When some Trek fans celebrate how progressive TOS was in terms of depicting racial equality, they might be conveniently overlooking the Season 3 episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” in which Kirk falls through a trap door in an obelisk and is mistaken for a Native American god.
The episode begins with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, who have beamed down to a planet that is threatened by an asteroid on a collision course. There they find a strange obelisk, and a village Spock says is inhabited by: “A mixture of Navajo, Mohegan, and Delaware, I believe. All among the more advanced and peaceful tribes.”
Kirk is immediately taken with the scene.
Kirk: It’s just so peaceful, uncomplicated. No problems, no command decisions. Just living.
McCoy: Typical human reaction to an idyllic natural setting. Back in the twentieth century, we referred to it as the Tahiti Syndrome. It’s particularly common to over-pressured leader types, like starship captains.
In Indian Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction, Sierra S. Adare describes the depiction of the tribe as a romanticized “children of the forest,” stereotype, wherein Indigenous people are seen as peaceful, in tune with the natural world, and possessing a culture that never changes or evolves. In this case, we’re expected to buy that these peoples’ way of life has remained unchanged despite their interactions with each other, and the passage of 1600 years.
“It’s a stereotype to put us in teepees and war bonnets when white people’s clothing has changed,” says one indigenous focus group participant in Adare’s book.
Though Kirk and the others don’t intend to speak to the natives, as “our presence here would only confuse and frighten them,” an unexpected situation occurs when Kirk falls through a trapdoor in the obelisk. When he appears outside again, he meets two native women who immediately kneel and pronounce him a god. One is the tribal priestess, Miramanee, who fills in the stereotypical “Indian princess” role.
“We are your people. We’ve been waiting for you to come to us,” says Miramanee.
Back in the village, Kirk meets with “Medicine Chief” Salish (engaged to Miramanee) and an elder. The elder insists he must prove himself to be a god.
(oh hai, “Braids, Beads and Buckskins” trope!)
Kirk gets his chance to prove it when a child nearly drowns and Kirk is able to use CPR to resuscitate him.
“Only a god can breathe life into the dead,” the elder proclaims, and Salish is forced to give his “medicine badge” headband to Kirk.
Salish starts to build up resentment pretty quickly when his masculinity takes another hit: Miramanee tells him she must marry Kirk instead, since he is the new medicine chief.
A bit later, Miramanee comes to Kirk’s tent and suggests he bathe, but can’t figure out how to undo the zipper on his shirt. Later, after he and Miramanee get married and she is pregnant with his child, Kirk helps the tribe by explaining how to irrigate fields and preserve food.
In Adare’s book, another focus group participant explains why this is kinda offensive!
Even time travel can’t explain Miramanee knowing nothing of preserving food until Kirk teaches her! Where do you think jerky and popcorn came from? Our ancestors knew how to preserve food long before any white people showed up. That bizarre notion of ‘peaceful tribes,’ who didn’t all wear buckskins, by the way, must have come from an equally bizarre parallel universe like in “Mirror, Mirror,” because people who don’t know how to preserve food don’t last long.
Margaret Armen, who wrote the episode, and the rest of the team behind the scenes, probably thought their depiction of Indigenous life was flattering. I don’t doubt their intentions were benevolent rather than malicious. But good intentions don’t mean the episode has a positive impact. Rather, what it does is reinforce a negative stereotype of Indigenous people as backwards, uncivilized, and in need of white people in order to progress.
Although Miramanee’s a tribal priestess, it’s clearly not the most equal of marriages – she loves Kirk but is centuries behind him, and bound by several traditions. The tribe’s gender relations seem unequal generally. Miramanee once says she “belongs” to Kirk, and another time boasts “I will bear you many strong sons,” suggesting they’re more valued than daughters. In reality, gender relations in many indigenous societies were much more complex.
For example Navajo society (one of the three groups making up this fictional Star Trek tribe) is traditionally matriarchal and matrilineal. It seems like just another way of illustrating how “backwards” these people are compared to our Federation heroes to portray them living in an extremely patriarchal society.
Complicating their relationship further, Miramanee thinks Kirk is a god, which Kirk never once denies or even questions. This is something I found really weird about this episode, given the secular humanism of other episodes like “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Star Trek has a history of showing the dangers of “playing god” but in this case Kirk’s role-playing is portrayed as entirely positive – the dangers come from elsewhere.
And at the end of the day, the members of the “peaceful tribes” end up being depicted as savages anyway. Kirk’s happiness at discovering “paradise” is short-lived.
Salish tries to fight Kirk to prevent the wedding, but Kirk wins because Kirk-Fu. But later, Salish sees that Kirk is unable to enter the obelisk. He convinces the others that Kirk is a fraud, and they form an angry mob to stone him, and Miramanee, who says “I belong to him” when she refuses to leave him. Though the Enterprise crew arrives in time to scare off the mob, they can’t save Miramanee.
In Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future, Daniel Leonard Bernardi writes:
In this take on a standard white/red miscegenation narrative, the native girl dies so that Kirk, the white male hero, isn’t shown unheroically and immorally leaving her and their unborn baby behind.
Miramanee’s death prevents Kirk from having to leave his family behind, or having take a wife who doesn’t even know how zippers work with him on his space adventures. It also lets Kirk feel the loss of “paradise” even more keenly.
Though this episode is well-acted and much of it is aesthetically beautiful – the only Season 3 episode shot on location – the stereotyping makes it hard to watch today without cringing. I highly recommend Sierra S. Adare’s book for more on why we need to pay attention to these kinds of stereotypes in media, maybe especially in science fiction.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Near pass. Chapel talks to Miramanee, but only about Kirk. Miramanee also talks to another native woman, but she’s an unnamed character.