“You're very good-Are you a puppetmaster?”: The Lights of Zetar

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"This is the song that doesn't end/Yes it goes on and on my friend..."
“The Lights of Zetar” is Ron Moore's least favourite episode of Star Trek. Naturally, as part of my apparent mission to disagree with one of the greatest writers in the entire franchise on absolutely everything, I found it thoroughly fascinating. It's not especially great, and the usual season three problems submarine it, but it's one of the most enjoyable and provocative episodes, at least in theory, we've seen in awhile. Quality-wise it's at least on par with the last month of scripts.

It even opens on an enchanting note. Kirk's log entry begins

“Captain's log : stardate 5725.3. The Enterprise is en route to Memory Alpha. It is a planetoid set up by the Federation as a central library containing the total cultural history and scientific knowledge of all planetary Federation members. With us is specialist Lieutenant Mira Romaine. She is on board to supervise the transfer of newly designed equipment directly from the Enterprise to Memory Alpha.”

Kirk then goes on to explain how Scotty has fallen in love with Lieutenant Romaine in one of the most captivating and poetic bits of dialogue in the entire show:

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

And naturally, William Shatner delivers a grand slam of a reading. Unfortunately, this is the most interesting Kirk is in the whole story, and this is a decent microcosm of “The Lights of Zetar”'s problems.

But before we get to that, let's talk about the episode's background a bit. For the first time since Harlan Ellison and “The City on the Edge of Forever” (and arguably Robert Bloch), we have a celebrity writer this week: Shari Lewis, famous for her television puppet shows from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1990s starring herself and her puppets, the iconic Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy. Although the episode is credited first to Jeremy Tarcher (her husband) the overwhelming majority of the episode, at least the basic story, is quite obviously Lewis', and it's her positionality that really clarifies what “The Lights of Zetar” is about. I must confess I did a bit of a double-take when I learned Lewis was behind this script: There are some things that simply cannot cross in my mind, no matter how open I may try to keep it. Lamb Chop and Star Trek are two of those things.

Although upon closer examination, they really do turn out to be a solid match for one another. Firstly, Lewis was an enormous fan of Star Trek, and it was a dream of hers to write for it. And furthermore, though her routine was ostensibly a variety act for children, Lewis always had higher aspirations: She performed for children sadly more often than not because children were the only ones who would watch her. The Shari Lewis Show was one of the only major network television shows of its time to star a woman who also had complete creative control and wasn't about how dizzy she was. What Lewis really wanted was to headline her own primetime variety show or sitcom, and between her stints on children's TV she bounced around in bit parts for shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Car 54, Where Are You?, desperately hoping to shed her stigmatic typecasting as a children's entertainer. And in 1969 she submitted a script for Star Trek.

In a less sexist world, Lewis might have been remembered alongside the likes of Jim Henson, having had all the opportunities and accolades he enjoyed. But I'm really not qualified to do adequate justice to the career and historical significance of a performer like Shari Lewis to the extent she deserves: I vaguely remember her 1990s show, and upon reflection it was pretty shockingly subversive for a PBS show (but then again this was the early 90s where that kind of postmodernism was in vogue, and the same broadcasting service would give us Wishbone later in the decade and blow children's television straight out of the water), but Lewis was never someone I had a lot of experience with. I will, however, link you to TV writers Mark Evanier and Ken Levine, both of whom give very heartfelt and deserved tributes to her. It is perhaps fitting then that “The Lights of Zetar” turns out to be a story bungled by network micromanagement and that Shari Lewis wasn't allowed to be as involved with the project as she would have liked.

The plot concerns a mysterious cloud the Enterprise encounters on its way to Memory Alpha, comprised of a multitude of shimmering lights. As it overtakes the ship, it has a palpable effect on the physical abilities of every member of the crew, though the effect is different from person to person: Kirk and Uhura are rendered unable to speak, Sulu becomes momentarily blind and Chekov is unable to use his hands. Meanwhile, Mira collapses, after which she begins experiencing wild mood swings and having visions of the future. The cloud eventually reaches Memory Alpha, wiping out the entire crew and burning out the library computer cores such that vast sections of the archive are rendered inaccessible. Eventually, Spock discovers the cloud is actually a colony of non-corporal life forms, and that Mira's brainwave patterns have become an identical match with the colony's resonance readings. In essence, Mira is being possessed. At the climax, as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scott work feverishly to expunge the cloud from Mira's mind, the community speaks, revealing itself to be the remnant of Zetar, a planet whose entire civilization was destroyed by natural disaster, but whose collective will and spirit simply refused to die, and they'll happily kill Mira to live the life they feel has been robbed from them.

At first I couldn't figure out where this episode was trying to go. It starts out feeling quite mystical, and the Zetarian community is definitely the sort of weird phenomena the Enterprise crew has been running into a lot lately (which is perfectly fine by me: After all, aren't they supposed to be Seeking Out New Life And New Civilizations?), but it takes a really long time for everyone to figure out what's going on, it feels padded and the crew spend the majority of the episode fighting with the Zetarians (including blasting them with phaser beams, which also hurts Mira) instead of trying to communicate with them. Furthermore, on a number of occasions it feels uncomfortably like the show is slipping back into its Red Scare anti-groupthink propagandizing that had an annoying tendency to characterize it in the first season: Kirk condemns the Zetarians for forcing their will on Mira and not letting her be her own person.

But, once you know about Shari Lewis, “The Lights of Zetar” becomes a whole lot clearer. Sadly, its weaknesses as much as its strengths. See, the critical detail is that Lewis wanted to play Mira Romaine herself, but she wasn't allowed to. From what I understand, Arthur Singer extensively rewrote her character, which I would not put past him in the slightest, and in the finished episode she certainly comes across as a generic wistful pouty Star Trek yeoman archetype, instead of the formidable presence Lewis would most likely have infused her with (there are even numerous reference in the episode to Romaine's strength of character and resolve). But now the episode makes perfect sense: It's overtly about Shari Lewis' own life experiences and sense of creative frustration and marginalization. And yes, that means “The Lights of Zetar” is in fact about Lamb Chop.

The thing about Lewis' ventriloquist act is that she was so expressive and such a dynamic performer her puppets took on a life of their own, and I think more to Lewis than anyone else. I have a feeling Lewis may well have seen Lamb Chop in some sense as her own person, and someone who was both an extension of Lewis herself and someone who held her back. One of Lewis' most frequent routines was to have Lamb Chop complain about not having enough space, or that she wasn't being paid enough as her partner. When her show was canceled in 1963, Lewis apparently went back to her room and cried to Lamb Chop...in private. In the same way Lewis was a children's entertainer because she didn't have any other audience, she was soulmates with Lamb Chop even though the relationship wasn't always healthy because she didn't have anyone else. This is what “The Lights of Zetar” is about then: It's about how characters like Lamb Chop take on a will of their own (recall that the whole reason the Zetarians are still around is that they simply could not accept the fact they were dead and didn't exist anymore), and the writing, performing being has her identity subsumed by the characters she takes on. In Shari Lewis' case, it's about exploring and blurring the line between puppet and puppeteer: The Zetarians are using Mira, in essence, as a puppet.

Furthermore, the way the crew treats Mira is interesting. She finds love in Scotty, but he's also the one who persuades her not to report her visions (which turn out to be critical to understanding the Zetarians' plan) to Kirk and McCoy, dismissing them as first-mission space jitters. Lewis is saying that even people who love us (and by *us* she is most likely talking about *women*) hurt us even if they don't mean to by unfairly dismissing us. Even Chekov and Sulu aren't convinced Scotty knows Mira “has a brain”. She irritates McCoy by not cooperating with his examination, which she later regrets (though that might be due to the Zetarians' influence, it's not clear). However, the idealism Star Trek's lovers have previously found in the show is still present too: Spock goes out of his way to compliment Mira's abilities, intelligence and her good fortune in getting assigned to curate Memory Alpha, and while Kirk is initially annoyed by her romance with Scott, he ends up being the one who believes in her the most, demonstrating unwavering confidence that she'll survive her battle with the Zetarians in the decompression chamber even as he has Spock keep cranking up the pressure beyond what should be the limits of human endurance.

But the problem, the really big problem, is that none of this is as clear as it should be and, heart-wrenchingly, I'm not sure how much I can blame on Arthur Singer's usual antics and how much is the fault of Shari Lewis' original submission. Kirk isn't written terribly consistently scene-to-scene and he's too frequently too reminiscent of his gruff, snappy portrayal from the first season. Also, everyone except Scott keeps calling Mira “the girl” instead of by her name, even characters who really ought to know better. I know Lewis probably meant that as a commentary on how underappreciated Mira is and how everyone keeps underestimating her, but there's enough utopian content elsewhere that really wasn't necessary, or at least it didn't need to be that overt and ubiquitous. But the major issue is that the idea of the Zetarians being a metaphor for a writer's characters is not obvious in the slightest. There's a minor bit of dialogue during the conference scene that seems to imply Mira is uniquely susceptible to being contacted this way because her brainwaves I guess match the brainwaves of the Zetarians, but it's really not clear. This is the part of the episode that needed to be super overt and it isn't: The Zetarians needed to be firmly established as, if not explicitly her creations, having some kind of special bond with Mira and Mira alone and that simply never happens.

What really kills me is that had Lewis submitted this to Star Trek while D.C. Fontana was still story editor, I'm almost positive she would have helped her turn it into an absolute masterpiece. But Arthur Singer, like so many other people who worked with Shari Lewis, simply didn't care and wrote her off, and “The Lights of Zetar” ends up feeling not terrible, but unfinished, and that's almost worse. Furthermore, I wish Fontana had looked at this script, its author, and the potential it hinted at and had immediately snapped up Lewis for Star Trek: The Animated Series. She would have been a much, much better fit for that show than Margaret Armen. But this is all maybes and neverwheres. Fittingly, if sadly, “The Lights of Zetar” is quintessential Shari Lewis: Overlooked, criminally underrated, and nowhere near close to living up to its own potential.

Comments

Flex 3 years, 4 months ago

I rewatched Lights a few weeks ago in an effort to reacquaint myself with the source material you're covering here, and even with this blog entry I already can't remember a single jot of the episode with any kind of confidence. So, that's a problem for the episode right there.

Your take on the episode is more memorable than the episode itself by a wide margin.

On the other hand, the Lewis connection won me 10 bucks in a trivia contest once, so it has a legitimate claim on being my favorite episode of the whole franchise...

(And thanks for the links on Shari Lewis. I can't say I was very familiar with her career outside of the obvious, so this has been a great learning experience.)

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

Glad to be of service.

Shari Lewis got royally shafted here, as she so often did everywhere in her professional life. I maintain there's a fascinating central concept worth exploring, however: If there was one episode of Star Trek I'd love to go back, re-edit and remake, this would probably be it.

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K. Jones 3 years, 4 months ago

I see this sort of overlook all the time in the Fine Arts scene, though it's sort of extended beyond just callous or insouciant attitudes toward those perceived as flaky women into flaky fellows as well. Typically people with lighter spirit and a huge reservoir of awe, wonder and creativity who aren't perceived as on-the-level or serious enough in the arts community.

I'm one of them, in fact, and the last decade or so that realization of marginalization is probably the driving force for shedding certain angsty stoic youthful pessimistic traits and maturing as an adult (albeit a flaky adult) and coming to truly respect women, particularly creative women, and encouraging them as much as possible wherever I meet them.

It does seem like a pitch-perfect allegory for people like Shatner and Nimoy and even Doohan to tackle, subversive as they tend to be. Imagine if it'd been done at the end of Season 2 with Diana Muldaur as Mira Romaine. Certainly bouncing off of them would have been proof in the pudding for Lewis's original notions.

Even in later series, Star Trek has too few stories that pick up on these sorts of conversations, and in a show as dripping with secret mysticism as Trek, and with as many writers and crafters putting in the work, you'd think it would have come up more often (though gender-swapped, certainly when I think of similar themes and a successful take on the Mira Romaine concept, Reg Barclay comes to mind in every one of his episodes.)

What I have liked, here and in "Whom Gods Destroy", is marginal to the whole of the show; for the first time since "Journey to Babel" we keep seeing Andorians and Tellarites at Federation facilities. The problem in hindsight is that it became something of a near-eternal tease.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

I'm not sure Muldaur would have been a good pick for this role, brilliant as she is. Imperious and strong-willed yes, but she tends to play a very businesslike and no-nonsense type of character. I really think it should have been Shari Lewis, who had a sort of schoolteacher vibe about her: Prim and proper, but whimsical and mischievous as well. Especially because this story seemed so personal and important to her.

Star Trek can do metafiction and ideaspace, and later in its life it can do it in its sleep. But it does sometimes have problems reconciling that with how those concepts and ideas resonate at a personal level.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

Ron Moore may not have liked it, but I bet Wallace Moore liked it quite a bit -- the title, if nothing else.

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