Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Metamorphosis

(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: November 10, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0

We take a bit of a nostalgia trip this week in “Metamorphosis.” The prologue returns us to the shuttlecraft Galileo – except with a more spacious interior than it had in “The Galileo Seven” – with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy escorting Assistant Federation Commissioner Hedford (Elinor Donahue) to the Enterprise for emergency medical care. Hedford contracted a life-threatening illness during negotiations to prevent a war from breaking out. (Why is the Enterprise so far from the away team? Who knows?) En route, the shuttle is hijacked by an unknown force and crash-lands on an unnamed planetoid. The crew encounters Zefram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett), “discoverer of the space warp,” and the hijacker itself, a disembodied electric field Cochrane refers to as the Companion (voiced by Elizabeth Rogers, who also played communications officer Lieutenant Palmer in “The Doomsday Machine”). Cochrane tells the away team he had gone to space to die as an old man; the Companion found him, de-aged him in less time than it takes to watch The Irishman, and has kept him healthy and ageless for 150 years. The Companion has grown attached to Cochrane, “almost a symbiosis,” as McCoy describes it; rather than release Cochrane, hungry for company from his own kind, the Companion intends the away team to remain indefinitely to be his friends.

It’s so roomy!

Cochrane’s back story will be provided in Star Trek: First Contact (1996), where he will be played by James Cromwell. As much as I admire Cromwell, I much prefer the character as depicted in “Metamorphosis.” Cochrane here has more of the serious demeanor I expect from the person who gave humans the ability to explore the galaxy. A little time is spent reflecting on Cochrane’s history – mostly via Kirk tempting him with how much has changed over the years – but I would have liked more of this. The Federation exists because of Cochrane’s invention, which means that without him, Kirk and company would be stuck on earth, probably living out their lives as the crew of The Love Boat. Imagine Neil Armstrong meeting Albert Einstein. The crew has met a profound figure in their history and this deserves a few moments of reflection.

Competing Cochranes

Throughout the episode, I found myself wondering if Cochrane carried any burden for his historic achievement. Did he feel pride or guilt at making the galaxy both much larger and much smaller? J. Robert Oppenheimer suffered terrible remorse after participating in development of the atomic bomb. On the other hand, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay continued living lives of relative adventure after making the first confirmed conquest of Mount Everest, while the ascent of Everest today is so overcrowded that climbers step over the bodies of others who died in the attempt. Perhaps the jet aircraft engine is a more apt comparison. Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain developed the jet engine simultaneously and independently. While Ohain’s design was tested first, he is widely believed to have relied on Whittle’s earlier work. Whittle found the experience so stressful, he took to smoking three packs of cigarettes per day while suffering from indigestion, insomnia, heart palpitations, and other ailments. Similarly, Cochrane’s warp drive has opened up the galaxy to unimaginable opportunities, but also allowed the colonial Federation to impact societies that were probably better left alone. All we really learn about his past is that he was an old man, dying from unspecified causes, and went to space because that’s where he wanted to die. Was Cochrane haunted by celebrity? Or did he feel more at home among the stars than his own people? Again, I wanted “Metamorphosis” to explore this, but the timeframe of a one-hour network series didn’t allow it.

Let’s see Matt Damon in The Martian build a house this nice.

The Companion is central to the story, not only as an alien life form, but in terms of its relationship with both Cochrane and Hedford. We never learn why only one Companion exists, or the full extent of its abilities. The Companion is capable of leaving the planet – as it does in the prologue to abduct the away team – but apparently can’t transport Cochrane with it. Cochrane reports that a damping field around the planet prevents propulsion systems from operating (“Power systems don’t work.”); the Companion is causing this field, but why doesn’t it also affect tricorders and other power equipment? And why does the Companion attack Spock when he tries to revive the Galileo if the shuttle won’t operate anyway? The Companion refers to “the maker of all things,” so it either has religious beliefs or it knows something we don’t. We’re led to believe that the Companion is essentially immortal as long as it remains on the planet (how does that work?), so it takes a significantly long-term view. It intends the away team to remain with Cochrane indefinitely but makes no effort to communicate with them as it does Cochrane. Just as the Enterprise crew views aliens from a human perspective, the Companion clearly has limited understanding of the adaptability of other species. If it truly wanted companionship for Cochrane, negotiating a Federation outpost seems a logical solution: Federation personnel could reside there without being trapped, and they could research the Companion and its extraordinary life-giving abilities.

Cochrane and the Companion fool aro- er, communicate

Kirk, on the other hand, shows little insight into humans or the Companion. He quickly focuses on neutralizing the Companion in order to escape, rather than opening a dialogue, forgetting the whole “seek out new life and new civilizations” mission. Only after he and Spock are nearly killed by the Companion does Kirk listen to his senior officers. McCoy offers a pep talk to remind Kirk that he is not only a soldier, but also a diplomat. McCoy’s suggestion, “Why not try a carrot instead of a stick?” reminds Kirk that they have a universal translator (which looks surprisingly like a lightsaber). Once Spock has made the necessary modifications to communicate with the Companion, he urges Kirk to ask it about “its nature, its history,” but Kirk remains overly focused on the mission and says, “This isn’t the time.”

We’ll pretend the midichlorians never happened.

Kirk’s insight into the human condition is equally inconsistent. He tries to convince the Companion that Cochrane will “cease to exist” if forced to remain on the planet alone. (Cochrane says the same thing, but that’s a ruse to get the Companion to release him. It backfires when the Companion hijacks the Galileo instead.) Kirk says, “Our species can only survive if we have obstacles to overcome.” He’s ignoring the fact that Cochrane has already lived out 150 years in exactly those conditions. Despite legitimate complaints of boredom and loneliness, Cochrane appears to be doing just fine.

And Jar Jar Binks, too.

Kirk’s other boneheaded attitude gets into the episode’s primary weakness, a mindset of outdated and human-centric gender identities. The universal translator somehow makes a distinction between male and female and attributes a female voice to the Companion. Why, or how, a language translator would attempt to assess a speaker’s gender makes no sense. Kirk says, “The idea of male and female are universal constants.” There’s a disturbing implication here that not only is the universe limited to binary genders, but that a speaker’s gender determines the validity of their content. This is the most barbaric expression of gender-based ignorance displayed throughout “Metamorphosis,” perhaps in the entire series. For example, Hedford is portrayed as a stereotypical nagging female from the start (in fairness, this could be blamed on her illness and the stress of diplomatic negotiations). She also operates the beverage dispenser on the Galileo to distribute drinks (I hope it’s coffee!) to the crew, and Kirk expresses condescension toward Hedford’s mission, as if preventing wars is lowly women’s work. For that matter, why is Hedford only an assistant commissioner, when male diplomats get fancy titles like galactic high commissioner? At the end, when Hedford has merged with the Companion (more on this later), Kirk remains dismissive, saying, “I’m sure the Federation can find another woman somewhere who will stop that war.” Does he consider women easier to replace than men? Hedford isn’t the only woman to be slighted in “Metamorphosis.” In scenes on the Enterprise, Uhura is forced to look frightened and ask a series of uninformed questions (“How are we going to follow them?”), purely to give Scott room to provide exposition.

Doctor Knows Best

Cochrane is as clumsy as Kirk on matters of gender. When he meets the away team, he calls Hedford “food to a starving man,” and offers her a hot bath. He is oblivious to Hedford’s imminent death, as if he doesn’t even notice her suffering. For a century and a half he has interacted with the Companion in mutual respect, if not friendship. Yet he is outraged when he learns the Companion is a female that feels love for him, as if he can’t accept either possibility: that he carried on a friendship with a woman, or that an alien life form loves him. The away team, with the experience of numerous first contacts, brings Cochrane up to speed. Spock calls Cochrane’s reaction “A totally parochial attitude.” McCoy defends the premise of interspecies fraternization: “There’s nothing disgusting about it,” he tells Cochrane. “It’s just another life form, that’s all.” It took me a couple of viewings of “Metamorphosis” to realize this scene is probably about interracial marriage. While Kirk, Spock, and McCoy defend the relationship, racial purist Cochrane complains, “Is this what the future holds? Men who have no notion of decency or morality?” Many U.S. states still banned interracial marriage in the 1960s, until the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virgina only five months before “Metamorphosis” aired. Alabama ignored the Supreme Court ruling until 1970, and didn’t adapt its state laws to conform with federal requirements until 2000. Sadly, Kirk later backtracks on the subject, telling the Companion she can never really experience love with Cochrane because they are so different.

Later, when the Companion merges with Hedford, now recovered thanks to the Companion’s healing ability, Cochrane does an about face: romance with the Companion in the form of an attractive woman suddenly appeals to him. Cochrane is likewise backwards on the subject of immortality. He says, “Immortality consists largely of boredom,” but being stuck on the planetoid with no wifi and no company beyond an occasional disembodied mind meld is bound to get old quickly. Imagine having all the time in the world while free to explore the galaxy and he would certainly change his perspective.

Love is foremost on the minds of both Hedford and the Companion, Hedford because she has never really experienced it (“What kind of life is that?” she asks), and the Companion because she fears losing it. The menfolk (excluding Cochrane), accept this as neutrally as if they’re making an anthropological observation. Maybe they just need more time to get their priorities straight: in Star Trek: Generations (1994), a much wiser Kirk will consider staying in the Nexus, rejecting Starfleet in favor of his lost love, mirroring Hedford’s question when he tells Picard, “I was like you once…so completely blinded by duty and obligations that I couldn’t see anything past this uniform. And in the end, what did it get me? An empty house.”

Hedford and Kirk reflect on the empty house of a life without love

The American Heritage Dictionary defines metamorphosis as “a transformation, as by magic or sorcery,” and “a marked change in appearance, character, condition, or function.” Several symbolic transformations take place in the episode, including Kirk’s change of strategy toward their captor, Cochrane’s reversal in attitude toward the Companion, and the primary metamorphosis that inspires the episode’s title: the merger of the Companion with Commissioner Hedford. This transformation is defined by TOS’ inevitable tendency toward human exceptionalism. The Companion, in human form, marvels at the feel of earth (get it?) against her feet and sun on her face, finding tangible form superior to her previous diffuse existence. Hedford, on the other hand, has no comment on how it feels to have the superpowers of an eternal electric field. Despite Spock’s reminder that humans are “irrational,” we’re to assume that the Companion was somehow inferior until humans came along and gave it a body: “To touch the hand of man,” she says, “nothing is as important.” I couldn’t help but contrast this with the merger of Decker, Ilia, and V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy this time speculating that the resulting new life form may represent humanity’s future evolution.

You do NOT want to be on their wedding gift registries.

The end is happy for everyone (except those troubled societies who lost their diplomat – tough luck, warmongers!). Hedford/Companion has recovered, but only as long as she remains on the planetoid. Cochrane stays with her, and apparently they are enough for each other, as no one thinks to offer a few supplies from the Enterprise. Both Cochrane and Hedford/Companion are mortal now, and will live out normal human lifespans; this seems like a tragedy to me, but I’m clearly not wise to the ways of galactic travelers. Cochrane talks about planting a fig tree, completing our image of the happy couple as Adam and Eve. That original happy couple covered their nakedness with fig leaves, and some scholars believe the tree of the knowledge of good and evil may also have been a fig. Figs have significance beyond Judeo-Christian scriptures, however. The Hindu god Vishnu is believed to have been born under a fig tree, and Buddha experienced his great insight while sitting under a Bodhi tree, a type of fig tree. This common thread through many spiritual practices nicely summarizes the new bond between Cochrane, Hedford, the Companion, and the planetoid, each now dependent on the others. Believing that all life is intertwined is tempting, if not entirely convincing based on human behavior. We can imagine an outcome the opposite of “Space Seed,” and if we could revisit this couple (trio?) in twenty years, what lessons on life and interspecies cooperation they might offer. Maybe the real metamorphosis isn’t the physical Hedford/Companion integration after all, but a reframed world view. Just as mixed-breed dogs are sometimes free of breed-specific illnesses, resulting in a longer, healthier lifespan, combining differences often creates strength rather than weakness. It’s a tribute to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that they are so quick to accept the premise. Maybe all that galactic exploration has benefited them, and us, after all.

A final note of trivia: Elinor Donahue costarred in Father Knows Best (1954-1960) with Jane Wyatt, and we’ll meet her next week as the second TV mother Wyatt made famous.

Next: Journey to Babel