Mar 12, 2018
Star Trek (TAS) “The Lorelei Signal”
[Note: Some of the material in this article originally appeared in an episode of the Agony Booth’s short-lived Saturday Morning Glory web series. I’ve expanded upon my original video script and turned it into a full-fledged recap. Enjoy!]
You might be surprised to be reading an animated Star Trek episode recap by someone other than our own Thomas Stockel, who’s been doing a great job on these over the past few years. Well, he and I talked things over, and since there are only a handful of TAS episodes left before we’ve covered the entire series, he’s graciously allowed me to take over recapping duties on a few of the remaining episodes.
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The first one I’ll be looking at is “The Lorelei Signal”, which originally aired September 29, 1973, and was the fourth episode of the animated series to be broadcast. The title is a reference to the German legend of the Lorelei, a large rock on the banks of the Rhine that for centuries inspired songs, operas, and poems about a Greek siren-like female figure whose beauty and singing voice cause numerous shipwrecks. In keeping with the legend, this episode involves an all-female society luring the crew of the Enterprise to certain death—or at least, the male half of the crew.
Clearly, “The Lorelei Signal” falls squarely into that “matriarchal planet” trope common in sci-fi, where characters stumble upon a civilization where the women are the dominant sex and men are kept docile, used as slaves, or just plain killed off. Plenty of TV shows have explored the premise over the years, including Space: 1999 (“Devil’s Planet”), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“Planet of the Amazon Women”), Sliders (“The Weaker Sex”), and Sliders again (“Love Gods”).
Another show that used a similar concept was of course the original Star Trek, in “Spock’s Brain”, one of Trek’s worst episodes ever. So by the time of “Lorelei Signal”, you’d think Gene Roddenberry and company would have learned a lesson about the inherent silliness of this concept, but sadly, no.
It’s Stardate 5483.7, and Kirk’s log informs us the Enterprise is on its way to an “unfamiliar sector of space” where several ships have gone missing over the course of the last 150 years. In fact, they’ve recently determined that a starship has disappeared every “27.346 star-years”. Don’t ask me what “star-years” are, but it would appear they’re setting this area up as the Bermuda Triangle of Space. (I guess they forgot about this when they made the later episode “The Time Trap”, which presents a totally different area of space where lots of ships also go missing, even calling it the “Delta Triangle”.)
We learn the Enterprise has arrived exactly 30 seconds before the next expected starship disappearance. Is it me, or does this mission sound completely nuts? The Enterprise is sent out, alone, to a location in deep space where ships vanish without a trace, and ordered to arrive there at the exact moment another ship is due to vanish? Does Starfleet want to make the Enterprise disappear? Did Kirk sleep with the wrong admiral’s wife?
Suddenly, the ship picks up a distress call, and Uhura notes that it sounds “more like music than a message”. For no particular reason, Kirk decides to pipe the signal through speakers to the rest of the ship.
They pinpoint the source of the signal, which is the Taurean system, 20 light years away. And then it turns out this is actually the sexiest distress call ever. Scotty notes, “It seems to be calling us!” Kirk concurs, and Spock notes that the message “does resemble a summons.”
Uhura says the message doesn’t sound like a summons to her, and Kirk simply says, “Opinion noted,” and has Arex set a course for the Taurean system. Yeah, you do not want to cockblock Jim Kirk, Uhura.
A bit later, Uhura calls Nurse Chapel to the bridge, and asks her to “observe” the men. Indeed, they all seem enraptured by the signal. Spock says it “sounds like a Vulcan marriage drum,” and a vision floats beside his head of a sexy blonde woman playing a drum. He immediately reports to Kirk that he’s “experiencing audio-visual suggestion”.
Kirk is also visualizing a blonde woman, but I don’t think this has anything to do with the signal; it’s just what’s on his mind about 99% of the time.
Uhura and Chapel see nothing, so Kirk has Uhura call McCoy to the bridge to examine them. Alas, McCoy is busy having his own hallucinations, and staring off into space while muttering, “Magnolias in blossom. Beautiful.” So while the other guys are visualizing blondes, McCoy gets hot and bothered over… flowers?
Given the unusual effects the men are experiencing, you’d think this would be the ideal time to perhaps turn the ship around, or contact Starfleet for assistance, or maybe even shut off the damn signal. Instead, they continue on their merry and horny way to the Taurean system, and the men get all weak in the knees when they see a planet appear on the viewscreen.
Gee, even Spock is all smiles. That’s a bit unusual, but we’ve seen him experience emotions before while under the control of outside influences. So anyway, all the men are completely mesmerized by the siren call, and remain blissfully unaware that they’re being drawn to… to…
Wait a minute.
Is Sulu being affected by the signal? Holy crap. These sirens have no gaydar, do they?
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and some guy named Carver beam down to the planet’s surface, and apparently Uhura and Chapel just stood around and allowed this to happen. On the ship, Scotty sits in the captain’s chair acting just as loopy as the others, because he makes a ship’s log about how sensors indicate “there was once a vast civilization here. Lovely. Lovely.” A quick shot of his POV shows a woman’s face (inside a rose?) on the viewscreen where the planet should be.
Down on the surface, Kirk is captivated by the “fantastic architecture”, and McCoy also finds it “compelling”. Spock tries briefly to kill everyone’s boners by saying “the urgency of our feeling suggests visual compulsion”. He recommends keeping a safe distance, but Kirk is obviously not having that.
They enter a nearby temple, where a door slides open, revealing about a dozen blonde babes. Jackpot!
The women, all of whom are voiced by either Nichelle Nichols or Majel Barrett, gasp and coo at the men and call them “wondrous ones”. One of the women (voiced by Majel) introduces herself as Theela, the “Head Female”. She welcomes Kirk, Spock, and McCoy by name, but not Carver, because not even the sex-crazed sirens give a shit who Carver is.
Spock scans them, and says that while they look humanoid, “their bodies appear to function on an unusual psychokinesis level.” (And he’s apparently so taken with the women that he forgets how to properly pronounce “psychokinesis”.) McCoy smarmily replies, “First time I ever admired a body function!” I know I read a lot of innuendo into these episodes, but there’s no way to interpret that line that doesn’t sound utterly filthy.
Kirk asks how Theela knows their names, so she shows off an all-seeing, all-knowing device called the “Opto-Aud”. She sings what sounds like a dolphin call, which reveals a viewscreen with an image of the Enterprise in orbit. Spock remarks, “Tonal control. Fascinating.”
Kirk starts to ask more questions, but Theela says they’ll address all that later. For now, the women have prepared a “feast to celebrate your presence”.
Cut to all the men lounging on pillows with the women, and apparently this evening’s entertainment is watching a woman balance giant rubies in her palms. And it’s obvious the men are becoming more feebleminded by the minute.
Kirk somehow finds time to make a log entry during this, where he sounds increasingly delirious as he describes this place as “exquisite in every way”. He says, “We’re here to investigate… investigate…” He loses his train of thought and sighs, “The women radiate delight!”
McCoy is digging the party, but he wonders where all the men are. Said no man in a party full of hot women, ever. Theela quickly explains the men live in “another compound.” Kirk responds with a completely narcotized, “That makes sense.” Yes. You ran them all through a meat grinder, you say? That makes sense.
I guess it’s time for a little competitive jewel tossing, because a woman calls out to Spock and throws a big ruby at him. Which causes him to have the following totally hilarious reaction.
What the hell was that? Spock, you catch like a girl!
Oh, I get it, the women have somehow sapped all the men’s energy. Kirk and McCoy and Carver also faint, and Theela orders them taken to the “slumber chambers”. Cut to the slumber chambers, where the men wake up with jazzercise headbands on, looking a little bit wrinkled.
That’s right, children, they’re all… slightly older! Behold, the ravages of age!
But up on the ship, Uhura and Chapel are on the case. Chapel’s got the “results of every scan run by the women’s science team.” Wait, the Enterprise has a “women’s science team”? What is that, like a Title IX thing? I bet the men’s science team still gets all the funding.
The ship’s computer (being voiced by Nichelle here, presumably to avoid Majel having to carry on a conversation with herself) analyzes the results and says there’s a “probe” directed at the ship from the planet (the probe being the same thing as the signal, I guess) that is “severely enervating to humanoid males”, and causing them to weaken and die.
So Uhura gets on the horn to a female security officer named Davison, and has her assemble an “all-women security team” to beam down to the planet. Chapel asks what she’s doing, and Uhura triumphantly declares, “Taking command of this ship!” That’s right: for the first time in Star Trek history, Uhura gets to take command of the Enterprise.
Well… I think. Let me check the Enterprise chain of command first. Let’s see, there’s Kirk, then Spock, then Scotty, then Chekov and Sulu… and it looks like the guy who cleans the Enterprise toilets has the week off, so congratulations, Uhura, you are now in charge!
This exciting moment is unfortunately followed by an interminably long shot of the Enterprise cruising along in orbit, while Scotty sings a Welsh ballad in voiceover. As far as I can tell, this is not an actual Welsh ballad, but rather something James Doohan made up on the spot. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it’s Welsh and not just gibberish syllables. I suspect this has nothing at all to do with the probe and Scotty’s just drunk off his ass.
At long last, we cut to Scotty in the captain’s chair being confronted by Uhura and Chapel. Uhura says she’s relieving him of command, and “taking responsibility for the safety of this ship!” There’s a shot of Scotty zonked out of his mind as he replies, “Very thoughtful of you, love!”
Uhura records a log stating that she’s taking command due to Scotty’s “euphoric state of mind”, which is kind of a hilarious reason for relieving someone of command. Come on, Uhura, it’s obvious the guy is just high on life! And also, Glenfiddich.
Down on the planet’s surface, the men, still looking slightly old, discover they’re locked inside the temple. So they quickly jury-rig a medical scanner to disrupt the locks and make their escape. But they’re spotted by Theela, who sends several women after them in pursuit.
The men come across what looks like a large hollowed-out tree, which Kirk refers to as an “urn”. They all jump inside, and the women completely lose them.
Yes, where could they be, I wonder? Certainly not in that giant wooden sculpture right in the middle of your compound that can comfortably seat seven.
Now that they have some alone time in the urn, the men start to piece things together. Their headbands only glow when the women are near, and Spock says they’re likely “polarized conductors” that transfer their “vital energy” to the women. Kirk asks if the women are “actually draining our life forces?”
Spock replies, “That would account for our rapid aging, Captain.” As well as his sudden desire to watch Matlock. And eat dinner at 5 PM.
He somehow knows they’re aging “ten years per day”, which means that with his extended Vulcan lifespan, Spock is of course the only one who can save the day. He heads back to the temple and sings the dolphin call to open up the Opto-Aud and locate their communicators, which are underneath Theela’s throne. But climbing up the staircase to the throne turns out to be a bit of a challenge for Old Spock.
Just as he makes it up there, he’s found by the women, and he uses his last remaining ounce of strength to contact the Enterprise. “Request rescue party… all female… repeat… all female.” Request… bikini team… all Swedish… I repeat, all Swedish!
Uhura records another log entry where she says she’s assembled an all-female security team (redskirts, if you will) in “accordance with Mr. Spock’s request!” Wait… what? Didn’t we see her order Davison to put together an all-women security team on her own about four scenes ago?
Cut to a transporter pad on the Enterprise, where the all-female security team is gathered, and holy shit, who knew the Enterprise had this many hotties in its security department? Why do I get the feeling that Roddenberry himself personally supervised the character designs here?
The redskirts beam down to confront the women. Theela tells them they are “not wanted here” and kind of, um, points at them. So Uhura orders her team to put phasers on stun and fire at will. It’s possible that was actually Theela directing her women to attack, but it does kind of look like Uhura decided to blast away at anything that moves because she didn’t like the way Theela was pointing at her.
Uhura and Chapel go searching for the men, and soon Chapel hears a telepathic call for help from Spock, in one of those rare instances when Star Trek would remember these two have a special connection. They eventually find Spock in the slumber chambers, making noises and gasping for air.
Meanwhile, it’s suddenly started to rain, and the guys hiding in the urn are now in mortal danger. From rain.
Cut to Spock being treated in Sickbay. He knows exactly what to do, telling Chapel to have a “female engineer” divert power to the deflector shields to block the probe. Chapel eagerly says, “We tried that!”
So Spock slowly says they should use all of the ship’s energy, and channel everything into the shields. Yeah, sheesh, you know how it is with these broads, you’ve got to explain everything over and over until they finally get it, am I right? (I also like how the other woman at Spock’s bedside changes race from white to black in alternating shots, because apparently half the coloring team thought this was supposed to be Uhura.)
Back down on the planet, Uhura is confronting Theela, telling her, “Release Captain Kirk and his men or we will destroy your temple!” To prove she really means it, she randomly vaporizes a vase. That’s right, release Captain Kirk, or we will destroy all of your knickknacks!
Theela is suitably intimidated and finally agrees to explain everything. She turns on the Opto-Aud and commands it to show “the past”. An image appears of a man and woman, and Theela says that her people came to this planet when their homeworld “began to die”. Unfortunately, this planet “drains humanoid energy”, but only from the men, because the women quickly developed a “glandular secretion” which allowed them to not only survive, but also control the men’s brains. And to illustrate, the Opto-Aud shows the woman still young and vibrant while the man becomes old and decrepit.
So the women have been luring ships here every 27 years to bring more men to their planet to steal their life forces and keep themselves alive. (Why 27 years, specifically? No idea.) Another woman reveals they can no longer age or die, and are “unable even to bear children!” Well, clearly that’s the true horror here.
Uhura tells her to use the Opto-Aud to locate Kirk and the others, and the viewscreen shows an image of the men about to drown. Theela recognizes this as the urn, and the redskirts go out to blast the thing to bits, and the men come flooding out.
We next find the men in Sickbay, where Chapel pushes a button that causes a golden glow to appear around them. But she soon reports, “No results, Captain.”
Suddenly, Spock has an epiphany: he says the transporter “holds the molecular pattern of our original bodies”, and Kirk immediately knows where he’s going with this. He asks if the transporter can be “programmed to re-pattern us as we were”, and Spock says there’s a slight chance.
And so, the four men beam down to the planet and then immediately beam back up, which returns them to their youthful, healthy selves. If this resolution sounds familiar, it’s because it was reused in a second season episode of The Next Generation. You know, the one where Dr. Pulaski catches a disease and goes from being old to really old, but then uses the transporter to cure herself?
Theoretically, this means the transporter could be used to cure all sorts of illnesses, but outside of TAS and the aforementioned TNG episode, no one ever even suggests it. I’m guessing in current Trek continuity, they would just let Kirk and the others die, then bring them back with Khan’s blood.
So the men are young again, and all that’s left now is to introduce our villains to the joys of domesticated bliss. Back on the planet’s surface, Theela destroys (I’m guessing) the device that was generating the probe. She’s come to an agreement with Uhura, where a ship with a female crew will return here soon to rescue Theela’s people and bring them to a more suitable planet.
A gleeful Theela asks, “How quickly will we become as other women?” I don’t know, how quickly can you max out your husband’s credit cards? I kid, I kid. But seriously, you really have to wonder why it took 150 years, and presumably the deaths of five starship crews before they finally figured out they could just hitch a ride off this planet.
Uhura says the women will return to normal soon enough, and Theela looks forward to “a life of hope. New learning. Perhaps, love!” She says this sounds much better than immortality. Okay, but if this life was so horrible, why didn’t they stop kidnapping men and just allow themselves to die off? Anyway, that’s the end.
“The Lorelei Signal” is a mass of contradictions, in that it’s full of all kinds of old-fashioned attitudes toward women that make it a retroactive embarrassment, and yet at the same time, it provides a massive leap forward by showing a woman commanding a starship for the first time ever in the Star Trek franchise. Uhura taking command is a great moment, and Nichelle Nichols fondly remembers this very episode in her memoir.
But it feels like less of a milestone when you realize that Uhura only gets command because literally every man on the ship has become a drooling idiot. Which is only compounded by the (likely unintentional, considering the writer is a woman) subtext of the episode, which is basically that men need to be wary of conniving harpies who will steal their mojo and leave them weak and used up, but if you tame these women and put them in their place, you’ll find that underneath the manipulative exterior, all they ever wanted was to fall in love and have babies.
Usually, when the “female-dominated society” trope appears on screen, it’s used as a means to provide cheap titillation, as the male characters live out their fantasies of being sex objects surrounded by lusty and desirable women. I have no problem with cheap titillation, but a kid’s cartoon is obviously not the place you’ll find it. And once you sanitize all the alluring sexual aspects to make it safe for Saturday morning viewing, there’s basically no reason whatsoever to do this kind of story.
The concept of women as sexy space vampires is just fine for, say, a campy sci-fi horror movie, but I think most Star Trek fans would expect more. Sadly, this didn’t stop later Trek shows from attempting the same plot. There’s “Angel One”, where Riker becomes the boytoy of a planet’s matriarch, and “Favorite Son”, where Harry Kim can’t resist the call of a (genetic) siren song, and there’s a good chance an episode of Enterprise featuring Orion slave girls might also fit the bill, but it was so dumb I shut it off after ten minutes. (And if you’re so inclined, you could also add to this list Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot/TV movie Planet Earth, which featured a society of futuristic Amazons ruled by Dr. Pulaski herself, Diana Muldaur.)
I suppose I could also go on a rant about the nonsensical gender-specific nature of the women’s ploy in this episode—if their physiology is that much different from humans, why would their signal only work on human men, and not human women? Does it only affect men attracted to women? I know I joked about Sulu earlier, but would gay men be immune? What about asexuals? And surely, there must be members of the Enterprise crew who belong to species that have no genders, or multiple genders—but I’m happy to not get into it. The odds of any of that occurring to writers of Saturday morning cartoons in 1973 were pretty much nil.