‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

Who would have thought the god Apollo, shining thews and all, would be such a massive letdown?

The first episode of season 2, “Amok Time,” is one of the all-time great Trek episodes. Its successor, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” though, is… Well, it’s terrible. Not quite as wretched as the completely incoherent “Alternative Factor,” but worse than just about anything else in season 1.

Worse, it’s basically a less interesting rip-off of the not-all-that-interesting “Squire of Gothos,” which was itself a less interesting retread of “Charlie X”. A dude with godlike power accosts the Enterprise; we get it. Please, for the love of someone other than Apollo, can we stop with this?

And the Gods bellow back, with a great fanfare cue and indifferent special effects, “NO!”

All right then.

Oh Look It’s Another Thing Made Out of Pure Energy

The episode starts as they generally do with the USS Enterprise whooshing through space looking for adventure. It finds it this time in the form of a giant green glowing hand made out of (wait for it) pure energy. The hand grabs them and they are stuck in space, unable to free themselves.

Then a floating head babbling about Agamemnon and other Greek guys appear and tells them they must worship him and also beam down to the planet. Except for Spock (Leonard Nimoy), whose pointy ears remind the head of Pan, and whose face is too dour.

So Spock stays on the ship, in command, while Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Engineer Scott (Jimmie Doohan), Ensign Chekhov (Walter Koenig), and anthropology and mythology expert Lt. Carolyn Palamas (Leslie Parrish) beam down to the planet to keep the head happy and figure out what’s going on.

There they discover that the head has a body attached (Michael Forest) and that he claims to be Apollo, the god of Earth mythology. He’s got a bunch of Greek architecture around to back him up. Also, he can grow really huge and melt phasers with a wave of his hand.

And, like Apollo, he has an eye for the ladies. He transforms Palamas’ uniform into an off-the-shoulder gown and sweeps her off for a tete-a-tete, despite the vigorous protests of Scottie, who has a thing for the lieutenant. Apollo bats the engineer around for a bit, but doesn’t kill him, because he’s a main character.

Much of the rest of the episode is the landing party and the Enterprise crew working to come up with a technobabble rationale for defeating this creature of infinite power. They decide that he really is Apollo, though not a god but a space alien who came to Greece millennia ago. They also decide he needs worship to power himself, but also that he stores his power battery in the big Greek building they found him in.

To cut him off from worship, Lt. Palamas has to spurn him, which sucks for her since (thanks to the really poor script by Gilbert Ralston and Gene L. Coon) she’s fallen instantly in love with the space alien threatening the ship who zapped her crewmates repeatedly. Love is blind and all that, and he does promise to take care of the ship’s crew when they beam down to stay and worship him forever. Still. Come on.

Anyway, Palamas does the spurning as ordered, comparing Apollo to a bacteria she’d studied. He gets heated up and gears up to blast everyone, but then the Enterprise fires its phaser banks, reducing the building to slag. Without his mojo, Apollo launches into one final overheated monologue. “Zeus, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite. You were right. Athena, you were right. The time has passed. There is no room for gods. Forgive me, my old friends. Take me. Take me.” Then he disappears.

Kirk mutters something about how it’s too bad since the Greek gods were an important spark for Western civilization. “Would it hurt us to have gathered a few laurel leaves?” he wonders. It’s a silly question, and rather than give a silly answer, the episode mercifully ends.

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Gods Are Dull

The episodes about all-powerful energy beings are often pretty tedious. It’s difficult to build a compelling plot around a character with no limits and infinite power who can do anything. The episodes like “Charlie X” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” that treat the scenario as a horror movie work best. But a lot of them just feel like one thing after another.

“Who Mourns for Adonais?”  is even more tedious than those because it basically presents the Enterprise crew themselves as gods. Apollo is this hugely powerful, dangerous creature. But Kirk is never even a little bit afraid of him, and never considers for a second that he might be a god. He just shrugs and sets about killing him. “We’ve outgrown you,” he tells Apollo, and the script backs him up. Federation humans really are better and tougher and wiser than gods.

Or at least the men are; Palamas, who McCoy calls “All woman,” is weak and worshipful. Kirk has to remind her of her duty to get her to the modern-day, better-than-god level.

Obviously, Star Trek, a mainstream television show in the 1960s, is quite sexist by today’s standards—or for that matter by the standards of Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963 before Star Trek aired. Maybe by the 2200s that will all be ironed out—though I wouldn’t bet on it.

People aren’t perfect, and likely aren’t perfectible. In its better moments, Star Trek acknowledges as much. In episodes like “Arena”, godlike wisdom and awesomeness are presented as things to strive for, rather than as things attained.

“Who Mourns for Adonais?” doesn’t have that much nuance, though. The episode is just dedicated to celebrating humans for having built tech toys that make them morally, physically, and developmentally superior to the gods. It’s tedious and self-refuting, inasmuch as Apollo, as the god of poetry, was supposed to be able to spin a beautiful tale. “Who Mourns for Adonais?” isn’t that.

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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.