Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Squire of Gothos

(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: January 12, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0

Paul Schneider wrote one of the most memorable TOS episodes, “Balance of Terror.” He also wrote the less memorable “The Squire of Gothos.” Schneider set out to write an anti-war statement, but something got lost along the way, so what we end up with is a dressed-up retread of “Charlie X.” In “The Squire of Gothos,” the Enterprise passes through a “star desert” while delivering supplies to an earth colony (supplies that Kirk takes more seriously than the plague medicine in “The Galileo Seven”). Passing a planet that probably shouldn’t exist, what with it being a star desert and all, Sulu and Kirk are abducted by a flamboyant character who introduces himself as Trelane (William Campbell), the Squire of Gothos. Trelane has powers that are only vaguely defined, but he later manages to get most of the bridge crew on to Gothos, where he gushes about his love of war and demands that they play games with him. The games, of course, involve risk to life and limb, and mayhem ensues.

Honestly, the first thing that struck me about “The Squire of Gothos” is how much coffee they drink on the Enterprise. The prologue begins with yet another yeoman serving coffee to the bridge staff. I never really noticed this during previous viewings of TOS. There are no cup holders in sight, so I wonder who has to clean up all the beverage-stained work stations. It’s a nice attempt at adding depth to the scene, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to place a coffee dispenser directly on the bridge?

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Another distracting moment in the prologue involves the odd dialogue between Kirk and McCoy when the Enterprise enters the star desert. They express romantic nostalgia for mirages and desert oases, as if they’re extras from the set of Lawrence of Arabia. Who finds desert mirages romantic? And when would McCoy have ever experienced this? It’s an awkward attempt at “be careful what you wish for” foreshadowing, as Trelane’s uber-nostalgia will soon remind us that the good old days weren’t always so good. Except, when did the good old days include desert mirages?

“Remember that time when we were stranded in the desert and nearly died of thirst?”

The fact that coffee service and mirage worship are so distracting gives some sense of what a step down this is from last week’s “The Galileo Seven.” The theme of power’s corrupting influence on someone too immature to handle that power is, again, explored much more effectively in “Charlie X.” And, like “Charlie X,” our crew is not rescued by their own ingenuity, but by parental figures (voiced here by Barbara Babcock and Bart LaRue, both of whom will make multiple TOS appearances) who show up at the end to retrieve their progeny. Like Charlie Evans, Trelane lacks the experience and wisdom to feel compassion for those he hurts or to see beyond his own interests, which are so limited that he doesn’t realize what he’s missing by refusing to interact with others on equal terms.

It would hardly be a TOS episode without a little misogyny. Uhura and the coffee-serving Yeoman Ross (Venita Wolf) are among the bridge staff abducted by Trelane. He describes Uhura as a “Nubian prize,” equating her to pirate booty taken during a raid, an odd reference even for Trelane’s glaringly Euro-centric world view. Ross is dressed up in a costume almost as outlandish as the one Yeoman Barrows wore in “Shore Leave.” While the men-folk devise strategy, the women are easily seduced by Trelane’s music and merriment and seem in no hurry to escape.

Fun and adventure await when you begin your new career as a Starfleet yeoman!

What hurts the episode most is the nebulous way Trelane’s powers are employed; other story events seem equally random. In “Charlie X” we understood that Charlie was still figuring out his abilities and limitations. This exploration created some of the episode’s tension. In “The Squire of Gothos” things simply happen for no reason. Why does Trelane initially take only Sulu and Kirk? Trelane interferes with the Enterprise as it flees Gothos, but he can’t overhear a conversation only a few feet away? Why don’t his powers allow him to access the Enterprise database and learn more about contemporary humans? And why is Trelane obsessed with earth in the first place? He claims he has observed earth for some time, but what drew him to our planet instead of the many others he could have studied?

Much is made of the timeline confusion created by “The Squire of Gothos,” and this represents not only a gap in logic but also a missed opportunity. Trelane has observed earth from Gothos, which is approximately 900 light years from earth, making Trelane’s museum-like collection 900 years out of date for our 23rd century crew. Trelane references an event as recent as the 1804 death of Alexander Hamilton, putting the Enterprise in the 28th century. Yet Trelane’s other collectibles defy easy chronological (or cosmological) placement. He introduces himself to us by playing a harpsichord (and looking astonishingly like Liberace), which is believed to have been created no later than 1397. His first contact with the Enterprise is via text message, of all things, using Blackletter Gothic script, which was in use in western Europe by approximately 1150. Yet he also displays a salt vampire from M-113 and a bird-like life form similar to a prisoner of the zoo on Talos IV. Trelane could have been a man-child for all seasons, observing earth and other worlds in real-time via the same subspace frequencies the Federation uses for communication. That would have been far more interesting than the simplistic movie set Trelane creates.

Mr. Showmanship

Along with the time mix-up, we are obligated to discuss Trelane’s similarity to Q. Retconning in Star Trek novels has connected Trelane with the Q Continuum. We certainly recall the “Encounter at Farpoint” trial during the scene when Trelane dons a judge’s garb to try Kirk for such nonsense charges as treason and attempted insurrection. However, Trelane and Q are different enough to make the connection superficial: Q engages in plenty of snark and playfulness, while Trelane is literally a child who is recalled by his parents (even they acknowledge Trelane is “cruel”). Moreover, Q never needed the machinery that Trelane uses until Kirk destroys it. It’s another flaw in the writing, as Trelane’s powers seem undiminished by the loss of equipment. With the machinery, he was a spiteful kid burning ants with a magnifying glass; without it, he’s a spiteful kid with other toys. Worse, Kirk repeatedly outwits Trelane so easily that at no point in “The Squire of Gothos” do we expect any real consequences. In stark contrast, Q introduced humans to the Borg. He put the Enterprise D crew on trial for the crimes of humanity. I reject a Trelane-Q comparison because only Q demonstrated the grand stakes involved in exploring uncharted space.

Paul Schneider’s attempt at an anti-war story gets lost in Trelane’s pointless antics. The character is obsessed with the trappings and glory of combat, gleefully imagining men marching to their deaths. Only those who have never experienced war first-hand or had to live with its consequences would feel this way. A far more interesting story would have introduced Trelane, or his derelict parents (thank heaven they’re a non-threatening heterosexual couple!), to outcomes more substantial than being sent to bed early. Spock paves the way for us, when he tells Trelane, “I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.” Sadly, there is no follow-up. A moment of delicious irony is also glossed over: Trelane begs to discuss military history with Kirk’s group, calling humanity “one of the few predator species that preys even on itself.” Kirk insists that contemporary humans only make war when they have no choice. Trelane’s response is a smirking, “That’s the official story. … We’re all military men under the skin,” and he’s right: the crew immediately tries to shoot him! So much for seeking out new life. Admittedly, the crew has supplies to deliver, but Trelane, as misguided as he is, remains the only explorer in this episode. The crew makes almost no effort to learn about Trelane or negotiate with him. In a single gesture, Kirk and company have validated Trelane’s image of humans as a species that shoots first.

The trial never ends

At the end of TNG, Q reminded Picard, “The trial never ends.” No matter how noble our intentions, we must prove ourselves again and again. When he meets Yeoman Ross, Trelane quotes Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe‘s late-1500s play about the hubris of Faust, who enters a pact with Lucifer and is ultimately dragged down to hell. The real moral of “The Squire of Gothos” isn’t one of hubris, but laziness. Trelane’s parents allowed their offspring to run amok and will face no consequences. The Enterprise crew learns nothing from their experience, sailing off at the end with no interest in learning more about Trelane or his kind. When Trelane is dragged off, not to hell, but to whatever disembodied dimension he came from, he offers a startling connection to our present day Faustian bargain with intellectual laziness, when he says, “I was winning…I was winning…” Trelane makes up the rules to his games as he goes along, then accuses others of cheating at every inconvenience. Just as our modern-day political “winning” requires willful ignorance of climate change and the impact of extreme income inequality, so Trelane’s interpretation of “winning” will soon leave him isolated again and still unfulfilled. If the characters in “The Squire of Gothos” gained nothing from their experience, it’s all the more important that we learn from their example. How will we meet the long trial of history?

Next: Arena