Monday, September 6, 2021

Weird Star Trek: The Paradise Syndrome (Or: What Does God Need With a Hairpiece?)

"The Paradise Syndrome" may be the most racist episode of Star Trek. There are more popular choices like "Code of Honor" or "The Omega Glory", but in those cases the racist stereotypes were depicted as imaginary alien cultures.

Not so with "The Paradise Syndrome". Its embarrassing Native American stereotypes are depicted as actual Native Americans transplanted to another planet by benevolent (but not too bright) aliens. (There's not one Native American actor in the bunch, but we'll get into that.) Even worse, it's clear that writer Margaret Armen had no idea she was being racist. This is clearly meant to be a sympathetic portrayal, which somehow makes it worse.

It begins with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down to an idyllic Earthlike planet that’s threatened by an approaching asteroid. The planet has two items of interest, the first being a Native American village on the banks of the same lake where Andy and Opie Taylor used to go fishing. . .

How do the natives not notice three brightly-shirted guys standing in plain sight?
From his vantage point on the other side of the lake, Spock identifies them as Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware. Which is kind of weird because the Navajo came from the American southwest, the Mohican and Delaware were native to the northeast, and none of them lived in tipis. I have no idea how Spock could make that determination, except that he read it from the script.  The other item of interest is this nifty obelisk:

It's made of an alien metal that Spock's tricorder can't penetrate, and it's covered with unfamiliar symbols. The technology needed to construct the obelisk would equal or surpass the Federation's, so Spock doesn't think the natives built it. There's not much time to investigate, though; the Enterprise needs to warp out of orbit within thirty minutes to deflect the asteroid. Any longer, and it'll be impossible for the power of the Enterprise to deflect the asteroid enough to keep it from hitting the planet. (They could have taken care of the asteroid first and THEN investigated the planet, but then the episode wouldn't happen)

After observing the village from afar and wistfully yearning for the Native Americans’ simple lifestyle, Kirk announces that it’s time to go. But first, he wants another look at the obelisk. Spock and McCoy stay behind as he struts up there alone. He walks up the obelisk’s steps, takes out his communicator to call the ship, and is taken by surprise as a trap door opens beneath his feet. Kirk falls into the obelisk down a flight of stairs and comes to rest in front of a control panel. He grabs hold of it to pull himself up and accidentally activates some kind of alien Brain Zapper, which treats us to a classic William Shatner Acting Moment:

Fast forward an unspecified amount of time as Spock, now at the obelisk standing on the very trap door that Kirk fell into, voiceovers that numerous search parties and sensor scans have failed to locate the Captain. Well, since he said that he was going to check out the obelisk, and the obelisk clearly has some kind of trap door built into it, and you said earlier that you can’t scan inside the obelisk, and you couldn’t find him anywhere else, maybe, I don’t know, he’s inside the obelisk. However, since the story needs Kirk to get stranded on the planet, our hyper-intelligent Vulcan Science Officer is prevented from making that particular connection. Spock tells McCoy they’re going back to the ship, and when the doctor protests, Spock reminds him of the urgency of getting to the asteroid in time to deflect it away from the planet. Otherwise, he warns “everyone on this planet will die, including the Captain.” Again, maybe they could've come to spy on the Native Americans after they took care of the asteroid. Spock and McCoy beam up.

Meanwhile, the Brain Zapper has left Kirk with a serious case of amnesia, which is communicated to the audience by Shatner stumbling around the underground chamber and voiceovering "What . . . place . . . isthis? Who . . . amI? Try . . . toremember." He staggers up the stairs he fell down earlier and the trap door opens automatically for him. Kirk walks up into the sunlight, and we're treated to the sight of our first two Native American characters:

The one on the left is Miramanee, the "tribal priestess". She's played by the very white actress Sabrina Scharf in brownface. The one on the right is credited only as "Indian Woman", and is played by another white actress, Naomi Pollack. The producers must've liked how she looked in brownface, because later in the season they cast her as the Indian (South Asian, not Native American) Lt. Rahda. Back in the 60s, actually casting Native American or Indian actors to portray characters of those ethnicities was the farthest thing from the mind of your average Hollywood casting director.

In the first of many moments that make you wonder if William Shatner wrote this episode, the ladies bow down worshipfully the second they catch sight of the amnesiac Kirk:

Or maybe they're covering their faces because they've never seen a bad toupee before
After a brief interlude on the Enterprise where Scotty complains that the engines can't stand Spock's demand for maximum warp speed, we cut back to the planet. It seems that the tribespeople have decided that Kirk coming up out of the obelisk (which they call "the temple") means he's a god, and the tribal council is interviewing him for the job of Lord and Savior.

The Medicine Chief, an argumentative guy named Salish, is skeptical. He insists that the newcomer in the weird pajamas should prove he's a god.

"What does God need with a hairpiece?"
The Tribal Elder explains that a God's main job is to "rouse the temple spirit" when "the sky darkens". He asks Kirk point-blank if he can do this, but Kirk gives a rambling non-answer that makes it clear he has no idea what they're talking about. But everyone forgets about Kirk’s unsuitability for the position of God when he uses a 1960s version of CPR to revive a kid who drowned in the lake. They’re so impressed that they declare him God right then and there and give him Salish’s Medicine Chief gig. One of the perks of being Medicine Chief, it turns out, is that you get to marry tribal priestess Miramanee.

Naturally, Salish is not too happy about losing his job and his fiancĂ©e to a bushy-sideburned amnesiac who's less of a deity than the most unimpressive member of the X-Men. And yet the episode clearly depicts Salish as the villain, which makes no sense. I mean, amnesia or no, Kirk has to know that he’s not a god. And yet he pointedly allows everyone to think he is, and even goes so far as to allow the tribe to make him solely responsible for their welfare.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise's efforts to deflect the asteroid aren't going well. After the deflector beam fails to push it far enough off course, Spock orders phaser fire to destroy it. That fails, too, burning out the warp engines in the process. He has no choice to have the ship retreat in front of the asteroid at impulse power for the months-long journey back to the planet.

Back on the planet of bad stereotypes, Kirk (who's now going by the name "Kirok") is running around in full Native American cosplay and setting a wedding date with Miramanee. She wants to get married the very next day. "The sooner our happiness begins, the longer it will last," she says. In case you haven't noticed by now, Miramanee doesn't really have a personality, unless "Stereotypical Native American maiden who talks in Hallmark greeting card sayings" is a personality. Kind of like Commander Riker's holographic girlfriend Minuet, she doesn't seem to have any wants or needs of her own, she just exists to please Kirk. What did she do before he showed up? 

On the Enterprise, Spock is in his quarters studying the pictures he took of the symbols on the obelisk while McCoy chews him out because his plan to destroy the asteroid didn't work. Naturally, McCoy doesn't have any better ideas (he's a doctor, not an asteroid removal expert) he just wants to complain that Spock's decisions are stupid and bad because he's a Vulcan. Rather than report the doctor to Starfleet HR for his blatant racism, Spock just ignores him.

At the obelisk, the Tribal Elder applies some paint to Kirk Kirok’s face, then tells him to wait while he walks the “holy path to the earth lodge” where the wedding will take place. This gives Kirk time to hug himself while he voiceovers about how happy he is. There are some iconic images that just cry out to be made into demotivational posters, and this is one of them:


After his little self-love session, Kirok heads off to the wedding venue only to be accosted by Salish, leading to a fight scene between two stunt doubles.

What's that in Salish's hand, a butter knife? Is he there to stab Kirk or make him peanut butter sandwich?
Of course, Kirk defeats Salish with his patented William Shatner Flying Kick. Salish managed to slightly wound him during the fight, and is elated to see that Kirk bleeds, which is a thing that god's aren't supposed to do. He promises not to rest until he exposes Kirk as a fraud, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing.

And then we have a wedding. I’m no expert on Native American customs, but I’m pretty sure that none of their marriage rituals involved the groom wearing a robe made from Muppet pelts.

Two months later, Miramanee and a shirtless Kirok are playfully chasing each other through the woods when Miramanee drops the bomb that she’s pregnant with a little Captain Kirok, and with that her fate is sealed. No reason to get attached to Mrs. Kirok, dear viewers, because if the Rules of 1960s Television are harsh on the love interests of main characters, they’re even harsher on the unborn children of such unions. Miramanee and Kirok Jr. are as good as dead.

The seeds of their destruction come from Medicine Chief Kirok’s inability to do the one thing that a Medicine Chief/God is supposed to be able to do. It seems that, while the alien race called the Preservers did a noble thing by rescuing this group of Native Americans from genocide at the hands of white settlers, the planet they plunked them down on is especially prone to asteroid impacts. So, the Preservers “solved” this problem by building the obelisk, whose function is to fire a sort of anti-asteroid phaser beam. However, the thing has a combination lock, and in their wisdom the Preservers only told one member of the tribe (the original Medicine Chief) how to get in and operate it, and the “secret” has been passed down from father to son ever since. Currently, the tribe is in a pickle because Salish’s father died before he could pass the secret on to his son, and now nobody knows it.

What’s the logic in putting these people on a planet where their survival depends solely on the obelisk thingy, and then telling only one guy how to work it? Come to think of it, why does this asteroid deflector even need to have a human operator? If the Preservers were super-advanced enough to build the thing, couldn’t they give it an autopilot?

Also, since they never got around to inventing the telescope, and since the Preservers never bothered to explain to them about asteroids and space and stuff, the only way the tribe knows that an asteroid impact is imminent is when the sky gets dark, the ground quakes, and they start having weather problems. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m pretty sure that if a giant asteroid is so close to your planet that it’s blocked out the sun and you’re having seismic and weather disturbances, then it’s probably already in the atmosphere, and powerful asteroid deflector or no, you don’t have time to do anything but bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. And what if the asteroid is approaching from the other side of the planet?

Back in their hut, Kirk is explaining to Miramanee his plans to build a system of canals from the lake to irrigate the fields the tribes use for farming, and this is probably the part of the episode that infuriates me the most. Because most Native American tribes weren't hunter-gatherers; they farmed. In fact, until the Europeans introduced livestock to the Navajo, farming was pretty much their only source of food. 

The Mississippian people were good enough at farming to build a huge city in present-day Illinois that supported 40,000 people at its peak in the 12th century CE--more people than London during that same period. So are you seriously telling me that the natives on this planet never thought of digging canals until an amnesiac space captain showed them how? Not only that, but Kirk has also "invented" the idea of making oil lamps out of hollowed-out gourds and stockpiling food to preserve it for lean times. I'm pretty sure that actual Native American cultures figured this stuff out millennia before the Europeans arrived.

Well, sure enough the approaching asteroid causes the weather to get windy, and Salish and the tribal chief insist that Kirk go the obelisk and carry out his one and only job duty. Naturally, Kirk doesn’t know how to get inside the obelisk, and Salish, seeing the chance to get rid of his rival once and for all, incites the tribe to stone Kirk and Miramanee with rocks made of styrofoam. Honestly, you can understand why they're upset. Kirk has been passing himself off as a god and allowing the tribe to wait on him hand and foot, and when the time comes for him to hold up his part of the bargain the only thing he can do is pound the obelisk with his fists and yell "I am Kirok!"

The tribe is scared off when Spock and McCoy beam down, and after Spock restores Kirk’s memory with some kind of Vulcan mind thing, they go inside the obelisk and save the planet by activating the Asteroid Repeller.

How do they get into the obelisk, you ask? Well, it turns out that the symbols on the obelisk are musical notes that spell out the combination to open the door (again, why has the tribe been living in close proximity to this thing for the last four or five hundred years and never been inspired to come up with a written language?) And by sheer coincidence, when Kirk took out his communicator and said "Kirk to Enterprise" it matched the exact set of tones needed to open the door.

So, let's recap. According to "The Paradise Syndrome", James T. Kirk is so awesome that:

  1. Native Americans take one look at him and automatically assume that he’s a god.
  2. Beautiful tribal priestesses want nothing more than to spend their life doing whatever he wants.
  3. The very sound of his name can unlock the secrets of alien technology.

Are we sure William Shatner didn't write this episode?

Oh, one other thing: exactly why does the asteroid deflector even have a brain-zapping ray? It’s like building a toaster oven that also shoots poison darts if you push the wrong button! Yeah, Spock calls it a "memory beam" and attributes Kirk's amnesia to it being activated out of sequence, but why does the thing need a "memory beam"? To implant the instructions for operating the deflector directly into the Medicine Chief's brain? Spock activates it by pushing a single button; it's not that complicated. 

Of course, Miramanee's styrofoam-inflicted injuries are too severe for McCoy and his 23rd century medicine to heal, and she’s going to die. She passes away in in Kirk’s arms, sincerely believing that he was a god after all.

According to this episode, people dying of severe internal injuries look like they're relaxing at the beach

So what happens to the tribe? Does Kirk explain who he really is and where he came from? Does he arrange for everyone to learn how operate the asteroid deflector so the entire tribe's safety isn't dependent on one person? Does he apologize to them for impersonating a deity? None of this is addressed. The moment Miramanee breathes her last, we cut to the Enterprise leaving orbit and the episode is over.

So that’s “The Paradise Syndrome”. For years it was considered one of the better episodes of Star Trek's final season, partially because it was the only one shot on location and one of the few with its own musical score. But now that everyone realizes how racist it is, it's just an embarrassment. Look, I know that doing research was a lot harder in 1968, but did Margaret Armen even try to learn anything about any Native American peoples before writing her script? I guess that in those days, simply not depicting them as savage killers qualified as non-racist. Also, her story has plot holes big enough to fly a C-130 through, and our illustrious Captain Kirk doesn’t exactly behave like a role model.

So what did we learn today?

  1. If you're on a mission to save a planet from a giant asteroid, you should definitely deal with the asteroid first.
  2. There's no excuse for impersonating a god, even if you're suffering from alien-brain-zapping-ray-induced amnesia.
  3. If you're an alien super-race that rescues primitive cultures, maybe put them on a planet that isn't prone to frequent asteroid impacts. And if you just can't help it, at least teach more than one person how to operate the Asteroid-B-Gone.
  4. Finally, if you're a white person who wants to write a story about Native Americans, do some amount of research. Otherwise, you might go down in history as being responsible for the most racist entry in a historically inclusive franchise.

1 comment:

  1. That was absolutely hilarious, but you are right. Star Trek, in any of its iterations, has certainly required a suspension of disbelief.


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