|“Wow, this is a really crap episode.” “I know. Let’s see what else is on.”|
“Elaan of Troyius” is the first visible sign that things have gotten really bad for Star Trek. “Spectre of the Gun” may have raised suspicions a bit and, upon closer examination, it turned out to be Gene Coon in active revolt against the new status quo. This episode, by contrast, is evidence of how toxic the new status quo actually is.
First of all, it is catastrophically terrible. Star Trek has been reactionary on many an occasion before, but it hasn’t managed to be quite *this* reactionary since the Gene Roddenberry era. Elaan is flat-out the worst character we’ve seen in the Original Series so far: Not since Nona has there been a confluence of bigoted, xenophobic tropes of this magnitude, and Elaan makes Nona look downright progressive. I could explain why, but I really don’t have to because our old friend Daniel Leonard Bernardi had a few choice words to say about this episode:
“‘Elaan of Troyius’ brings into play stereotypes of the Asian female – the manipulative dragon lady and the submissive female slave. Elaan is both irrational and primitive. She throws temper tantrums, eats with her hands, and drinks from the bottle. Kirk tells her, ‘Nobody’s told you that you’re an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman’s body, an arrogant monster.’ Captain Kirk, the ‘white knight’ of Star Trek, articulates his and the Federation’s moral superiority and authority over the Asian-alien and her people through sexual conquest […] Indeed, it is only after the captain physically and sexually dominates her that she respects and eventually falls in love with him […] After giving in to Kirk’s power, Elaan, like the cunning and manipulative dragon lady of classical Hollywood cinema, returns the favor by capturing his heart. The Asian-alien’s tears contain a bio-chemical agent that, when touched by a man (even aliens like Kirk), forces him to fall deeply in love with her. After she manipulates Kirk into desiring her, Elaan becomes submissive, gentle, loyal, even willing to die with him, by his side, as the Klingons ruthlessly attack the Enterprise. It is at this point in the narrative that the other stereotype of the Asian female comes into play – that of the submissive Asian slave. In the end, Elaan does anything Captain Kirk requests, politely and adoringly obeying his demands and orders. Her dragon lady tactics were only used so that she could assume a position she truly desired: the submissive mistress of a white knight.”
Bernardi goes on like this, and, as is somewhat typical for him, he’s generally spot-on but in a narrow scope and with caveats. Ironically enough, Bernardi misses one of the biggest racist signifiers in the episode: While he’s right that Elaan draws upon Dragon Lady stereotypes, probably unfortunately in part due to her actor, France Nuyen, who is half-Vietnamese, the show is very clearly coding her as African too. Nuyen is dutifully browned up and her costume, hair style and facial makeup are all clearly modeled after stereotypical Ancient Egyptian imagery. Elaan isn’t just a racist caricature of Asians, she’s a generically amalgamated nonwhite, nonwestern Other, and one would think Bernardi of all people would have noticed that.
Of course, in this quote Bernardi also seems to fail to point out how obviously and spectacularly misogynistic this episode is. Not only is Elaan an archetypical savage, she’s also a strong, independent woman respected as an absolute ruler on her planet who spends the entire episode quite literally infantilized by everyone else on the show: She’s explicitly called a “spoiled brat”, runs into her room and locks the door when challenged and Kirk even actually threatens to spank her. It’s utterly appalling and disgraceful. There’s also the narrative Bernardi does mention, which is how the whole episode is based around Kirk forcing Elaan to become “proper” and “courteous”, which really just means submissive. This is bald-facedly anti-woman in a way this show hasn’t managed since “Mudd’s Women”, and honestly I think this one is actually worse.
Somewhat bewilderingly, this episode was supposedly meant to appeal to Star Trek‘s female fans. Of “Elaan of Troyius”, Fred Freiberger said “We tried to reach a segment of the audience we couldn’t otherwise reach, and didn’t succeed.” which is actually pretty funny. However, it also points out a serious failing on the part of the Star Trek staff. Aside from the fact they turned out a jaw-droppingly sexist turkey of a story, according to Freiberger and other members of the creative team, the whole intent was to reach out to women because women didn’t typically watch science fiction. I just find this statement completely inexplicable: Women were the *original* fans of Star Trek! Bjo Trimble organised the letter writing campaign that gave us this season in the first place! Spock, Kirk and Uhura were all wildly popular with women, and this would have been painfully obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the people actually watching the show. Women were already watching and in droves to boot-How on Earth were Freiberger and his team unaware of this to begin with?
I think the reason is because there is now a cavernous disconnect between the show, the people making the show, the people overseeing the show and the people watching the show, and this trips up a lot of people who try to talk about this season. Let’s take a quick survey of the various reactions to this episode. We’ve already mentioned Bernardi’s, and we’ll come back to him a little later on, but let’s look and some others first. There’s the fan account, which we can divide into two versions. The mainline, semi-official account in this case comes from Star Trek historians Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann, who call “Elaan of Troyius”:
“…indicative of many, though not all, of the episodes produced for Star Trek’s third season. Costumes, makeup, and script were all overblown, perhaps more suitable to sci-fi pulp than to the show’s earlier attempts at straightforward storytelling in a unique setting.”
I normally respect Block and Erdmann a lot, but I can’t help but roll my eyes at this. Never mind the fact the episode is a racist and sexist disaster, no, the real problem is that the costumes are too frilly and the script reads too pompous and pulpish. But, at least Block and Erdmann agreed the episode was bad, which is more than can be said of the A.V. Club, our representatives of contemporary fandom, who gave it a “B” rating and praised the “unexpected” ending and “nifty” space battle with the Klingons, which sort of speaks for itself.
The person whose reaction most interests me is that of the episode’s writer and director, John Meredyth Lucas. It’s more then a little staggering to see his name associated with “Elaan of Troyius”, and even more so to find he was apparently *proud* of it, saying: “I enjoyed the love story aspect of the show and thought it was an interesting change of pace. You didn’t get to do too many of those.”. It should go without saying this statement makes close to zero sense given what we’ve seen of Lucas so far, but I think this might actually demonstrate something other than damning Lucas as an insensitive bigot. For one, I’m starting to get the sense Lucas was probably a better showrunner than he was a writer or director. This can happen: Many times creative personnel double up on jobs, and very rarely are they good at all of them. Lucas oversaw one of the best runs in the show’s history, but as for stuff he actually wrote? So far it’s been this and “The Changeling”, neither of which were particularly successful. “Patterns of Force” was great, of course, but there Lucas was working off of a Paul Schneider script, and Paul Schneider is hard to screw up. Left to his own devices, however, well, maybe Lucas should have stuck to the producer’s chair.
But let’s play close attention to the word choice Lucas uses in his defense of his script: He specifically says it’s the love story that makes up the second half of the episode, which is interesting, as nobody else who’s commented on “Elaan of Troyius” has seemed to pick up on that. Admittedly, it’s an extremely problematic love story: It begins with Elaan either bowing to Kirk’s masculine dominance or trying to manipulate him to enact genocide on the Troyians, depending on which horrifically misogynistic and reactionary trope is least likely to ruin the rest of your day. From what I gather, Lucas wrote this as a retelling of both The Taming of the Shrew and the Helen of Troy myth, which frankly doesn’t do this story any more favours anyway. Although Lucas quite honestly fails to do anything with this plot point, he’s saved by his actors, who give the entire back half of the episode an entirely different interpretation.
Naturally, William Shatner is the primary figure here. Kirk is written pretty disastrously out of character for the majority of the episode, reinforcing the script’s rampant misogyny (seriously, did nobody but me notice “Mister Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in this galaxy that can make that claim”?). However, Shatner doesn’t play Kirk with the typical exaggerated, manly bravado he’s done when given this kind of prompt in the past: Instead he plays the part exasperated and frustrated at his inability to help bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The key turning point comes, however, after Kirk and Elaan fall in love, because, completely contrary to the way we would expect him to behave (and indeed the way the script seems to be written) then and only then does Kirk actually begin to act like Kirk. Rather then render him unfit for command and incapable of handling the crisis with the Klingons, Kirk seems in possession of every single one of his normal faculties. Spock and McCoy try to handwave this away during the denouement with the annoying “The Enterprise infected the captain long before the Dohlman did.” (Nimoy and Kelly actually play their parts in this episode altogether too straight for my liking to the point they got on my nerves), but that’s not at all what Shatner seems to be trying to convey.
Nor, actually, is it what France Nuyen is trying to convey either. Interestingly, Nuyen and Shatner had worked together before on Broadway and apparently they got on well enough to work together at least twice more after this episode. The two actors visibly have a chemistry together, and while for most of the episode it’s held back by the script’s overbearing paternalism, when it does shine through it’s bright enough to commandeer the episode’s meaning. This is the key thing Bernardi misses in his critique of “Elaan of Troyius”: By focusing on the textual representation problems of the script, he once again overlooks the fact that Star Trek is a joint production composed of many different creative figures, and while Elaan may be loaded up with racist and sexist imagery about manipulative and savage foreign women, Shatner and Nuyen play their characters as being very much in actual love.
Because of this, the back half of the episode gets to play out very differently: Now it seems more like Kirk admires Elaan for her warrior strength and indomitable spirit and Elaan sees in Kirk someone she can consider an equal, and who might consider her an equal in return. The key scene here is when Elaan beams down and says goodbye to Kirk, giving him her dagger to remember her by. Kirk says he has no choice but to let her be married off as political tribute, and Elaan says she doesn’t have any choice either, saying she now has only “responsibilities and obligations”, and the way Nuyen delivers this line is obviously loaded. The episode now becomes, only in its final act, a tragedy about political systems and structures of power, and how deference to orders and one’s assigned social role puts physical and metaphorical chains on people and dehumanizes them. That seems like something that Lucas may have been attempting to convey through referencing Helen of Troy, but he was so incompetent at it here any evidence for this reading in the finished product comes strictly from William Shatner and France Nuyen.
Star Trek has always in some sense been defined by the ability of its cast to elevate middling and ill-conceived ideas, but this time it feels a bit different. In the past there have been at least more than one party who were more or less on the same page, and now it seems like the management is not only incompetent but deliberately refusing to listen to not only the people they’re overseeing, but the people watching the show. Which is, if we’re honest, a not entirely unexpected thing for a production team largely interested in making sure this season is the series’ last. Thanks to William Shatner and France Nuyen, we can once again read “Elaan of Troyius” as an episode ultimately transformed and redeemed by a few visionary people, but really, with a production this apathetic and retrograde, why would you want to?