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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.15 "We've Come On Holiday By Mistake!"

Shore Leave

A savage tiger!
No tigers were wrestled in the making of this episode.

Content warning: references to fictional representations of sexual assault.

What’s more enjoyable than irony? Enjoying irony involving people ironically not enjoying themselves!

At last, we make our landing upon ”Shore Leave”, an episode about the importance of relaxation and fun, the making of which made everybody involved stressed and miserable.

Gene Therapy

The rough dimensions of the problems that plagued “Shore Leave” are well-known (as standard, there’s a good summary at Memory Alpha). In brief, Roddenberry found himself dissatisfied with a script turned in by Theodore Sturgeon (who wrote More Than Human, Gene; sit yourself down), and asked Gene Coon to rewrite it. Roddenberry’s concern was that the script was too fantastical, but communications became garbled somewhere along the line, and Coon returned a rewrite that was even less grounded in reality than Sturgeon’s original.

This resulted in Roddenberry deciding he had to rewrite the script himself, despite the pesky minor detail of filming already having started. This discombobulated director Robin Sparr so much, he ended up hacking off the main cast in turn, costing him the chance of ever returning to the show. It probably didn’t help with all this that “Shore Leave” was the first episode filmed after “The Menagerie”, itself only created because of the difficultly the show was having in staying on schedule.

Everyone, in short, was stressed as hell.

None of that sounds much fun, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m glossing over the issues generated by so fraught a work environment. That said, I think what’s most worth considering here isn’t the fallout of Roddenberry and Coon’s miscommunication, so much as the fact it happened at all.

Because of course Coon didn’t understand what Roddenberry wanted him to do. It makes no sense at all. What could possibly possess someone to read a story in which people’s stray thoughts and idle fantasies are coming to life in front of them, and demand it underplay the fantastical? Just what was Roddenberry thinking?

A plausible answer to that question could end up telling us a great deal about what the episode is, and what it was supposed to be, so it’s worth the effort searching for one. Let’s begin by being as generous to Roddenberry’s dissatisfaction as we can. It’s probably fair enough to think of “Shore Leave” as being tremendously lightweight – a silly romp that seems even more desperately slight when compared with the two stonking slices of drama that preceded it (“The Conscience Of The King” and “Balance Of Terror”), and the tense action of what comes after (“The Galileo Seven”).

Even if we assume that this was entirely Sturgeon’s doing, though, and that Roddenberry could have improved matters had not his back-up Gene not spoiled everything, I don’t see the frothiness of “Shore Leave” being an issue. In fact, offering a little nonsnse after the two brilliant but heavy instalments in a row seems like a smart move. Not every episode needs to a heavyweight – indeed they can’t be. As Meryl Streep once put it, when asked about her outrageous decision to do a comedy for once, "You have to have food, and, you have to have wine". The show doesn’t and shouldn’t have to spend every week striding determinedly through the galaxy with brow furrowed and teeth clenched.

Simply put, after everything that it’s just been through, Star Trek has earned itself a break.

(Admittedly, that’s an argument based on this season’s broadcast order, rather than the order in which it was filmed, but you can easily make a similar case based on “Shore Leave” being made in-between the high-stakes character drama of “The Menagerie” (which would have been rather less fractured as a shoot than it ended up being as a story, of course) and “The Arena”, Trek’s ur-punchathon. Either way, the need for a holiday is clear.)

Even the episode itself recognises this. There are repeated references to the crew needing a break, with Spock going so far as to fool Kirk into admitting his refusal to take time off is resulting not just his own work suffering, but and everyone else’s too. But it’s more than that. Even before the white rabbit bounds into view, this is the show in full-on fun mode. There’s an obvious – and delightful – queer subtext of Kirk delighting in a back-massage until he finds out he’s getting it from his female yeoman rather than Spock, but that shouldn’t cause us to overlook the fact it’s also unabashed in its playfulness.

Actually, the fact that scene is in the final episode rather suggests Roddenberry was objecting not to any perceived lack of weight in the episode, but that the central concept itself wasn’t believable. It’s a strange objection with regards to a show where space radiation and aliens have both given humans godlike powers, and in which a perfect copy of 1960s Earth was found out in the void without anyone questioning why. It’s particularly strange coming from a man who wrote two different stories about an Earth space probe becoming a super-powerful alien intelligence. On the other hand, in this doomed attempt to draw arbitrary lines around what constitutes “believable”, Roddenberry accidentally manages something genuinely impressive. Star Trek’s creator manages to misunderstand completely what this episode is doing, yes, but by that very failure he manages to exemplify what the episode is doing.

What is “Shore Leave”, after all, but an episode about stories, and the people who write them?

Flight Or Fight

One would struggle to get much more banal than noting this is a story about stories, I realise. But the dimensions of what is being done are still worth figuring out. Don Juan, and Alice and her rabbit are just the upper layer here – the most obvious examples of the fiction within the fiction. Much like the amusement planet itself, we find more machinery at work if we break the surface.

Let’s start with Esteban’s plane. The Japanese Zero first saw action in 1940, and remained in service until the 1945 surrender. It’s a plane synonymous with the Second World War. This is an interesting era for Esteban to be mulling over. This episode is set in 2267, 322 years after WWII came to an end. Esteban is as far removed from the Pacific Theatre as we are from the destruction of the last free Mayan State by the Spanish. How often do you think about that period? How much do you know about the fall of Nojpetén? Or the Mesoamerican genocides in general? I’m comfortable assuming that, for almost all of you, your answers to those questions would match mine: either nothing or almost nothing, a guess given more weight by me being told insisting "Nojpetén" isn't a word by, um, Word.

There’s also the question, though, of how much we think we know about that period actually being correct. What are the most common vectors through which western society have “learned” about the Mayan peoples? Mysterious Cities Of Gold? The Road To El Dorado? Freaking Apocalypto? What proportion of the scraps of information I think I know on the topic fact, and how much of it is fiction?

What if we ask the same question of Esteban, regarding World War 2. How much of his knowledge about a conflict from three centuries earlier is actually reliable? I realise the analogy is far from perfect. It’s obviously impossible to say what cultural weight the Second World War will have by 2267, but there are very specific historical and cultural reasons why the literal megadeaths perpetuated by European settlers against Native Americans were vanished into the memory-hole. It’s not easy to think of a scenario in which something similar could happen to the largest military conflict in human history. On the other hand, events do not become accurately understood simply because they are well-known. It might even be that the reverse is true. The more cultural weight a historical event is given, the more fiction is built on top of it. When the first version of this essay was written in 2019, IMDB listed 6493 titles featuring the key phrase “World War Two” – that’s more than three titles for every day the actual war was fought. Twenty-six months later, as I update this in early December, 2021, we're up to 7893; that's an increase of almost two a day.

So yeah. How sharp and bright a line really exists between Esteban’s idea of an IJAAF aircraft, and McCoy’s conception of Carroll’s White Rabbit?

Sulu’s serendipitous shooter raises the same question. I’m going to set aside the question of why someone from the supposedly peace-loving, enlightened Federation would want to collect artifacts of death by perforation. Not because that isn’t a good question, but because there’s a more immediate one. What story would a Japanese-American need to have been told – or have told themselves – to be delighted by finding a handgun used by the US police force during the ’30s and ’40s?

I’m sure you haven’t forgotten over the course of a couple of paragraphs, but by Japanese Zero, “Shore Leave” is referencing the Second World War. We’ve covered this before, but in that same war, George Takei was placed inside an internment camp (he went in at five, and came out at eight), along with his family, despite them all having been born in the United States, and therefore US citizens. The link above tells his story far better than I can, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the gun Sulu takes so much pleasure in was in common circulation among not just America’s police forces, but the Navy and Marine Crops too. It’s a weapon inextricably linked to the police that had been harassing Asian-Americans even before the war, and the military force that held him captive as a child for the crime of having grandparents who wanted to live in America.

Takei isn’t Sulu, of course. Sulu was born in 23rd century San Francisco, not 20th century Los Angeles. Nor is it my place to speculate on what Takei himself thought, when this script required him to delight in a weapon used to crowd people like him onto windowless boxcars, bound for a barbwire-ringed camp in the Arkansas swamps. Perhaps one can be fully aware of the context of an artifact, and delight in it independently of that context. Guns don’t intern citizens in clear violation of the US Constitution, people intern citizens in clear violation of the US Constitution.

Even if this were true, though, it wouldn’t change much. Whatever we want to assume about Sulu’s relationship with guns in general, and this gun in particular, we’re still in the realms of fiction overwriting reality. Even just the name “Police Special” isn’t correct, so far as I can tell. What Sulu has found seems to be a Smith and Wesson Model 10, which was used by the police and fired (among other things) .38 special bullets.

On one level, this is a minor prop snafu, about which under normal circumstances I couldn’t possibly care less about. Especially since I can’t be sure I’m right about the error. I presume the script is referring to the fairly similar Colt Police Positive Special, but I’m not remotely well-versed in gun law, and entirely happy with that gap in my knowledge. Certainly, it’s far less obvious an issue than the episode being unable to keep the tear in Yeoman Barrow’s uniform consistent throughout. I note the (possible) mistake only because it takes us another step down the road. We’ve gone from daydreams about war machines to a geek-out of a weapon symbolising oppression. These are artifacts from history shorn of history, to the point there is no clear way to distinguish them from the images the planet takes from works of fiction. [1]

The fact that the barrier between history and fiction is a fuzzy and permeable one isn’t a problem in itself. The more immediate issue is that people weigh history and fiction differently, even when their understanding of history is so error-riddled that the two are indistinguishable. Real danger lurks here, and “Shore Leave” literalises that. Kirk has to take Sulu’s gun from him. Esteban’s fighter plane gets Martine shot (just one episode after her fiance died in an actual shoot-out, of course). The Caretaker might show up in the final minutes to wave his hands and bring everyone back, but the implication is still clear. If you don’t treat with the past honestly, it can get people killed.

Don’ Wan’ Don Juan

The problem we face here is that lies spread. No, a better word: they colonise. They swallow the truth by degrees until there’s nothing of the original organism remaining – the parasite covers and strangles its host. We might almost call the corruption of history akin to a medical crisis, then, except that in this case many of the people tasked with fighting the illness are consciously making it worse.

It’s not just that people get history wrong, and this causes problems. It’s more insidious than that, some dangerous, swirling process churning just beneath the surface. The lies it suits people to tell about recent history get seeded in the stories of the time, which then survive in the popular consciousness far longer than the events they were born from. In this way, the lies are carried forward, generation after generation. The infection spreads; the tumour metastasises. And each new coterie of contemporary liars can harvest the diseased tissue they need to inject old fiction into new history.

We need stray no further than the supreme nonsense of Britain’s Brexit negotiations to find an example. Britain’s war propaganda from WWII – that we were a noble island state resisting tyranny, and not at all a violent imperialist empire ourselves who starved millions of people in Bengal in the process of helping the USSR defeat Hitler – got transformed into decade after decade of wall-to-wall war stories about our spirit of defiance, and our refusal to give in to bullies. And so, a few months shy of eighty years since the UK declared war on Germany, thousands of bobble-heads took to Twitter and the Telegraph and television studios around the country to insist that Britain can make it through a no-deal Brexit because of “the Blitz Spirit”. The first lie – that the Blitz was Britain’s finest hour, as opposed to a terrifying period of indiscriminate murder forming part of a reciprocal arrangement of war crimes – gives weight to the second lie – that the mere fact we can survive wounds means we should happily agree to inflict them on ourselves.

It’s probably fortunate that “Shore Leave” doesn’t present us with anything quite so stark. The idea is still lurking there, though, once more hidden just below the water’s surface.

Let’s talk about Don Juan.

Juan was never intended to be a hero. According to Wikipedia, Tirso de Molina wrote El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra specifically to skewer the hedonistic attitudes of contemporary youth- sort of a seventeenth century “You damn kids, get off mi césped”. In order for that to land, however, there needed to be something sympathetic, or at least guiltily enjoyable, about Juan’s portrayal. You can’t lecture people through metaphor if the audience doesn’t recognise themselves in who they’re skewering. Juan is a rogue and a cad, but a charming one – someone you’re supposed to come to realise you don’t want to be, rather someone who repels you from the moment they show up. You can understand why Barrows might want to meet him, if only so she can puncture his Renaissance-era attempts at seduction with some 23rd century feminism. Turning down one of literature’s first and most famous PUAs might well have a certain appeal, were one to get the chance.

Except that Barrows doesn’t get the arch seducer Don Juan, the man born with his mouth crammed with silver spoon and silver tongue both. She gets a brutal, violent rapist. Because the problem with De Molina’s time wasn’t that the youth figured they could sin at leisure and repent in haste. It was that women were treated as objects. The poem might have thought it was on the side of the angels with its overt moralising, but it presents the idea of disguising oneself as a woman’s husband and then having sex with her as a problem for the men Juan has cuckolded, rather than for the women he’s raped. He was the patriarchy personified – misogyny as myth. And yet he endures down the generations. The lies (or at least the inaccuracies) of De Molina’s time got trapped in his poem like a mosquito in amber, and from that source we get a string of charming shag-minded gits, from Casanova to Bond to Barney Stinson. Each one did damage in their own way, but they share the same plutonium core, bombarding the world with rape culture radiation.

Brilliantly, “Shore Leave” is having none of it. It both warns of the dangers of letting fiction into the truth, and insists on applying truth to its fiction, attacking the cycle of misinformation at two opposite points. And just as the unhealthy stripping of historical context escalates from mis-naming a firearm is to getting someone being mowed down by a fighter plane, the danger of failing to recognise the underlying truths of fiction begin with an attack by Don Juan, and ends up with McCoy getting lanced through the heart by a storybook knight. The doctor dies, however briefly, simply because he refuses to believe that something cannot be dangerous if it isn’t real.

We know better.

Passport To The Past

Stories about the past are dangerous, then, both when we undervalue and overvalue their fictional elements. This is something on an issue, considering almost every story is in some way about the past. Certainly this one is, its sci-fi trappings notwithstanding. The past is everywhere here. We’ve gone through some examples already, but it’s worth considering the full scale of it. Other than a scattering of fauna, every object and person brought to life here is clearly from history, from the perspective of both character and viewer. The Japanese Zero, Sulu’s pistol and samurai, the figures of pre-20th century literature, the dress Bones loves and the knight who kills him; they’re all dragged from what has been and gone. In a show fundamentally about imagining the future, every character here is consumed by the past.

It’s an odd decision on the part of Roddenberry, of course. It’s almost as though the story he told about the nature of his show - that it was a vision of the future in which mankind has made a break from its ugly, violent past - wasn’t actually true. We’ll come back to that, though. For now, let’s focus on Kirk. There’s a lot to say about his reunions with Finnegan and Ruth. The first thing to notice is that Kirk is the only character in the entire episode who conjures up actual people, rather than characters who are either explicitly fictional, or who are generic enough that they might as well be (I include McCoy’s silent dancing girls at episode’s end in this latter category, for reasons I assume are obvious).

It is therefore Kirk alone who gets the opportunity to interrogate the past in a manner that lets the past interrogate him back. Other characters here interact with what they summon, obviously, but only Kirk converses. This is important, because it’s rather more difficult to entertain fictions about the past when that past is standing right in front of you.

“More difficult” doesn’t mean “impossible”, clearly. As Finnegan explains between badly-choreographed punching sessions, he’s nothing but precisely what Kirk expects from him. He can only express truth to the degree Kirk allows him to. Which of course means to the degree Kirk allows the truth to speak within himself. The simple fact of Finnegan’s fabrication might matter less than Kirk’s honesty when describing him to McCoy, considering the possibility that what might have put him on Finnegan's sensors was a character flaw within himself. [2]

Kirk is facing the past with honesty, then. He recognises he has unfinished business with Finnegan, while also recognising that he is no longer the “plebe” he once was, and that revisiting the past is not the same thing as reliving it. He makes the same decision with Ruth, eventually. Whatever Kirk means by his delightfully ambiguous treaty to her – “You haven’t told me. You haven’t told me!” – he knows by the time he’s beaten down Finnegan that he won’t find the answer he’s looking for. And he accepts that it doesn’t matter. It’s precisely because he realises the story won’t give him the “truth” about Ruth that he experiences the most honest story the planet has to offer.

How do you deal with the dangers of stories? You need to stop the cycle. And you don’t do that by separating the truth from the fiction. You stop it by recognising you can’t.

Compare the two stories that are told, over and over, about what happened backstage this episode. On the one hand, you have Roddenberry’s desperate attempts to avoid the fantastical. That was always a goal that could not have been more clearly doomed – we’re less than a year away from “Catspaw” airing, and barely two years from Roddenberry himself writing a story about Genghis Khan trying to murder Abraham Lincoln because a rock told him to – and which he himself pretended was never the point, claiming his goal was embracing egalitarianism instead [3]. This from the guy from came up with “Mudd’s Women”.

Now consider, by way of contrast, William Shatner claiming he kept trying to persuade people to let him wrestle a tiger. There’s almost certainly little to no more truth to that claim than Roddenberry’s, but Shatner’s tale about himself is fundamentally the more honest one, completely independently of whether it actually happened (and the suggestion Shatner continued to embellish the story as the years went on makes it even more perfect an example).

History is the business of creating stories about what the world has seen. Personal history is the stories we tell ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself – indeed it could be no other way. You simply have to recognise that that’s the game we’re all playing. Every CV is a plot synopsis. Every night with your mates is a meeting of a creative writing group.

I’m no exception. How long have I been telling myself and everyone else that this is a blog about comparing the Trek shows episode by episode? And how long has it been since that was really true (or at least the whole truth). At what point did I take a left turn, and took myself downward into a sprawling honeycomb of unconnected caverns, delving to ludicrous depths, until any link between any given half-dozen tunnels is essentially coincidental? Put another way, just how far from actually talking about episodes of Star Trek can a blog series claiming to talk about episodes of Star Trek actually get?

The tale grew in the telling, I suppose. Kind of like a certain science-fiction franchise I keep banging on about. A sprawling fictional history with its own parallel actual history, much of which most of us will never know the full truth of. The fixation with fantasy that “Shore Leave” embodies didn’t threaten to damage what Roddenberry thought he’d created. It exemplifies what his creation ultimately became.

The Original Series is on a roll right now, and it won’t stop next episode, either.

Sadly, that’s not where we’re headed next.

[1] We could even make the assumption that the script deliberately has Sulu incorrectly identify his new toy. That would fit in very well with the reading I’m constructing here. Sure, there’s no textual evidence for that idea whatsoever, but when has that ever stopped me. Besides, if I’m going to just make stuff up about the stuff Roddenberry just made up, which better episode is there to do it with than this one?

[2] I don't want this to be mistaken for blaming the victim. You don't have to support bullies to think it's worth considering how they pick their targets.

[3] Not that there’s anything inherently fantastical about egalitarianism.

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