|Oh, I give up.|
“This Side of Paradise” is a story about how dangerous idealized societies are. It’s also about how the pursuit of simple, communal living and an exploration of love are inhuman temptations and how it’s far better and more proper to focus on duty, responsibility, modernist, technoscientific notions of progress and suffering. At its best it’s a crass indictment of collectivist lifestyles as being “lazy”, “stagnant” and “counterproductive” and at its worst it’s the exact same goddamn story as “The Return of the Archons” from three bloody weeks ago. It’s also written by the same guy who penned “The Corbomite Maneuver”.
So yeah heads up there’s no way in hell there was ever the remotest chance of me liking this one. Just so I get it all out in the open right away: I think “This Side of Paradise” is utterly immoral and I have no intention whatsoever of mustering up a redemptive reading for it. I’ve also just about lost patience completely with this season, as this is the fourth story in a row with a rock-bottom cynical, nihilistic and actually downright mean-spirited attitude about it and at this point the series is genuinely teetering on the edge of invalidating itself and self-destruction. Thankfully, by the grace of some divine cosmic miracle I have something to talk about in this post aside from the unbelievably depressing and infuriating plot.
Firstly, there’s a second name on this script apart from Jerry Sohl (or rather his pseudonym Nathan Butler), the aforementioned writer who previously made me want to suplex my TV set with “The Corbomite Maneuver”. That name would be D.C. Fontana, who slips into her familiar Star Trek role with this episode. Fontana is one of the single most important creative figures in Trek history, story editing the lion’s share of the Original Series before becoming the joint showrunner of the Animated Series with Dave Gerrold and continuing to contribute scripts to the franchise as late as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is actually the third time we’ve seen Fontana’s name in the credits, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to explore her impact on the series in any meaningful way. She wrote the teleplay for “Charlie X”, but that was mostly a Gene Roddenberry effort, and she also wrote “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, but I decided to use my essay on that episode to play with temporal mechanics instead. Which actually turned out to be fortuitous, because not only is this really the best time to introduce Fontana as it’s where she first becomes story editor, it also spares me actually having talk about “This Side of Paradise”.
Fontana heavily retooled Sohl’s original contribution, apparently at the behest of Roddenberry, who is said to have told her “if you can rewrite this script, you can be my story editor”. He must have liked the job she did, as she was promptly hired for the position as soon as the story went out. Fontana’s alterations do undoubtedly improve the episode: She has the plants scattered all over the colony instead of being in one easily-avoidable cave as Sohl had written them and she also takes the love story with Leila, originally intended for Sulu, and gives it to Spock instead, which allows Leonard Nimoy to explore his character in a way he hasn’t really been able to since “The Naked Time”. However that being said, it’s hard to argue this is Fontana’s best contribution to the show (even at this point in her career: Scary temporal connotations aside “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is an absolute riot and this…isn’t). Even Fontana is incapable of salvaging the story from its blatantly reactionary overtones. So let’s talk about Spock instead.
As I’ve mentioned before, Spock is in many ways the central character of Star Trek. This is mostly due to Roddenberry’s particular interests: He is fixated at this point, in a sense, on the split between logic and emotions and he is very interested in when it’s better to lean on one than another. We can infer this quite easily from the fact Spock was originally Number One, who was a character especially written for Roddenberry’s muse Majel Barrett. Barrett is on record saying Number One was the first character created for Star Trek and while the captain character wasn’t *quite* an afterthought, Roddenberry was specifically interested in her. Even though Leonard Nimoy is demonstrably not Majel Barrett, this has carried through to the series. As fascinating as Kirk has become, this is about 99% due to William Shatner camping and queering him up to positively delightful degrees. Kirk-as-written is basically a generic, masculine commanding presence and the only other person we’ve seen apart from Shatner who seems to truly get him has been Paul Schneider: Indeed in this episode Kirk overcomes the spores’ evil temptations of love, happiness and tranquility through force of sheer aggressive manliness, which really says more about Star Trek‘s ethics in one scene than I could ever hope to with the entire section of the blog I’ve set aside for it.
But Spock doesn’t have these drawbacks. He’s increasingly become able to explore the concept of human emotion in ways the other characters aren’t able to, and, under Fontana, he’s eventually going to become basically the best evidence the show has that it’s got anything at all to do with leftist counterculture or any kind of spiritual dimension. While we’re still a ways away from seriously talking about that, Fontana is laying the groundwork here. When it’s not being intolerable, “This Side of Paradise” actually has some provocative things to say about Spock and romance. The whole point of his relationship with Leila is that she’s capable of seeing sides of him Spock’s not able to show to anyone else. In that sense, were I inclined to be charitable, I could read the spores as an extension of that theme, metaphorically representing intimacy and emotional vulnerability. This manages to work both better and worse than in “The Naked Time”: Better in the sense that establishing a pre-exisiting relationship with Leila gives her an authority Nurse Chapel didn’t have, but worse in that the episode is nowhere near capable of supporting this kind of character moment, certainly not compared with “The Naked Time” which, despite its numerous faults, did sort of have that as a central theme.
Credit to Fontana, this does also result in the episode’s one interesting idea. See, Spock can very easily be read as a closeted character: His inner conflict over wanting to explore his emotions and feeling ashamed of his desire to do so is a very apt metaphor. While this is far from the most slash-worthy episode of the Original Series (or even this season) and despite the fact his relationship with Leila is very obviously a straight one, the basic narrative is still there, and this will only continue to develop over the course of the series’ initial run. Nimoy is excellent at this, conveying all the different levels of Spock’s anxiety and turmoil beautifully, and this is the first time he’s been able to really do so since the very beginning of the series. However, because this episode is rubbish, it manages to ruin this by having the spores be a Bad Thing that needs to be overcome through firm, rigorous vigilance, essentially advocating everyone to go back in the closet, lock the door and never speak of it again,
Actually you know what, let’s talk about the plot a bit. While the majority of “This Side of Paradise” can’t seem to decide if it wants to condemn the evils of red communism, critique the concept of the utopia the way “The Return of the Archons” did or yell at the damn hippies to get off its lawn, the final scene is interesting, as it actually problematizes Kirk’s blustering speech about how humans aren’t meant for paradise. As if the fact the benevolent spores of love and happiness are killed by anger and sadness wasn’t quite enough, Spock says the time he spent with Leila at the colony was the one time in his life he was ever allowed to be happy, and the whole thing ends on a very uncertain note. It almost seems as if the show is expecting us not to be comfortable with the idea of “walking out of paradise on our own”, as it were. However, this also doesn’t work, and here is the one time I might actually prefer Gene Roddenberry’s overly simplistic, two-fisted conception of morality over some kind of nuance: Where “The Return of the Archons” managed to end up at a fairly straightforward critique of utopianism, “This Side of Paradise” ends up drenched in a very particular version of Western, Christian-influenced thinking.
Setting aside the larger reactionary, anti-youth elements of the story, the concept of paradise, especially given Kirk and McCoy’s lines at the end of the episode, is very much drawn from the Book of Genesis. Doctor Sandoval is, after all, essentially trying to build a new “Garden of Eden”. As is common to popular readings of Genesis, paradise is seen as something that we’re not allowed to have in the mortal plane. While this episode never goes to the next level and actually *says* we have to wait for happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven, it ticks pretty much all the other boxes: Kirk’s big objection to the Omicron Ceti colony is, essentially, that it’s fundamentally wrong and humans aren’t supposed to have something like that. Humans aren’t meant to live in paradise because they’re just not: They’re meant to work and to suffer. This is about as stereotypically Christian as it’s possible to get. I suppose I could make an effort to try and read this as some kind of Buddhist parable, as some threads of Buddhism do indeed posit existence is suffering and Star Trek is going to have more than a casual flirtation with Eastern spirituality in the far future, but that’s a stretch even for me. There’s too much Biblical imagery to ignore and the idea the Star Trek writing staff circa 1967 was knee-deep in Buddhist philosophy is one I have a very hard time accepting.
I also want to briefly mention DeForest Kelley, who gives the other real standout performance here. We haven’t been able to talk about Kelley much, but one thing that’s become clear to me over the course of the first season that in many ways he’s playing McCoy with almost as much of a performative streak as Shatner gives Kirk. He never quite makes the final connection from performativity to camp to drag, but he’s definitely giving an overstated performance. This contrasts significantly with how he was depicted in Sohl’s previous effort, which also happened to be his debut. There, Kelley played McCoy with genuine humanness and believability, a true successor to Boyce and Piper who also managed to one-up them. Now, he’s almost as much of a caricature as Kirk: The switch seemed to take place somewhere around “The Enemy Within”, and ever since McCoy has been defined by a kind of raw, crackling emotional passion, mostly to contrast with Spock’s logical aloofness. The pinnacle of this development in this regard will, of course, be the episode airing in just a few week’s time, but it’s abundantly clear here: Once McCoy gets infected with the spores, Kelley switches to an absolutely hilariously stereotypical southern gentleman, drawling out his lines to cartoonish extent, peppering his dialog with conspicuous “y’alls” and “Jimmy-boys” and drinking mint julep. I’m not quite sure why Kelley never gets the reputation for camp excess Shatner does or is linked with Spock quite the way Kirk is in pop consciousness, but he’s well on his way to leaving his own mark on the series’ legacy.
But that’s the problem: Nimoy and Kelley are the *only* likable things here, with even Shatner getting once again shafted with some truly godawful, morally bankrupt dialog. As nice as it is to see D.C. Fontana stepping up to a more active role in the show, this is nobody’s best effort, is one more in a month of truly depressing episodes and, worst of all, continues to push Star Trek further and further away from the counterculture and the ability to contribute in some way to material social progress. We’ve got four more episodes this year and then two more seasons after that, but it’s starting to feel like even people like Gene Coon, William Shatner and DeForest Kelley are giving up on the show at this point. One does have to wonder if, after episodes like this, “The Enemy Within” and “Space Seed” if Star Trek is actually something that can continue and has something to offer to society, or if it’s just being kept alive on life support at this point.