Star Trek (TAS) “How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth” (part 4 of 4)

Kukulcan is humbled by the ass-whooping from Spock and getting saved from the power cat by his “children”. Kirk and Bones use this opportunity to state mankind’s case to the now humbled alien. Yes, they concede they were like Kukulcan’s children once, and he was there when they most needed him. But “we’ve grown up… now. We… don’t need you… any more…”

God, I love Shatner’s style of delivery. It never gets old.

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Kukulcan concedes defeat. He’s a parent at last realizing his kids no longer need him, and that instead of waiting for the kids to call, he should have gotten off his ass to see how they were doing, so he lets the four humans go. Later, back on Enterprise, the crew watches Kukulcan’s ship head off into space. McCoy recalls a line from Shakespeare, but Kirk literarily cock-blocks him and quotes it first.

Kirk: How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.

“Indeed,” Spock says, as he suppresses a manly tear. His man is back in the captain’s chair. All is right with his world, the end.

This episode was written by David Wise, a TV writer specializing in cartoons, although he did write one of the best Buck Rogers episodes, “Space Vampire” (like this TAS episode, it used the theme of Earth superstition having a basis in extraterrestrial fact). He was also the guy who wrote the first animated Transformers episodes.

Russell Bates was his co-writer, who only wrote two television episodes: this one, and an episode of Isis (“The Lights of Mystery Mountain”). It was directed by Bill Reed, who’s been involved in a wide variety of animated TV shows over the last thirty years.

But here’s something I find very interesting: The concept of this episode? It had already been done before.

Star Trek (TAS) "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth" (part 4 of 4)

We already saw the god-who-was-an-alien story in “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, including the part about the alien grabbing Enterprise with a force field.

Star Trek (TAS) "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth" (part 4 of 4)

And it turned out pretty much the same way, with the alien being upset that humans weren’t going to kiss his ass. But strangely enough, the cartoon episode handles this concept far better. Legends about snake gods are much cooler than some guy in a loincloth chillin’ with a bunch of sheepherders in Greece. And while it’s only implied in the Original Series episode, there’s no doubt in my mind Apollo rapes Lieutenant Palamas.

Star Trek (TAS) "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth" (part 4 of 4)

Not cool, Rodenberry. Not. Cool. That episode was written by Gilbert Ralston, by the way, his only contribution to Trek. I can see why. Marc Daniels was the director, who was involved in everything from the awesome “Space Seed” to the awesomely bad “Spock’s Brain”. “Adonais” sort of falls somewhere in the middle.

This episode of TAS was also likely inspired by the mania going on during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, thanks to a book called Chariots of the Gods, which speculated that ancient aliens had visited Earth. It was later made into an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Finally, one of the reasons I chose this as my second episode was due to this guy.

Star Trek (TAS) "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth" (part 4 of 4)

Chakotay, generic Native American. His people and his tribe were never identified, because that would have meant the producers, directors, and writers would have actually had to do research. Instead, his “heritage” was used as a plot convenience to describe how “ancient peoples” lived, and how superior their values were. Initially, I thought of Walkingbear as the proto-Chakotay.

But that is not so! Walkingbear is Comanche, and he has an interest in various North, Central, and South American ancient cultures. Is it a little too convenient? Yeah, sure. But this is the franchise that has characters commonly running into their exes across the galaxy, so I’m giving them a pass. I just find it interesting that writers of a cartoon series in 1974 showed more maturity and racial sensitivity than a bunch of hacks in the ‘90s.

Multi-Part Article: Star Trek (TAS) "How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth"
TV Show: Star Trek (TAS)

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  • Immortan Scott

    The running gag with Scotty was hilarious.

    • Thomas Stockel

       Thanks.  I wasn’t sure if anyone would get that.

  • Fish Eye no Miko

    I love episodes of shows, especially stuff like Trek, where they can come to an understanding with the “villain”, and everyone goes their own way in peace.  I love a good villain, and a good beat down of said villain by the good guy(s), but it’s nice that a show can acknowledge that sometimes conflicts are caused by misunderstandings. and talking things out can solve the problem without any bloodshed (even the red shirt and the animal survived!).

    And, yeah, it was cool that Kukulcan was based on something other than European myths (he looks like Quetzalcoatl from Aztec myths).  Greek and Roman myths are nice, but drawing from other myths makes things more interesting and varied.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Agreed on all counts.  Not a single phaser was pulled and no one died.  I’m not sure if that ever happened in The Original Series. 🙂

    • Graeme Cree

      The problem with episodes that are resolved by words is that they’re usually resolved with platitudes and nonsensical words. Kukulkan abandons his thousand year old plans because Kirk waves his hands and says “We don’t need you.” In real life people don’t respond to facts and evidence that well, much less to vague assurances.

  • “Chariot of the Gods” was the English-translation title of the book “Erinnerungen an die Zukunft: Ungelöste Rätsel der Vergangenheit” (published in 1968) by German author Erich von Däniken. Däniken wasn’t the first author (nor the last) to posit contact between ancient civilizations and extraterrestrials, as that idea was very popular in the 1960s. But due to Däniken’s prolific writing (and several German TV “documentaries” made from his books) his name became practically synonymous with the “ancient astronauts” hypothesis, the claim that extraterrestrials visited Earth thousands of years ago, taught humans astronomical and technological secrets and were revered as gods.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chariots_of_the_Gods%3F
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_von_D%C3%A4niken

    The ancient astronauts idea often gets connected with both the UFO craze (Däniken liked the idea of the Nascar lines being landing strips for alien ships) and the similarly pseudo-historical idea of sunken Atlantis as an ancient high-tech civilization; surviving Atlanteans are thought to have fled to other continents and taught the natives the wonders of pyramid-building and mystic psionic powers. 

    I remember when I grew up, back in the fabled mists of time (the 1970s and early 1980s), Däniken was BIG. My mother had several of his books, I read them a kid. As pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history go, those books were certainly impressive to the public.

    Of course, the whole idea of aliens visiting the Earth aeons ago and creating life on Earth can be traced back to the 1920s and H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness”, while the idea of pre-human races with fantastic powers populating Earth prior to Mankind was popularized in the late 19th century by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and her esoteric Theosophical Society. Heck, even that magnificent oddball Charles Fort (inventor of the term “Fortean phenomena”) published two books in 1915 about beings from Mars controlling events on Earth and about sinister non-human civilizations hiding on Earth and manipulating Mankind. After WW2, the Cold War paranoia re-heated the fear of aliens, while belief in psychic powers flourished both in the USA and in the Soviet Union. This led to Dianetics becoming a bestselling book and governments and military pouring money into research into drugs and the paranormal (i.e. MKULTRA and similar programs). The whole thing only faded when New Age became the next cool thing in esoteric mainstream circles during the late 1980s (the Gaia hypothesis, morphogenetic fields, etc.)

    The Stargate movie and Stargate: SG1 TV series basically cribs its whole mythology from Däniken; not surprisingly, as Stargate was invented by German director Roland Emmerich.

    Throw all those themes into a blender, and you get the movie Prometheus.

    • CDiehl

      The thing that makes this whole idea kind of humorous is that the story about Atlantis which Plato wrote is almost certainly a work of pure fiction, an ancient example of science-fiction. That people have built this elaborate mythos around it and believe it to be real is like people 2,000 years from now desperately trying to prove Middle-Earth existed. It would be hillarious if certain people in history didn’t build a political movement around some of this nonsense.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Very cool information, thanks!  I knew some of this stuff (i.e. I read The Mountains of Madness for the first time just a few months ago at the suggestion of a friend) but I had never heard of Fort or Blavatsky

  • @ Thomas Stockel: Nice recap! I appreciate you adding background info on episodes, putting them into context.
    Don’t try too hard to find a “witty title” for your reviews, just because you feel everyone else has one and you need one. Relax. 

    • Thomas Stockel

       Thank you, Christina.  I freely admit I borrowed the idea from Cecil’s awesome Good Bad Flicks.  I’m not sure if I am going to do it for every review; I think it depends on whether or not there is anything of interest regarding the episode in question.

      • Cecil_Trachenburg

        Well sir you’ll be hearing from my law…ehhh just kidding. 😛

        I’m flattered.

        I love Trek, mostly TNG. I did grow up watching the originals in reruns/syndication but I didn’t identify with them like TNG. Still enjoyed them very much though. Anyway, I never saw the animated shows. I have a friend of mine who obsesses over all things original Trek so he used to tell me about the animated shows before they were available for mass consumption.

        Anyway, digging the look at these. I may have to give these a watch one day. Also enjoying the background but I’ve always been into that stuff.

        • Thomas Stockel

          Thanks, Cecil.  Yeah, people often identify with one of the series.  I guess I identify with The Original Series even though I got started with the animated one.  I pity the poor bastards whose first exposure was Enterprise.  🙂

          • Russell Brin (Facebook sux)

            My first exposure was also TNG, and really, for the time and the genre, no other series had the complex plots, good characters and even good production values of TNG.  It really was a series in the right place at the right time.  Even today, outside from some maybe outdated technology still holds up a a sci-fi classic where every story had meaning and Worf and Data kicked ass in fight scenes!  The only downfall?  The killing off of my favorite character, Tasha Yar.  Skin of Evil was a classic episode that showed how dangerous TNG could be, but I really sad to see her die like that…I only wish they’d have a movie where Armus would infect DS9 with his evil and kill off some of those characters, but that ship has long since sailed.

          • Cecil_Trachenburg

            Well (as you may or may not know) they killed off Yar because Denise Crosby couldn’t wait to leave the show.

            “I was miserable. I couldn’t wait to get off that show. I was dying. This
            was not an overnight decision. I was grateful to have made that many
            episodes, but I didn’t want to spend the next six years going “Aye, aye,
            captain,” and standing there, in the same uniform, in the same position
            on the bridge. It just scared the hell out of me that this was what I
            was going to be doing for the next X-amount of years. I think you have
            to take your chances. I was really young. I didn’t have to make house
            payments or put kids through private school or support people. I was
            free to make those kinds of decisions. I’d been in acting school really
            dreaming of playing all kinds of different things. Whether it’ll happen
            or not, you don’t know, but you’ve got to give yourself a chance. God
            forbid you go through your life thinking, “What if?”

            Not the best career choice on her part.

          • Russell Brin (Facebook sux)

            True, but at least it left the door open for her to come back as her Half Romulan future daughter, in one of the better time travel episodes of any series really.

          • Thomas Stockel

            Which goes to show sometimes you get these happy accidents.  Yesterday’s Enterprise was a great time travel story, and Sela (I think that was her name) one of the cooler ‘Trek villains.

            I think she made the right choice. The cast was just too large in season one, especially when you included the revolving door chief engineer (I think they had three that season) and I’m sure the writers were hard pressed to give everyone something to do.  Season two’s re-tooling, making Geordi CEO and making Worf Chief of Security worked very well all around and it relieved the stress of giving the actors bigger roles to play.

          • Cecil_Trachenburg

            Seriously. I could see someone jumping on with Enterprise and being perplexed by what all this Trek fuss was about.

            I enjoyed it but I wouldn’t recommend it for new viewers.

  • Dennis Fischer

    Well, Thomas, that arch you misidentified is actually Mayan or Aztec in design–at least I’m pretty certain that was the intent.  Russell Bates was the man who originated this episode–he is an actual, Native American science fiction writer, so I’m fairly certain that adding a Native American to the Enterprise crew as well as a Native American-based menace were his ideas.  Sadly, given the higher quality of his written work, the co-writer you mentioned probably wound up mucking it up.

    • Thomas Stockel

      It is?  Later in the episode Kirk mentions myths of Chinese dragons as being originated by Kukulcan.  Combined with the arch appearing to be Chinese to me (see the comparison pic) I drew an erroneous conclusion.

      And I would not entirely blame Wise for any mistakes made.  The director, producers and animators are also responsible.  I remember seeing John DeLancy at the Chicago Comic-con; he called the process “pissing on the script”.  His words.  Essentially a screenwriter writes a masterpiece and everyone involved from actors to producers to directors proceed to dismantle it beyond all recognition.

      When I was in high school the library had a collection of Star Trek books, the short story versions of The Animated Series.  Ballantine published them, the were known as Logs.  ‘Tooth was featured in Log Six.  It’s been literally decades since I read it, I imagine that version was much closer to Bates’ concept, although it was written by Alan Dean Foster.