Friday, November 18, 2016
STAR TREK: "THE APPLE" (1967)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Despite some obscure points in the script, "The Apple" is a huge improvement on earlier TREK scripts that dealt with similar subject matter. This may be because Max Erlich's script managed to meld two established TREK-tropes: the problems of tyrannical computers ("Return of the Archons") and of the stagnation of a bucolic existence ("This Side of Paradise.") Neither of those societies seemed particularly desirable-- the latter was too uneventful, while the former was too harshly legalistic, broken only by weird festivals of violent activity. "Apple," however, makes its stagnant society pleasing by appealing to the Christian ideal of unsullied innocence.
Kirk and his crew, prompted by other starships reporting anomalous "sensor readings" about an unexplored world, investigate with a larger-than-normal landing-party-- Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekhov, and several redshirts, most of whom will be dead by episode's end. In terms of its lush vegetative life, the planet seems to be a reborn Garden of Eden. However, some objects seems to work like booby-traps: a thorn-shooting flower kills one redshirt, an explosive rock slays another. There's no final verdict on whether these objects are the creation of the malign mechanism that rules the planet: they seem to have been tossed out to ramp up the danger to the crewmen, not because they have in purpose in the design of the being that controls everything.
Thorn-flowers and rock-bombs might not have had any place in the original Eden, but Kirk and Comapny soon get a taste of Old Testament fury when their unseen opponent hurls lightning bolts from the sky, killing yet another redshirt. (The one redshirt who's never in serious danger is Landon, a young blonde yeoman whose romantic relationship with Chekhov is important to the plot.)
In due course the Kirk Krew gets the lowdown from the planet's natives: crimson-skinned humanoids who go about dressed in South Seas-like attire and call themselves "the Feeders of Vaal." Though not immortal, the Feeders know neither age nor sickness, thanks to the rigidly controlled environment provided by Vaal, an ancient computer-system buried deep in the earth. Vaal's only outward aspect is a cave-mouth carved into the head of a serpent, but it's soon clear to the crew that Vaal doesn't like trespassers in his domain. The computer makes no more immediate attacks on the crew and allows them to stay in the Feeders' village, but this may be because the machine has decided that the orbiting Enterprise is the greater threat. The computer fixes a tractor-beam on the ship, threatening to drag it down to destruction, and for the next day or so commanding officer Scott is stuck in the midst of a deadly game of tug-o-war.
(It's a good thing Vaal is so distracted, because given his powers, he probably could have zapped the whole Kirk Krew with lightning while they slept in one of the Feeders' grass huts.)
While the ship's fate lies in doubt, Spock and McCoy debate the societal status of the Feeders. McCoy takes the position that the Feeders' culture has stagnated, in part because Vaal doesn't allow them to mate unless they need a "replacement" for someone killed by accidental death. Spock, always a little dubious about Earthmen's need to convert everyone to their way of life, argues that the primitives have found their ideal way of life and that the Federation ought to leave well enough alone. Both arguments are academic, since Kirk will seek Vaal's destruction to save his ship, but it's one of the better philosophical oppositions of the series.
In the end, Kirk, having seen the natives delivering some ambiguous "food" to the computer's mouth, deduces that his people can weaken the mechanism by keeping it from being fed. Here, too, it helps that Vaal again strikes a provoking blow, sending his followers to slay the intruders. (I'll note in passing that Landon gets one of the few TREK-scenes in which a female crewman kicks some ass, even if all she gets is a single high-kick.) In the end, Vaal is defeated and the Feeders must learn to live without a god, just as the people of the Federation (usually) seem to.
Erlich's idea of Vaal fascinates me. Given the South Seas attire of the natives, my best guess is that he named the computer-god after various "volcano-gods" seen in Polynesian melodramas. These stories usually show natives trying to appease their rumbling deity by tossing one of their people into the volcano's lava-filled mouth. It's possible that some early version of the script did have the Feeders hurling chosen victims into Vaal's crater-- though neither that sort of sacrifice, nor that of the ambiguous foodstuffs actually used, would seem to be of much use to a computer. Erlich may have dropped that angle because it would have conflicted with the idea that Vaal was trying to keep the population stable and unchanging. Vaal's serpentine cave-face is probably conceived as a way to distance him from the image of the Judeo-Christian deity. Vaal is the Serpent and thus a deceiver, not a real creator. Kirk and his crew are the ones who actually present the "Apple of Good and Evil" (as Kirk calls it) to the static primitives, but in doing so the star-travelers are liberators, and Vaal is less a creator-god than an old pagan dragon, demanding sacrifices from an unwitting populace.