|“1-2-3…Hey! No fair Zerg rushing!”|
“The Apple” was the episode of the Original Series that always stuck out in my mind as the one I unequivocally hated. Most of the time an episode being forgettable is a cause for concern when doing this kind of revisit and retrospective, but this is a case where the story made me so angry I never forgot it and I would constantly bring it up in discussions as Exhibit A for why I could never get into this show. It’s good to know some things remain constant and my tastes weren’t altogether unrefined all those many years ago.
“The Apple” is Biblically awful. That it’s not even the worst episode of the season should explain in no uncertain terms how bad things are for Star Trek right now. It is shockingly racist and imperialistic, with naive, simple, primitive people modeled on Pacific islanders in funny skin colours and outfits in a cargo cult setup being told how to live their lives by educated white people from space. It believes quite strongly in a teleological view of history and cultural development, where all societies have to follow a pre-determined and unwavering master narrative where Western cultures are seen as more advanced then non-Western cultures (despite the idyllic, childlike lifestyles they have), basically making this the Space Age White Man’s Burden, except that poem was at least well constructed. It is pop Christian, being a straight-up plot lift of the book of Genesis. It is unoriginally pop Christian, shamelessly recycling all the worst aspects of “The Return of the Archons” and “This Side of Paradise” and somehow managing to make both look better by comparison. It is also *textually* racist: Kirk and McCoy talk down to Spock throughout the entire episode, making fun of his green blood, logical mind and resemblance to Satan.
It is sexist, with yet another wistful, pouty yeoman fretting about needing someone to protect her (albeit one who at least gets to hold her own in a fight scene this time). It is proudly and boldly heteronormative, conflating love, procreative sex and heterosexual relationships. It has an appallingly lax attitude towards life and death, casually killing off enough redshirts to the point it makes jokes about Doctor Who‘s death toll look unwarranted and tasteless (well, at least perhaps even more so). Aside from being a bigot, Kirk is once again written as a gruff, shouty military commander having a psychological meltdown over regulations and taking it out on his crew. Chekov gets another grating “Russia is the greatest country in the universe” scene and is in full-on cartoonish stereotype mode. Even Spock, the most sympathetic person in this episode by virtue of voicing the self-evidently correct course of action (which the rest of the show helpfully belittles him for) is made to look like a complete idiot by getting carelessly and dumbly injured once an act. There is not a single likable character in this entire production. The pacing is sluggish which, combined with the excruciatingly terrible story, has the combined effect of making this feel like the longest fifty minutes ever put to film. Naturally, it’s a fan-favourite episode, because this is my own personal self-imposed Hell.
I could carry on in this manner, but, as liberating and cathartic as it might be for me to finally be allowed to lay into “The Apple”, it strikes me as ultimately less than productive. Therefore, I am informally dubbing the rest of this post “The Revenge of Carolyn Palamas” and dedicating it to taking this episode to task from a cultural anthropological perspective. It may still be too easy, but the alternative is taking Warren Ellis’ writing advice, which I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read. In this regard, the first thing to take note of are the People of Vaal, or, to be more precise, the Enterprise crew’s reaction to the people of Vaal. Due to the part of the plot “The Apple” lifts from “This Side of Paradise”, we once again have a culture where want and strife do not exist being described as both paradise as well as “stagnant” and “unnatural” because it lacks the Western, Modernist conception of progress (Extra Credit: Go ahead and try to reconcile that with the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, supposedly also Gene Roddenberry’s idea). In true Star Trek fashion, we have Captain Kirk coming and *literally* blowing everything the fuck up, and I can’t decide whether or not this is actually worse than killing the peace plants of love and happiness in “This Side of Paradise” with anger, hatred and manliness.
Anyway, the point here for our purposes here is the idea this kind of idyllic lifestyle is stagnant (having more or less sorted the reactionary business with “This Side of Paradise”). Yes, there is the fact the People of Vaal are ruled by a giant, vaguely explained authoritarian computer (which would allow me to redeem “The Apple” from an anarchist perspective), but this isn’t actually Kirk and McCoy’s objection here: Both expressly state on a number of occasions the problem with this society is that it doesn’t “progress” not that it takes orders from a machine. The supposed stagnation is very clearly the script’s problem with the People of Vaal, and the source of said stagnation is considered purely incidental. Spock points out that this system works and everyone is happy and healthy, and he is obviously in the right, but the show doesn’t want us to side with him. There’s Vaal’s prohibition of romance and physical affection to consider, and some have tried to use this as way to read some free love theme into this episode, but this is also obviously an afterthought: The lack of procreation and children is meant to be another manifestation of the society’s lack of growth, not an indictment of oppressive anti-sex cultural mores, and indeed the entire episode can be seen as retrograde and reactionary in terms of sexuality because the Enterprise only values “doing what comes naturally” as a means to an end to produce offspring and keep society growing.
What this means is that “The Apple” is squarely in the intellectual tradition of the Modernization theory of international development. Dating back to the core Enlightenment-era Idea of Progress itself (though most associated with and active during the mid-20th century), Modernization theory is the belief that “underdeveloped” societies can be brought up to the level of “developed” societies by taking the exact same economic and political steps the latter group did, and proponents of the theory furthermore claim to be able to quantify and isolate objective variables that contribute to social progress. Indeed, it may well be the origin of the idea of “development” in the sociological sense. As one would expect anything coming out of Europe during the 18th century, Modernization theory is flatly Scientistic and imperialistic, and essentially every aspect of contemporary Western Neo-Imperialist economic and geopolitical policy can probably be traced back to it in one form or another. Crucially, however, those who hold to Modernization theory believe strongly in the idea of growth and progress through new technology and policies as well as a firm break with tradition (which does nothing but hold societies back) and that this is to be valued and stressed almost above all else. This is exactly what “The Apple” is about and is absolutely central to its entire philosophical outlook.
Modernization theory, it should go without saying, doesn’t work, and just about every attempt to apply it to places that aren’t contemporary Europe and the United States have ended in spectacular failure and a criminal level of injustice and human rights violations. The obvious anthropological explanation as to why is the same reason no other theory of international development works either: It’s self-evidently stupid to try applying a blanket box of policies to every single culture in the world assuming it’s going to work the same everywhere because each group of people has a unique set of experiences, challenges and needs. The actually sane, considerate way to approach solving global issues is to, you know, ask people what they need and listen to what they have to say while also making case-by-case, on-the-ground observations of your own thus resulting in a sharing of positionalities and specialized expertise. But that approach requires cultural anthropologists (or at least people who have an appreciation for that sort of way of thinking), and, as is well known, humanities scholars are all uncool, lazy, pretentious trust fund parasites with no practical skills and we all have cooties.
But there’s another reason Modernization theory in particular doesn’t work, and it’s the same reason (or at least one reason at any rate) all the so-called “developed” and “advanced” Western societies are, as of this writing, each undergoing some manner of spectacularly grotesque systemic collapse: The idea of “social growth” (which, being a Western concept, is inexorably bound up with economics) and the notion it must be permanent, steady and infinite, is a particularly dangerous myth. It’s simply not possible to maintain a continuous state of “growth” the way Western societies conceptualize it, especially not with factors such as ever-increasingly rampant inequality and the looming ecological disaster of climate crash. Furthermore, there is also mounting evidence constant economic “growth” really doesn’t contribute much to the well-being of a society at all. Pretty much any economist will tell you this, not that anybody is actually listening to them, but here are some of the basicarguments and evidence at least.
Aside from the economic imperialism concerns, the other big anthropological bugbear I have with “The Apple” is the Prime Directive. Back in the “Return of the Archons” post I mentioned there are two episodes in this season that deal overtly with the ethics of the Prime Directive, and this is the big one. There are two conflicting lines of thought to be had here and, amazingly, this episode manages to come out in the wrong in both of them. The first is the basic idea of the Prime Directive itself: Simply put, it makes no sense from any conceivable perspective. From a purely narrative standpoint, it seems…counterintuitive, to put it mildly, to have a show built around going to a new place every week and laying down some heavy-handed moralizing while also having a primary facet of the show’s setting designed to prevent you from doing exactly that. If it’s supposed to add drama to the show by forcing some navel-gazing over whether or not to go against regulations and whether or not Kirk, Spock and McCoy know better than Starfleet Command, this doesn’t work because of course Kirk, Spock and McCoy know better than Starfleet Command. That’s been a default given since the concept was introduced.
But this is just structural quibbling: The real problem I have with the Prime Directive is that it is a fundamentally unattainable ideal. Gene Roddenberry liked to wheel out the Prime Directive as a key example of how evolved, utopian and sophisticated the Federation is, but he was patently talking rubbish. Aside from the fact that every single Prime Directive story in the entirety of Star Trek is not about how great and wonderful an idea it is but rather 50 minutes of angsting over how it constrains the crew from Doing The Right Thing, the fact remains even if it *were* a good idea there is no way for the crew to actually uphold it unless they never contact another culture ever. See, one of the tenets of postmodern anthropology is that the presence of the anthropologist by definition permanently and irreparably changes the status quo and defines the relationship the anthropologist has with the contacts. It goes without saying that a group of people are going to act differently and change their behaviour when there’s some weirdo from another country (or planet) lurking around their village in khakis and a sun hat brandishing a notebook and asking strange questions. There is no way to get an objective, unbiased record of everyday life from an outsider’s perspective: It’s only possible to write down things you notice and what people tell you and draw your own inferences. Even in an idealized future this would be impossible: People simply do not work that way.
The other reading of the Prime Directive of “non-interference” is that it’s in place to prevent, well, things like Modernization theory. The imperialist notion that a supposedly “advanced” or “developed” society can waltz into another society it considers “less advanced” or “primitive” and *deliberately* impose their own ideas of how to live and what choices they make. If this is what the Prime Directive is meant to prevent Starfleet from doing, then Gene Roddenberry was a bloody hypocrite, because from the very beginning his crew is tossing it out without a second thought and deciding that no, they really do have the right to say exactly how a society should act and to force it down the exact same path the Federation took. Imperialism disguised as anti-imperialism: I have to admit that’s pretty brazen. Now, take this argument, change the character names and episode titles around and transplant it to every single other Prime Directive story Star Trek ever does: It’s a fundamental failing in the philosophy of the franchise that will continue to do nothing but hold it back for the rest of its life.
There are ways Star Trek can handle multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism without resorting to something like the Prime Directive. However, it involves treating people as equals by default and actually listening to their perspectives on issues and life experiences, and none of these are things “The Apple” is interested in. It latches onto the worst, most dangerous aspects of both the morality play and utopian conceptions of the franchise and declares itself Philosopher King in a world where Star Trek has already slain its kings. This is the show bluntly and embarrassingly failing to learn the lessons it itself was trying to teach weeks ago and proudly landing a backflip into ugly racism and socioeconomic Neo-Imperialism. It may not be flat-out worse than something like “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, but at least that episode had an intriguing meta-narrative running throughout it. Perhaps “The Apple” isn’t the worst episode of Star Trek ever, perhaps not even the worst we’ve seen so far, but it may well be the least Vaka Rangi the franchise will ever be.