“This Side of Paradise” is a stern Reefer Madness for the space age, and the series’ first near-perfect episode.
Star Trek did its first riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in “Return of the Archons,” a muddled anti-communist parable that gets lost in ramshackle world-building. Undeterred, writers D.C. Fontana and Jerry Sohl tried again a few episodes later with “This Side of Paradise.” The result is a feverish, gloriously ridiculous classic of anti-hippie paranoia.
Sex, Drugs and Mutiny
The Enterprise is ordered to investigate the agricultural colony Omicron Ceti III. The settlement was established three years previously, but the Federation has discovered that the planet is bathed in Berthold rays, which break down animal tissue in about a week. They expect to discover that all the colonists are dead.
A landing party of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), navigator Lt. Sulu (George Takei), and a couple of others beam down. To their surprise, they discover that the colonists are very much alive. Moreso, under the leadership of Elias Sandoval (Frank Overton), the colonists refuse to beam up to the ship for relocation. They point out that the Berthold rays have done them no harm and they are happy on the planet.
There are other mysteries. There is no animal life on the planet (presumably all killed by Berthold rays). And the colonists have been strangely unambitious, satisfied to create subsistence plots without expanding the colony.
One colonist is biologist Leila Kalomi (Jill Ireland), a woman who fell in love with Mr. Spock on earth some six years ago. Spock is an unemotional alien Vulcan who cannot return her feelings. He is, however, eager to hear from her why the colony has been immune to Berthold rays. So she shows him weird, fibrous flowers which spurt spores into his face. “Fascinating,” he says.
No, actually, he says, “ARRRGGGH!” But after a moment of agony, he becomes “one of them,” completely mellowed out as if he’s ingested “happy pills.” He declares his love for Leila and stops answering his communicator.
One of Many of Us
Soon the flowers are sowing bliss and indiscipline left and right. The landing party is infected, and Dr. McCoy (with an exaggerated Georgia drawl) beams flowers up to the ship. Everyone on board loves the happy flower drugs, and beams down to join the colony. Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), with a beatific smile and a sultry sigh, disables communications with Starfleet. Kirk is left alone on the bridge of an empty ship…until at last the flowers zap him too.
Now that he understands the groove, man, Kirk prepares to beam down also and abandon the ship. But at the last minute his indomitable sense of duty takes over, and he becomes enraged. The strong emotion allows him to shake off the chronic, I mean the spores.
Kirk realizes that the same cure could work on others, and he convinces Spock to beam up. He then insults him, using a bunch of racist slurs (“half-breed”) and telling him he’s not worthy of Leila. Spock becomes enraged and almost kills Kirk before coming to his senses. The two then set up a subsonic signal that they hope will cause irritability and anger in everyone on the planet.
Leila beams up and realizes Spock is no longer her hippie lover; the distress snaps her out of the spores’ power. Kirk and Spock broadcast their signal, causing fights to break out on the planet and curing the crew and colonists.
Elias is ashamed that the colonists haven’t been more industrious. Also, without the healing power of the spores, the Berthold rays will kill everyone in about a week.
So the colonists abandon their homes. The crew comes back aboard the Enterprise and resumes their duties. They leave the commie utopia behind. Only Spock expresses something like regret. “I have little to say about it, Captain, except that for the first time in my life I was happy.”
Star Trek is often cited as a progressive show that promotes peace, harmony, and diversity. But “This Side of Paradise” shows yet again how ambivalent the show’s creators were about the new left and all it stood for.
Omicon Ceti III, with its vegan diet, laid-back work ethic, and consumption of copious mind-altering substances, looks a lot like a hippie commune. The hippies are also—in the context of a nation at war in Vietnam—notably anti-militaristic.
Starfleet and Kirk are committed to an ethos of orders, duty, and military discipline. Kirk first really realizes something is wrong with Spock when his first officer stops calling him “sir.” Another stomach-churning moment for the captain is when he tells a crew member, “This is mutiny, mister!” To which the crew member in question calmly replies, “Yes sir, it is.”
The erosion of military will is accompanied by an erosion of capitalist get-up-and-go. Elias, freed of the spores, bemoans the failure to expand GDP. “We've done nothing here. No accomplishments, no progress. Three years wasted. We wanted to make this planet a garden.”
This doesn’t exactly make sense—the planet is already a garden, after all. But that only underlines the depth of the anxiety. The fear isn’t that hippie life won’t work. The fear is that it will.
Omicron Ceti III is dangerous because it’s a fully sustainable, happy, flourishing society that rejects violence, capital accumulation, and the drug war. Everyone is healthy (the spores will even regrow your appendix!) Everyone is protected from radiation (a nod to left-wing anti-nuclear activism.) Why would anyone choose to remain under the command of that martinet Captain Kirk when you could sniff the funny flowers and canoodle with Leila?
Spock, at least, certainly understands the appeal. Leonard Nimoy turns in one of his absolute best performances as the unbuttoned, lusty Spock. This is ground zero for Vulcan-as-sex-symbol, and a billion slash fan fics.
You’d have to be made of stone—or of Starfleet dilithium crystals, maybe—not to swoon just a little when Spock looks up from a faceful of spores and declares wonderingly to Leila, “I love you. I can love you.”
The scene where Spock hangs upside down from a tree limb while Leila looks on delightedly is almost as good. And then there’s the even more romantic moment when, returned to his stodgy self, Spock regretfully wipes away Leila’s tears. “I am what I am, Leila, and if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's.” He’s so repressed he can’t even feel regret at his repression. All he’s able to do is to logically catalog his misery as no better or worse than anyone else’s.
Spock says he has to abandon Leila for duty, to his captain and to his ship. The writers ostensibly see this as the right decision. But they have a funny way of showing it.
Kirk, again, snaps Spock out of his romantic idyll by lobbing racist insults at him. “You're a traitor from a race of traitors. Disloyal to the core, rotten like the rest of your subhuman race, and you've got the gall to make love to that girl!” he sneers.
Kirk is accusing Spock of miscegenation and of defiling (white) human women. The ultimate, deflected, half-disavowed problem with the hippie paradise is racial integration. Omicron Ceti III upends order, including the order of who is supposed to love and marry who. The hippies aren’t just anti-capitalism and anti-military. They’re opposed to racism, and that opposition is so dangerous and terrifying it can only be alluded to through layers of misdirection.
Nimoy, a white actor, stands in for non-white people. And even so the worry about integration is only expressed as a stratagem. Kirk doesn’t really think there’s a problem with Spock dating Leila, even though he is expressly trying to break up Spock and Leila by telling Spock his relationship with her is dirty and wrong.
A restored Spock and Kirk end hippie paradise by promoting violence and anger. The ship’s crew is purged of drugs and restored to military order and personal misery. That unhappiness is a happy ending, supposedly. But the great thing about “This Side of Paradise” is you leave the hippies without being sure which side you should be on.
Rating 9.8/10 SPECS
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Courtesy of Desilu Productions.
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.