As I write this, there are a multitude of television critics debating the validity of “Mad Men” or the subtext of “True Blood,” and most of the time, this writing is shit. Television is a difficult medium to discuss, because unlike film, it is broadcast to a multitude of people. Whether a consumer watches it or not, the program is still there, and it needs to be suitable for just about anyone to consume, enjoy and understand. It needs to be watchable, but more than that, there needs to be a basic idea that a viewer can pull from the piece and understand.
The problem comes when elite critics have to discuss what is broadcast. There is always a sense that we may miss something, and with a multitude of words that need written, critics are likely to draw connections where none exist. When they read too much into a show and claim that “True Blood” is a scathing indictment on the War on Drugs or that Chelsea Handler is a poet of condom wrappers and cosmopolitan induced vomit. Television generally presents a simple theme, and then critics have to make up their own to distinguish themselves or to further theories and conjecture. In a way, many critics try to complicate and validate television at the same time, trying to make deep art out of what is often nothing more than entertainment.
That’s not to say that there aren’t shows that juggle themes and ideas. “Breaking Bad” deftly combines the idea of “how far would you go” with “what would you do if you were going to die” with “break from expectation,” to masterful results. “The Sopranos” dealt with honor, responsibility, power and money while asking much tougher questions as well, that all could really be used to examine a single dark, deadly character..
At its best, “Star Trek” would be capable of asking more questions. “What are Little Girls Made of?” is the first to do just that.
It’s kind of a silly premise. While cruising the galaxy, the Enterprise gets a message from Exo III, from Roger Korby, a scientist who has been missing for five years. He is very enthusiastic about having Kirk come down to the planet alone to check out all this cool stuff he found, but he better come without any security or it will get broken or something. However, when he finds out that his ex-fiancé, Nurse Chapel (lover of Spock, in “The Naked Time), is on board, he cordially invites her to come down to the planet as well. The crew is suspicious, but Kirk and Chapel head down anyway, along with a pair of security officers who are quickly snuffed out by a tall menacing man in the caves.
This is as good a time as any to talk about the tone. “What are Little Girls Made of?” maintains an undeniable creepiness throughout the first few minutes and refuses to let go as the truth begins to be revealed. The android, Ruk is killing Kirk’s crew effortlessly, Kolby’s assistant doesn’t recognize Chapel and declares security dead pretty early on, and there’s a sexy android.
That actually isn’t terribly weird, but Andrea deserves mention both for being a sexy android, and having the first and perhaps only documented case of extremely stiff nipples tearing up her oddly colored pair of overalls.
What was I talking about? Well, Kolby initially just wants Kirk to see the process of making androids and after a particularly tense Kirk replicant creation process, he wants the captain to help him spread his androids around to key parts of the galaxy, but this idea is pretty half baked and pointless. It’s pretty clear that this is a small story, and it’s hard to watch it without kind-of knowing that Kolby and his creations aren’t going to make it out of there alive, but it’s ok. This is a small story with larger implications, and H.P. Lovecraft acolyte Robert Bloch was more than willing to bring these themes into the open.
There are three primary themes going on in “What are Little Girls Made of?” The first is the place of emotion, and it naturally brings depth to the episode. Kolby says that the androids are different from humans due to their inability to create emotional bonds. Having Andrea kiss and strike Kirk drives the idea that she is a controllable item, a tool for the scientist. While Chapel shows disgust for Kolby and asks if he has ever used his tool for…less professional uses, he scoffs, saying that she is just an object. All of the androids are logical and pragmatic, and only Kolby’s kiss with Chapel shows any emotion (although he may have been able to rationalize it as necessary in order to ensnare Kirk), and it really helps create a cold and detached mood that contrasts sharply with the more manic Kirk and despondent Chapel. The only way Kirk can get over the situation is by having Ruk deal with his hatred of the emotions of the Old Ones (how very Lovecraftian) and deem Kolby’s actions to be too emotionally driven. Emotion also deals heavily into Kirk’s whip smart message to Spock in the form of some out-of-character racism. Even the true finale, when Roger says “It’s still me Christine, It’s still Roger. I’m in here,” is a grand statement about how emotions define people, that is further driven home when Roger continually repeats, “I am not a computer,” trying to convince only himself.
The second is the idea of myth vs. truth. Kolby is convinced that Kirk would not believe him because the story of the Old Ones creating Androids seems so far fetched, so he has to show him the chamber where he creates androids as well as try to convince him to help get his creations into the galaxy. This theme once again crops up when Ruk explains how he killed the old ones when they started demonstrating emotions. Expectations are subverted when the characters are faced with the truth and have to face the inherent problems in their long held beliefs. This theme originally appeared in “Charlie X” with the Thasians, but this episode explores this theme much more fully.
The final theme is the failings of logic and the need for balance. Arguably, the whole episode focuses on the idea of characters behaving under strict logical programming, with Kirk’s brashness being used as a contrast among the androids. It vastly works, just because the androids are so pragmatic and make all their choices based on collective good as well as orders and plans. This theme crops up again in Kirk’s conversation with Ruk when the captain simply has to convince the android that killing Kolby is the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter that Kolby and Ruk have a relationship that is mostly friendly. All Kirk had to do was convince the android that murder was the only acceptable action to preserve its life. Emotions never factored into Ruk’s decision to attack Kolby or Kolby’s murder of the android.
There’s certainly more to each of these themes, but they provide as much of a groundwork as possible to what Bloch built around them. He masterfully fused his knowledge of sci-fi know-how with some of the Lovecraftian weirdness he was trained on (pink caves, strange doors, ancient master races) to make what may be the most satisfying episode yet.
That’s not to mention some of the truly standout scenes. Kolby using the machine to make an android Kirk starts off kind of goofy, but quickly gets serious, showing just what the scientist is capable of. The big reveal with Kolby is played really well, and I thought it was pretty shocking, inspiring that same sense of wanting to watch the episode over to see clues earlier (ala “Fight Club” and “The Sixth Sense”).
There are problems, of course. In an episode that’s so fully devoted to the necessity of emotion and the use of logic, it’s pretty disappointing that Spock didn’t get more to do. Without him or McCoy there for Kirk to play off of, we lose some of the ballsiness and emotional contrast we get when he is with another member of his inner circle. By the end of the episode, Andrea’s actions are pretty silly. Kirk asking for the phaser doesn’t really seem to prove anything, and her sudden realization that she loves Kolby is pretty odd. Their suicide even seems strange to me.
Either way, the episode is a roaring success. “What are Little Girls Made Of?” shows off the idea that “Star Trek” could be more than just “The Twilight Zone” with more action, and rolls themes together to create a cohesive and totally satisfying whole.
A lot of the cast seems to be missing from this one. There’s no Scotty, Sulu, Rand or McCoy in this episode. It’s not like these characters always have a lot to do (I mean, Jesus Christ, Uhura pretty much just swivels her chair and talks about not making contact in just about every episode), but it’s nice to have these characters just around.
The part where Chapel asks Kolby about having sex with Andrea is really well handled. Bloch gives it enough emotional depth and ambiguity, while not really dwelling on the innate weirdness of the thing. He’s frank, but not disgustingly so. There’s evens some nice squabbles about sexual roles between Chapel and Andrea that I really appreciated.
Kirk’s quote “mind your own business, Mr. Spock. I’m sick of your half-breed interference,” leads to both one of the best moments (with the android), and the best joke (at the very end) of the episode.
Next up: “Miri” which I assume is someone’s name. Hey, it’s Tuesday morning. Do you expect a witty joke out of me?