Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Paradise Syndrome

(Note: This post appears as a page elsewhere on the 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 4, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 1 (Behold Kirok’s godly physique!)

This week we are reminded again that we weren’t meant for paradise in Star Trek’s presentation of Dances with Wolves “The Paradise Syndrome.” The Enterprise visits an unnamed planet in danger of being destroyed by an approaching asteroid. Before rocketing off to destroy the asteroid, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy make a brief scouting visit to the planet, which is so similar to earth, the landscape includes earth plants. The landing party soon learns it even includes earth people – a buckskin-wearing, tepee-inhabiting village Spock magically identifies as a blend of Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware nations. The one outlier is a metal obelisk covered in alien script. Kirk stumbles into the obelisk, presses the wrong button, and knocks himself unconscious; Spock leads the Enterprise off to divert the asteroid, promising to return ASAP. Kirk emerges from the obelisk an amnesiac and is interpreted by the natives to be a god who will save them from the mysterious darkening of the skies that foretells impending doom. Instead, Kirk – now named Kirok thanks to his faulty memory – is soon topless and frolicking with local pinup Miramanee (Sabrina Scharf) because that’s what Kirk does. Before we know it, two months pass, the Enterprise has failed to stop the asteroid, and all Kirok has accomplished is get Miramanee pregnant because that’s what Kirk does.

The object of all the villagers’ lust – and Miramanee

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about this episode’s premise. The landing party has barely arrived before Spock reports they must depart in half an hour if they hope to stop the asteroid. Why are they concerned about the asteroid in the first place? The Federation has apparently decided to save this planet sight unseen, despite the obvious violation of the Prime Directive. Once that decision is made, wouldn’t it make sense to take care of the asteroid first, then visit the planet? Or, if they must investigate the planet first, why wait so late before departing? Then, once Kirk disappears – he has obviously fallen inside the obelisk, but somehow Spock and McCoy are too dumb to figure that out – why do they waste so much time conducting a search? Spock repeatedly voices his concerns about reaching the asteroid soon enough while wasting valuable time on one long-winded explanation after another. As a result, the Enterprise burns out its engines, Scott complaining every step of the way, and lacks sufficient power to deflect the asteroid. The whole episode is a comedy of errors, mostly a result of the crew’s repeated failure to prioritize.

Kirk celebrates with the one he loves

Kirk’s behavior is equally strange. We’re used to Kirk and McCoy sighing over idyllic garden planets before wrecking whatever indigenous cultures live there. Yet despite a fondness for simple living, Kirk has consistently urged less-advanced cultures to get busy building and consuming. Here, however, Kirk has lost all connection with his imperialist roots and expresses pure envy that he can’t drop everything and settle here. “Just so peaceful, uncomplicated,” he says. “No problems, no command decisions. Just…living.” It’s hard to blame him; the natives live on a lake so scenic, Andy and Opie Taylor will stroll past it every week to open The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). After his memory is zapped by the obelisk, Kirok retains some of this adulation, telling tribal elder Goro (Richard Hale), “Your land is rich, your people happy. Who could be displeased with that?” Yet Kirok is more like the capitalist we remember, urging efficiency-improving infrastructure on his people: he introduces field irrigation to increase crop efficiency and expands available work hours by carving an oil-burning lamp from a gourd. Kirk has seen through the myth of paradise many times, so it never makes sense that, pre-amnesia at least, he is so gullible on the subject.

“Hit the road, Aunt Bee, we found a new housekeeper.”

Kirk also inflicts several painful voice-overs on us during his time as Kirok. These native-style captain’s logs are distractions that do nothing more than state the obvious. Kirk’s only true contribution is to save a young boy who fell in a lake and appears drowned. Kirk’s application of CPR confirms his role as the tribe’s new “medicine chief” and attracts the dim-witted Miramanee, who is already promised to the existing medicine chief, Salish (Rudy Solari). Lucky for Kirk the child recovers completely, because in real life CPR not supplemented by an automated external defibrillator (AED) only has about a 5% effective rate. Attempts at manually reviving a victim in cardiac arrest go back to at least the 1800s, but the first known documentation of modern-day cardiopulmonary respiration (CPR), combining chest compressions with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, comes from a 1962 training video. So this was still a fairly new technique when “The Paradise Syndrome” aired in 1968. Miramanee is so impressed with Kirok’s life-giving techniques, she dumps Salish, turning him into Kirok’s biggest detractor. The jilted lover storyline is frustrating, especially because Salish is right to reject Kirok’s godhood, but the Kirk-as-white-savior plot is downright offensive.

Salish gets an introduction to Kirk Fu

The natives are portrayed as indigenous Americans were often portrayed in TV and movies at that time: ignorant and easily manipulated. (An even greater insult that they were played by non-indigenous actors.) Poor Miramanee can’t even figure out how to remove Kirk’s shirt. The villagers know enough of their history to understand that they were put there by ancient beings (more on that later), and that something bad is about to happen. They also know that the obelisk – which they call a temple – has something to do with it. When Miramanee and a friend first see Kirok emerge from the temple, they bow before him without a second thought. Miramanee says, “We are your people. We’ve been waiting for you to come to us.” Even though the asteroid is far too distant to affect the planet when Kirk arrives, Goro describes a mysterious phenomenon that we’re clearly meant to blame on the approaching space rock: “Our skies have darkened three times since the harvest, the last time worst of all. Our legend predicts such danger and promises that the wise ones who planted us here will send a god to save us, one who can rouse the temple spirit and make the sky grow quiet.”

“What do you mean, you’ve never heard of s’mores?”

Apparently the village’s first medicine chief was given knowledge to operate the temple and deflect approaching asteroids, and each medicine chief passes the knowledge to the next one. (Is destruction-by-asteroid really such a common occurrence?) The locals even know what to do – “You must go inside the temple and make the blue flame come out,” Miramanee tells Kirok – but they don’t know how. The tribe’s previous medicine chief, Salish’s father, died before imparting the information to his son. See? Salish is portrayed as the villain, but in fact he’s a victim of negligent parents before having his woman stolen by a white colonizer. Yet this only raises another mystery: why did the obelisk-builders leave this world-saving knowledge with only one person, and why have none of the medicine chiefs shared this secret with anyone else in the village?

Worst tech support ever

Once the Enterprise finally zooms off to attack the asteroid, and fail, McCoy goes into full complaining mode, loitering around the bridge and urging Spock to abandon the savages and focus entirely on finding Kirk. Its warp engines exhausted, the Enterprise is forced to retreat ahead of the asteroid during the two months it takes to reach the planet. Bypassing two months in the blink of an eye was a fairly radical move for TOS, and McCoy wisely uses the time to do some soul-searching. Now he graciously forgives the first officer for his “error,” even though the original delay in leaving the planet was primarily a result of Kirk and McCoy goofing around.

McCoy is the reason Emergency Medical Holograms will have a deactivation feature

Spock has also used the time wisely, studying the markings on the obelisk to the point of exhaustion. He finally deduces that the “letters” actually represent musical notes and the right combination of sounds will allow access to the obelisk’s controls. The scene brilliantly incorporates Spock’s appreciation of music, introduced in previous episodes, and gives him a chance to play the Vulcan lyre. The markings also, apparently, describe the entire history of the structure and the people who put it there. An ancient race called the Preservers “passed through the galaxy rescuing primitive cultures which were in danger of extinction, and seeding them, so to speak, where they could live and grow.” This makes a lot more sense than Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development from “Bread and Circuses” and explains why so many “alien” species look human. This also adds to our list of ancient galactic travelers (the Old Ones, Apollo and his cohorts, Sargon and company, etc.) without explaining how they became extinct after reaching such an advanced state, though the Preservers will be indirectly referenced in the TNG season six episode “The Chase.” “The Paradise Syndrome” clearly sidesteps the reason the Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware were on the verge of extinction in the first place and how different the 23rd century would look if the Preservers had simply halted the expansion of the white European savages who decimated their communities. We should also note the obelisk’s thematic overlap with the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – helping troubled societies in the early stages of development – despite it’s different appearance.

“I give the Preservers’ tune a 95, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

In the end, Spock uses the “Vulcan mind fusion” – which looks just like a mind meld – to restore Kirk’s memory, and just in time, because the village turned on Kirok and Miramanee the moment they realized Kirok wasn’t the god they made him out to be – a painful lesson to aspiring gods as well as those who put blind faith in them. While Kirk and Spock put the obelisk to work destroying the asteroid, McCoy tries to help the fatally wounded Miramanee. Of course, her fate was sealed the moment she announced she carried Kirk’s child. The general idea of Kirk having a child wasn’t the problem, particularly when it could be turned into an essential plot point, as in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). No, the problem here was that Kirk couldn’t be seen to abandon a pregnant woman or the consequences of fatherhood, and Miramanee was certainly not about to join the crew. (But watching her react to those automatic doors would have been a hoot!) We can at least be grateful “The Paradise Syndrome” doesn’t end with a lame humorous exchange between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, as so many TOS episodes did. Kirk is genuinely distraught over Miramanee’s demise as the end credits appear. The harsh consequences of imperialism are at hand and we’re returned to our original question: why did the Enterprise come here at all? If they had simply dealt with the asteroid and gone about their business, the village could have resumed its peaceful ways with no internal conflict and no loss of life. If we accept that we weren’t meant for paradise, so be it. But why are we so determined to ruin paradise for everyone else?

Next: And the Children Shall Lead

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