(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 21, 1969
Crew Death Count: 0 (but two members of the Eden-seeking utopians perish)
Bellybuttons: 1 (Chekov’s old flame, Irina)
“The Way to Eden,” like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and, heaven help us, “Spock’s Brain,” is a third season TOS episode that deserves more credit than it generally gets. This week, the Enterprise is in pursuit of the stolen space cruiser Aurora. This is a similar opening premise as “Mudd’s Women” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” so we know the Aurora’s occupants will be no ordinary thieves. When the Aurora’s engines overload, the crew is beamed onto the Enterprise just in time. The hijackers are a group of six renegades generally referred to within Star Trek fandom as “space hippies.” I’ll refer to the group as “Edenites” because they seek the mythical planet of Eden, a paradise where they hope to live a communal existence free of Federation technology and interference.
“We weren’t meant for paradise” is one of TOS’ recurring themes. Any episode that begins with a search for paradise is bound to end in disappointment because, if nothing else, the indifferent universe is always changing, so any place that seems perfect today may turn hostile tomorrow. The planet’s name of Eden is an odd choice, readily accessible to earth-bound 1960s TV audiences but presumably less obvious to galactic inhabitants of the 23rd century. At least two of the Edenites are not even from earth, including their leader, Dr. Sevrin (Skip Homeier, previously seen in “Patterns of Force”), a former academic from the planet Tiburon. We don’t learn about the source of the Eden legend, only that the establishment – most closely represented by Kirk – refuses to take it seriously. The Edenites, in keeping with the episode’s air date, are clearly intended to represent the counterculture youth of the 1960s – despite the fact that at least two of the actors playing the Edenites, Homeier and Charles (Adam) Napier, were well over thirty when “The Way to Eden” aired.
The Enterprise crew doesn’t know what to make of the Edenites, just as the country sometimes didn’t know what to make of the counterculture at the time. Some, like Spock, understand (or “reach,” in the Edenites’ slang) the group’s intent, even if they don’t fully agree; Spock claims the Edenites feel “a profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmospheres. They hunger for an Eden where spring comes.” Having seen the discrimination Spock faces, we understand why he sympathizes with the rebels: “They regard themselves as aliens in their own world, a condition with which I am somewhat familiar.” Sulu is so intrigued by the Edenites that he almost seems ready to jump ship and join them. The normally compassionate Chapel, on the other hand, shocks us with her intense dislike of the Edenites: “I thought all the animals were kept in cages.” Chekov, who in previous episodes has shirked his duties to chase skirts and has proven downright mutinous under extreme circumstances, comes across here as a committed establishment recruit. He had a prior romantic involvement with one of the Edenites, Irina (Mary Linda Rapelye), who left both Starfleet and Chekov for wilder pastures. My sense is that Chekov’s sudden career devotion is not about loyalty so much as an attempt to suppress resentment that he didn’t follow Irina’s more rebellious path. “I believe in what I do,” Chekov says in a fairly transparent attempt at self-validation.
Kirk has an abstract curiosity about the group – “The cave is deep in our memory” – and tries to demonstrate a little sympathy. When Scott calls the Edenites “troublemakers,” Kirk points out, “I used to get into a little trouble when I was that age, Scotty, didn’t you?” (This scene will be revisited in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), when Scott expresses skepticism about the whiz-bang Excelsior, and Kirk playfully responds, “Come, come, Mr. Scott. Young minds, fresh ideas. Be tolerant.”) But the captain has orders to follow and a schedule to keep, so he’s not inclined to humor these spacecraft thieves. This makes Kirk a “Herbert,” or someone “notorious for his rigid and limited patterns of thought.” (The “Herbert” insult was the idea of production executive Douglas S. Cramer, and may or may not have been directed at Cramer’s predecessor on TOS, Herbert F. Solow.) Of the entire crew, only Spock volunteers to help, using Enterprise computer resources to locate a planet that fits Eden’s description. “I believe in what you seek,” he tells Adam.
The Edenites themselves are a contradictory bunch. They appear to seek unity: their emblem is an egg with an infinity symbol superimposed on the yolk; they offer greetings like “One” and “We are one,” implying a connection between life throughout the universe. They seem sincere in their desire to escape the Federation’s artificiality, and for Sevrin the quest is personal: he suffers from synthococcus novae, a bacteria that evolved recently in the very conditions the Edenites seek to escape: “Our aseptic, sterilized civilizations produced it,” McCoy says. Vaccination is possible but the bacteria is deadly to the non-immunized. Sevrin blames “civilization” as promoted by the Federation for his infection: “This stuff you breathe, this stuff you live in. The shields of artificial atmosphere that we have layered about every planet. The programs in those computers that run your ship and your lives for you. They bred what my body carries.” Synthococcus novae reminds us of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria; while Legionnaires’ disease wasn’t documented until 1976, the bacteria does thrive in artificial environments like central air conditioning systems, humidifiers, whirlpools, and ice-making machines. And if you’ve ever seen “pink mold” in a residential bathroom, it was probably Serratia marcescens, another bacteria that thrives in warm, moist conditions and has the potential to cause urinary tract infections, respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and other conditions. These examples are the tip of the iceberg and don’t address such civilizing human achievements as carcinogenic food additives, the proliferation of microplastics in the environment, and toxic personal care products. So we should not be dismissive of Sevrin’s claim or the larger concern that our own built environment may encourage pathogens.
The Edenites seem like harmless hippies on the surface: they stage a jam session in the rec room with Spock joining in on his Vulcan lyre. (Many viewers object to the music in “The Way to Eden,” but I think Adam sings some groovy tunes.) Yet they still rely on privilege that others of similar purpose may not enjoy. Kirk makes it clear the group would be in the brig if he weren’t under orders to provide special treatment as a courtesy to Tongo Rad (Victor Brandt), son of the Catullan ambassador to the Federation. As a result, the Edenites have nearly free reign of the Enterprise, a freedom they exploit to gather intelligence on the ship’s operations. When the group takes over the Enterprise via the auxiliary control room, however, it feels less like an outcome of Federation kindness and more like another example of the ship’s pathetic security. By now, we’ve lost count of how many times the Enterprise has been hijacked. And how are ships throughout the Federation so easily stolen?
While the Edenites talk of “reaching” and being “one,” they demonstrate an inflexibility that ultimately manifests itself in attempted homicide and their own self-destruction. Sevrin attempts to hide his synthococcus novae diagnosis by resisting a physical by McCoy. He calls the exam, and the isolation resulting from his diagnosis, “an infringement on my rights,” with no regard for how his disease carrier status might affect others. (Sound familiar?) While Sevrin’s general complaint – that the establishment has declared him guilty of a crime of its own invention – has definite merit, his ability to harm others makes this the wrong time to rebel over it. Worse, Sevrin shows equal apathy for the indigenous society he hopes to find on Eden. “Only the primitives can cleanse me” he says, not only carrying on the Western stereotype of the “mystical native,” but pursuing his own self-interest at the expense of the same unvaccinated culture he expects to save him. It is at this point that Spock, while still sympathetic to the search for Eden, concludes that Sevrin is insane. (How progressive, to determine someone insane for their refusal to exercise simple precautions that will spare the lives of others!) If Spock’s diagnosis seems harsh, consider Sevrin’s willingness to disable the Enterprise crew with a sonic pulse that he knows will be potentially fatal. Or the fact that Sevrin, once in control and believing he has found Eden, steers the Enterprise across the Neutral Zone and into Romulan territory.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the Edenites’ inconsistencies. Many of the Vietnam War protesters of the TOS era grew up to be the blood-thirsty anti-vaxxers and civil rights opponents of the 21st century. “We recognize no authority save that within ourselves,” Sevrin says. The people we think of as peace-loving hippies were, oftentimes, not protesting the war itself but rather any institution that might impose on their freedom, in this case by means of a military draft. And while they and their children may have gone off the rails with conspiracy theories and violent tendencies, their fear of institutional repression is understandable. Whether represented by Big Education, Big Pharma, or the military/industrial complex, the same “establishment” that gave us the Vietnam War also gave us the “forever war” in Afghanistan, human-induced climate change, mountains of student debt, and an ethically bankrupt healthcare system. Lewis Mumford recognized this when wrote about the anti-war movement in The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (1970):
“[T]hey realize that their elders have participated, despite their sanctimonious avowals, in the obscene rites of a Witches’ Sabbath – terminating in a series of collective blood sacrifices, those same irrational sacrifices that have monotonously punctuated the annals of human history and have desecrated man’s highest achievements. … Unfortunately, the revolt is not merely against their elders: it has become, in fact, a revolt against all history culture – not merely against an over-powered technology and an over-specialized, misapplied intelligence, but against any high manifestations of the mind.”
Seen in that light, it’s easier to understand the Edenites’ willingness to go to any length to escape the “artificial atmospheres” of the Federation. “The Way to Eden” shows us the Federation from an outsider’s perspective and demonstrates that the Federation might not be the trouble-free culture we’re inclined to imagine. We might even speculate that the Federation labels Eden a myth to discourage anyone who might stray from the status quo. Either way, long before they committed any criminal acts, the Edenites were destined to be labeled fanatics: “normality” is defined by those in power, who will declare anyone who disputes them to be extremists or terrorists.
We may wonder, as suggested by the Mission Log Podcast, why the Edenites couldn’t just go to Omicron Ceti III from “This Side of Paradise.” But becoming subject to the plant spores of that planet would just be another form of institutional control, defying the premise of Eden. Regardless, we know the Edenites’ are destined for heartbreak. Not only is the Eden identified by Sevrin located in hostile Romulan territory, but the planet’s vegetation contains deadly levels of acid. In the episode’s most painful act of symbolism, the ineptly-named Adam dies while eating freshly-picked fruit, paying a more immediate price than the Biblical Adam after he sampled fruit from the tree of knowledge. The good news is that this is the one moment when the Federation distinguishes itself – Kirk and his crew risk their own safety to rescue the Edenites when they are in trouble.
The Moby Dick-like obsession with finding a mythical utopia will be better portrayed in the season two Deep Space Nine episode “Sanctuary” and, of all places, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). Still, we can take comfort in the fact that at least Spock and Chekov are a little wiser in the end, along with the four surviving Edenites. In the 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (gasp!), Oscar Wilde wrote:
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
No doubt this is Spock’s message when he urges Irina and her group to continue their Eden-quest: “I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves.” Not the fully-formed Eden of their imagination, certainly, but a place free of the “planned communities” they find so soul-crushing. Chekov and Irina part company with a sort of compromise: Chekov agrees to be “incorrect” occasionally while Irina agrees to be “correct” occasionally. In other words, Eden must exist somewhere between the Federation’s artifice and the Edenites’ self-indulgence. Everything changes, according to Buddhists, and our relationship with Eden can be no different. “We weren’t meant for paradise” means that sometimes we have to accept our world today. That doesn’t mean we should give up the struggle to make a better world tomorrow and every tomorrow after, an ongoing realization of Utopias where spring will finally come.
Next: The Cloud Minders