Star Trek: The Original Series Revisited: “I, Mudd”

“I, Mudd” is a silly episode celebrating the power and wonder of humanity’s silliness. Forget phasers and photon torpedoes; the Federation’s greatest weapon, it turns out, is absurdist theater and weaponized mime.

The goofiness hops, skips, and dances around some typical Star Trek anxieties. Like “The Apple” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?” this episode is worried that the temptations of progress and luxury will lead humans to become decadent. And as in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” the decadence is embodied in robot servants, who weaken humanity and become its masters. The specter of colonial slavery and its enervating effects on the colonizers lurks in the background—behind the imposingly large and mustachioed figure of Harvey Mudd.

Buried in the Mud of Luxury

Mudd—swindler, con man, liar, and rogue—first appeared in the first season episode “Mudd’s Women,” where he was peddling sex workers to lonely miners. His return is improbable, but welcome; Roger Carmel plays the character as a space Falstaff, all leering bonhomie and winking bluster. William Shatner, as Mudd’s nemesis Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, thoroughly enters into the spirit of the conflict. Whenever they’re on screen together you can hear their egos tromp and bellow like mating brontosaurs.

Before we get to that spectacle, though, there’s a certain amount of plot. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has a bad feeling about a new crewman named Norman (Richard Tatro). First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the emotionless Vulcan, scoffs at this irrationality.

But irrationality (here and throughout the episode) is right. Norman’s a super-strong robot who single-handedly seizes control of the ship and steers it on a course to an unknown planet run by androids. There the crew finds Mudd, who supposedly rules the robots. They cater to his every whim, even building a robot of his ex-wife Stella (Kay Elliot) so he can tell her to shut up. But they won’t let him leave the planet. They like studying him. And since the original alien race which created them is gone, they need someone to serve.

Mudd had the androids capture the Enterprise and its crew so they can have someone else to serve. He intends to seize the ship and fly around the universe doing nefarious deeds nefariously. The whole Enterprise bridge crew is brought to the planet and wooed with their greatest desires. Ensign Chekhov (Walter Koenig) is tempted by the fully-functional female robots Mudd ordered up. Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) is offered a beautiful, immortal android body. Dr. McCoy has an advanced medical lab. Engineer Scott (James Doohan) is given exciting tech to play with.

Blinding Them With Logical Fallacies

Kirk is having none of it though. He doesn’t want to stay in paradise forever. Especially not when the androids reveal that they aren’t going to do Mudd’s bidding. Instead, they’re going to trap Harvey on the planet with the other humans.

Then the androids are going to take the Enterprise themselves, and conquer humanity. “We cannot allow any race as greedy and corruptible as yours to have free run of the galaxy,” Norman explains. He says the androids will serve humans so well they will become dependent, effectively ruled by their loyal retainers.

Kirk devises a plan quickly. He and Spock figure out that Norman is the controlling brain of the whole operation. They also deduce that the robots can’t process illogic. When Spock tells one robot he loves her and then tells another identical robot he hates her, the blast of random silliness disables them. The crew, with Harry’s help, stages a bunch of stilly skits, including a performance for Norman involving overwrought poetry and an invisible bomb.

Sure enough, Norman’s circuits fuse. The crew is free. They reprogram the androids to do useful work without taking over the universe. Harry… they leave on the planet, along with 500 robot versions of his ex-wife to nag him. These won’t shut up when he tells them to. The crew exits, laughing. You can’t blame them. It was, as Kirk says, an episode with many “amusing aspects.”

Robot Revolution of Pampering

Karl Capek’s R.U.R., the 1920 play that introduced robots to the world, was about how letting servants work for you will make you weak and then will destroy society.

That’s basically the plot of “I, Mudd” as well. Mudd goes to another world and takes over. He’s one of those early colonial adventurers, conquering territory and turning from wastrel to ruler, as in Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. But when you don’t labor, you lose your vitality, your get-up-and-go, your spunk. The king is so weakened by his leisure that he becomes the subject.

This is essentially a semi-comic take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the colonial conqueror is corrupted by his time in the colonies. The Vietnam War was underway in 1967 when “I, Mudd” was first screened. But writer Stephen Kandel and director Marc Daniels aren’t concerned about how invading and conquering a distant planet will affect the people there. Instead, they’re worried about how the invading will demoralize the conquerors, weakening their will and virtue.

R.U.R.’s concerns about labor were also concerns about gender. Abandoning all work to the robots led humans to stop procreating. When men cease to be productive, they become unmanly.

Again, this concern is mirrored in “I, Mudd”. Mudd and the (mostly male) crew on the planet are served and catered to by scantily clad female robots. Those robots, we’re told pretty explicitly, are sexually available. Entering and controlling another territory offers sexual opportunities and sexual adventure—as the Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket makes clear.

At the same time, though, being catered to and served feminizes Mudd. By the end of the episode he’s a sitcom dad, harassed and henpecked by a deluge of nagging women. “Staying out all night then giving me some silly story!” one Stella shrieks. “You need constant supervision!” another insists. “It’s inhuman,” Mudd blubbers.

The joke is that the robots aren’t human. But the joke is also that Mudd’s been dehumanized and subjugated. He’s less than a man by the pampering supervision of his (objectified, female) servants. To rule is to be ruled, in sex as in everything else.

Illogical Anti-imperialism

In their skit to confuse the androids, the crew stiffly declaims a confusing ethos.

SCOTT:  Food and drink and happiness mean nothing to us. We must be about our job.

MCCOY: Suffering, in torment and pain. Laboring without end.

SCOTT: Dying and crying and lamenting over our burdens.

This is meant to be illogical. But it’s also a good summary of Kirk’s position. He believes that people can’t be happy in paradise. They need to strive and suffer, because only thus can they be free and fully human.

Kirk, and the script, though, don’t see this need for freedom as extending to the androids. On the contrary, Kirk reprograms them to be more effective laborers at the first opportunity; they will “adapt this planet for productive use,” he says. The androids are still serving Federation goals. They’re just doing it off in the distance, with no close contact, so the labor they do, and the service they render, doesn’t infect the upstanding, moral crew.

This is a kind of anti-imperialism. Kirk doesn’t want to rule over anyone—at least, not too closely. But the anti-imperialism isn’t about sympathy with the conquered. It’s about concern for the souls of the conquering.

Mudd is presented as an enormously selfish man, concerned only with his own satisfaction and his own freedom. But is Kirk’s solipsism really all that different? The crew’s performance of nonsense is meant to show the wonderful inconsistency of humanity. But when it comes to who is considered worthy of freedom, or even of independent thought, the inconsistency can start to look cruel.

All episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series are currently streaming on Paramount+.

This article was produced and syndicated by 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.