Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.1: That ’70s Show

Beyond The Farthest Star

Star Trek BTFS

“Scans indicate the farthest star is rubbish, Captain.” “Then we must go BEYOND it!”

Like the show which burned so this one could crawl from its ashes, the first broadcast episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series was not the first produced. “Beyond the Farthest Star” was picked over, at minimum, three other episodes as the reintroduction to the franchise after almost a half decade away. It even beat out an episode about Tribbles written by the guy who invented Tribbles. They didn’t push this one out of the airlock because they had nothing else to catch people’s interest.

Given this, it’s interesting just how much of this episode can be read as a deliberate inversion of “The Man Trap”. That was, after all, the previous introductory episode unleashed onto an unsuspecting public. Why use the start of Star Trek‘s second act to run away from the beginning of the first?

Answering that means demonstrating how this distancing is being performed. Consider this episode’s very first line, in which Kirk says:

Captain’s log, stardate: 5221.3. On outward course beyond the fringe of our galaxy towards Questar M-17, a course of mysterious radio emissions. Mission: star charting.

Pedantry compels me to ask how you can chart any stars after passing the one farthest out. I guess you can see more behind you that way, maybe? Still, no-one suggests soaking up the majesty of the Grand Canyon by driving away from it to maximise how much you’ll catch in your rear-view mirror. Setting that aside, though, the mission Kirk describes is precisely the kind of wide-eyed mission of exploration “The Man Trap” failed to deliver. This isn’t a supply run, it’s an excursion outside the very galaxy itself. Underlining this fact, Kirk repeats the description of their mission as the episode ends. Taken in isolation, this is an odd move. Why restate the mission goal when we already know what it is? Contrast this episode with the Original Series’ de facto pilot, though, and the repetition suddenly makes sense. The new show is making a point: crises can interrupt the mission, but they can’t derail it. And what that mission is is a search for the unimaginable and sublime. It’s not an interstellar hunt for naughty monsters to whack. Terrifying brushes with death or worse are not the ball game, they are an interruption to the ball game. Hostile life-forms aren’t what fill the galaxy, they’re a risk you accept in order to get to what actually fills the galaxy; amazingly cool stuff we should be desperate to check out.

But though the episode makes clear we should treat this particular crisis as a blip, it’s a blip worth digging into. Here too, the episode takes the basic structure of “The Man Trap” and improves it through inversion. The first evidence of this is in the design of the alien vessel. It’s a beautiful and utterly alien structure, almost Lovecraftian in form. Obviously the Animated Series has something of an unfair advantage here, but the fact that anything can be drawn doesn’t necessarily guarantee imaginative design, so it’s still impressive that what we get is so good.

Star Trek BTFS

“Maybe it’s like an ant hive.”

But the spaceship design is about more than looking good. They combine with the opening minutes of exploration of the ship’s interior to suggest a sci-fi reworking of a haunted house story. Which means “…Farthest Star”, like “The Man Trap”, introduces its show with at least a close cousin of the sci-fi horror genre. The specifics here are different from what we usually expect, however. We’re not investigating either a haunted human ship, nor the seemingly-dead vessel of a hostile alien waiting to strike (both genre staples, of course). Instead, the seemingly-monstrous aliens are actually trying to warn our heroes about the real threat. When Not-Nancy reveals her true form (if indeed she does) the coding is obvious. The handsome woman is actually a hideous monster! Best gun it down. Here, when the builders of the derelict are revealed through their message to be gnarled purple insectoids, the crew don’t even think their bizarre appearance is even worthy of comment, let alone a recoil in horror. After the insistence throughout television history in general and the original iteration of Star Trek in particular that ugliness and malevolence are synonymous, seeing a TV episode broadcast in 1973 in which the characters couldn’t care less what you look like does more to mark out Trek as a franchise that can move forward on social issues than any amount of stories with clumsy central metaphors about bad racists doing bad racism ever could.

Ultimately it becomes clear that we’re not dealing with a haunted house at all, but a haunted star. This is, of course, an utterly brilliant concept, as well as another brush with Lovecraftian ideas. Indeed, were we to squint a little we could even think of the malevolent entity from Questar as sharing some DNA-or-equivalent with Lovecraft’s own Color out of Space – particularly the idea that it will spread to and corrupt whatever it encounters – but truthfully its manifestation as the wibbly-wobbly green of evil is probably just a nod to the Original Series’ limitations regarding special effects. Whatever its providence, it then begins to haunt the Enterprise, strengthening the links to horror stories in general and thereby “The Man Trap” in particular. But this parallel is set-up for the final inversion. This time, despite how dangerous the alien is, the crew manage to find a way to maroon it again, rather than kill it.

Obviously, this is what we might have hoped Kirk had done with Not-Nancy. Given how this episode has unfolded so far, then, it would be tempting to think that, as with every other twist on “The Man Trap”, marooning the alien intelligence is being offered as an improvement on the fate of the last functionally-extinct extra-terrestrial species to wander onto the Enterprise. But no. The script here is unequivocable. Marooning an intelligent creature alone is not a kindness.

Up until now, I’ve been arguing that every change “…Farthest Star” has made to the structure of “The Man Trap” has been for the better. Here, though, I’m less certain. If the script intends to argue that marooning a horribly lonely sentient life-form is preferable to killing it, it undercuts that completely with the ghost’s distraught (and genuinely affecting) calls for mercy. On the other hand, if the hideousness of the Questar-Ghost’s fate suggests McCoy ultimately acted properly, we run into other problems, because there’s only two options at that point. Either Not-Nancy intentionally got herself killed, which means suggesting that’s the better fate, damaging the Animated Series by having its crew take the worse option. But the alternative is even worse, being as it is an implicit claim that humanity – in the form of a doctor, no less! – gets to decide when someone is suffering to much to be allowed to live, without bothering to even ask.

There is a way to square the circle, though, and that’s to assume the episode is suggesting neither option as the superior one. Yes, the ending to “The Man Trap” was difficult to watch, but the Questar-ghost’s miserable pleas to not be left alone as the Enterprise sails away are no less hard to take. Perhaps the take away here is meant to simply remind that there is no good ending to this set-up. Being utterly alone forever simply sucks horribly, and let’s have no argument.

On its own terms, this isn’t a ridiculous route to take; point out that the alternative to the ending so many people disliked has its own problems, and might even in the long run have been worse (yes, the Questar-ghost has been alone for three hundred thousand millennia, but who knows how long Not-Nancy lived alone on M-113, and would continue to live alone had she been returned there). But the underlying problem doesn’t disappear; exploring an alternative resolution to “The Man Trap” setup and finding it no more satisfactory doesn’t change the fact that the setup itself is the problem.  Both series’ openers so far have dealt with a life-form both utterly alone and horribly dangerous, something which cannot be reunited with its fellows because there’s no evidence they even exist anymore. The Enterprise has to consider whether to leave them to suffer or to put them out of their misery because there is simply no other course to steer.

We need a better set of options. We need to meet an alien who is lonely but dangerous who we can actually help.

We need a trip to Farpoint Station.

Ordering:

1. Beyond the Farthest Star
2. The Man Trap

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