Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Plato’s Stepchildren

(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 22, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0 (But watch for Kirk’s tunic!)

Before you groan that “Plato’s Stepchildren” is horrible, let me again refer you to the foul stench of “The Omega Glory.” Yes, “Plato’s Stepchildren” is tough to sit through, but causing us discomfort is one of the episode’s objectives. This week, the Enterprise goes to an “unknown planet” (later learned to be named Platonius) in response to “urgent distress calls.” We know distress calls are often a ploy to exploit the Federation’s generosity, and soon the landing party of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy find themselves at the mercy of a group called the Platonians. The Platonians lack a physician and their sadistic leader Parmen (Liam Sullivan) suffers from a potentially fatal infection. Once McCoy heals Parmen, the Platonians demand that McCoy become their permanent primary care physician, using their psychokinetic powers to hold the entire Enterprise crew hostage unless the doctor agrees. Thankfully, the landing party has the help of Alexander (Michael Dunn), the resident servant and court jester and the one Platonian without psychokinetic abilities.

“One Ewok joke and I’ll head-butt you in the groin.”

“Plato’s Stepchildren” once again depicts an alien culture modeled on earth history, a trope that has become exhausting for us viewers. The Platonians’ backstory is this: 2,500 years ago, the planet Sahndara was destroyed when its sun turned nova. The inhabitants left and settled on earth “during the time of Socrates and Plato.” When the ancient Greek civilization died out, the self-described Platonians left earth and settled on this new planet. In reality, ancient Greece is dated roughly from the 12th century BCE to 600 CE. Athens was subject to class conflict and tyranny until the city became a democracy in the 6th century BCE, but even then slavery was still practiced. The current Platonians – some of them, at least – seem to be the original settlers from Sahndara. Through “a mass eugenics program” the original population was winnowed down to only thirty-eight, somehow giving them extreme long life but a weakened immune system. This is how Parmen’s wife Philana (Barbara Babcock, who we’ve seen and heard before in TOS) explains both their presence and Parmen’s life-threatening infection.

Her lips say no but her eyes also say no.

Parmen likes to refer to his group as Plato’s children, but Alexander says some describe themselves as Plato’s stepchildren, acknowledging that they are not genuine philosophical descendants of Plato. (As if the eugenics practice wasn’t warning enough.) When Parmen prevents the landing party from leaving, Spock says, “Plato wanted truth and beauty and, above all, justice.” The Platonians appear to appreciate beauty – or at least their own subjective interpretation of beauty – but their disinterest in truth and justice is evident early on. And what of the real Plato? Living a relatively long life, from approximately 425 BCE to 347 BCE, Plato believed in a three-part human soul of reason, spirit, and appetite. (A trinity! Imagine that!) He did, in fact, believe in a crude form of eugenics, suggesting that children be raised in state-sponsored nurseries, with no knowledge of their biological parents, and separated into their appropriate social function as they matured. He also opposed what we think of today as democracy, as described by A.C. Grayling in his 2019 book The History of Philosophy:

“...Plato’s belief that political chaos must inevitably result in tyranny – because a tyrant would step in to restore order, only making matters worse thereby – underlay his view that the state should be run by ‘philosopher-kings’ living in monk-like freedom from the corrupting influence of wealth-seeking and family ties that could warp their judgment.”

In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” ‘philospher-kings’ is exactly how Parmen describes his group.

“If you’re so superior how come you only play one-dimensional chess?”

The Platonians are such a small group, less than forty, that they have no real government structure. Parmen seems to be in charge simply because he has the greatest mental ability. Despite superficial amiability among the Platonians, outsider Alexander knows the truth. As Parmen’s powers run out of control during his fever-induced seizure, Alexander says, “Don’t save him. Let him die. The others will all kill each other trying to take his place.” Parmen’s powers are so extensive, the Enterprise is tossed about during his delirium and later he confines the Enterprise to orbit, freezes the navigational controls, and prevents communication with Starfleet. Later, he abducts Chapel and Uhura and brings them to the planet to cavort with Spock and Kirk; perhaps bringing a match for McCoy would have been more motivating.

When McCoy says his back is against the wall, he means it literally

The psychokinetic abilities are a result of the mineral kironide, which occurs naturally in Platonius’ food supply and which Kirk describes as “a very rare and long-lasting source of great power.” It’s a common enough substance that McCoy is able to quickly synthesize some to inject Kirk and Spock, giving them powers even superior to Parmen’s. If kironide is this well known, why isn’t McCoy already familiar with the psychokinetic properties? Is there a Federation lab somewhere conducting research on this stuff? Still, “Plato’s Stepchildren” gives us a clever scientific explanation that connects Alexander’s reduced height to his lack of telekinetic abilities. (The actor Michael Dunn had genetic dwarfism and reached an adult height of 3’10”. He died at the young age of 38 as a result of complications from that condition.) In the episode, kironide is processed by pituitary hormones – genetic variability in Alexander’s pituitary hormones causes both his dwarfism and his inability to absorb kironide. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling.

Alexander is the heart of the episode and tells us volumes about the Platonians’ and his life among them when he greets the landing party. “I’m a good loser,” he says, “a very good loser.” The Platonians have portrayed him as inferior for so long, he has come to accept it as the truth. He knows Parmen’s terminal plans for the Enterprise crew and is subjected to intense pain when he tries to defend his new friends. He is understandably sensitive after centuries of discrimination over his height, growing testy when he misinterprets one of Kirk’s statements as an insult. Yet his experience, and his observation of the Platonians over the years, make him the only one wise enough to reject psychokinetic powers when McCoy offers him the synthesized kironide. “You think that’s what I want?” he asks. “Become one of them?” All Alexander wants is for the landing party to take him along when they leave so he can live among people who won’t judge him. And we naively believe he has found that with the Federation. Kirk assures him, “Where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference.” The landing party is genuinely considerate of Alexander, treating him as an equal right up to the end. However, we get a hint of hypocrisy when Kirk’s kironide powers appear; when Parmen sends Alexander lunging toward Kirk with a knife, rather than simply releasing Alexander, Alexander becomes a pawn shoved back and forth between Kirk and Parmen. Then Kirk ruins everything in the episode’s final line of dialogue. Ordering the Enterprise to beam him up with their new friend, he tells Mr. Scott, “I have a little surprise for you.” Suck it, kindness!

“I’m always nice to people when I want something from them.”

The use and abuse of the kironide abilities raises important questions about emotions and impulse control. Parmen tells the landing party, “What I think and feel, whether for good or ill, is instantly translated into reality.” Whatever Parmen’s intensions, this must require tremendous mental discipline; if I had such powers I would materialize chocolate cakes by the truckload without even trying. Yet, the Platonians lack Alexander’s discipline, preferring the lazy route of servants (or, one servant, Alexander himself) and mental manipulation over effort and commitment. They kidnap McCoy because they are too apathetic to develop medical skills themselves, a project the Enterprise would no doubt assist them with. They claim genetic inevitability, as if effort counts for nothing. “We’re perfect for our utopia,” Philana says. “We’re bred for contemplation and self-reliance,” ignoring the fact that a lack of self-reliance is why they need McCoy in the first place. Like the privileged throughout history, they are content to sit back and claim intellectual superiority while someone else does the real work and develops corresponding emotional maturity in the process. Alexander’s willingness to learn and grow is evident when he understands that the Platonians have power not because they are superior, but through an accident of genetics: he’s not inferior, after all. Compare this to Spock, who has emotional contemplation forced on him, when Parmen coerces the first officer through a bout of intense laughter, followed by uncontrolled sobbing. McCoy claims the forced emotions could be fatal to Spock, and the Vulcan is left in a state of rage than only prolonged meditation can subdue. McCoy claims that emotional release “keeps us healthy,” but Spock, as always, sees the illogic of human behavior: “I have noted that the healthy release of emotion is frequently very unhealthy for those closest to you.”

The original Star Trek facepalm

That is perfectly evident during the emotional abuse inflicted on the landing party after Uhura and Chapel are brought to the planet. Much is made of the forced kiss between Kirk and Uhura, claimed to be the “first interracial kiss” on network television. The claim is highly dubious and the Wikipedia page, among other sources, provides exhaustive details for those who wish to pursue it. However, another forced kiss, between Chapel and Spock, inflicts greater emotional impact. We know of Chapel’s genuine feelings for Spock, and ever since “The Naked Time” we know that those emotions are at least somewhat reciprocated. Their unrequited passion makes the embrace especially cruel. “For so long I’ve wanted to be close to you,” Chapel tells Spock. “Now all I want to do is crawl away and die.”

The Platonians’ emotional immaturity, of course, is what drives them to torment the Enterprise crew. Many viewers avoid watching “Plato’s Stepchildren” because they are troubled by such scenes as Kirk slapping himself, Kirk and Spock approaching Uhura and Chapel with a whip and red hot poker, or Alexander mounted in Kirk’s back while the captain jumps around like a horse. I say that is all the more reason to watch because we are witnessing scenes of torture and we are supposed to be uncomfortable. How many of us turned away just as easily while the U.S. government conducted widespread torture during the “war on terror”? Waterboarding, forced nudity, threats to family members, and prolonged solitary confinement were among the many forms of torture conducted by the CIA alone and are far more bizarre and disturbing than Kirk galloping around on his hands and knees for a few seconds. TV writers in 1968 would certainly been aware of the subject of torture. Besides the horrific events of World War II less than twenty-five years earlier, U.S. prisoners of war were being tortured by their North Vietnamese captors at the time “Plato’s Stepchildren” aired; this was confirmed in 1966, when Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton blinked “t-o-r-t-u-r-e” in Morse Code during a forced television appearance. Such things should be painful to observe, that’s our conscience telling us it’s wrong. It’s worth noting that these scenes only work at all because William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have the acting skill to pull it off; Nimoy performs a skillful flamenco dance and even wrote “Maiden Wine,” the song Spock is compelled to sing for the women; you can find it on his 1969 album The Touch of Leonard Nimoy.

Not that kind of touch

The Platonians don’t just commit torture, they enjoy it. Taking pleasure from the suffering of others is a trademark of all tyrants, who typically twist events to pretend innocence. “Circumstances have forced us to make a few adaptations of Plato,” Parmen says, without specifying what circumstances could justify such behavior. Have they done this to others who stumbled on their enclave? There’s no mention of previous guests/victims, but they have spacious accommodations for visitors. When Uhura and Kirk are forced to kiss, Uhura admits to being frightened. Kirk tells her, “That’s the way they want you to feel. It makes them think that they’re alive.” The Platonians remind me of the Talosians from “The Menagerie,” who also exploited others to spice up their sedentary life of the mind. “You’re half dead, all of you,” Kirk tells his captors. “You’re half crazy because there’s nothing inside. Nothing. And you have to torture us to convince yourselves your superior.”

The end is too easy, but by that point it’s hard to know where else the characters could go. Parmen promises to be civilized to future Federation visitors, and Kirk reminds him that there is plenty of kironide to go around if necessary. Despite the episode’s troublesome elements, I can’t recall a TOS episode that relates corruption of power so clearly with a lack of emotional intelligence. While we may not trust Parmen in the end, he at least demonstrates an understanding of his own weakness: “Uncontrolled, power will turn even saints into savages, and we can all be counted upon to live down to our lowest impulses.” Perhaps the Platonians only avoided self-destruction so long because they were small in number. As we experience the breakdown of civilization in our own time, caused by claims of personal freedom without the responsibilities every individual must accept to live in a society, we can find reinforcement from Plato. Quoting Grayling again: “…when in democracy everyone claims the freedom and the right to make and break laws, what soon follows, said Plato, is anarchy, for such freedom is not freedom but merely license.” The selective breeding program that closed the Platonians’ minds also removed all possibility for diversity in thought or culture. When Parmen says, “We manage to live in peace and harmony.” Spock asks, “Whose harmony? Yours?”

“Explain to us again why we’re wearing the miniskirt tunics?”

We can only imagine the long-ago eugenics program and wonder how many of the original citizens embraced it before realizing, too late, that they were destined to be among the victims. Once we accept the drawing of a line through society, moving the line becomes increasingly easy, and sooner or later any of us may land on the wrong side. Was that ancient civilization as short-sighted as us? One reason Plato opposed democracy is because he believed the citizens unequal to the task. From Grayling:

“[Plato] thinks that the collapse of the democratic state into anarchy is inevitable given the supposed characteristics of the...general public: ignorance, self-interest, prejudice, envy and rivalry. Anarchy very soon invites the intervention of a strongman to restore order; given the insupportable nature of anarchy, he will be welcomed at first with open arms. Once he is in power, removing him can be difficult, and the people will be in the worst situation of all: they will live under tyranny.”
“Damn contacts are always falling out.”

That’s why Alexander’s rejection of power is so important, as is his decision to spare Parmen’s life. It’s equally important that Kirk and Spock make Parmen, for a short time, a victim of his own powers. Liam Sullivan, who not only played Parmen but conducted telepathy experiments in a 1977 documentary The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena, described his philosophy toward portraying villains in film and television: “Playing truly evil people is a great way to release tension and anger and disgust with humanity. Show bad people what they really look like and act like, and maybe they’ll recognize themselves and change.” It’s an admirable sentiment, even if it doesn’t entirely hold up in the real world. Experiencing his own cruelty firsthand is the only way Parmen will be able to distinguish right from wrong. Imagine a just society with an inverse distribution of privilege, where the comfortable find themselves living in the harsh conditions they’ve created for the rest of the world. Sadly, that wouldn’t be a science-fiction universe, but one of true fantasy.

Next: Wink of an Eye