Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Is There in Truth No Beauty?

(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 18, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0 (but Marvick dies after going insane)

Bellybuttons: 0 (Medusans probably don’t even have bellybuttons)

“Is There in Truth No Beauty?” is a bright spot in TOS’ much-maligned third season, with genuine science-fiction premises and a return of the delightful Diana Muldaur, who previously appeared in “Return to Tomorrow.” This week, the Enterprise is assigned to escort Kollos, Medusan ambassador to the Federation, to his homeworld. (The remastered edition inexplicably changes this to a ship rather than a planet.) Kollos is accompanied by his aides, psychologist Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur) and engineer Larry Marvick (David Frankham). (Jones’ presence is logical but the need for Marvick is never explained.) Medusans exist in a formless state and are transported in carriers that are basically luggage. Medusans’ appearance is such that any human who looks directly at them will become insane, though their effect on other species is never clarified. Medusans are telepaths by nature and Jones, a human, has unique telepathic abilities. Marvick is obsessively infatuated with Jones, who in turn is attracted to Kollos. In a botched assassination attempt on the ambassador, Marvick looks at Kollos, loses his mind, and hijacks the Enterprise, sending the ship outside the galaxy. Thankfully, Medusans are even better navigators than Sulu, so a complex mind-link between Spock and Kollos gets everyone home. Except Marvick.

A gathering of predators

The title comes from Jordan (I), by Welsh poet George Herbert, which begins:

“Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?”

Herbert asks why poetry should be made up, instead of drawn from real life. The truth may be stranger than fiction, but it can also be more beautiful and profound. “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” explores, sometimes through the characters’ own ignorance, the question of who decides what is or is not beautiful, and how that beauty influences the reality of human emotions.

“Poetry, schmoetry, can you not comprehend my beauty?”

The episode is strong overall but does have a couple of non sequiturs. First, why would the Medusans name themselves after a character in earth (Greek) mythology? In ancient stories, Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters who had snakes for hair; anyone who looked at them would turn to stone. Mythology portrayed the Gorgons as repulsive, but by the 5th century BC, Medusa began to be depicted as both beautiful and deadly, making her irresistable to her victims. This is relevant to “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” because Kollos is presented as not only telepathic but also intellectually advanced (“The thoughts of the Medusans are the most sublime in the galaxy,” Kirk says) and of compelling beauty to those, like Jones and Spock, who are able to appreciate him. More importantly, it’s hard to imagine the Medusans perceive themselves as ugly, making the Greek mythology reference even stranger. Despite their earth-centric name, the Medusans are a fascinating species in both appearance and behavior, genuinely unique, not just humans with a forehead prosthetic.

All Enterprise passengers are allowed one free checked luggage.

The other distraction is how the Enterprise could be stranded outside the galaxy. When Marvick goes mad and takes control of the ship, he sends them so far outside the galaxy that no reference points remain by which to navigate home. (At least this time there’s a reason the Enterprise is so easy to hijack: Marvick is introduced as one of the engineers who designed the ship’s engines.) Spock says the Enterprise entered “a space-time continuum,” but isn’t the entire universe a space-time continuum? Even from earth, under ideal conditions, other galaxies like the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Andromeda Galaxy are visible with the naked eye. Considering the advanced navigational instruments available to the Enterprise, they can certainly find their way back to the Milky Way. It’s a forgivable oversight, however, a necessary plot point to complicate the relationship between Spock, Jones, and Kollos.

The Enterprise technobabble and is unable to technobabble, forcing the crew to technobabble with the technobabble.

The treatment of Dr. Jones is ghastly, but some of that is intended to demonstrate that the men-folk are not as enlightened as they believe. Kirk and McCoy repeatedly condescend to Jones – taking time to insult Spock in the process – making nauseating comments about her beauty, kissing her hand, calling her a girl, and addressing her by her first name. (Remember how deferential Kirk was to celebrity crackpot Dr. Adams in “Dagger of the Mind”?) The two Starfleet-bros contrast Jones’ beauty with Kollos’ ugliness: they interpret Kollos as “ugly” simply because they’re unable to look at him. We may almost universally agree – by human standards, at any rate – that Jones is beautiful, but who gets to decide, and how does it affect our attitude toward those we deem beautiful or not? Marvick’s behavior toward Jones is grossly misogynistic. While he praises her in public, Marvick practically assaults Jones in her quarters, insisting that she should love him because he loves her and he’s a dude so he should get what he wants: “I understand that you’re a woman and I’m a man.” When she continues to reject him, he takes the typical low road of the abuser and attacks her femininity: “Why don’t you try being a woman for a change?” Marvick the brilliant engineer turns out to be a homicidal creep, attempting to assassinate Kollos, until the telepathic ambassador senses Marvick’s presence, opens his habitation unit, and sends Marvick over the bend. After Marvick’s treatment of Jones and his assault on the crew, we’re not too sorry when McCoy pronounces, “He’s dead, Jim.”

Marvick’s actual dialogue: “Now I know what a mere human male has to do to get a reaction out of you: make you think he’s a patient.”

Diana Muldaur wore a wig to change her hair color and distinguish Jones from her character in “Return to Tomorrow,” but it’s not really necessary, because she gives Jones an entirely unique personality. According to myth, Medusa’s frightening appearance gave her a hatred of men; likewise, Jones’ telepathic “gifts,” and the fact that she has never been to earth, have turned her against most humans. “I agree with the Vulcans,” she tells Kirk, “violent emotion is a kind of insanity.” Jones has had extensive training on Vulcan to control her telepathy and greets Spock with the Vulcan salute when she arrives, which already makes her more thoughtful than McCoy. Jones stays above the fray when Kirk and McCoy go all sappy on her, refusing to dignify their sexist remarks with a response. She is also blind, something only McCoy figures out late in the episode, when it’s revealed that beaded netting worn on her dress is really a sensor array that gives her the ability to function as a sighted person.

Beady eyes: The beaded sheer fabric of Jones’ sensor array, a precursor to Geordi’s visor in TNG

Jones’ telepathy is part of what bonds her to Kollos; it also provides both a bond and a division between Jones and Spock. It turns out Jones was not Kollos’ first choice for an assistant: she was only offered the job after Spock turned it down! Spock is able to sympathize with Jones regarding the burden of sensing others’ thoughts:

Spock: “What most humans generally find impossible to understand is the need to shut out the bedlam of other peoples’ thoughts and emotions.”
Jones: “Or of their own thoughts and emotions.”

Of course, Jones is the one dodging her own emotions. As a Vulcan, Spock is able to interact with Kollos to a more intimate extent than Jones; Spock is genuinely moved by his initial meeting with the ambassador. Jones’ insecurity is immediately apparent. “In some ways, she is still most human,” Spock says, “particularly in the depth of her jealousy.” Just as Marvick regards Kollos as competition for Jones’ affections, Jones sees Spock as competition for Kollos. Neither Marvick nor Jones can see that the object of their affection will either feel the same or they won’t – the existence of a third party will make no difference.

“Would you like a dessert menu before we get to the misogyny?”

The Vulcan philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) is so integral to Star Trek, we tend to forget that it wasn’t introduced until this third season episode. While Gene Roddenberry devised IDIC primarily to sell medallions like the one Spock wears in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”, the brilliance of the concept can’t be denied. Kirk calls it “the most revered of all Vulcan symbols,” and while he’s hardly a reliable witness to Vulcan culture, the pin clearly has significance to Spock. When Spock first wears the medallion at a welcome dinner for Jones, she sees it as a challenge, when Spock meant it as a tribute to her achievements. In their own ways, Spock and Marvick illustrate IDIC by pointing out the fallacy of equating “good” and “beautiful”: who decides which is which, and how do we even define “beauty”? When McCoy refers to Kollos as hideous, Spock corrects him: “You still subscribe to the outmoded notion, promulgated by your ancient Greeks, that what is good must also be beautiful.” Marvick adds, “And the reverse, of course, that what is beautiful is automatically expected to be good.” If we confine our world view to an extremely limited presentation of physical beauty, we will no doubt miss out on much that is good in the world. Kirk and McCoy clearly don’t understand IDIC, and they don’t appear any wiser by the episode’s end.

Oh, now I get it!

Jones, Spock, and Kollos, however, get quite the education, and that is ultimately the point of the episode. When the Enterprise leaves the galaxy – with the great barrier from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” causing barely a scratch to the Enterprise – Spock must merge with Kollos to combine Spock’s knowledge of ship’s operations with Kollos’ navigational aptitude. Jones will not permit this, so while Spock initiates the mind-link, Kirk distracts Jones with a walk through the ship’s arboretum, which Kirk calls “a very romantic setting,” because don’t all the chicks dig pretty flowers and a stroll with the captain? This one doesn’t. Jones quickly tries to stop the Spock/Kollos link, before yielding to the one person no one thought to ask: Kollos, who naturally is happy to help out. It’s refreshing to see a woman reject Kirk, and we can be grateful Kirk doesn’t take it personally. The arboretum is also home to roses, thorns and all, again raising the question of how we perceive beauty. It’s worth noting that when the group returns to the bridge to begin the journey home, we’re treated to a great shot of the bridge from the turbolift, something I don’t recall seeing in TOS before.

“What a cool set! Hey, here’s a crazy idea, let’s film it from different angles once in a while!”

Spock, inhabited by Kollos, offers further insights into beauty. When he sees Uhura, he quotes Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty, like the night.” As with Jones, we may universally agree that Uhura is beautiful, but are we meant to see Uhura’s physical beauty, or the beauty of her presence as a trusted friend and colleague, contributing more than her fair share to the success of the five-year mission? Kollos/Spock goes on to praise humans’ (humanoids’, really, but Spock is half-human) sensory abilities but reminds us that we’re hardly perfect, and therefore perhaps not the template of beauty we like to believe: “This thing you call language, though, most remarkable. You depend on it for so very much. But is any one of you really it’s master? But most of all, the aloneness. You are so alone. You live out your lives in this shell of flesh, self-contained, separate. How lonely you are. How terribly lonely.”

Kollos takes over and serenades Uhura with a medley of Beatles tunes

Is this aloneness what drives Kirk to engage in the frivolous affairs for which he’s notorious? His superficial attitudes are on full display when he tries to distract Jones in the arboretum. Jones, however, is just the person to correct him.

Kirk: “Sooner or later, no matter how beautiful their minds are, you’re going to yearn for someone who looks like yourself. Someone who isn’t…ugly.”
Jones: “Ugly? What is ugly? Who is to say whether Kollos is too ugly to bear or too beautiful to bear?”

Later, when Jones hesitates to save Spock from the results of the mind-link, Kirk verbally assaults the doctor in order to push her past her jealousy. Kirk’s hostility is driven more by his desperation to save his friend than any insightful analysis, but he is correct that Jones’ jealousy of Spock is the thorn attached to the rose of her love for Kollos. But there is beauty in truth, because the act of helping Spock unites her with Kollos in a way that had not been possible before. In freeing Spock’s mind, she has liberated her own.

A Kirk by any other name

Our expectation of finding truth in beauty is all wrong – it’s truth that offers beauty. What we call “ugly” is often just unfamiliar and misunderstood. Kirk may not get the picture yet, but he at least seems to be trying, acknowledging that roses always come with thorns – beauty and “ugliness” are constructs we’ve created for easy categorization, when in fact the world is one vast continuum. Jones and Spock understand as they part company in the final scene, IDIC no longer the threat Jones made it out to be:

Jones: “The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”
Spock: “And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”

Spock wears his big ugly medallion and wonders where the hot tub is

There are obvious analogies here to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., but all our discriminatory tendencies come down to a fear of that which is different. This is somewhat the result of political manipulation – divisions created by the power-hungry to conquer the land. But maybe we also fear a world that is incomprehensibly vast and unpredictable, and clearly not created in our own image. The world thrives not on homogeneity, but diversity, and that beautiful truth puts the universe far beyond our control. Instead of striving to become masters of the universe, maybe the real satisfaction lies not in changing the view, but appreciating it.

Next: Spectre of the Gun

2 thoughts on “Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Is There in Truth No Beauty?

    1. Good question! In terms of entertainment value, yes, I would list The X-Files, Scrubs, As Time Goes By, Halt and Catch Fire, Detectorists, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Black Books, and 3 later Trek shows (Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine) as my favorite TV series. But probably only The X-Files and the other Star Trek series have inspired me to think as much about their social and historic context. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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