“To Attain the All” has got to be the worst episode of Star Trek Phase II by *far*. “Cassandra” was bad. “The Child” was awful. “Savage Syndrome” was appalling, but that was by Margaret Armen, so that’s par for the course. And nobody really expected greatness from “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”: A brief like that is angling for major problems from the outset. But this? Wow. There’s no excuse for this.
While investigating a system of planets strung together like a pearl necklace (so *that’s* where Star Trek: Year Four got the idea from. Seriously, how do you screw up a visual like that?), the Enterprise is suddenly transported to a realm outside normal spacetime where they are visited by a hyper-evolved energy being called The Prince who claims to represent an infinitely old culture who hold the secrets of the universe, and declares he’s going to test the crew to determine whether or not they’re worthy of attaining a form of enlightenment called “The All” (and it should be an indication for how bloody long this show has been going on that a brief like that feels hackneyed and boring). The Prince says he wants two representatives to face a series of challenges, to which Decker and Xon immediately volunteer for their own reasons (Xon thinks it’s logical, while Decker is starry-eyed at the prospect of learning and new discovery). Reluctantly, Kirk agrees, but at the same time begins to work with Uhura and Ilia to find a way to free the Enterprise.
After that bit, Decker and Xon go off to rainbow space land to play Legends of the Hidden Temple. They are faced with a series of puzzles and physical challenges they must overcome by using a combination of logic and intuition to progress to the next stage and reach The All while The Prince occasionally pops in to give them advice. You thought I was kidding. I wish I was. While this is going on, Kirk begins to notice that the remainder of his crew are starting to act disturbingly similar to each other: McCoy and Chapel are having a professional disagreement, but then start to see each other’s points, Sulu is starting to display character traits more associated with Chekov and vice versa, and Uhura and Ilia are starting to speak for each other. Eventually, this culminates in the entire crew, save Kirk and Decker, becoming subsumed by The All, which turns out to be a great big ancient hive mind that goes around assimilating other people, so naturally the two manly action heroes have to go and punch some sense into everyone and aggressively re-introduce them to good ol’ American Individuality.
Christ on a bike.
Where do I begin? The All is self-evidently enlightenment, obviously coded as a Buddhist version of it to boot…and the show thinks this is an evil, horrible thing. Idiotic and embarrassing children’s gameshow trappings aside, this is the fundamental problem with this episode. It dwarfs everything else and puts Star Trek into a dangerous position the likes of which it hasn’t ventured near for at least twelve years. If this is the kind of garbage that usually characterizes Norman Spinrad’s work, then thank whatever forces intervened to allow Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana to extensively re-write “The Doomsday Machine”. To simplify things a bit for our purposes, there’s a strain of Buddhist philosophy that conceptualizes the universe as a kind of cosmic oversoul that binds and unites all things. Each being is thus a manifestation of the oversoul and its own unique mind: We both are and are not individuals, then. We have agency, to a point, but we’re all connected together and having an understanding of both truths is a major step towards attaining enlightenment. It’s a theory I was first introduced studying Self and Personal Identity, and one I tend to find helpful and attractive.
And Star Trek thinks this is the worst thing in the universe and conflates it with Soviet-style Stalinism.
Not only does “To Attain the All” have the gall to appropriate Buddhist concepts with the sole purpose of belittling them, it mashes it up with 1950s Red Scare propaganda into a vague and handwavey notion of “Groupthink”, setting the entire franchise back a good two decades in the process. This is hateful and reactionary in a way Margaret Armen never even managed to be: Spinrad is *actually saying* that understanding and empathy are toxic, destructive things only the Red Commies do and will erode masculinity and individuality. This is the exact opposite of “In Thy Image”. This is “The Return of the Archons” again, but somehow even worse. This is Star Trek’s every reactionary impulse gathered together and unleashed in one angry, blind hate-filled scribe against material social progress. This isn’t just wrong television, it’s straightforwardly evil television.
Never, and I mean never, have I seen a Star Trek story more hostile to my redemptive reading of the franchise than this. “To Attain the All” is a serious contender for the title of single worst Star Trek story ever written, and to have it crop up this far into Star Trek Phase II is just about the most depressing and disheartening thing I can think of. And this does demonstrable harm, to not just the idea of material social progress, but to Star Trek itself: Just like “The Enemy Within”, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “The Apple” managed for the Original Series, “To Attain the All” kills Star Trek Phase II dead, or at least provides conclusive proof that it deserves to die.
More than even that: Honestly, this production team has to go. In hindsight, it should have been obvious. The best assets of the Original Series and the Animated Series, by which I mean the only good ones, were D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon, Dave Gerrold and Alan Dean Foster, all four of whom are long gone by now. Perhaps tellingly, Star Trek Phase II is done after one more episode, and after that Star Trek never retains the same creative team for such an extended period of time again.
Frankly, good fucking riddance.