The Galileo Seven is one of those episodes I love to hate and hate to admit I love. It’s a fraud from begining to end, but a fraud so blatant that there’s something strangely liberating about it.
Right off the bat the setup begs questions. The Captain’s Log tells us the Enterprise is en route to Makus III with medical supplies, but that they’ve gotten distracted by a shiny quasar-like object named Murasaki 312. “Galactic” (because they hadn’t named the Federation yet) High Commissioner Ferris is on board overseeing the transfer of medical supplies, which we soon learn are destined for New Paris, a colony suffering from plague outbreak. There is immediately tension between Kirk, who wants to study the shiny quasar-thingee, and Ferris, who is focused on his mission to get medical supplies to plague-ridden New Paris. Spock, McCoy, Scott, Hmm, Ho, Hum and Mmm are on board a shuttlecraft ready to launch into Murasaki 312, which Kirk tells Ferris he is duty-bound to get a look at. Now, this setup means one of at least three highly implausible things. One – that no one knew that this giant quasar-like thing was going to show up on their path. Two – that standing orders to investigate quasar-like things brook no exceptions for medical emergencies. Three – that there is some important reason why the Enterprise (or some other ship) can’t come back later – possibly better-equipped for such a mission – and study it then.
Possibly because the writers thought of all this at the last minute, Kirk points out to Ferris that the rendezvous is in five days, and it will take three to get there. Therefore, they have two days. “Assuming nothing goes wrong,” we silently add. But what would possibly go wrong?
Well, it turns out that quasar-like things completely disrupt sensors. The shuttlecraft is blown off course and can barely get a transmission back, and of course sensors are useless. Looking for a 24-foot shuttlecraft in the phenomenon – which apparently spans four star systems – makes finding a needle in a haystack child’s play. Well, so much for Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Hmm, Ho, Hum and Mmm – we’d love to search for them but, you know, plague victims.
Or not. Kirk insists they’ll use every hour of those two days to find the missing crewman. Which does make you realize how lucky they are that the crewmen got lost more or less instantly after departing. What if it’d been 47 hours into the mission instead? Anyway, Ferris is a complete dick about everything, even smirking when the shuttle goes missing. What a dick.
Uhura figures out that there’s a class M planet in all that muck, so that’s the place to start looking. Meanwhile, the shuttle crew has indeed landed on that planet and are assessing damage. It’s determined that they’re 500 pounds too heavy to achieve orbit, which Spock notes is the weight of three people. This bald statement of fact irritates everyone – which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in StarFleet training – especially one Lt. “Never Gonna See Him Again” Boma, who is conspicuously BLACK. This is important because, as always where Spock stories are involved, there’s possibly a subtext of racism going on. Just like in Balance of Terror, where the Japanese guy was one of the ones concerned about “Romulan”(=WWII-era nissei Japanese) spies, in this one it’s the black guy who doesn’t give the Vulcan(=racial minority) the same respect and cooperation he would give a white commander like Kirk.
Outside, McCoy notes that Spock has his first command and suggests that he’s anxious to use it to prove the superiority of completely emotionless command methods. Spock shrugs this off but protests too much, and so we know McCoy is right.
Gaetano and Latimer (you know, good ol’ Gaetano and Latimer) are sent out to scout around and possibly figure out the source of some strange noises they’re hearing. They are quickly able to determine from the fatal spear wound in Latimer’s back that they’re dealing with a primitive tribal culture of some sort. Spock and Boma find Gaetano, and Spock continues to get on everyone’s nerves by examining the spear to see if he can determine what kind of culture they’re dealing with. Apparently we’re meant to think that breaking down and crying a bit would be more productive.
Now we get to the first real flareup of tensions. Back in the ship, McCoy and Mears have found 150lbs. of excess machinery they can jettison – which, Spock quickly points out, still leaves them 150lbs. short, counting Latimer’s timely death. Boma wants to hold a burial ceremony for Latimer, but Spock would prefer to assist Mr. Scott with the repairs and asks McCoy to hold the ceremony instead. They don’t get much chance to argue about it, though, since one of the lines breaks and leaks all of their fuel away. They’re now officially stranded. Spock tells Scotty to think of something and goes outside to deal with the pressing problem of the tribesmen. Gaetano and Boma want blood for some reason. I guess we’re supposed to work out for ourselves that there’s a revenge motive at work – these guys killed Latimer, after all – but if so none is explicitly stated. Spock questions the need to kill indiscriminately and orders them instead to fire to frighten. So, that’s what they do. Then he leaves Gaetano behind as a lookout for no reaosn that anyone can understand.
Back at the ship, Mr. Scott has worked out a way to use the energy from their phasers to achieve orbit, which has the obvious drawback of taking away their only means of defense. Spock orders him to do it – being stranded is certain death.
Back on the ship, Kirk continues to bicker with Ferris, who continues to be a completely unsympahetic dick. He orders landing parties to search the surface of the planet instead of just flying shuttlecraft over it.
On the planet, to everyone’s shock, Gaetano – the man they left behind and alone amdist all the tribal types – is found dead. Spock collects his phaser and hands it to Boma to take back to the ship. Spock also hands him his own phaser and says he will return shortly after satisfying some “scientific curiosity.” This basically means finding Gaetano’s body and carrying it back to the ship while the native chuck spears at him with the precision of Imperial Storm Troopers. Once inside the ship, the creatures start banging on the hull, and Scotty has to electrify it to scare them off. With a brief pause in the action, Boma insists on funerals, and Spock relents.
On the Enterprise, landing parties are reporting attacks by the same creatures giving the shuttle crew so much trouble, with casualties in some cases. And then, just like that, they’re out of time. Ferris smugly orders them to proceed to Makus III, which Kirk does, “space normal speed” – which is what they used to call impulse drive, I guess. This would seem to be a clear violation of his orders, but the audience is meant to take it as complying with the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. I guess.
Scotty assures them the ship can take off in 8 min., so there is 10min. for a burial. Of course, they don’t get to have one because the aliens start chucking spears again. Spock throws one back to buy some cover and as a result ends up trapped under a rock. He orders the men to leave him behind, they don’t, everyone makes it to the ship, and they blast off. They achieve orbit, but Spock realizes they’re too late – the Enterprise will have been ordered to leave by now. Scott reminds Spock that he said there are always alternatives, and Spock concedes he may have been mistaken. Bones has now fulfilled a lifetime ambition and can die happily: he heard Spock admit he was wrong.
But there is an alternative, and Spock soon figures out what it is. In what everyone on screen describes as a rash act of desperation, but what everyone in the audience understands to be a rational gamble, Mr. Spock jettisons their remaining fuel and ignites it – a bit like sending up a flare. The Enterprise sees this and is able to beam them out in time.
Back on the bridge, everyone gets a big laugh out of making fun of Spock’s “rational emotional outburst.” And that, kids, is the story of how we learned to never keep our wits about us in desperate situations, but to instead panic, followed by wasteful sentimentality.
A funny thing happened on the way to that ending, though, and that’s that we notice that no one ever actually proved Spock wrong about anything, least of all that final decision to jettison the fuel as a makeshift flare. Indeed, the only dubious decision that Mr. Spock makes is to leave Gaetano as a solitary guard – and that one only goes wrong because Gaetano fails to contact the others as soon as he comes under attack, which he was specifically ordered to do. Moreover, with any other commander, Mr. Boma’s attitude would be recognized as insubordination – and indeed Mr. Scott calls him out for it once. Most of all, though, whether or not they agree with these decisions, trained military men should not only not have a problem obeying these orders, they should also at least understand the reasoning behind them. So despite what the writers are selling here, what we actually see is merely a failure on Mr. Spock’s part to “sell” his command to the crew. On the surface level, we’re seeing a failed morality play about the need to tempering rationality with caring. On the subtextual level, though, we’re seeing a pretty successful character drama.
Whatever the writers intended, the story on the screen involves Mr. Spock using the opportunity of this command to convince himself that he is the cold, rational thinker he aspires to be. I can’t really see it any other way: the way he treats the crew is deliberately callous. After having served with humans for as long as he has, it’s impossible that he doesn’t understand the effects his words are having on them. More to the point, Spock is himself half-human – he even has some of the same emotions he’s complaining about. This seems to be a clear case of psychological projection. What’s interesting, of course, is that Spock is perfectly sincere about it. Yes, perhaps he’s goading the men a little into resisting him so that he can set himself apart from them, but neither does he flinch from the logical course of action when it requires personal sacrifice on his part. He gives up his phaser before investigating Gaetano’s death so that Mr. Scott can complete repairs on schedule, he stays behind to retaliate against the ape-creatures at risk to his own life so that the rest of the crew can get to safety, and he orders them to leave him behind when trapped under a rock. Spock may preach, but he practices too.
The same can’t really be said for the dynamic on the Enterprise bridge, unfortunately. Commissioner Ferris is just a dick, and he’s only a dick because the plot needs him to be. Kirk has to be under some kind of a deadline or else there’s no tension – and no chance for him to prove to us how far he’s willing to bend the rules to show he cares. It’s really artificial.
Another interesting subtext is the aforementioned racism theme. It’s pretty clear that Mr. Boma would take the same orders from Kirk without question – and indeed, he listens when Scotty puts him in his place. The point is that it takes a human to put him in his place. Mr. Boma would seem to be some kind of anti-Vulcan – or at least pro-human – bigot. I think this is exceptionally well-handled here in a number of ways. First, of course, there’s the fact that Mr. Boma is BLACK, which signals right out of the gate that Star Trek understands that bigorty is a structural thing. Whatever arguments one might advance that blacks can’t be racist in the United States in the late 1960s due to the institutional barriers they face, the assumption here seems to be that by the 23rd century those barriers have been removed in human society – and possibly replaced with xenophobia regarding aliens. Nothing could have been more effective at making the point that racism is not a genetic inheritance, but is rather a reflex of group formation. The definition of “outsider” is fluid. Second, it’s a nice touch that we get the sense that the problem with following Mr. Spock’s orders isn’t so much what the orders are as how they’re expressed. In other words, there’s a cultural barrier. This makes a nice analogue for the people who say things like “well, if black people want to be taken seriously, they need to learn how to speak proper English and stop wearing baggy clothes.” As numerous studies have demonstrated, most of “racism” isn’t really about the overt racial characteristics as the subtle cultural mismatches in manner of expression. On Vulcan, one presumes, the crew would understand that Spock was looking out for their intersts by the way he devotes himself to his work. Among Earthmen, however, it is necessary to be conspicuously inefficient to make the same point. It is actually Mr. Boma’s responsibility to follow Spock’s orders, not Spock’s to make them palatable. In this way, Spock faces some of the same subtle unfairnesses that minorities face in present-day society.
Finally, there’s something really psychoanalytic – or psychoanthropological – going on with the fact that they’re under attack by ape-men wielding spears with folsom poins that identify their cultural development the whole time. It’s almost like we’re seeing the stages of human cultural evolution in physical form. There’re the ape savages, which we’re still wired to be, surrounding the whole thing. This is the id, I guess. Then there are the humans, who represent the ego – the present uneasy truce between biological impulses and higher rationality. And there is Spock, the lone superego, who knows what has to be done but faces the challenge of getting the rest of the body to accept it, largely failing. Survival depends on listening to Spock, but that is hard to do when you’re being hounded by the ape-men outside. Humanity started out as those impulsive apes, is currently the crew of the Galileo, but is trying to become – because it understands the benefit of being – more like Mr. Spock. Seen in that way, the writers are trying to soothe their own anxieties about this process. Becoming like Mr. Spock means a loss of identity in some sense, so they’ve constructed an elaborate charade in which the status quo wins out. Predictably, it fails on closer examination. But the point is not lost that there is some costly alienation involved in exercising one’s rational will to the degree that Mr. Spock seems to want to.
The trouble with this episode is that all the best parts seem to be unintentional. What the writers are actually trying to sell us is a sappy bit of intelligence-insulting fraud in which “good” intentions (defined here as wasteful sentimentality) are invariably rewarded by the universe. This same sort of karmic philosophy will become all-pervasive in Next Generation of course; this episode is proof that it was part of Star Trek‘s DNA from the begining. It’s rare to see a deck this thoroughly stacked – even on television – but our villains and heroes are so clearly marked they might as well wear white and black hats. In an odd way, though, that’s liberating – because it acknowledges, even unintentionally, that rationality is simply more effective. It’s the same sort of backhanded gratification I feel when I hear Christians, yet again another time already, doing whatever they can to style atheism as a “faith” or as emotionally motivated – anything, in other words, but actually refuting it on rational grounds. The gratification is “backhanded,” naturally, in the sense that they’re fighting tooth and nail to hold onto supersitions. But it is gratifying – because no one abandons the rational argument unless they don’t have one. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that they don’t have any counterarguments.
The writers don’t have any counterarguments to Mr. Spock. The best they can do is put everyone in these artificial situations and have them act in uncharacteristic or exaggerated ways. What they can’t actually do is conceive of a situation where emotions would be a more effective survival tool than rationality – at least, not one that doesn’t involve dumb luck. The closest they get, really, is Mr. Spock being puzzled that the ape-men weren’t appropriately frightened by his phasers. Dr. McCoy insists that it was perfectly obvious to anyone with feelings that they wouldn’t be, but that not only doesn’t quite ring true (that would seem to be a species-dependent, or even tribe-dependent function). But whatever the truth of that assertion, the point remains that the only reason we have for needing emotions is artificial – only present because the counterparty has emotions. It’s a bit like a car alarm that way – you need one only to the extent there are people out there willing to steal your car, not because car alarms are in themselves useful. In a lawful neighborhood, it’s a pointless expense. Mr. Spock’s failure to account for his counterpary’s emotions is no more “rational” than wearing expensive jewelry in a walk through the ghetto – and the audience gets loud and clear that the only reason he’s “puzzled” is because the writers want him to be.
So, it’s a bit of a tough nut to crack, this one. It fails spectacularly on its own terms, but in contorting themselves into knots to make a point that can’t be made, the writers end up giving us a pretty decent commentary on the role of rationality in human society, some excellent character development for Mr. Spock, and possibly (depending on how much you want to read into it) a sensitive and realistic treatment of the kind of subtle racism that continues to exist long after people have stopped saying “nigger” in public. What to think of this episode is a delicate equilibrium between how offputting you find the fraud, how much you credit the text over the writers’ intentions, and how responsible you hold writers for their finished product. For my part, it’s a …
Overall Rating: B