Star Trek “And the Children Shall Lead...” (part 1 of 5)
Summary: The starship Enterprise answers a distress call from a scientific colony, and upon arrival, Kirk and Co. find all of the adult colonists have committed suicide. Though the children have survived, they’re pretty blasé about the whole affair.
After several rounds of incoherent philosophical discussion between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, we learn that a rather unimpressive manifestation of eeeeee-vil is controlling the children. In turn, the children use an especially mockable “gesture” to control the entire crew and turn them all into anal-retentive freaks.
Kirk and Spock are eventually able to overcome this mind control simply because they’re total badasses. Kirk then shows the kids some home movies, which causes their faces to become covered in glycerin. This breaks Evil’s spell, and everything instantly returns to normal. Unless you’re a Redshirt security guard, that is.
To celebrate the first anniversary of the Agony Booth (which was, um, about three weeks ago, actually. Sorry!), I decided it was a good time to pay tribute to the series that inspired the name and look of this website. And by “pay tribute”, I mean of course that I’ll be pointing out the weakest moments and most wrongheaded missteps of the entire Star Trek franchise here in a regular feature I’m calling The Worst of Trek.
The first piece of Crap Trekdom that I’ll be tackling is one of the lowest points of the original series, the episode “And the Children Shall Lead”. But readers shouldn’t take this as a statement on how I view the quality of the original series relative to its various spinoffs. Trust me, I’m well aware that there are plenty of terrible episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise that are just as deserving of reviews. But I’m beginning with the first series because it’s the one that inspired everything that came after: the books, the cartoon, the movies, the spinoffs, and not least of all, this website.
I have to admit, however, that even though this is probably the worst episode of the original Star Trek, it’s a total cakewalk compared to what the later shows would eventually vomit onto an unsuspecting public. So you can rest assured that I will definitely get around to “Shades of Gray”, “Profit and Lace”, “Threshold”, and the abominable “A Night in Sickbay” all in good time.
Without a doubt, the vast majority of the worst episodes of the original series came from its third season. This is all too fitting, because at one point, it didn’t even look like Star Trek would be around for a third season. That is, until a fan-led letter writing campaign helped change some minds at NBC, prompting them to bring the show back for another year. Unfortunately, when the new season began, they moved the show to a graveyard timeslot, relegating it to 10pm on Saturday nights. To get an idea of what a blow this was to the series, just try and name the show currently airing Saturdays at 10pm on NBC without looking it up. Yeah, I didn’t think so. (What, you mean you don’t watch reruns of Law & Order: Whatever the Hell They’re Calling the Latest Clone?)
Naturally, series creator Gene Roddenberry was furious about the schedule change, and in response he all but deserted his producing duties on Star Trek, handing over the reigns instead to TV journeyman Fred Freiberger.
Fred is thisclose to being an Agony Booth Repeat Offender, having also served as producer on the 60’s TV version of Lost in Space (which was eventually made into the lousy 1998 film that we all know and hate). As a campy sci-fi romp for kids, Lost in Space was entertaining for what it was. But it could never be mistaken for Star Trek. Unfortunately, once Freiberger took over from Roddenberry, he tried his best to apply the same campy tone to Trek. (He even brought over the concept of “space hippies” from an episode of Lost in Space for another of Trek’s worst, “The Way to Eden”.)
Suddenly, the great sci-fi writers that made Trek so memorable in its first two seasons were nowhere to be found, and in their place appeared total hacks whom Freiberger must have owed personal favors. The quality of the show plummeted, all-around sloppiness prevailed, and the ratings nosedived. This is why the third season of Trek is not-so-fondly remembered among fans as the “Turd Season”.
An early Turd Season episode, “And the Children Shall Lead” has a script that offers virtually nothing: No suspense, no character development, no intriguing sci-fi premises, and not one memorable line of dialogue. The director of this episode, Marvin J. Chomsky, is generally regarded as a skilled TV director (he also helmed Billionaire Boys Club and several installments of Roots), but there’s really nothing he could have done with this script. Considering the guy who wrote it, Edward J. Lakso, also went on to write some pretty lousy episodes of Charlie’s Angels, The Fall Guy, and Airwolf, need I say any more?
Probably not. But this is the Agony Booth, after all. So naturally, I have a lot more to say about this malignant tumor of an episode whether I need to or not.
The episode begins, of course, with the captain’s log. For those keeping track, it’s Stardate 5029.5, but as we’ll soon be reminded, these are just random numbers. After an establishing shot of the Enterprise in orbit over a planet that’s called something that sounds like Triacus, or Troyakus, or Troyaikman, we cut to Star Trek‘s Big Three (Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy) beaming down to the planet. Kirk’s log entry informs us they’ve arrived in response to a distress call from a scientific colony, and once they materialize, the Big Three discover the landscape littered with dead bodies. Or perhaps they’ve stumbled upon the aftermath of spring break in Cabo San Lucas.
Kirk… staggers… forward to get a closer look at one of the bodies. Now, I’m not in Starfleet, but personally I’d be a little wary of charging over to a big pile of corpses if I didn’t know how they all died. I mean, there could be a mysterious subspace cloud of toxic gas hanging over them for all Kirk knows. Or, hell, it could even be the 24th Century version of SARS.
The three men examine the bodies, and unbeknownst to them, there’s a belligerent-looking fellow hiding behind a rock, scowling at our intrepid heroes and holding a phaser. Of course, the intimidation factor is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the guy’s wearing a pink jumpsuit.
Kirk recognizes him as “Professor Starnes” and rushes over, saying, “It’s Kirk!” But before Prof. Starnes can reply, he collapses against a big Styrofoam rock and tumbles to the ground. McCoy hurries over with his tricorder (wait for it), passes it over the guy’s pink jumpsuit (wait for it), and declares, “He’s dead, Captain.” Yes! Now everybody take a shot!
Kirk blandly tells the others, “He didn’t seem to know me.” Yeah, what kind of pathetic loser doesn’t know the legendary James T. Kirk? He deserved to die in that jumpsuit.
Kirk goes to another body, this one of a woman whose skin is covered with dark bruises. He pulls what looks like a shot glass from her mouth, sniffs it without thinking twice, then hands it to McCoy. McCoy detects the scent of “Cyloten!” I’m guessing that’s some kind of poison, because McCoy immediately concludes that this was a mass suicide. So, welcome to the planet Jonestown, and please enjoy your stay!
Kirk then examines the data recorder that Prof. Starnes had around his neck. We get a close-up of this advanced piece of machinery, and it appears to be cobbled together from discarded pieces of old transistor radios. It’s even got a little viewscreen that shows static as “tape rewinding” noises are dubbed in.
After a moment, Kirk plays back an audio recording of Prof. Starnes yelling that he and his colony “must destroy ourselves!” Don’t worry Prof, appearing in this episode will take care of that for you. “Alien upon us!” he squeals. “The enemy from within!” You know, when writing a lousy Star Trek script, it’s usually not a good idea to mention the title of a much better episode.
Suddenly, the Big Three hear the sounds of children playing nearby. To the sound of a cheerfully plucked harp, a group of kids run out, and they’re all wearing what look like futuristic pajamas. The oldest of the kids, a redheaded Howdy Doody doppelganger who’s at least two feet taller than the others, introduces himself as Tommy Starnes, meaning he’s the son of Prof. Pink Jumpsuit. (Astute Trek viewers will also recognize him as the same kid who played Kirk’s nephew Peter in “Operation: Annihilate!”) Tommy then introduces his extremely multiethnic group of friends as “Mary, Ray, Steve, and Don,” which is a folk group I really used to love.
Mary eagerly pulls Kirk forward, demanding that he “Play with us!” All the kids link hands around Kirk, and begin circling him as they sing “Ring Around the Rosie”. Spock and McCoy shoot each other suitably unsettled looks. Ashes, ashes, they all fall down, but they start singing and circling Kirk again as he just gives them the Evil Eye.
Ashes, ashes, they all fall down again. Kirk stares into the camera, and we fade out. Boy, that’s got to be one of the lamest “teaser” openings in all of Trek. Actually, it’s probably been beaten out several times over by the tease-less openings of Enterprise, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Space: the final frontier. The Enterprise repeatedly swoops past us, leaving blue credits in its wake. When we fade back in, the Big Three are still on the surface of Troyaikman. The kids are standing beside them, and the group has been joined by two typically mute Redshirt officers. It seems the men have dug graves for all the dead scientists and even given them headstones. Consistent with the multiethnic makeup of the kids, the graves bear names like Janowski, O’Connel, and Tsing Tao.
As Kirk gives a “supplementary” captain’s log to get everyone caught up, we see him plant a really, really cheap flag near the graves. It’s basically a flimsy piece of cardboard with the letters “UFP” on it, and it’s on a really thin wire pole. It looks like something people stick in their lawns when they want you to vote against Proposition A.
In his log, Kirk explains how everyone was saddened by the loss of the colony. Everyone, that is, except the colonists’ children (and, presumably, Spock). Then we see the kids nudging each other, seemingly playing a game of Telephone. Mary then whispers to the token black kid, “Let’s go and play!” and all the kids happily scamper off. They run over to the entrance of a Styrofoam cave and play a great game of, uh, Stand in a Circle and Try to Touch Each Other. Wow, I used to love that game.
The Big Three discuss amongst themselves why the children aren’t showing any signs of grief or fear. McCoy says it’s possible they’re in shock, but Kirk is incredulous that the kids could simply block out the knowledge that their parents are dead.
Spock butts in. “Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose, and excluding that which is painful.” Ah, what would an episode of Star Trek be without Spock talking down to us irrational, emotional humans? Give us more, Spock. We love the abuse.
Kirk still can’t believe it, but McCoy points out that whatever happened here must have been extraordinarily traumatic, enough to give the kids “Lacunar amnesia”. I initially thought this was one of those goofy “futuristic” diseases they always make up on Trek, like “Sakuro’s disease” or “Irumodic syndrome”. Then I looked it up, and it’s a real condition where, basically, a person blocks memories of a specific event. McCoy says it’s his temporary diagnosis, “until specific tests can be made”. Kirk suggests they just question the kids, but McCoy warns that can’t be done. “Not until the fabric of the traumatization weakens! [?]” Otherwise, it “could cause permanent damage!”
Kirk accepts this, just as Token Black Kid comes running over and knocks down Jimmy Boy’s little UFP flag. Gee, who would’ve thought that would happen, what with that sturdy piece of wire and everything? The kid hands the flag to Kirk, half-heartedly apologizes, and just wanders off. A miffed Kirk replants his little flag, and the thing looks like it’s about to fall over again all on its own.
Kirk calls out to the kids that it’s getting late and they need be taken up to the ship. The kids are disappointed, and Mary cries out that “we’re just beginning to have fun!” If by “having fun” she means “experiencing soul-sucking tedium”, then I’m in complete agreement. Unfortunately, Kirk is cold to their pleas, and has McCoy escort them off the set. Er, I mean, up to the ship.
Kirk and Spock go lean on a foam rock for a little water cooler talk. Kirk thinks the key to what happened to Prof. Starnes and his colony is “locked in those children”. Meanwhile, Spock thinks the “attack” on the colony was “unprovoked”. Kirk does a total double take here. He reminds Spock that they had decided it was a mass suicide, but apparently Spock didn’t get that memo.
Instead, Spock declares that the mass suicide was “induced by an outside force”. Uhhh… when did he figure that out, exactly? He suggests that “a helpless mental depression, and a state of suicidal anxiety, could have been chemically induced.” Or perhaps they were just forced to watch this episode instead.
Kirk wonders why the children would be unaffected, but Spock’s fresh out of unexplained leaps in logic. Kirk says, “Then the children… would have been exempted by conscious design!” Now, where did he come up with that? Spock calls this a “valid assumption”, and Kirk further theorizes that the kids aren’t showing grief out of “fear of punishment!” Spock adds, “Or the promise of reward.” These two must have really huge colons, because they sure are pulling a lot of stuff out of their asses.
So now Kirk is in full agreement that this was an attack, but notes that the planet is uninhabited. Or at least, “to the best of our information.” As if on cue, Spock’s cell phone rings. Or, rather, his tricorder beeps. He detects a Disturbance In The Force coming from the Styrofoam Cave, prompting the two men to stroll right on in. Spock picks up life signs, but they aren’t human, and he doesn’t have enough information to tell exactly what they are.
All of a sudden, we’re reminded why William Shatner’s acting style is renowned and imitated the world over. Kirk hunches his shoulders forward and cries out, “AhhhHHhhh… that’s strange!” He continues writhing around like someone just dropped an ice cube down the crack of his ass. He says, “That’s… very strange! I’m… getting a feeling of anxiety… in this place!” Spock doesn’t feel it, but Kirk points out that it’s strongest right where he’s standing, and that perhaps this is what Spock’s tricorder is picking up.
“I am not familiar with anxiety,” Spock says, “But I was not aware that it could be registered on sensors.” Hee hee, you gotta love Spock. Even when his commanding officer is having a major league freak-out session, he can still find it within himself to be condescending.
“Of course,” Kirk says, “That’s me! That’s me!” In the corner? In the spot… light? Kirk seems like he’s about to wet himself, so he flees the cave and stands outside. Instantaneously, all is well again, and Kirk even laughs and tries to play it off as “some sympathetic vibration with what happened here”. In other words, he’s a puss. Kirk says they should get back to the Enterprise immediately. He pretends like this is because he really wants to check out Prof. Starnes’ tapes, but we know the truth, which is that he needs to change his underwear.