(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: January 31, 1969
Crew Death Count: 0 (but an unspecified number of people are killed on Memory Alpha)
“The Lights of Zetar” could easily have been called “The Snooze of Zetar” because, as with last week’s “That Which Survives,” I found my attention wandering repeatedly throughout the episode. It’s worth noting that the episode was written by husband-and-wife team Shari Lewis and Jeremy Tarcher. Lewis was best known as the brains behind Lamb Chop. This week, the Enterprise transports Lieutenant Mira Romaine (Jan Shutan), a 23rd century librarian overseeing new technology for Memory Alpha, which Kirk describes as “a central library containing the total cultural history and scientific knowledge of all planetary Federation members.” Before the crew arrives, Memory Alpha is attacked by a collection of flashing lights. Then the lights turn on the Enterprise, possess Romaine and threatening the rest of the crew via some mumbo-jumbo that never really makes sense. Lewis supposedly wanted to play Romaine but was denied the part; in hindsight, I can imagine she was thankful for that.
The comparison to “That Which Survives” isn’t made lightly – too much time in “The Lights of Zetar” is wasted on filler without enough attention to the episode’s interesting s-f aspects. While Memory Alpha is a dated concept because it fails to anticipate networking and digital technology trends, it is still a fascinating concept that should be explored further. (It’s also, of course, the inspiration for the famous, and increasingly advertising-heavy, Star Trek fan site.) When the lights – which are initially believed to be some sort of galactic storm – attack the station, Spock says, “The loss to the galaxy may be irretrievable.” That sounds awfully permanent – didn’t anyone think to make a backup? Memory Alpha also suffers from a lack of protective shielding, which Spock reports was deemed unnecessary because the library is entirely academic and free to everyone. Even Kirk sees the foolhardiness of that decision: “Wonderful. I hope the storm is aware of that rationale.”
The lights – the entire reason for the episode’s existence – behave inconsistently, and their true nature is not revealed to us until the end of the episode. The lights are from the planet Zetar, with which Kirk and Spock already seem familiar. Spock points out that all life on Zetar died centuries ago in some unspecified manner; the lights specify that only corporeal life died. The lights represent the last one hundred surviving Zetars (because one hundred is a nice round number!); they are “the desires, the hopes, the mind, and the will of the last hundred of Zetar. The force of our life could not be wiped out.” So if you believe you can control the universe with your mind, you might be from Zetar. This New Age meandering gives us no real insight into the Zetars or why the last one hundred of them were so special.
The Zetars are drifting around the galaxy looking for a host in which to return to a corporeal life. “We have searched for a millennium for one through whom we can see and speak and hear and live out our lives.” We’ve spent the entire episode getting to this entirely unsatisfactory answer that only raises more questions. Why are all one hundred of them content to occupy only one body? Why is Romaine the only person they’ve found in all that time who is acceptable to them? Why do they kill the Memory Alpha staff but not the Enterprise crew? Why was this boring script approved? We’ll never know.
In fairness, we do get a few half-hearted answers, but they don’t improve the overall experience. The Zetars selected Romaine because, “Her mind will accept our thoughts.” Out of all the life forms the Zetars must have encountered in a millennium of searching, only Romaine’s mind has the proper voltage converter? More on Romaine later – and it’s mostly bad – but there’s still the deceased staff on Memory Alpha to explain. According to the Zetars, the library staff resisted the alien occupation and that struggle is what killed them. Okay. But the Zetars cruised past the Enterprise on their way to Memory Alpha and didn’t kill anyone, only shaking up Romaine in their attempt to hijack her brain. There’s no explanation of why the Zetars respond so differently to two groups of prospective hosts. And why do they seemingly possess Romaine, move on to Memory Alpha, then return? The characters simply do whatever they need to do to sustain the length of the episode.
We get vague hints as to why the Zetars chose Romaine and presumably what they see in her is also what Scott sees, as he is almost as infatuated with Romaine as he was with Palamas in “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Scott calls Romaine “the sanest, the smartest, the nicest woman” to ever board the Enterprise. I’m sure Uhura appreciates that! The Scott/Romaine “romance” becomes even creepier when we learn that Romaine’s father was also a chief engineer for Starfleet. This is Romaine’s first deep space mission – “All of you are accustomed to new experiences,” she tells McCoy, “it’s part of your work.” – so her symptoms after the Zetars’ first appearance are chalked up to that old standby, space sickness, whatever that is. Her lack of experience is also blamed for her bizarre temper tantrum when McCoy tries to examine her, which Scott has to talk her through, because men, women, etc. The chief engineer clearly likes his women dumb and compliant, because when Chekov expresses surprise that Scott would fall for “the brainy type,” Sulu replies, “I don’t think he’s even noticed she has a brain.” Maybe Scott’s advanced years explain his loose romantic standards – Kirk claims that love for “a man of Scotty’s years” reveals the loneliness of his life. We don’t just discriminate against women on the Enterprise, but old people, too! (James Doohan was born in 1920, so if the characters are the same age as the actors, Scott would have been approaching his 49th birthday during “The Lights of Zetar”; hardly a senior citizen, but maybe he seemed so to a whippersnapper like Kirk, age 37.)
Ageism aside, “The Lights of Zetar” is one of those original series productions where the sexism is so rampant as to be a distraction throughout the episode. Scott’s obsessive hovering over Romaine is offensive enough, but Kirk, McCoy, and even Spock repeatedly refer to Romaine as “the girl.” They do this so often that it feels like a deliberate attempt to diminish her character. Even the Zetars get in on the act, saying, “We only want the girl.” During the conference room scene – one of the weakest of such scenes in the series – the officers try to decipher what’s going on with Romaine. Kirk tells her in his most fatherly tone, “A ship’s investigative procedures are sometimes confusing to a new crewman. Don’t let us upset you.” Aren’t the “procedures” simply asking questions about what happened? How dumb does Kirk think Romaine is? (In fact, she might be pretty dumb, based on some of her vacuous statements.) All this misogyny gets us closer to the real reason Romaine is the victim: she’s a woman. We can’t help but recall Spock’s offensive line from “Wolf in the Fold”: “…women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.” The one victim on Memory Alpha still alive when the landing party arrives – the one person the Zetars made a serious attempt to possess – is also a woman, implying that the Zetars agree with Spock. The episode’s turning point, the moment when we know the Zetars will be defeated, is when Romaine fully submits to male leadership: “Tell me what to do,” she says to Kirk. In the final scene, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all agree that Scott’s affection for Romaine was a significant factor in her ability to fend off the Zetars and survive. So after Romaine is demeaned and assaulted, a man gets all the credit! And the final insult: Kirk, McCoy, Spock, and Scott – only one of whom is an actual medical professional – decide unanimously that Romaine is recovered and fit for duty without bothering to ask Romaine herself how she feels.
The truth is, there’s no reason for Romaine to even appear in the episode. She’s only here as a link to Memory Alpha, and the intriguing galactic library concept is never developed; it’s simply a stand-in for the planet-of-the-week. By episode’s end, the Enterprise is headed back to Memory Alpha so Romaine can resume her duties, the “irretrievable” loss Spock talked of earlier completely forgotten. (The dead Memory Alpha staff equally forgotten – don’t they need some new librarians?) The Zetars could easily have targeted one of our existing crew members and given one of the regular supporting cast members something interesting to do for a change. If the producers were determined to send the Zetars after a woman, then Uhura and Chapel were right in front of them.
The Zetars are also a poor representative of TOS’ recurring cast of ancient, disembodied aliens. Without ever clarifying how, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy come up with a plan to put Romaine in a pressure chamber to drive out the Zetars. It works, but why? Why does Romaine experience visions of future events? The Zetars are clearly not able to predict the future. “The Lights of Zetar” really feels like another episode on the danger of cults, which really means the danger of the anti-establishment movements that attracted so many young people in the 1960s. Having established Romaine as young and inexperienced, Kirk tells her, “You are especially susceptible to their will.” Romaine’s ability to be easily influenced is reinforced after the Zetars occupy her mind, when she says, “I’ve been flooded with thoughts not my own that control me.” This time, however, the cult member is a threat to society at large. Romaine, like the Manson Family that terrorized southern California in 1969, is a danger to the crew after the Zetars possess her; McCoy says, “She could kill us all in this state!” Exactly how she could kill them is never specified, the fact that she is controlled by an extremist outside group is sufficient. And Spock calls the connection between Romaine and the aliens “an identity of minds,” indicating that the Zetars are trying to bring Romaine around to their way of thinking, permanently separating her from her Federation colleagues.
Previous TOS episodes have done all of this better, and the cult theme will be more effectively explored later in “The Way to Eden.” As usual, the Enterprise crew makes no attempt to learn more about the Zetars. You’d think the Zetars’ ability to shed their physical bodies and travel through space as super-identities might be of interest to someone somewhere. (Of course, Spock, having a katra, already has this covered.) Other than a few shots from interesting angles, there’s not much to distinguish “The Lights of Zetar.” Maybe a better interpretation is the danger of American imperialism, with its myth of the exceptional individual. The Zetars might be aliens, but they seem very much like the all-consuming narcissism of the uber-captains of capitalism. Like those CEOs and senators who would rather let the world burn than compromise their lavish lifestyles, the Zetars are fully convinced that they deserve to live regardless of how many others have to die. We get a hint of this when Kirk asks McCoy about the long-term effects Zetar possession might have on Romaine; the doctor replies, “When the personality of a human is involved, exact predictions are hazardous.” Spock reinforces this with, “Particularly where humans are involved, Doctor.” Such a message of human frailty, more clearly expressed, could only have improved the episode. The Zetar threat might be gone, but the sexist treatment of Romaine will no doubt continue. We always expect the threats to come from outsiders when the greatest damage usually originates right here at home.
Next: Requiem for Methuselah