|“Wait…Haven’t we done this already?”
On the surface, there’s not a whole lot interesting going on with “The Survivor”. Answering a distress signal from a one-person starship, the Enterprise crew is thrilled to discover it’s registered to Federation philanthropist and hero Carter Winston, missing and presumed dead for five years. As it happens, Winston’s fiance is aboard the ship: Eager to resume the relationship she goes to meet him, only to have him break her heart by saying he’s not the same person he was when he proposed. It quickly turns out that Winston is quite literally not the same person anymore, as he is, in fact, a shapeshifting alien Romulan operative who goes on to assume the forms of Kirk and McCoy to divert the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone, giving the Romulans have a reason to justify impounding the ship so they can reverse engineer it. Similarities immediately appear between this episode, “The Enterprise Incident”, “The Man Trap” and any one of the million billion other evil twin stories Star Trek has done for the past decade.
And exasperation is a not entirely unwarranted reaction, as this is definitely one of the weakest Animated Series episodes we’ve seen yet. The evil duplicate plot is, predictably, stultifyingly boring, but thankfully the show doesn’t linger on it that long and the crew figures out what’s happening pretty quickly, so there’s a minor plus. I’d really appreciate it if this franchise never did one of these stories again, but I suppose if it must it’s nice to see it somewhat self-aware and willing to address some of the inherent flaws with this kind of plot. The Romulans are, of course, wrong: Sending in spies to clandestinely violate the peace treaty with the Federation is behaviour in keeping with Star Trek: The Next Generation-era Romulans, but not the Romulans as we see them at this point. Of course, nobody except D.C. Fontana and Paul Schneider have ever gotten the Romulans actually right, so that’s to be expected…Except for the fact one of those people is the current showrunner and therefore a person one would expect might have been in a position to catch this. Really, you could have replaced the Romulans with Klingons and the episode would have been just as effective, if not a bit more so: They’re generic baddies (and indeed the Romulan ships shown here are, in fact, Klingon).
Although that said the actual Romulan Commander we get to interact with (who astonishingly still doesn’t get a name: Seriously, say what you will about Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Romulans-they at least had the decency to name them) is terrific. His exchanges with Kirk are delightfully snarky and self-aware. My favourite exchange in the whole episode comes here, where the Enterprise is first surrounded by Romulan battlecruisers:
ROMULAN COMMANDER [on viewscreen]: You appear to have a propensity for trespassing in the Neutral Zone, Captain Kirk.
KIRK: It was not deliberate, I assure you.
ROMULAN COMMANDER [on viewscreen]: It never is. But the rules of the treaty are clear. To contravene them would mean war. You will surrender your ship, Captain. We will release you and your crew at the nearest outpost that guards the Neutral Zone.
It’s like the show is throwing up its hands and saying “Yep. We’re doing a generic runaround with retread Romulans this week. Couldn’t be helped”. Even the characters are aware of how contrived and overused this plot point is, it’s great. Not that the cynicism necessarily excuses the laziness mind, but it does help. And I love the way James Doohan delivers the line, sounding tired, exasperated and amicable: Once again, we see the Romulans and the Federation portrayed as friendly people on opposite sides of a war forced to do what they do by their social roles. I choose to believe this Romulan Commander was unaware of what his government was plotting with the undercover shapeshifting alien spy and was being nothing less then gracious and honest.
Although that said, the space battle that takes up the back half of the episode is more than a little problematic. Much ink, digital or otherwise, has been spilled on how somewhat paradoxical it is that Star Trek, a franchise supposedly built around peaceful solutions to problems, frequently resolves its diplomatic situations through engaging in flashy ray-gun space battles. This is, frankly, mostly due to the fact Star Trek is science fiction, and science fiction as a genre is primarily based around two things: Golden Age logic puzzle plots and Pulp style action. As a result, any science fiction, especially action sci-fi (which Star Trek becomes on more than one occasion) is heavily indebted to a cinematic spectacle style of storytelling, and cinematic spectacles require big flashy setpieces. There will come a day where Star Trek, and science fiction in general, finds a way to resolve this fundamental contradiction to become something truly remarkable…But today is not that day.
The Enterprise doesn’t resolve tensions with the Romulans through discourse, it resolves them by blasting their engines to bits and the shapeshifting alien spy having a last minute change of heart.This is especially discouraging as this comes just one week after Dave Gerrold’s “More Tribbles, More Troubles”, which used the Tribbles to lampoon macho space combat. One week after giant Tribble colonies overwhelmed the gun decks of two gigantic space battleships, we have a completely unironic and straightforward skirmish played totally straight. And look I’ll be honest, I like colourful laser battles and big explosions as much as the next person, but there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing and this combined with Star Trek’s unhealthy predilection towards militarism creates a mixture that doesn’t exactly sit well with me. This is the time when Star Trek is supposed to be demonstrating it’s better than this, but it looks like it still has some growing to do.
But the real story of “The Survivor”, or at least what should have been the real story if it wasn’t intended to be, is the relationship of the shapeshifting alien spy with Winston’s fiance, security officer Anne Nored. What happened was Winston crash-landed on the home planet of the Vendorians (the aforementioned shapeshifting aliens) where he lived in their care for a time until he died. This particular Vendorian was disgraced by his people because he didn’t have a meaningful role in his planets society (something considered deeply hurtful and dishonourable to a Vendorian) and fell in with the Romulans because they offered him a purpose. The Vendorian first tries to break off the relationship with Nored claiming that five years changes a person and that the people who rescued him physically “changed” him further and that he’s no longer the person he was when he proposed to her. But the real reason is that he is, in fact, a Vendorian (an actually imaginative bit of creature design: A multi-limbed, many-eyed floating tentacle creature) and that he still cared for Nored and didn’t think she could love a being such as he. The final twist comes when the Vendorian reveals that his people tend to adopt traits of the things they transform into, and that he’s spent enough time as Carter Winston to appreciate the values he strove for and this is what causes him to pitch in and save the Enterprise from the Romulans at the last minute.
There’s a great story here, and as little as it actually goes into it “The Survivor” is genuinely breaking new ground here. The tragic tale of the Vendorian is a very fitting analogy for precisely what he brings up early on: The fact that people really do change over time and things like relationships are ultimately fleeting things. People can grow apart. Indeed, the whole fact the Vendorians are shapeshifters could be seen as a metaphor for this, and it gets back at the nut of what was so genius about “The Conscience of the King”: We shape ourselves into different roles and different people at different points in our lives, and this is a perfect story for Star Trek, which already inherits so much from theatre, to be telling.
But of course it’s nowhere near as clear here as it was in “The Conscience of the King”, which savvily populated its cast with members of an in-universe acting troupe. “The Survivor” would probably have been more effective if Carter Winston turned out not to be a shapeshifting alien, but some kind of cyborg augmented by a bunch of machine parts by his benefactor to keep him alive, but changing him in the process. That would have been a much more straightforward way of highlighting how people change over time: After all, the cells in our body are completely replaced every seven years. Each time that happens, we are quite literally no longer the same person. And furthermore, there was absolutely no reason for the Romulans or the sabotage plot to be here at all: This is a good enough story on its own. However it’s worth pointing out this is one of the first times *since* “The Conscience of the King” that Star Trek, or any genre work really, has attempted to use science fiction concepts in this manner, so as rocky as it is “The Survivor” remains a definite and clear step forward. It’s promising to see Star Trek trying to return to and update the motifs of a story like “The Conscience of the King” as opposed to a story like, say, “The Cage” or “The Omega Glory”.
When watched alongside four absolute triumphs and “The Lorelei Signal”, this episode certainly feels underwhelming. But really, what we have this week in the end is a filler episode, and as much as a truly effective version of “the Survivor” would have required a version of Star Trek that doesn’t exist yet, this is still a very positive sign. Usually when filler episodes show up it’s, counterintuitively, an indication the show is on solid and comfortable ground. And the bits of this episode that do hint at a way forward are demonstrative that Star Trek is still heading in the right direction.