Review: Star Trek TOS, S1Ep8: "What Are Little Girls Made of?" The Answer Will Shock You!
In this episode, the crew visits the ruins of Exo-III to retrieve the celebrated Dr. Korby, who has been conducting research on the planet for the last five years. The plot concerns Korby’s discovery of ancient technology for creating androids, resulting in some interesting speculation on whether artificial beings can have emotion and whether it would be possible to transfer human minds into machine bodies. The not-so surprising reveal that Korby had done just that is greeted by Kirk’s observation that the real Dr. Korby was long gone; the android’s desire to propagate artificial life proves that Korby’s humanity was not fully transferred. This aspect of the episode regarding AI and the definition of life is interesting and reasonably well explored, though Kirk’s dismissive attitude toward artificial life jars with the much more thoughtful exploration of the question in TNG and Voyager regarding Data, The Doctor, and periodically other characters. This is related to a major distinction in terms of how TOS puts a lot of stock in the passions, while the other series favour more considered explorations of how technology and humanity mix. The episode is also notable for its skeptical take on “the Singularity”, a much anticipated event in the scientific community today.
But here’s what’s wrong with the episode: the writers don’t seem to know exactly what archaeologists do. Spock calls Dr. Korby “the Pasteur of archaeological medicine. His translation of medical records from the Orion ruins revolutionized our immunization techniques”. Technobabble is fine when it’s about fictional technologies and materials, but here the show is mixing up unrelated fields of science, or rather science and social science. Korby is repeatedly referred to as a scientist, even though as an archaeologist, he isn't, and we are expected to believe that a man whose job it is to excavate ruins and make sense of ancient civilizations has turned his attention instead to robotics. His discovery and translation of medical records is plausible, though the application of them to human medicine is ridiculous, since there would certainly be major physiological differences between humans and the people of Exo-III that would make these techniques irrelevant as medicine. The idea that ancient medical practices might have something worthwhile in them has, however, been demonstrated by a recent discovery involving a 10th-century remedy that could treat MRSA infections. But this case demonstrates the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration. We would not expect an archaeologist to make his own judgements about medicine, nor should we trust him in such matters beyond his training.
This confusion of archaeology as science is troubling. For a series that’s praised for its exploration of what it means to be human, it is shockingly ignorant about a field of study that is all about understanding human cultures. Korby’s background in archaeology is well suited to discovering the history of how the androids and their creators came to destroy each other, but instead of studying the past, he’s oddly obsessed with the future, blindly paving the way for a danger that his expertise is uniquely qualified to help prevent. This characterization of archaeology plays into a fetichization of science as the means by which humanity will improve itself. Reclassifying archaeology as a science is apparently the only way to fit it into Rodenberry’s model of science as salvation. But archeology doesn’t give us new technology; it gives us knowledge about culture, and therefore about what it means to be human. Star Trek is not alone in this desire to see all fields of inquiry working toward the development of technology. This misinformed view abounds today, and limits people’s understanding of what any discipline, including science, does. The show does a disservice to archaeology by aligning it with science, as if the reason we study ancient cultures is to find applications for outdated technology. A much better picture of what archaeology teaches us comes from one of the most beloved TNG episodes, “The Inner Light”. In that episode, Picard lives out the life of an ordinary member of a long-dead civilization. This experience is made possible by a probe that beams the memories directly to Picard's mind. Here, Picard lives out the dream of archeological research by witnessing first-hand the lives of the ancients. This experience is simply about acknowledging the past, and recognizing the beauty and humanity of a foreign culture. The only physical object that Picard comes away with is a simple flute, and a song to play on it. I like to think that Captain Picard’s interest in archaeology is an apology for the awful characterization of it in “What Are Little Girls Made of”.
Speaking of what girls are made of, (hint, one's an android) as the title of the episode might suggest, this one doesn’t fare too well by modern standards of gender representation. It marks the first appearance of Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett), who is engaged to Dr. Korby. She provides added emotional weight to the story because her loyalty is divided between Korby and Kirk. But Korby is so obviously in the wrong from the get go, particularly because of how unconcerned he is for the deaths of two redshirts. Yet, we are to believe that because he is her fiancé (whom she hasn’t had contact with in five years), Chapel can forgive him anything. She apparently lacks the intellectual and moral discernment to pick out who is right and wrong. This indecision is simplistically explained by her love, but it may also relate to how science is deified in this world. Chapel at one point mentions that she met Korby when she studied in one of his classes, suggesting that her love for him is based on her veneration for his brilliance. Even Kirk is mellow in his resistance of him for the same reason. In this future, it seems that scientific reputation is a mitigating factor in moral considerations. A more obvious instance of dated gender politics concerns Chapel’s jealousy at discovering that Korby has a beautiful android assistant, Andrea. To dispel his fiancé’s concern, Korby orders Andrea to kiss Kirk, which is both weird and not at all reassuring. Further, Korby insists that androids cannot feel emotions, so he cannot love Andrea. Yet, once it’s revealed that Korby has a robot body, it’s implied that he is indeed in love with Andrea. So that’s just confusing.
One other issue is worth discussing about the episode. It is notorious for a scene where this happens:
A testament to the cheap stylings and general goofiness of the original Star Trek, perhaps? But what if this is less a mistake on the part of the prop master, and more a profound commentary on the episode’s exploration of artificial intelligence. The episode leaves open the possibility that the androids have some form of sentience, even if they are constrained by logical operations, so the grotesque physicality of the “stalactite” fits into the theme of the blurred lines between organic and inorganic life. Or, the object could be a subtle reference to archaeology itself. Artificial penises were commonly associated with the worship of fertility gods in many ancient cultures, and objects of this nature have been dug up all over the world. There’s an irony to its inclusion in this episode as well, since the civilization of Exo-III destroyed itself by trying to give life to lifeless stone. This oversized, naturally-formed dildo is an apt symbol for the propagation of an artificial species. In the screenshot above, Kirk holds the rock as a weapon, preparing to fight with Ruk, the hulking ancient android who serves Korby. A literal battle for control of the artificial, life-giving, inorganic organ ensues, and this is followed up by a conversation between Kirk and Ruk during which Ruk recalls the ancient war between the androids and their creators, and the destruction of both. The phallus, a symbol of fertility, often carved of stone, is here turned on its head, so to speak, becoming a symbol of impotence and self-destruction.
Or, the prop is yet another example of poor judgement on the makers of this episode.
Verdict: 6 phalluses out 10