“Shore Leave” deliberately takes a vacation from the usual Trek formula of suspense and science-fiction. Foreshadowing many a Next Generation holodeck episode to come, the plot is a whimsical fantasy romp. Renowned science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon clearly had a great time throwing tigers, samurai, and giant rabbits into his supposedly future tech script.
In pushing the edges of what could be in Trek, though, Sturgeon also inadvertently showed just how rigid and narrow many of those edges were. A Star Trek episode about anything you can imagine somewhat disappointingly reveals that a network show in the 60s could imagine little beyond banal daydreams and stale genre fare. The episode gestures towards Lewis Carroll’s bizarre rabbit hole but never goes down it.
The Enterprise crew and captain James Kirk (William Shatner) are exhausted and need a rest. Luckily, they stumble upon an idyllic Earth-like planet without any inhabitants that seems perfect for rest and relaxation. On an initial survey of the surface, though, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) mentions that the planet seems like a fantasy out of Alice in Wonderland —and then sees a giant rabbit with a pocket-watch pursued by a blonde little girl.
Follow the White Rabbit
The odd phenomenon quickly escalates. Lt. Sulu (George Takei), a collector of antique weapons, finds an old firearm he’s long wanted under a rock. Kirk is accosted by Finnegan (Bruce Mars), an upperclassman who tormented him while he was at Starfleet academy. Yeoman Tonia Barrows (Emily Banks) finds a medieval princess’ outfit and is then attacked by a knight, who kills Dr. McCoy as he tries to defend her. Meanwhile, the crew’s communicators and phasers cease working. The logical Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) beams down to help and to try to explain why everything is higgledy-piggledy.
Eventually, Kirk and Spock figure out that the planet is creating whatever his crew thinks of. Duh. A Caretaker (Oliver McGowan) helpfully materializes out of nowhere to explain that the planet was a vacation destination for an advanced race and is designed to make daydreams come true. Dr. McCoy is miraculously resurrected and instead of investigating this potentially galaxy-transforming alien tech, the crew just decides to beam down to the planet, pursue their happy fantasies, and take care not to think about tigers or monsters.
What’s enjoyable about “Shore Leave” is the sense that anything can happen; it’s a television show released from the sober rules of logic. DeForest Kelley is the actor who best channels the joy of nonsense; he reacts with a crotchety, paralyzed wonder when the rabbit shows up, turns away but not too far away as Yeoman Barrows changes into her gown, and returns from the dead with two cabaret singers and a giant satisfied smile. In most episodes, McCoy is stuck in sickbay looking at monitor screens and pronouncing people sick or dead. He relishes the chance to stretch his legs and stride into romance, chivalry, and silliness.
What Might Have Been
Sturgeon reportedly wanted even more fantasy elements (including a live elephant!) But the studio balked at the excess of preposterousness, afraid that viewers wouldn’t suspend disbelief. Gene Roddenberry ended up having to do last-minute script rewrites during shooting.
Whether that undermined Sturgeon’s vision it’s difficult to say. The episode does, for better and worse, have an improvisational feel, as the landing party races around the lush landscape from strafing World War II fighter plane to samurai. Part of the joy of shore leave is being released from the regimentation of ship-board schedules, or plots.
Some strictures remain though. The Japanese warrior is predictably announced every time he appears on screen with a Chinese gong effect because Orientalism takes no vacations. Finnegan for his part gets a piping Irish jig music theme and leaps around like a manic Leprechaun. Boisterous irresponsibility and belligerence are signaled through the tired ethnic stereotypes.
As with race, so with gender—the fantasies on offer follow expected, narrow channels. The men conjure up willing old flames (in Kirk’s case) or willing sex workers (in McCoy’s.) Yeoman Barrows, meanwhile, conjures up Don Juan—who attempts to sexually assault her. And of course, she functions as a kind of sexual fantasy herself for the significantly older McCoy, as she summons up flirty clothes and then disrobes where he can see her. Men are the aggressors, and women are the sexual objects, uniformly, in the imaginations of all men and all women.
Westworld, Ex Machina, and a slew of other science-fiction stories about fantasy robots released since the 60s have explored the commodification of racial and sexual imagination. There were even some precedents before 1967. The narrative that introduced robots to the world, Karel Capek’s R.U.R., was published in 1921, but explores gender roles, racial revolution, and disordered reproduction with a lot more ingenuity than “Shore Leave: manages. Sturgeon himself wrote a novel in 1960 about a gender-neutral culture.
“Shore Leave,” though, isn’t meant to be adventurous. It’s a vacation; it’s entertainment. The familiarity is a feature, not a bug. People (for a narrow range of the term “people”) like Orientalist fantasies; they like sexy fantasies about compliant women being assaulted by Don Juan or chivalrously defended from Don Juan. The irresponsible irritating laughing guy is Irish because it’s easy to make him Irish, and people want easy when they’re on vacation. Guns and warplanes and tigers; that’s all the stuff of genre action, and everyone likes genre action, right?
It isn’t exactly right. People like all sorts of things, and even in a landing party of five or six you’re likely to have someone who is interested in thinking up something a little less conventional than tame het romance and a revenge fantasy that just involves punching an Irishman.
The problem with mass entertainment isn’t that it’s boring (though often it is.) It’s that it insists that its viewers are boring. We know for a surety, given Kirk/Spock slash, that fans of the show had more in mind than damsels in distress. “Shore Leave” is supposedly about the wonders of the imagination, but it has to pretend that those wonders are limited to the most pedestrian wish fulfillment. Like many an amusement park, “Shore Leave” promises fun and excitement, but it can’t live up to its own hype.
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.