Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Shore Leave

(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 29, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0 (Technically, McCoy and Martine die, but are resurrected)

Bellybuttons: 2 (plus Kirk and Yeoman Barrows give us the classic TOS torn uniform tease)

The night before I rewatched “Shore Leave,” I dreamed about returning to college, a recurring theme in my dreams. Yet when I woke up, for no apparent reason, the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” song was going through my head. I can’t remember the last time I heard this song and I hadn’t seen any spiders recently. This complete non-sequitur reminded me of the bizarre directions the mind can go and inspired me to view “Shore Leave” with more sympathy. I already have a nostalgic attachment to this episode because it was my first exposure to Star Trek (though not an inspiring one, as I recounted in this blog post). Today, “Shore Leave” plays somewhat like a mashup of The Love Boat (1977-1987) and Fantasy Island (1977-1984) and, like those shows, it’s best watched with your intellect on pause.

Image from Star Trek episode Shore Leave of Sulu confronting a samurai
The mind can take us to unexpected places without warning

Our premise is a simple one that will be revisited in later iterations of Star Trek: the crew is exhausted from months of intense activity, and shore leave is McCoy’s prescription. The Enterprise arrives at an apparently uninhabited, oasis-like planet and a landing party beams down to investigate. Shore leave is delayed when members of the landing party experience a series of bizarre encounters, all related to whatever they happen to be thinking at the time.

Much is made of the “Shore Leave” prologue, and rightfully so. Stretching his aching back on the bridge, Kirk believes he’s getting an impromptu massage from Spock. The masseuse turns out to be slinky Yeoman Barrows (Emily Banks). This is problematic on several levels, the most significant of which is why Kirk would expect any crewmember to initiate a rubdown in this professional setting. These are not frat buddies, but colleagues who have to rely on each other through life and death situations. I have no military experience, the closest modern-day equivalent to Starfleet, but Gene Roddenberry did, having served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II; the episode’s author, popular science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, was a merchant marine sailor in the late 1930s. Did this scene reflect their own service observations? Or their expectations of 1960s corporate offices? We do know that sexual harassment and assault remains a concern in the U.S. armed forces: a 2013 report showed 5,061 troops reported experiencing sexual assault, with only 484 of those cases actually going to trial. Over 6,600 service members reported being sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2018. In the “Shore Leave” prologue, the yeoman shows no emotional involvement; she seems to simply consider herself responsible for the captain’s comfort, but, like many viewers, the more I think about this scene, the more uncomfortable it makes me.

Image from Star Trek episode Shore Leave of Spock, Barrows, and Kirk on Enterprise bridge
Kirk’s actual dialogue: “Push. Push harder.”

The practice of shore leave, “liberty” in some countries, is a direct connection to naval experience, relating to the rest and relaxation (R&R) tradition among all military branches. The fact that R&R is described by some as “rape and restitution” gives some idea of the direction this practice can take at its worst. A large group of U.S. servicemen visited Pattaya, Thailand, in 1959, beginning that town’s long evolution to becoming a combination red light district (estimated in 2017 to have more than 27,000 sex workers), Vegas-like tourist attraction, and retired ex-pat haven. We can only hope the crew of the Enterprise will operate at a higher standard. Sadly, their conduct during this episode doesn’t give us high hopes. Thank heavens the planet is uninhabited!

The mind does, indeed, take us to strange places, and that’s the only explanation for some of the imagery conjured up by the crew. McCoy associates a stroll by a lake with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, leading to appearances by the white rabbit and Alice herself. (McCoy wouldn’t associate human-sized rabbits with paradise if he knew how quickly they turn, as experienced movie-goers learned from Night of the Lepus (1972)). Sulu imagines an antique handgun, Rodriguez (Perry Lopez) gives us a tiger, and Kirk recalls both a friend and a foe from his Academy days. The crew is disturbingly lax in their duties, leading some viewers to speculate that the planet not only recreates visitors’ imaginations, but also dulls their senses to better enjoy the ride. Kirk is repeatedly derelict, at one point running off to look for Sulu, only to be sidetracked by a hibiscus shrub. McCoy is at least alert enough to raise a red flag over the rabbit sighting. But only Sulu adheres to their overall mission of exploration, collecting plant samples for later study. We know of Sulu’s interest in botany from “The Man Trap.” And we know he’s a man of diverse interests after he showed off his fencing skills in “The Naked Time,” so his familiarity with antique weapons isn’t surprising. His self-indulgent firing of the weapon without questioning its presence or possible safety issues, on a planet with no visible inhabitants or manufacturing, is also reminiscent of his behavior in “The Naked Time,” leaving us to wonder if he really is dangerously impulsive. Whatever the reason, the crew is off-kilter in a way that a few days’ shore leave will not remedy.

Image of white rabbit from Star Trek episode Shore Leave (left) and image of giant rabbits on country road from 1972 movie Night of the Lepus (right)
Night of the Lepus – never trust giant rabbits

One fun aspect of “Shore Leave” is the rapport between the crew (until it goes too far). Spock employs a nice logic trick to persuade Kirk to take shore leave. Sulu and McCoy meander in conversation. Kirk engages in some gentle ribbing of McCoy after the rabbit sighting. Kirk hasn’t completely lost his senses yet, ordering a halt to shore leave plans until they prove that the rabbit, or whatever left those strange footprints, is harmless. He’s out to lunch, however, after his first encounter with his old flame Ruth (Shirley Bonne); he returns to the landing party but leaves Ruth behind! Wouldn’t it be handy to have her around for questioning? It’s not as if she has anything better to do, wandering around the southern California landscape in her evening gown. Spock is off his game, as well. It takes both Kirk and Spock forty-two minutes to figure out the strange sightings are linked to the crew’s thoughts, even though this should have been obvious after the rabbit’s appearance.

Sadly, the crew’s commingling does go too far, especially where the women are concerned, as is so often the case in TOS. Angela Martine (Barbara Baldavin) has spectacularly recovered from the death of her fiance last week, now flirting with Rodriguez. (In fairness, Kirk addresses the character as “Teller,” but Wikipedia and Memory Alpha both credit her as the same Martine from “Balance of Terror.” The end credits identify her only as “Angela.”) Martine is flighty and undisciplined, needing her male cohort to keep her on task. Yeoman Barrows, however, is the real issue with “Shore Leave.” First, we had that problematic backrub on the bridge. Then, when Kirk should have beamed down with a scientist or security officer, he is instead accompanied by Barrows, despite her having no apparent responsibilities or any relevant skills (other than…wink, wink…). At one point, as wisely pointed out by the Mission Log Podcast, Sulu puts his arm around Barrows as if she needs guidance, when she isn’t impaired or injured. Out of the blue, Barrows and McCoy walk with linked arms, brazenly coming on to each other. Adding insult to injury, Barrows isn’t operating at peak mental capacity. She yammers on about how “a girl should be dressed like a fairy-tale princess…a lady to be protected and fought for…” Later, McCoy deduces that Barrows was assaulted by Don Juan (based on the most minimal of descriptions), Barrows being too bubble-headed to make that connection, even though she was thinking about exactly that only seconds earlier. Why does she fantasize about being assaulted in the first place? The only non-misogynistic moment in the episode occurs when Kirk, all mushy at seeing Ruth, says she hasn’t aged a day in fifteen years. Shirley Bonne was only three years younger than Shatner at the time, meaning either Kirk was into older women as a cadet or the producers felt (correctly) that Bonne could pass for twenty. Either way, it’s an improvement over the more common older man/teenage girl cliché of movies and television. In all other ways, “Shore Leave” is a typical TOS gender-fail.

Image from Star Trek episode Shore Leave with Barrows (left) and McCoy (right) on shore leave planet
Have you ever played doctor with a real doctor?

Another frequent comment on this episode is the portrayal of Finnegan (Bruce Mars, who later became Brother Paramananda of the Self-Realization Fellowship). If Finnegan reminds us of the Lucky Charms leprechaun mascot, that may be because General Mills had just introduced the cereal in 1964. (The DS9 episode “If Wishes Were Horses” was supposed to include a leprechaun, but real-life Irishman Colm Meaney rejected that caricature as offensive.) We can give Finnegan some slack if we remember that we’re not seeing the real Finnegan, but a projection of Kirk’s distorted memory (“I’m being exactly what you expect me to be…” Finnegan says). Kirk’s desire to wallop Finnegan after carrying around a grudge for fifteen years seems excessive. While the “officer and gentleman” description of young Kirk is consistent with Mitchell’s description in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” it seems preposterous that a Starfleet cadet would behave as Finnegan is portrayed, randomly punching people as a joke. I experienced occasional bullying in my K-12 years, nothing permanently traumatizing, thankfully; by the time fifteen years passed, I had mostly forgotten the experiences. Could Kirk (the guy who defeated the Kobayashi Maru) really have been bullied so severely that he kept this retribution fantasy in the back of his mind all this time? (“Go ahead, lay one on me,” Finnegan says, “cause that’s what you always wanted, isn’t it?”) Again, we make allowances, because the mind is unpredictable, and watching Kirk’s duel with Finnegan, it’s hard not to think of the song “The Kid Inside” from the short-lived musical Is There Life After High School? (“And he goes along / Getting hurt, getting mad, fighting fights that are over / And unless I’m strong / All my senses are carried away”) Maybe us common folk can cling this tightly to youth, but we expect more from the crew of the Enterprise.

Finnegan from Star Trek episode Shore Leave (left), leprechaun mascot for Lucky Charms cereal (right)
Feel free to make up your own “magically delicious” joke

Despite a delightful tracking shot early on, with Kirk, Barrows, and McCoy sprinting across a field with an ominous arrangement of the show’s theme on the soundtrack, the episode never comes together in any logical way. The shore leave plan seems completely disorganized, as if crew members will simply beam down and wander aimlessly on a planet with no sleeping or restroom facilities. Spock again demonstrates random knowledge of 20th century America when he describes amusement parks. Barrows’ uniform is damaged but is somehow repaired by the end of the episode (let’s be grateful, at least she escapes that God-awful princess Halloween costume). Kirk makes the head-scratching statement, “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play,” which goes nowhere, and probably for the best. The alien technology is capable of reading human minds but lacks safeguards to prevent McCoy’s jousting death; along those lines, the Caretaker (Oliver McGowan), who shows up at the end to explain things for us, implores the crew to use caution in their thoughts, but we’ve already established the mind’s undisciplined nature. Never mind the fact that each person’s imagination brings to life illusions that affect others: how does a shore leave with the colliding daydreams of 430 people sound?

Image from Star Trek episode Shore Leave of Kirk, McCoy, and Barrows running across field on shore leave planet
I’d run from that, too.

There are more profound implications that “Shore Leave” doesn’t even acknowledge. I wouldn’t feel very festive if I knew my hosts could read my every thought. This is a highly invasive act, but the crew fails to raise a single objection. Even worse: let’s not forget that McCoy and Martine are both killed, preceding Spock into the great unknown by sixteen years! McCoy is downright jubilant after his resurrection, parading around with two women on his arms who appear to have the IQ of Liberty University graduates, showing no interest in the miracle technology that brought him back to life. Did he really die? Everyone around him believes he did, what about their suffering? There are emotional consequences to such events, trauma that will outlive whatever kinky plans McCoy has with his Rigellian showgirls. The episode’s very premise is that the crew is already under extreme stress before they arrive. Even a pretend death would be a soul-rattling experience, hardly the stuff of a relaxing vacation. This is why Spock needed an entire movie for his physical rebirth (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)) and an entire separate movie for his emotional rebirth (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)). What happens on the shore leave planet won’t stay on the shore leave planet; like an emotional Newton’s Third Law, every action will provoke a reaction.

Image from Star Trek episode Shore Leave with McCoy in between two Vegas-style show girls
McCoy discovers tribbles also come in pink and yellow

Near the end, having endured most of the action from the relative comfort of the Enterprise, Spock says, “I’ve already had as much shore leave as I care for.” What’s surprising is that none of the others agree after the horror show they’ve just experienced. As discussed earlier, Sulu is the only member of the landing party who tries to honor the mission of exploration. That’s perhaps the biggest frustration with “Shore Leave.” The episode works fine as escapist entertainment, or even light comedy (“You’re the doctor, doctor.”), but little more. Kirk fails to question the Caretaker’s final assessment, that humans are simply too dumb to understand his species. By coincidence, I watched the Enterprise episode “Dead Stop” shortly before watching “Shore Leave.” It’s a variation on the same premise: in need of repairs, Enterprise NX-01 comes across an automated repair station that can perform all the necessary work in record time and at a minimal cost. It’s too easy, and Captain Archer is justifiably suspicious. He leaves without the answers he wants, but at least he asks the questions. Kirk’s first captain’s log update in “Shore Leave” reports that the mysterious planet is “almost too good to be true.” That should have been a red flag to Kirk and to us. Unintentionally, perhaps “Shore Leave” works best today as a parable of our own shortsightedness. Whether trampling historic sites or wildlife refuges with excessive tourism, using mobile device apps without considering the data privacy implications, or slowly crushing ourselves with car-dependent sprawling suburbs, we too often, like the crew of “Shore Leave,” expect to enjoy the ride without suffering the consequences. TOS’ consistent, and honest, message is that we weren’t meant for paradise, and “Shore Leave” tricks us all into forgetting the price we’ll have to pay.

Next: The Galileo Seven