…in which I review “The Way to Eden,” the Star Trek space hippies episode

Summary:

An insane cult leader and his followers, in search of a simple life in an idyllic paradise, hijack the Enterprise and take it to a planet they call “Eden.”

This episode is much-maligned by Star Trek fans because of its unintentionally humorous elements, namely the outlandish depiction of the “space hippies” and the episode’s numerous musical numbers (four) and musical interludes (three).

Not to mention Chekov’s massive back-to-front comb-over, which is truly frightening.

Actually, I think his Davy Jones hair might be worse:

Yet, the episode’s interesting concepts, though sadly eclipsed by the goofy stuff, are still worth noting.

Story synopsis:

The episode opens with the Enterprise chasing down a small stolen vessel, the Aurora. Attaching tractor beams to the vessel puts too much strain upon it and it begins to break up, so Kirk orders the vessel’s six occupants beamed aboard.

The newcomers’ leader is Doctor Sevrin, a brilliant scientist who, sadly, carries a deadly bacteria and is also mentally unstable. The group begins causing trouble almost immediately, first by refusing to leave the transporter room and ultimately by taking over the ship’s auxiliary control room and diverting course to their paradise planet, Eden.

The peace-preaching counterculturalists, however, turn murderously ugly: Sevrin rigs up a system of ultrasonic sound waves designed to at first merely disable the crew of the Enterprise while he and his group escape to the planet on a shuttlecraft, but he knows that ultimately the sound waves will kill everyone left aboard the starship.

Kirk manages to shut off the ultrasonics before the effects prove fatal. He beams down to the planet with Spock, McCoy, and Chekov. The planet is indeed beautiful, but it turns out to be dangerous and toxic: touching a flower gives Chekov second-degree burns on the palm of his hand. They find one of the young people dead on the ground with a partially eaten piece of poisonous fruit next to him. They find Sevrin and his followers in the shuttlecraft, their bare feet horribly burned. Sevrin refuses to be rescued; he rushes to the nearest tree, takes a bite of the deadly fruit, and dies almost instantly.

Story analysis:

This is not one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, but despite the silly stuff, I don’t mind it all that much.

The most interesting element of this story is the imaginary Synthecoccus novae bacteria, which infects Sevrin the way Salmonella typhi infected Typhoid Mary. Like Typhoid Mary, Sevrin is immune to the bacteria but serves as a source of infection to the people around him. For that reason, he has had restrictions placed on him that require him to travel only in areas with sufficient medical technology and resources to deal with any accidental infections he might cause.

Favorite moments:

At Kirk’s request, Spock interviews Doctor Sevrin, trying to persuade him to keep his followers in line and offering to help Sevrin find the planet Eden. During the course of this interview, Sevrin displays his willingness to expose the population of a primitive planet to the deadly Synthecoccus novae bacteria because he believes the primitives can cleanse him. During Sevrin’s brief soliloquy, Spock’s expression changes from one of placid curiosity to extreme concern as he realizes Sevrin is totally insane.

I also liked the moment at the end of Act 3 when Sevrin rigs up his deadly ultrasonic panel to the tune of a ballad about Eden. He activates the ultrasonics and the crew reacts, wincing in pain and collapsing under a soundtrack of pleasant music: “No more trouble in my body or my mind,” space hippy Adam sings, as the camera pans over the crew of the Enterprise, on the floor writhing and dying at their posts.

Favorite quotes:

Spock: “There is no insanity in what they seek.”

I’m glad Spock acknowledges this, because the space hippies, nutty as they are, merely seek a simple life[1]

True, they seek a parody and a caricature of a simple life, where they will live among primitive people in harmony with nature, frolicking barefoot in the meadows, eating fruit from the trees, free from the oppressive concerns of modern, technological life, but I sometimes entertain myself with dreams of such a life: getting off the hamster wheel into a world devoid of email and TwitFace appeals to me greatly.

However, like all utopian movements, it’s a great-sounding concept, but in practice it would be, at best, much more challenging than they imagine. Modern experiments in low-tech self-sufficiency are doomed to failure unless you go into them with full knowledge that it’s going to consist largely of demanding physical labor and hardship. Other elements that may crop up, depending on how far “off the grid” you go, include danger to life and limb[2], threats to health from disease and lack of proper sanitation and medical care[3], wild animal attacks[4], the possibility of starvation[5] — all the things our forebears sought to avoid. The reason the average human life span has increased over the past few centuries is largely because of technological advancements that protect us from nature.

The trick is to choose carefully and deliberately (freely chosen constraints) which aspects of modern life we accept and which we reject.

What happens, though, if technology backfires on us?  In the imaginary world of Star Trek, the deadly bacteria is a by-product of their way of life, and vaccination against Synthecoccus novae is required by law in order to save lives. In the imaginary worlds of many dystopic novels and movies[6], technology empowers corrupt governments to control its citizens and sharply limit their freedom in ways that are far less benign.

These are fictions, but if we don’t pay attention (vigilance) will we someday find that life has come to imitate art?


[1] This theme occurs in some other episodes of The Original Series, including This Side of Paradise, Return of the Archons, The Apple, and The Paradise Syndrome. Other film explorations of the desire to “return to nature and a more pure way of life” include Dances With Wolves and Avatar (which are actually the same plot: the first is set in 19th century earth, the second in an imaginary future).

[2] Remember the episodes in the first season of Lost, in which Boone suffered a life-threatening injury and died because the only trauma care available consisted of Jack’s expertise as a physician and the few supplies he found in the plane wreckage?

[3] Several examples come to mind: bubonic plague, yellow fever, scarlet fever, the myriad diseases affecting the destitute poor of just about every novel by Charles Dickens. I know several people — including myself — who would have died in infancy or early childhood from complications due to severe congenital heart defects, were it not for modern advances in medicine and surgery.

[4] An acquaintance who is a priest in Zambia recently told me of a woman in a local village who was attacked by a lion as she went outside to relieve herself during the night. The woman’s injuries were severe enough to require emergency medical care at the nearest hospital a day’s drive away, but unfortunately such care was not available to her because the village’s only vehicle was in use: the previous day another animal attack victim had been taken to the hospital. The second woman had to make do with the inadequate medical care available in the village clinic. I’m not sure of the circumstances of the first victim’s injuries, but indoor plumbing and sewage infrastructure would have prevented the second victim’s injuries.

[5] The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1940

[6] 1984 (George Orwell 1949); Brave New World (Aldous Huxley 1932); The Last Enemy (Masterpiece Theatre 2008); Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury 1953)

Original airdate: February 21, 1969

(The Original Series, 3rd season)

75rd episode produced

75th episode aired

Written by Arthur Heineman (story by Arthur Heinemann and D.C. Fontana, writing as “Michael Richards”)

Directed by David Alexander

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3 thoughts on “…in which I review “The Way to Eden,” the Star Trek space hippies episode

    • Tara, that’s such a beautiful sintement, and one I’ve been more aware of lately. This is. This is. This is the present moment. It’s hard to get lost in, attached to, or wrapped up with life when I view things that way, because as you said, our moments are always changing.What’s more, if I can observe the present moment and feel joy in my heart simply for the moment’s existence, and my existence with it, then life moves forward with lightness.I like that!Enjoy yourself, and thanks for your wisdom![]

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