Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Original Series

"Plato's Stepchildren"

***

Air date: 11/22/1968
Written by Meyer Dolinsky
Directed by David Alexander

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

As we all know, "Plato's Stepchildren" is most commonly remembered for providing television's first interracial kiss. All well and good, but how does the story stand up? Actually, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this fairly nondescript premise, in which Parmen (Liam Sullivan), a tyrannical leader of a small community of people with telekinetic abilities, decides he wants McCoy to stay against his will on this planet as their doctor. Story execution here is key.

After Kirk's initial defiance of Parmen comes a telekinetically induced humiliation brought to Kirk and Spock that is surprisingly well played. The degree of Parmen's villain factor is multiplied by tenfold when Uhura and Chapel are beamed down as players in a degrading entertainment spectacle alongside Kirk and Spock. What's particularly nice about this episode is that the plot falls together logically, and the characters' reactions to their predicament shows sensible thinking and quiet ingenuity. McCoy's way of fighting back makes sense and is applied with a cool head. Meanwhile, Alexander (Michael Dunn), the community's most often abused, turns out to be a deeper-than-expected source of sympathy—someone with a great deal of moral integrity.

The problem is that the episode lets its villain off way too easily. As Kirk says, Parmen is very good at making speeches, and given the extent of his cruelty, letting it all slide at the end lacks justice. A more satisfying ending would've found a way to strip Parmen of his telekinetic powers, thereby administering, without turning to vengeance or violence, a rational comeuppance.

Previous episode: The Tholian Web
Next episode: Wink of an Eye

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6 comments on this review

Strider - Thu, Jun 28, 2012 - 1:54am (USA Central)
I agree about the ending, but the remarkable thing about this episode seems to go unremarked everywhere. In the scene after the first set of humiliations, where Spock almost stomped on Kirk's head, then was made to laugh and cry--provoking McCoy's most vehement objection in the episode. Spock asks Jim if he feels anger, and Jim says yes. He asks McCoy, and he says yes, and hatred. Then Spock says that he, too, feels anger and hatred, and while they must channel theirs, he must master his. Then he crushes a stone sculpture.

Spock is all too aware that he could have been made by forces out of his control to kill Jim. He's already been there once--during the ponn farr. Add that to the humiliation of his own treatment and the misery of seeing Kirk degraded--that's about as close to an explosion from Spock that we've seen, at least while he's in his right mind. It was good writing, and stunningly well-played by Nimoy.
Paul - Mon, Dec 17, 2012 - 2:15pm (USA Central)
@Strider:

Totally agree. Shatner's good in this one, too. His dialog with Alexander is dead on and is more akin to Kirk from the first two seasons.

Agreed that Parmen was let off the hook too easily. But I had another thought: Couldn't Kirk and Spock retain their telekinetic abilities after they left (assuming they kept taking kironide)? The episode doesn't say that the powers are only usable on that planet.
Brundledan - Thu, May 30, 2013 - 2:28am (USA Central)
Hateful.

Hateful.

Hateful.

There aren't enough words in the dictionary to describe "Plato's Stepchildren". It is fifty minutes of pure, sadistic humiliation of our lead characters. The third season had its share of stinkers, but this is the only one of them that makes me wish the series had been yanked from the network schedule before the ep had a chance to air.

I can only imagine how many Trekkies who had worked so hard to get the show renewed sat in front of their televisions in slack-jawed horror that Friday night in November 1968, watching Kirk slap himself silly for thirty seconds and wondering what they had written all of those letters for.

Hateful.

(Even the interracial kiss this monstrous thing is known for isn't real. The shot is framed to obscure the fact that Shatner's and Nichols' lips don't actually touch.)
moonie - Wed, Mar 19, 2014 - 3:10pm (USA Central)
Terrible.
Jo Jo Meastro - Mon, Mar 24, 2014 - 10:35am (USA Central)
From what I can gather, this episode is very polarising amongst fans. I feel conflicted about what I make of it because its such a bizzare mixture of hilarious camp, genuinely uncomfortable dark content and a satisfying degree of thoughtfulness. Sometimes its all these things at once! I think it works in the end, even if you'll ask yourself what the hell am I watching on more than a few occasions (it reminds me of Lexx in that regard)!

I'm surprised that barely on-screen kiss gets so much recognition instead of the line about colour or shape or size aren't important and the depth and strength given to a perceived disabled character. That stood out the most for me, the kiss was too shy and self-conscious to really transcend the era imho.

I'll give this one a 2.5 stars for being unique and a well done adventure despite some OTT silliness along the way.
William B - Wed, Oct 1, 2014 - 11:51am (USA Central)
Like Jo Jo Meastro, I'm not entirely sure what I think about this episode, which is really, really odd. I think that it's maybe supposed to do for Greek culture what "Bread and Circuses" did for Roman culture -- to show how that's, you know, not a good thing to emulate, at least to a degree. As easy as it is to idealize the Greeks for their philosophical thought and emphasis on intellect, they were a state with slaves, and Plato's ideal that a republic would be ruled by Philosopher-Kings whose superior intellect and dedication to ideas has some, er, problems. I don't have as much of a philosophy background/expertise as I'd like, so I don't claim to speak with much background. Still, some of the big problems are demonstrated here. Parmen talks about how his society is superior to one ruled over by the strong rather than the intelligent, but he employs tyrannical cruelty for his own pleasure just as much as any strongman-tyrant. Someone who is deemed by them to be unintelligent because he lacks their psychokinetic abilities, Alexander, is reduced to slavery and mockery. Given the opportunity, these "intellectuals" lounge around fulfilling their desires and do naught else. I value intelligence, and Trek obviously does too, but intelligence by itself is no guarantee of moral virtue, and a society with an intellectual dictator is still a dictatorship.

On the other hand, Spock makes the point of distinguishing between the awful society that Parmen rules over and what Plato himself advocated -- with truth, beauty, and above all justice as founding principles, rather than this perpetual sadistic cruelty. And the episode could also be argued not so much to argue with Plato -- perhaps a wise decision, really -- as with those who would emulate Plato while ignoring his meaning. In particular, the trait that Parmen believes indicates intelligence, telekinesis, is actually completely unrelated to intelligence, and only related to petuitary hormones and, well, height. His mind powers basically are indistinguishable from any other form of strength, and his smug insistence that his powers make him the most intelligent is just a rationalization for his brutality. I think this also has some pretty far-reaching implications. It makes me think of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and other cognitive biases in which the strong seek to justify their strength as indicative of superior moral virtue rather than of some accident of circumstance. Along those lines, I really like the way McCoy is so highly prized by the Platonians because he has actual skill, knowledge, curiosity and intellectual acumen, which they have essentially abandoned; and that the away team beats the Platonians by using scientific investigation and, well, intellect to beat them. This is the application of intellect and intuition through work and curiosity -- rather than the decadent, lazy "intellect" of the "Philosopher-King" class that we see with Parmen, who has clearly left behind anything resembling valuable intellectual pursuits a few millennia ago.

I also really agree (with Jammer and Jo Jo) that the depiction of Alexander is impressive -- not just because it's a good development of a supporting character, but because it's an unusual-for-the-time (and still for this time, frankly) depiction of a dwarf/little person as heroic while also pretty directly confronting the feelings of insecurity that come with having one's disability constantly thrown in his face as a weakness or even as stupidity. Alexander's arc over the course of the episode is good -- he starts off pretty much just accepting his lot in life, as is to be expected (had he not accepted it, had he rebelled, he likely would have been executed earlier, and he doesn't have the science kits that the crew have), feeling bad that the Enterprise crew are now condemned to his fate, but unwilling to step out and help them because of the inevitable consequences to himself, beginning to feel guilt and shame once the Enterprise crew shows him another path and Kirk immediately reassuring him that it's understandable in his circumstance, him refusing the power granted the others because he sees its corrupting influence, finally refusing to kill Parmen, refusing not just the Power-power of telekenesis but the power-over-life-and-death that is the "real" meaning of that Power-power. I think one could look upon some of these later developments less kindly, and say that perpetual-victim Alexander's refusal to take on power means that he has to be saved by Kirk et al.; that, indeed, it may be that the episode "sides" with Alexander, and views the power as corrupting in Alexander's hands but not in Kirk's, suggesting perhaps that oppressed people really do need some able-bodied guy to come in to save them. It's possible -- but I think that the episode is clear that Kirk trusts Alexander with the power, and Alexander himself makes the choice to refuse it. It's been so much a part of his life for years that Alexander cannot as easily as Kirk view the taking on of such power as a totally passing thing, specific to this planet. He demonstrates his moral superiority, confirms that it was not intellectual inferiority that kept him from having the telekenesis at all, and leaves.

So, okay, that's the Big Themes of the episode, such as they are: what do we make of the actual depiction? This is probably the longest depiction of pure sadism on TOS, with scene after scene of the crew helpless to stop being subjected to different humiliations. I can't really tell if they are "funny" or not: they are...funny to the Platonians, and maybe to the audience for sheer camp value. It's different watching Kirk et al. humiliate themselves to try to convince McCoy to stay for the Platonians and watching Shatner et al. "humiliate" themselves for a paycheck for the audience, because, well, the actors did sign on to this type of thing, I guess, and maybe don't mind it? But the story's basic point -- the Platonians are cruel and barbaric but believe themselves to be intellectually sophisticated -- doesn't really need scene after scene of proof. There is something kind of effective in the episode's repeating the humiliation again and again, though -- especially when we get glimpses of how awful the Platonians are, and what sense of intellectual superiority backs up their reasoning. When Kirk and Spock are made to court Uhura and Chapel and then switch and then switch back, and one of the Platonians yells out how fickle they are and laughs as if Kirk and Spock had any control over their situation, it's not just pure cruelty, but the shocking, disgusting idea that the Platonians seem on some level to believe their victims actually want to do what they are being forced to do, and deserve it. The fact that the last humiliation is actually some depiction of sexual violence -- Kirk and Spock forced first to kiss and then to get whips/hot pokers and presumably torture and maybe kill Uhura and Chapel -- makes this episode seem like something out of the Marquis de Sade rather than Star Trek.

In that sense, the episode is actually maybe more effective than the half dozen or so "Kirk/whoever has to fight in a gladiator combat against his will for entertainment!" episodes, because at least Kirk doesn't have to be forced to pretend to enjoy those gladiator fights, and at least he has control over his body even if he's being put in a kill-or-be-killed situation. When Spock is forced to laugh or cry, or to dance and nearly crush Kirk's skull, or when Chapel and Spock are forced to kiss and Chapel admits that this is exactly what she's wanted but not like this, and Kirk and Uhura kiss and Uhura talks about how Kirk is the person who made her less afraid, or when the whip comes out, there is the sense that the Platonians are aiming to control not just the body but the hearts of their victims as well, which is what real totalitarian savagery is -- not killing someone but tearing them apart from the inside, breaking their will. That the episode does this in a kind of light, fanciful tone is part of what makes it so strange and puzzling.

...which is, I guess, to say that the interracial kiss was maybe not such a television watershed in-story. That they got the image of a white man and a black woman kissing on American network TV is impressive and admirable. But they were forced to against their will, you know? And while the story was careful not to depict the problem as that they were different races -- the problem is that it's awkward because it's a captain and one of his officers, and, more to the point, that they are being telekinetically controlled. But everyone knew that. It just makes the moment weird to watch, and associates this big "THIS IS WRONG" emotion over the moment.

Anyway, uh...I do not really know what I think of the episode, to be honest. I think that enough elements of it work that I'm inclined to think favourably of it -- but it is a bit of a slog to get through and I'm not sure if the long depiction of sadism is clever enough to justify...itself. I guess 2.5 stars.

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