When writing two episodes up at a time, it's tempting to try and find some kind of connective tissue to link them together; something a bit more complex than simply, “Gosh, that Enterprise sure has some wacky adventures, don’t it?” I think it’s the English Lit student in me—anything more than four paragraphs long must be an essay, and an essay simply must have a theme. (The joke being, as English students go, I was the don’t-read-the-book-and-write-the-paper-three-hours-before-it’s-due type. If only Professor Flesch could see me now.) There’s a danger in connectivity, though. It’s possible to see patterns in everything, and clever as those patterns may be, if you get too hung up on one of them, you’re going to start missing the big picture.
That said, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and “Miri” do have at least one thing in common beyond the obvious, and that one thing is something we haven’t really gotten into yet: the manly mojo of Captain Kirk. Awww yeah.
Most of the longest running Trek jokes revolve around Kirk and his lust for alien ladies (anybody know any? Feel free to share below), enough so that newcomers to the series might be a little surprised to see just how tame James T. actually is. Far from running cross the galaxy to screw anything that moves, Kirk is a romantic whose deep sense of responsibility and love for his ship keep him flirty but steadfast. (A moment’s gratitude here that the holodeck had yet to be invented; imagine the horrors had Kirk been allowed to consummate the great romance of his life…) No, the real secret behind the legendary libido isn’t the way a scantily-clad, tentacle-free hotty catches the Captain’s eye; it’s more his supposed effect on every female he encounters. For the women of the Trek-verse, to see Kirk is to go all squishy inside—and as one poor android discovers, that sort of thing gets dangerous when your internals were outsourced to Radio Shack.
Going in to this week’s outing, I had certain expectations: I knew there was a hot robo-chick in “Little Girls,” and I knew the ep also had Ted Cassidy wandering around in what looked like a bed comforter and that muumuu Homer wore on The Simpsons. I also knew that “Miri” had the extreme awkwardness of watching Shatner put the movies on a barely teenage girl. I figured “Little Girls” had the edge. As is proving to be sort of a habit for me, I was actually off on my estimations; I had the facts right, for sure, but something was missing in the details.
Guess what? It turns out Nurse Christine Chapel actually has a back-story, if you can believe it. She gave up her own career and joined Starfleet when her fiancée, Dr. Roger Korby, disappeared five years ago. So she’s a little anxious now that the Enterprise is orbiting Exo III, the source of Korby’s last known message. Expectations on the bridge aren’t high, seeing as how Exo III has a surface temperature of 100 degrees below zero; without off-planet supplies, it’s difficult to see how Korby could’ve managed to survive in such harsh conditions for a month, let alone 60 of them.
And yet, survive he apparently has; just when Uhura is about to give up her radio badgering, Korby sends up a message that he’s a.) still alive, and b.) wants Kirk to beam down to the planet for a meet-and-greet. Thing is, he wants Kirk to come down alone. While he changes his tune once he finds out that Chapel’s around, it’s still a highly suspicious request, even with Kirk’s regular participation in landing parties. Plus, there’s the never-a-good sign, “I have this really cool thing that only you can see, and I can’t explain what it is on open channels, but you gotta come see it, and I’m totally not going to kill you, promise!” add-on. It’s not enough to keep Kirk away, naturally, but at least his Captain-sense is tingling.
What we’ve got here is the standard mad scientist set-up: Korby is meddling in things that Man Was Not Meant To Meddle With, including hot android slaves and immortality, and he’s so convinced that he’s doing good that he’s determined to bring joy to the rest of the universe. Still, he’s not a complete idiot; he realizes that transferring everyone’s consciousness into a robot duplicate may be a bit of a hard sell, so Step 1 is to convince Kirk to hear the news and that the news is good. Step 2 is a bit fuzzy—something to do with mass construction of the equipment and spin-booths set up in every Hot Topic in the known universe (hey, being a robot is sort of like being a vampire, right?). Step 3, profit, or at least some sort of Mecha-Hands Across America variant thereof.
All of which leads to a lot of conversation on what makes a human "human." Not surprisingly, it all boils down to feeeeeeelings, which is one of the reasons Mr. Spock is relegated to bridge duty while Kirk goes emoting planet-side. “Little Girls” never really gets off the ground in its man/machine debates, but it has its share of iconic imagery. Not all of that's good, though; the sight of Andrea, Korby’s android assistant, wandering around in coveralls that just barely cover enough probably ushered a good number of young sci-fi boys (and girls) into the embarrassing halls of adulthood, but while Ted Cassidy makes for a formidable physical threat, his outfit is just embarrassing. It looks like a left over costume from Big Momma’s House 3: Dumpster Divin’.
Still, Cassidy himself is impressive, and he does manage to get the jump on Kirk what seems like half-a-dozen times over the course of the episode. But that’s one of the problems; once Kirk and Chapel meet Korby and discover what’s going on, things quickly settle into a rut of Kirk and Korby arguing philosophy, Kirk making a break for it, Ruk (aka Cassidy) catching him, and the cycle starting all over again. We learn that Korby is using technology left behind by the Old Ones, who were aiming for immortality but managed to obsolete themselves out of existence when they created robot servants who couldn’t tolerate the weakness emotions bring. And we also learn that Korby can make robot copies of a person, using a spinning wheel that fits a blank slug on the one side and the naked original on the other. Of course Korby just has to make a copy of Kirk; there’s a clever bit here where Kirk sends a message to Spock through the copy, using the term “half-breed” to clue Spock in to the whole duplicate mix-up.
“Little Girls” isn’t bad, but it does come off as too circular at times, and the big secrets aren’t all that impressive. The arguments about human nature seem less about arguing and more about killing time between commercial breaks. (Robert Bloch, the writer behind the ep, has solid chops when it comes to pulp—he wrote the novel Psycho is based on—but he was never a philosophical heavyweight.) Given the repetitive plotting, there’s no real sense of danger here, either to Chapel and Kirk or to the Enterprise herself; and without that danger, the threat is never all that, well, threatening. Kirk in isolation just isn't as interesting as when he's playing off a strong presence like Spock or McCoy, and Chapel is less a foil than a mannequin who sometimes says, "Roger" and always looks worried. Plus, there’s the Kirk machismo moment—in order to defeat Andrea, he seduces her, leading her to inadvertently murder his duplicate and drive Korby to off himself. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, really. Apparently, the heat Shatner puts out is powerful enough to defeat circuitry and common sense.
But thank god he's got it, or how else would he get a 300 year old teenager to do his bidding? "Miri" is a lot stronger than I remembered it; it's got a solid hook (a world run by near immortality children), some great guest stars (Michael J. Pollard! Kim Darby! That kid who played Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird!), and that sense of imminent danger that "Little Girls" so sorely lacked. But you ask most Trek fans about the episode, and they're going to remember one thing, and one thing only: Kirk's relationship with the "almost-a-woman" Miri, and the way that relationship keeps threatening to go from sweet to Humbert Humbert every couple scenes.
In what would become a regular theme of TOS (and by "theme" I mean "budget saving device"), the Enterprise finds a planet in an unexplored solar system that bears a remarkable resemblance to Earth. Not only is the atmosphere the right mix for human life (weird that they'd mention that, seeing as how it never comes up on any of the other alien planets they visit), and the continents structured suspiciously familiar to our own—almost like the effects department just filmed a standard globe without bothering to layer on atmosphere—when Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Rand, and a pair of red-shirts beam down, they find a deserted city with architecture that, wonder of wonders, could've stepped right off a TV studio backlot. (Spock pinpoints it as Earth's "1960's", which seems off; was the local stable a typical in-town feature during the Kennedy years?)
This is lazy world-building to be sure, and the coincidence, once raised, is quickly forgotten; the landing party soon has other, more pressing concerns. Still, the "Earth, through a glass darkly" set-up gives you a sense early on that things aren't quite right—that something happened (and event, maybe?) centuries ago that completely arrested the social and technological development of an entire world. So while it's a shock when the first inhabitant of Never Never Land jumps out of the shadows, a lurching, leprous hulk that moans like a toddler over a lost toy, it's not exactly a surprise to discover that inhabitant isn't a fluke. Here on the Island of Misfit Boys (and Girls), being a kid is the best thing ever. Unfortunately, it's also the only thing.
Like Korby's Old Ones, the former "grups" of Miri's World were obsessed with immortality, with equally disastrous results. While the Old Ones were undone by their robot slaves, the grups (aka, "grown-ups") created a virus intended to keep them alive forever; only it backfired, as such things do. Now, pre-pubescent kids only age a month for every hundred years that pass, but once one of those kids starts growing hair in the wasn't-there-before spots, they're doomed to die a disfiguring, horrible death. In one of the script's smarter twists, this leaves a planet full of semi-immortals who are still operating on that part of the brain that thinks glitter glue, the Twilight novels, and Miley Cyrus are all really good ideas. Logically, I'm not sure this follows; you'd think after 300 years banging around town, there'd have to be at least some sense of causality and logic. But as a story-driver, it's top-notch. For anyone who's ever tried to explain anything to a seven year-old who didn't want to hear it, the scene with Kirk desperately making his case to Pollard and his merry band of munchkins rings very, very true.
So we've got our premise—a decaying city filled with yesterday's children. The threat comes from the virus that those naughty grups left lying around: it's still active planet-side, and it inevitably effects the human members of the landing party, starting with Kirk and working its way on down. They can't go back to the ship (Spock is disease-free, but it's almost certain he's a carrier at this point), so McCoy sets to work finding a cure for what ails them in what looks like an abandoned high school chem lab. This becomes increasingly difficult as time wears on, as the virus works on everyone's nerves in addition to giving them ugly purple splotches all over; soon Kirk and McCoy are yelling at each other like an old married couple, and not even Spock's detachment can speed the slow crawl of Science. And it doesn't help matters that one group of "onlies" (as the kids call themselves) isn't too happy with the sudden adult influx, and starts making moves to take care of the problem.
Lazy as the "wow, it's just like Earth!" opening may be, "Miri" is a strong ep; it sets a specific deadline for our heroes, and keeps the pressure on till the very end. (There's a nice scene between Rand and Kirk when she shows him how much the disease has taken out of her; the sad way she says, "I used to try and get you to look at my legs," is surprisingly moving.) If there's one thing I've learned doing these recaps, it's that TOS episodes live and die on how well they convey a sense of urgency. "Little Girls" suffers because, pastel-covered Cassidy aside, the danger is never that immediate. As villains go, Korby is too much of a puss to be a problem, and Ruk only bumps off a couple of red-shirts. In "Miri," though, we're reminded again and again what's at stake, and while there's never any real sense that the crew could die (hell, both red-shirts make it through unscathed, including that guy with the awful comb-over who's been with us a couple episodes now), they don't know that.
But there is that weird relationship between Kirk and Miri, the Enterprise's only link to the planet's current inhabitants. Much is made about how Miri is on the "cusp of womanhood," which means she inevitably gets a crush on Kirk; and Kirk, like any sensible person would, exploits that crush in order to protect his crew. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is, Shatner isn't a good enough actor to convey the difference between buttering up a fourteen year-old, and putting the moves on that tipsy twenty-something at the other end of the bar who's one Sex On The Beach away from stumbling back to your hotel room and falling asleep on the floor. Plus, there's the way he exploits her; using her to make contact with the other kids makes sense, but treating her like a temp from the steno pool is a little much. The smug look on his face when he asks her to sharpen just a few more pencils is hilarious and infuriating in equal measure.
I guess that's Kirk all over, really.
"What Are Little Girls Made Of?": B+
—"Little Girls" marks the first time that Kirk uses racial insults to get through to Spock. I loved how Shatner plays the scene, with robot-Kirk raging for one line, and then going right back to polite apathy.
—The Kirk roll in "Little Girls" made me want to watch Galaxy Quest again.
—Next week, "Dagger Of The Mind" and "The Corbomite Maneuver."