“…a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood”: Lord Bobby’s Obsession
“Lord Bobby’s Obsession” is described as “Space Seed” meets “The Squire of Gothos”. This is the most accurate description in the history of things describing other things because that’s literally what it is.
It doesn’t even pretend to be something different. It is, beat-for-beat, the exact same story as “Space Seed” with the exact same scenes and the exact same plot twists except the supervillain is an alien fascinated with the British Empire, is acting alone this time and the submissive female humanities expert smitten with him stays on the Enterprise instead of departing with him at the end of the episode. This is my least favourite kind of story to write about, because it gives me essentially no material to work with. Even Margaret Armen gave me enough to complain about that I could find 1800 words to squeeze out of “Savage Syndrome”. You could practically take my “Space Seed” post, change the names around and write your own Vaka Rangi review of “Lord Bobby’s Obsession”.
That said, like “Tomorrow and the Stars” before it, this doesn’t mean “Lord Bobby’s Obsession” doesn’t manage to improve on its source material such that this is the superior version of the story. It definitely does, and this alone makes it noteworthy and deserving of at least a little attention. Once again, the Star Trek Phase II version manages to distill out the essence of the story by removing all of its more problematic ethical hangups. In this case, most of the welcome changes come from the title character himself: Robert Standish, Third Earl of Lancashire. Modeling him after Trelane instead of Khan is actually something of a genius move, and the result is we get someone whose latent charm and charisma belies the fact he’s really a petulant, childish, self-centred wannabe with a seriously inflated sense of self worth and importance. And because Lord Bobby isn’t a godlike being, he’s just a regular guy with access to some advanced technology, this neatly avoids the problems we read into Trelane’s character back in “The Squire of Gothos”. And in doing so, “Lord Bobby’s Obsession” manages to deftly invert that episode’s structure, demonstrating that, despite everything, Star Trek really has come a long way.
What I mean by this is that the basic issue I found with “Gothos” was that Trelane is set up as a kind of dark parodic mirror of William Shatner’s interpretation of Jim Kirk, namely, a drag action hero fixated on honour, duty, valour, the chain of command and warmaking. The intended point being, as I saw it, that in spite of Shatner’s noble attempt to skewer the inherent silliness of all that by taking Kirk in a different direction then how he was originally written, by the mere fact of playing Kirk and playing the hero of this show, he was in some sense at least partially complicit in the original Star Trek‘s unsavoury predilections. The problem came about in the climactic reveal, where it turned out Trelane was literally a child, the spoiled offspring of a couple of standard-issue hyper-advanced energy beings, thus removing any claim Trelane had to offering any sort of serious critique.
This time though, there’s absolutely no question that Lord Bobby is the antagonist and in the wrong, and furthermore this episode lacks “Space Seed”’s maddeningly terrible scenes where the crew fawns over Khan’s manly manliness thus making them absolutely no different from the supposed villain of the piece. As he’s not meant to have the moral high ground in the first place, making Lord Bobby act like a misguided and petulant child actually works in the story’s favour this time, because it emphasizes the connection between that sort of behaviour and the imperialistic entitlement Bobby express admiration for elsewhere. What “Lord Bobby’s Obsession” has managed to do is invert not just the structure of “The Squire of Gothos”, but “Space Seed” as well, placing the Enterprise crew in firm opposition to the idea of warmaking, empire building and enlightened despotism. Even the ending showcases this, having Bobby return to his ship and to what is explicitly referred to as a “fantasy”, instead of awarding him a planet to lord over like Khan got.
There’s also a somewhat charming parallel that runs through all of this. My biggest complaint against Gene Roddenberry, aside from the fact his writing tends to be clunky and padded and he micromanages everybody, is that he’s fixated on military procedure as a theme and seems to think spouting jargon all the time actually makes for captivating television. Now it’s true Roddenberry was in the air force and presumably these were themes he was intimately familiar with, but the other thing about Roddenberry’s scripts I’ve tended to notice is that, well, they really don’t feel like they were written by a veteran. Gene Coon was a marine, and his scripts definitely do: You can tell Coon had a very complex, nuanced and multifaceted opinion on the realities of military service and this shows in many of his best moments. But Roddenberry, weirdly, tends to write like someone who never actually served, but just read pulp action stories about soldiers and spacemen. Roddenberry writes like, honestly, a little boy fantasizing about being a soldier whose only experience with war comes from pulp serials. So, regardless of whether or not the parallel was intentional or not (and I’m willing to bet it wasn’t) making the antagonist of this story basically that has got to be one of the most delightful bits of self-awareness and introspection in the history of the franchise.
“Lord Bobby’s Obsession” may feel like a retread that changes vanishingly little from the stories it’s so blatantly ripping off, and it is, but it really deserves to be pointed out how important it is that Star Trek has made even this tentative of a statement on the matter: Ten years ago, it would have been perfectly expected to see Star Trek come up on the opposite end of this debate. Indeed, it did, and it did it so many times it’s impossible to keep track of them all. But here, in revisiting and revising both “Space Seed” and “The Squire of Gothos”, Star Trek is making it perfectly clear, for what I think may actually be the very first time, that this kind of thinking is no longer acceptable, and the proper way for Star Trek to deal with it is precisely to point out how dangerous, childish and misguided it is. And that alone is more than worth the price of admission.