Lately I’ve been rewatching the original Star Trek television series, and I’ve come to a conclusion. I’m no longer able to watch anything without analyzing it to death. That’s one of the bad things that taking cultural studies in grad school does to you. Once you’re exposed to theory, your life is over. You can’t observe anything without trying to understand the underlying causes that shaped it. It’s particularly bad if you pursue film or television studies. Suddenly all the things that you once watched for enjoyment now have taken on new meanings.
Such is the case for TOS. I’m constantly observing things about the series and trying to put them into some sort of framework that can be understood on a cultural level, and I decided that I might as well share my observations here, as this is part of what this blog is all about. I’m going in no particular order in the series, at least not at the moment, so my first post is about the second season episode “The Apple,” because I find it particularly interesting.
On its surface, “The Apple” is an anti-religion episode, a fact which it does little to hide. The episode title makes that point clear, as well as dialogue references to the Garden of Eden and allusions to Kirk being cast in the role of Satan. It’s an attempt to create an allegory to the Christian myth of the fall of man. The episode’s story concerns the Enterprise landing party discovering a group of tribal people who live forever, have no diseases, have abundant food, experience perfect weather year around, and are extremely happy. They live in a veritable Garden of Eden. No worries. No cares. The one catch is that these people serve a machine named Vaal, which they revere as a god. It’s Vaal who provides them with all their benefits, and in exchange they feed him several times a day.
McCoy can’t stand this though. The Vaalians have been stagnant for thousands of years, with no cultural development, and McCoy thinks this is wrong. He wants to destroy Vaal so that his people can develop into an industrial society someday. Hmm, let’s see. Living forever and having a simple life with no stress, or fighting for my survival on a daily basis and eventually dying? Which is better? That’s a hard choice, but I think I’d probably choose the later. Forgive me, Bones, but I’d be quite happy to throw some fruit down a fiery pit three times a day in exchange for the easy life.
Spock, of course, thinks McCoy is being illogical. He doesn’t see the need to destroy the Vaalian’s society as they’re happy, and as a group they have the right to choose their own system. McCoy still feels that it’s better to be free and not serve a machine. Kirk doesn’t really take sides, which is unusual for him. His main concern is that Vaal has locked a tractor beam onto the Enterprise and is pulling it down towards the planet’s atmosphere. Kirk needs to destroy Vaal to save his ship, thus relieving him of being intentionally cast as the devil.
We can clearly see the anti-religion theme of this episode. The Enterprise crew are modern men of science who reject superstition and see through the veil of those who wish to control them. To McCoy, it’s better to live free than to serve any being, even if that being is helpful. Vaal isn’t presented as all lollipops and sunshine though. The intelligent machine senses that the Enterprise crew is a threat to his people, as they’re introducing new ideas and questioning their society, and like all religion leaders when threatened, he reacts by trying to kill the heretics, using lightning, exploding rocks and deadly shower head plants that shoot poison darts. He then teaches his people to kill. The message is clear: religion is reactive and stands in the way of progress. In order for progress to be made, superstition must be defeated.
Naming the machine Vaal was also probably intentional, as it’s very close to the biblical Baal, one of the false gods often mentioned in the Old Testament. The name alone clearly casts him as an antagonist. Technically, though, Vaal is doing nothing wrong until the Enterprise crew shows up. He’s a good provider to his people, and in return they provide for him. It’s simple reciprocity, and it very much resembles tribal religions on Earth, where people sacrificed to their gods in return for favors. Only here there actually is a “god” to grant their wishes. The attitude of 1960s society, though, was that progress was everything. People must modernize and be brought into a global society. Nowadays, attitudes have changed to some degree, and tribal customs are being embraced and deemed worthy of protection. A modern version of “The Apple” would go very differently I think.
In the end, Kirk and Spock manage to find a way to drain Vaal’s power, thus “killing” him. The Enterprise is saved, and McCoy is happy. Now the Vaalians can fall ill and die, and they must work all day for their food instead of laying around like lazy sods, plus they also now have to put up with environmental upheavals. Clearly they’re better off this way than they were in the Garden of Eden, especially since they’re left without any instruction on how to farm or take care of their sick or actually any other useful information that would help them to survive. If that happened in the story, we saw or heard nothing of it. All we get for closure is Kirk telling two Vaalians that they’ll soon find out what children are, and then the Enterprise leaves orbit for next week’s episode. My bet is that the Vaalians were all dead within the year.
An interesting aspect of this episode, as in all Star Trek episodes, is the role of women. TOS women, for the most part, tend to either be scared and in need of protection or they’re the root of the episode’s problem. In “The Apple,” we have Yeoman Landon, a beautiful young blonde. She’s the only female member of the landing party, and her sole purpose is to serve as a sexual opposite to the male crew, especially Chekov, who gets creepy with her more than once. She also becomes the butt of humor when she attempts to comment about the Vaalian’s lack of sexual experience and she’s too embarrassed to say the word “sex” or even imply it. She also comments that she’s frightened when things begin to go wrong on the planet. And then there is Sayana, a Vaalian woman who tempts a Vaalian man, Makora, played by Starsky and Hutch star David Soul, to kiss her in imitation of Chekov and Landon. Notice here that it’s the woman who tempts the man, just like in the biblical story. So with two women in the cast, neither make any positive contributions.
I like this episode, though, despite its flaws. It’s fun. The aliens are appropriately goofy looking, with white fluffy wigs and orange grease paint all over their bodies as well as white eye shadow, and Kirk gets to show off his feminine side throughout the episode, dramatically blaming himself for the deaths of three landing party members. And there’s much humor, some of it unintentional. You can’t help but laugh when Lieutenant Mallory runs through the bushes excitedly, like a seven-year-old, yelling for Kirk to come see what he found, and then he steps on a styrofoam rock and goes flying through the air as it explodes. Ah, the simple pleasures of 1960s special effects.
Episode rating: 4 of 5
Red shirts dead: 3
Scared female moments: 1
Spock embarrassment moments: 1
McCoy getting irate moments: 3
Chekov being creepy moments: 2