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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

7 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    October 4, 2013 @ 2:17 am

    I had always considered Elaan of Troyius one of those unfortunate Star Trek episodes where the production team was so entranced by a facile allegory that they forgot all the sexist/racist elements of the story. Wow, you wrote a transparent sci-fi allegory of Helen of Troy (they didn't even really change any names) and crossed it with a really condescending version of Pygmailon; congratulations, you've achieved the level of fanfic written by a sixth grader.

    I didn't know Shatner and Nuyen had worked with each other before, though. I think when I've watched previously, the awful first half just polluted my ability to see the actors trying to rescue the second half. I'm glad you're taking the position of redemptive readings, at least of some of these episodes. It's too easy to fall into the trap of Bernardi, who'll lay a blanket dismissal on the whole franchise because of its problems, and not give it credit for trying to overcome them. Do you know if Bernardi worked through the series by watching the episodes, or did he restrict his research to the scripts alone?

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    October 4, 2013 @ 7:47 am

    I do make it a point to redeem what I can when I can because I am ultimately invested in justifying and defending Star Trek, but a fair warning: I'm not married to redemptive readings at all costs (I just finished watching an episode about which I found it basically impossible to say anything positive). I would say my larger strategy is to be kinder to the parts of the franchise that I feel have been unfairly maligned and harsher on the parts of it I feel have inflated reputations. In the case of Season 3, it's still almost universally terrible, it's just terrible for different reasons then the fans tend to mention.

    I would assume Bernardi watched the episodes he cites, if for no other reason then it's actually kind of hard to get ahold of pre-production Star Trek scripts. That said, I think his larger issue boils down to the fact his methodology almost solely consists of taking straightforwardly terrible episodes, pointing to something like Elaan and saying "Y'know, that's pretty racist, isn't it?" and then smugly dropping the mic (I take him more to task for this next time).

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  3. K. Jones
    October 7, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    Absolutely the principle actors here are why this episode sticks with me. I've always acknowledged the pulpiness of this one, the dated sexism, and the coded or more likely overlooked racism. But the way Shatner and Nuyen played it – particularly Shatner – always made Kirk's attempts to reign in this "wild beast" seem more like he was the only person on the whole ship willing to follow the customs of her culture; that his threats of spankings were honest-to-god openly sexual references with very little subtext, and that Kirk is totally into the rough stuff and was threatening Elaan with a good time. There was definitely some subtle kink – and the Dohlman's outfit, but also the uncharacteristically bare legs of the Elasian guards – gave this kind of weird vibe that I enjoyed.

    But apart from all the other problems (and it's kind of ironic and nearly satirical that another "Other/Nonwhite" browned up race has actual literal canon ties to the Klingons – the Nonwhite archetype of Star Trek) I think what I liked about this episode most was that it is the prototype for a massive amount of similar episodes involving strange diplomatic scenarios in the border territories where enemy nations had a vested interest in mucking about with things.

    In that way this episode, even with its near satirical levels of the usual suspects of genre fiction endemic problems, reads as a pretty direct allegory or parallel to similar events on Earth, especially in Europe. Maybe late 60s Star Trek deserved a far more progressive eye toward the future, but cultural disputes resulting from shallow interpretations of proud Other people with strange customs, happening in border regions between empires, diplomatic arranged marriages; it's not without real world precedent. And presciently enough, the Super-Powers are interested because of fuel resources. I think TNG deconstructed every single possible element of this episode, I can think of at least five examples in this lineage off the cuff.

    Of course as usual, my biggest takeaway was bemoaning the fact that we learned absolutely nothing about the Troyians other than them having odd teal skin.

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  4. K. Jones
    October 7, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    Thinking deeper on the Elasians is now piquing my curiosity about the nature of non-Klingon races that might be part of the Klingon Empire. There had to be some, and it's possible that being in disputed Borderlands, and the agent/assassin stuff here, that had the arranged marriage thing taken a backseat to a more political intrigue angle, the narrative could've been less tied down by problems.

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    October 8, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    The kink angle is definitely a good one: I picked up on the as well, and upon reflection I probably should have mentioned it a bit more. Shatner and Nuyen do take a good deal of the edge off the more horrifying paternalistic elements by playing that up.

    I'm tempted to cite "Journey to Babel" as more of the prototype for convoluted diplomacy and political intrigue stories, but ultimately it is still a story about Spock, Sarek and Amanda first and foremost with the conference and sabotage parts of the plot more window dressing.

    TNG is indeed quite good at deconstructing and reconstructing a story like this, but all I could think of while watching it was how they bewilderingly remade it once and somehow managed to still be sexist.

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  6. Suzanne Foxton
    May 4, 2016 @ 10:09 am

    Although I agree with the majority of the analysis (both anti-female and anti-non-western), I have always been captivated by the character of Elaan and it's entirely due to France Nuyen's craft. The writing may be iffy but the scene where she cries her toxic tears I have always found touching; "I don't know how to get people to like me" is delivered with such gut-wrenching sincerity it evokes instant sympathy, even for a character so broadly and turgidly presented as an irredeemable harpy. I still look forward to the day I finally attend some Comic Con or other in full Elaan regalia, silvery bodysuit and triangular kohl on proud display. The Sixties at NBC was a difficult arena for social progressiveness. I suppose we may forgive this episode as a lazy excuse to display female flesh whilst citing the Bard. And let's not forget those moments Kirk was utterly in Elaan's sway, helpless and lost, even if it was due to biochemicals. If one can wince through Kirk's out-of-character tutelage in the first half, there's enough frippery and foppery in the second half to at least make it halfway watchable. I say – give those poor deluded white men a break! Not that they deserve it.

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  7. Carla O'Harris
    April 10, 2021 @ 6:15 am

    100% hogwash. Just utter rubbish. Academic gobbledygook. Another terrible review of this awesome episode that misses the main point: a feudal class-culture confronting a post-class culture of equality. Kirk is not having the class culture of contempt, where engineering is for mechanics and menials, and where courtesy is not for inferiors.

    Strong woman who is a ruler? Feudalism is OK so long as a woman fills the center seat? What kind of class society nonsense is that?

    She is a strong character, and Kirk teaches her a different kind of strength, the kind that comes from equality not domination.

    She sets out to dominate him, and he will not be dominated. But he refuses to dominate in turn. And when she shows signs of being human, and becomes vulnerable, he is immediately compassionate.

    All this postcolonialist and genderist academic nonsense do not get at the class critique central to this episode. What matters is not her exoticism or gender. What matters is her upper-class attitude. What matters is that by Kirk’s time, such arrogance is seen as childish.

    Did anyone note that Kirk refers to spanking as an “old”, ie., obsolete, Earth custom? This suggests such entitlement is no longer so ingrained it requires such backwards discipline.

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