“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” is a rejiggering of Heart of Darkness. The script, by noted science-fiction writer Robert Block, is not especially compelling, in part because the main antagonist is so much less compelling than Kurtz. But it’s interesting for the way that Conrad gets updated for a 60s era which was ambivalent about the rationalizing project of colonialism.
As in Heart of Darkness, the mission is to retrieve an official who has gone lost in the interior—of a distant planet in this case, rather than the Congo. Genius exobiologist Dr. Roger Korby (Michael Strong) has been missing for five years on the frozen wasteland of Exo-III. The Enterprise manages to make contact with him. But when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) beams down to the planet, Korby takes him captive.
The scientist has rediscovered the technology of the Old Ones (Bloch was a huge Lovecraft fan.) This allows Korby to take control of a couple of existing androids, and create robot duplicates, which he programs to be his servants. Ultimately, Korby wants to perfect humankind by putting human consciousness in robots. To prevent Kirk from interfering with this megalomaniacal philanthropic endeavor, he duplicates the Captain and plans to use the Enterprise to spread his creations throughout the galaxy.
David Higgins in Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood argues that in the 60s there was growing ambivalence about the Vietnam war and increasing sympathy with anti-colonial movements globally. That led many science-fiction creators to imagine their heroes in the position of the colonized rather than in the position of colonizers. “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” fits that formula.
Korby is a colonizer like Kurtz, controlling Exo-III and ruling the inhabitants. But he also intends to rule over the universe, replacing people with robots. The Federation, which sent Korby, is going to be conquered by its own imperial catspaw.
The colonial reversal here also embraces ideology. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz’s penetration into the Congo undoes his connection to civilization; he devolves into savagery. Conrad at times suggests that colonialism itself makes people cruel, and at times he suggests that the people who are colonized corrupt their tormenters. But either way, rationality and civilization is presented as positive, and passion, chaos, and uncontrolled emotion are linked to evil or darkness.
“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” switches that around. The (all-white) androids are presented as inhuman and inferior because they are more rational and more orderly than the humans. The striking 6’9 Ted Cassidy as the ancient android Ruk moves with a predatory, lurking, animalistic power and grace. But the script is careful to emphasize that Ruk is dangerous not because he’s more impulsive and wild than the humans, but because he’s less so. He eventually reveals that the ancient androids overthrew their creators because they couldn’t stand their chaos and disorder.
Ruk turns on Korby for the same reason. Korby kills him…but then, in a fight with Kirk, Korby is injured, and it turns out that he, too, is an android.
Kurtz in Heart of Darkness becomes more like European stereotypical, racist caricatures of uncivilized Africans. But Korby becomes a kind of feelingless caricature of European rationalism, who kills himself when he realizes that he cannot love or experience true emotions. It’s the robust, lusty Kirk who channels supposedly primal humanity, fighting for extroverted freedom against the cold weight of colonial oppression.
Kirk is also a white male Captain of an exploratory and expansionist militarized Federation. Shuffling signifiers to turn him into a symbol of resistance maybe endorses anticolonial struggles to some extent. But it also helplessly, and deliberately, confuses the issue.
You can see that deliberate obfuscation in the romance subplot. The Enterprise’s Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) is Korby’s fiancée; she joined the ship’s crew in part to search for her lost love. She beams down to the planet with Kirk, where she’s overjoyed to find Korby alive. And then she’s a good bit less overjoyed to discover that one of the robots, Andrea (Sherry Jackson) is a very attractive young woman who wears a dramatically color-blocked, more-not-there-than-there crisscrossed outfit that doesn’t seem to have any place to conceal a bra.
Korby insists that he can’t be committing any hanky-panky with Andrea because “She simply obeys orders. She has no meaning for me. There's no emotional bond.” Nurse Chapel, who calls Andrea a “mechanical geisha”—a notably racialized insult—is unconvinced, and for good reason. Power disproportions and dehumanization have not, in general, kept colonizers from committing sexual assault and rape. The fact that Andrea is completely under Korby’s control is precisely why Christine finds the relationship disturbing. Either Korby is naïve, or he thinks Christine is. Or he is so secure in his power that he thinks that Christine has no choice but to accept it when he tells her that his relationship with Andrea means nothing because to him she is not fully human.
We don’t see Kirby assault Andrea. But we see Kirk do so while he’s a prisoner. When she enters his quarters, he kisses her, and persists despite her repeated protests. Later, she encounters Kirk’s android double in the corridor and asks him to kiss her. He refuses, saying it’s illogical. She then kills him for refusing her—neatly reversing the actual colonial dynamic, in which women who turned down the advances of people like Kirk or Korby faced hideous reprisals, including death.
There is one even more blatant example of projection when Korby duplicates Kirk in an effort to take over the Enterprise. While Kirk’s mind is being imprinted on the android, the captain thinks ill of his first officer, the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). “Mind your own business, Mister Spock. I'm sick of your half-breed interference, do you hear?” he repeats while the mind-imprinting program is underway.
The plan here is to alert Spock that something is amiss. Sure enough, when the ersatz captain beams aboard the Enterprise, he immediately gets annoyed with Spock for asking him to clarify his orders. “Mind your own business, Mister Spock. I'm sick of your half-breed interference, do you hear?”
This is the only direct example of racism in this story about colonialism. And it’s an example that Kirk literally projects into the mind of the colonial enemy. Kirk, the invader, has his mind invaded, and he marks his double invaded/invader with a racial slur. That slur is even more pointed because, Spock himself, a super-logical Vulcan, is linked to the hyper-rational androids. The nonhuman android insults Spock for not being human in the same way that the android himself is not human. Kirk is the source of racist colonialism, but he’s not to blame. He says “half-breed,” but it is, the script hurries to assure us, not him.
Kirk shows how reverse colonial narratives duplicate colonial ones. “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” appropriates anticolonial struggle, as Kirk fights against Korby’s colonial takeover attempt. And yet, at the same time, it’s still Kirk who’s the colonizer, spouting racist slurs, sneering at his antagonist’s irrational lack of civilization, overseeing genocide (all the androids die), assaulting women who lack the capacity to defend themselves. Kirk rebels against that colonizer Kirk. But it's still Kirk sitting in the captain’s chair who conquers.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.