It’s a shame really that the biggest claim to fame that “Plato’s Stepchildren” has is that it supposedly features the first inter-racial kiss between a white man and an African-American woman on U.S. network television.
I say supposedly because according to both William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols, the production team shot two version of the famous kiss–one in which Uhura and Kirk kiss and one where it looks like they kiss. According to both actors, the second version was what was used for the final edit of the episode, though apparently a few stations across the country still pulled the episode when it was first broadcast.
It’s interesting that all of the hype and the conversation of did they or didn’t they overshadows what is, at its core, one of the more solid episodes of not only the third season but also the entire series run.
The Enterprise answers a distress call by a group of powerful beings who have modeled their society on the tenants of Plato. Their leader, Parman, is dying of a simple infection because even though they live long lives and have incredible mental powers from their environment, they are also incredibly frail. McCoy cures Parman, leading Parman to decide that the good doctor needs to stay in case his services are ever needed again.
Kirk refuses and orders that McCoy return to the Enterprise and be allowed to leave with them. Parman puts Kirk and Spock through several humiliating trials to try and break McCoy. Parman also has decided that if the crew leaves the planet, Starfleet will come back in force so once McCoy agrees and he lefts Kirk and Spock go, he’ll destroy the ship. Parman is held back from destroying the ship until they leave for fear of alienating the good doctor.
Also on the planet is a little person named Alexander who doesn’t have the powers and is a plaything for the Platonians. McCoy discovers a certain element in the food of the planet isn’t being absorbed by Alexander as it is the others. McCoy pumps Kirk and Spock full of the ingredient to help them combat Parman, but the effects take time to build up. Just then, Uhura and Nurse Chapel are forced down and Parman makes the Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Chapel all perform for their amusement.
It’s during this sequence that Kirk and Uhura are forced to kiss and we get the famous sequence that the episode is most known for.
Again, it’s a shame that the episode is most recalled for this moment, because there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on here. Parman and company have clearly lost their way from Plato’s ideal society and democracy. This is especially evident when Parman refuses to allow McCoy to leave and in his humiliation of Kirk and Spock. Spock gets put through the wringer in this one as well–forced to display emotions and later to kiss Chapel. In the pivotal sequence of the story, Spock admits to feeling hatred and anger toward Parman and that he must master it. It’s one of those cases of Leonard Nimoy showing and not telling between Spock’s inflection, body language and when he later destroys a cup with his bare hands.
Kirk doesn’t exactly have it easy either, forced to slap himself when he first defies Parman and later forced to prance about for Parman’s amusement. Watching the cast all be drug about as the playthings of the Platonians is interesting, if only to see how each actor portrays it.
But inside all of that, there’s still a lot of interesting questions, including the one of does absolute power corrupt absolutely (it does in Parman’s case) and what happens to the bully when a bigger bully comes along? In this case, it’s Kirk gaining powers just in time to stop Parman from having him use a whip on Uhura and Spock use a branding iron on Chapel. The episode also looks at the question of whether or not virtual immortality would be a good thing if you lose touch with ability to feel things for yourself. The Parmans are emotional vampires of sorts, feeding off the energy and emotions of the crew. It also raises the question of how far they are willing to go to feel again with the forcing of the smooching between various crew members and then forcing Kirk and Spock to potentially inflict pain on Uhura and Chapel.
This one may not be a classic on the level of “The Doomsday Machine” or “Amok Time,” but it’s inside the twenty or so best episodes the original series produced.
Interestingly, the remastered version seems to have had little to do with shots of the Enterprise (it’s only in three scenes total), but it does seem to have cleaned up some of the obvious wired used for when things fly about the room when Parman is out of his mind early in the story. I figured the remastering might make them a bit more obvious, but I didn’t see them. Of course, I don’t have the Blu-Rays in all their HD glory, so it’s possible they’re visible there.