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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.

13 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    August 14, 2013 @ 5:53 am

    The Apple does let me make what might be a genuine insight into the reasons why it's so popular. I never really liked the episode, either, simply because I found its story kind of facile and stupid.

    But when I speculate on why The Apple is so popular among the general community of Star Trek fans, I come up with an explanation similar to my idea about the popularity of Who Mourns for Adonais. The underlying story of Adonais is Star Trek confronting the mythic presence and power of the ancient Greek gods, and destabilizing them to the point that Star Trek can take their place as the mythos of humanity. Maybe fans see The Apple as doing the same with Christianity.

    Dogmatic religious devotion isn't exactly prevalent in sci-fi communities; atheism tends to be a more dominant perspective. And if modern online communities are any way to judge the tendencies of atheists in previous generations, then I feel pretty safe concluding that their atheism is of the shrill, facile, dogmatic versions of Richard Dawkins and folks like him. So they'd read The Apple as Star Trek declaring Christianity to be the brainwashing of an evil computer who keeps our own civilization from progressing. The replacement for repressive Christianity? The mythmaking power of atheist humanist sci-fi, led by Star Trek.

    The deluded natives incapable of progress are, in this interpretation, liberated by the arrival of Star Trek's godless mythmaking. The genuine offensiveness and moral shortfalls of The Apple and Adonais appear when we stop reading the story through the allegory the authors intended. Once we do that, we not only see how the allegory disguises a different kind of repression, but that crafting characters and stories that serve only as single-purpose allegories is itself a kind of repression. It represses individuality for the sake of an allegory.

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    August 14, 2013 @ 7:54 am

    I agree with you completely up to the point when you say the shortfalls of "The Apple" only come when we stop reading it the way the authors intended. While the militant, facile atheism of Dawkins and his ilk may be prevalent in sci-fi fandom, I'm unconvinced this was the perspective the people running the show at the time were writing from.

    IMO there's still a general sense in 1967 that Star Trek is about morality plays, at least among the people writing it. Despite its pretensions it's really not in the camp of hard, secular science fiction, and Gene Roddenberry's description of it as being made of "mini Biblical stories" is telling. I think there's an at least implicitly pop Christian undertone to the series right now (well, in stories like this at any rate: The show's ethics, politics and structure change every episode) and that Star Trek won't begin to openly court secular humanism until the late-1970s.

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  3. Adam Riggio
    August 14, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    Then shift my designation of the atheist humanist interpretation's origin from the authors to the cult fans of the 1970s that made Star Trek legendary. It seems to fit my reading of Adonais better as well. The producers of TOS believed themselves to be making sci-fi morality plays. Maybe the Western secular humanism of 1970s cult fandom established such deep love for The Apple because it supported a militant atheist reading against Christianity. The episodes with deep love from 1970s fandom (like Jason Alexander) are episodes that can be read as Star Trek supplanting Western myths. In the 1970s, that seems to have been the goal of Star Trek cult fandom.

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    August 14, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    That seems fitting to me. I've avoided discussing first generation fandom at length so far as I have a series posts lined up meant to look at it directly and right now I'm predominantly interested in the show's production history, but this does seem a more than likely explanation for the popularity of this kind of story.

    In brief, I think it's the 1970s that leads to a large-scale reconceptualization of what Star Trek was about, from sci-fi morality plays to a vision of secular utopianism, and that's mostly due to the fandom that arose out of watching syndicated reruns. This, in turn, leads the creators to approach writing Star Trek differently once they return to and reimagine it. As my critique exists in multiple time periods this is something I'm always aware of, despite on the whole trying to focus on the realities of producing Star Trek day-to-day in the late-1960s at the moment.

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  5. Flex
    August 14, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

    Hey, just wanted to say thanks for all the great writing you're doing. TOS is my favorite of the franchises, but your reviews are much needed challenges to a lot of classic fan orthodoxy. I'll be glad to follow your project as it moves forward.

    This episode has always stood out to me as the ugly worst TOS had to offer. Not that there aren't other extremely problematic episodes of the series, but at least they usually offered something intriguing or basically entertaining. This episode commits the twin sins of being full of odious, retrograde ideas and not even having the decency to present those ideas in an entertaining manner (something which saves a lot of other episodes of the show from being totally unwatchable).

    Your series of posts always reminds me of that line in the Futurama Star Trek episode when Fry is trying to explain Star Trek to Leela: "79 episodes… maybe 20 good ones." I'll be curious if we get to 20 by the time your run on TOS is up.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    August 14, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

    "Hey, just wanted to say thanks for all the great writing you're doing."

    Thanks for stopping by and for saying so! Glad you're enjoying the project so far.

    "TOS is my favorite of the franchises…"

    Oh dear…

    "…but your reviews are much needed challenges to a lot of classic fan orthodoxy. I'll be glad to follow your project as it moves forward."

    Well, thanks for the vote of confidence there! This is certainly one goal of mine.

    "Your series of posts always reminds me of that line in the Futurama Star Trek episode when Fry is trying to explain Star Trek to Leela: "79 episodes… maybe 20 good ones." I'll be curious if we get to 20 by the time your run on TOS is up.'

    Well, I count six as of this episode that I'd recommend, maybe a handful more that are borderline. We'll have to see what the final tally is when we're through with it I suppose…

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  7. K. Jones
    August 14, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

    TOS is my favorite of the franchises as well! But you're not vivisecting the production or LCD work, which is the primary impetus for that favoritism and endless fascination. Other series may lack 'most' of the retrograde, hard-to-stomach aspects, but they're dismal, grey affairs and often kind of bland to look at; atypical for the early 90s, which was still inundated with the worst of the garish late-80s.

    I agree with your assessment of The Apple but there was always an element of cult slavery (the United States being a Western, Europe-based model, has always had the same witch-burning, church-sponsored fear and paranoia of cults and it was and is still ever-present in pop culture, in spite of the massive underground or alternative appeal of neo-pagan lines of thinking) that I thought the allegorists were attempting to tackle, specifically in regards to unquestioning servility toward a vague authority. And a mind-controlled populace. Think of all the "contemporary" television shows that deal with poor duped cult members serving an abjectly corrupt leader. Not that there aren't real life examples of such things, but they don't typically come in the form of peaceful, child-like people in grass skirts and huts.

    But beyond that, in a very large regard I think there was a deliberate intent to contrast the Children of Vaal, some of whom had receiving devices implanted into their brains, with the idea of brainwashing. Brainwashing and hypnosis via radio waves – the paranoia ray – was an ever-present threat from Russia during the Cold War. The narrative of an unflinching, purely logical computerized leadership imposing its un-Freedom on your very will like so much Darkseid via broadcast was so present in the pop-cultural forefront that most people at the time could probably discern it easily. Kirk & Co. were anarchist insurgents freeing a small, forgotten native population from the ills of the Red Menace. Vaal might as well be some MK-ULTRA project in a forgotten backwater that the Kremlin built then abandoned.

    Not that it did it particularly effectively (even as a child I had trouble buying into a clearly white actor pretending to be some kind of aboriginal tribesman, before I could even conceptualize how terribly racist the use of an aboriginal tribesmen as a McGuffin for white imperialists was). Anyway, from my very present day perspective, there are far better examples of Trek and other sci-fi dealing with this "threat" of mind-controlling a population, and they properly forsook paranoia radio mind-control for the far more disconcerting and relevant use of "drugs" as a means of mind-control.

    There's an extremist line of thinking seen in right or left wings that still pervades all spheres, which will gladly equate "geopolitical rivals" with "different philosophies" with "evil cults". In the 60s, Communism was tantamount, probably by-and-large perceived the same way, as some faddish cult living in a compound in the middle of nowhere.

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  8. Cleofis
    August 14, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

    Oh sweet baby Jesus, "The Apple." The very first episode of Trek I ever saw (or remember seeing), watched on the old Trek laser discs my dad used to have, back when he was first introducing me to it. As such, this one's stuck with me, part of my primal childhood iconography; the Vaalians throwing the sacrifices into the glaring red maw of the machine, Kirk teaching them how to kill, the Enterprise's air strike, and that ending, with Spock essentially stating outright "We have completely and irreparably fucked these people over" only to get mocked for his apparently Satanic appearance. Even as a kid that felt very wrong to me, and I vaguely recall being confused as to why showing the Vaalans how to kill would ever be a good thing. God this episode is really fucking terrible, and it doesn't have "The Omega Glory's" hilarity to excuse it either (that one wins first prize in the "man, Spock TOTALLY LOOKS LIKE THE DEVIL AMIRITE" sweepstakes).

    Also, "pop Christian" is a wonderful phrase that I will probably appropriate in the future. And I would have to completely agree with Adam's theory on the 70s emergent fandom's relationship with episodes like this; pity Trek won't tackle religion effectively until DS9 and Kira, though God bless 'em they really knock it out of the park when they do, but I'll save my thoughts on that 'til we get there. Incidentally, speaking of your addressing the 70s fandom, I cannot wait to hear you talk about the birth of slash fandom/fangirl culture in the context of Trek fandom, as that's a narrative begging for a decent examination and celebration; the contempt with which they're treated on the internet (or only paid attention to in terms of origin in context of the rise of Buffy) is both bullshit and utterly belies how critical they've been since the very beginning.

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  9. Josh Marsfelder
    August 15, 2013 @ 7:54 am

    "Other series may lack 'most' of the retrograde, hard-to-stomach aspects, but they're dismal, grey affairs and often kind of bland to look at; atypical for the early 90s, which was still inundated with the worst of the garish late-80s."

    I must say it may be just me, but I'd hardly call Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "dismal, grey affairs". Star Trek Voyager yeah, and maybe that's why the 80s and 90s series get this reputation, but the concept of Voyager supplanting all the other Trek shows in the late 90s is a theme to tackle far in the future.

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  10. Josh Marsfelder
    August 15, 2013 @ 7:56 am

    "I cannot wait to hear you talk about the birth of slash fandom/fangirl culture in the context of Trek fandom, as that's a narrative begging for a decent examination and celebration; the contempt with which they're treated on the internet (or only paid attention to in terms of origin in context of the rise of Buffy) is both bullshit and utterly belies how critical they've been since the very beginning."

    You will get your wish, and perhaps sooner than you think.

    Actually, in many ways the entire TOS phase of the project is building to that inevitable (series of) post(s).

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  11. K. Jones
    August 17, 2013 @ 6:17 am

    "… but I'd hardly call Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "dismal, grey affairs".

    I suppose I should've added 'by comparison'. I think TNG and DS9 are loaded with color, but a lot of it seems to blend into the stylized detail of the background. I know the very intent with say, the Enterprise-D was to make the bridge look almost like a relaxing lounge, but it really did – the pajama like jumpsuits, a bridge that doesn't feel at all like a submarine. It's easily iconic but it jars sometimes for me with the actual "threat", or any time things feel a little military.

    But mostly, mostly I think it's more a matter of the difference between film quality, and broadcast quality between the 60s and the 90s. I'll cop to having not seen much of the HD releases of TNG "in motion" yet (only screenshots), and from what I understand, the grayness and lack of color was not at all coming from the artists and set designers, and is one of the joys of watching them redefined.

    It's a bias I have yet to get over, that probably largely stems from syndicated broadcasts on an old television. I certainly need to learn to judge the 24th Century stuff for what it is, not what I wish it was (not enough day-glo!) or even what it is 'filtered through lousy technology'.

    Still, there was a great deal of beige. And nothing as brilliant as the primary or secondary color directional lighting used in TOS, in spite of a more cohesive universe. Something about the randomness and lack of cohesion in TOS led to more radical, sort of far out, comic bookish in design, like some aspect of actually springing into existence during the Space Age lent it a weird realism, preventing it from being too grandiose or operatic and utilizing the great lines and curves of the 60s. The 60s Enterprise looks like an Apple product, whereas the 80s Enterprise looks like a dirigible.

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  12. Josh Marsfelder
    August 17, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    "I certainly need to learn to judge the 24th Century stuff for what it is, not what I wish it was…"

    Not necessarily-I'm not even going to do that, and I actually like those shows on the whole. A central theme of this blog is the tension between what Is, what Isn't, what Could Have Been and what Should Have Been.

    "…or even what it is 'filtered through lousy technology'."

    I think this is closer to the reality of it, at least from my perspective. 1980s-1990s broadcast technology hampered those shows a lot. If you're so inclined, I do highly recommend the Blu-ray releases of TNG: It really is night and day and far, far closer to what I think the original intent was. It gives the show the sense of vastness, wonder and majesty I always imagined it had.

    "Still, there was a great deal of beige. And nothing as brilliant as the primary or secondary color directional lighting used in TOS, in spite of a more cohesive universe. Something about the randomness and lack of cohesion in TOS led to more radical, sort of far out, comic bookish in design, like some aspect of actually springing into existence during the Space Age lent it a weird realism, preventing it from being too grandiose or operatic and utilizing the great lines and curves of the 60s. The 60s Enterprise looks like an Apple product, whereas the 80s Enterprise looks like a dirigible."

    Although I agree in broad strokes, I think this may be an issue we're just not going to see eye-to-eye on. I'm in love with the look-and-feel of TNG/Early DS9 myself and always have been. Not that I overtly dislike the mood of TOS (…at least when it comes to set design and VFX), of course, though I do prefer the Kraftwerkian, analog, 20th Century European atmosphere of Raumpatrouille Orion.

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  13. K. Jones
    August 21, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

    I adore DS9, and consider it the high-watermark for all things Trek.

    I usually rewatch the whole thing in one big block, once or twice a year, so I'll tend to have the later four seasons fresher in my mind than the early ones, but I'll admit, post-Vaka Rangi will be the first I've watched it with more an eye for themes, analysis and even color-design. Hopefully that gets an HD update within a reasonable amount of time – but I suppose the argument could be made that Kira's uniform, Quark's fashion, even the sharper "station personnel" Starfleet uniforms, build to a greater color pallet, and then you get into later designs like the emphasis on color to distinguish enemy vessels (Jem'Hadar purple! Cardassian orange! Breen green!). They're not un-stylish, so I can't really place why the simplicity and starkness of TOS sticks with me.

    It's got to be the technology, and in spite of hours poring over Memory Alpha, I can't say I've seen a lot of supplemental material online to give me a better picture.

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