|“Does it need saying?”|
Every time I think this show has bottomed out the floor vanishes from beneath my feet. I haven’t been as angry at Star Trek as I was while watching “And The Children Shall Lead” in quite awhile. This is execrable. This is the worst parts of every retrograde story this show has ever done distilled to their core essences. This is “Omega Glory” standards. Actually, no, not even: “And The Children Shall Lead” starts as a third-rate retread of “Miri” and then dovetails into one of the most bald-facedly reactionary and youth-hating things I’ve ever seen, and it’s another sloppy, incoherent and cack-handed production on top of that. This isn’t just as bad as the show has ever been it’s worse.
Well, where to begin? How about with the absolutely bleeding obvious? Kirk, Spock and McCoy discover a Federation colony where all the adults have died out leaving only their children behind, who are suspiciously unnerved by the mass deaths. When they beam back aboard the Enterprise, it’s revealed the children are part of some scary and mysterious cult with strange language and unfamiliar customs built around worship of a “friendly angel” whom it is further revealed is actually another Alien Entity of Pure Evil who has enslaved the children. The being then orders them to commandeer the ship in an attempt to convert more brainwashed slaves for his army, with which he intends to take over the galaxy. In the end, the alien is dispatched by Kirk convincing the children adults always have their best interests at heart and can always be trusted, and demonstrating the Gorgon (which is apparently the alien’s name, as Kirk refers to it as such even though at no point in the episode did he ever learn this) requires faith and obedience to live, without which he is revealed as the evil (and, naturally, horrifically disfigured) being he truly is.
I mean, do I really need to spell it out? This couldn’t be more transparently an attack on the counterculture if Spock made some comment about how Earth was almost destroyed in the late-1960s by a group of misguided youths who were led astray by an Evil Alien Communist who told them to distrust the United States and protest the Vietnam War as evidence of historical precedence. The Gorgon is even dressed in a flowing, paisley gown and I’d say his design makes him look like a shoddy knock-off of something from the Doctor Who serial “The Mutants” except for the fact “The Mutants” wasn’t actually filmed until 1972, which leads me to believe Arthur Singer and writer Edward J. Lakso had some kind of right-wing time machine that could only be fueled by fear, hatred and the tears of children. I’m actually dumbfounded: I thought I’d have to wait until the 2010s and Internet culture to find an example of a show that held as much active contempt and loathing for its fanbase as this one does.
Then there are the illusions. My God, the illusions. Apparently, one of the ill-defined witchcraft powers the kids have is their ability to place illusions in people’s minds constructed out of their deepest fears. Kirk freaks out over the possibility of losing command, Chekov panics over potentially having to disobey orders, Uhura, naturally, sees an images of herself ugly and old in the mirror that she has logically bolted to her instrument panel (wimmenfolk and their vanity, amirite?) and Sulu sees spinning rings of Samurai swords and daggers that will destroy the Enterprise if he deviates from the course he’s laid in, which is both racist and idiotic. This episode is such a superstorm of hegemonic fear, bigotry and oppression it almost makes me want to apologise to Gene Roddenberry: Roddenberry was merely inept as a creative figure and a totalitarian bean counter. As bad as someone like Roberta Lincoln was, she was still evidence he felt the youth were heading in the right direction, it’s just he thought they were too scattered and flaky to get anything done, though they were sexy to look at (which is another issue entirely) Singer, however, seems like he actually, legitimately has an axe to grind against the forces of material social progress and is going out of his way to stamp them out. Either that or he’s out to troll everyone, and frankly neither scenario really warms me to him.
On top of all that the production is an absolute shambles. It makes the frenzied disorganisation of “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “The Alternative Factor” and “The Menagerie” look like opening night at the Globe Theatre. Major plot developments happen off-camera and go totally unexplained, the entire cast is written badly out of character and, most astounding of all, Fred Freiberger cast criminal defense attorney Melvin Belli as the Gorgon, someone with zero experience in the acting business. I have absolutely no idea what on Earth would have possessed Freiberger to cast someone like Belli instead of, you know, an actual actor. Belli was somewhat famous as an attorney, if for no other reason then the high-profile cases he was involved in (Belli was famous for defending Jack Ruby and The Rolling Stones, and had a minor role in the investigation into the Zodiac murders), but I can’t think of anything about him, apart from his minor marquee status, that would have made him a good fit for Star Trek. His son did in fact play one of the children in this episode, but neither that nor the potential ratings boost Freiberger seemed to think Belli’s status would yield is really a sufficient justification of his presence here. I mean, I suppose I could try and read this as Freiberger’s attempt to redeem “And The Children Shall Lead” by having the corrupting force be a lawyer, and thus a hegemonic establishment figure, except no: Belli defended The Rolling Stones and the guy who killed the guy who killed John F. Kennedy-That doesn’t really make him an enemy of the youth. If anything, that somehow manages to make it even worse.
But I’m not done yet. Like all terrible episodes of Star Trek, “And The Children Shall Lead” brings out not only the worst in the show, but the worst in its fans as well. While The Agony Booth (which regular readers will recall panned “The Alternative Factor” in the first season, an episode I thought was marvelous) did in fact agree this was one of the worst episodes of the show (if not the very worst), it was for maddeningly facile reasons: Their major complaint was that the episode “…offers virtually nothing: No suspense, no character development, no intriguing sci-fi premises, and not one memorable line of dialogue.”, as if the superficial structural problems are some kind of unforgivable sin and somehow worse then the appalling and blatant youth-phobic subtext and flashes of casual racism and misogyny. This fetishistic fixation on plot and character development is so typical of contemporary, early-21st Century fandom and I continue to be strongly put off by it every single time I see it.
And of course, The Agony Booth reserve their most potent bile for William Shatner, blaming the vast majority of the episode’s woes on him and proceeding to mercilessly mock him with sarcastic dialog such as:
“There’s no denying it: This is 100% grade-A pure Shatner here. We have now reached ShatNervana. The Shat goes through his entire range of grotesque, buffoonish facial expressions until Spock finally moves towards him, prompting Kirk to wildly grab him by the throat.”
By now I really shouldn’t have to lay out my response. Obviously, Shatner is the most enjoyable thing about the episode by light-years. There’s no contest. While it is true he’s in full-on “Omega Glory” or “Gamesters of Triskelion” mode once again, we firstly shouldn’t find this shocking, nor should we blame him. Frankly, the only thing that surprises me about Shatner turning into a scenery singularity is that he didn’t also spend the entire third season wearing an ice bucket as a hat like Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Secondly though, Shatner’s particular performance in this episode is so legendarily off-the-wall it had far-reaching consequences that went beyond what anyone was able to predict, or that many people have noticed even to this day. Shatner turns Kirk’s meltdown into such a spectacle he’s only brought out of it by Spock coming right up into his face and whispering his first name in his ear. This is very possibly the single slashiest scene in the entire Original Series such that I’m willing to bet it was largely responsible for the birth of the entire genre.
Slash fiction, the idea of taking two (or more) characters who were not originally intended to be romantically involved and writing fanfiction about their (typically homosexual) relationship is a massive part of Star Trek’s female and feminist fandom. In fact, the concept originates with Star Trek fandom, and despite what an irredeemable mess “And The Children Shall Lead” is, the confluence of factors that comes together in that one scene is an absolutely perfect demonstration of how it came about. While a more thorough examination of the history and development of slash is best saved for the 1970s where it starts to become a very pronounced and irreducible part of the Star Trek pop culture phenomenon, since a lot of the fundamental sources of inspiration are already self-evident, a brief overview is in order.
Essentially, Star Trek provided a very powerful mixture of elements that, when combined, led very straightforwardly to an environment in which slash could blossom: The show was always in some way sexually repressed, going back to Gene Roddenberry’s confused conception of gender. But, more to the point, Spock is a character who it is very easy to code as sexual: His suppression of his emotions makes a very convincing metaphor for the closet, in addition to making him seem brooding and mysterious. Kirk, meanwhile, thanks to William Shatner’s overt theatricality, comes across as very flamboyant in a way that’s very easy to queer up. Furthermore, the fact Kirk isn’t allowed to hold down any meaningful romantic relationships with people other than his crew for a number of reasons, and that he considers Spock one of his closest, most personal friends just makes this reading all the easier. The turbolift scene in this episode, then, comes across as just blatant: Previous moments (like the bondage and torture scenes in “The Gamesters of Triskelion” or “Patterns of Force”) could be argued away on any number of qualifiers. This one though, not so much.
But the fact the most positive thing I could come up with to say about “And The Children Shall Lead” is that it helped indirectly create slash fiction really says it all. The only thing this episode has going for it is the way the fans could transform it into something more interesting and less repugnant, reactionary and horrid. This really and truly is one of the worst things this franchise ever did. Amazingly, in five weeks, the new creative team has concretely demonstrated itself to actually be worse and less competent than Gene Roddenberry. Congratulations, I guess.
As a final twist of the knife it’s a fitting summary of Star Trek itself: Something that was made great by and large through the hearts and minds of the people whose imagination it captured, not always through the extant bits of Soda Pop Art that were made in its name.