Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Elaan of Troyius

(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: December 20, 1968

Crew Death Count: 1 (an engineering officer is killed by Elaan’s bodyguard)

Bellybuttons: 0 (but Elaan wears some pretty kinky outfits)

“Elaan of Troyius” has some of the same elements of “Journey to Babel”: a mix of feuding interstellar representative on board the Enterprise, surveillance by a mysterious alien vessel, and Kirk taking the Enterprise into battle while physically impaired. So if you enjoyed “Journey to Babel,” you should definitely watch that episode again, because “Elaan of Troyius” doesn’t hold up very well. This week, the Enterprise is assigned to transport Elaan (France Nuyen), Dohlman of the planet Elas, to the planet Troyius (as in “Helen of” – so clever!), in the company of the Troyian ambassador Petri (Jay Robinson). Troyius and Elan, two planets in the same star system, are at war, and Elaan has been promised to the Troyian king in the hope that royal matrimony will bring peace. Petri’s job is to train Elaan on Troyian customs and etiquette so she can be a more suitable queen for the people. Meanwhile, a Klingon ship attacks the Enterprise, hoping to scare away the Federation so the Klingons can claim the dilithium crystals that are plentiful in the system.

Disco meets ancient Egypt

As happened too often in TOS, “Elaan of Troyius” has intriguing elements but never really comes together. The episode borrows heavily from two plays by Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew and Antony and Cleopatra, not exactly among Shakespeare’s most inspiring works. In The Taming of the Shrew, poor Kate is gaslighted by the boorish Petruchio (Petri…Petruchio…get it?) until she becomes blindly obedient. In Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony shirks duty to his homeland Rome to pursue his love for Cleopatra, who betrays him. (In real life, Mark Antony claimed to have fallen in love with Cleopatra when she was only fourteen years old and he was twenty-eight.) Obedience and betrayal are central to “Elaan of Troyius,” and we the viewers are among those who deserve to feel betrayed.

A moment of silence before the train wreck begins

Petri is the only Troyian we meet, so we can only speculate to what extent he represents his people. His skin is a similar shade of green as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939). Despite the hostilities between Petri’s planet and Elas, he goes out of his way to be courteous to Elaan and makes a sincere effort to persuade her to cooperate. He soon withers in the face of Elaan’s hostility, telling Kirk, “We cannot make peace with people we detest.” (Kirk’s advice only works if both parties agree: “Stop trying to kill each other. Then worry about being friendly.”) Petri finally throws in the towel after the Dohlman stabs him with the dagger she always wears on her arm, forcing Kirk to step into the role of trainer because apparently there is no one else qualified on a ship that regularly undertakes diplomatic missions and carries over four hundred crew members.

Elaan’s behavior would turn off most reasonable people except, perhaps, Klingons and other Elasians. The Federation’s advance investigation of the culture indicates that Elasian men are “vicious and arrogant” and the women have “a kind of subtle, mystical power that drives men wild.” The “mystical power” turns out to be a biochemical property in their tears. As Petri tells Chapel: “A man whose flesh is once touched by the tears of a women of Elas has his heart enslaved forever.” Knowing this, it’s inevitable that Elaan will get all teary-eyed and need to be consoled by Kirk. The tears don’t seem to have the overwhelming impact we were promised, however. While Kirk is clearly in a mental fog, he never abandons his duty. When Elaan puts forth a bizarre plan to use the Enterprise to destroy Troyius and take Kirk as her king, he doesn’t even consider it. Maybe the tears have some evolutionary purpose; given Elaan’s crude conduct, one can imagine Elasian women might struggle to find mates otherwise.

McCoy and Spock don’t even pretend to be surprised any more

A bigger question is why an Asian woman was cast in the role of the thuggish warrior-wannabe who attacks her food like an animal and complains obsessively? Let’s hope there was no discriminatory “Orientalism” behind the decision. The Dohlman’s bodyguards don’t appear Asian, unlike France Nuyen, born in France of a French mother and Vietnamese father. And if the Elasian guards look like they stole their uniforms from a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, that’s because they did: plastic place mats were the primary component for their costumes. Along the way, Uhura also gets slighted, as she is forced (“volunteers”) to give up her quarters for Elaan, who only complains about the generosity. As often as the Enterprise hosts visitors, it’s a mystery why there are no formal guest quarters on the ship.

Uhura perfects the “Oh, no, she didn’t” look

Beyond Uhura’s generosity, Spock and McCoy also perform well in “Elaan of Troyius.” Spock helps disable Elaan’s overzealous guards when they try to keep Kirk out of her quarters. McCoy saves Petri after Elaan stabs him. (Conversely, as soon as McCoy learns about Elaan’s aphrodisiac tears, he should put out a ship-wide alert, but doesn’t.) Both keep Kirk on task when he’s distracted by Elaan’s crocodile love tears. Kirk, on the other hand, is generally a disappointment, at least during the first half of the episode. Just before Elaan and company beam up, he asks, “What the devil’s a Dohlman?” As if we should expect other cultures to use the same tired old titles earthlings are accustomed to. I don’t know if security on the Enterprise is ultimately Kirk’s responsibility or a matter of Starfleet protocol, but I’m going to blame Kirk. Elaan’s bodyguards beam up with weapons drawn and generally bully the crew members they come in contact with. Elaan is allowed to keep her dagger even after she nearly kills Petri. Elaan’s primary bodyguard, Kryton (Tony Young), turns out to be collaborating with the Klingons – he kills an engineering crewman and easily sabotages the ship’s engines, causing the destruction of the dilithium crystals.

Three Grand Slams to go!

Those dilithium crystals pose another plot challenge. In the prologue, Scott claims the Elas/Troyius system is “under Federation control,” while Spock describes it as a border area and “the Klingons also claim jurisdiction.” (That sounds a lot like America’s view of South Vietnam in 1968!) Whatever the system’s status, for the Enterprise to be this involved, the crew should be better prepared for the hostilities between the two societies. And we can’t help but be disappointed with the plot twist in which Elaan’s necklace, the necklace Petri has been trying to persuade her to wear the entire episode, turns out to be made of dilithium crystals, the very dilithium crystals the Enterprise needs to achieve warp speed, which are so plentiful in this system they are considered trinkets. Either Scott was talking out of his warp nacelles with that “control” comment, or the Federation hasn’t done its homework. The abundance of dilithium crystals explains why both the Klingons and Federation are interested in the system, but that doesn’t hold up if the Federation doesn’t know about the crystals in the first place. Petri tells Kirk early on, “Failure of this mission would be as catastrophic for Federation planning as it would be for our two planets.” Yet he seems as surprised as anyone else that dilithium crystals are important to the Federation. So what is the intent of the statement? We’ll never know.

“It’s a lovely necklace, Jim, but it doesn’t match my eyes.”

Even worse is the episode’s obvious misogyny. We might consider forgiving Kirk for slapping Elaan only because she slaps him first. Kirk threatens to spank Elaan as one might a child, which is not a threat we take seriously, until he becomes infatuated by Elaan’s tears and the idea of spanking is discussed in a kinkier context. But we can’t so easily forgive his attitude toward women in general. “The women on your planet are logical,” he tells Spock. “That’s the only planet in this galaxy that can make that claim.” I’m not sure what’s worse, that this is Kirk’s attitude, or that we’re no longer surprised by it. At the same time, Elaan’s character adheres to one stereotype in the episode’s first half, and a different stereotype in the second half. Up until the moment she infects Kirk, Elaan is the jungle savage in need of conversion by a white (or green) savior. Once Kirk dries her tears and becomes smitten, Elaan turns into the swooning female who may or may not be manipulating Kirk with her words of love. She clearly understands the effect her tears will have on Kirk. We’re never entirely sure if Elaan is truly infatuated with Kirk – he is the only one to take a (literally) firm hand with her – or if she just sees him as a means to consolidate power and escape the arranged marriage she’s been shanghaied into. Right up to the very end, when Elaan tears up as she beams down to Troyius, we’re not sure if her sadness is caused by leaving Kirk or finally meeting her fate.

Iron Fist

“Elaan of Troyius” goes beyond the garden-variety TOS misogyny, however. Elaan is essentially being sent into slavery, and no one even thinks to question the premise. Like “Mudd’s Women,” a woman’s future will be decided entirely by a group of men. It would be different if Elaan went into the marriage voluntarily, as a means of restoring peace to her planet, or if she were a willing participant in an arranged marriage according to cultural custom. Years ago, I had a coworker who was in an arranged marriage. I asked him if that didn’t lead to a lot of unhappy couples, considering their partners had been selected by their families. He told me it was just the opposite, that when families arranged marriages for their children, the result was often a more stable marriage because the spouses had compatible educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’m not making a full endorsement for arranged marriages, but the conversation did help open my mind on the subject.

We never learn the Troyian king’s perspective (Elaan refers to him as “a green pig”), but Elaan makes no secret of her opposition to her pending marriage, and not one person thinks about trying to save her from this fate. “I will never forgive the [Elasian] council for putting me through this torture,” she says. Later, even after his infection by Elaan’s tears, Kirk remains committed to delivering the chattel bride: “My orders and yours say that you belong to another man.” In the final scene, Elaan surrenders her dagger in a symbolic gesture: it is a laying down of arms, a sign that peace is at hand; it is also an act of submission, showing that she, like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, has surrendered her individuality and will resist no further. It’s a ghastly situation treated almost as a joke, just as the “war” between the two planets is glossed over as little more than an inconvenience.

All in the Starship Family

“Elaan of Troyius” has a few redeeming qualities but they never add up to a satisfying story. When Elaan expresses her hatred for Troyians, Kirk advises patience: “It’s been my experience that the prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.” Kirk also offers a moment of genuine courage; he shows no fear in being considered a coward by Elaan if he can escape the Klingon warship without bloodshed: “If I can accomplish my mission by turning tail and running, I’ll gladly do that.” And “Elaan of Troyius” is the only TOS episode, to my knowledge, to end with a shot of all seven series principals on the bridge. Even though the big three were the only ones with substantial roles in this episode, this closing image reminds us how Kirk’s sense of duty overpowered the biochemical properties of Elaan’s tears. When Spock says, “The Enterprise infected the captain long before the Dohlman did,” we understand he refers not just to the physical vessel but her crew, these people Kirk relies on so often. Neither Elaan nor Petri seem to have absorbed this lesson by the time they leave: marriage and family are not means to an end, but the one true mission.

Next: Whom Gods Destroy