***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy, decide to look at the Star Trek franchise for the first time with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***
SERIES: Star Trek
EPISODE: S3:E10. “Plato’s Stepchildren”
STARRING: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols
GUEST-STARRING: Michael Dunn, Liam Sullivan
WRITER: Meyer Dolinsky
DIRECTOR: David Alexander
ORIGINAL AIR DATE: November 1, 1968
SYNOPSIS: Kirk, Spock, and Bones are taken captive by a group with telekinetic abilities, who take inspiration from the Greek philosopher Plato.
By Rob Siebert
This episode is, of course, famous for containing television’s first interracial kiss. That moment between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols is rightfully iconic.
That being said, not only has the kiss been discussed to death, but I’m hardly qualified to talk in depth about it. Plus, while I give it all the respect it deserves, it’s not what I came away from “Plato’s Stepchildren” thinking about.
The episode is about Kirk, Spock, and Bones becoming trapped on a planet that houses a group of very powerful telekinetics. So powerful they can manipulate people’s bodies against their will. When they want Bones to stay on world and be their resident doctor, he refuses. Thus their leader Parmen proceeds to use Kirk and Spock as his personal playthings until Bones acquiesces.
Naturally, this episode calls for Kirk and Spock to perform a bunch of demeaning tasks at the behest of Parmen. Initially, it comes off as the typical brand of camp you’d see from a classic Star Trek episode. Kirk hits himself in the face several times. Parmen forces Spock to laugh and sob uncontrollably. Later, Uhura and Nurse Chapel are brought in and forced to passionately kiss Kirk and Spock respectively. That’s obviously where we get our famous interracial kiss. It’s all territory you’d expect to venture through in a story like this.
But there’s also a moment that I’ll call “the horse sequence.” In the more than 25 episodes of Star Trek I’ve now seen, the horse sequence is the only point I’ve actually been made to feel uncomfortable. And I’m not even sure I should be uncomfortable.
Among the titular “stepchildren” is a little person named Alexander, who lacks the powers his taller brethren have. The horse sequence in question happens when Alexander climbs on Kirk’s back, and as Kirk is on all fours, proceeds to ride him like a horse. Quite literally, as Kirk actually whinnies (shown below).
It’s not that the act in itself is hugely offensive, though I’m sure little people aren’t overjoyed at it. But when I saw it, I went from laughing and enjoying a performance to feeling sorry for the performers.
And yet, that’s what the sequence is designed to do, isn’t it? We’re supposed to be aghast and hate the villain as we feel remorse for our hero. So what is it about this moment that breaks the illusion of the show? It’s tough to put your finger on…
My best guess? They got too silly. This might have looked right on paper. But on screen? Pass.
Here’s my question: Why not have Parmen force Kirk and Spock to fight like a child playing with toys? Yes, we’ve seen them fight before. But there’s a helplessness here that’s obviously very different.
I’ve got to hand it to William Shatner, though. They told him to be a horse, and he went for it. He turned into a by God horse. Maybe that’s why it was so uncomfortable. He believed. So I believed.
Email Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check us out on Twitter.