(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: October 13, 1967
Crew Death Count: 4 (all four are security officers killed on Vaal’s planet)
Bellybuttons: Too many to count! All the People of Vaal are scandalously attired!
Is “The Apple” the most blatantly pro-capitalist TOS episode? Let’s find out. This week, the Enterprise investigates “some pretty strange sensor readings” from a scout ship to the planet Gamma Trianguli VI. (Gamma Trianguli is a real star, about 112 light years from earth.) A landing party consisting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekov, Yeoman Martha Landon (Celeste Yarnall), and four red shirts – you know what that means – finds a planet of lush vegetation and the meteorologic impossibility of seventy-six degree temperatures (because they’re still using the crude Fahrenheit system in the 23rd century) across almost the entire planet. Comparisons to the Garden of Eden, which Chekov claims “was just outside Moscow,” are inevitable, after which the landing party encounters poisonous plants, exploding rocks, and a village of cheerful natives – made up not in blackface but the almost as horrid redface – who worship a mysterious entity called Vaal. David Soul, who later appeared in Starsky & Hutch (1975 – 1979), has a brief role as one of the People of Vaal.
“The Apple” revisits a lot of territory covered by “The Return of the Archons.” Instead of a computer like Landru, Vaal’s true nature is never defined. “He causes the rains to fall and the sun to shine,” Vaal’s representative, Akuta (Keith Andes), says. “All good comes from Vaal.” Vaal never speaks directly, but communicates through Akuta, who describes himself as “the eyes and the voice of Vaal,” making him somewhat akin to Moses-lite. Vaal’s powers extend across the entire planet, as Spock detects “subsurface vibrations for miles in all directions.” He can even reach the Enterprise in orbit, preventing the landing party from beaming back. Vaal knocks out the ship’s warp drive and pulls it slowly downward, creating a ticking-clock scenario that drives the plot. Vaal is shaped like a giant serpent’s head and, oh no, we’ve stumbled into obvious religious symbolism. We could have predicted that from the title, I suppose, bringing to mind the fruit of the tree of knowledge that tempted Adam and Eve from Eden, though the Bible never specifies the forbidden fruit to be an apple.
In their journey to find Vaal and his people, the landing party doesn’t exactly distinguish themselves. Chekov and Landon are in the midst of a relationship, though how serious is never specified. They interrupt the story several times to make out like teenagers. Later, in the company of the People of Vaal, uncertain whether the Enterprise will survive, Chekov asks Landon if being stranded on Gamma Trianguli VI would be “so very bad,” to which we want to respond, “Yes, you fool, it would be a tragedy if all four hundred of your shipmates died fiery deaths.” The red shirts are dispensed with one at a time: the first is attacked by plants that shoot poison darts, the evil version of the flowers from “This Side of Paradise”; another is struck by lightning during a freak thunderstorm caused by Vaal; the third steps on an exploding rock; the fourth is attacked by the People of Vaal on direct orders from the serpent himself.
Kirk quickly labels the planet “a Garden of Eden with land mines.” Dart-shooting plants and exploding rocks are the kind of threats we expect from a bad Indiana Jones movie, and completely inconsistent with Vaal’s efforts to provide his people a trouble-free existence. Vaal’s long delay in communicating with his people regarding the landing party is also never explained. Vaal’s followers are disease free, do not age, and exist solely to feed Vaal. When directed, they line up with offerings of actual food. The food is tossed into a pit – Vaal’s mouth – so he’s able to absorb nourishment somehow (“It needs to eat frequently,” Kirk decides). Disrupting this ceremony and depriving Vaal of food are part of the landing party’s winning strategy. The People of Vaal behave inconsistently, first spying on the landing party as if threatened, then welcoming the crew into their village (they literally give the landing party a house). The People of Vaal are unschooled in the ways of love (they giggle like children while Chekov and Landon smooch), and of violence (Akuta bursts into tears when Kirk punches him, saying, “You struck me. With your hand.”). They appear ignorant to the existence of other cultures, yet are comfortable welcoming strangers to their village. It’s never clear if Vaal is intended to represent organized religion or sinister socialism or some other threat to freedom and the American way.
Either way, the similarity of Vaal’s name to Baal must be deliberate. The name Baal (sometimes Ba’al) was applied to various ancient deities, including the Canaanite fertility god Hadad and the Mesopotamian El. Early Israelites used Ba’al as another name for Yahweh but the name was later rejected as offensive to the one god of Judaism, eventually becoming associated with the name Beelzebub (Satan) among Christians. Depicting Vaal as a serpent proves he’s a villain, because snakes in western pop culture are nearly always intended to be threatening – remember Kirk’s “instinctive revulsion” to reptiles from “Arena”? (Unlike the Christian-centric United States, much of the rest of the world has long worshiped serpent-gods: for example, ancient Mesopotamians took the snake’s ability to shed its skin as a sign of immortality.) A serpent lured Adam and Eve to the tree of knowledge, leading to their expulsion from Eden; yet in “The Apple,” Vaal provides an Eden-like setting for his people and offers no knowledge whatsoever. The symbolism is muddled, at best. The end confuses things even further, when Kirk releases the People of Vaal with the command, “Let those people go!” It’s a direct reference to the Old Testament Book of Exodus, when God, via Moses, repeatedly orders the repressive Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” (For example, Exodus 5:1: “Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.”’”) So is Vaal the serpent or the oppressor Pharaoh? Is Akuta the Moses-like messenger, or is Kirk?
The comparisons don’t hold up, which is why it might be better to look at “The Apple” as plain old capitalist propaganda. Just as God’s will is inevitable in the Old Testament, so the colonial forces of capitalism have been portrayed as divine will, a manifest destiny to control, or eliminate, any who don’t tow the fiscal-growth line. One of McCoy’s first lines after arriving on the planet is, “It’s a shame to have to intrude,” presenting the Federation’s presence as preordained. The crew’s role as a collection of resource-gathering assets is emphasized when Spock is injured by one of the poison plants; Kirk asks, “Do you know how much Starfleet has invested in you?” Later, in the episode’s strongest scene, McCoy makes a very un-McCoy-like statement: “There are certain absolutes…and one of them is the right of humanoids [Sorry, Horta!] to a free and unchained environment. The right to have conditions which permit growth.” Spock responds with the nagging voice of reason: “Another is their right to choose a system which seems to work for them.” McCoy’s only defense is that the People of Vaal “need to advance and grow,” but he never justifies this alleged need. It’s the tired old capitalist argument, never supported by logic or evidence, that those who become subjects of crown and capital are guaranteed better lives. Spock offers the one argument that does rest on a logical foundation: “These people are healthy and they are happy. Whatever you choose to call it, this system works despite your emotional reaction to it.” His point is important, because unlike the Beta III inhabitants in “The Return of the Archons,” the People of Vaal appear in every way to be happy with their way of life until the Enterprise crew shows up and ruins the party.
Later, Kirk and Spock revisit the subject. Spock reminds the captain of the noninterference directive and says, “This may not be an ideal society, but it is a viable one.” Kirk, like McCoy, offers a flimsy comeback: “These people aren’t living. [Who says?!?] They’re existing. They don’t create, they don’t produce, they don’t even think. … They should have the opportunity of choice.” Also like “The Return of the Archons,” Kirk denies what he claims to offer, denying choice to the People of Vaal by forcing his idea of “freedom” on them. We assume the natives haven’t chosen this system, but that’s never confirmed, and they look awfully happy without the burden of production. Kirk claims, “We owe it to them to interfere.” Spock makes the shocking statement, “Starfleet Command may think otherwise.” I wish this thought had been developed, because all along we’re led to believe Kirk is following standing orders. Spock implies just the opposite, but we never see this through.
This idea of doing what we’re told is central to the story. Kirk and McCoy are offended that the village people follow Vaal’s instructions and otherwise frolic casually in their flimsy native attire. Yet the crew, servants of the Federation, are little different. “We do what we’re told,” Kirk says early in the episode. Each security officer death, for a change, leaves Kirk increasingly distraught. He reminds Spock, “I also have the option to disregard…orders if I consider them overly hazardous.” Finally, with the Enterprise on the verge of destruction, Kirk says, “I had to follow orders, always orders.” He apparently never sees the irony, a direct link between himself and Akuta that’s never spelled out, both intermediaries between the flock and their shepherd.
“The Apple” does have a wonderful moment of Kirkian leadership, connecting us to both “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). While Landon paces and whines about their situation, Kirk relaxes at a table of food provided by the People of Vaal. “Yeoman, you’re wasting energy,” Kirk says. “Sit down and have something to eat.” There’s a time for every purpose, and in a galaxy where anything could happen next, one should seize every opportunity to rest and recharge. Kirk’s leadership fails him at the end, however, when he tells the People of Vaal, not for the first time, that they should start fooling around and having babies. Throughout the episode, the landing party has demonstrated a creepy obsession with the People of Vaal’s disinterest in procreation. “You’ll learn something about men and women, the way they’re supposed to be,” heterosexual Kirk tells the natives after Vaal has been destroyed. “That’s what we call love.” Egad. Never mind that the People of Vaal (who, presumably, are just People now that Vaal no longer exists) may have different biology than humans and be physically incapable of reproduction. The Enterprise crew treats love and mating as a voluntary activity, apparently forgetting that it is, in fact, a biological imperative, evolution’s attempt at continuation of the species. Akuta says Vaal has prohibited “the holding, the touching,” but abstinence-only never works among the hormonally driven, so their situation is obviously more complex. Dwelling on population growth fits in with the overall pro-growth message and again implies American superiority over foreigners. North Vietnam instituted a two-child policy to slow population increase in 1963. Singapore created the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board in 1966, leading to a “Stop at Two” population reduction policy in the late 1960s. China’s one-child policy was not introduced until 1979, but the country had attempted various other population control measures in prior decades. If Kirk hopes to turn Gamma Trianguli VI into a pre-industrial society, they will certainly need a surplus of laborers.
“The Apple” makes it clear that we can expect life to get worse for the People of Vaal. Once Vaal realizes the Enterprise crew is a threat, he introduces a new skill to his people: in a genuinely terrifying scene, Akuta, following Vaal’s instructions, demonstrates how to kill the landing party by clubbing a melon with a large stick; “It is a simple thing,” Akuta says. (The scene, sadly, has a comical resolution, when the natives are easily subdued by the landing party, including Landon performing a full body-flip on one of them.) We reasonably blame this turn to bloodshed on the natives’ cult-like obedience to Vaal and the ease with which a befuddled population can be turned to violence (sound familiar?). Spock, however, sees this as Starfleet’s fault, saying, “They have taken their first step” toward becoming like humans.
Another trait capitalism shares with organized religion is a relentless need to discredit all dissent, for fear the masses might get wise to the big con. This is exactly the unhappy ending of “The Apple.” Spock, again pointing out the error of disrupting Gamma Trianguli VI, considers that, just maybe, the Federation is the apple, tempting the People of Vaal with knowledge that will cause them more harm than good. Kirk and McCoy, loyal to the cause, dismiss Spock’s concern and demonize him by comparing his appearance to that of Satan. Kirk has ignored the Prime Directive, destroyed the very foundation of a society, and now casts his closest friend to the imperialist wind. Kirk’s only defense is that imminent danger to the Enterprise and her crew made Vaal’s destruction imperative. But even that argument doesn’t really hold up. Faced with a similar situation decades later – balancing the Prime Directive with the lives of her crew – Voyager’s Captain Janeway will make an entirely different decision, proving that colonialism is not so inevitable, after all, and that the risks of boldly going need not be deferred to others. On those terms, maybe we don’t need to define Vaal that closely. He and his people represent the many lost cultures and repressed lives of the soulless new machine.
Next: The Doomsday Machine