OK, so, what the hell is this episode trying to do?
Seriously, this one seems…off somehow. I don’t know that I can explain it, but that’s the sort of thing I try to do with this space, so here we go.
The Enterprise is on an emergency mission to get some zenite minerals. The planet Ardana has some, and as a member of the Federation, they are more than willing to share the stuff, the only cure for some kind of plague that could otherwise wipe out all plant life on another Federation world.
I’m not sure how a random mineral cures any plant disease, but that’s neither here nor there. The show does accurately point out that this other planet needs plants for oxygen, and that basic bit of science is something everyone intentionally burning the rainforests of the world needs to be reminded of.
So, there has to be a problem or else there’s no episode. And, oddly enough, it isn’t really a ticking clock. Despite there being an emergency and occasional reminders that there’s a deadline to meet, no one seems to be in that big of a rush.
But here we are on the planet Ardana. The artists and thinkers living on a floating city of Stratos. The “Troglytes” live on the surface and mine the gas. There’s an emergency, so Kirk and Spock beam directly to the mines only to find no zenite anywhere. Instead, three miners lasso the pair, and during the fight, the three get away. And since one of them is a woman, you might expect Kirk to romance her.
So, let’s cut to the chase. The people of Stratos look down on the Troglytes, a people named after the old Earth term “troglodyte”. Why does an alien civilization have a term taken from Earth to describe its menial laborers? I don’t know. This episode doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
See, the zenite, when mined, gives off a gas that makes the brains of anyone who breathes too much of it to become more emotional and less intellectual. The snobby people of Stratos assume that’s just evolution, and McCoy’s attempts to explain all this sure makes him sound a little racist to start. Or maybe class-ist. It eventually makes sense, but it didn’t start off too well.
Fortunately, just getting away from the gas will reverse the damage, and McCoy can produce a special mask to stop the damage. But neither the Stratosians or the Troglytes believe Kirk. The city’s High Adviser, Plasus, thinks it’s a load because his ancestors didn’t have that problem when they left the mines, and a leader of the “Disruptors,” the woman who led two guys to attack Kirk and Spock earlier, just doesn’t believe in invisible gas.
Yet she does believe in air…
Kirk eventually proves the theory true by having Scotty beam the Adviser to mines and waiting, and when he and the other man got into a fistfight, Kirk is proven right and he gets the zenite with a couple hours to spare.
So, why did this one feel a little…off? Well, the whole solution seemed to be a little pat. Kirk keeps his breezy attitude throughout the episode, never once showing any worry that they won’t find the zenite in time. Heck, Spock gets a romantic subplot.
The High Adviser’s daughter, one of those characters who thinks she should save fabric when making a new dress, seems to fall for him and grills him on pon farr and the “every seven years” thing. And Spock says a beautiful enough female can make a Vulcan male go some other time.
Is he implying this woman counts?
Can we go a full episode without a male gaze-style appreciation of female beauty as if that is all women have going for them?
Yeah, I know.
But here we are, with a society that appreciates art more than people, something Kirk and Spock can’t really bring themselves to object to, and the same society saying they don’t like violence but have torture devices at the ready to torture the people they think are somehow lesser beings.
Yeah, that doesn’t sound too familiar.
True, the Troglytes are a bit inclined towards violence, but they haven’t killed anyone yet. Plus, you know, they seem like they could use a good labor union since they’re clearly on strike when the episode begins and no one told Kirk.
But they try to make Kirk dig up zenite out of rocks with his bare hands?
This episode just gives me the impression it asked the usual big Star Trek questions but then didn’t quite answer them. Maybe this time around the questions were too big for a 60s TV show. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. This episode just dealt with class and labor issues, and given the more egalitarian nature of the world of Star Trek, well, that’s just one huge missed opportunity for a show that’s almost done now, isn’t it?