|“You’ll have to get your entertainment someplace else.”|
“Plato’s Stepchildren” is utterly unwatchable, critically important and incredibly easy to talk about all at the same time.
Leonard Nimoy has said the majority of the third season was “embarrassing” for him, and nowhere is that clearer than here. This is one of the most excruciatingly painful and humiliating episodes to watch of the entire franchise. It is also one of the most popular and important, and it’s not at all difficult to see why. It is straightforwardly a reiteration of a number of the themes the show has been grappling with dating back to the Gene Coon era with very little new to say about them, but it’s also the most concise and blunt about them the show will ever be. Actually, I’m not certain the franchise is ever this blatant about these ideas and concepts ever again. “Plato’s Stepchildren” doesn’t quite work: It almost does, but it’s messy and sloppy and needed to go one little step further to really sell what I think it was attempting to drive home. Nonetheless, it had a measurably, provably positive effect on world culture, and that alone unquestionably seals its legacy.
A bit like Star Trek itself then.
Put most basically, “Plato’s Stepchildren” concerns a group of extraterrestrial settlers who lived on Earth during the time of Ancient Greece and were inspired by Plato make the utopian republic he imagined a reality. When settling on a new planet, they discovered that eating the native fruit, mixed with their endocrine systems, gave them massively powerful psychokinetic abilities, through which they perfected the use of their minds and intellects…while regarding anyone else as so inferior and beneath them to be not even worthy of the most basic amount of respect and dignity. Aside from being utterly without compassion and empathy, they’re also ruthlessly sadistic: Luring the Enterprise to their planet under false pretenses, the Platonians, as they have come to call themselves, capture the crew and turn them into human (and Vulcan) marionettes to be subject to their every capricious whim.
Obviously, “Plato’s Stepchildren” is not treading any new ground here. It is once again conceptually extremely similar to many previous episodes, most notably “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (it even recycles the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” speech), “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Bread and Circuses”. The difference here is in execution: As a standalone piece of television, “Plato’s Stepchildren” seems to come up extremely wanting when compared to some of those episodes: It’s not as poetic and doesn’t feel as fresh as “Where No Man Has Gone Before” did, and it’s nowhere near as boldly creative as “Bread and Circuses”, at least the Gene Coon part, as that episode managed to effortlessly equate the Roman Empire, the larger Hellenistic tradition, the Gladiatorial spectacle, television and the general state of United States culture circa 1967 in a grand, sweeping condemnation of Westernism. That said though, “Plato’s Stepchildren” doesn’t have Gene Roddenberry to come in and screw all that up with one of the most morally bankrupt and reprehensible denouements in TV history, and in the process drive away his show’s biggest creative force.
And “Plato’s Stepchildren” is leagues better than “The Cage” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, largely by virtue of it actually being a somewhat competent production and not swimming in rape culture. And what it lacks in eloquence and craftsmanship it makes up for in volume and emphasis, because “Plato’s Stepchildren” strikes right at the heart of Westernism and deals a brutal, shuddering, crippling blow. There are few thinkers more central to Western philosophy and ethics than Plato, and the secret of this episode is that it’s just as strong a denouncement of Plato himself as it is of the followers who have supposedly strayed from his teachings. Central to this is the concept of the Philosopher King, who we’ve talked about before in the context of “Space Seed” and of which I’ve been more than a little critical, largely because I see little difference between “Philosopher King” and “’Enlightened’ Despot”. Parmen explicitly calls himself one, despite claiming he has “no need” of a title, and the Platonians absolutely act like they’re intellectually superior to everyone else and thus are deserving of the power they wield: It’s how they attempt to justify treating Alexander and the Enterprise crew as subhuman creatures only worthy of being playthings.
What “Plato’s Stepchildren” seems to be saying is that any utopia, which the Platonians explicitly say they’ve created and Plato certainly thought he’d conceived of even if he didn’t use the name, which values some people over others is in truth no utopia at all. Now that Star Trek has overtly transformed into a utopia, it’s first test is to prove why its utopia is a stronger claim than others, and it makes its case on both diegetic and extradiegetic fronts: Firstly, of course, there is the character of Alexander, a little person mocked and tormented by the other Platonians because of his stature and his inability to develop their psychokinetic powers, which of course turn out to be endocrine-based. It’s a self-evident and straightforward stand-in for a particularly Western form of institutionalized and hegemonic bullying that dates back to Plato himself: The other Platonians hate Alexander because they don’t consider him as intelligent and sophisticated as they are, and he looks different than them to boot. Tellingly, Alexander says his bullying began at the exact same time the psychokinetic powers developed, which, given the “absolute power” speeches, can be likened with power more generally. The very first thing the “enlightened” disciples of Plato do upon attaining power is hoard it for themselves and weaponize it to dehumanize an innocent person.
Alexander immediately trusts Kirk, Spock and McCoy because while they might look different than he does, they don’t bully him and don’t have the power, two concepts that had previously been inconceivable to him. This leads to his character’s major turning point, and probably one of the single most important exchanges in the entire franchise. Alexander asks Kirk if, “where he comes from”, there are more people like him, referring both to his stature and lack of psychokinetic abilities. To which Kirk responds in a beautifully loaded quote:
“Alexander, where I come from, size, shape or color makes no difference. And nobody has the power.”
And with that one line, Kirk sets the stage for the entire future of Star Trek. Crucially, this advice proves vital to Alexander in the climax when he abstains from killing Parmen, even though he’d be entirely within his rights to do so. But, as Kirk later says, killing is murder, even in self-defense, and Alexander doesn’t want (the) power, because he doesn’t want to end up like the Platonians. He wants to be better, and he proves to himself as much as anyone else that he’s capable of better. And it was Star Trek that showed him he could be better. What makes Star Trek’s utopia worth holding onto is that it is, in the words of Robert Nozick, a “meta-utopia” where “…people are free to do their own thing”. It is the only environment that can exist when each individual person is treated as an equal.
While catching a rerun of “Plato’s Stepchildren”, a boy named Dan Madsen was captivated by Alexander’s story. A little person himself, he dreamed of a world where he would be “…accepted for who [he] was, not how tall [he] was or how [he] looked”. But I’ll stop talking now and let the founder of the first official Star Trek Fan Club and fanzine speak for himself.
Then there is of course the kiss between Kirk and Uhura, which I suppose I must talk about. It’s wasn’t actually the first interracial kiss on television: A year prior Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. greeted each other by kissing on a music variety show, and Desilu’s own Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz had of course kissed on I Love Lucy long before Star Trek. Actually, this wasn’t even the first interracial kiss in Star Trek this season: William Shatner shared many passionate kisses with French-Vietnamese France Nuyen in “Elaan of Troyius”, though “Plato’s Stepchildren” was the first of the two to air. This was, however, the kiss that the biggest spectacle was made out of, with lingering closeups of the actors both individually and together, some quite obvious shipper bait dialogue from Uhura and a cut to commercial break just as the two embrace. What’s most interesting about this scene to me is firstly that despite the production team’s hand-wringing there was practically no negative feedback about it whatsoever, except for one letter from a southern viewer that actually reads more like a joke, which seems sort of astonishing for 1968.
There also seems to be some debate about how the filming of the kiss actually went down. William Shatner seems to recall that NBC didn’t want the actors lips touching, but Nichelle Nichols says that each and every take was a real kiss. Also apparently at one point or another it was considered to have Spock kiss Uhura, but whether or not that was in the original script is a point of contention. What we do know is that Shatner apparently said of this idea “If anyone’s gonna get to kiss Nichelle, it’s going to be me, I mean, Captain Kirk!”, which could be seen as an example of his frequently alleged arrogance, but I can totally see this as his way of stressing how important it was that the kiss was between a Caucasian and African human via his signature tongue-in-cheek artificial and intentionally stilted bombast. Furthermore, there was originally going to be two versions of the scene filmed, one where they kissed and one where they didn’t, just in case the southern affiliates objected. But Shatner and Nichols, especially Shatner, deliberately and hilariously threw every take of the “no kiss” version so they would have no choice but to go with the kissing one. Regardless of the details though, this scene alone assured that “Plato’s Stepchildren” was the most talked about Star Trek episode of the year, possibly ever, and Nichelle Nichols recalls the show received more gushing fan mail for this one episode than they did any other. There is simply no denying its impact on pop culture history.
In spite of all this however, there are some things about “Plato’s Stepchildren” that simply do not work as well as they could have, and maybe should have. There’s one noticeably problematic line from Kirk and Spock wherein they denounce the Platonians for betraying Plato’s desire for peace, beauty and justice. This seems to contradict the themes the episode is working with everywhere else, and without it this would have been a more then sufficient follow-up on Kirk’s comments from “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” about how an appreciation for beauty is one of the last remaining unsavoury things humans in Star Trek retain of their Greek heritage. This would have been especially effective as the world of Star Trek is depicted as otherwise so pleasingly utopian in “Plato’s Stepchildren”.
The biggest issue with this episode though is that it really is basically unwatchable: The scenes where the crew are turned into clowns and puppets by the Platonians are absolutely excruciating. I know they were probably supposed to be, but they go on forever and the camera lingers on them way, way too long to the point it starts to feel as sadistic as the Platonians themselves. “Plato’s Stepchildren” could have used this to make a similar condemnation of the voyeuristic spectacle of television that Patrick McGoohan does in The Prisoner, or indeed that Gene Coon did in “Bread and Circuses”. But the cinematography, direction and editing simply can’t pull that trick off here. Star Trek once again ends up feeling cheap and seems to come up short, which it’s actually managed to largely avoid for awhile. As it stands, it takes someone of a very strong constitution to sit through this, no matter how many brilliant and landmark ideas it might have.
I don’t think I’ll ever watch “Plato’s Stepchildren” again, but I do now respect it in a way I was never able to before. And the legacy it had on pop culture really doesn’t need my approval or analysis.