“By Any Other Name” (Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2, Episode 21)
At the time of its original airing, what set Star Trek apart from other science fiction TV properties like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits was its humanistic themes and utopic tone. The storylines of many episodes affirm the value and importance of humanity in its main characters by contrasting them with beings who don’t share those ideals. In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise are captured and controlled by aliens who have taken human form and all the sensations, pleasures, and weaknesses that come with it; they prevail by turning their captors’ humanity against them.
Responding to a distress signal, Kirk and crew beam down to a planet where they are swiftly ensnared by the Kelvans from the nearby (in galactic terms, anyway) Andromeda Galaxy. The Enterprise is likewise quickly domineered by the Kelvans, who wish to find a new home due to the rising levels of radiation in their own galaxy.
Kirk of course suggests a peaceful course of action; there’s no reason why the Federation couldn’t help the Kelvans settle on one of the many uninhabited planets in our own galaxy. The Kelvan leader Rojan rejects this, citing his culture’s aggressive need for dominance. Much of the first half of the episode is a power struggle between the two men as Kirk tries to outwit their captors and is continually thwarted. It’s a pretty good analogue for much of the conflict in our own history – people being needlessly antagonistic towards other people instead of being cooperative and just working together. Rojan projects a lot of racial pride/superiority in controlling Kirk and co., and perhaps it is overcompensation for the shame of essentially being a refugee.
The dynamics of the Kelvans’ situation are interesting, and it’s good that the episode goes into some detail about it to flesh them out as antagonists. Although their technology allowed them to travel much faster than Starfleet’s, the trip between galaxies still took several centuries and was a generational one. Rojan and his crew were born on the way to our galaxy, and plan to procreate and eventually die on the return trip. Although they’re the villains of the episode, their background does make them somewhat sympathetic. They’re dedicating their entire lives to saving their people, which is honorable; they’re just going about it too aggressively.
After capturing the crew, Rojan and one of his subordinates converse about their situation. They’re eager to leave the planet since they’re not used to being in wide, open spaces. They were born on a ship in space and have lived their entire lives there. There’s something kind of sad about that, and again, it helps endear us to their situation slightly. The best villains are the ones that evoke some humanity and relatable concerns/struggles. It’s a theme Star Trek revisits very often – that of enemies not being evil, just people with initially incompatible agendas.
After several attempts to defeat the Kelvans’ hold over them fail, Kirk and his crew alter their tactics to play upon their captors’ now-human weaknesses. Having only apparently assumed human form recently, the Kelvans haven’t indulged in any of the pleasures or sensations available to them, nor have they been stricken with any of the drawbacks. This was also an idea in “Catspaw,” but it’s executed with more detail and effectiveness here.
McCoy tricks one guy into receiving injections for a made-up condition that actually make him more temperamental and emotionally imbalanced. Scotty gets another guy wasted off of space booze (the classic “it’s green” line!). Kirk (of course) seduces the babe, and Spock exploits Rojan’s apparent jealousy over the aforementioned seduction of babe. There’s of course sexism in that the (scantily-clad) woman is the object of lust/affection for two competing men and that the quickest way to her heart is through her tongue, but alas.
Rojan’s jealousy finally boils over and he and Kirk come to blows in a delightful, room-destroying fight scene. As Kirk points out, Rojan could easily freeze him with his technology, but the dark side of his humanity motivates him to pummel his romantic rival with his bare hands instead. Star Trek affirms and celebrates the vagaries of humanity, even all the nasty bits we wish weren’t a part of it. There’s really no choice for us but to accept it all – warts included. Unlike Vulcans, who learn emotional discipline to suppress their feelings, humans aren’t able to tune out the crude weaknesses that are a part of us. During their fight, Kirk points out how human Rojan and his people are already becoming after only a short time. By the time they reach their home, they will be unrecognizable aliens to their fellow Kelvans.
But there’s plenty of good stuff about being human, which is what the franchise frequently emphasizes. Mastering and learning to live with the dark and unsightly parts of ourselves requires strength and grace. Rojan and his crew’s single-minded devotion to their duty gives way to the possibilities of living differently outside of their previous experiences. Though they’ve traversed millions of light years already, Kirk and his crew move them a much greater emotional and philosophical distance by exposing them to the idiosyncrasies of being human. It is only at this point does Rojan give up his need to dominate and subjugate the Enterprise crew, and he agrees to let Kirk and the Federation settle them on an available planet.
Making friends with an enemy is a recurring Trek theme, and it requires a shared sense of experiences for both parties to draw upon. The Kelvans initially only look human, but by making them eventually feel human, it helps to create a mutual understanding that resolves the conflict and saves the day. Like the two opposing captains of this episode who only want what’s best for their respective crews, most beings are more alike than they are different. They’re called different names – Human, Vulcan, Kelvan – but ultimately our thoughts, feelings, and motivations are just as sweet as each other’s, regardless.
I’ll drink to that.
- IRL, the Andromeda Galaxy is about 2.5 million light years from the Milky Way and is the most distant object that can be seen by the naked eye. I appreciate that although the Kelvans can travel super fast (warp 11!), there’s still some realism about the vastness of the distance in the story. Our two galaxies will collide in about 4.5 billion years and become one giant galaxy, which is kind of poetic in the context of this episode’s themes.
- I appreciate the description of the Kelvans’ natural form – big, and with hundreds of tentacles all over their body. Unfortunately, actually depicting that would have been out of the question given the available technology of the time and budget, but it creates an interesting mental image.
- Saurian brandy would become a regular go-to booze on other Trek series, especially Deep Space Nine.
- The scenes of Scotty getting wasted with the one guy are great. I love this super-old bottle of scotch he whips out of a suit of armor and his clear emotional attachment to it. The thing looks like it was ripped right out of a crypt, lol. The “it’s green” bit would be repeated with Data when Scotty visits the future Enterprise-D.
- The barrier around the edge of the galaxy was featured prominently in “Where No Man Has Gove Before.” When Rojan mentions it, I love Kirk’s casual “We’ve been there” reaction. The idea of an energy barrier around the edge of the galaxy is of course poppycock. Galaxies are gigantic the stars around the outer reaches are very far apart; the “edge” is just a matter of gradation.