This post is the second installment of Trek vs. Pop Culture, an occasionally recurring series in which we compare an episode of Trek to an episode of something else – anything else – in order to explore Trek’s place in pop culture. You can read the first installment, a comparison of time-loop episodes in The X-Files and Star Trek: Discovery, here.
Star Trek: The Original Series – “The Squire of Gothos” (season 1, episode 18)
Written by Paul Schneider; directed by Don McDougall; first aired in 1967
While passing through an immense “star desert”, the crew of the Enterprise come across a previously undiscovered planet. Kirk and Sulu are mysteriously teleported to that planet’s inhospitable surface, by someone who greets the Enterprise with “felicitations” and a “tally-ho!” An away team beams down to rescue them, and discovers an artificially-maintained habitat which the seemingly all-powerful Trelane has modeled after Earth. Or rather, he has modeled it after his own knowledge of Earth, which is several centuries out of date, and lacking in details: the banquet he offers his guests has no taste, and his picturesque roaring fireplace gives off no heat. Trelane is gleeful at the opportunity to meet humans up close, after obsessively observing them from so far away. But when they won’t do exactly what he says, his glee turns to childish (though still frightening) rage. Which, as it turns out, is because he is a child … one who ends up grounded by his all-powerful parents for not taking “proper care” of his “pets”.
Futurama – “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” (season 4, episode 11)
Written by David A. Goodman; directed by Pat Shinagawa; first aired in 2002
Fry discovers that his beloved Star Trek was outlawed centuries ago, after its fandom became a full-fledged religion. He seeks out the disembodied head of Leonard Nimoy, who reluctantly agrees to accompany Fry and the rest of the Planet Express crew on a journey to the “forbidden planet” where the last remaining recordings of Star Trek’s episodes and movies were dumped. There, they encounter the rest of the original cast (all voiced by themselves, with the notable exceptions of DeForest Kelley, who had previously passed away, and James Doohan, who had turned Futurama down and was mockingly replaced with the fictional “Welshie”). Their own disembodied heads have been given new bodies by the seemingly all-powerful cloud creature, Melllvar. There’s a catch, though: after obsessively watching the tapes which were dumped on his world, Melllvar sees himself as “the ultimate Trek fan,” and demands that the cast perform for his amusement for all eternity, eventually pitting them against the Planet Express crew in a classically Trek-ish fight to the death.
This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing for a while now. Futurama was the original inspiration for the Trek vs. Pop Culture series, given that the influence of Star Trek is baked into so many aspects of the show, from the Kirk-like Zap Brannigan to Bender, the anti-Data, whose humor comes largely from shattering our expectations of a calm, logical robot sidekick – expectations instilled in us by shows like The Next Generation. There are any number of Futurama episodes that could be compared to Trek; I came this close to comparing DS9’s “Little Green Men” to Futurama’s “Roswell that Ends Well”, instead of Enterprise’s “Carbon Creek”. But “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” is the most obvious choice, given that it pokes fun at so many Star Trek tropes, and makes so many specific references to particular episodes or films, making it hard to pick one episode of the original series to compare it with. Some of those references are broad and obvious, recognizable even to an audience who’ve never seen an episode of Trek in their lives: William Shatner screaming “Khaaaaaannn!”, for instance, or opening the episode with a voice-over entry in “Shatner’s log”. Others come in the form of loving, detail-oriented recreations of fan-favorite scenes: an homage to Spock’s court martial in “The Menagerie” serves as a framing device for the episode’s plot, which then culminates in a fight to the death on a barren planet, taken straight from Captain Kirk’s Gorn-fight in “Arena” (or from any number of other original series episodes, as “No Fan” deliberately points out). But the heart of the episode, I think, is another Trek trope TOS used and reused in episode after episode: an all-powerful alien who uses immense, unexplained power to subject the Enterprise crew – and, in this case, Futurama’s Planet Express crew – to its own whims and wishes.
The (more or less) all-powerful entity is one plot device that Trek continued to use well past the original series, into the films, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and beyond. One of the reasons for this is obvious: the franchise has always had to strike a delicate balance, both between its ambitions and its budget, and between its metaphorical storytelling style and the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief; simply saying, ‘This creature can do literally anything,’ is one way to accomplish both of those balancing acts. But I think there’s another reason, too. Trek has always had a strong interest in the right and wrong uses of power. We can see this right from the beginning, in both of the pilot episodes produced for the original series, “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”; we can also see it in that staple of Star Trek storytelling, the Prime Directive, an explicit rule against using the Federation’s considerable technological power to influence less advanced cultures. Trek’s consistent willingness to remind us that might does not make right is part of what has made it so consistently relevant over the decades (and is, in turn, one piece of evidence that Trek has always been deliberately political, despite periodic complaints that this storyline or that casting choice ‘politicizes’ the franchise). And we get a none-too-subtle example of that in “The Squire of Gothos”, in the form of Trelane’s selfish, reckless, and, of course, childish use of his own great power.
Now, all these decades later, the character of Trelane might be most notable as the ‘first draft’ of Q, who would first appear in the first episode of The Next Generation, and would go on to appear in more separate series of Trek than almost any other character. And yes, they’re both playful, manipulative loudmouths with godlike powers, but there is one very big difference between the two. As I’ve written before, there’s always been a complexity, an ambiguity, to Q’s motives; already in his first appearance, Q was, I think, subtly rigging his own game in favor of the Enterprise crew, and would continue to do so in many of his later appearances. But Trelane is deliberately written to lack any of that subtlety or nuance. He is, as we discover in a classic, Twilight Zone-esque twist at the episode’s end, quite literally a spoiled child, and while that reveal is so on-the-nose that it’s difficult to take seriously, William Campbell’s performance as Trelane keeps this episode re-watchable in spite of that. He makes the character undeniably fun to watch, but what’s most striking about his performance is the way it works equally well before and after the reveal; on re-watch, Trelane is believable as a child playing at being a grown-up, going through the motions without any real intention behind them. The hoops he forces Kirk and company to jump through serve no hidden agenda or higher purpose whatsoever; he’s doing nothing more or less than what he wants, because he can. For all the bad that Q does, he always seems invested, one way or another, in the mortals he messes with. Trelane, on the other hand, is just bashing action figures together for his own shallow, fleeting amusement.
And it’s this reckless, unproductive use of Trelane’s power and knowledge that forms the thematic centre of the episode, as stated pretty directly by Spock: “I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.” From the away team’s first meeting with Trelane, we are repeatedly shown that Trelane’s recreation of human history is superficial at best – the tasteless food, the fire that produces no heat, his period-mismatched architecture, décor, and uniform – and his inability to actually understand humanity contrasts nicely with his impressive power to imitate it. If William Campbell’s performance foreshadows the immaturity that lies beneath Trelane’s power, so do these botched details of the playset he has built for himself on Gothos, and of his knowledge of the away team’s cultural backgrounds:
Trelane: DeSalle, did you say? Un vrai Francais?
DeSalle: My ancestry is French, yes.
Trelane: Ah, monsieur! Vive la gloire! Vive Napoleon! You know, I admire your Napoleon very much.
Kirk: This is Mister DeSalle, our navigator. Doctor McCoy, our medical officer. Mister Sulu, our helmsman, and Carl Jaeger, meteorologist.
Trelane: Welcome, good physicianer, and honourable sir. [bows to Sulu]
Sulu: Is he kidding?
Trelane: Und Offizier Jaeger, und der deutsche Soldat, nein? [salutes and marches in exaggerated military style] Eins, zwei, drei, vier! Gehen vir mit dem Schiessgewehr!
Jaeger: I’m a scientist, not a military man.
Trelane: Oh, come now. We’re all military men, under the skin. And how we do love our uniforms.
In his interactions with the away team, we see not just that Trelane’s knowledge of Earth is out of date and incomplete, but that he lacks the intellectual curiosity to ask for any help filling those gaps in his knowledge, instead insisting that these actual humans comply with his flawed expectations of humans. He also lacks the empathy to appreciate that his “guests” are multifaceted individuals, and not just walking examples of his trivial knowledge about them. Of course, empathy and outside-the-box thinking are skills, learned over time and with experience, and if children of Trelane’s species are anything like ours, it’s understandable that he has some growing to do in that regard. After all, I could say the same thing about plenty of human adults, never mind the kids.
Which brings us to the cloud creature Melllvar, who, unlike Trelane, has no excuse for his lack of empathy. “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” has its own reveal, late in the episode, when Melllvar’s mother appears and tells him to stop playing with his “collectables” because it’s dinner time … but when Leela reflects on Mellvar being “just a child”, his mother corrects her: “He’s not a child, he’s 34!” It’s a clever joke, as well as being one of the meaner Trek-fan jokes in an episode full of them. Granted, those jokes were written by a writers’ room full of geeks who have probably been the butt of these kinds of jokes as often as anyone. Fry, suddenly revealed to be a huge Trek fan, serves as their stand-in, signaling that the writers are laughing at themselves as much as they’re laughing at anyone else. And don’t get me wrong, there certainly are elements of Star Trek fandom to laugh at, and some elements that could stand some more serious criticism as well. But then, maybe that’s the thing about the fandom jokes in “No Fan”: they were written at a time when fandom, in general, occupied quite a different place in pop culture than it does now. Yes, it’s a good gag to have executioners intoning “He’s dead, Jim” while throwing Trek fans into a volcano “in the manner most befitting virgins.” But the stereotype of sci-fi fans as basement-dwelling virgins seems almost quaint in 2018, given that Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are currently dominating mainstream entertainment … and given the real, serious problem of harassment and threats from small, but loud and weirdly influential, sub-sets of certain fandoms. Of course, to properly deal with all that, we’d probably have to look at an episode that wasn’t written a decade and a half ago (and we will, in a future installment of Trek vs. Pop Culture on Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”, an episode which is explicitly about the dark side of fandom).
But “No Fan” does at least hint at the kinds of questions about fandom that have come to feel a bit more urgent lately. Melllvar represents “intellect without discipline” and “power without constructive purpose” at least as much as Trelane does, but, again, without Trelane’s excuse that he’s only a child. The jokes about Trek fans and their “collectables” can feel a bit obvious at times (“You made me take it out of the package,” Melllvar whines about the starship he uses to chase after the Planet Express Ship), but his inability to decide whether he should treat the Trek cast as his friends, or his heroes, or his action figures is smart and well-observed. Most of the episode, in fact, is impressively focused on that question: what is Trek to its fans? And what are its cast members? Are they the characters they played? Are they working actors who just happened to take the job of playing those characters for a few years, decades ago? Are they inspirational figures? Saints, in a sort of religion? Or are they “collectables”, bits of memorabilia for the fans’ amusement? This tension can be felt just about any time the Star Trek cast are on screen, and it’s where much of the episode’s humor come from. For instance, when Mellvar announces the “Trekfest 3002” convention he is forcing the cast and the Planet Express crew to attend:
Melllvar: Now, we have a full schedule of events …
Bender: Uh, can people who hate Star Trek leave?
Walter Koenig: [emphatically] Good question.
Melllvar: No! You have to stay even longer!
[Koenig and Bender groan in unison]
Throughout “No Fan”, we’re constantly reminded of the unique impact Trek has had on the lives of both its cast, and its fans. We’re given a glimpse of how truly odd it must be, as a professional actor, to have been a Star Trek cast member decades ago, and to have that one relatively brief period in your working life define you so fully in the eyes of your industry, and of the culture at large. And this already strange experience must be made just that much weirder by the intense, and often very emotional, attachment we geeks feel to the stories, characters, and creators we love. This attachment, like any strong feeling, can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how we process and act on it. Early in the episode, Fry tries to explain to his crewmates why the show matters to him:
Leela: You can’t go to Omega 3! It’s forbidden! I forbid you!
Fry: But we have to! The world needs Star Trek to give people hope for the future.
Leela: But it’s set 800 years in the past!
Bender: Yeah, why is this so important to you?
Fry: ‘Cause it … it taught me so much. Like how you should accept people, whether they be black, white, Klingon, or even female. But most importantly, when I didn’t have any friends … it made me feel like maybe I did.
Leela: Well, that is touchingly pathetic. I guess I can’t let you go alone.
Fry clearly feels the same personal attachment to the cast of Trek as Melllvar does. In the passage above, though, Fry does something Melllvar doesn’t: he mentions the lessons Trek taught him, the themes and messages he internalized by watching it, and which he wants other people to hear. Melllvar, on the other hand, treats the Trek cast in a way that’s purely selfish, and flies in the face of the values of this show he claims to love … a show in which characters like Trelane are the villains because they use their power to impose their will on others, and deny others their humanity (or Vulcanity, or, you, know, whatever). Even when Fry finally convinces Melllvar to let them all go, we see that Melllvar still doesn’t fully get it:
Melllvar: If I can’t have the original cast of Star Trek, no one will! Prepare to die!
Fry: Wait! If they mean that much to you, why do you want to kill them?
Melllvar: Because I … I … I don’t know what I’d do without them.
Fry: Melllvar, you can’t let a TV show be your whole life. You can do anything you want. Look at Walter Koenig: After Star Trek, he became an actor!
Walter Koenig: Not just an actor, but a well-rounded person! With my own friends, and credit cards, and keys …
Melllvar: Well, I guess I could move out of my parents’ basement … maybe get a temp job …
Fry: Whoa, whoa! One step at a time.
Melllvar: I thank you, Fry. You know, you and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you … friend.
Fry: Episode 10, “Balance of Terror”.
Melllvar: More like episode 9, loser! In your face! Victory is mine!
Fry, despite feeling like the fictional crew of the Enterprise were his friends, still understands that too much attachment to Trek, like too much attachment to anything, is unhealthy. But even as Melllvar is convinced by Fry, he continues to show that, like Trelane with human culture, he has absorbed a lot of trivial facts and details from Star Trek, but very little of its substance. He quotes “Balance of Terror”, an episode known for dealing with themes of tolerance and understanding across cultural barriers … but he’s more concerned with getting the episode numbering right than he is with the meaning behind the words he’s quoting. And, for what it’s worth, I actually saw a few different episode numbers associated with “Balance of Terror” when I checked (yes, I checked – hey, I never claimed to be above such geekiness myself), which maybe just adds to the case that trivia, while fun, is just that: trivial. What matters isn’t whether Melllvar knows more about Trek than Fry does, or that Trelane doesn’t know what chicken tastes like. What matters is that they both failed to look any deeper than the surface details of the thing they claimed to be so interested in, and, therefore, missed the point.
And yes, I realize I’ve been taking an episode of Futurama maybe just a bit too seriously, and so I’ll leave you with some of my favorite moments from the episode, just for fun:
Fry: Well, usually on the show someone would come up with a complicated plan, then explain it with a simple analogy.
Leela: Hmm. If we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and reconfigure them to Melllvar’s frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.
Bender: Like putting too much air in a balloon!
Fry: Of course! It’s so simple!
Bender: Okay, I’m done re-kafoobling the energy-motron … or whatever.
[and later still]
Leela: It’s not working! He’s drawing strength from our weapons!
Fry: Like a balloon, and … something bad happens!