Friday, May 31, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

After due consideration, I've decided that "The Cloud Minders" deserves the honor of "Worst Classic Trek Episode." It's a preachy tale about the conflict of "the haves" and "the have nots," possibly loosely derived from Lang's METROPOLIS, and it treats both Kirk and Spock more moronically than any comparable episodes, such as "Whom Gods Destroy."

For the second and last time in this series, I'll reference remarks of David Gerrold from his book THE WORLD OF STAR TREK. At one point, he comments on the major changes in the story he co-wrote with Oliver Crawford once a third writer, Margaret Armen, produced the final filmed script.

in the telecast version, the whole problem was caused by Zenite gas in the mines, and "if we can just get them troglytes to all wear gas masks, then they'll be happy little darkies and they'll pick all the cotton we need..."
Somehow, I think it lost something in the translation.

The "cloud minders" of the title-- who are also the "haves" of the story-- are implicitly the inhabitants of the aerial city Stratos on the planet Ardana. The planet is rich in a mineral called "zenite" which happens to be of great use for one of the Enterprise's many medical missions. (It may not be coincidence that the name of the mineral resembles the Greek word for "stranger," best known for its contribution to the familiar word "xenophilia.") Kirk and Spock beam down to Ardana to pick up a consignment of xenite, but they don't seem to have any advance intelligence on the planet's political situation. Not only are both crewmen surprised to find out that the surface of the planet is dominated by a subset of Ardanans called "Troglytes," they're also astonished when a dissident group attacks them after hijacking the needed minerals. There doesn't seem to be any real reason for the dissidents to attack soldiers of the Federation, aside to provide a big fight at the episode's opening. Later, the group's female leader Vanna attacks Kirk in his Stratos bedchamber, apparently wishing to kill rather than capture him, for reasons that make no more sense than the earlier assault.

In any case, after Kirk and Spock quell the dissident force, Plasus, leader of Stratos, shows up with his guards and takes Vanna into custody. The newcomers are promised that their zenite will eventually be located, and in the meantime they get a tour of Stratos, a repository of high art and philosophical meditation. Spock is particularly charmed by Droxine, the lovely daughter of Plasus, and though their flirtation is relatively restrained, Spock's willingness to discuss his people's mating-urges flies in the face of his established character. Soon both heroes learn that the Troglytes are kept under the thumb of Plasus's corrupt authority, and so Kirk determines that the best way to assure the Federation's supply of zenite is to overthrow that authority by forcing the "haves" to dicker with the "have nots."

Kirk's methods of so doing are a good deal more high-handed than most of his other empire-building activities, but he's under the influence of an invisible gas from the zenite minerals. As noted in the quote above, this was not one of Gerrold's ideas, and it's admittedly not a particularly good one. However, I dispute Gerrold's conclusion. I believe the zenite is a stand-in for all of the environmental factors that plagued marginalized people in the real world, since it's made clear that once Vanna has been removed from the surface with its debilitating effects, her intellect is the equal of any Stratos citizen. It may be that Armen wanted some such contrivance to explain how the societal bifurcation came about, given that most of the Troglytes and the Stratos-citizens are Caucasians (aside from one Stratos guard, who just happens to be played by Fred Williamson, later famous for a series of B-action films).

But even without my agreeing with Gerrold's "happy darkies" interpretation, "Cloud Minders" is dismally preachy, with tedious action-sequences (particularly Kirk fighting a robed, middle-aged man at the climax) and all those ghastly, grating flirtation-scenes between Spock and Droxine, which don't even serve any real purpose in the plot.


  1. I've always like The Cloud Minders, Gene. Maybe partly because it's the only episode of TOS that I saw the previews of when it was still in its first run,--and they dazzled me, as did the set design--but I never got around to seeing it for at least another fifteen or twenty years,--and at last!--there it was, the episode I'd always wanted to see and never did.

    The aforementioned, to which I should add a sense that this was going to be one trippy Trek, caused me to think highly of it. I still love the production values, the idea of a city in the clouds is so beautiful (if impossible, too) as to make it all feel like a dream. Also fine: the use of space and distance, of great heights.

    The social commentary engaged me less than the (as I saw it) my sense that I was watching a tragedy play out. There was something classical, almost Euripidean in the way the story unfolded. I think it would have worked better, be more resonant now if they had stuck the story's tragic implications,--for those character who live on high, especially.

    Also strong in this episode: an underlying melancholy; the sense that even those privileged to live up in the clouds were in many respects unfortunate in their good fortune; almost as cursed as they are blessed. There's no escaping from emotions, of the capacity for feeling we're all born with. One can see the sadness in, especially and ironically, the eyes of the beautiful Droxine, so lovely and ethereal in looks and disposition, and yet someone also deprived of a knowledge of the truth; a truth her ignorance of keeps her in a kind of bubble.

    The writing in this one reached high, and I felt it had some excellent ideas and interesting characters to work with. It didn't quite come together as well as it might have, as the creative minds behind it were maybe trying too hard to make it feel thoughtful and "relevant" for the modern world, while my sense is that if they'd steered closer to fantasy and myth it would have come off far better, perhaps even larger than life.

    Artists are, in my opinion, wisest when they put their faith in their imaginations, which is to say their talent, rather than exploring the world of ideas, of moral values, which often leave the more bourgeois among us pondering such issues as "what was it all about?" and "what were they trying to say?" instead of letting the work of art speak for itself.

  2. As someone who's defended fan-unfavorites like "Spock's Brain" and "The Way to Eden," I'd be the first to admit that often the reasons we like or dislike a work of art is because there's some particular image or concept that either grabs us or repels us.
    While researching the episode, I learned that the guy who produced ST:ENTERPRISE wanted to dedicate a two-part episode to the early days of Stratos, but it didn't come about.

    I agree that the set design is very good at suggesting the city's ethereal embodiment of the Greek precepts of beauty-- certainly more attractive than Lang's METROPOLIS imo. One thing that the script isn't able to deal with is the fact that in real life ambitious visionary projects can't be realized except in hierarchical societies where someone with a vision enlists others to follow his vision, be it by force or persuasion. (This is probably why Ayn Rand still has a following.) Gerrold's project, to make sure that the have-nots get a piece of the pie, has its own moral merit, but it's not the whole story.

    I've always been fascinated that the great advancements in Greek philosophy took place within societies that usually validated slavery-- and yet, some aspects of that philosophy emphasized the universal quality of human abilities and rights. I like how Wikipedia sums up "Plato's Problem" in the MENO:

    " A crucial point in the dialogue is when Socrates tells Meno that there is no such thing as teaching, only recollection of knowledge from past lives, or anamnesis. Socrates claims that he can demonstrate this by showing that one of Meno's servants, a slave boy, knows geometric principles though he is uneducated. Socrates states that he will teach the boy nothing, only ask him questions to assist the process of recollection. Socrates proceeds to ask the slave boy a series of questions about the size and length of lines and squares, using visual diagrams to aid the boy in understanding the questions. The crucial point to this part of the dialogue is that, though the boy has no training, he knows the correct answers to the questions – he intrinsically knows the Pythagorean proposition."