In the twenty-second episode of the second season of Star Trek, this goes from being ridiculously disturbing to just plain ridiculous. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of sexism and general discussion of colonialism/oppression, and brief mention of suicide
Damn, this was a weird one, and I’m still kind of terrified by what I just watched. Until “By Any Other Name” embarks on that particular brand of silliness that Star Trek is known for, it’s SO MESSED UP. SUPER MESSED UP. There is a part of me that wishes that the concept of colonization was addressed with more of a critical eye, particularly since I was convinced that this was actually what the writers were going for in the early parts of this episode. Rojan’s logic throughout this episode felt stunningly real, namely because it’s not something that was pulled out of thin air. The idea of conquering a people due to genetic or biological or racial superiority is A VERY DEFINITE PART OF OUR PAST.
So it was shocking to see it plainly stated on screen, to watch the Kelvans destroy and dominate without any sort of apology, and to then witness them rationalize their behavior because that’s how the universe works. Throughout this episode, that’s a constant motif for them. They conquer because they can. They use their control belts to induce paralysis in the crew of the Enterprise as a literal manifestation of their brand of colonization. They can literally control bodies, both with paralysis and with transformation. I know I made a joke about dice while watching this, but that’s mainly because it was a whole lot easier to deal with the horrifying reality than facing it head-on.
And that’s one of the better aspects of “By Any Other Name”: the horror of this sort of conquering is displayed boldly on the screen. That’s not to say that there aren’t other weird implications here. Yeoman Thompson is fridged in order to provide Captain Kirk with his development in the episode. (Seriously, the show chose the woman and the black guy to threaten with death. I’m actually surprised that Lt. Shea survived this. A REDSHIRT AND BLACK DUDE SURVIVED, THIS IS UNHEARD OF.) I do understand that part of this episode’s shock comes from how vicious Rojan is, and I don’t know that it would have been as effective without a death, so I acknowledge that this is a complicated issue. Rojan and the other Kelvans are so unsettling because they remind us of the worst of humanity while still being inhuman themselves. (TENTACLES, OH MY GOD.) They treat the crew as means to an end, so much so that it doesn’t bother them that they’re turning people to dust. Everything has a logical conclusion and a pragmatic explanation to it, and this makes the Kelvans better than humanity as a whole. (Wow, there’s a quiet parallel to Spock here that I didn’t notice initially. Granted, he’s not out in space conquering other people, but that sort of cold logical behavior is similar to his own personality.)
So how does the crew defeat a force that has such an invincible weapon at their disposal? The show moves through two possible solutions, the first one being ONE OF THE MOST RIDICULOUSLY UPSETTING THINGS IT HAS EVER DONE. Y’all, the rest of the crew of the Enterprise will never know how close they all came to dying. Only Spock, Scotty, Bones, and Kirk will know that they came up with a plan to sacrifice themselves in order to stop the Kelvans. After watching how horrifying the Kelvans could be, I thought the episode conveyed the need to stop the Kelvans quite well. They could not be allowed to colonize the galaxy because they operated under a frightening moral necessity. They cared not for the self-determination of a people to live as they wish, free from brute force and oppression, and they believed that they were superior beings who deserved what they took. So Kirk and those in-the-know took a risk, one that was desperate and scary.
But this show wasn’t going to kill off everyone, so the tension of “By Any Other Name” came from the building sense of futility. These beings seemed entirely invincible, so how the hell do you defeat them?
By using their humanity against them.
I really feel like this episode somehow exists at polar ends on the spectrum of tone because practically nothing in the final 15 minutes is frightening or scary. The non-dice crew (WHAT ELSE DO YOU CALL THEM) realize that the Kelvans are not in their natural form and chose the human form in order to survive their centuries-long journey. So they, more or less, annoy them as much as possible. I mean, yes, their goal was to get those control belts away from the Kelvans, but ultimately that’s not the technique that Kirk uses. Hanar is tricked into becoming paranoid and irritable; Scotty gets Tomar drunker than any being in any existence; Kirk seduces Kelinda because what alien won’t Kirk have sex with?; and Spock pushes Rojan towards intense feelings of jealousy. All of it shows the Kelvans that they’ll never survive the constant annoyance of being human, and by the time they get home, they’ll be an entirely different species in behavior. I thought it was kind of cool that Kirk’s original suggestion – that the Federation would help the Kelvans find a new planet – was what Rojan agreed to in the end. That seemed to me to be the most logical solution here, one with the least amount of risk. I’m also amused that the crew used their own ability to irritate a species into submission to stop the Kelvans. I do wish the show would stop putting every woman who comes across the screen into Kirk’s arms because OH MY GOD, WHAT ARE YOU DOING. Seriously, Kirk seduces everyone.
Anyway, this was a lot more disturbing than I expected, but it’s also absurd in a way that makes it feel very much like a Star Trek episode. Victory by annoyance, y’all. ONLY THIS SHOW WOULD DO THAT.
The video for “By Any Other Name” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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