In “The Lights of Zetar,” the crew needs to exorcise Scotty’s girlfriend, Lieutenant Mira Romaine, after she is possessed by creepy alien lights.
Fun fact: the episode was co-written by Shari Lewis. Yes, this Shari Lewis:
Lewis wanted to play Romaine herself, but instead Jan Shutan was cast as the sciences division specialist.
“The Lights of Zetar” is maybe one of the least fun TOS episodes to watch. It doesn’t make you want to tear your hair out like “Spock’s Brain” and it’s not nearly as offensive as “Mudd’s Women”, but it lacks those episodes’ campiness. It’s not only hard to laugh at “The Lights of Zetar”; it’s hard even to pay attention through too many scenes of pointless dialogue with the various characters wondering what is going on with the anomalous alien lights and what’s happened to Lt. Romaine.
But Romaine’s character and her relationship with Scotty are interesting to analyze, partly because inconsistent writing leaves some pretty big contradictions.
First, why is Scotty attracted to Romaine? I loved that right off the bat, the way he compliments her is by telling her: “You’re the sanest, the smartest, the nicest woman who has ever come aboard this ship.”
But a bit later, when they’re making goo-goo eyes at each other on the bridge, Chekov leans over to Sulu and they have the following exchange:
Chekov: I didn’t think Mister Scott would go for the brainy type.
Sulu: I don’t think he’s even noticed she has a brain.
I’m hoping we’re supposed to think they’re off-base, rather than that Scotty is totally lying to Romaine about why he likes her.
Romaine clearly is smart. She’s been brought aboard as a specialist to oversee the transfer of new equipment to Memory Alpha, a library planet.
Unfortunately, the significance of having a planetoid established to house the “total cultural history and scientific knowledge of all planetary Federation members” is never really explored. And we don’t get to see a lot of Romaine in that role: she has literally four words of dialogue before she is possessed by the strange alien lights that penetrate the bridge.
After we see the lights in her eyes she collapses. McCoy is called to the bridge and everyone witnesses her speaking garbled words in a strange voice before she seems to come around and return to normal. Kirk orders her to Sickbay with McCoy and warns Scotty to remain at his post in Engineering.
But he doesn’t listen and we see him next in Sickbay as McCoy and Chapel finish examining Romaine. Romaine is impatient, saying she feels fine and she doesn’t understand why they need to record everything. Apparently even that is borderline inappropriate, and McCoy lets her know she’ll need to be more cooperative if she wants to continue having a career in Starfleet. Talk about the cranky pot calling the cranky kettle black.
Scotty intervenes to try to calm Romaine down and reassure McCoy, causing Chapel to make a super-sweet remark that with his kind of bedside manner, Scotty’s in the wrong business as an engineer.
It’s endearing at this point to see Scotty support Romaine and tell her he’s sure this is just her getting her “space legs.” But we learn that’s not the case when the anomaly heads to Memory Alpha and, as the away team prepares to beam down, we see Romaine in Sickbay envisioning a dead man.
When the team lands on Memory Alpha, they note the database has likely been destroyed, and most of the staff (including the hairy guy from Romaine’s vision) are dead. Apparently all the knowledge stored there was made freely available so the planet had no shields or defences. Sure, but also no one thought to back up the database? This seems like a pretty huge deal, but it never really gets discussed.
Instead, everyone’s distracted by a woman lying frozen on the ground, making the same garbled sounds Romaine did. Soon her face turns colours and then she dies.
McCoy says she’s suffered: “severe brain hemorrhaging due to distortion of all neural systems, dissolution of autonomic nervous system. All basic personality factors.”
Kirk orders Romaine down to the planet and when she sees the dead man from her vision, she tells them they have to go now, that the anomaly is coming back and will kill them. Initially they don’t believe her but then the ship confirms it.
Back on the ship, instead of being questioned about how she knew the anomaly was coming back, Romaine is again reassured by Scotty that she’s just reacting to being in deep space.
At this point his reaction to what she’s going through feels less endearing and more, well, dumb, and even a bit condescending. She’s trying to tell him about her visions, which would totally make sense given her unexplained prediction that the anomaly was coming back. But his protectiveness makes him talk her out of using her own common sense.
Romaine: Then what is it, Scotty? What’s frightening me? Ever since that storm hit, I’ve, I’ve had such strange thoughts, such feelings of terror.
Scotty: Space. Space, that’s all it is.
Romaine: Then I don’t have to report it?
Scotty: Well, if you want to spend the rest of the trip in Sickbay. But what good would that do? Doctor McCoy can no more cure it than he can a cold.
(A classic example of why you shouldn’t date subordinates, since technically she is reporting it to a superior officer, but he’s just in an incredible conflict of interest.)
Sheesh, guys! Captain Kirk is already incredibly pissy this episode. How do you think he’d react if he heard that conversation? My guess:
Luckily Kirk is on the bridge and he decides they need to attack the lights with phasers in order to prevent the Enterprise crew being destroyed like the Memory Alpha staff. But the phaser fire seems to actually hurt Romaine, so they stop.
Kirk orders an investigation be held. McCoy, Spock, Kirk and Scotty all head to the briefing room to question Lt. Romaine. It seems an odd dynamic to treat her with suspicion when really all that’s happened is that the aliens have a hold on her and Scotty failed to help everyone else draw that connection sooner.
But the scene plays a bit like an interrogation, with Kirk asking McCoy for information about Romaine’s psych history, including whether she has any history of “psychosomatic illness” or “pathological empathic responses.”
McCoy says the only thing notable about Romaine’s psych profile is that she was found to exhibit “an extremely flexible and pliant response to new learning situations.” Apparently this explains why the aliens were able to take hold in her brain: her pliable will.
Scotty finally does tell Kirk he failed to report what she had told him, but Kirk doesn’t have time to do anything about that. Romaine finally realizes what she’s been seeing are visions through the aliens’ eyes and that one vision was of Scotty dead.
Romaine: Oh, Scotty, Scotty! I’d rather die than hurt you. I’d rather die!
Scotty: All right, now. What’s all this talk of dying? They’ve called the turn on us three out of four times. Now, that’s a better average than anybody deserves. It’s our turn now. We’ll fight them. So let’s not hear anything more about dying.
Again, good on Scotty.
So Kirk says their only choice is for Romaine to let the aliens in. Hopefully they will take hold just long enough to get her into a gravity chamber, where the aliens can be killed hopefully without hurting her.
While possessed the “lights of Zetar” speak through her with a deeper, computerized-sounding voice and tell Kirk their planet was destroyed and they need a body in order to finish living their lives. Kirk tells them Romaine has her own life, and indeed her voice breaks through theirs at times as she attempts to preserve some aspect of her individuality.
Eventually Scotty gets her into the gravity chamber and, although it nearly kills her, it kills the aliens first.
And then, crisis averted, she has to wait 20 more minutes floating in the chamber, giving Scotty occasional silly smiles (I told you there’s a lot that’s pointless in this episode).
In the final scene, Kirk (who’s still really pissy – maybe just annoyed someone else got to have a love interest this episode), McCoy and Spock consult in Sickbay.
McCoy: Despite Starfleet judgment of the pliancy of the Lieutenant, she put up a valiant struggle to retain her identity, and I find that encouraging.
Spock: Doctor McCoy is correct, Captain. While the truth was difficult to accept, when it was revealed, the girl reacted well. I would say her struggle in this experience would strengthen her entire ego structure.
So to sum up, Romaine is a bit of a mixed bag. Her initial “pliability” plays to stereotypes of femininity, and Kirk repeatedly emphasizes her susceptibility to the aliens. But Spock and McCoy note her resilience. And the audience can see that her survival is much to the credit of her own strength.
Romaine does not die. And she doesn’t even have to leave the ship or her job. At the end of the day, Spock, McCoy and Scotty all agree that her continuing to work on the ship is a good idea. Kirk goes along with them, even though he’s opposed. It seems like that’s about him not trusting her, when he actually has more reason not to trust Scotty to keep his feelings separate from his duty.
As to her overall relationship with Scotty, in the last scene Kirk suggests that maybe the reason she was so strong is Scotty’s love and support for her:
Kirk: Would either of you credit Scotty’s steadfast belief in her as a factor?
Spock: You mean, love as motivation? Humans do claim a great deal for that particular emotion. I suppose it is possible. However…
McCoy: There are no howevers about it, Mister Spock. It was a factor, and it will be a factor in the girl’s recovery.
It feels slightly like this undermines the previous discussion about her strength, if her withstanding the aliens was dependent on a man. But at the end of the day Scotty used his love to support Romaine’s fight to be herself, and the words she said in her own voice reinforce the nature of that fight:
I am Mira Romaine. I will be who I choose to be…Life was given to me. It was mine. I want to live it out.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass. Romaine asks Chapel what she’s recording and Chapel replies she’s noting the medical test in the computer. This is one of only six TOS episodes that unambiguously pass the Bechdel Test.