“It is said that the first sport, the original main event that thrilled the masses, considered the greatest spectacle of all, was the fight.”: The Squire of Gothos
|I got your gun…
We’ve finally found the weird at long last.
The opening salvo of “The Squire of Gothos” is simply put the most mental thing yet. We’ve got a planet that instantaneously materializes out of nowhere, Kirk and Sulu jump-cutting off the bridge and foppish Victorian gentle-alien holding the Enterprise hostage due to his fascination with warmaking. Each one of these concepts individually would be enough to throw viewers for a complete loop; dumping all of them on us at once requires us to take a few steps back, a deep breath, and take them one at a time.
The first thing to note is that we’re back in “Miri” territory. Actually, a case could be made this is the structure of “Miri” done right: The Enterprise is on space patrol as always, en route to deliver some more supplies. Just like in the earlier episode, however, they are swiftly interrupted by the thoroughly inexplicable. This time though, the show takes its time unfolding the mystery: The phantom planetoid, disappearing crewmembers and bizarre antiquarian message of “Tallyho!” showing up on Spock’s monitor is enough, but the show gradually builds on this, first with the reveal of Trelane’s oasis-within-an-oasis and then well into the third and fourth acts as each answer does nothing but open up a new question. Unlike the earlier episode, which promptly resolved all of its mystery in the first act, this one clearly takes the time to relish it, taking gleeful pride in constantly getting its audience to wonder what the heck is going on.
“The Squire of Gothos” is of course nowhere near as mind-bogglingly weird as something like the roughly contemporaneous Verity Lambert era of Doctor Who, best exemplified by the Georges Méliès-inspired spacescapes, giant ants and man-butterflies of the serial “The Web Planet”: This is something that’s absolutely not in Star Trek’s wheelhouse at this point, if it can in fact be argued it ever will be. But this is still a very stark break from what we’ve come to expect from Star Trek, especially under Gene Coon and in particular after the past three episodes. The precedent is, naturally, “Shore Leave”, and the effect of that episode’s traumatically altered state of consciousness is very clear here, as is it’s ultimate reluctance and hesitation. From the very beginning Trelane operates completely and utterly above and beyond the crew’s level of comprehension, and the very first thing they set about doing (and continue to do for the remainder of the story) is to try and explain him a way using rationality language they understand. It is simply inconceivable for Kirk and his crew to accept the possibility there may exist things which do not fit neatly into their currently established knowledge systems.
And Trelane is definitely unlike anything we’ve seen before: He’s the first genuinely “alien” character in all of Star Trek, for one. Spock, and by extension the Vulcans, were originally at heart just Number One’s human personality turned into the defining trait of a culture (they of course quickly become much more than this, thanks almost exclusively to the combined efforts of Leonard Nimoy, Theodore Sturgeon and D.C. Fontana, but this is what they were originally). Pretty much all the other extraterrestrials in Gene Roddenberry’s tenure were generic monsters, while Coon has kept the action primarily at a human level so far. The Romulans were an alien culture, but they were also consciously designed to be the mirror of us, so they are by definition very humanized. Trelane is just plain strange: He’s an all-powerful, unreadable and unpredictable entity with a bizarre fascination with 18th and 19th century Earth.
Actor William Campbell, a Star Trek fan favourite with a deeply storied history with the franchise who makes his debut appearance here, is absolutely phenomenal as Trelane: He’s manic, charismatic and completely unhinged; a just about perfect match for William Shatner’s Kirk. Trelane is Kirk’s inverse, twisted, mirror-image evil camp twin: Both characters are in some way defined by a fixation on overstated bravado, and ultimately there’s little difference between Trelane’s gleeful, play-acted goose-stepping and Kirk’s overblown, impassioned speeches about duty. The key difference between the two lies in the contrast between the way their characters are depicted: Shatner’s performance is just overstated enough to draw attention to the artifice of the thing, thus encouraging us to read Kirk as a kind of playful subversion. Shatner is obviously playing a role, and playing it just a little bit off-He is in fact a drag pulp sci-fi action hero, and a great deal of his charm comes from him frequently eliciting subtle laughs at the expense of the role and premise.
Campbell by contrast plays Trelane with active and clearly noticeable malice: It’s an entirely more venomous portrayal, designed to rub our noses firmly in our own enjoyment of the setting’s general pomp and circumstance. Kirk’s detournement is meant to be somewhat muted, but visible if you’re paying close enough attention to it; Trelane’s is grotesque, mad, and violent. As such their conflict is utterly, beautifully elegant and without doubt the highlight of the episode. Furthermore, Campbell is excellent at giving Trelane a genuinely uncanny and disquieting air, playing up to great extent the fact he gets the trappings of the various characters he takes on and the settings he studies ever-so-slightly wrong. What makes this delicious, of course, is this once again makes him immediately comparable to Kirk. Although, as Kirk observes, he may be nigh-omnipotent, but he *is* fallible. In fact, Trelane might almost be *too* fallible.
What makes Trelane such a compelling character in my view is that he’s an absolute caricature of repugnant good-old-boy politics and imperialist jingoism. Trelane idolizes Napoleon, which is perfect, and extolls, to deeply uncomfortable effect, the virtues of flags, nationalist pride, stereotypical Tory aesthetic and the honour of sending soldiers to fight and die for not just his cause but him personally. And, tellingly, Kirk has just about no comeback to this. Oh, he loses his patience, demands Trelane release the Enterprise and keeps pointing out he’s got his historical details a little wrong, but in terms of actually debating Trelane on an intellectual level? In terms of refuting his claims that humanity is an inherently predatory species for whom warmaking and murder is a fundamental instinct? Kirk’s got nothing. Indeed, he’s got less than that: He ends up in a straight up brutally savage brawl with Trelane at the end of the episode that damn near gets him run through with a sword for his trouble. He can declare up and down humans are a noble species that deserve to be treated with dignity, but does absolutely nothing to support his claim. But, once again the show aggravatingly stops short and backpedals, revealing Trelane to be the misbehaving child of other, more grown-up and benevolent beings, thus completely stripping him of any authority he could have used to take the show to task.
It’s fitting I mentioned the Romulans earlier, because this is the second outing of Paul Schneider, who had previously penned “Balance of Terror”, the episode I still consider to be arguably the Original Series’ high water mark. Predictably, “The Squire of Gothos” is at heart a furious anti-war piece. Schneider says the impetus for this episode was watching with horror as young boys acted out war games for fun, so he penned this story to show what it would be like of that kind of light, capricious attitude to war was extrapolated to a superhuman degree. While I can understand and respect that, I still think it was a mistake to make Trelane a child. Perhaps this could have worked had there been more scenes where the Enterprise crew gets to prove their peaceful virtues and defend their character to Trelane, but that never really happens. The majority of this episode is dedicated to watching either Trelane using the crew as playthings or to Kirk screaming at him for doing so and baiting his ego. At the end of it all we’re left feeling a bit hollow: Nobody’s critique has really stuck, and it seems suspiciously like the show is hastily sweeping it all back under the rug before we start to ask too many questions about the ethics of what we’re watching, which seems strange coming from the guy who wrote “Balance of Terror”.
But even if this isn’t quite as successful as Schneider’s prior work, “The Squire of Gothos” is just as upfront about its firm anti-imperialist stance which can’t be seen as anything less then an unequivocal positive. On top of that, it’s yet another step forward into the weird and fantastic realms of the cosmic imagination that lay outside the boundaries of Earth-controlled colonial space. Slowly but surely Star Trek is beginning to learn how to broaden its mind and its horizons and that there’s a bit more out there than itself. This is frequently a painful, yet necessary process, and the show’s been forced to adapt. And the transformations that are to come soon will hold repercussions for the entire galaxy.