Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Miri

(Note: This blog post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: October 27, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0 (but apparently people on duplicate-Earth have been dropping like flies)

Bellybuttons: 0 (and given the subject matter, it’s a good thing, though Kirk’s uniform gets torn once again)

One of my nit-picks with “The Man Trap” and “Charlie X” was an obvious and distracting reference to 1960s America. I enjoy Star Trek when it references the present-day symbolically, but not directly. “Miri” carries the direct reference too far. Presumably for budgetary reasons, this episode was filmed largely on existing Desilu sets previously owned by RKO and also in use at the time for The Andy Griffith Show. In “Miri,” the Enterprise responds to an automated distress call on a distant planet that just happens to be a duplicate of Earth. When a landing party beams down, Spock pinpoints the planet as being equivalent to earth of 1960, despite the Mayberry architecture that looks older (Griffith himself said his show was intended to have “a feeling of the ‘30s”). The “duplicate-Earth” concept has no bearing on the story, the near impossibility of this bizarre occurrence is barely questioned by the crew, and the plot device isn’t even referenced later in the episode. The writers or producers could have come up with a better excuse for the Earth-centric sets. Other earth-like details, like Miri assisting the crew by operating a 1960s-era pencil sharpener, are equally distracting.

Image from Star Trek episode Miri showing ghost town set
“I told you to keep Otis away from the Saurian brandy.”

Once on the planet, the landing party soon encounters a very human-looking person under extreme physical and mental distress. The person dies of apparent rapid aging, and encountering the teenage Miri (Kim Darby) clues the crew in to the fact that only children survive on duplicate-Earth. They quickly establish that the inhabitants had been conducting life-prolongation research, accidentally triggering a virus that becomes fatal to humans when they reach puberty. The landing party (except Spock) are all infected and only have seven days to live.

As much as I try to overlook logical shortcomings, they’re hard to ignore in “Miri.” How did the people of duplicate-Earth become sophisticated enough to conduct advanced biomedical research without developing any visible transit infrastructure, beyond a few rusted out cars? Is this the only settlement on the entire planet? There really aren’t other kids out there on the verge of disaster in other, to paraphrase McCoy, “conglomerations of antique architecture?” The “No Smoking” sign in the medical research area indicates the inhabitants didn’t factor nicotine addiction into their life-prolongation research.

Images from Star Trek episode Miri, one showing Spock, McCoy, Rand, and Kirk in lab with No Smoking sign; another with a group of children
“They were conducting life extension research…under a No Smoking sign!”

“We weren’t meant for paradise,” is what Kirk will tell us in the later season one episode “This Side of Paradise.” Miri’s cohorts, about twenty children of various ages, seem to believe they’re in paradise. All the grown-ups, or “grups,” have died off, leaving the kids, or “onlies,” to play games and have the run of the place. “Almost like a dream,” Rand speculates. Kirk’s response: “I wouldn’t examine that dream too closely…” The kids somehow haven’t made the connection between aging and an abrupt end to the parade, as their friends have all succumbed to the virus. Disregarding the horror that awaits them, this paradise doesn’t look like much fun. The buildings are all trashed, and the settlement is a tiny town that appears surrounded by flat, desert-like terrain. Only a few decrepit toys are visible, along with a few costume hats and helmets. Spock calculates that some of the children, due to a quirk of the longevity research, are hundreds of years old, only aging the equivalent of one month every century. That’s a long time to get bored with downtown Mayberry. Paradise, indeed.

On the surface, “Miri” clearly appears to reference the rebellious youth of the 1960s. There is some parallel here with Lord of the Flies, what with its cast of unruly children who create their own jargon (“biguns” and “littluns” in Lord of the Flies) and mistakenly think life will be a breeze without adults. Just as the boys in Lord of the Flies will prove themselves to be the true threat, so Kirk will convince the “onlies” of duplicate-Earth that they have become no different than the violent, controlling “grups” they fear. Just as the “free love” Baby Boomer generation grew up to be part of today’s Generation of Hate, embracing the very autocracy and bigotry they rejected years ago. We’re nearly always our own worst enemy.

Image from Star Trek episode Miri showing group of kids attacking Kirk
We have become what we feared

Peter Pan seems a more direct comparison to the children in “Miri.” Miri has some leadership role with the “onlies,” but Jahn (Michael J. Pollard) does most of the decision-making. Just as the Lost Boys eagerly followed the charismatic Peter, so the “onlies” are happy to join Miri and Jahn in their trickery toward the Enterprise landing party. In J.M. Barrie’s novel (actually titled Peter and Wendy), Peter had to forget past learning and adventures to maintain his endless youth. The children in “Miri” maintain a state of denial as their town’s population relentlessly dies off. We practice selective memory in the 21st century, forgetting the lessons of history and the inevitable consequences, particularly when the odds tell us those consequences, at least in the short term, are likely to land on others. One does wonder how the children could have lived centuries, even at a child-like emotional level, and learned so little skills relating to food production or other necessities; we learn their food supply, which has somehow lasted so many decades, is nearly depleted.

A lot of parents in the 1960s must have worried their children were in danger of becoming similarly lost to a cult or other anti-establishment group. Timothy Leary established the LSD-based League for Spiritual Discovery in 1966, only a few weeks before “Miri” aired. The Church of Scientology had been founded in the 1950s. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, made the first of several highly-promoted tours of the U.S. in 1959, and founded the Students’ International Meditation Society in 1966 (he later attracted members of the Beatles and Beach Boys). Jim Jones moved his congregation from Indianapolis to California in 1965. By the summer of 1966, 15,000 hippies were estimated to be living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, along with all the psychedelic music, free love, and drug use that came with them.

Image from Star Trek episode Miri showing McCoy, Spock, Rand, and Kirk
Childless Kirk offers parenting advice, because it worked so well in “Charlie X”

“Miri” touches on other themes but doesn’t do much with them:

  • Over-permissive parents might be creating a generation of self-entitled nogoodniks. “I think children have an instinctive need for adults,” Kirk says. “They want to be told right and wrong.”
  • Isolationism, despite the terrors of Vietnam, was not a viable option. Just as the virus wouldn’t let the children of “Miri” live in peace forever, so the rest of the world wouldn’t tip-toe indefinitely around the exclusive interests of the United States.
  • Isolation works in multiple directions, so maybe the kids who need adults from the Federation represent “primitive” cultures who need a colonial master to bring them into the capitalist fold.
  • Another twist on “We weren’t meant for paradise:” Interfering with nature by striving for immortality will only backfire on us. This reinforces the similar message we got in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” (Personally, I am ready for the Singularity.)

In any of those interpretations, as the Mission Log Podcast pointed out, “Miri” has a strongly pro-establishment message. The Federation brings salvation from starvation before the food supplies run out. It also brings Big Medicine, nobly represented by McCoy, who grumbles his way to developing the life-saving vaccine in the nick of time, much as we hope for a coronavirus vaccine at the time I write this. It brings systems and procedures that will outlast us fragile, mortal, humans (“Being a red-blooded human obviously has its disadvantages,” Spock reminds us).

Image from Star Trek episode Miri showing Spock and McCoy
When do the establishment’s benefits outweigh the harm it causes?

However, the establishment also brings seedier elements of manipulation and control. Mid-thirties Kirk’s interactions with Miri are downright creepy. He calls her “a pretty young woman…very pretty,” as he caresses her cheek. The captain doesn’t really aspire to a romantic relationship, as he turns his back on her the moment other duties call; his words of woo are intended to earn Miri’s loyalty. Still…brrr. And poor Yeoman Rand. Here, she’s reduced to babysitting Miri and hoping Kirk will notice her. “I used to try to get you to look at my legs,” she says, trying in vain to cover scab-like blemishes caused by the virus. The primary reason Rand is present is to give Miri someone to compete with for Kirk’s affections; only in a jealous fit does Miri demonstrate true initiative, as if that’s the best motive the writers could find for a young woman. Kirk doesn’t reassure us at the episode’s end, when he tells Rand he doesn’t get involved with older women. The line is intended as a joke, reminding us of the biological age of the children they’ve rescued, but the joke’s on Rand – if the characters are the same age as the actors portraying them, she just missed the cutoff, being a whole eleven months older than Kirk.

The first duplicate-Earth inhabitant the landing party encounters, the “grup” who dies from the rapid-aging virus, wrestles with McCoy over possession of a tricycle, a modern-day Rosebud, and mourns damage done to the tricycle with his dying breath. It’s one of TOS’ more haunting moments. Immature fussing and crying is meant to be associated with the virus, but I’m left with the impression that the adults of duplicate-Earth might have been childish by nature. Maybe they had their own kind of Peter Pan syndrome, one that inspired their longevity research in the first place. We live now in a world of endless childhood. Halloween is the favorite holiday of adults who want to dress up and role play (the children in “Miri” wear an array of headgear, including a military helmet, football helmet, and princess tiara, that would thrill any Halloween-partying grownup). Adult producers and directors revive ad infinitum the movies and TV shows of their childhood, and adults of a similar age flock to see them. Adults, as much as children, pass time playing game apps on their phones. Older adults devour the latest young adult novels. Then, sadly, there’s all the tantrums and public outbursts, more melodrama than any child ever displayed.

Image from Star Trek episode Miri, showing crew comforting dying victim, next to news headlines of childish adult behavior
The dark final days of a society that refuses to grow up

Corporations and, to a lesser extent, the media and governments, actively contribute to the infantilization of contemporary society. Adults with a youthful impatience are quicker to respond to advertising and buy everything they don’t need, including the latest superhero movie with associated clothes, action figures, soft drinks, and other merchandise. Adults with the reasoning capabilities of a child are easier to manipulate into ideologies and conspiracy theories. Adults with the attention span of a child are quick to give up their private data to smart phone apps (note that it’s always the phone that’s smart, not the user). Adults with the play attitudes of a child are easier to entice into 80-hour work weeks with little more than gourmet snacks and a Foosball table. We rarely even realize how often we let corporations and media tell us what to think and what to do, distant parents nurturing us into proper consumers.

Image of Kirk from Star Trek episode Miri next to image of Kirk from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Galloping around the cosmos isn’t a game at all, in fact

At the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), when faced with mandatory retirement from Starfleet, Kirk orders one last course heading as captain of the Enterprise: “Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.” That’s the direction Peter gave Wendy when asked the way to Neverland. It calls back Kirk’s statement early in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.” Experience proved that it wasn’t for the young at all, but was better suited to the Enterprise’s graying original crew. Immortal or not, it’s time that gives depth to life. Despite Kirk’s eternally youthful nature, the Neverland reference only works with this older, wiser version of Kirk. The irony of the line underscores that, by then, he has witnessed the death of his son, the destruction of the first Enterprise, and the death, and rebirth, of his closest friend. One last trip around the galaxy, not to seek the thrills of youth, but to reflect on all they have seen and accomplished. As much as time takes away, it also endows the journey with gravitas. In that light, the younger Kirk of “Miri” still has far to go, but he understands that the march of time is not a game, and a successful resolution depends on his ability to convince the children of that.

In the stage version of Peter Pan, Peter says, “To die would be an awfully big adventure,” as he swoops off to more swashbuckling. The play’s narrator, reflecting on Peter’s decision to return to Neverland instead of making the difficult choice of staying with Wendy and facing his fear of growing up, says that instead, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.” This is what the children of “Miri,” despite their decades of existence, lack the maturity to understand. It’s the message Gene Roddenberry intended by depicting a human race that is, like Kirk at the end of Star Trek VI, older and wiser. If we never grow up, we will never truly live.

Next: Dagger of the Mind

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