“The arrival of Kirk on the scene precipitates a kind of crisis in the equilibrium of this pair of older, controlling-male and young subordinate-woman. What happens is that the woman is somehow awakened by the arrival of the Enterprise crew — awakened sexually, but also in a much broader sense.”
The way character is created in film and television is different from the way it is created in print media. When images and sounds tell the story, character is a function of images and sounds, not just words, important as words are. The audience must respond to the people on the screen; the director must make the audience connect with the people on the screen, if the show is to work. The audience must recognize the personality of screen people and identify with them, even the ones who are strange and impossible to like. There has to be a connection between audience and screen.
Character in a popular TV series such as Star Trek is more vivid than it is complex, more memorable than realistic. For a character to have impact, it must be larger than life, so to speak, at least in the case of a major character. Technically, the people in the original Star Trek are what is known as “humor characters.” That is, they are essentially characters of one emotion or one dominant trait; the term “humor” here has its old meaning and does not refer to hahaha but to the ancient theory of humors. In this sense a humor is a fluid in the body, and each of the major fluids possessed a distinct trait that influenced personality. There were believed to be four of these basic fluids or humors and that the mixture of the fluids determined one’s personality. An excess of one humor over the others shifts the balance in the direction of the traits of that fluid. This mixing — this “temperament” — is the basis of one’s personality. For instance, Hamlet had an excess of the fluid black bile, otherwise known as “melancholy” (Greek for “black bile”). Given this excess, he was depressed and sad, which is what you get when you have too much melancholy or black bile in your body.
Kirk has a different humor from the others: he always displays passionate devotion to his ship. Love — love for his ship, above all — is his humor, though he often actually falls in love or attracts love. He also has the loving loyalty of others. This is an essential reason why he is such an appealing figure in the whole development of the Star Trek phenomenon: his humor is love, a popular and attractive trait, and one that goes with a vitality, a confidence and spontaneity, that make him irresistible. William Shatner was a good casting choice: his complexion is noticeably warm, not cool; his eyes are brown, not blue.3 His warmth and emotional vitality gave his character Kirk its powerful appeal — “Shatner,” in Eric Greene’s words, “was a very charismatic performer” and “remarkably effective as Kirk” (62). In the technical language of humor psychology, his dominant fluid is blood: the “sanguine” fluid that expresses optimism, energy, and strength.
Humor characterization does not rule out functioning in complex ways or showing a variety of impulses and behaviors.4 There is more to the character than the dominating humor, but nevertheless that humor is like the basic anatomy of the body. It furnishes the framework for everything in the character’s actions and emotional life.5 The four major characters, Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Scotty, correspond to four major emotions or attitudes: love, anger, rationality, fear. They cannot be reduced to these states, nor do they project these states of mind in a mechanical or simplistic manner. But they would not be the same characters at all without their correspondent humor. The characterization of the second-tier figures (Uhura, Sulu, Chekhov, Nurse Chapel) is less defined. It is less defined, because they do whatever the plot requires of them; their function is in fact as much visual as it is anything else. Their sheer identity (African, Russian, East Asian, Caucasian) — even physical appearance — makes a dramatic point that in itself serves the plot. Each of these characters is distinctive visually more than he or she is in terms of personality.6 Since they do whatever the plot requires of them, the plot determines their personality — their reactions, feelings, speech. Nevertheless, even in the case of these figures, humor characterization is noticeable. Thus Lieutenant Uhura, defined by her expertise in communication, is musical; Chekhov is always the appealing neophyte; Nurse Chapel is always dutiful. The characterization of Star Trekrecalls that of a comic book. As with the comic books of that time, the complement of character is dominated by male figures; Gene Roddenberry’s conception of females in the show was a matter of “short skirts and lots of cleavage.”7
Star Trek has a specific “look” or style, which I referred to as “Minimalist,” but it also has an approach to plot construction appropriate to that look. The plot is a means of presenting individual scenes linked to one another, and in this respect what is primary is creating scenes that are memorable, that have dramatic and visual force: a tableau that remains in the imagination of the viewer. In Star Trek, one expects a fight in every episode of the series, of course — there are always at least two — and a fight is visually magnetic, a natural center or stimulus of attention, often signaled by presto musical accompaniment. Another obvious visually magnetic center of attention is a beautiful woman, preferably with the incredibly elaborate hair style that the 1960s seemed to find irresistible in women. D. C. Fontana, who had an important role to play in working on and writing for Star Trek, notes: “Sometimes the women’s hairdos — wigs or their natural hair enhanced with artificial braids and extensions — looked like wedding cakes on steroids. I occasionally wondered why the hair of supposedly professional military women on a starship of the future should look like it took ten hours and three stylists to turn out” (37).
A combination of this type has the same kind of function for the plot as humor characterization has for the main figures. There is a power to this combination for a different reason, too, simply its rich dramatic possibilities. No wonder it turns up so often — it is a winner for plot construction, in all sorts of ways.8 The dramatic possibilities are heightened by making the older man a figure of power and authority, so as to authorize him to do some dramatically magnetic snarling and ranting. Boasting and bullying are only two of the possibilities, and few roles grab audience attention more than a bullying and boasting tyrannical father figure. This figure has a long history in drama, going back to ancient Roman and Greek theater: a type sometimes referred to as the senex iratus (“angry old man”), a type very common in comedy to this day, sometimes in the form of a curmudgeon rather than an angry old man in the pure sense.
My favorite example in Star Trek is Plasus in “The Cloud Minders.” Plasus is surely a candidate for Most Annoying Person in the galaxy. Every time he opens his mouth, he is soon denouncing something, and getting angry and angrier. And more and more annoying. The scenes of Kirk patiently trying to work with Plasus are truly amusing. Each time he tries to talk to Plasus, Kirk begins calmly and in a diplomatic, respectful manner. But within minutes — or rather seconds — he is arguing, denouncing, and even shouting, exactly like Plasus. Plasus drives everybody crazy, even a man as respectful as Kirk. Nobody can push Kirk’s buttons like the superbly annoying Plasus. He has attained a level of annoyingness that is practically unparalleled in the series. And his annoyingness is contagious. By the time Kirk confronts Plasus in the cavern scene near the end, Kirk also is shouting and obnoxious. He has picked up Plasus’s irritability and is becoming a Plasus himself.
Usually, this type of scenario — overbearing older man somehow in control of a gorgeous young woman — is a natural invitation to Kirk to exercise his varied talents, but not so in “The Cloud Minders.” While Spock is responding to Droxene’s nosy questions about his sex life (Spock explains that “extreme feminine beauty” poses a definite disturbance to the fixed biological rhythm of male Vulcans), Kirk has other engagements. With Droxene and Spock cooing to each other in one room, Kirk is in an adjoining room wresting with another young woman, Vanna, in bed no less — the use of contrast and parallel is skilful. They are literally next door. Kirk has three wrestling bouts in this episode with this particular young woman (four, depending on how you count them): a record for wrestling with women for Kirk, and perhaps a record for any episode in a TV series. There is no doubt that, thanks to Plasus, this is an extremely angry episode; and it is also, thanks to Droxene, intensely charged erotically. The combination of crabby older man and provocative young woman has a lot to do with this energized conception. Anger is a hot emotion, and it often has erotic significance. The same principle was long ago explained to Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby by the goofy psychiatrist: “The love instinct in man very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” In the standard plot construction of romantic comedy, the pair that we know will eventually pair off practically hate each other, with hot displays of anger, before they do indeed pair off.
“The Cloud Minders” is a particularly vivid example of the annoying older man paired with an attractive young woman, and the plot that unfolds out of this configuration. But it is far from unique in Star Trek. The configuration turns up again and again.
In the basic scenario, an older man controls a young woman, who is sometimes his wife, sometimes his daughter, or sometimes simply a beautiful young woman in a subordinate social position connected to him (as in “A Taste of Armageddon” and “By Any Other Name”). The arrival of Kirk on the scene precipitates a kind of crisis in the equilibrium of this pair of older, controlling-male and young subordinate-woman. What happens is that the woman is somehow awakened by the arrival of the Enterprise crew — awakened sexually, but also in a much broader sense. For example, Droxene not only becomes infatuated with Spock (those cute ears!), she also begins to question the social system she has taken for granted as “perfect.” The young woman in this paradigm yearns for release from control by the older male authority figure, and wants to grow and expand emotionally and intellectually. She is thus a figure of desire, but desire in a broad sense, not just an erotic or sexual sense, though it is true that the sexual energies aroused are noticeable. Thus the woman may fall in love with Kirk or be attracted to him, or sometimes she may deliberately attract him, as Lenore does in “The Conscience of the King,” for her own purposes. (Compare Vanna, Droxene’s slave-double in “The Cloud Minders,” who kidnaps Kirk for political reasons — twice — once after he has given her his total trust.)
The attempt to rescue the woman from the control of the older male, as Kirk tries to do with Raina, is often disastrous. The action that this configuration unfolds is frequently intended to create conflict between “father” and “daughter” figures. Though I refer to the male figure here as “old,” they are typically not old in the sense of old age: the defining requirement for these figures is that they be older than Kirk is — and visibly older than the young woman in question. The woman is not necessarily a sympathetic character; for example, in “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the woman is not only youthful and beautiful, but completely welded to her unappealing and cruel authority-figure husband, who is visibly older. Likewise, in “The Conscience of the King,” where the pairing appears as a father-daughter relationship, the young woman Lenore quickly attracts and entices Kirk, but turns out to be an insane defender of Karidian her father, a professional actor and former mass murderer. (The name “Lenore” is a good Poe name, well suited to this Gothic tale of madness and revenge, complete with performances of Hamlet and Macbeth.) In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the older male authority figure, while married to a beautiful and noticeably younger (younger-looking, at any rate) woman, retains complete authority over his woman. For her, class solidarity, symbolized by her obnoxious husband, is more important than any rebellious impulse she might have. Interestingly, Kirk leaves this pair in charge and their relationship untouched. Instead of stimulating the rebellion of the woman, he stimulates the rebellion of the “dwarf,” played by an actor best known, perhaps, for his role in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, who exits his oppressors and flies off with the Enterprise crew.
In “A Taste of Armageddon,” there is an authority figure almost as annoying as Plasus in “The Cloud Minders,” Anan 7 by name. The young woman in this case, a subordinate of Anan 7, is called Mea 3. Mea 3 is decreed to die by the social structure that Anan 7 leads; Kirk forcibly rescues her — forcibly, because she not only does not resist her fate, she goes willingly, in a manner suggesting suicide (the outcome for Beatrice, and, in effect, for the beautiful women of “Requiem” and “What Little Girls Are Made of”). “A Taste of Armageddon” is an interesting episode because it has two annoying older men: Anan 7 and Ambassador Fox, who pigheadedly gets the crew into the terrible trap they find themselves in. Doubling the senex iratus figures has the effect of intensifying the feelings of entrapment and absurdity which are so important in this episode.
Both of these characters (Anan 7 and Ambassador Fox) are bureaucrats: they are figures of self-righteous certainty, they obsess over rules (even as they flagrantly violate them), obedience, and control. For them, following rules is what being “good” means. The comic “The Trouble with Tribles” also has two older bureaucratic males, one of whom is almost as annoying as Plasus the cloud minder; there is no beautiful young woman, though Uhura partly performs this function with what is one of her biggest parts in the entire series. These bureaucratic authority figures are always older than Kirk; in this respect, they differ from another recurring male type in the series — the tyrant; for example Trelayne in “Squire of Gothos,” the monstrous tyrant of “Bread and Circuses,” or the computer genius Dayner of “The Ultimate Computer,” who usurps control of the ship and causes disaster. Unlike the bureaucrat older male, this tyrant figure is close to Kirk in age and more like a rival. Sometimes he is even younger than Kirk — sometimes young enough to be the deadly adolescent boys of “Charlie X,” “The Children Shall Lead Them,” or “Miri,” who are variants.
In “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” the relevant male figure is not older, but nevertheless represents authority. In “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” Dr. Miranda Jones is loved by the scientist-authority Marvik — another computer genius; his maddened attempt to control her results in disaster, literally driving the starship to the limits of the galaxy and beyond. But Marvik is somewhat exceptional here. The combination of powerful male and beautiful young woman — where the man is older than she is (and older than the other men, especially Kirk) is a crucial building block of episode construction, even when the two are not connected. But when the two are connected, the configuration gains power, and therefore a useful technique to draw upon in creating memorable scenes.
In “Wolf in the Fold,” there is a father-daughter and a husband-wife pair (in both cases, the woman dies). In an early episode in the show, “The Man Trap,” an older man, Robert Crater, who is as cranky and annoying as any of these male figures, is paired with an apparently much younger woman (she is actually an alien who can manipulate her looks). Between telling Kirk off and shooting at him, Crater prepares the way for his own destruction at the hands of the apparently younger woman, whose desire he has awakened. Garth, the criminal lunatic of “Whom the Gods Destroy,” has as consort the beautiful young (and green) woman Marta. Garth’s “love” for her results in her death — she has shown rather too much interest in Kirk. Even in “Specter of the Gun,” arguably the profoundest episode in the series, the delightful young woman Sylvia is paired with the murderous gunman who shoots the younger man, Chekov.
In “Court Martial,” there are two obviously older men, the judge, another Commodore (“Commodore Stone”), and the lawyer played by the veteran character actor Elisha Cook. One is hostile — the other is an advocate. There is also a father-daughter configuration in “Court-Martial,” with a young girl (Jamie) and a crazed father who frames Kirk and nearly causes his death. “Obsession” has another such older male authority figure, who demands that Kirk follow orders. I suspect that all the senior officers above Kirk in the series are variants: characters who order Kirk around but are wrong-headed and understand less than Kirk himself does. An unnamed superior officer in “The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” orders Kirk to abandon his concern and obey star fleet commands. In “Court-Martial,” Kirk is tried for causing the death of a crew member; the episode presents the expected configuration (older man, beautiful young woman). A bureaucratic judge named “Stone” (as in “written in” — the embodiment of uncompromising legalism) is associated with a beautiful young woman, who also happens to be the prosecuting lawyer — and, to increase the emotional pressure, Kirk’s love. By winning the case, Kirk frees her from her role as deadly accuser. As I mentioned, there is also another older man / younger female combination in this episode: Finney, the man who framed Kirk, and Finney’s daughter (who hysterically accuses Kirk of murder). Again, by winning the case, Kirk frees the daughter from her delusive trust in her mad father. The father is driven by frustrated ambition, a mania common to the male authority figures in the series.
When we turn to configurations of character, of the type outlined here, we find a sort of “interference pattern” in which the forces that different characters convey interact with one another, in a kind of field of conflict or of reconciliation and harmony. Clearly, TV series draw upon such configurations of character as essential to their plot construction, and are probably much more committed to them (and to humor characterization) than movies are. The functioning of such configurations in popular television is important if little understood.
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- See my “Minimalist Magic: The Star Trek Look.” Brightlightsfilm.com 68 (May 2010). [↩]
- Interestingly, it is the characters of the original series—not the plots—that have been the reason for the enormous fan and fanzine developments to the present day. See Melissa Dickinson, and also Jenkins’ discussion “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching,” in his study Fans, Bloggers, and Games: Exploring Participatory Culture (37-60). [↩]
- Shatner could hardly be more different from the original casting choice for Captain of the Enterprise: Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter’s dark hair, blue eyes, and pale complexion project a coolness and even hardness very unlike the warmth Shatner’s physical appearance projects. [↩]
- Spock especially intrigues viewers. Melissa Dickinson argues that Spock is “the single most original creation of Gene Roddenberry’s inventive mind, as the staggering audience response to the character proved and continues to prove” (Dickinson 175); and Eric Greene emphasizes the biracial character of Spock and the complexities that flow from that identity (62). [↩]
- For a lucid explanation of humor characterization see C. S. Lewis, in his The Discarded Image (169-74). See also Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (168-69 and 226-27). [↩]
- The simple fact of the differences in ethnic and racial identity has huge importance for Star Trek, as its famous first biracial kiss on television makes clear. See Katja Kanzler; also Wei Ming Dariotis. [↩]
- “Gene Roddenberry. . . . wanted the actresses in the show to be visual sex objects. . . . short skirts and lots of cleavage” (Solow and Justman 216). Female figures are often more complex than this eye-candy formulation—especially as the series evolved; on the sexism question see Edward Whetmore and Mary Henderson. [↩]
- Interestingly, this trio of character types disappears from the Star Trek evolution; that is, the successor series to Star Trek, beginning with Star Trek The Next Generation, doesn’t use it. I think this has to do with the expanded cast noticeable in the successor series and the avoidance of the fist-fight type situation so much a part of the original show. [↩]
- This is not to forget that Spock has for many viewers a definite erotic charge. Spinrad emphasizes the power of Spock as a character creation, even arguing that he in fact “was the central figure of Star Trek” (30-31)—not Kirk. Many would agree. [↩]
- So striking is this question that Spock carefully ponders Droxene’s naiveté. We even get to enter Spock’s mind and listen to his thoughts, in what is an unprecedented excursion into his mental world. “The Cloud Minders” is only one of many brilliant episodes of the third (and last) season of Star Trek—a season often disparaged, compared to the first two years. But in my view, the final year is full of creative and interesting work. [↩]
- Jerome Bixby wrote three episode of Star Trek, including “Requiem for Methuselah,” which, like his screenplay for The Man from Earth, is about a man with vastly extended lifespan. [↩]
- “Rappaccini’s Daughter” has been filmed at least twice. For more on this plot construction, see my study of Beatrice and the figure of the ineffectual lover in Male Envy, Chapter Two, “The Tricky Female.” [↩]