“Plato’s Stepchildren” is best known for two things. It is the episode with the famous, (almost) first interracial kiss on TV between Kirk and Uhura. It is also hella weird; Kirk slaps himself dramatically (as only Shatner can), spends some time as a horse, and Spock does the flamingo dance, I think.
…This is starting to sound like a Snark Wars recap…
But I digress.
“Plato’s Stepchildren” is also my favorite episode in the Original Series. I unironically love it, because this episode stars the best one-off character in the entire show: Alexander. He’s a rare one-off character who gets a proper arc and agency within said arc.
The plot of “Plato’s Stepchildren” goes thusly: having received a distress signal from a planet, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to provide medical assistance to their leader, Parmen. These people – the Platonians – have telepathic abilities that enable them to physically control others, down to their very speech, but after centuries of eugenics, they no longer have the ability to ward off even simple infections. So Parmen demands that McCoy stays with them and humiliates and tortures Kirk and Spock in order to secure McCoy’s agreement.
On this planet, Alexander is the only one without the telepathic abilities, and as a result he is the court buffoon, ordered and thrown about by the rest of the Platonians. He’s been treated like this for centuries, unvalued both due to his size and his lack of the Platonians’ power. As such, when we first meet Alexander, he’s in a hurry to devalue himself.
“I’m a good loser, a very good loser” he says in his overeager introduction to the Starfleet trio. We also see him afraid to put value on others. He knows what awaits Kirk, Spock, and McCoy if they help Parmen, and even though he clearly wants to warn them away, he silences himself multiple times over.
This is the crux of the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”: the value of individuals, and it’s centered around Alexander’s arc, in which he learns that his own value is worth fighting for.
The first step Alexander takes on this journey is in valuing Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Even though he can’t bring himself to warn them directly at first, he does try to appeal to Parmen’s wife – “Philana, they came to help. They deserve better than to die.” – and is punished for it. Later, he tries to silently warn off Kirk from angering Parmen. When the torture starts, he does his best to comfort Spock, who Parmen is forcing to express emotions. At this point, he steps up and openly calls his leaders out with a boldness he hadn’t shown before, “Parmen, they saved your life. I’m ashamed to be a Platonian. Ashamed!” He is punished for this outburst too, brought to share in Kirk and Spock’s humiliation and torture.
In the aftermath, when the Starfleet trio and Alexander are recuperating from the experience, Alexander’s defiance takes a violent turn, beginning with all his past abuse tumbling out in a crescendoing speech,
“I should have warned you. They were treating you the same way they treat me. Just like me, only you fight them. All the time, I thought it was me, my mind that couldn’t move a pebble. They even told I was lucky they bothered keep me around at all, and I believed them. The arms and legs of everybody’s whim. Look down, don’t meet their eyes. Smile. Smile. These great people, they were gods to me. But you showed me what they really are. And now I know, don’t you see. It’s not me, it’s not my size, it’s them! It’s them! It’s them!”
At the final “them,” Alexander breaks a piece of pottery, seizing a sharp shard that he intends to use on the Platonians, to give them all in to the simple infection that nearly killed Parmen. He acknowledges Kirk’s and the other’s value, but it’s still at the expense of his own. Any retaliation against the Platonians might free the Enterprise, but it would be Alexander’s death warrant.
What stops Alexander’s suicidal plan is Kirk, who asks Alexander to see his own value.
ALEXANDER: “At least let me give them a taste of what they gave me. Please, they’re going to kill you anyway. You know that.”
KIRK: “In that case, what’s the point in you dying too, Alexander? Give it to me.”
(Alexander calms down, almost in shock)
ALEXANDER: “That’s the first time anybody ever thought of my life before his own.”
This moment is the meeting of two characters threads in this episode that have come close to each other but never intertwined. As Alexander was learning how that the lives of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were all worth fighting for, Kirk was telling Alexander that he was also worth fighting for.
At the start of the episode, Kirk throws himself to Alexander’s defense as Parmen’s fever-based tantrum strikes at the smaller Platonian. Later when Alexander gives a wry comment about his size and lack of telepathic ability – “They say that I’m a throwback, and I am, and so are you.” – Kirk grins and says that he’s happy without the power, and lets Alexander know that “where I come from, size, shape, or colour makes no difference, and nobody has the power.” Then, in the moments before the torture’s start, Kirk violently rejects Parmen’s claim that the Platonians live in a utopia, because of the way Alexander, and only Alexander, is treated.
This moment, the meeting of Alexander’s value of the Starfleet officers and Kirk’s value of Alexander, is the shifting point. Someone that Alexander valued told him that his value was just as great. It is a permission to Alexander to shrug off the last vestiges of Parmen’s emotional and mental abuse, and exert himself for the sake of his own future.
When given the opportunity to have the power of the other Platonians, Alexander fiercely rejects it, for his own sake.
KIRK: What about Alexander?
MCCOY: Since the kironide’s broken down and injected directly into his bloodstream, it should work on him as well as us. Better in fact, because he’s acclimated.
ALEXANDER: Oh, no. Not after what they’ve done to me.
KIRK: Why not? You could conceivably take Parmen’s place and run the whole planet.
ALEXANDER: You think that’s what I want? Become one of them? Become my own enemy? Just lie around like a big blob of nothing and have things done for me? I want to move around for myself. If I’m going to laugh or cry, I want do it for myself. You can keep your precious power. All I ask is one thing. If you do make it out of here, take me with you. Just drop me any place they never heard of kironide or Platonius.
It’s this value of himself that Kirk calls back to at the end, to keep Alexander from committing murder against Parmen.
ALEXANDER: Don’t stop me. Let me finish him off.
KIRK: Do you want to be like him?
(Alexander puts the knife down by his own volition.)
ALEXANDER: Parmen, listen to me. I could have had your power, but I didn’t want it. I could have had your place right now, but the sight of you and your Academicians sickens me. Despite your brains, you’re the most contemptible things that ever lived in this universe.
The final victory of “Plato’s Stepchildren” isn’t the rescue of McCoy or Kirk and Spock overpowering Parmen’s control. It’s Alexander discovering and exerting his own self-worth.
Overall, I can handle the weirdness of this episode very neatly. The ridiculous scenes that Parmen forces Kirk and Spock to play out plays on my fear of losing control of my own actions (the same reason I don’t touch alcohol), and with one exception, I’m more disturbed than amused or embarrassed by it all. The forceful removal of dignity ties in directly to Alexander’s story. With Kirk and Spock as our proxies, we see exactly what Alexander has lived through for two millennia, making his own rise to freedom that much more powerful.
Alexander is the core of “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and he gives it a depth that matches even the most beloved of the Original Series episodes.
Episode quoted with help from the Star Trek Transcripts on Chakoteya.net