Thirty Years ago this week, TNG premiered the god-awful “Code of Honor,” an episode famous for its racial insensitivity. The script itself is not very good, but it’s not racist. The racism was inserted when the director cast all African-Amercian actors to play a misogynistic and primitive tribal race. The director was fired for this midway production, which was serendipitous because it gave Les Landau a chance to jump from assistant director to director for the first time. Landau would go on to become one of Trek’s most reliable directors.
Fifty years ago today, TOS premiered the third season episode “Is There No Truth in Beauty?” It guest starred the supremely talented Diana Muldaur (who would go on to play Dr. Pulaski in TNG) as brilliant psychologist Dr. Miranda Jones.
There’s a lot I like about this episode. First of all, it gives me a chance to point out something Star Trek has almost always done right — it takes psychologists seriously. Yes, I know Troi is made fun of . . . but as a psychologist she was actually competent whenever we saw her in session, and the field itself was never treated as a problem. But in every Trek show, mental health is treated as an important field that is essential to overall quality of life. And that’s both exciting and not ubiquitous on television.
(For Discovery fans, I’d like to point out that Miranda Jones is a human who trained on Vulcan and thus has some interesting parallels with Michael Burnham).
The episode also does legitimately try to take some swings at prejudice, with Kirk criticizing mankind for still being too hung up on physical appearances. Of course he almost immediately pivots from that to complimenting Dr. Jones not for her skills but for her physical beauty.
That brings up to what I don’t like about this episode. Dr. Jones really is brilliant and disciplined. But our main trio’s reaction to such a woman is gawk and stare at her like schoolboys finding a Playboy. Come on, men. This is a colleague. Be professional.
And then there’s the IDIC symbol. It’s ironic that the IDIC symbol appears in an episode called “Is there no truth in beauty?” because its very creation asks that question. In universe, IDIC stands for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” and is a sign of tolerance, creativity, scientific discovery, and basically anything else we in the 21st century would equate with cosmopolitian progressive values. Behind the scenes, the symbol was created by Gene Roddenberry as a piece of merchandise that he could lay sole claim to. He shoehorned it into the episode against the wishes of practically everyone else and several lines about it were cut so the cast wouldn’t mutiny. Far from an emblem of peace and cooperation, it’s very inclusion was one of ambition and division. It was invented as a revenue stream disguised as enlightened philosophy.
In a way, isn’t that all of Trek? Not counting fan productions, each new Star Trek has ultimately been green-lighted based not on its potential for changing the world but its potential for making money. Gene was no woke saint. Yes, I give him full credit for going to bat over racial representation — not just in Star Trek but also in his previous jobs. If there’s one thing he got right, he seemed to have a genuine passion for fighting racism.
But there were also unseemly aspects to him. He was a merciless self-promoter, willing to tear anyone else down to make himself look better. He wrote lyrics (never-used) to the Star Trek theme song just so he could grab half the royalties. When he lost control of the direction of Star Trek II, he tried to sabotage it by leaking the script. Worse than any of that, he harassed the women who worked with him. There’s reason to believe he pressured the women who worked for him to have sex with him. As Ande Richardson put it, “he may have been the Great Bird, but he wasn’t a great person.”
Roddenberry liked to make self-insert characters. Wesley Crusher, for instance, was created based on Roddenberry saw himself as a teen. Riker was based on Roddenberry’s self-image of himself in his prime. But, ironically, the one character that might really sum up who Roddenberry really was is Zephram Cochrane in “First Contact.” A scoundrel whose creation inspired people for centuries, but it turns out he was doing it for power and money. That’s Roddenberry, and that’s the IDIC symbol.
But the spaceship in First Contact worked, and the IDIC philosophy is a beautiful one. The motivations and failings of the creator doesn’t undo the contribution. When one learns about the ugliness of our favorite artists, we very well might ask “Is there no truth in beauty?” There’s no easy answer to that — after all, what IS truth? what IS beauty? — but there is something in beauty. It’s not all just smoke and mirrors, not if there is something we can salvage and take with us.
So today I think it makes sense to open up the question beyond just Star Trek and ask, in any franchise or medium: what is a piece of art or culture where what it means to you is at odds with what it meant to the creator, or where you know the creator did not live up to the ideals of his work but you appreciate the work anyway?
Or, alternatively, just tell me about your favorite Trek merchandise!
and now, a random image from Memory Alpha