Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Wolf in the Fold

(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: December 22, 1967

Crew Death Count: 1 (Lieutenant Tracy is killed by Scott, er, by the disembodied entity)

Bellybuttons: 0 (the belly dancer’s bellybutton is discretely covered with a jewel, see “Mirror, Mirror” for the logic behind this)

I recall rarely seeing “Wolf in the Fold” in reruns during childhood, making it the least memorable of the series for me. In hindsight, I was better off. As a teenager I would have simply seen this as the belly dancer episode, but today it’s an accidental parable on sexual predators. This week, the Enterprise crew takes shore leave on the planet Argelius II, with Scott in need of emotional recovery after being injured in the episode’s backstory. Kirk, McCoy, and Scott lust over a belly dancer in an establishment with seating on pillows arranged around tables, reminiscent of the Orion slave girl scene in “The Menagerie.” (It’s so similar, the soundtrack uses the exact same Middle-Eastern-sounding music.) Apparently this is how the men-folk unwind in the TOS universe. Scott takes the dancer on a stroll through the foggy night – soon the woman is stabbed dead with Scott nearby, holding a blood-stained knife. Over the course of the episode, two more women are killed, with Mr. Scott the only visible suspect. After a laborious debate about Scott’s guilt or innocence (as if we don’t already know!), the perpetrator ends up being Jack the Ripper! Or, at least, a cloudy malevolent life form called Red Jack that possessed Jack the Ripper and a host of other serial killers.

McCoy’s actual dialogue: “Don’t forget, the explosion that threw Scotty against the bulkhead was caused by a woman.”

We can only wonder how people in the twenty-third century are familiar with Jack the Ripper, and not just humans but natives of Argelius II and Rigel IV (the home of local administrator Hengist, more on him later). In our own time, however, “ripperology” is big business. Eleven women were murdered in or near London’s Whitechapel neighborhood from 1888 to 1891. (Our brief glimpses of Argelius II’s urban exteriors reveal a similarity to Whitechapel of that era.) Whitechapel, part of London’s East End, was crowded and impoverished at the time: the neighborhood offered sixty-two brothels, crime was rampant, and 55% of children died before the age of five. The East End was the site of the Bloody Sunday labor demonstrations of 1887. Of the eleven Whitechapel deaths, five are considered “canonical,” or having definitely been committed by Jack the Ripper. Police conducted approximately two thousand interviews and police surgeon Thomas Bond developed the first known criminal profile, but no compelling suspect was ever identified. The Whitechapel murders occurred during a time of increasing literacy rates in England and tax reforms encouraging more affordable newspapers. This confluence of events made “Jack the Ripper” the first serial killer to achieve widespread notoriety. Red Jack thrives by feeding on the fear of its victims; we can easily imagine the women of Whitechapel lived in the fear endemic to a life of poverty and crime. Many of Whitechapel’s slums were cleared in the years after the murders, but the pattern of using fear to exploit victims lives on. The Enterprise computer cites a list of later serial killers on multiple planets, all targeting women.

Whitechapel approximately 1890 (photographer unknown); the perpetually foggy Argelius II

The setting, Argelius II, is critical to the story. The planet is just the spot for shore leave because it is, according to McCoy, “a completely hedonistic society.” At least some of the crew has previous experience here, as Kirk and McCoy are both familiar with “a place where the women-” Thankfully, they never finish the thought. Argelius II also has, per Kirk, “strategic importance as a space port;” in fact, it is “the only one in the quadrant,” according to Prefect Jaris (Charles Macaulay, who bears an astonishing resemblance to Landru from “The Return of the Archons”). Yet, the Argelians “aren’t very efficient” and are “a gentle, harmless people,” as we’re told by Administrator Hengist (John Fiedler), one of the administrative officers hired from off-world for exactly that reason. For “a gentle, harmless people,” the Argelians aren’t shy about cruel and unusual punishment: if Scott is convicted of the murders, the penalty will be “death by slow torture.” And perhaps because of the Argelians’ administrative limitations, the final say in matters of importance seems to rest entirely with Jaris. (“I am the highest official,” he says, without specifying if he’s high on psychoactives or org charts.)

The Deciders Part 2: Hengist and Jaris confer with Kirk. Are we sure that guy’s not Landru?

Early on, Kirk conducts himself nobly, committed to respecting Argelian customs. “I have a diplomatic responsibility,” he says. Later, he tells Spock, “It is absolutely imperative this matter be resolved according to Argelian law.” When a female (run for it!) lieutenant beams down to examine Scott with a psycho-tricorder – a laughable mind-reading device created solely to set up the second murder – Kirk tells Scott to “cooperate completely.” There is no wink or nudge in this directive because Kirk has complete confidence in both his crewman’s innocence and the technology at his command. Yet both Kirk and the free-wheeling Jaris lose track of the murder weapon, further encouraging conditions for a second crime.

“Lieutenant, Mr. Scott is accused of murdering a woman, so we’re going to put you alone in a room with him.”

As the body count increases, Scott remains the only plausible suspect, standing over the victim each time. Kirk’s impartiality weakens and he becomes so determined to prove Scott’s innocence, Jaris tells him, “You’re behaving very much like a man who is desperately trying anything to save his friend.” Prior to shore leave, Scott suffered a head injury in an explosion that was – students of #MeToo may have seen this coming – caused by a woman. Has the injury driven Scott to feel “total resentment toward women,” as McCoy fears? Did the injury cause Scott to experience “hysterical amnesia”? (We can definitely rule that out, because only women are hysterical in Star Trek!) Even if Scott did kill the women, can he be declared not guilty by reason of insanity? An exploration of the difficulties of applying a standard of mental incapacity would have been valuable, but “Wolf in the Fold” is too bogged down in “psycho-tricorder” technobabble and melodramatic finger-pointing.

“Let’s leave life-or-death decisions to technology because that’s bound to turn out well.”

It’s good to see James Doohan front and center in an episode, even though he doesn’t get to do much but proclaim his innocence while simultaneously acknowledging, “I don’t remember.” Scott certainly shouldn’t be left alone with a woman after the first murder, but that’s exactly how the poor lieutenant with the psycho-tricorder ends up dead. The experience will leave such a lasting impression on Scott, he will even refer to it decades later, in the TNG episode “Relics.”

“Hey, Geordi, want to hear about the time I was declared innocent after being found holding the murder weapon at three different crime scenes?”

The Enterprise computer qualifies as a character of its own in this episode. The system is so advanced, it functions as a highly proficient lie detector, determining that Scott and others are providing honest testimony during a hearing on board the Enterprise. That technology sure would have come in handy during “Court Martialor any other TOS episode. Despite this extraordinary capability, the computer is as easily overwhelmed as the Enterprise security force: After the computer is hijacked by Red Jack (speaking with a genuinely creepy voice), Spock retakes the computer by simply putting it to work calculating pi to the last digit. Spoiler alert: There is no last digit, and the computer should already know that. Medical science doesn’t perform much better in “Wolf in the Fold.” McCoy’s ramblings about hysterical amnesia and psycho-tricorders are more suitable for a Q-Anon convention. In the end, to deny Red Jack the fear he craves (more on this shortly), McCoy gives the entire crew enough sedatives to “tranquilize an active volcano,” turning the Enterprise crew into a gang of stoners who can’t possibly be competent to operate their stations, yet somehow do exactly that.

“Dave’s not here!”

The main failure of the Cheech and Chong resolution is that it sets up a humorous ending, trivializing the deaths of three women. In fact, Kirk’s immediate concern upon trouncing Red Jack is returning to Argelius II for more sexual conquests. Misogyny in general ruins the entire episode. Even Spock joins in the woman-bashing, when he explains why women are born to be victims: “…women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.” Women are destined to be attacked because they are women, not because of anything wrong with their attackers or a paternalistic society. Blaming crimes against women on a non-corporeal being is a cop-out, yet even the Argelians are on board with this backwards philosophy. Jaris’ wife Sybo (Pilar Seurat), who is endowed with “empathic contact,” the séance version of a mind-meld, describes “…hatred of women, a hunger that never dies. It is strong, overpowering, an ancient terror…” (Is it a coincidence that the camera pans across the faces of the men while she says this?) Jaris himself, right after his own wife is murdered, asks, “How could any man do such monstrous things?” He implies it’s unthinkable that a man could commit murder, while spending much of the episode discussing the reasons men might commit murder!

Sybo’s reward for confirming the presence of evil? She is literally stabbed in the back in a room full of men.

From our perspective in the #MeToo era, with Harvey Weinstein in prison and the likes of Matt Lauer and Bill Cosby chased off the national stage, at least for the time being, it’s easy to tread lightly on misogyny of the 1960s. But second-wave feminism was well under way by 1967 and someone involved with TOS should have raised the bar with “Wolf in the Fold.” The episode is a heartbreaking missed opportunity that cries out for a properly identified villain. We tiptoe toward justice late in the episode: When McCoy frets about Red Jack feeding on fear and death, Spock reminds him, “In the strict scientific sense, Doctor, we all feed on death. Even vegetarians.” Indeed, violence is the very foundation of human “civilization,” but “Wolf in the Fold” avoids that conversation. The episode also fails to acknowledge the determination of the decision-makers – all men – to clear Scott’s name, even if he is guilty. Only Hengist, conveniently possessed by Red Jack at the time, asks, “We have the prime suspect in our hands. Are we going to let him go and start chasing ghosts?” Indeed, we are, and the crew’s identification of Red Jack redeems this circle-the-wagons commitment, just as another cloud-like entity redeemed Kirk’s endangerment of his crew in “Obsession.”

“Oh, bother.” Kirk takes a kick from the actor who would later voice Piglet for 37 years

We know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and passing the buck to a sinister spirit gets us no closer to the truth than “boys will be boys.” Clearly, for the sake of the series, Scott couldn’t be turned into a serial killer. But another character could have been introduced to embody humanity’s sins. (Voyager handled the subject with a bit more courage in the season two episode “Meld.”) “Wolf in the Fold” does make a subtle acknowledgment that humankind is the problem. Red Jack originated on earth but traveled to other planets with the expansion of the Federation. “When man moved out into the galaxy,” Kirk says, “that thing must have moved with him.” That thing, of course, is human nature, not as tamed as we would like to believe by the twenty-third century. “Wolf in the Fold” commits the same violence toward women that it describes, justifying misogyny carried to its ugly extreme. Nebulous evil lurking in the shadows no doubt appeals to contemporary, conspiracy-obsessed audiences, while perpetuating a denial of blame and accountability. Walt Kelley’s Pogo was famous for saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is how “Wolf in the Fold” lets us down, by refusing to meet the true enemy.

Next: The Trouble with Tribbles

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