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Monday, January 26, 2009


There is a group of people who remind me of the Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” is an episode of the third season of the 1960s Star Trek. It has the distinction of being the one episode of that season that I like without reservations or qualifications. From having both watched and studied Star Trek all my life, the further I go into the 1960s series, I find it increasingly difficult to watch. In fact, the back end of the second season is when I think it starts getting painful. The third season I mostly avoid altogether, except for “Is There in Truth...,” which I love. The reasons for this lie in the way network television--specifically NBC--treated Star Trek. It is well known that NBC wanted to cancel Trek almost from the time it first went on the air. Trek has the distinction of being not just one of the first series to be saved by a letter writing campaign from its devoted fans, but the only series I know of to have been saved by its fans twice. It took NBC three attempts to kill it! They got their way the third time by deliberately burying the show at 10 PM on Friday nights when its intelligent audience (in pre-VCR days) was mostly out doing other things. That finally gave them their excuse. But the signs of trouble start to occur halfway through the series, when the production budget is repeatedly, mercilessly slashed (why do you think they did all those episodes about planets resembling periods of Earth history?) and Gene Roddenberry and company face mounting interference from network executives and sponsors. The change of time slot to the last hour of Friday night was the last nail in the coffin. Gene stepped down from the grind of producing the show at that point, and the thing just kept deteriorating. So there is a significant part of the series that I just stay away from, and I’m someone who truly loves Trek. However, the third-season episode that I will watch whenever I find it is “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

This episode is the story of a woman and her Medusan. The Medusans are among the most exotic species of aliens ever to appear in Star Trek. Perhaps “appear” is not quite the right word, as we don’t actually get to see them. In fact, when Medusans travel aboard Federation vessels like the Enterprise, they are carried in special boxes. These beings are the most skilled subspace navigators in the known galaxy; they are invaluable aides in space travel. But they seem to be composed of energy as much as they are of matter, and their particular wavelength impinges on the nervous system of purely organic lifeforms in such a way that the sight of them renders us incurably, violently, fatally insane. So they travel in boxes for our protection and we can look at them only by wearing special visors that screen out the harmful wavelengths. When Kollos the Medusan visits the Enterprise, he is accompanied by a human telepath named Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur, also Dr. Pulaski in Star Trek: The Next Generation) whose mental powers afford her an intimacy with the Medusan that other organics can’t achieve.

Of course, the set-up is obvious. Once you understand the situation, you know someone is going to get an unprotected gander at our friend Kollos. The unfortunate looker turns out to be Spock. One thing that NBC was always pestering them to do was to get Spock, whose Vulcan culture is based on emotional repression in favor of logic, to show feelings. So, “This week, in a Very Special Episode of Star Trek, Spock goes insane!” Through twists of plot, Spock mind-melds with Kollos to get the Medusan’s help in bringing back the Enterprise from the edge of the galaxy, then returns to Kollos’s box to reverse the meld...but Spock/Kollos forgets to put on a visor! Spock gets an unprotected look at the Medusan, and there go his Vulcan marbles. This brings us to the Big Twist, the kicker of the episode: Miranda Jones is revealed to be Kollos’s perfect companion not just because she is telepathic--but because she is blind! Yes, she’s perfectly safe from the Medusan because she can’t see him or anything else; she passes for a sighted person by means of sensor webs woven into her gowns. Miranda, who is jealous of Spock/Kollos’s mind-meld, ironically is the only one who can save Spock when the sight of the Medusan drives him bonkers.

I’ve just done something above that in some quarters might get me into trouble. Namely, I’ve just told you the Big Twist of “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” without warning you that I was going to do it. I’ve just laid upon you what is known as a spoiler. In some circumstances I would be chided and chastised and subject to open resentment for such a thing. That is because of a widespread condition that I’ve come to call Spoiler Neurosis.

Odds are that you belong to one or more Listservs, so you know about this condition and you probably suffer from it yourself. Spoiler Neurosis is the inability to bear knowing any little detail in advance about any TV show/film/comic book/novel/story. It is characterized by powerful aversive reactions to any piece of information about anything that you haven’t seen/heard/read yet. Spoiler neurotics howl in mortal pain and dismay at any such exposure. If you’re going to talk about the latest episode of a favorite show or the latest issue of a favorite comic book on a Listserv, you must do so in careful and strategic generalities, or make careful omissions of character names, or issue a warning that you’re going to go into details and then leave anywhere from ten to twenty lines of blank space in your E-mail before you proceed. This is the functional equivalent of the anti-Medusan visor. Persons exposed to advance information about, say, this week’s episode of Lost that they haven’t played back on their recording are apt to react to it in the same way as if they had just gotten an unprotected look at Kollos. “OH DEAR GOD, SO-AND-SO JUST REVEALED THAT JACK SHEPHARD SHAVED OFF HIS BEARD AND DIDN’T LEAVE A SPOILER SPACE! NO! NO! AAAAAAAAHHHH...!”

I am one of the very vanishing few people that I know of who are immune to Spoiler Neurosis. Mind you, I don’t go looking for spoilers and I don’t avoid them, but if I find them they don’t bother me.

Just as an example, as far as Star Trek is concerned, I have gone into Trek movies already knowing the essential plot. I knew the whole plot of the Next Generation sixth-season finale, “Descent,” in advance. I knew the stories for the first episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager before I saw them. I knew the entire story of the conclusion of Voyager well before it went on the air. And it didn’t phase me one bit. In fact, I enjoyed them that much more for knowing what was coming up. Why? Because, already knowing that Data was going to be seduced into the evil of his brother, Lore; or that Kathryn Janeway would team up with her future self to get Voyager past the Borg and their Queen and back to Federation space, and how they were going to do it, didn’t ruin it for me in the slightest. It made me that much more curious to see how the things I had read about were actually done. How did they produce that scene that was described in the article? How did the stars perform that scene that the writer of that piece talked about? How were the special effects done? What did it look like? How was this idea executed? How close will what I see on the screen come to what I imagined when I read about it? Usually, what people call “spoilers” are for me not so much a hindrance as an enhancement to what I’m going to watch or read. But I find myself quite outnumbered on this issue by the Spoiler Neurotics who can’t stand to be briefed about anything.

This is why a lot of the time when I post to a Listserv about the latest week’s comics, for example, I speak only in the most general terms. I may talk about how well it was written or drawn. I may mention that there is a surprise at the end and nothing more, or I may bring up that something of particular interest happened on a particular page and not say what it was. If it’s a really important piece of business or an issue that I thought was especially good and really want to pick apart and analyze, then I will defer to the prevailing neurosis and leave a space before I talk about it in the way that I want to. Really, though, I think the whole business of people thinking that advance knowledge robs you of the pleasure of seeing how it was done, and carrying on as if they’d looked at Kollos if you don’t frame your remarks carefully or hit the Return button twenty times before you go on, gets really neurotic and tiresome. But sometimes it’s just one of those things you have to do in consideration of other people’s feelings.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’d never seen Citizen Kane, you really wouldn’t want to know beforehand that Rosebud is Kane’s sled from when he was a boy and is the symbol of his lost childhood and innocence. If you’d never seen Murder on the Orient Express, you wouldn’t want to know at the start that they all did it. There are any number of episodes of The Twilight Zone (“The After Hours,” in which she is one of the mannequins; “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which she’s gorgeous and everyone else is a gargoyle; “To Serve Man,” in which it’s a cookbook) where viewers deserve to get to the twist on their own. Viewers new to The Planet of the Apes shouldn’t be clued in beforehand that Charlton Heston is really on Earth. People who were for whatever reason just discovering Dallas shouldn’t be told that Kristin shot JR, and people who were for whatever reason just discovering Soap really ought to be allowed to find out for themselves that Chester, suffering from a brain tumor, killed Peter Campbell. And if you have somehow managed to avoid the Star Wars films, you don’t want to know going in (assuming that you’re starting with Episode 4) that Darth Vader is really Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, and that “the other” that Yoda mentions is Leia, who is really Luke’s fraternal-twin sister. (Though I went into Return of the Jedi already knowing about Leia because I skimmed the Marvel Comics adaptation, and I lived.) Sometimes Spoiler Neurosis is not so neurotic after all. But you’ll notice that I saved all of these remarks for the very last paragraph. I probably should have given a warning at the beginning.

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