I love the original Star Trek very much but I don’t deny its flaws, some of which Greg Hatcher discussed here. Along with flaws in the philosophy and political arguments (Greg uses Let This Be Your Last Battlefield as an example; I come to a similar conclusion on my own blog), there’s also the problem that it ran out of steam fast. When I rewatched the first season for the first time in years, I was impressed how good it was. Second season was a big drop in quality, and third season — well, it’s not as bad as I remembered it, but quality is definitely not the goal they were shooting for.
Part of the problem is that the show seized on certain formulas and recycled them. Almost every TV show does that to some extent and if it’s well executed, it can work. If they just reuse the formula without any thought, the results are likely to suck. Case in point, the second season episode The Apple.
(I’ll pause here and note this is another post recycled from my own blog)
As we open, the Enterprise is checking out a beautiful, newly discovered planet that looks like a garden of Eden. The away team soon discovers the serpent: a local plant kills a red shirt by firing poison thorns his way, an explosive rock blows up another crewman and a lightning bolt disintegrates a third man. You could almost anticipate a parody episode sending up the Red Shirts trope, but no. Meanwhile, up on the Enterprise, a force on the planet has begun draining the ship’s power.In contrast to the hostile environment, the inhabitants are peaceful, gentle souls. When Kirk catches one of them spying on the away team, he strikes the man. The native is so shell-shocked that he cries. The population consists of one small village, serving as votaries to the planetary deity Vaal, who lives somewhere inside the dragon-mouth cave in the illustration. Vaal keeps his acolytes ageless and in perfect health. They’re also in a state of prelapsarian innocence, with no children and no knowledge of sex (one young couple figure out some of it by watching Chekhov and a yeoman make out). Spock deduces that Vaal is a supercomputer buried deep in the planet. The villagers use the cave to provide Vaal with his food, the unstable rocks that he/it uses as a source of energy.
This situation shows the problems of the Prime Directive. Starfleet isn’t supposed to interfere in how other worlds and societies manage themselves. As I discuss at the link, this is said to be a response to the Vietnam War and the United States’ long history of overthrowing governments it didn’t like. The Federation doesn’t do that; it gives other cultures room to breathe, and to find their own path, at least in theory.
This runs directly contrary to the rules of adventure fiction, which dictate that when our heroes find an oppressed people, they must be liberated, ASAP. But in the case of Vaal’s people, are they oppressed? Spock points out that the villagers are comfortable, healthy and cared for. McCoy argues that they’re slaves, even if they don’t see themselves that way. But as so often happens in Trek, the debate is irrelevant: Vaal is attacking the Enterprise, draining its engines, so they have to destroy him in self-defense.Although Vaal is protected by a force-field, the Enterprise hits on a two-pronged attack. The ship blasts Vaal’s protective shields with phasers while Kirk and Co. block the natives from feeding their god. The computer runs out of power and shuts down, leaving the natives free to develop naturally as a culture. Spock later compares this to casting Adam and Eve out of Eden; Kirk points out that Spock looks more like Satan than anyone else on the Enterprise. Cue the ending credits.
As Greg discusses in his post, you can debate whether the Enterprise did the right thing. Or whether it would be the right thing if Vaal hadn’t completely forced their hand, thereby saving the writers the problem of reaching a conclusion. When the enemy’s bent on destroying you, the question “should we leave them happy but under the computer’s control?” doesn’t require an answer. What annoyed me most rewatching the episode a couple of years back was how nonsensical the whole planetary set-up was.
Star Trek’s first world-controlling computer was Landru in S1’s Return of the Archons. There we got enough backstory to make sense of how it rose to power. Landru, the planet’s last great leader, created a computer to carry on after he died, applying his rules to keep society from breaking down (I don’t think any of you will be shocked to learn it didn’t work out that way). In The Apple we learn absolutely nothing about how this world came to be, or why Vaal exists at all.
Did the village’s ancestors build it? That would be my first guess, but there’s no indication they ever had a more advanced culture. Did some alien race place the people there with Vaal as their protector? Something similar happened in the backstory to The Paradise Syndrome but, again, there’s not even an attempt to suggest this in the story. Or to suggest any other origin for Vaal.
Is Vaal the natives’ conqueror? A protector? We don’t know. We don’t know why he simply attacks rather than giving the Enterprise a chance to run before it destroys them. We never learn why every square yard of the planet seems as deadly as the X-Men’s Danger Room. Do so many people visit that Vaal or his creators need to set all those booby traps to eliminate them? What happens if one of the villagers accidentally triggers a trap or otherwise gets themselves killed? Does Vaal direct them to reproduce and restore the population?
The Enterprise crew bring up that last one, but they can’t get an answer because it’s 1960s TV, the era when even married couples were shown sleeping in twin beds. The away team has to hem and haw and become laughably euphemistic when they talk about S-E-X. But the young couple spying on Chekhov clearly has no trouble picking up on the concept so Vaal’s people aren’t asexual. How does he deal with it if some of them get frisky — because even if he forbids that stuff, human history shows us people are prone to ignore Forbidden when they get the urge. And if they do occasionally breed, it’s unlikely they’d forget how to do it afterwards.
These are questions the show could have resolved with a little effort. Nobody tried. They simply came up with a cool situation and what seemed like an interesting dilemma, and didn’t bother to flesh it out. And in fairness, that worked for me fine all the times I saw this episode in my teens. Now, though, The Apple is just a big mass of plot holes.