Awesome! I knew it had to happen. I watch something many Star Trek fans regard as one of the show's worst episodes, but I like it.
It's the one with space hippies. The Enterprise is chasing a stolen spaceship that refuses to stop trying to run away, even when it's paralysed by a tractor beam and its engines are overheating so badly that they're about to explode. Idiots. Kirk has them beamed aboard the ship, whereupon their idiocy is explained in half a second's screen time by the costume designer. There are six of them, all dressed differently but all clearly freaks. These include:
1. Charles Napier in a blue nappy, a cloak and thigh-length boots. He also has a ginger wig and the biggest shit-eating grin you ever saw. He looks a bit like Sean Connery in Zardoz (but slightly sillier).
2. A bald dude (Skip Homeier) whose ears look like roadkill.
3. A man in a purple shoulder-length wig and matching eyebrows.
The girls look less outlandish, though. Their hemlines are more modest than Starfleet miniskirts, for a start.
Anyway, even today you'll recognise them as what was out on the streets in 1969. They're like Nigel Kneale's Planet People in the 1979 Quatermass, except more sympathetically written. Homeier's character is based on the LSD-advocating Timothy Leary. They're a tie-dye mix of hippie clothes, folk music, peacenik ideology, Aquarian Age spirituality and cult mentality, talking in their own rich slang and singing all the time.
This is cool because it's Star Trek.
You see, Star Trek is pretty much the opposite of all that. It's a semi-military futuristic utopia in which the hero is the Captain and everyone obeys orders. It's noble and inspiring, but it's clearly based on a philosophy fundamentally unlike a show like Doctor Who, which would have been on the side of the hippies. (The nearest Doctor Who equivalents from around this time might be the dropouts of Colony in Space or The Green Death, both of which are plucky underdogs up against an evil company.)
Space hippies are thus interesting just in a Star Trek context, as well as as a reflection of 1969. Admittedly the episode's not challenging the show in any way that matters. The hippies don't question any of Star Trek's fundamentals. They're not trying to start a Starfleet revolution. No one ever calls out Kirk on whether there might be a contradiction between the Enterprise's peaceful mission and its military command structure. No one even joins the dots of "military vessel" and "1970s anti-war protesters", which you'd think would be the obvious angle at the time of, say, the 1968 My Lai Massacre and the 1969 Green Beret Affair. (I'm not saying I seriously expected Star Trek to discuss Vietnam, mind you, despite A Private Little War.)
I don't think any of that matters. I think that's looking for too much literalism and that what the episode's saying is subtler than that.
These hippies are just drop-outs, trying to fly to a planet that supposedly doesn't exist. They're not Marxists or revolutionaries and it would be a category error to treat them as such. They're not trying to change the world, but merely to opt out of it. The nearest they get is to try to sway members of the Enterprise's crew over to their side, but the episode doesn't really try to convince us that this might succeed. The philosophical questions they're asking are subtler than that.
Most important, oddly, is Chekov. For this one episode only, he represents stiff, square, buttoned-up duty and responsibility. He's uptight. He knows one of the hippy girls and metaphorically he's representing Starfleet itself in their conversations together... and he's a prig. He's a dried-up stick who's being made to look like a bloodless robot by Russian Hippy Girl (Mary-Linda Rapelye), who in contrast is doing a great job of selling her values just by being herself. Chekov will stop kissing her if reminded that he's meant to be at work.
The hippies are wrong. That was pretty much a given. They're following a murderous, reality-denying twat and the universe is getting ready to shatter their illusions. All the idealistic free thinking in the world won't get rid of acid or viruses. That's the story's message. However, at the same time, they have some good points to make and in certain respects they have things to teach our heroes. "Be incorrect, occasionally."
The Enterprise crew are mostly interesting for their reactions. Scotty is dismissive of the visitors. "I don't know why a young mind has to be an undisciplined one. They're troublemakers." Chekov can't wrap his brain around them. He just doesn't have the mental equipment. (Walter Koenig disliked the episode, partly because of this, and has called it the low point of his character's tenure on the show.) Spock, on the other hand, gets on with them like a house on fire and even jams with them in a live music session.
Kirk is at neither position, but it would be wrong to say that he's between them. He's the authority figure. He's the one telling them what to do. He's everything they're rebelling against and he's not afraid of making himself unpopular, but he's not happy about it. He takes Spock's Herbert explanation more personally than you'd expect, for instance (which is funny), while I liked his last line. "We reach, Mister Spock."
Then there's Homeier's character, who's the dark side of all this. He's intimidating and, if you listen to what he's saying, scary. His self-justification to Spock is at once monstrous and remarkably well-presented. The guy's an abomination, of course. However he's being allowed to argue his corner with eloquence and passion, even if his logic has led him to a psychotic conclusion. "Because this is poison to me!"
I like the horrific realities with which the script trumps its hippies' idealism. (It's stacking the deck against these people, but it's doing it so brutally that it's delicious.) I think the music is a huge part of the episode and all-important for counter-culture characterisation. I like Chekov's uncomprehending anti-romance, especially given his huge symbolic importance as the Russian on this idealistic American mission to the future from the Cold War era. All of these are huge story elements. However I also have plot nitpicks. When the hippies lock themselves in auxiliary control, why doesn't Kirk just teleport them out of there? Maybe there's a technobabble in-fiction reason why he can't, but if so then I'd have liked to be told what it was. (The episode even draws your attention to this possibility by having Kirk use a transporter twice elsewhere in the episode to surprise them.) Furthermore, what's the deal with Eden? What's so special about this uncharted planet, as opposed to any other unspoiled natural world?
I also like the acting, especially Homeier and Napier. The latter particularly blew me away, incidentally, because he's coming across as the coolest thing you've seen on TV all week, even though he's singing folk music and wearing a nappy. Not many actors could pull that off, but Charles Napier has the charisma for it. All hail. I was convinced I'd seen him before, by the way, but it wasn't until afterwards that I worked it out. I knew I knew him! He's in several Russ Meyer movies! (Also Silence of the Lambs.)
Oh, and I've seen morons whinging about the Russian accents in this episode. I've studied Russian and I thought they were quite good.
I liked this one a lot. It's presenting us with a fundamentally anti-Trek worldview and showing it to be both right and wrong, in important ways. It's got Chekov being so pompous that his brain can't function, Spock being a counter-culture ambassador and Kirk being hemmed in by his own rank and position. There's not an enormous amount of Shatner this week, but I liked what we got. It's got the mighty Napier, singing songs that as it happens he wrote some of himself. Admittedly D.C. Fontana was unhappy with how her script got rewritten and had her name taken off it, but what the hell. It's thoughtful and interesting. Great stuff.
"His name was Adam."