Review: Star Trek TOS, S1Ep11 and 12 "The Menagerie": One Beep for a Dying Colonialism
Every time the Enterprise stops off at a new planet, it is greeted by humans. The show did not simply lack the budget to make up actors as kooky aliens, but no one even bothered imagining that thriving alien civilizations might exist. Instead, every alien race is long extinct or on its way out. The biggest exception to this so far has been Balok, the little child alien from “Corbomite Maneuver,” who represents a race that is far more sophisticated and powerful than humanity.
Balok aside, this pattern of planets with dead civilizations (or nearly extinct in the case of the salt vampire and Talosians) is a troubling indicator of TOS’s colonial mentality. The Enterprise’s mission is “to seek out new life and new civilizations”, but to what end? Roddenberry idealists would have you think it is about spreading camaraderie across the universe, or meritocratically finding self-fulfillment. But TOS has much more nakedly materialistic ambitions; it is about accumulating resources. It becomes increasingly convenient how humans can land on new planets, find new technologies, and set up shop without bothering to negotiate with the locals. But there is a price for such gains.
In “What Little Girls are Made of,” a human scientist learns how to create artificial life thanks to carefully preserved records of an alien species; he uses this power for evil and loses his soul after turning himself into an android. In “The Man Trap,” a scientist tries to protect the last living salt vampire, which has taken on the appearance of his dead wife. In “Charlie X,” a boy raised by aliens uses his mind powers for selfish gain. Time and again, TOS tells us that we can exploit alien worlds, but do not go native. We should take advantage of alien resources – to build research stations, mines, hospitals, etc. – but we should beware of the aliens themselves, or of being corrupted by the same things that destroyed them.
Over and again, alien ways of being, or simply being removed from the centres of human civilization, invite corruption. A more thoughtful show would dig more deeply into this problem – is it the lack of oversight that emboldens Dr. Adams to brainwash his patients? Is it the influence of the alien planet? Are humans of the future really that noble? Too much scrutiny along these lines would undermine the premise of the show, however, since we must believe that exploration and technological advancement are, on the whole, good things. Fortunately, TNG, DS9, and Enterprise explored these sorts of problems and the related ethical complications to a greater extent, and with far more convincing conclusions that allow for ambiguity.
Obviously, a show needs conflict, and Roddenberry famously did not want that conflict to come from character relationships, so alien others are a natural substitute. The ideal of an harmonious human race necessitates external threats, but the fantasy of the show is pernicious by making the threatening aliens so frequently absent. This works as a variation of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism in that discourse about the other (aliens) is controlled by European (Federation) writers, so that the subjects of inquiry are given no voice in creating a knowledge base about them. The result is a total demonization of the other that justifies continued cultural and political domination via colonization.
TOS takes the colonial logic to the extreme by making the other a figure of the past merely. Without the presence of the other, there is no ideological, let alone physical, resistance to the domination of foreign worlds. Only the ideas and technological remnants of aliens remain, and these embody social evils that the future of humanity has cast off, but which the show must project onto foreign cultures. Science fiction often works in this way, using its futuristic subject matter to exaggerate problems in contemporary society. But TOS does this in such a way that also promotes stark contrasts between self and other, perhaps reflecting Cold War politics that imagine a perfect civilization in conflict with one seeking only to destroy the human spirit.
“The Menagerie” follows the TOS pattern of introducing an alien civilization as both an existential and moral threat, but one that does not challenge the ideology behind the mission of the Enterprise. Once again, the crew finds humans on the planet surface. But these turn out to be illusions created by the real natives of the plant, who are technologically and intellectually – but not ethically! – superior to humans. They want to lock up Pike in their menagerie and make him breed with another captive human, Vina. We learn that these Talosians are dying because their advanced telepathy has taken away their interest in life, and I guess their ability to procreate. And since they are addicted to their own illusions, they see no way forward but to harness human slave-labour to rebuild their civilization. Perhaps this combination of boredom and addiction with fantasy is a fun analogue to concerns about watching too much television.
The end result of this episode’s story is the same thing we’ve seen on TOS before: a native species leaves behind technologies and materials that humanity can harness. Granted, there’s a power dynamic here in the aliens’ control over the human population, but they’re pretty nice guys, and they’ll be dead soon enough. There is also a warning here against emulating these aliens, against allowing illusions to become our life as it did theirs.
“The Menagerie” is has some further disappointments, but also some interesting differences from earlier episodes. Because of how the episode is tied in to the original pilot episode of Star Trek, I had hoped to see something that would direct the show toward more coherence as a fictional universe: some idea of what the Federation is and how the crew of the ship fits into a wider world. The frame story does a little of this, since the crew visits a star base for the first time, and there are admirals who have authority over Kirk. But that’s about all we get. It’s interesting to hear about a planet so forbidden that trying to visit it is punishable by death – another wrench in the gears of Roddenberry’s reputed utopia.
It is also fun to see how the original pilot was marred by a lot of similar failures of the imagination as TOS. Where early TOS episodes give us waitress Rand, it is really cool to see a woman, Majel Barrett, as first officer on Pike’s Enterprise, even if she did land the job through nepotism. But then there is Vina, the human woman living in captivity on Talos IV. Like the so-called “Mudd’s Women”, she is not as beautiful as she appears. I suppose the accident that deformed her was also fatal, and only the alien illusions keep her alive. But the dramatic focus is on her scarred face as much as it is on how she should be dead.
Vina’s supposed beauty is paired up with Pike exemplary masculinity in the pilot, but, in the most ingenious move of the TOS episode, Pike returns to Talos IV only after his body has been racked by a debilitating illness. Now, it is an easy choice for him to make between a sedentary life locked in a chair and an active and romantic life locked merely in the proverbial cage from which the pilot episode’s title emerged. I’m not well read enough on ableism and related issues, but Pike’s decision here could be troubling? The episode presumes that an active and healthy life in (willing) captivity is the desirable alternative to freedom with limited physical mobility. I’m sure I’d make the same choice as Pike though. The episode leaves off with a great sci-fi quandary about whether an illusion that feels real is any less valid than reality, and how much the freedom to choose one over the other can matter – hi there The Matrix!
Verdict: 6.5 beeps out of ten.