Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.10: Ill-Met By Starlight

Mudd’s Passion

Star Trek Mudd's Passion

“Well of COURSE we’re going to throw poop at him!”

Holy Prophets, this is worse than “Code of Honor”.

[Content warning: references to sexual assault.]

A Million Fails

In addition to all the other reasons to hate it, “Mudd’s Passion” is an absolute pain to write about. It isn’t merely that it’s utterly wretched. It’s that it’s utterly wretched for entirely obvious reasons. When you’re presented with a filth-smeared skip overfilled with burning rubbish like this, it’s hard to write something clever or interesting about the smell, or the shape of the flames.

On the other hand, the appallingly obvious is also obviously appalling. This makes any attempt to write around the horribly offensive potholes in the story problematic. The last thing I want is for this essay to be readable as defending or apologising for the nightmare we have to sweat through here.

It’s not just that this is the episode where Nurse Chapel tries to slip Spock some sci-fi Rohypnol – though that would clearly be entirely bad enough. “Mudd’s Passion” also doubles down on the ugly gender-essentialism that helped ruin “Mudd’s Women”. Somehow, Stephen Kandel manages to make a story about attempted date-rape between colleagues even worse, by suggesting the drug only works when poisoner and victim are of different genders. [1]

Those are the most immediate reasons to loathe the episode, but there are plenty of smaller sins on display. The plot isn’t within twelve parsecs of making any sense. Harry starts the episode trying to dupe miners with a bizarre kind of illusion-casting lizard, instead of just hiring a woman to be his stooge (like, you know, it’s been established he does). The assembled mob of thirsty bros accept the efficacy of Harry’s drug simply because an attractive woman says she wants him. We learn prisoners on the Enterprise are now being guarded by armed members of the nursing staff.  Mudd’s escape plan relies on a side-effect of a drug he clearly hasn’t tested and doesn’t even believe works. And so on.

The whole thing is just a careless mash of the incoherent and the half-baked. Even the range of probabilities Spock quotes at the top of the episode annoys me. Give me the statistical size attached to that interval, sir, or else keep your mouth shut. Oh, and there’s a dig at the overweight, too, with Mudd promising his miracle drug will allow even the fat to find love. EVEN FATTIES CAN FIND LOVE AND ALL THEY NEED IS TO DRUG A PRETTY WOMAN. That’s breathtaking in its multi-dimensional offensiveness.

For all that “Mudd’s Passion” is terrible in almost every conceivable way, though, almost none of that matters. Every other aspect of this episode could be absolutely brilliant, and it would still be a story about the time Nurse Chapel tried to drug and rape Spock. I can’t avoid facing that truth head on. Not if I want to do this properly.

So let’s do this properly.

“What Fools These Mortals Be!”

Step one is making sure I’m absolutely clear on what I mean. With no-one among the Enterprise’s bewitched crew actually having sex here, is it not too great a leap to link Harry’s blue love crystals with an infamous date-rape drug?

Actually, I don’t believe it is. As others have noted, there are issues with taking too literal a stance on the trope of sci-fi rape. Especially in a show like this one. The Star Trek animated series ended up winning an Emmy for Outstanding Entertainment – Children’s Series. It obviously isn’t going to depict sex without consent; it won’t depict sex at all. Any reference to sex here has to be implicit and/or metaphorical. It’s therefore clearly ridiculous to reject any sexual undertones as being too far under in their tone. It also means that if you’re going to write an episode about love, you need to make damn sure the sexual metaphors you’re almost bound to generate suggest something good. You’re responsible for what you say by implication, even accidentally, precisely because there’s nothing you can say explicitly. It therefore matters a great deal that by far the most obvious sexual metaphor this episode offers is an entirely vile one.

Even if you disagree about the above, though, it doesn’t actually matter. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Nurse Chapel loves Spock, and wants him to love her, but has no interest in having sex with him. It’s impossible to believe this is the intent of the episode – you don’t tend to get many explorations of an asexual’s romantic yearnings in stories that don’t think gay people exist – but that doesn’t generally stop me. The problem here is that we get no suggestion at any point that Christine assumes the love crystals are temporary in effect. So far as she knows, she’s locking down Spock’s affection permanently. That means that if Spock is the type to want to express romantic love sexually (hardly an uncommon drive), Christine is engineering a situation with only two alternatives. Either she refuses to sleep with him, thereby denying him the ability to satisfy a need she herself instilled in him, or she sexually assaults him. She is literally setting him up to be unhappy if she refuses to rape him.

(I realise this comes uncomfortably close to the entirely horrible argument that women who arouse men are somehow responsible for that fact, and obligated to do something about it (that “something” almost always being sex). I’m obviously not saying that. I’m not even saying Christine is obligated to sleep with Spock. despite deliberately drugging him so he falls in love with her for an unspecified length of time. All I’m saying is that if you do magically compel someone to be into you, withholding sex can be both entirely your right, and also kind of a jerk move, even though not withholding it is worse. Just don’t drug people, is what I’m saying.)

It’s difficult to overstate how horrible this set-up is. And it still gets worse. Even setting aside the implications of sleeping with someone under the influence of a love potion, there’s the question of what happens if Christine’s own feelings fade. People fall out of love all the time, especially when the people they fell for change beyond recognition. Say, for example, if a man emotionally reserved to the point of coldness suddenly transforms into Lennon’s jealous guy. And if that doesn’t sink the endeavour immediately, there’s plenty more hazards ahead. They’ve never even been on a date. There’s all sorts of reasons why two people very much into each other won’t make it to their one-month anniversary.

Even if the two of them managed to make a proper go of it, the relationship would still be rotten, poisoned from within by how Christine got the whole thing started. How can you hope to find emotional fulfillment from someone who only loves you because you drugged them? How can you rely on them for support? Sooner or later the structure of their relationship would shake itself apart. Except none of that will matter to Spock, compelled into loving Christine as much as the first day she touched him. If there are such things as prisoners of love, Nurse Chapel wants to lock Spock and herself in a cell only she can possibly escape from. It’s a love life without parole.

“What, A Play Toward!”

The implications here are all incredibly disturbing, then, and that’s made all the worse by the script apparently thinking this is some kind of fun romp.

There are, at least, a handful of positives. One of them is Roger C. Carmel. This time round his Harry Mudd is slightly hampered by not being able to bounce his performance off the rest of the cast (the show recorded each actor’s dialogue individually). Whether because of this, or for some other reason, Carmel here shifts his charming:sinister ratio very much towards the latter.

Whatever prompted this decision, it suits the episode very well. This new, darker Mudd provides a strong and interesting contrast to Lucien, who we met two episodes earlier in “The Magicks of Megas-tu”. Both characters fit fairly well into the Trickster archetype, right down to each of them hawking love philtres. This manages the impressive feat of making Lucien even more impressive in retrospect. Mudd comes across as far more demonic than Lucien ever did, further reinforcing that episode’s point that it’s always humanity that’s the real problem.

We can go further, though, and pin down the exact mischief-maker who lies in the two characters’ intersection. The major clue here is the love potion already mentioned, but there’s also the fact that once Mudd accidentally exposes the Enterprise to his blue crystals, the bridge starts to resemble the court of Titania during her infatuation with Bottom. Beyond all that, there’s the simple physical resemblance.  Quite clearly, we’re in the realm of Faerie.

Star Trek Mudd's Passion 2

Venn of iniquity (central image from Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1629))

If this is a Shakespearean riff, though, it fails to come off. At it’s heart, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty dark, ending as it does with one character magically compelled to love another, apparently indefinitely. There are several reasons the play pulls this off, most of them focusing on how utterly terrible a human being Demetrius is. First off, there’s the fact Demetrius has already slept with Helena and now treats her with contempt, despite her doing nothing to deserve his hate. Given the society Shakespeare was writing in, it doesn’t seem particularly obnoxious to force Demetrius to actually feel what one imagines he claimed to feel to bed Helena in the first place. Second, the fact Demetrius insists Hermia marry him despite her clearly wanting nothing to do with him means him ending up with someone he previous claimed to hate feels like poetic justice.

There is some potential utility in rewriting A Midsummer Night’s Dream here, actually, and not just because of the implicit decision to cast M’Ress and Scotty as Titania and Bottom respectively. It’s genuinely interesting to consider the ramifications of a re-jigged play where Puck bewitches Demetrius not on Oberon’s orders, but Helena’s request. Would that still be acceptable? In a society in which a woman can be casually sentenced to death or the convent for not marrying whomever her father tells her to, is the decision to sabotage that wretched state apparatus by enchanting your own choice of man unjustifiable? Hell, even had Helena pressed the love-in-idleness to Demetrius herself, that would surely be no worse than him demanding he be allowed to marry Hermia irrespective of her own wishes.

The problem is that none of the above actually maps on to Star Trek. Nurse Chapel isn’t a spurned and humiliated former lover. Spock isn’t some fickle nobleman insisting the authorities force a woman to marry him. This show, and the franchise, most certainly have their problems with women, but the Federation allowing the death penalty for women who refuse marriage proposals isn’t among them. Absent that context, the murky undercurrents of Shakespeare’s original run very sour. If we are supposed to see reflections of the Bard’s work in “Mudd’s Passion”, then this episode twists them beyond recognition just as surely as it does Nurse Chapel.

Our last-ditch effort to drag something worthwhile from the wreckage of this episode comes to nothing, then. Quite simply, “Mudd’s Passion” is the worst episode of the franchise I’ve written up so far. It’s so unpleasant – and so completely oblivious of its own unpleasantness – that I can’t even bring myself to enjoy the giant rock creatures, which shouldn’t be possible. Everything is just too badly damaged by that point. The injury this episode does to Nurse Christine Chapel, in particular, simply cannot be treated. We’ll see Nurse Chapel twice more in The Animated Series, and she’ll appear in two feature films too, but there’s simply no way back after this. Majel Barrett’s second major character in the franchise ultimately fares little better than her first, and again it’s for no better reason than the sheer number of men who can’t work out how to write or appreciate a half-decent female character.

I wonder if she’ll be any more fortunate with iteration number three?

[1] In fairness, one could argue that the drug actually works the same way no matter who’s involved. Perhaps it’s society’s fault that two straight men will confuse the romantic love it generates between them for “friendship”. We can’t blame a drug for the artificial bright lines we’re told we have to paint between our platonic, romantic and sexual impulses.

I rather like such a queer reading of what’s going on with Harry’s love drug. The foul ends that drug is put to here rather dampens my enthusiasm, though.


1. The Corbomite Maneuver

2. Mudd’s Passion

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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