|“Yet fire does not destroy, it carbonizes, and this remains transformation and metamorphosis.”|
I have had it with Star Trek‘s hatred of women. No. More than that. I have had it with Star Trek.
I’m sorry, that’s it. No more apologies. No more attempts at redemptive readings. No more emphasizing the oversignified positives. This is the fourth episode in a row I’ve had to deal with blatant, ghastly, retrograde misogyny in this show and this is the worst week yet. Anyone who can remotely consider Star Trek progressive in feminist areas quite frankly hasn’t watched it. Period. That’s the only way I can see glancing over the second trivialized brutal rape scene of an infantilized woman in as many years. This is all the more infuriating as “Who Mourns for Adonais?” actually has one or two interesting things worth talking about, but absolutely everything else is dwarfed and subsumed by the big, glaring bit of rape apologia the episode tosses at us in its climax, so we have to address that before we can even think about other discussion topics. Remember back in “The Enemy Within” where I said Star Trek had become broken and irredeemable? Well, guess what: It still is.
“Who Mourns for Adonais?” is “Space Seed” except Greek-flavoured. Once again we have a female humanities scholar, this time an anthropologist because Star Trek hates me, personally, swayed by an overwhelming, dominant male presence who betrays the crew because according to this dross women are fickle, capricious and mysterious. It’s just the stakes have been raised as we now have a man claiming to be a god instead of a dictator. At least Kirk doesn’t belittle her field and her entire gender this time around, not that his acceptance counts for much anymore, although Doctor McCoy’s comments more than fill the gap Kirk leaves in this regard. And, for that matter, at least Khan didn’t flat out explicitly rape Marla McGivers, though, which Apollo quite clearly does to Carolyn Palamas in the climax to this episode. When you have made Khan Noonien Singh look benevolent and restrained something has gone very wrong. This time it’s even worse than it was with Janice Rand in “The Enemy Within”, because as horrible as that was, that was still only *attempted* rape. This is a full-on rape scene with the camera leeringly focused on Apollo’s godlike dominance over Palamas and her pained, tortured, helpless expression. Furthermore, it’s a scene about tearing her down, breaking her, invalidating her, mocking her agency, degrading her and dehumanizing her, just as all rape truly is: Right before the rape, she had finally stood up to Apollo and began acting like an anthropologist for the first time in the episode, and she’s utterly destroyed as a person for doing work she presumably loved doing.
And the worst part? The actual, very worst part? The show doesn’t have one single problem with this. This episode was originally supposed to end with McCoy revealing to Kirk that Palamas was pregnant by Apollo and joking about how his sickbay is not designed to deliver the children of gods. Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana (presumably it was them, though I find no record of who exactly it was) quickly brought the hammer down on that, ending the episode on the far more appropriate note of Kirk ruminating about godhood and its importance to the evolution of human society. James Blish, however, put the scene right back into his novelization of the episode. Also, costume designer William Ware Theiss, whom you may remember from my equally eloquent reading of “Mudd’s Women” back in the first season, heartily agreed this was the better ending and, incidentally, this is apparently beloved Seinfeld star and Broadway personality Jason Alexander’s favourite episode of Star Trek, just in case you didn’t quite have enough reason to hate everyone and everything that has ever existed yet.
And that’s really it. That’s my analysis of “Who Mourns for Adonais?”. This is rape apologia, institutionalized misogyny and male supremacism as the proud centrepiece of the supposedly most-progressive and hopeful show on US television. I don’t have anything more to add than that. This is the episode that finally proves, in case there was any lingering doubt, that Star Trek is in truth reactionary, hateful garbage and I’m no longer entertaining theories to the contrary. I could end this essay right now, hell, maybe even this entire section, but I feel like I’d be cheating my readers. Star Trek may have been struck down, marked from the start as an unsustainable disaster waiting to happen, but Star Trek the franchise and the myth lives on. Damn trying to turn this show into something remotely usable, let’s spend the rest of our time with it focusing on what aspects about it cause it to spawn a piece of our shared heritage that, in hindsight, it really doesn’t deserve to be associated with. Gene Coon and Robert Bloch tore a transcendence-shaped hole in the fabric of reality four weeks ago and we know Star Trek will metamorphosize into something beautiful and everlasting. Our job has become trying to connect the dots: How do we get there from here? With that in mind, the only statement I have for us for the time being is that it’s time for an exorcism. We’re going to bring the heavens to us come hell or high water.
If I were to read “Who Mourns for Adonais?” as part of an unfolding text and not as one of the single worst, most reprehensible pieces of television I have ever seen, I might compare it with the work of Erich von Däniken, in particular his book Chariots of the Gods?. von Däniken is an author who has spent his career advocating his theory that highly advanced extraterrestrial civilizations contacted ancient people, providing both the inspiration for their artwork, mythology and spiritual beliefs as well as leaving behind evidence of their existence through structures and artefacts that, according to him, were far too advanced for the humans who lived at the time of their construction to have created. This is an argument that is both provocative inasmuch as it posits our ancestors had a deeper connection to cosmic consciousness then we perhaps give them credit for, and also ludicrously crass and Eurocentric as it assumes they were too ignorant and primitive to be capable of the technological feats they very clearly and demonstrably were capable of. However, as provably wrong as von Däniken is (and this is coming from someone who has a healthy interest in other forms of Fortean inexplicata), he was massively influential on a great many writers and artists of this time period.
“Who Mourns for Adonais?” then is textbook von Dänikenism, and Apollo ticks every single one of the boxes in the Chariots of the Gods? playbook. Writer Gilbert Ralston must have been an avid fan, even deciding to add his own twist in positing that Apollo’s people actually love the idea of being treated like gods, and have gotten it into their heads they require love and worship from their followers. Well, that is, except for one thing: Chariots of the Gods? was published in 1968. “Who Mourns for Adonais?” aired on September 22, 1967. In other words, this episode has managed to do von Dänikenism before von Däniken himself got to it. This is not especially a good thing, as the theory is no less patronizing and offensive to the ancient peoples here then it is in Chariots of the Gods?, with Kirk even tossing out lines about “primitive” and “simple” shepherds altogether more frequently than I would have been comfortable with.
There’s a peculiar form of secularism “Who Mourns for Adonais?” reveals that’s not quite present in other variations on the Chariots of the Gods? formula von Däniken will inspire: Typically, the ancient astronauts theory is tied in some way to the concept that our star god ancestors offered a kind of enlightenment to ancient peoples we’ve lost thanks to the rise of Modernism, hence why von Däniken became a darling of the New Age movement in the 1970s. However, the solitary interesting and valuable thing “Who Mourns for Adonais?” contributes to the discourse is giving this argument to Apollo, who is very obviously the piece’s villain, and clearly meant to be largely unsympathetic. Apollo promises a return to the imagined pastoral golden age of ancient Greece, in exchange for total obedience and subservience to his paternal authority (he even describes and defends his vengeful, wrath-filled outbursts as “lessons”, which is actually sort of perfect), and Kirk isn’t hearing one word of it. The script seems to intend this as a treatise against superstition, that humanity has “outgrown” the need for such things in an age of rationality, Kirk’s line about how “we have no need for gods, just the one is sufficient” aside, which is very clearly only there to keep the Christian fundamentalists in the southern affiliates from raising hell. This is no better than von Däniken though: Declaring our shared mythologies and oral histories are juvenile marks of less-developed cultures is just a different form of Eurocentrism to claiming ancient peoples were too stupid to live their lives.
But, once again, William Shatner saves the day, because this isn’t how he plays Kirk here at all. Under Shatner, Kirk’s objection seems to be the arrogance of anyone who would declare themselves a god and who might think that he alone is fit to lord over humans. This is not only contiguous with his speech in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, a side of Kirk we’ve really not seen explored much up ’till now, but exactly what he needed to say to Khan in “Space Seed”. Consider also Kirk’s attempt to convince Palamas to turn against Apollo and return to them: He emphasizes the pleasures of the human body and the human experience, and that this is the only way for humans to know each other. He doesn’t actually say “enlightenment”, but this is the direction he was going in, and this also has the added effect of more than making up for that unfortunate Sylvia business in “Catspaw”. Kirk isn’t decrying mythology and spirituality here (his last line about “just a few laurel leaves” makes it even more clear), what he’s actually attacking is patrician authority itself. Annoyingly, this is still tarnished somewhat by a few too many scenes where Kirk issues his own stern orders and demands everyone adhere to their duty and responsibility, but, thanks to Shatner’s performance, the overall effect of Kirk’s role in this episode is unquestionably progressive.
And, roused to action by a calling he’s never really had before, Shatner-as-Kirk rains down an alchemical firestorm that finally reveals the true power he’s always had. Alchemy, as a spiritual pursuit, is a part of Hermeticism, a religion and mythology based around the teachings of Hermes Trismegestus, a dualistic amalgamation of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. The origin of the title Trismegestus, meaning “Thrice Great” is debated, though some believe it comes from Hermetic belief that cosmic wisdom and enlightenment can be gleaned from three intellectual pursuits: Astrology, Alchemy and Theurgy. In Hermetic alchemical symbolism, the transmutation (where have we heard that word before?) of lead into gold was not done for material gain, but because doing so symbolizes a mastery over and understanding of life forces and mystery, and in alchemy, as I’ve mentioned previously, the symbol and the object are considered one in the same. So in Hermeticism then, gold is the ultimate symbol of enlightenment (and thus the thing-in-itself), but it’s also associated very strongly with the god Apollo, because alchemy is considered the work of the sun. Thus, gold also has symbolic connections to the sun, Apollo and masculinity because both are at the top of the tree depicting the path toward alchemical enlightenment.
In this regard, the climax of “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, where the landing party faces down Apollo in the middle of a violent thunderstorm as the temple grounds collapse, has to be one of the show’s finest moments to date because what Captain Kirk has actually done here is turn the symbols, tools and methods of alchemy against Apollo and upended and inverted the entire system. Decrying the Apollonian ideal as paternalistic and oppressive, Kirk has the temple symbolizing Apollo’s righteousness and authority, and thus Apollo himself, obliterated by calling down a phaser blast that is not the act of one man, but that of many men and women who refuse to be slaves placated with words of false enlightenment. Reverse alchemy, then-Gold becomes lead. The perfect golden male is struck down by the star people who forcibly change his mark: He no longer stands for enlightenment and humanity shall no longer feel obligated to turn to him for guidance and benevolent dictatorship. Just as he told Palamas, Shatner-as-Kirk has proven true wisdom is just as much of the physical plane as it is the spiritual dimension, and that it is free to anybody who realises the joining of the two is the secret to knowing. Prometheus has taught us the metamorphosis, and Kratos has slayed God.
Were I inclined to redeem “Who Mourns for Adonais?” I might also say that the plot structure, split evenly between the landing party and Enterprise crew, is another example of the alchemical mirror Shatner-as-Kirk forced Apollo to gaze into. Every episode this season has had this conceit to some extent, but this is the best execution of it yet (and Scotty’s and Chekov’s sluggishly-paced investigation into the most obvious Klingon trap ever in “Friday’s Child” probably the current nadir). I might stress how this alliance of individuals, who are all treated equally and who all contribute to the final overthrow of Apollo, symbolizes the strength of Star Trek. I might go out of my way to praise Uhura, who for the very first time is overtly treated as a respected professional colleague and friend whose dialog with Spock as the latter expresses his confidence in her ability to rewire the communications relay in a tricky experiment to contact the landing party is a high water mark for both characters. I might even say the cumulative effect of this changes the interpretation of Apollo’s rape of Palamas, turning it into a particularly graphic example of how his paternalistic authoritarianism has nullified any good he might have done or promised to do. But I won’t, because I can’t. The original ending (not to mention the way the scene itself is depicted), supported by major creative personnel like William Ware Theiss and reinstated by James Blish in the most readily-available version of this story until home video, is an inseparable part of the text now. This brings down “Who Mourns for Adonais?” itself, the show’s own alchemical strike-back that renders it mortally wounded. Shatner-as-Kirk’s act, despite its unimaginable power and scope, isn’t a victory for magick over death, it’s a stalemate.
But nevertheless the battle lines remain drawn, and the damage done. Star Trek has been dissolved and disbanded as the show itself refuses conform to the reactionary, oppressive teleology its creators set it upon. The irony is this is one of the best episodes so far for Shatner-as-Kirk, but his apotheosis has come at the expense of the show: If “Who Mourns for Adonais?” is a narrative collapse, its a bizarre, inverse narrative collapse where the story continues at the cost of itself and its own internal coherence. We’re no longer tracing the history and future of Star Trek, but of Star Trek. In a sense, we’ve attained a particularly horrifying kind of ego death, perhaps fitting coming so soon after running into H.P. Lovecraft. Our journey to the stars continues, but the abominations have killed Star Trek, driving the few survivors mad and leaving them with uncertain futures. Because this is the true horror of “Who Mourns for Adonais?”: Apollo’s golden masculine despotism was always part of what Star Trek was (if anything this is the true legacy of “Space Seed” after all) and exorcising him rends the show itself open. But now we know the true abominations lie not at the remote edges of the universe, but in humans themselves.