“It is said that the first sport, the original main event that thrilled the masses, considered the greatest spectacle of all, was the fight.”: The Squire of Gothos

(15 comments)

I got your gun...

We've finally found the weird at long last.

The opening salvo of “The Squire of Gothos” is simply put the most mental thing yet. We've got a planet that instantaneously materializes out of nowhere, Kirk and Sulu jump-cutting off the bridge and foppish Victorian gentle-alien holding the Enterprise hostage due to his fascination with warmaking. Each one of these concepts individually would be enough to throw viewers for a complete loop; dumping all of them on us at once requires us to take a few steps back, a deep breath, and take them one at a time.

The first thing to note is that we're back in “Miri” territory. Actually, a case could be made this is the structure of “Miri” done right: The Enterprise is on space patrol as always, en route to deliver some more supplies. Just like in the earlier episode, however, they are swiftly interrupted by the thoroughly inexplicable. This time though, the show takes its time unfolding the mystery: The phantom planetoid, disappearing crewmembers and bizarre antiquarian message of “Tallyho!” showing up on Spock's monitor is enough, but the show gradually builds on this, first with the reveal of Trelane's oasis-within-an-oasis and then well into the third and fourth acts as each answer does nothing but open up a new question. Unlike the earlier episode, which promptly resolved all of its mystery in the first act, this one clearly takes the time to relish it, taking gleeful pride in constantly getting its audience to wonder what the heck is going on.

“The Squire of Gothos” is of course nowhere near as mind-bogglingly weird as something like the roughly contemporaneous Verity Lambert era of Doctor Who, best exemplified by the Georges Méliès-inspired spacescapes, giant ants and man-butterflies of the serial “The Web Planet”: This is something that's absolutely not in Star Trek's wheelhouse at this point, if it can in fact be argued it ever will be. But this is still a very stark break from what we've come to expect from Star Trek, especially under Gene Coon and in particular after the past three episodes. The precedent is, naturally, “Shore Leave”, and the effect of that episode's traumatically altered state of consciousness is very clear here, as is it's ultimate reluctance and hesitation. From the very beginning Trelane operates completely and utterly above and beyond the crew's level of comprehension, and the very first thing they set about doing (and continue to do for the remainder of the story) is to try and explain him a way using rationality language they understand. It is simply inconceivable for Kirk and his crew to accept the possibility there may exist things which do not fit neatly into their currently established knowledge systems.

And Trelane is definitely unlike anything we've seen before: He's the first genuinely “alien” character in all of Star Trek, for one. Spock, and by extension the Vulcans, were originally at heart just Number One's human personality turned into the defining trait of a culture (they of course quickly become much more than this, thanks almost exclusively to the combined efforts of Leonard Nimoy, Theodore Sturgeon and D.C. Fontana, but this is what they were originally). Pretty much all the other extraterrestrials in Gene Roddenberry's tenure were generic monsters, while Coon has kept the action primarily at a human level so far. The Romulans were an alien culture, but they were also consciously designed to be the mirror of us, so they are by definition very humanized. Trelane is just plain strange: He's an all-powerful, unreadable and unpredictable entity with a bizarre fascination with 18th and 19th century Earth.

Actor William Campbell, a Star Trek fan favourite with a deeply storied history with the franchise who makes his debut appearance here, is absolutely phenomenal as Trelane: He's manic, charismatic and completely unhinged; a just about perfect match for William Shatner's Kirk. Trelane is Kirk's inverse, twisted, mirror-image evil camp twin: Both characters are in some way defined by a fixation on overstated bravado, and ultimately there's little difference between Trelane's gleeful, play-acted goose-stepping and Kirk's overblown, impassioned speeches about duty. The key difference between the two lies in the contrast between the way their characters are depicted: Shatner's performance is just overstated enough to draw attention to the artifice of the thing, thus encouraging us to read Kirk as a kind of playful subversion. Shatner is obviously playing a role, and playing it just a little bit off-He is in fact a drag pulp sci-fi action hero, and a great deal of his charm comes from him frequently eliciting subtle laughs at the expense of the role and premise.

Campbell by contrast plays Trelane with active and clearly noticeable malice: It's an entirely more venomous portrayal, designed to rub our noses firmly in our own enjoyment of the setting's general pomp and circumstance. Kirk's detournement is meant to be somewhat muted, but visible if you're paying close enough attention to it; Trelane's is grotesque, mad, and violent. As such their conflict is utterly, beautifully elegant and without doubt the highlight of the episode. Furthermore, Campbell is excellent at giving Trelane a genuinely uncanny and disquieting air, playing up to great extent the fact he gets the trappings of the various characters he takes on and the settings he studies ever-so-slightly wrong. What makes this delicious, of course, is this once again makes him immediately comparable to Kirk. Although, as Kirk observes, he may be nigh-omnipotent, but he *is* fallible. In fact, Trelane might almost be *too* fallible.

What makes Trelane such a compelling character in my view is that he's an absolute caricature of repugnant good-old-boy politics and imperialist jingoism. Trelane idolizes Napoleon, which is perfect, and extolls, to deeply uncomfortable effect, the virtues of flags, nationalist pride, stereotypical Tory aesthetic and the honour of sending soldiers to fight and die for not just his cause but him personally. And, tellingly, Kirk has just about no comeback to this. Oh, he loses his patience, demands Trelane release the Enterprise and keeps pointing out he's got his historical details a little wrong, but in terms of actually debating Trelane on an intellectual level? In terms of refuting his claims that humanity is an inherently predatory species for whom warmaking and murder is a fundamental instinct? Kirk's got nothing. Indeed, he's got less than that: He ends up in a straight up brutally savage brawl with Trelane at the end of the episode that damn near gets him run through with a sword for his trouble. He can declare up and down humans are a noble species that deserve to be treated with dignity, but does absolutely nothing to support his claim. But, once again the show aggravatingly stops short and backpedals, revealing Trelane to be the misbehaving child of other, more grown-up and benevolent beings, thus completely stripping him of any authority he could have used to take the show to task.

It's fitting I mentioned the Romulans earlier, because this is the second outing of Paul Schneider, who had previously penned “Balance of Terror”, the episode I still consider to be arguably the Original Series' high water mark. Predictably, “The Squire of Gothos” is at heart a furious anti-war piece. Schneider says the impetus for this episode was watching with horror as young boys acted out war games for fun, so he penned this story to show what it would be like of that kind of light, capricious attitude to war was extrapolated to a superhuman degree. While I can understand and respect that, I still think it was a mistake to make Trelane a child. Perhaps this could have worked had there been more scenes where the Enterprise crew gets to prove their peaceful virtues and defend their character to Trelane, but that never really happens. The majority of this episode is dedicated to watching either Trelane using the crew as playthings or to Kirk screaming at him for doing so and baiting his ego. At the end of it all we're left feeling a bit hollow: Nobody's critique has really stuck, and it seems suspiciously like the show is hastily sweeping it all back under the rug before we start to ask too many questions about the ethics of what we're watching, which seems strange coming from the guy who wrote “Balance of Terror”.

But even if this isn't quite as successful as Schneider’s prior work, “The Squire of Gothos” is just as upfront about its firm anti-imperialist stance which can't be seen as anything less then an unequivocal positive. On top of that, it's yet another step forward into the weird and fantastic realms of the cosmic imagination that lay outside the boundaries of Earth-controlled colonial space. Slowly but surely Star Trek is beginning to learn how to broaden its mind and its horizons and that there's a bit more out there than itself. This is frequently a painful, yet necessary process, and the show's been forced to adapt. And the transformations that are to come soon will hold repercussions for the entire galaxy.

Comments

Josh 4 years, 2 months ago

I appreciate your reading of this episode in the context of how Star Trek is evolving, but I never liked it. I never liked omnipotent "God" aliens who acted like petulant children, Charlie Evans and Q included. A character with that power whose sole drive seems to be to terrorize the crew and spar with the captain just for kicks seems antithetical to the premise of that character. (In contrast, this is why I'm not so much bothered by something like the Organians or the Metron, who operate in ways we don't necessarily understand.)

Granted, it's been a while since I've viewed "Squire" and am talking mainly about Q, who worked as well as he did due mainly to deLancie's performance. Your praise of Campbell's here gives me a reason to rewatch "Squire" and re-evaluate it for the first time in many years.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

Well yes I think the scene that kills Trelane's effectiveness dead is when he's revealed to be a misbehaving child. The episode is total gangbusters up until then and gearing up to be one of the cleverest things TOS did, but, as I say above, that one scene grinds everything to a screeching halt and undoes all of the good things the rest of the episode had done.

I definitely agree about Q, though: Not to get too far ahead of myself (but as so many people seem to see Trelane as Q's natural precedent, why the hell not) there are two kinds of Q stories on TNG IMO: Serious, intelligent ones where he is a powerful authority and trickster mentor judging the character's actions and testing humanity's claim to be an ideal society and goofy, silly, childish ones that undermine that detournement. Again, it seems an awful lot like the show doesn't want us to think too hard about its underlying ethics.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 2 months ago

See, I see the two as easily fitting the same thing. Trickster mentors can be goofy and silly without losing any of their authority; indeed, it can make their critiques sharper.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 2 months ago

Isn't there a bit of a contradiction in noting that Trelane idolises Napoleon and then stating that he extolls a "Tory aesthetic"? After all, Napoleon was hated and feared by Tories (and their kin across Europe) even after he became a nationalist dictator and imperialist. Still, I suppose a Napoleonic schizophrenia may be present in Kirk and his Federation. Uniformed warriors who claim to spread democracy and peace?

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brownstudy 4 years, 2 months ago

The ending kind of belongs in the family of pulpish-SF/Twilight Zone twist endings, which I guess the audience and the creators were familiar with. Esp. since Star Trek at this time was more of an anthology show of weekly short stories rather than stories-long or series-long arcs that we got used to later. Would be interesting to know the history of the script's development, and know if the writer did indeed have a different street he wanted to walk down, but the form of the show dictated a more conventional ending.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

I think that's probably a part of the character. Trelane loves all things aesthetic and warlike, so he absorbs as much 18th and 19th century culture along these lines that he can. Naturally, this leads to some anachronisms, as Kirk and Spock point out several times throughout the story. Ultimately, I feel Trelane is meant to be an amalgamation of all the worst aspects of that period of Western history, horrifically dolled up in its most celebrated trappings.

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Cleofis 4 years, 2 months ago

Fantastic essay, I've been meaning to watch this one especially out of the original TOS run for quite some time now.

Incidentally, speaking of Trelane being Q's predecessor, I highly recommend Peter David's Trek novel Q-Squared (and all of his Trek novels, really; he is to Trek books what Paul Cornell is to Doctor Who's, more or less, even if they're not always as ambitious in the same ways that Cornell's are).

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brownstudy 4 years, 2 months ago

The ending kind of belongs in the family of pulpish-SF/Twilight Zone twist endings, which I guess the audience and the creators were familiar with. Esp. since Star Trek at this time was more of an anthology show of weekly short stories rather than stories-long or series-long arcs that we got used to later. Would be interesting to know the history of the script's development, and know if the writer did indeed have a different street he wanted to walk down, but the form of the show likely dictated a more conventional ending.

Would be interesting to know what other shows on at that time did anything rather daring with their formats.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 2 months ago

Yeah, just because two empires are at war doesn't mean they don't share certain things aesthetically.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

From what I've read, Schenider always intended Trelane to be a misbehaving child. The entire impetus for the script was him watching young boys playing at war and being horrified by this, so he extrapolated that concept out to a superhuman level.

There are a few other contemporaneous shows that did some rather intriguing things, but they're getting Sensor Scan posts between the first and second seasons :-)

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

Thanks for the support and recommendations!

I'm just now working out how to handle the Pocket books and novelizations: There's a lot of spin-off material I want to cover once I get to TNG/DS9 and a few things in particular I know I absolutely want to talk about. I'll give David a look: A quick glance at Memory Alpha shows him to be the writer of "The Modala Imperative" for DC and co-writing something with Micheal Jan Friedman, which definitely puts him in good company in my book!

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Cleofis 4 years, 2 months ago

Of the books written and set chronologically before the "the new movies are alternate timelines so we're going to take the initiative of continuing the main Trekverse" line we have today, David, Friedman, the Reeves-Stevens, Andy Robinson himself for one brief shining moment, and more recently Una McCormack (her "Hollow Men" is an absolute must-read) are in my experience the best; anything with their names on it is worth checking out. I have complete confidence in your research skills, but if you want any further recommendations for titles I've found particularly choice, I'd be glad to oblige.

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Cleofis 4 years, 2 months ago

Also, of particular interest to you may be Christopher L. Bennett's recent Department of Temporal Investigations books :)

That aside, something I've been meaning to mention is how incredibly relieved I am at your reading of Shatner's performance in TOS; Kirk never really got significant character development until the films, and bearing in mind all of the near-crippling intrinsic flaws to Trek as it existed then, I have to say the reading of Shatner as drag pulp action hero, that the artifice of the performance is a deliberate twist on his part, is both ingenius and something I don't think I'd ever have picked up on otherwise.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

I'm definitely going to spend a lot of time on Friedman, the Reeves-Stevens and McCormack. Friedman in particular is practically getting his own section. Also Mark A. Altman, who is IMO both one of the greatest and one of the most underappreciated Trek writers of the 1990s. And I may wind up doing something with the DTI...They're definitely worth at *least* a mention ;-)

"A Stitch in Time" is something I know I'll have to take a look at, and aside from Andy Robinson, there are a number of Trek actors-turned-authors with some really cracking stuff: A teaser-Expect to see some work by John deLancie, Mark Lenard and William Shatner himself!

Speaking of Shatner, I'm really glad to hear you like my reading of his performance. Redeeming Shatner is one of my primary goals of the TOS phase of the blog, and so far I must say it's one of the things I'm most proud of that I've written so far.

I do truly believe he's a much savvier and more perceptive actor than many people give him credit for and his influence is very much one of the major factors that really does help cement Star Trek's progressive legacy. The biggest thing about Shatner is that his acting style is of a kind I don't think most US viewers are actually used to seeing, and that oftentimes leads to him getting a puzzled and changeable reaction.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 2 months ago

You should definitely cover John M. Ford's Klingon novels - they were the first place that the Klingons were developed into an actual culture, and are clearly the template for TNG's (I almost wrote "the New Series's") characterization of them. (Also, his "How Much For Just The Planet", which masterfully turns Star Trek into something between a screwball comedy and a Gilbert & Sullivan musical.)

Also, in terms of "what is the most extreme a certain type of storytelling can go", the short shory "Our Million-Year Mission" from the anthology Strange New Worlds VI. It features the U.S.S. ÜberEnterprise (NCC-1701-∞), 250 km sphere of liquid metal), under the joint command of Kirk and Picard, in the year 1012260. It is magnificent and also great.

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