According to TOS producer Fred Freiberger, “Elaan of Troyius” was an attempt to draw in the lady viewers. And so they think, what do lady viewers want? I know! Romance! I’m assuming when writer and director John Meredyth Lucas heard the idea and thought “romance” he thought “Taming of the Shrew…in Space” because that’s basically what this episode is.
The Enterprise’s mission: to deliver Elaan, the Dohlman of Elas, to the planet Troyius for an arranged marriage. On the way she is to be taught the proper customs of her new planet by the Troyian ambassador, Petri.
Even before Kirk beams the Elasians on board, it’s clear they’re going to be a handful, because characterizing an entire race by attributing sweeping personality traits is totally kosher in TOS:
Uhura, over the intercom: Captain, I have a signal from the Elasians. They’re ready to beam aboard, and they demand an explanation for the delay.
Kirk: Demand? What delay? All right. Beam them aboard.
Spock: Sounds typical of the Elasians. The scientists who made the initial investigation reported the men were vicious and arrogant.
McCoy: That’s just the negative part, Mister Spock. I’ve been over those records. Now the women, they’re supposed to be something very special. They’re supposed to have a kind of subtle, mystical power that drives men wild.
Oh yeah, you can practically hear Kirk and McCoy’s brains say.
Elaan is preceded on board by her three male guards/servants in costumes that take Roman-inspired fashion to the next level, primarily by replacing leather and metal with sequins and lamé.
But as you saw above, that are nothing compared to the extreme purple glitteriness of Elaan’s outfit. Just to make sure you really notice it, and how much skin it shows, the camera pans all the way up from her silver sandals…
…to her bikini line…
..to her décolletage…
…before we finally get to see her face…
I want to pause here to note that this technique showing women’s body parts separately, before or instead of showing her face, is a classic example of objectification. This type of “dismemberment” depiction (as part of a larger culture) encourages men and women to see women as a collection of parts, rather than of a whole.
According to Kacey D. Greening, “In other words, if every body part is not flawless, then the possibility for beauty is ruined.”
Back to the story. It turns out Elaan is notable not only for her beauty, but also her temper. She’s portrayed as a spoiled princess who immediately starts by bossing everyone around and demanding they recognize her as their superior.
Petri is anxious that Kirk take his time getting back to Troyius so he has time to teach her “civilized manners” and says he’ll try to “soften her mood” in the meantime by taking her the gifts he’s brought.
A bit later, Kirk comes to her quarters to find her throwing the gifts back in Petri’s face – something I actually moderately appreciated since I would’ve been plenty annoyed too.
She yells at both Petri and Kirk, complaining about the softness of her quarters (usually Uhura’s) and Petri’s demands that she become less aggressive. Kirk starts to get fed up, and out in the corridor he tells Petri he’s going to have to try a different tack:
Petri: But if she won’t listen to me
Kirk: Then make her listen, Ambassador. Use a different approach. Stop being so diplomatic. She respects strength. Go in strong.
What really struck me at this point is that no one has once asked why she’s so angry or upset. It’s enough merely that she is, and that it’s frustrating to others.
Everyone takes as a given that her aggression is a problem to be corrected, not, say, an understandable response to being forced to marry your enemy and asked to change your entire way of life.
A bit later, Elaan and her team of sparkly guards tour Engineering and seem to be interested in the ship’s combat capabilities. Kirk comes down and lectures her again when she refuses to be nice about being given the tour.
Kirk: Courtesy is for everyone around here, and you’ll find you won’t be able to exist on Troyius without it. Mister Scott, our Chief Engineer, has shown you his engineering department. That’s a courtesy. You respond by saying thank you.
Elaan and her guards walk away, annoyed. Just then, Kirk gets a message that a Klingon ship has turned up. But he barely gets time to get to the bridge to look at it before he’s summoned to Elaan’s quarters, only to find she’s stabbed Petri in the back. I actually also appreciated this – not that he got stabbed, but that Kirk’s advice to dominate Elaan clearly didn’t work.
In sickbay, Chapel asks a recovering Petri why men are so attracted to Elasian women if they’re so aggressive. Petri says: “It’s biochemical. A man whose flesh is once touched by the tears of a woman of Elas has his heart enslaved forever.”
The whole man can’t resist a woman in distress idea isn’t new, but this tears as a literal weapon idea certainly takes it to another level.
Kirk goes to Elaan’s quarters to have words with her. She is disappointed Petri will recover and she proclaims her loathing for the Troyians, but also she’s eating…with her hands!
And Kirk seems to figure this is something that couldn’t possibly be okay in any culture (thank goodness he never sat down for a Klingon feast).
Elaan: Tell me, what can you teach me?
Kirk: Table manners, for one thing. This is a plate. It contains food. This is a knife. It cuts the food. This is a glass.
So even though no one has ever seemed to care, Elaan at this point does offer her feelings on her situation. But I’ll be damned if Kirk is going to let a little thing like a woman’s right to control her own body get in the way of his mission.
Elaan: I will not go to Troyius, I will not be mated to a Troyian, and I will not be humiliated, and I will not be given to a green pig as a bribe to stop a war.
Kirk: You enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of being a Dohlman. Then be worthy of them. If you don’t want the obligations that go along with the title, then give it up.
Elaan: Nobody speaks to me that way.
Kirk: That’s another one of your problems. Nobody’s told you that you’re an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman’s body, an arrogant monster!
At this point, Elaan slaps Kirk, so he slaps her back, presumably because any woman who’s that unladylike must deserve it.
Kirk anticipates that the next time he goes to teach Elaan a lesson, she won’t let him in. So he has Spock there to help him overpower her guards.
Spock: Captain, your analysis of the situation was flawless, anticipating that she would deny you admittance. However, the logic by which you arrived at your conclusion escapes me.
Kirk: Mister Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in this galaxy that can make that claim.
Wait, this episode was supposed to make women like Star Trek?
I really wasn’t clear where the whole “romance” thing was supposed to come in until the next scene, where Kirk busts into her quarters and – seriously – threatens to spank her.
Elaan: You are warned, Captain, never to touch me again.
Kirk: If I touch you again, Your Glory, it’ll be to administer an ancient Earth custom called a spanking, a form of punishment administered to spoiled brats.
So at first I thought this was my modern viewer’s mind reading more innuendo into that line than was intended. But then Elaan starts crying and Kirk (of course) wipes away her tear, thereby enslaving his heart.
They start to kiss, big time, and then she looks at him coyly and says:
Elaan: Captain, that ancient Earth custom called “spanking”…what is it?
Kirk It’s…er…er…We’ll talk about it later.
If that’s not intentionally dirty, Vulcans aren’t intentionally logical.
Anyway though, I don’t have a problem with Kirk sexy-time discussions per se, but the fact that he started talking about spanking as a threat, after he’d already slapped her earlier, makes it a little skeevy.
Kirk gets paged away after they find Elaan’s main guard, Kryton, had sent a signal to the Klingons from Engineering. Rather than have Spock pull out his secrets via mind meld, Kryton vaporizes himself.
Kirk goes to get info from Elaan and she tries to distract his enslaved heart with her feminine wiles. Kirk’s struggling but says they have to forget what happened.
Elaan: Could you do that? Could you give me to another man?
Kirk: My orders and yours say that you belong to another man.
Yay, women as property!
So Elaan tries to convince him that instead she could destroy Troyius and rule the system with her. He resists the idea but makes out with her some more.
Until Spock and McCoy catch them. McCoy gets Kirk out into the hall and asks if Kirk touched her tears. Kirk says yes and McCoy says he’ll get to work on an antidote.
Meanwhile, the Klingons are closing in and they figure out Kryton got up to some more Engineering shenanigans that leave the Enterprise in a particularly vulnerable position, without warp drive.
Elaan follows Kirk to the bridge but after a gentle nudge from Spock, he agrees she should go to sickbay instead. He still insists she must marry the Troyian leader, but admits he isn’t happy about it.
It seems his resistance is finally wearing down hers. In sickbay she is clearly upset and finally agrees to wear the wedding clothes Petri has brought.
When she comes back to the bridge she’s in her wedding dress (if you can call it that) and necklace, which Spock soon figures out is made of dilithium crystals. Elaan says they’re common around the system and finally the crew figures out why the Klingons want to control the area so much.
At the last minute Scotty is able to get what he needs from the necklace to outmaneuver and cripple the Klingon ship.
Kirk and Elaan say goodbye in the transporter room. She gives him her dagger as a memento, saying she understands it won’t be permitted on Troyius.
She asks Kirk to remember her and he says, “I have no choice.”
“Nor have I. I have only responsibilities and obligations. Goodbye,” she replies, making me grateful that it’s finally sorta acknowledged how crummy this situation is for her.
As for Kirk, his heart is unshackled before McCoy even figures out the antidote, with Spock noting, “The antidote to a woman of Elas, Doctor, is a starship. The Enterprise infected the Captain long before the Dohlman did.”
So clearly I’m not the biggest fan of this episode. Any relationship involving violence and biological manipulation is no “romance”, as far as I’m concerned. And attracting women viewers is usually better done without drawing on all kinds of sexist stereotypes.
But there are two things I did appreciate. First, Uhura actually has a few important things to do in this episode, such as translating a coded message that’s crucial to the plot.
Second, I think France Nuyen does a great job as Elaan. She has a great deal of intensity and range and helps us get from being afraid of and/or repulsed by Elaan to starting to empathize with her by the end.
It’s also rare to see women of colour as TOS guests, and especially as romantic interests. Even though she ultimately doesn’t get her way, she is a powerful character who commands a posse of guys and manipulates Kirk, and I appreciated the amount of screen time she was given.
But digging a bit more deeply into that, we encounter other issues. France Nuyen is of French and Vietnamese descent, although playing an alien in the episode she’s presented as more generically “ethnic” or an “Oriental” other, with hair and makeup that initially reminded me of Cleopatra, a forehead decoration that looks a bit like a sci-fi bindi, and those Romanesque sandals.
This is problematic as it literally makes these cultures “alien” (and this is reinforced by the distance created through objectification). Further, Daniel Leonard Bernardi in Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future says Elaan exemplifies two stereotypes about Asian women, starting off as a manipulative “dragon lady” and ending as the “submissive female slave”.
So whether her presence is a net positive or negative is debatable.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail