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The Trek Nation - Shore Leave

Shore Leave

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at September 2, 2005 - 5:11 PM GMT

See Also: 'Shore Leave' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise has arrived at a planet that seems an ideal place for the crew to find rest and relaxation, but when McCoy comments that it reminds him of something out of Alice in Wonderland, he is soon confronted with a large white rabbit and a little girl chasing it. Suspending shore leave until he can conduct an investigation, Kirk beams down, reflects upon his Academy days and quickly meets both his school nemesis and sweetheart. Other crewmembers find their fantasies becoming reality, including Yeoman Barrows, whose desire to be a princess pursued by a dark knight arouses McCoy's protective instincts...and gets him killed by the knight. Meanwhile Spock, who has discovered signs of industrial activity on this supposedly uninhabited planet, concludes that they are being studied and presented with their own thoughts made real. Just as Kirk is ordering his away team to stop thinking, the planet's caretaker appears, saying that he did not realize their failure to understand that this has all been for their amusement and that McCoy is not really dead. He extends an invitation to them to visit, and Kirk allows the crew to start beaming down.


Analysis: One of the more lighthearted episodes of the original series, "Shore Leave" focuses entirely on characterization, leaving all of the science fiction to the realm of the imagination. We are given no clue as to how the Caretaker reads the crew's minds, let alone how interactive objects are designed and produced so quickly, even though the beings beneath the surface of the planet must be able to work their magic from some distance away as the familiar greenery is already in place when the human crewmembers start beaming down. This is a fantasy with a bit of a cautionary note about being careful what one wishes for.

None of the crewmembers has entirely benign, hedonistic fantasies - Kirk wants to have revenge upon a former tormentor, Sulu wants to battle a samurai, Rodriguez wants to see old warplanes, and Barrows wants to be rescued from ravishment by a Don Juan (or maybe she doesn't want to be rescued; the episode doesn't make this entirely clear). There is no implied judgment of anyone's violent or erotic impulses here, either from characters on the series or from the structure of the story: no one is punished or singled out for particular violence or embarrassment. There are some cultural stereotypes enacted but also some discoveries - Sulu, for instance, who we already knew was interested in botany, is also interested in firearms. Kirk, whom we see each week as the well-balanced captain, couldn't take a prank or a punch at the Academy.

The episode is structured as a mystery, when a place that seems too good to be true in fact turns out too good to be true, but the action is advanced by the characters. We see Kirk on the bridge complaining of a sore back, thinking he's getting a backrub from Spock though it turns out to be yet another pretty yeoman who tells him that he needs sleep, Kirk gripes that he hears that enough from McCoy who's already on the planet worrying a bit about whether he needs sleep or has just lost his mind when the white rabbit in coattails hops past. Such is Kirk's weariness that he assumes this must be a joke, then fails to grasp it when Spock plays a joke on him in turn and orders himself down to the planet for shore leave. We don't often get enough focus on how the crew on this long mission finds R&R; we know the ship has a gymnasium, an arboretum and a theater, yet we almost never see the senior officers there, so it's interesting to see the negotiation here.

And "shore leave" is not quite the same on a shore as unknown as the ones the Enterprise encounters. Before pleasure, there must be the work of surveying the planet and looking for any possible trouble spots. It's never clear whether the Caretaker has somehow cloaked all life forms from the Enterprise's sensors or whether the minds of the crew are somehow manipulated into seeing something other than what's there. Nor is it clear why, as the power required to keep the crew entertained increases, communications and other systems begin to fail. Does the Caretaker believe that the crew will enjoy its R&R more if it's preceded by an immediate crisis? He certainly doesn't help his case in trying to convince Kirk to bring the crew down, and it's rather astonishing in some ways that Kirk agrees rather than feeling manipulated by these powerful beings whom he is told humanity is not yet ready to encounter. This is not so radically different than the utopia Roger Korby envisioned with his androids, other than the apparently benign nature of these aliens.

Such is Spock's concern for Kirk that he beams down, even though he knows transport will be difficult through the energy field and even though he has been given explicit orders to stay on the ship, not only because he is in command but because Kirk wants no one else on the planet until the survey crews can tell him what's going on. Rodriguez and the officer with whom he is carrying on a flirtation keep finding themselves pinned down and unable to do their work, first by a tiger, then by warplanes, and McCoy and Barrows become rather distracted by one another as well; if one evaluates crew efficiency based on these officers' inattentiveness to duty, it's quite apparent that the crew does indeed desperately need a break. Apparently Spock's mind is not so transparent to the Caretaker, for we see no Vulcan-specific fantasies or threats, unless the inability to protect his captain and make him take the break he needs should count.

Kirk's conflict with Finnegan is just plain fun, because in addition to knowing everything Kirk expects his old enemy to know, he knows Kirk's fears about the planet. "I'm still 22 years old; look at you!" he taunts. Yet their fight (unmistakably filmed on Vasquez Rocks, the same location where Kirk will later fight the Gorn) reveals that Kirk's biggest weaknesses are mental. He can take Finnegan's punches, but he allows himself to be distracted and taunted. When he finally gains the upper hand, Spock, watching with a tolerant smile, understands that Kirk enjoys this - not only the victory over Finnegan but discovering his own old sore spots and compensating for them.

What makes the least sense about "Shore Leave" is that it should be obvious to the omniscient Caretaker that Kirk and Spock's primary wish is to know what's going on. Even if, in the end, Kirk is content to enjoy Ruth's company without asking too many questions about the vast underground factory McCoy saw while he was "dead", I'd still expect him to want to understand who these beings are and why they are providing these services. For all he knows, they're planning an invasion of Earth and trying to learn as much as possible about human psychology and reactions.

Amusement park it may be, and Kirk insists to Sulu that the more complex the mind, more the need for play -- making one wonder why he doesn't order Spock to take leave -- there's something unnerving about beings who offer to fulfill fantasies without any explanation of why they do it. Are they like the Talosians, experiencing vicariously the pleasures of others? Do they absorb energy from those who visit their planet to compensate for the energy they expend in entertaining them? Or are they simply philanthropic?

The episode does not really invite such deep questions, but instead provides plenty of action, humor and eye candy in compensation. It's nice to see McCoy get a little romance, it's nice to get a few more glimpses into what makes Sulu tick, it's nice to see Kirk's fears popping up and conquered one after another as he and Spock flee the tiger, the samurai, the plane and every other threat Kirk has witnessed or heard about on the planet. Yet the next generation foregoes this place for Risa, where the pleasures are a little simpler, a little more predictable...perhaps a little safer. It's interesting that, having explored their innermost fancies once, the crew seemingly does not need to retrace that particular form of release.


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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.