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The Trek Nation - Plato's Stepchildren

Plato's Stepchildren

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 13, 2006 - 9:40 PM GMT

See Also: 'Plato´s Stepchildren' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise responds to a distress call from an unknown planet, where Kirk, Spock and McCoy find philosopher-king Parmen dying of what should have been a trivial injury. The doctor learns that the Platonians - as they call themselves, in tribute to Earth's Plato - have very strong telekinetic abilities but very little resistance to infection. McCoy treats the injury, but then Parmen decides not to let him leave in case they should have need of a doctor, and when Kirk insists that McCoy be allowed to return to the Enterprise, the Platonians begin to treat the landing party the way they treat the dwarf Alexander, who lacks their powers and has been forced into slavery. McCoy determines that the Platonians probably developed their powers from an enzyme in the planet's foods, which Alexander cannot metabolize because of the same pituitary problem that has stunted his growth. The doctor gives the Enterprise crewmembers injections of the enzyme, and while Parmen and the others set out to torment Kirk and Spock until McCoy agrees to stay, the Starfleet officers develop powers greater than Parmen's. When they demonstrate that they have the power to injure and thus kill the Platonians, Parmen agrees to let McCoy go, along with Alexander, while the Platonians rethink the philosophy that has turned brutal.


Analysis: "Plato's Stepchildren" is an episode most people seem either to love or hate. Either it gets lumped in with all the dubious Evil Alien episodes of the original series' third season - a sort of poor cousin to "Who Mourns For Adonais?", which had a real Greek god rather than these wannabes - or else the guilty pleasure of being witness to Kirk and Spock's humiliation outweighs other considerations. I must confess to belonging to the latter category; I have shameless love for this episode, even though the ancient Greek connections are ludicrous and it's painful to watch Shatner, Nimoy, Nichols and Barrett acting out some of the things the Platonians make the Starfleet officers do.

It's never properly explained how these beings who left Earth before the rise of Rome could make the Enterprise crew recite rhymes based on Lewis Carroll, nor why Uhura and Chapel are chosen to be sexual partners for Kirk and Spock. If the Platonians could read minds, one would have expected them to read McCoy's and figure out a way to bribe him to stay, or at least figure out his plans to recreate their powers and stop him. I think Uhura and Chapel are chosen as partners to titillate the viewers, not because the Platonians have any sense of attraction between the couples in question. What's the fun of forcing Kirk to kiss some pretty no-name ensign? In order to convince us that he really, really doesn't want to be doing this, Kirk must be paired with a woman whom under normal circumstances he would never allow himself to kiss, as if brown skin or green skin or alien planet or nation of origin or 20th century standards of beauty ever mattered to Kirk.

"Plato's Stepchildren" is famous because it features the first interracial kiss on television...perversely, a forced kiss. ("Where I come from, size, shape, or color makes no difference," Kirk explains to Alexander.) Yet there's an underlying attraction between Kirk and Uhura that the actors bring to the surface, briefly. We've seen hints of it before, during rare tender moments like the one in "City on the Edge of Forever" and just a week earlier when Uhura saw Kirk's spectral form in "The Tholian Web", and that makes watching the compelled embrace here pleasurable no matter how wrong it is. Instead of closing her eyes and thinking of Starfleet, Uhura thinks of all the times she admired Kirk on the Enterprise, which he encourages by telling her not to think about why they're doing what they're doing. And Spock, who has been struggling with his emotions since he first felt hate toward Parmen, is wistfully apologetic to Chapel, who first declared her unrequited love back in the show's first season. Instead of playing like the sexual assault it is, the Platonians' manipulations result in a moving scene between two couples who normally have to repress any hint of romantic interest. But wait! We're not supposed to be rooting secretly for anyone to make them do such things!

If I need to justify my adoration of "Plato's Stepchildren", it's that ambiguity that saves the episode for me. I know I'm not the only fan to identify with the evil aliens who want to make Kirk and Spock sing, dance and make out with crewmembers to whom they may be attracted; there are reams of fan fiction featuring scenarios just like that. It's a little bit thrilling as well as horrifying to watch Spock laugh and cry. Like Alexander, we'd all be safer without ever having the capacity for choosing revenge or any other indulgence of what our base natures might desire - few of us could manage Platonic ideals with the ability to sway the universe to do our bidding. That's why Kirk delivers a tired lecture and leaves, rather than staying long enough to make sure Parmen really empathizes with his victims; as Kirk learned from Gary Mitchell, Henoch and all others who ever fancied themselves godlike, possessing such powers even for a brief time is far too dangerous a temptation.

Alexander's kindness and dignity in the face of what must have been centuries of suffering strikes me as somewhat unrealistic in these circumstances, but they make him an object of admiration instead of merely pathos. His transformation, too, seems rather abrupt - he tells Kirk that he thought of the Platonians as gods until he saw how the Starfleet officers reacted to their treachery - and instinctively he wants to hurt as he has been hurt. Even so, McCoy seems to learn from his example: though he wants simply to give in to his fate until Kirk points out that his farewell would probably sign the Enterprise's death warrant, the doctor follows Spock's lead, grits his teeth and works on finding a rational solution to their dilemma. I enjoy the circularity of the fact that McCoy's medical knowledge sets the crisis in motion and also provides the means of resolution.

Visually, "Plato's Stepchildren" is a nice break from the usual. In the first shots on the planet, Wizard of Oz-like Alexander appears to be a giant until it's revealed to be a trick of the light and he's really a dwarf. There are virtually no scenes on the ship, with all the drama taking place in the faux Greek setting of vases and pillars. Gilded props and beautiful women in jewel-tone dresses are unusual in the steely gray and blazing primary color world of the Enterprise, and Kirk and Spock in laurel leaves are a sight to behold, though Chapel and Uhura are made up rather garishly. It's also rare to see Kirk as the comforter while Spock is suffering emotionally. The writing may not be very inspired, and the aliens yet another riff on the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but underneath the bombast, the characterization of crewmembers under duress makes "Plato's Stepchildren" a worthwhile hour of television.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.