In the twenty-first episode of the third season of Star Trek, a brief mission to pick up a mineral deposit gets Kirk and Spock wrapped up in an oppressive war. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of oppression, particularly racism, classism, and ableism.
I was genuinely surprised by this episode. I think it shares a lot in common with “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” but it completely avoids the awful victim blaming and ignorance of power dynamics that the other episode has. Still, I can’t ignore that in a general sense, it’s basically the same story, isn’t it? The Enterprise are tasked with a fairly normal mission when they get wrapped up in an intense power struggle that is awash in prejudice and bigotry.
I won’t deny that at times, “The Cloud Minders” is heavy-handed. There’s rarely any subtlety here, but I think that works in favor of the metaphor and the actual reality of oppression, particularly since oppression is often not subtle at all. The names of the miners – Troglytes – is a good place to start, since it’s the one thing I picked up on quickest. Even in this aspect, the people of Stratos differentiate themselves from those who provide the means for their existence. The miners are named after a rather derogatory Earth term, while the name for those who live in the clouds elevates them on a metaphorical level. This oppression – which combines class, racism, ability – is represented in physical terms. In the name. In the clothing. In behavior. It’s everywhere, so I do appreciate the heavy-handedness in that sense. It’s a complete thing, and it’s stunning worldbuilding. We see how the Troglytes are filthy and desperate; we see how the Stratosians are well-dressed, appreciative of art, and utter fucking hypocrites.
That is undeniable. Plasus and Droxine are portrayed as “enlightened” people, and yet, nearly every word out of their mouths concerning the Troglytes is violent, savage, and deplorable. That contradiction plays a huge part in the disturbing tone set by “The Cloud Minders.” Yes, Droxine is beautiful, and yes, it’s really fascinating that Spock finds himself drawn to her. However, I was so refreshed to see Spock refuse to engage with this kind of attraction because she was so prejudiced. He wastes no time in calling out her horrible logic, and then, until the end of the episode, he acts wholly uninterested in her. I think it’s easy to write villains who are ugly, unattractive, and senseless. I found it much more compelling that Droxine was the opposite of this, and yet she was still a bigot. Prejudice in a society as rigidly structured as this one is not something that only affects the most obvious antagonists. Whether or not she wanted to consider herself to be an agent of oppression, Droxine benefitted directly from the intense suffering of the Troglytes.
And what of them? Unlike “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” the script for this episode DOESN’T BLAME THE TROGLYTES FOR TRYING TO FIGHT FOR EQUALITY. (Hallelujah.) I certainly got a little uncomfortable when this episode veered into the whole justification of their mental inferiority because… LORD, THAT’S A REALLY BAD THING TO START DOING. It’s bad enough that the people in Stratos believed it, and then McCoy was going to provide the medical justification for it??? However, that’s (thankfully) not where this goes, especially since the apparent discrepancy is caused by the fact that the Stratos elite force the Troglytes to live in the mines, WHICH IS POISONING THEIR BRAINS, thereby creating the endless cycle of oppression.
There’s an element of white savior narratives within this episode, but I admit this didn’t really bother me here. Kirk and Spock saw the terrible conditions of the Troglytes, and they realized that the Prime Directive was not only working against them, but that Plasus was exploiting it in order to maintain this power structure. Plus, the script deliberately doesn’t turn Vanna into a swooning caricature. She does not trust Kirk. Even after he makes a deal with her to give her a mask that would filter out the poisons in the zienite mines, she still double crosses him. Why shouldn’t she? Has she ever been in a situation where someone has genuinely helped her or her people? No, not at all. So when Kirk appears in her cell, see views him as nothing more than a bargaining chip. I don’t blame her for that! And I don’t think “The Cloud Minders” does either. It’s an unfortunate, complicated twist, but Kirk doesn’t lash out at Vanna beyond defending himself. No, he seals himself and Vanna within a chamber in the mines, all so that he can have Plasus beamed there, too. If Plasus is convinced that the poison is fake and the science is bad, then Kirk forces him to suffer from it.
Ultimately, that’s why I liked “The Cloud Minders,” despite that it was a similar story to other episodes in this show. There’s no false equivalency between the Troglytes and the Stratosians. When Kirk successfully demonstrates the effects of the poison within the mines, Vanna doesn’t suddenly realize her struggle was pointless. Plasus doesn’t suddenly become an enlightened individual who shrugs off his bigotry with a handshake and a smile. This struggle is not resolved by the Enterprise crew! Instead, they give Vanna the tools to combat the poison that is holding them back; they upset the power balance; they tip the scales in the favor of the Troglytes without assuming they know what’s best for them. Hell, even when you look at Droxine, this episode ends up being a lot more subtle than I expected from Star Trek. She’s not immediately without prejudice, but she’s WORKING towards undoing the damaging ideas in her mind. She expresses fear for the uncomfortable journey ahead of her, but she doesn’t refuse to go on it.
Unpacking oppressive shit is not an easy or immediate act. It’s a process that takes years. No, a lifetime. But you have to want to do it to have any lasting affect on the world.
The video for “The Cloud Minders” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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