Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Requiem for Methuselah

(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: February 14, 1969

Crew Death Count: 3 (all deaths of Rigelian fever in the episode’s back story)

Bellybuttons: 0

If you enjoy “Requiem for Methuselah,” you should definitely watch the 2007 film The Man From Earth. Both were written by Jerome Bixby and despite equal levels of campiness, the movie explores the Methuselah theme more effectively. (An added bonus: The Man From Earth also features John Billingsley.) And given that a requiem is a ceremony or musical mass for the dead, the title tells us that someone, or something, is not long for this galaxy. This week, the Enterprise crew is “in the grip of a raging epidemic” of Rigelian fever. The only known cure, a substance known as ryetalyn, is present on the nearby planet Holberg 917G, so a landing party of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beams down to retrieve some. Soon, however, they are captives of a mysterious man named Flint (James Daly), a human who came to Holberg 917G as a “retreat from the unpleasantness of earth and the company of people.”

James Daly as Flint; David Lee Smith as The Man From Earth

The idea of the Enterprise under siege by a virus offers potential for great drama. Kirk reports that three crew members are already dead, with twenty-three others ill. The premise creates a ticking-clock scenario; McCoy says that the fever will be “irreversible” in only four hours if the crew doesn’t receive the needed ryetalyn. The fever is horrific, “like bubonic plague” and destined to affect the entire crew, according to McCoy. Unfortunately, the fever story line is never put to full use. We never see a single sick individual. Scott gives a brief status report with the Enterprise operating on a skeleton crew and nearly everyone on board infected, but the only people we see are in good condition. And the time pressure never amounts to much. The landing party, especially Kirk, spends way so much time cavorting on the planet that we – and they – continually forget that there’s a crisis. Kirk becomes so engrossed in Flint’s cohort Rayna (more on her later), even Spock calls him out on it: “Since we are dependent on Mr. Flint for the ryetalyn, Captain, I respectfully suggest that you pay less attention to the young lady if you should encounter her again.”

“Rigelian fever is a hoax perpetrated by the media. Except it was created in a Romulan lab. And Starfleet is using ryetalyn to control us with Borg nanoprobes. But I’m totally taking large quantities of cordrazine because some fake Twitter accounts told me to. Cordrazine is a secret cure to Rigelian fever and I’m taking it even though I already said the fever was a myth AND it was created in a lab. Pizzagate, Sheeple!”

Much of the wasted time revolves around figuring out Flint and his museum-like collection. Among other things, Flint possesses a Shakespeare First Folio and a Gutenberg Bible. (McCoy identifies these because, as a 23rd century physician, he is intimately familiar with earth’s Renaissance period. The First Folio was published in 1623 and only 750 copies are believed to have been printed, making it even more unlikely that McCoy would recognize one.) Flint also owns paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and, an intriguing surprise, Reginald Pollack. Pollack, 1924 – 2001, was very much alive when “Requiem for Methuselah” aired. He and Gene Roddenberry were both World War II veterans, Roddenberry being stationed in Hawaii and Pollack in the Aleutian Islands and the South Pacific. I can’t find any confirmation that the two knew each other, but Pollack’s second wife, Naomi Pollack, played Ensign Rahda in “That Which Survives.”

“I could get a fortune for this on the black market.”

Digressions aside, the landing party expresses no real surprise at finding a miniature Smithsonian of primarily earth works on a remote planet. Spock says, “I am close to experiencing an unaccustomed emotion,” thought he never displays it. Spock recognizes a musical composition in Brahms’ handwriting and paintings in da Vinci’s style, but using contemporary materials. (Spock is even more savvy than McCoy when it comes to pre-20th century earth.) They don’t even seem shocked when they learn Flint’s true history – he was born in Mesopotamia in 3834 BCE, making him well over six thousand years old. Purchase records for Holberg 917G (who the hell do you buy a planet from?) indicate that Flint has been living here for thirty years. Flint’s situation is so outrageous that the role could easily become a caricature, but James Daly gives the role sufficient gravitas. Daly was an accomplished stage actor who was probably familiar to science-fiction fans by 1969: he had already appeared in episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Invaders (1967-1968), as well as the movies I Aim at the Stars (1960) and Planet of the Apes (1968). In fact, the role does take an excessive turn at the end, when Flint reduces the Enterprise to model size, but Daly’s performance remains exemplary.

Flint uses the same interior decorator as the Squire of Gothos and Sylvia and Korob

Flint has gone by many names over the years, including da Vinci, Brahms, Solomon, Alexander, and, per the episode’s title, Methuselah. According to the Book of Genesis, the biblical Methuselah lived 969 years. He was only seven generations removed from Adam, and he was grandfather to Noah, making him an important figure in both Judaism and Christianity, as well as being mentioned in Islamic scriptures. Flint’s advanced age gives him a unique perspective on history – when McCoy describes the Rigelian fever, Flint compares it to a plague in Constantinople in 1334. (Justinian’s Plague, 541-549 CE, killed about 20% of Constantinople’s population, but Flint may be referring to the Black Death, a plague pandemic that killed anywhere from 75 million to 200 million people throughout Europe, Asia, and north Africa in the 1300s.) Flint has also cultivated all the skills one might desire over six thousand years, including robotics – the landing party is nearly killed by his floating robot, M-4, which resembles Nomad from “The Changeling” but should not be confused with M-5 from “The Ultimate Computer.”

M-4 doesn’t speak, so Kirk can’t talk it into self-destructing

One wonders why Flint made such public artistic contributions to earth if he didn’t want the secret of his longevity exposed. My primary frustration with Flint’s super-achiever storyline (also my primary complaint with The Man From Earth) is that it diminishes the potential for creative achievement by the rest of us. (The Mission Log podcasters suggested that the name “Flint” identifies him as the spark of human character or ingenuity.) If one person accomplished all of those tasks, the rest of us must be a bunch of hopeless lunkheads. Better to believe great creative potential rests in all of us. Still, one person living many lives is an intriguing concept. Flint’s life has also taught him about human cruelty; knowing the horrors he might be subjected to if others learned of his condition, he took on new identities at regular intervals, denying himself the stability of lifelong love or friendship. Yet Flint is equally capable of cruel behavior: He intends to hold the entire Enterprise crew in suspended animation, for fear they will share his secret and invite more intruders. Flint has apparently not developed long-term planning skills, for certainly the Federation would send others to investigate the disappearance of the Enterprise.

Flint’s home looked very different in the original episode. This is the remastered version – note the wider aspect ratio.

Flint does need the landing party to perform one task, however. He needs them to awaken emotions in his youthful ward Rayna Kapec (Louise Sorel, who, like Daly, was an experienced stage actor). Savvy viewers will note that Kapec sounds a lot like Čapek, as in Karel Čapek, a Czech writer who introduced the word “robot” in 1920; that’s an important clue to Rayna’s identity. While Spock and McCoy moon around over Flint’s art collection, Kirk dances and plays billiards with Rayna, with whom he is instantly smitten. While Kirk’s feelings for Rayna are over the top for such a short time period, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Rayna, when we meet her, has a personality more like Spock’s, thoughtful, logical, and highly educated. In theory, this makes Spock a better match for Rayna – when she first learns of Spock’s presence, she says, “I would like to discuss subdimensional physics with him.” The first officer is also the first member of the landing party Rayna speaks to, telling him of her interest in “field density and its relationship to gravity phenomena.” Soon, Spock reminds us of his musical ability when he performs the Brahms waltz on piano, demonstrating that he could appeal to both Rayna’s cultural and intellectual sensibilities. Yet it’s Kirk that Rayna appears to fall for. Except we can’t be certain, because, as her name implies, Rayna is a robot, built by Flint as an antidote to loneliness. We even see previous Rayna incarnations, indicating that the current version is the 17th Rayna. “Rayna” is a name of Hebrew origin that means “song of the Lord,” and if eternal life makes Flint feel like a god, Rayna is his song to himself.

“Shall we compare sizes now or later?”

Until now, Flint has primarily seen to Rayna’s intellectual development and makes it clear he considers this her primary endeavor. While Rayna appears to have no particularly strong feelings for Flint, she clearly has the capacity to express emotions. “It’s so exciting,” she says when she learns of the visiting strangers. Flint seeks Rayna’s love, but, of course, robots don’t feel love. At least, they don’t until chick-magnet Kirk comes along and incites such emotions in Rayna. Now that the sexually repressed female is is properly stimulated – wink, wink – Flint is ready to toss aside the landing party in the hope Rayna will direct her new feelings toward him. Being inexperienced in the ways of love, Rayna finds herself torn between Kirk and Flint, an emotional contradiction that essentially causes her to overload when the two men demand that she choose one of them, much the way Nomad expired when confronted with a logical contradiction. Of course, we should have seen Rayna’s death coming: in the world of TOS, it wouldn’t do to damage either Kirk’s or Flint’s fragile ego. Better for the woman to die and save the men-folk any embarrassment.

“When you say ‘sacrificial lamb,’ what does that mean, exactly?”

Kirk’s conduct is fairly primitive throughout “Requiem for Methuselah,” and this ultimately contributes to Rayna’s death. He gets off to a rough start upon arrival, when Flint tells the landing party to leave and threatens them with M-4. Does the Prime Directive permit interference if the crew’s life is at stake? We’ll never know, because Kirk never even acknowledges the Prime Directing, demanding access to ryetalyn and telling Flint, “If necessary, we’ll take it.” Later, when Flint calls the landing party “selfish” and “brutal,” revisionist Kirk tries to deny his earlier aggression: “If we were barbarians we would not have asked for ryetalyn.” Kirk is also resentful of Flint’s emotional manipulation – “You used me” – even though Kirk has used this exact kind of manipulation on others many times in the past.

Rayna assists Kirk with his pool cue

Kirk’s most grievous behavior is directed toward Rayna. First, he resists his feelings because, according to Kirk, Rayna’s greatest flaw is, “She’s not human.” It’s disappointing – but perhaps not surprising – that Kirk is so xenophobic. Once Rayna makes a half-hearted attempt to declare her independence from Flint (“I choose what I want to do. Where I want to go. I choose.”), Kirk rejoices that she is “human” after all and demands, “You love me, not Flint!” Clearly, Rayna cannot simply become human, and it is equally clear that she is confused in her feelings. Ultimately, Kirk and Flint go so low as an old-fashioned fistfight, as if Rayna is the subject of a property feud. This seems perfectly normal to Kirk, who tells Spock, “Stay out of this. We’re fighting over a woman.” The possibility of one or both men coming to harm for her affections is what drives Rayna to her end, another 23rd century woman who suffers for male pattern vanity.

Kirk and Flint demonstrate improper application of the Heimlich Maneuver

Kirk’s obsession with Rayna is pointless, and he should know that. He begs Rayna to go with him and leave Flint. Does Kirk really think Rayna will become Janice Rand 2.0, a pretty face in the background who offers the added feature of defeating Spock in 3D chess? As written, Kirk’s clinginess is preposterous enough to be humorous, but it does reflect the loneliness that defines both Kirk’s and Flint’s lives. Kirk is the top dog, captain to over four hundred individuals; Flint has his own planet with no one overseeing him. Both have a level of choice and independence few will ever experience, yet both find that freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. True “freedom,” the unrestrained ability to do whatever one feels at any given time, can only lead to isolation. “A flower dying in the desert,” is how Flint describes loneliness as Rayna puzzles over the concept. Both got the idea that Rayna was a cure for their isolation, without ever bothering to ask Rayna what she wanted. Flint needs to learn that coexisting, with one or with millions, requires compromise, and Kirk needs to learn…well, whatever he needs to learn. Maybe, for Kirk, we need a non-interference directive for romance. But Kirk at least understands the flawed reality of the human condition: “The private hells, the inner needs and mysteries, the beast of instinct. As human beings, that is the way it is. To be human is to be complex. You can’t avoid a little ugliness from within and from without.”

The doctor who should be curious about a guy who’s immortal instead wanders around aimlessly

Maybe Flint does come around, in the end. McCoy deduces that being away from earth has given Flint human mortality, and he will live out the remainder of a normal human life. We learn second-hand that Flint has dedicated his remaining years to improving “the human condition.” Such human-centric language is another show of contempt for the Federation’s diversity, a contempt McCoy reinforces in his final, blistering insult of Spock in an attempt to justify Kirk’s unrequited love:

“You’ll never know the things that love can drive a man to. The ecstasies, the miseries, the broken rules, the desperate chances, the glorious failures and the glorious victories. All of these things you’ll never know, simply because the word ‘love’ isn’t written into your book.”

Kirk likes to get a head start at nap-time

McCoy has forgotten the first officer’s loss in “Amok Time,” but Spock has not; we can see the heartbreak in Spock’s eyes. The final shot, when Spock puts his hand to a sleeping Kirk and says, “Forget,” is touching and will be beautifully mirrored thirteen years later when Spock tells McCoy to “Remember.” But the moment deserves the support of a more appropriate episode. Kirk’s love for Edith Keeler in “The City On the Edge of Forever” made sense, his infatuation with Rayna does not. Kirk may experience feelings of isolation, but friendship is one of Star Trek’s defining characteristics. The closing scene, with McCoy and Spock both desiring to help their friend, reminds us what Flint gave up by leaving the “unpleasantness of earth.” For all the love our brave trio may have lost over the years, it is, as always, their friendship that makes them strong. Anyone can remind us of the bad times. To escape the past and move forward requires a true friend.

Next: The Way to Eden

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