Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.11: Small Potatoes

The Terratin Incident

Star Trek The Terratin Incident

“WE ARE HERE TO HAUNT YOU IN REVENGE FOR KILLING IS IN YOUR MEDICAL TRIAL TO DETERMINE IF ROMULAN ALE CAUSES CANCER IN MICE. WOOOOOOOOOOH CAN WE HAVE SOME ALE, PLEASE?”

OK, fine. I admit it. That’s not one of my better titles. I’m not sure I could get around the pun even if I tried, though. This episode is about as inconsequential and unsatisfying as they come. Which may be appropriate, for a franchise that appears to have had its chips.

(What? I’ve been away for months. The puns have been backing up.)

“These People Are Excellent Mathematicians”

There are two obvious literary antecedents to this story. One is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which we’ll come to later. The second, helpfully referenced when Kirk calls the Terratin city “Lilliputian”, is Gulliver’s Travels. There are plenty of parallels here to Gulliver’s experiences in Lilliput and Brobdingnag, from the difficultly our crew have in navigating regular objects now at massive proportions, to the inverted reference as Kirk goes from being tiny to gigantic in comparison to his environment. Even the otherwise immensely frustrating moment when Nurse Chapel trips in her suddenly-too-large surroundings and has to be rescued is an echo of Swift’s novel. Plus there’s all the maths liberally scattered through both texts, which is always fun to see. Just because a situation is silly and impossible, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ruthlessly adhere to the laws of arithmetic.

(I will, inevitably, return to Kirk’s comments on probabilistic analysis of radio signals in a separate post).

One might be tempted to criticise the result of all this literary cribbing on the grounds that it shows a lack of originality. I’d disagree – retelling classic stories in new contexts is often worth doing, and anyone who feels strongly to the contrary is going to have a rough time of it with the sci-fi genre as a whole. What annoys me here isn’t the amount “The Terratin Incident” lifts from Swift’s work, then, but the specifics of what is chosen. Notably absent from the above list of similarities is any of what makes Gulliver’s Travels actually work. Swift used Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput and Brobdingnag – only the first half of the book, of course – as frames for his criticisms of then-contemporary England.  The actual scenes of him trying to adapt to the differences in scale are the least interesting part. They’re only there as a delivery mechanism, allowing Swift to not just put the boot into the politics of his time, but to underline the fact his country was not and never had been exceptional in any sense (anymore than it is now). It was only ever a set of point partway along multiple scales.

This episode, in contrast, seems to be working under the assumption that making the crew too small for their environment is somehow enough. No other ideas are needed. I mean, it’s kinda funny that the conclusion revolves around Kirk having to be literally the bigger man by sparing the Terratins who almost got his crew killed. It’s a long way to walk to get to that joke, though, even when you haven’t been shrunk by wacky space-rays that somehow reduce the distance between electrons and their nucleus. As long as they’re part of a spiral structure, that is, something about as sensible as cement that will only stick to bricks being used to build breweries.

And sure, Swift had 112 pages to salt his tale of implausible proportions with subtext, and Schneider gets twenty minutes of screen time. It’d be insulting this show though to suggest it can’t summon up any semiotic depth in a short time-frame. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that The Animated Series can say something worthwhile within its brief run-time (“Yesteryear”, “More Tribbles, More Troubles”, “The Magicks Of Megas-Tu”). There’s no reason there couldn’t have been more to this episode than a series of height-related problems and their solutions. Particularly when some of those solutions are as uninspired as Kirk happening to find a random sliver of metal on the floor of the bridge, or the crew just whipping up a tiny communicator off-screen. When you need to pad out so slim a tale by having someone needing to be saved from a fish tank, you have some problems.

The Menagerie, Part 3

Calculations aside, the one part of the episode I immediately loved is the idea of Enterprise carrying around a menagerie of alien animals that they use to suss out weird situations. It reminds of the paranormal investigators who used to lug cats into haunted houses to see if they randomly bristled and ran about, in exactly the same way the vast majority of cats do  in any house you put them in.

So fun was this idea that I assumed upon first viewing that it would be integral to the proceedings. As mentioned, the other obvious predecessor to this story is The Shrinking Man, which bases its narrative around the minuscule protagonist’s clashes with and escapes from a black widow spider bigger than he is. The sudden appearance of the halo fish and the gossamer mice in sickbay made me certain we were going to see a similar unusually-scaled cross-species throw-down.  Obviously, I was entirely into this. Who among us would dare argue an episode in which Bones had to fight for his life against his own now-giant translucent rodents wasn’t one that needed to exist? It’s not like Kelley didn’t have form, after all.

But no. Not so much as a rip in McCoy’s pristine uniform (how nice for whomever knitted him it out of algae). The miniature zoo exists just long enough to make what is already obvious explicit, then they disappear (possibly literally), as though the episode is determined to shed itself of anything approaching originality as soon as is possible.

Actually, that’s not fair. “The Terratin Incident” does end up communicating a great deal. Not just because of what it wants to say, but because of how strained the franchise’s voice is starting to sound.

We need to remember that at the time this episode broadcast, Star Trek itself was shrinking. Since the original series, five years earlier, the ongoing adventures of the Enterprise had undergone a dwindling of budget, of series and episode length, and even of cast (poor Walter Koening). The animated series may have saved Trek from disappearing entirely while Roddenberry worked on the abortive Phase II, but it had clearly diminished from what it once was.

“The Terratin Incident” reads like a subconscious acknowledgement of that existential crisis. It’s here that, lack of brawls with arachnids notwithstanding, the true parallel to The Shrinking Man is made clear. There’s quite a bit going on in Matheson’s novel about a man, Mike Carey, who shrinks one seventh of an inch every night. There are two themes in particular, however, that have utility for this discussion. The first is Carey’s steadily increasing inability to measure up to the standards of masculinity he has set for himself. This is notable here mainly because of how it’s inverted here. Not only does Kirk manage perfectly well when presented with the cliche of a damsel in distress (tiny Nurse chapel drowning in a fish tank, in this case), he does so in a way that delightfully undercuts the sexist assumptions in play, by effecting a rescue through the application of expert needlework.

It’s Carey’s fears about his diminishing relevance that are really reflected here, however. Over the course of the novel, he loses first his job, and then his ability to act as a father to his daughter. Instead of helping provide for and run the household, he’s (literally) reduced to sitting in a doll’s house and asking Barbie who does her hair. The important and worthy (at least as commonly defined) has given way to the sadly funny.

Which isn’t really all that many light-years away from a TV show that’s abandoned tackling the moral and political issues of the day (however ham-fisted/problematic/actively malicious those attempts were in practice) to instead merely spin tales of space-bound silliness. This isn’t just about a shrinking cast, or run-time, or episode count. It’s about whether there’s actually anything left to be said with the tools and time remaining. The fear this episode expresses isn’t that the franchise is shrinking towards its own vanishing point. It’s that it’s already passed the stage where anyone cares that it hasn’t yet disappeared.

One-Man Show

According to the theory above, Kirk’s desperate Hail Mary beam-down to the planet’s surface represents an attempt to show he retains relevance. He draws himself up to his full height (thanks to a property of the transporter system you really wish the crew had remembered earlier) and first finds the Terratin city, then saves it from the surrounding volcanoes. You thought this crew was shrinking into irrelevance? Well they just saved a city, suckers! Who’s shrinking now?

And despite the fundamental silliness of the Terratin plan – “They didn’t understand our SOS; we’d best shrink the crap out of them!” – it almost works as a case for not letting the franchise disappear just yet. The reason it doesn’t, though, is as huge and unmissable as Kirk now is to his crew. It’s only the captain who gets to return to glory. Everyone else remains tiny, begging the captain not to damage them with the sheer overwhelming force of his presence. He literally tells everyone to go to the back of the bridge while he sorts everything out.

If other’s stories about Shatner are to be believed, then, what we’re seeing here is simply a literalisation of what he always thought was happening anyway: a bunch of tiny people standing around, waiting for him to give them purpose.

(This is already something the episode has already toyed with, with the otherwise baffling decision to have Sulu beg to be allowed to open fire at random upon an entire planet, simply so Kirk can admonish him. The Sulu I know would never suggest firing blind on the off chance he hit someone, and on the off chance that person deserved to be hit.)

And even if I’m being unfair to Shatner – if the many stories about how he acted on-set are exaggerated – this still serves as further proof that whilst Schneider has definitely tapped into the existential dread the franchise was suffering, he failed to understand what we were in danger of losing. It’s inevitable then that he couldn’t produce a convincing case that it could be saved.

Which pretty much serves as the final word here. The case for reversing the shrinkage was never actually made. Next season, this show gets a mere six episodes, and then the franchise entirely disappears from the screen for half a decade, and doesn’t return to television for twelve years.

The writing, in short, was on the wall, and all this attempt to wash it off achieved was to underline some of the most damning comments. It really is time for Trek to disappear.

For a while, anyway…

Ordering

1. The Menagerie, Part 1

2. The Terratin Incident

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