Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: By Any Other Name

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: February 23, 1968

Crew Death Count: 1 (Poor Yeoman Thompson, TOS’ only female red-shirt death)

Bellybuttons: 0

Imagine “Catspaw” without the Medieval trappings, with better wardrobe, and with aliens who have a clearly defined purpose. Throw in a Shakespeare reference and tribble-sized Styrofoam blocks, and you’ve got “By Any Other Name.” This week, the Enterprise is caught by that classic Star Trek ruse, a distress call. Arriving at an unnamed planet, the landing party of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Lieutenant Shea (Carl Byrd), and Yeoman Thompson (Julie Cobb) finds five members of the Kelvan Empire, located in the Andromeda Galaxy. After traveling to our galaxy in a generational ship in search of new worlds to conquer, the Kelvan ship was destroyed by the great barrier surrounding our galaxy. The surviving Kelvans have been waiting here to commandeer a passing ship like the Enterprise. They plan on taking the Enterprise and her crew back to the Andromeda Galaxy on a journey that will take three hundred years. The premise is reminiscent of Voyager with a sinister objective.

Kelvan women favor the same backless attire as women throughout our own galaxy

“By Any Other Name” features a couple of fun callbacks to previous episodes. The Enterprise crossed the galactic barrier in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but this time the ship somehow passes through the barrier without suffering the same damage as in that prior adventure. Also, when the landing party is imprisoned on the planet’s surface, Spock attempts a through-the-wall telepathic probe as he did so well in “A Taste of Armageddon.” The result is less successful than that earlier mission, getting him mind-zapped and thrown across the room thanks to the Kelvans mental fortitude, but ultimately produces the desired result of distracting Kelinda (Barbara Bouchet).

Spock’s mind probe technique rarely gets him past the first date

The Kelvans are an intriguing group and I wish we’d had more time to learn about them. During his brief telepathic contact with Kelinda, Spock gets images of “colors, shapes, mathematical equations fused and blurred.” He senses that the Kelvans are really very large with a hundred tentacle-like limbs. It’s a compelling description that adheres to the show’s limited budget while still indicating how different from us alien life would look. The Kelvans’ humanoid appearance is something they have adopted to better function in a humanoid ship. They are conquerors by nature and initially reject Kirk’s offer of help from the Federation, preferring to lead than co-exist: “There’s no other way for us.” The group’s leader, Rojan (Warren Stevens), describes his people as highly disciplined and willing to make great sacrifices to achieve their objectives. The Kelvans’ only real source of power comes from their nifty Bat-utility-belts, which generate a neural paralyzing field that freezes the Enterprise crew in their tracks, or worse, reduces them to small foam-like cuboctahedrons. Yeoman Thompson dies when she is downsized and crushed by Rojan as an example to the rest of the landing party. Most of the Enterprise crew is reduced to these shapes to minimize resistance to the Kelvans. “Their only hold on us is the paralysis field,” Kirk says, determining that gaining possession of those devices should be the crew’s objective.

That’s the driest acting I’ve ever seen

The Kelvans arrived on a generation ship, an interstellar vessel that is home to multiple generations of travelers, so that the people who arrive at the destination are descendants of those who began the voyage. The generation ship is a popular concept in both science-fiction and scientific speculation, allowing voyages to distant worlds without exceeding the speed of light. The first known reference to a generation ship came from Robert H. Goddard in 1918. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora is one of my favorite generation ship stories. In “By Any Other Name,” the Kelvans’ ship traveled faster-than-light, but still needed three hundred years to get here from a galaxy that is 2.5 million light years from our own. This is crucial to understanding the Kelvans, because not only have they assumed unfamiliar forms, but they are far removed from their own species and all the cultural influence associated with it. Early in the episode, Rojan complains about the open spaces of the planet they’ve occupied. He says the enclosed living space of a ship, “the comforting closeness of walls,” is more suited to his people, but he’s really talking about his own small band, not native-born Kelvans. If nature and nurture are essential to making us what we are, the Kelvans lack both, possessing at most a knowledge database that presumably perished along with their ship.

“You know what this place needs? Luxury condos.”

The Kelvans’ cultural isolation magnifies the effects of inhabiting human-shaped bodies that confuse them with a range of new sensations and emotions. The physiological basis for all of this is vague, but seems to relate to the new bodies distracting the Kelvans from their usual mental discipline. “These shells in which we’ve encased ourselves,” Rojan says, “they have such heightened senses: to feel, to hear, to smell. How do humans manage to exist in these fragile cases?” The Kelvans’ transformation is well-portrayed and has clearly begun by the time the Enterprise arrives. Despite Rojan’s complaint about the wide open spaces of the planet, his sidekick Hanar (Stewart Moss) is clearly intrigued: “It is an undisciplined environment. One cannot control it. Yet there are things of interest.” Tomar (Robert Fortier) is introduced to food soon after he arrives on the Enterprise, and he finds it quite delicious. Kelinda also notices the planetary scenery, too distracted by flowers to hear Rojan’s talk of discipline. This is the source of the episode’s title. When Kelinda asks Kirk the term for these plants (flowers), she describes similar growth on Kelva – something she knows of only from memory tapes – called “sahsheer.” Kirk quotes the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” A flower retains its qualities regardless of what we call it. Similarly, the would-be invaders may call themselves Kelvans, but they’ve taken on human form and chosen the company of humans: they will share human traits, like it or not.

Enjoy it now because one day Neelix will be cooking

While the initial plan, to capture the Kelvans’ utility belts, never comes to fruition, it gets us to the true resolution, where Kirk and Rojan settle their differences like manly men – with a fistfight – before agreeing to the very plan Rojan rejected earlier: assistance from the Federation in finding a habitable planet and an unmanned probe sent to Kelva with the good news. Earlier, as they approach the galactic barrier, Scott and Spock devise a scheme to blow up the Enterprise and foil the Kelvans plan. Much is made of Kirk’s rejection of the idea; based on his past behavior, most assume Kirk would have jumped at the chance. Besides the fact that it would abruptly end the series, we should consider that Kirk’s previous self-destruction threats might have been bluffs. The captain is proud to have “tricked my way out of death” and might never be prepared to sacrifice his ship or his crew. Kirk is quite consistent in his treatment of women, however. After Spock distracts Kelinda with telepathic contact, Kirk knocks her unconscious with a karate chop to the shoulder. Later, attempting to seduce Kelinda (more on that shortly), Kirk tells her, “I don’t usually go around beating up beautiful women.” (Tough luck, ugly women!) I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, his denial of past behavior, or Kelinda’s response: “Why not?” In fairness, Kelinda sees the assault as business and not personal, telling Kirk, “You attempted to escape as we would have.”

Kirk begs Kelinda not to run a background check

The only crew members who don’t get neutralized are, conveniently, the precise ones we need to save the day: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scott. The men agree on a strategy of over-stimulating the already off-kilter Kelvans, then each proceeds to his own specialty: Kirk – sex, McCoy – drugs, Scott – alcohol, Spock – gaslighting. McCoy administers stimulants to make Hanar so irritable he questions Rojan’s leadership. Scott introduces Tomar to drunk-and-disorderly conduct, inevitable, perhaps, as “tomar” is the Spanish verb “to drink.” (Am I the only one troubled by how much liquor the engineer has stashed in his quarters?) Kirk seduces Kelinda as easily as he seduced Sylvia in “Catspaw.” And Spock gives Rojan insight into the human condition, telling him over a game of 3D chess, “Humans are very peculiar. I often find them unfathomable. But an interesting psychological study.” The first officer throws in some remarks designed to incite jealousy, the emotion that finally provokes Rojan to attack Kirk and paving the way for a solution. In a nice twist on human exceptionalism, the crew has effectively demonstrated human superiority by proving the inferiority of human vices.

Spock resorts to psychological abuse to win a 3D chess match

The resolution is a little too easy, but underscores the inevitable transformation that will affect a generation ship’s crew, or long-term inhabitants of any home-away-from-home. Rojan might see the Federation as his enemy, but he hasn’t considered how his human-influenced descendants will appear to native-born Kelvans. “Look what’s happened to you in the short time you’ve been exposed to us,” Kirk says. “What do you think will happen in three centuries? When this ship gets to Kelva, the people on it will be human. They’ll be aliens, enemies.” By any other name, they will no longer be Kelvans. It only takes a moment for Rojan to transform from invader to friend, not the result of a simple name change, but a different way of behaving. When he agrees to give up his conquering ways and cohabit the galaxy peacefully, Rojan demonstrates the point of the episode’s title: character is established by substance, not jargon or terminology. Friends and allies aren’t determined by skin color, gender or sexual orientation, or religious vernacular. When our intent and actions are true, we can live in peace and turn to Shakespeare once again: “I count myself in nothing else so happy / As in a soul remembering my good friends.”

Next: The Omega Glory