For Love of Alexander: Reconsidering “Plato’s Stepchildren”

“Do you know who Michael Dunn is?”

One of the more interesting developments of our connected age is the advent of “live tweeting”. That is, one creates an account on Twitter; logs in when a certain program is being broadcast; chooses a relevant hashtag (which filters the stream of tweets to just those containing that particular hashtag); then posts comments about the show while it is airing.

I regularly live-tweet reruns of the old Star Trek series (nowadays colloquially referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series, or Star Trek: TOS) airing on MeTV (a digital subchannel network – another advent of our age) on Saturday nights. (“But check your local listings!”) Last Saturday, April 26th, MeTV aired the episode Plato’s Stepchildren, and that brings us back to my opening question: “Do you know who Michael Dunn is?”

That is, for better or worse, an “age-reveal” question. Below a certain age, the person you’ve asked will either say “No” or make a reasonable guess of a similarly-named modern actor, such as Michael Dorn. Over that age, the person might actually know, or at least acknowledge that the name is familiar. If you then say, “He was on The Wild Wild West”, you’ll very likely get a strong positive reaction. But if you say, “He played Alexander on Star Trek”, you’ll probably receive a quizzical look. So you continue: “In the episode Plato’s Stepchildren” — a wanting shrug. Now you surrender: “The one where he rode on Kirk’s back like a horse and jockey, while Spock sang Bitter Dregs.” Outside of shock, the response you’re most likely to receive is a deep rolling of the eyes, accompanied by a patently dismissive “Oh… That one.”

Yes. That one. Other than being famous for having “the first interracial on-screen kiss”, Plato’s Stepchildren is generally considered to be one of TOS’ worst episodes. Shatner and Nimoy’s characters frolicking and cavorting in foolish pantomimes (at the telekinetic whims of the super-powered Parmen) is uncomfortable to watch. Their characters’ later mistreatment of Nurse Chapel and Lieutenant Uhura (again, Parmen’s telekinetic whims) can be genuinely unsettling. So it’s fair to say that this episode’s infamy is well-earned. …At first viewing.

And, admittedly on successive viewings as well over the years. But an amazing thing occurred during that Saturday airing which frankly not only surprised me, but which also caused me to spend time reevaluating the episode, and for the better.

If you’re unfamiliar with the episode (beyond the notorious antics mentioned above), here’s a summary of the plot at Memory Alpha. A key element (arguably, the key element) is that Alexander, played by Michael Dunn, learns that the pituitary fault which made him a dwarf also prevented him from developing telekinesis. The context is that Alexander is and has been the slave and plaything of his fellow Platonians.

I was live-tweeting that episode with a regular group of dependably humorous fellow live-tweeters. The comments ranged as usual from light opportunistic comedy to sharp, wry mockery, with semi-contextual pop culture references thrown in. Much of the mocking focused on the Platonians’ cruel treatment of Alexander. While I’m not sure I can truly pin it down to a specific moment, this commenting seemed to change during the third act. McCoy had synthesized a serum which gave Kirk and Spock each twice the telekinetic power of the Platonians; he then offered an injection to Alexander — who recoiled in horror. While most of us in that group had seen the episode numerous times, it seemed for the first time we were seeing what was happening. It became clear to us as never before the revulsion Alexander felt at possibly being like his tormentors, of (to use the cliché) “becoming that which he hated”.

Though we were well-familiar with this episode’s plot, almost collectively we were with new clarity hearing the anguish in Alexander’s dialogue, seeing the richness of Dunn’s performance. And while the comments overall throughout the episode maintained that range of comedy to mockery, those tweets specifically concerning the Platonians and Alexander developed their own sub-pattern:

  • The comments on the Platonians and their treatment of Alexander grew from mockery to genuine disgust.
  • A new realization developed for the writing of Alexander, presenting him as a fully-developed character.
  • New appreciation was felt for the depth and sincerity Dunn gave to his portrayal of the character.

It was though for the very first time (in decades literally, for some of us) we saw Plato’s Stepchildren not as a derision-worthy filler episode known most for the buffoonery of its central scene, but something much greater, which I’ll address in a moment. For now I want to highlight two additional points.

1) As I thought about Plato’s Stepchildren over this past week, something else had occurred to me: Alexander seemed also to have gone on his own “hero’s journey”. When we first meet him, he is very timid; he weakly attempts to explain the danger to the Starship trio, but falters. He has his moment of self-realization when he learns that his pituitary disorder is the very cause for his low situation. He has anguished clarity when offered the same power that his tormentors use on him. He briefly flirts with the temptation for revenge when he realizes his tormentors no longer have power over him; this is swiftly replaced with regretful realization of what this would have made him. He then with firm boldness expresses his contempt for his fellow Platonians. Finally, with the promise of being taken to the Enterprise by the three officers, he has the opportunity to enter a new world of welcoming acceptance.

I have to state flatly: Had I not been part of that online group last Saturday night, I don’t know that I would have seen this pattern on my own.

2) This same reflection on the episode has also made me realize another missed element of the story: McCoy’s realization of and reaction to the cruelness of the Platonians. Even before the plot begins its growth-journey of Alexander, McCoy had expressed disgust at Parmen’s repulsive toying with Kirk and Spock. It’s as though McCoy’s response here is meant as a handhold for the viewer: “Don’t focus on the ‘horseback’ charade; you’re supposed to focus on the wickedness of these self-described academicians.” McCoy expresses similar repugnance in the fourth act regarding the female officers’ potential harm as mere entertainment for the Platonians. Speaking only for myself, I missed all this during the episode simply because it was overshadowed by the clarity with which I was seeing Alexander. However, now that I have this new perspective on McCoy as well as on Alexander, I am genuinely looking forward to seeing this episode again, so I can more thoughtfully drink all this in.

And finally this all brings us to the “something much greater” I alluded to earlier. Again speaking only for myself, I have had a complete turn-around on Plato’s Stepchildren. I no longer see it as a weaker episode of a forlorn season; I now see it as exactly the kind of episode Star Trek is best known for.

Star Trek: TOS can be described many ways; there are many aspects of the show to be discussed. But if one is honest, a particular aspect of TOS one must acknowledge is its readiness to tackle social and cultural issues. Oppression, class division, racism – these and other societal ills have been addressed in many of TOS’ episodes. And now with this fresh perspective, I can see that Plato’s Stepchildren does exactly this as well.

This episode is from TOS’ third season, when NBC had effectively turned its back on the series and cut its budget. It is easy to dismiss the childlike charade Kirk and Spock perform as a result of the network’s action. But consider McCoy’s disgust at seeing his friends so cruelly manipulated — because that is the point: we see for the first time what the Platonians are willing to do to persons they deem beneath themselves. Now consider it in this context: the officers arrive on the planet not as a conquering force but by invitation, indeed by urgent request for medical help. They freely offer this help, but when they seek to return to the Enterprise, Parmen begins using his telekinesis as a weapon to bend the officers to his will. This is prelude to the greater, and more disturbing, revelation: that these Platonian academicians, whose very way of life is ostensibly based on the philosophies of Plato, are happily willing to use their powers for the gross mistreatment of the one member of their society so abjectly incapable of defending himself.

Human history is sadly full of such actions. Media, industrial strength, political office — all can be weaponized to put one group of people under another; but it’s all initiated by thought, the thought that some certain group must be controlled, must be “put in their place”. This episode takes that one step further, by making thought itself the weapon. But that sci-fi conceit should not take away from the fact that Plato’s Stepchildren is something much greater than the reputation which precedes it; it’s as much a deep-reaching morality play as some better-esteemed TOS episodes.

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