Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: This Side of Paradise

(Note: This post is 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: March 2, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0

“This Side of Paradise” is one of those times I wish for a two-part episode. Interesting commentary about human (and Vulcan) nature and self-discovery could have used more time to be fully realized. This week, the Enterprise arrives at Omicron Ceti III to investigate the outcome of human colonists who reached the planet several years previously. The settlers should have died within weeks because the planet is exposed to a lethal type of radiation called Berthold rays. Instead, they are not only alive, but in perfect health, engaged in subsistence farming, and living in their bizarrely furnished Mennonites-meet-Southern Living homes. Soon, however, mysterious flowers begin blasting clouds of spores over the crew members; under the spores’ control, the entire crew, without asking permission, decides to join the settlers, ditching Kirk and the Enterprise.

“These are the worst party favors I’ve ever seen.”

The origin of the title is not entirely clear. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise was published in 1920, but Fitzgerald took the title from a line in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem Tiare Tahiti. The narrator of Tiare Tahiti compares biblical heaven, the paradise of “wise” Westerners, with the earthly paradise he has found with his true love in Tahiti.

“Dive and double and follow after,
Snare in flowers, and kiss, and call,
With lips that fade, and human laughter
And faces individual,
Well this side of Paradise! …
There’s little comfort in the wise.”

Just as the narrator of Taire Tahiti debates which side of paradise he’s on, so Kirk and the leader of the Omicron Ceti III settlement, Elias Sandoval (Frank Overton, who died only one month after this episode aired), debate whether the colonists have found true paradise or only a cheap facade.

“No, we’ve never seen Deliverance, why do you ask?”

Sandoval makes a compelling claim to paradise. They have “few mechanical things” and no weapons, thereby living communally in “harmony” and “complete peace.” Sandoval says, “Our philosophy is a simple one, that men [and women!] should return to a less complicated life.” We’re never certain how much of this describes the philosophy the settlers arrived with, or whether this is the result of lethargy brought on by the spores. When Starfleet orders Kirk to evacuate the colony, citing zero reasons, Sandoval refuses, and we’re tempted to agree with him. Neither Kirk nor Starfleet demonstrates any interest in better understanding how the settlers survive the Berthold rays or how this science might benefit the rest of the galaxy. (True explorers might not have overlooked the possibility of sentient plant life to begin with.) The settlers aren’t hurting anyone, don’t appear to have disrupted any other species, and face no imminent danger. Why shouldn’t they stay?

Tea service courtesy of the Sears & Roebuck winter catalog

The answer, and the moral of the story, is that drugs are bad. One can make a valid argument that “This Side of Paradise” is an anti-communism or anti-religion parable, but ultimately it’s a “Say no to drugs” story. Before he’s indoctrinated by the spores, Spock describes the phenomenon as a “happiness pill.” Between the rise of the counterculture and anxiety over living in a nuclear age, use of legal and illegal “happiness pills” rose considerably through the 1950s and 1960s. Psychotropic drugs entered the public consciousness in 1955 with the introduction of the prescription tranquilizer meprobamate. Under the commercial name Miltown (and advertised by “Uncle Miltown” himself Milton Berle on his popular television show), by 1956 nearly 5% of all Americans had used the drug. Meprobamate was later shown to have addictive properties and taken off the market, but many more reputable psychotropic drugs followed. Meanwhile, between the Beats and the Merry Pranksters, marijuana and LSD (legal until 1966) became widely accepted as paths to expanded consciousness and relaxation. Technocratic capitalism, race and gender oppression, and the Cold War (which became hot during the Korean and Vietnam Wars) drove increasing numbers of citizens to seek a similar tranquility as the Omicron Ceti III colonists. (It’s a remarkable coincidence that the first human lunar landing site was the Sea of Tranquility.)

“Then when McCoy walks under the branch, I’ll pounce on him!”

The problem is, like the physical dependence created by Miltown, the spores don’t offer a choice. This is demonstrated most vividly when Sandoval asks fellow settler Leila (Jill Ireland) if she wants Spock to join the colony. Her response: “There is no choice, Elias. He will stay.” There is no informed consent, no opportunity to turn back, before the flowers recruit their hosts. The spores are the key to surviving the Berthold rays, offering perfect health. What the plants receive in return is never clarified: are they hitchhiking on people to distribute their spores, or are the spores the intelligent component who, like the Talosians in “The Menagerie,” need a living host to live a full life? The plants recruit the Enterprise crew but show no interest in the ship – galactic conquest is not their objective. In an ominous subplot that’s never concluded, the settlers traveled to Omicron Ceti III with farm animals that didn’t survive. Did the animals prove unsuitable to the spores? Kirk asks repeatedly what happened and Sandoval frustrates us with his non-answer: “We’re vegetarians.” Whatever the explanation, the spores require humanoid addicts. The result is a Normal Rockwell version of The Matrix, with human inhabitants growing beans and gazing at clouds while distributing plant spores. And when crew members and settlers are freed of the spores’ influence, only love-struck Leila expresses a desire to return.

Kirk’s objection, though, is not to the settlers’ hippie lifestyle, but to their lack of pro-establishment purpose. “Man [and woman!] stagnates if he has no ambition,” Kirk tells Sandoval, “no desire to be more than he is.” Perceived stagnation offends Kirk the explorer, here as it did in “The Return of the Archons.” This character trait, so fundamental to Kirk, rouses him from infection by the spores: packing to beam down and abandon his ship, Kirk revisits past adventures that awaken an anger strong enough to kill the spores. Sandoval, once liberated himself, seems to agree: “We’ve done nothing here. No accomplishments, no progress.” Kirk’s desire to free the settlers from their addiction is noble, but his solution is small improvement: he intends to deny the colonists freedom of choice, also, just as he denied choice to “Mudd’s Women” and the inhabitants of Eminiar VII in “A Taste of Armageddon.” The saving grace is that, once their heads are clear, the settlers are quite eager to leave Omicron Ceti III so they can pursue “the work we started out to do.” Kirk goes too far at the end, however, with his wrap-up speech reminding us of what we’ve already learned in TOS: “Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise.” Except the captain declares, “Maybe we were meant to fight our way through, struggle, claw our way up… We must march to the sound of drums.” Such militance sounds like evil Kirk from “The Enemy Within,” and like that episode, it’s a weak acceptance of violence, sabotaging the ambition for progress Kirk boasted of earlier.

The real journey in “This Side of Paradise” is Spock’s, who is a different person by episode’s end. Spock and Leila have a history that is never specified, other than Leila’s claim that she loved him in the past, with Spock either unwilling or unable to return her affections. Spock is the first crew member affected by the spores, and almost immediately he declares to Leila, “I love you. I can love you.” His emotions set free, I can love you is perhaps the definitive statement. It’s possible that Spock’s abandon is not a result of true feelings for Leila, but simply the fact that he now has permission to experience love and happiness. It reminds me of Spock’s interaction with Chapel in “The Naked Time,” making himself vulnerable to the one person most likely to understand him. Not only can he experience these emotions, he can now share them as part of a collective. “Now you belong to all of us,” Leila tells him, “and we to you.” The inter-species first officer who is never fully welcomed by humans or Vulcans now shares group-think with a collective that will not judge him because they are all drinking the same Kool-Aid. Religious and political fundamentalist movements often depend on, and manipulate, the same need: the desire to be part of a community in a diverse and rapidly changing world.

Kirk, understanding that the spores can’t survive negative emotions, knows exactly how to engage his first officer, recalling “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” when Kirk used a racist sentiment to grab Spock’s attention. This time Kirk goes full-Klan and says everything he can to de-humanize (for lack of a better term) Spock. We know (or hope!) that Kirk doesn’t mean what he says, so the vitriol tells us more about Spock’s life experience, and about the many demoralizing aspects of bigotry, than anything else. Kirk attacks Spock’s parents. He demonizes Spock’s appearance. He claims all Vulcans are traitors. He demeans Spock’s feelings for Leila, with the shocking statement, “You’ve got the gall to make love to that girl! Does she know what she’s getting…?” He describes Spock as a walking computer, i.e. not deserving of life. They are all lines of attack made by racists throughout history. It’s a verbal blood-bath and provokes the necessary reaction to liberate Spock. But at what cost? “I don’t belong anymore,” the first officer says. His short-lived clique may have lacked substance, but at least it existed. Spock’s sadness at the end is poignant and justified.

“Just be grateful there’s no Catcher in the Rye episode.”

Yet, like the others, given the choice, Spock stays with the Enterprise. Our title’s other namesake, Fitzgerald’s novel, depicts the journey of young Amory Blaine, who seeks meaning among the privileged classes, with his own inherited wealth, and in the arms of multiple romantic interests. Losing all of them, better understanding the insubstantial nature of modern progress and its associated physical and material pleasures, in the end he acknowledges what he has learned: “I know myself, but that is all.” Knowing himself is the insight Spock brings back to this side of paradise, the understanding that as artificial as life on Omicron Ceti III might be, perhaps Kirk’s faith in relentless growth is equally dubious. This might well be part of the accumulation of experiences that causes Spock to struggle with Kolinahr, and become more receptive to V’ger’s presence, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Regardless, he will always choose the mutual sacrifice of a path among the stars with his colleagues: “I am what I am, Leila,” he says, “If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” Despite his “otherness,” this shared journey of risk and discovery bonds Spock with his shipmates. McCoy claims this is the second time humans have been thrown out of paradise, but Kirk reminds him: “This time we walked out on our own.” More importantly, they walked out together, and this fellowship is all that makes the journey worthwhile. Anything less would be the wrong side of paradise.

Next: The Devil in the Dark

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