|What d’you think, Spock? I was thinking “Get Rid Of Slimy Klingons”.|
D.C. Fontana has a rather unsettling habit of making my life extremely difficult.
She’s Star Trek’s first staff writer who is a woman and has written several of the most influential and groundbreaking episodes in the franchise, including two of my absolute, all-time favourites. Unfortunately, every single episode she’s been involved in I’ve looked so far in this project (save, debatably, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”) has been an infuriating, baldly reactionary disaster including, well, this one. In “Friday’s Child” we have, in no particular order, the Federation explicitly as the “good” empire to the Klingon’s “bad” empire, Kirk and Spock completely overturning the society and rules of an entire planetary culture pretty much for lulz, and, oh yeah, a pregnant woman, belittled and infantilized by just about every other character by being referred to as “the girl”, whom the show treats as both a comic relief and a burden because of her attempts to be headstrong and independent.
Let’s take a look at the most egregious and upsetting thing first: Not the imperialistic or Prime Directive issues; the show couldn’t give a toss about those here and neither should we until it decides to take another look at them. No, I’m instead talking about Eleen Akaar, because of fucking course I’m talking about Eleen Akaar. A proud, strong woman who doesn’t let any man touch her, yet who eagerly submits to Doctor McCoy when he proves his superior fortitude and asserts his dominance and authority over her, by, of all things slapping her and knowing more about labour and childbirth then her as well as every other woman in her society. This is so blatantly, obviously and stupefyingly misogynistic I’m actually speechless: There’s no reaction to that I can muster apart from stunned disbelief and disgust such that I actually feel dirty and personally hurt after watching this. Let’s try and move on as quickly as possible, lest this essay devolve into another screamy, infuriated diatribe a la “The Corbomite Maneuver” or “The Enemy Within”.
In an attempt to give Fontana some manner of credit and benefit of the doubt, because I truly find it almost impossible to believe a woman in her position could ever come up with something as hurtful and offensive as this, a large portion of the blame for the feminist nightmare of “Friday’s Child” should, both sadly and obviously, go to Gene Roddenberry. Had Fontana’s original draft gone into production, Eleen would have been depicted as an even stronger presence, explicit in revolt against the male supremacy of Capellan society, which believed women were mothers and homemakers and nothing else. The climax would have also seen her sacrificing the life of her child in order to preserve her own, which actually gels much better with Kirk’s line that Eleen “hates the unborn child she is carrying” and Eleen’s own dialog that in her culture, children belong expressly to the father (as well as the subtle implication early on that the only reason Akaar married Eleen was to give him a son in the first place). Roddenberry, it would seem, didn’t like any of this and had Fontana rewrite the entire last act so that the child survives and becomes McCoy’s honourary son and Eleen attempts to broker peace between the landing party and the warriors who the Klingon agent incited into a rebellion, which would sufficiently demonstrate that Gene Roddenberry was even more clueless about feminism, gender roles and women in general then we had previously believed.
It’s tempting to want to demand Fontana stand up for her work and herself more and say no to things like this, but we have to remember being a woman, and one of the only women, who was a staff writer, and a story editor no less (who already has to write under an androgynous credit), in the United States, in Hollywood, on network television, on a major primetime drama, in science fiction in 1967 is difficult enough: I should imagine she would have been constantly aware of the authoritarian, patriarchal, male supremacist power structures she was working under and would have had to worry on more than one occasion about being “outed” as a woman, losing her job, or what would happen if she had to find another. All of those oppressive forces working together can be a very powerful, and very effective, silencer. I’m far more inclined to go easy on her than I am on Gene Roddenberry. And yet…
Even taking all of that into account, this episode still isn’t good enough. Even if all Roddenberry did was change that bit of plot about Eleen and her son, the rest of “Friday’s Child” is hamstrung by problems of its own. The first of which is that the Klingons and the Federation are very obviously fighting a proxy war here, and Fontana doesn’t seem to see a problem with this. The Klingon agent is trying to provoke a military coup such that when Akaar is deposed, he’ll be replaced with someone far more willing to side with Klingon interests. This could be read as an indictment of the United States’ rather unforgivable track record of doing exactly this, particularly in the then-current Vietnam War, which was already something of a big deal, were it not for the fact the Federation does basically the same thing with Eleen and Leonard James Akaar: Kirk’s big motivation in this episode is to prove to the Capellans than the word of Starfleet officers and Federation law was far preferable to and far more just than that of the Klingons, and by the very nature of his birth Leonard James is going to be incredibly sympathetic to the Federation (indeed, he’s so sympathetic he rather baffilingly becomes a popular reoccurring character in several spin-off works). That Fontana has Kirk set this up for the Federation on national television against the backdrop of said Vietnam War is quite frankly deeply distressing, and this, taken in the context of her association with “The City on the Edge of Forever” and actually, her next episode, is more than a little concerning.
The problem is that Fontana seems to be working towards the notion of the Federation as an explicit utopia. This is a thread best saved for her next story, but as it’s already become a theme it’s worth talking a little bit about now. There’s a serious difference between the world of Star Trek being utopian or idealistic and the *Federation* being a utopia. This is something we’ve already talked a little about and is going to become a major, major theme throughout the rest of the franchise. For now, though, “Friday’s Child” is the first time the Federation has been depicted in an explicitly, unambiguously positive light. They’re the good guys, the Klingons are the bad guys. In the past there’s been a significant amount of uncertainty about that fact, and even when Gene Coon introduced the Klingons in “Errand of Mercy” (who were already by definition more straightforwardly evil than the Romulans) the point was that they weren’t really all that different from the Federation from the perspective of a third party. Here, though, while there’s a token mention that “[the Klingon] has offered us things for our rocks as well” and a brief debate in Akaar’s tent, the Klingons are pretty clearly meant to be wearing the black hats, as the agent is very obviously shifty, disingenuous, self-interested and manipulative while the Capellans stress the “Earth men have never lied”.
The thing is, Coon did not create the Federation to work like this: It was designed to be problematized from the get-go, and that’s a clear thread that goes back as far as “Arena”. One of the things I’m going to keep returning to, not so much in this part of the project but absolutely once I reach Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that the Federation and Starfleet aren’t actually our heroes here, or at least shouldn’t be: Our heroes are the crew, and the a great deal of the point of Star Trek is watching how the crew, on both an individual and collectivist level, respond to their positionalities within different sociocultural systems and structures of power. Raumpatrouille Orion, in fact, already works precisely this way and Star Trek really ought to be following suit, but the problem we’ve got this week is that it doesn’t seem D.C. Fontana quite gets this yet. Furthermore, while “Catspaw” and “Metamorphosis” were both flawed in their own ways, the net result of them was overwhelmingly positive. Frustratingly, “Friday’s Child” seems to be completely ignoring the last two productions happened, and is steadfastly, albeit ineffectually, attempting to close the magickal tear in the fabric of the cosmos Gene Coon and Robert Bloch have ripped open.
The additional problem with Capella that makes all of this significantly worse is that, for the first time (the fluke humanness of the Romulans in “Balance of Terror” excepted), the episode’s planetary society isn’t designed as some kind of blunt metaphor for the moral-of-the-week. Compare it with Eminiar VII in “A Taste of Armageddon”, which was an entire society built around the concept of perpetual war such that Kirk could stroll in, wreck things, and teach them about how bad war is (not that this particular moral was an especially bad one, mind). Here though, we have a culture seemingly designed to actually be a culture, with society-wide mores about strength and lawfulness. The point of “Friday’s Child” isn’t for the Enterprise crew to teach the Capellans a lesson (or the other way around, for that matter), the point is very clearly demonstrating that the Federation’s code of ethics is superior to that of the Klingons, mostly because McCoy says it is. Perhaps in Fontana’s original draft the Capellans would have been defined by male supremacy in order to underscore and highlight Eleen’s eventual rejection and condemnation of them, but thanks to Gene Roddenberry very little of that remains and the episode as aired has the distinct smack of US Cold War neo-inperialism about it.
In spite of all this general unpleasantness, there are bits of “Friday’s Child” that are properly excellent. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are particularly terrific: Starting with Shatner, while Kirk is once again asked to stand in for the Federation and its ethics (and uncomfortably coming across as proselytizing as he’s no longer standing trial for it), for the majority of the episode he seems profoundly uninspired to actually be the Federation’s representative. There’s a token ideological battle near the beginning, but this is quickly overshadowed by the actual real battle that breaks out when the Klingon agent launches his coup, and from that point on Kirk seems far more focused in wilderness survival then proving his moral superiority. This is also helped by DeForest Kelley getting almost the entirety of the episode’s key emotional scenes to himself, as McCoy had previously been stationed on Capella, is familiar with their culture and spends the most amount of time interacting with Eleen. This leads to some rather delightful moments as Kirk, once again contrary to his womanizer reputation, seems completely uninterested in Eleen beyond objecting to her people’s treatment of her, quite obviously preferring to let McCoy work with her while he goes and plays Cowboys and Indians with Spock in the shrubbery. Since the end of last season, Nimoy and Shatner have been honing and refining their onscreen chemistry and are by this point and extremely compelling double act. Their rapport is tight, their banter smart and their comic timing spot-on, and it’s easy to see even now how both the actors and the characters go down in television history for this. Shatner and Nimoy are the best things about this episode by miles, and here is where Kirk and Spock start to become pop culture icons.
And that alone is almost enough to save “Friday’s Child” from being complete and total bomb. We’re only three episodes into the second season and despite the stumbles and pratfalls of the past few weeks the show has unarguably taken a turn for the better, and in a direction nobody could have anticipated even just a few months ago. Let’s not forget three episodes into Star Trek proper we were at “The Corbomite Maneuver” and unsure whether or not the show would even last long enough to see out its first season. A year later the show is considerably better shape, and we can expect some growing pains for not just D.C. Fontana, but the show itself. Fontana has said she looks back on her earliest Star Trek work somewhat astonished that her name is one these scripts: She doesn’t view them as even being written by the same person she is now, and she’s correct, of course. They’re not. Writers, just like anyone, grow over time, especially over the course of a 25 year career. D.C. Fontana is redeemed by her work that’s yet to come, and Gene Coon’s new approach has paid off beyond our wildest imaginations. We’re only now starting to get a glimpse of what the future might look like for this new Star Trek.