Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Who Mourns for Adonais?

(Note: This post appears 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: September 22, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0 (note the deliberate cut of Palamas’ toga)

For years, I misread the title of “Who Mourns for Adonais?” as “Who Mourns for Adonis?” (The Mission Log Podcasters have bailed me out by pointing out that many others have apparently made the same mistake.) It’s not a grievous error: going back far enough, the words Adonais and Adonis are related. Adonai(s), in the Hebrew Bible, refers to God; Adonis, in Greek mythology, was the mortal lover of Aphrodite. The episode’s title comes from stanza forty-seven of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic elegy Adonais, mourning the death of John Keats. Sadly, none of this is very relevant to this week’s episode. Spelled correctly or not, the episode is somewhat a rehash of “The Squire of Gothos” and “Space Seed.”

First documented use of the “Talk to the hand” comeback

“Who Mourns for Adonais?” finds the Enterprise on a cartography mission at the planet Pollux IV when the ship is taken captive by a giant, disembodied hand consisting, according to Spock, not of flesh, but of energy. The hand is soon followed by a head that makes references to ancient earth civilizations. A landing party encounters the owner of the head (and hand), who claims to be the Apollo (Michael Forest) of ancient Greek myth. He declares that he, along with Zeus, Artemis, Aphrodite, Athena, and the others, were alien visitors to earth five thousand years ago. Now, the others have faded into history for lack of worshipers, but Apollo expects the newly arrived humans to take up permanent settlement on his planet (which he calls Olympus) and give him the respect he thinks he deserves. Most of the rest of the episode is a long showdown between Apollo and the crew, with archaeologist Lieutenant Palamas (Leslie Parrish) torn between the two. It would have been nice to incorporate some of the actual Greek mythology into the story, but that never really happens.

Let’s just get the misogyny out of the way up front, because it’s inevitable in any episode featuring a female officer. Right from the prologue, Palamas is condescended to. While the lieutenant submits a report to senior officers, Scott, who has no purpose on the bridge other than salivating, gazes at Palamas so fiercely we worry his eyeballs might fall out of his head. The intent of this scene is presumably to set up Palamas as the face that could launch a thousand ships, but all it really does is demonstrate the chief engineer’s lack of professionalism. Scott obsesses over Palamas throughout the episode, risking his own life and the safety of the entire landing party, to the extent that Kirk finally orders him to cease-and-desist his childish behavior. Early in the episode, in a side conversation on the bridge, McCoy describes the archaeologist to Kirk: “She’s a woman. [Thanks, Doc!] All woman. One day she’ll find the right man, off she’ll go, out of the service.” (The idea of women using Starfleet to tide them over till marriage was also implied in “Balance of Terror” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”)

Mr. Scott literally stalks Palamas around the bridge

Later, on the planet, the Palamas-Apollo relationship doesn’t improve matters. Apollo offers the backward compliment of calling Palamas “wise for a woman.” Like McGivers from “Space Seed,” the bubble-headed archaeologist immediately falls in love with the alpha male (see my “Space Seed” analysis for a brief discussion of that tired old term) who represents her field of specialty. Palamas is not as openly traitorous as McGivers, but she spends much of the episode mooning over Apollo and shirking her duties. The most visible insult is the pink (because she’s a girl!) toga Apollo dresses her in, continuing the TOS tradition of clothing women in garish fairy-princess wardrobe. Palamas finally sees the gender imbalance for the shallow power dynamic it is: “Is that the secret of your power over women,” she asks, “the thunderbolts you throw?” The scene almost ends tragically for Palamas. Apollo towers over her, summoning thunder and lightning as she lies on the ground, helpless. Whatever Apollo’s sinister intent, the Enterprise crew destroys his power source in the nick of time.

Barbie Starfleet Headquarters playset sold separately

Sexism aside, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” is generally considered a rejection of religious orthodoxy, and the episode works well in that regard, particularly in representation of its time period. The twentieth century, particularly after World War II, marked the full manifestation of the industrial revolution as America, and much of the world, turned from an agrarian economy to a more urban, manufacturing economy powered by fossil fuels and computing technology. Interstates, supercomputers, and organizational think tanks ruled the world, with the help of weather satellites and meteorological radar. What god could compete with humans’ ability to organize themselves into armies of technology-wielding super-achievers? Apollo’s own demands to the Enterprise crew reflect the outdated absurdity of ancient mythology: “You will gather laurel leaves, light the ancient fires, kill a deer, make your sacrifices to me!” Kirk tells Apollo that humans have outgrown him: “Mankind has no need for gods.”

“Who Mourns for Adonais?” rejects the gods of Greek and Roman mythology, but it could just as easily be rejecting the angry God of the Old Testament, constantly demanding to be worshiped for no reason other than existence, the cosmic uber-celebrity famous for being famous. Apollo speaks to this directly: “A god cannot survive as a memory. We need love, admiration, worship.” But the episode works equally well in questioning all deity worship from a society only a few years away from the “Me Decade” of the 1970s. Chekov, stand-in for the Baby Boomers who were still young and idealistic in 1967, is the first to directly question Apollo’s claim to godhood: “And I am the tsar of all the Russias.” McCoy gets more to the point, asking what Apollo offers in exchange for the crew’s worship. (Apollo promises “life in paradise,” but we know talk of “paradise” is always a trap – see “This Side of Paradise,” among others.) Palamas makes some attempt to steer Apollo into a more New Testament, free love style of kindness, asking, “How can they worship you if you hurt them?” Apollo, however, is too set in his ways, and ultimately self-destructs when the entire landing party rejects him, as any god is bound to do.

Apollo vanishes after being banned from Twitter

The baby boomer reference offers a more secular interpretation of “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Like any generation, the boomers, the oldest of whom were twenty-one years old in 1967, must have been frustrated with their parents’ stuffy, primitive ways. A generation growing up with Kurt Vonnegut, the Rolling Stones, and John F. Kennedy, had little interest in preceding generations’ old gods of music, literature and politics. The parents still ultimately held the purse-strings, however, and they reminded us of that when they returned Richard Nixon to the White House the following year. (Despite Nixon being only four years older than Kennedy, they certainly behaved as though they were from entirely different generations.) Kirk acknowledges the older generation’s reluctance to yield: when telling Apollo, “Mankind has no need for gods,” the captain includes the awkward line, “We find the one quite adequate.” That monotheistic tribute was supposedly added to appease NBC censors and it distracts us from Star Trek‘s free-thinking optimism. Love them or hate them, the old power structure won’t give up easily.

Imagine how comfortable the Incredible Hulk would be if he wore this

In addition to a worthy philosophical debate, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” doesn’t forget that we’re on a science-fiction adventure. Kirk is the first to consider that Apollo might really be what he says he is, just not who he says he is. Like the Squire of Gothos, Apollo is a space-faring alien who relies on a power source (in this case, the temple where Apollo holds court) to display god-like powers. Apollo and his cohorts (“a gallant band of travelers”) visited earth five thousand years ago and, because they seemed like gods, were identified as such and inspired an entire civilization. With the other “gods” lost to time, Apollo seems more like the salt vampire from “The Man Trap,” the last survivor of an ancient species. Why Apollo hides out on Pollux IV is never explained: if he hopes to be worshiped, why not return to earth? (His claim that “I knew you would come to the stars one day,” isn’t a convincing explanation.) The idea that ancient humans were influenced by alien visitors is a classic s-f theme that gets carried too far by misguided conspiracy theorists. Erich von Daniken’s book Chariots of the Gods?, speculating that the pyramids, Stonehenge, and early religions all constitute evidence of visitations by alien visitors, was published in 1968, followed by a film adaptation in 1970. The book was widely, and easily, debunked but many still believe in the premise.

14th century church fresco used as evidence of “ancient astronauts” in Chariots of the Gods?

While Kirk leads the confrontation with Apollo on Pollux IV, Spock masterfully takes charge of the Enterprise, guiding Uhura, Sulu, and Kyle in their efforts to recover the landing party. Kyle determines the landing party’s location. Sulu searches for Apollo’s power source. Uhura modifies her communications system to devise a subspace bypass so Enterprise can communicate with the landing party. Uhura does the work herself, and instead of questioning her, as he did in “The Naked Time,” Spock acknowledges Uhura as the subject matter expert she is: “I can think of no one better equipped to handle it…”

Spock seeks admission to the Enterprise ham radio club

When Palamas comes to her senses and rejects Apollo, it’s thanks to an inspiring speech from Kirk, similar to his appeal to Dr. Dehner in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The captain makes a passionate appeal to Palamas on the basis of a simple fact: “We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives… We’re human.” Ouch. It’s well-intentioned but a bit xenophobic and puts harsh limits on the crew’s spirit of exploration. I understand the intent, to inspire audiences to consider the vastness of human potential, but human exceptionalism is as dangerous a trap as racial or theological purity. All the learning that results from this five-year mission can’t exist in a vacuum. (Apollo does some “othering” of his own, excluding “the one with the pointed ears” from the landing party because Spock reminds him of Pan, who “always bored me.”)

Mankind in the twenty-third century may be more advanced, but no one is perfect, and an occasional kick in the warp drive might be just what we need. Other cultures or species offer unlimited potential for self-improvement, and if one of the “strange new worlds” our crew explores is the earth of five thousand years ago, useful lessons still await. “Man thinks he’s progressed,” Apollo tells us. “They’re wrong. He’s merely forgotten those things which gave life meaning.” The old traditions weren’t entirely bad, and new customs are never perfect. We would be wise to take the best of both. As much as rapidly changing technology and business customs made previous generations feel irrelevant in the 1960s, the pace of change, and the associated loss of generational history, has only accelerated in the twenty-first century.

Only Kirk and, ironically, Palamas, seem to grasp the significance of losing Apollo and all the history his life represents. Even if he was not of earth, Apollo and his kin clearly influenced earth history, at least in the Star Trek universe. Singer/songwriter John Mellencamp wrote, “There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands.” It’s this generational change that Kirk reflects on when he asks, “Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?” The answer might well be yes; we’ve seen what pandering to the power-hungry can lead to. But we must ask the question, because our elders offer real-life experience we won’t find anywhere else, and because a reckless disregard for history is what allows the power-hungry to prosper in the first place.

Next: The Changeling

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