1967, and the episodes he writes are consistently the very best ones the show produces. My primary issue with him is that he doesn't always go as far as I'd like him to, but laying the groundwork to completely transform what Star Trek is and has the potential to be is more than enough for me in most cases.

(Though there are a pair of writerXproducers who actually *did* manage to get straight-up leftist counterculture on mass-market US TV around this time, but their success is mostly a combination of sleight-of-hand and unbelievable dumb luck. I'll talk about them a bit once we get to 1969).

The sticky point is, of course, "The City on the Edge of Forever", which remains the only instance I can think of where a conscious decision was made to give a script a more reactionary tone than it had originally (an argument could be made the same is true of next episode, actually, but I chalk that one mostly up to Gene Roddenberry being Gene Roddenberry). Regardless of whether this was done to soak Harlan Ellison, as the result of a hectic and frenzied rewrite schedule or simply because the staff didn't think through the implications of what they were saying, it's still an incredibly upsetting and problematic story.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm going to be a bit of a devil's advocate, but also a little philosophically charitable, on the term 'diplomat.' Yes, actual diplomacy is basically the art of polite lying, manipulation, and smuggling of secrets. But the term here is raised as an activity in contrast to that of the soldier.

If the activity of the soldier is war and fighting, then the meaning of diplomat, when contrasting with that of soldier, is to settle a dispute diplomatically. That's one of the stereotypes I've come across of TNG: Picard looking at every conflict they encounter and wondering if there's a diplomatic solution. So the soldier settles conflict by violence, raising the intensity of the conflict until the violence settles itself. If diplomat is defined in contrast, then the diplomat works through negotiation, compromise, mutual respect in listening, and working to a peaceful consensus among conflicting parties for a solution.

That's the duality of Star Trek's slowly growing utopian vision: within the same ship, and the same person (Kirk) is a soldier and a diplomat, a warrior and a peacemaker.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 10 months ago

Certainly the strict logical contrast of the terms "soldier" and "diplomat" can be read that way. However, I'm going to stick with at least the meat of my analysis here because McCoy expressly says Kirk is "trained as a diplomat" in his line: This would imply to me McCoy is in fact talking about actual political diplomacy in this instance.

That said, I'm glad you brought up the TNG stereotype of "Picard is a diplomat", because that's definitely a theme I want to talk about once I get up to that point. As you can probably ascertain, this isn't entirely the way I read his character.

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trekker709 3 years, 10 months ago

I see your point about the subtext-- sorry that got misconstrued. Seems to me the script was more about getting past xenophobia in general, rather than gender issues as such. It’s kind of ironic that Kirk tells Cochrane “the ideas of male and female are universal constants” --that statement in TOS is disputed by a number of episodes in TNG and beyond.

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