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  • Ric Crossman

2.1.15 Kidnapped By Jerks 2: Sluggo's Revenge

Updated: May 13, 2022

The Eye Of The Beholder

Kirk, Bones and Markel screw their eyes shut, so they can think about a medikit REALLY HARD.
"Let's all just close our eyes until this episode goes away."
"I don't know about you, but my compassion for someone isn't limited to my estimate of their intelligence" - Dr Gillian Taylor, The Voyage Home

How can the same shit happen to the same molluscs twice?

It Ain't Happening At The Zoo

There are some episodes I struggle to write up because they’re so loaded with ideas it’s hard to know where to start. That can be because everything has been so well-executed that I’m paralysed by the choice of paths leading to the gingerbread house, or because the gap between concept and execution is so wide, I struggle to pick the best place to jump across the ravine.

Neither of these apply to “The Eye Of The Beholder”. The reason this episode is difficult to talk about is that there’s basically nothing going on. Even a terrible episode usually has some semiotic density I can play with. If you find a swamp, you can at least dredge it. What we have here is a flat, featureless desert, haunted by some reason by implausibly-coloured flying reptiles.

This is The Animated Series coasting, even by its standards. Pointless sniping between Bones and Spock? Check. Performances which may in fact have been literally phoned in? Check. Rolling on the Wandering Monster Table as an alternative to actually providing a narrative? Check:

A giant cyclopean water lizard-dragon-thing.
Godzookie, like so many child stars, had a rocky later life.


A slate grey dinosaur creature jumps from behind a boulder.
"BOO! Yeah. Yeah, I still got it."

and check:

Seriously, why are there purple pterodactyls in like four episodes of this season?
The purple ptereodactyl infestation claims another planet.

There’s really no way to read this story as anything but another instalment so slight on material it feels compelled to spin its wheels even over a mere 23 minutes. Even when we get to its central idea, it turns out to be little more than wanting to do “The Cage” again.

This is a bold choice, considering TOS had already shamelessly recycled that particular tale of crew-members finding themselves trapped and studied by hyper-intelligent telepathic aliens. It’s also a lazy choice, given how little energy actually goes into the recycling. “The Menagerie” (in part one, at least) at least took pains to be about something, to take the original footage and re-frame it as part of a new story. This episode reads like someone suggested ‘Let’s do “The Menagerie” with an actual menagerie”, and then everybody gave themselves the rest of the day off.

It’s true that it isn’t a completely straight port. That isn’t entirely to the episode’s credit, though; some things have been lost in translation. In particular, “The Menagerie” portrayed Spock as a man torn between logic, loyalty and logistics, a complex blend that’s light-years ahead of the pedantic know-it-all we suffer through here. Other changes are more successful. The big difference between “The Menagerie” and “The Eye Of The Beholder” is that the Talosians were looking to start a slave-breeding program because they’d conveniently “forgotten” how to perform manual labour. The slugaphants are simply running a zoo. There’s no malicious intent in their imprisonment of our heroes, they just want them somewhere they won’t get eaten by lake monsters or crushed under rampaging rock-wolves. They probably don’t even see this as imprisonment, in truth, any more than I do when I shut the cat in her room because our friends have brought their dogs round.

This, combined with the episode’s title, makes the central idea here unmissable. Intelligence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The only problem is that this is completely ridiculous.

Comparative Cognition

Let me explain. I’m not trying to argue the concept of intelligence is completely meaningless. The argument is that we struggle to create objective measures of intelligence, just as we can’t actually measure beauty in any real sense. There are indicators, obviously. Correlations. I’ve never seen anyone try to seriously argue that IQ as a score is completely unrelated to what we generally mean by the word “intelligence”. But we could say something broadly similar about BMI, in the sense of perceptions of beauty are generally correlated with someone’s height-to-weight ratio. It would be ludicrous though to suggest that someone is a priori more beautiful than someone with a higher BMI index. It’s not even reasonable to argue that lowering your own BMI index will make you more pleasing to the eye.

The same problem arises when you try to rank people in terms of intelligence by using their IQ scores. If this seems like a poor analogy to you, then think about how the obsession with the absence of body fat, and the veneration of the specific intellectual qualities that IQ tests focus on, have been roundly criticised as confusing subjective western/white preferences for global truths. “Getting better at spatial relations makes you smarter” isn’t actually any more sensible an argument than “Getting thinner will make you more pretty”. Chuck in how completely divorced from reality public perceptions of how intelligence and body weight tie in with competence and morality (spoiler: they don’t, at all), and I’m perfectly happy with my comparison, thank you very much. [1]

Absolute measurements of intelligence are chimerical, in short – we don’t have a sufficiently rigorous definition of what the word means in the first place. That doesn’t mean we can’t make comparative, subjective statements – it wouldn’t be without either meaning or truth to suggest, say, Donald Trump is less intelligent than was Dr Stephen Hawking. At first glance, it’s this comparative approach that the episode seems to be going for. Look more closely, though, and that assumption starts to unravel.

The argument here isn’t that the smarter you are, the more people will be less intelligent in comparison. It’s that the smarter you get, the harder it gets to recognise sentience. This is a very different and much less reasonable idea. It’s pretty hard to swallow the suggestion that a species could no longer realise what spaceships imply, or artificial fibres. I guess you could argue these aliens have never encountered shirts or starships before, but at that point the chasm that needs crossing lies across the axis of culture, not intelligence. It rather defeats the point.

There’s an even bigger problem here, though. I’m really not comfortable with the implication that anyone who ends up below a certain level of intelligence (however either that level or intelligence itself is defined), they become indistinguishable from an animal. That seems wildly ableist to me. There exists no point on the IQ scale, or on any other, at which a person stops being a person once they fall below it. Intelligence might be comparative, but sentience isn’t, not in any way that’s anything but destructive.

(The counter to this is that we shouldn’t be considering humans as distinct from animals in the first place. I don’t see a way in which that position can ever hold up in practice, actually, but it’s somewhat beside the point here anyway, given the episode’s focus on the distinction between sentient and not.)

The constant reader may have a pretty good idea of where I’m going with this. It isn’t a comparative difference of intelligence which might lead someone to view other people as indistinguishable from animals. It’s an absolute lack of empathy.

The episode even gets within spitting distance of realising this itself, in fact, when McCoy responds to learning their alien captors think of them as “simplistic” with the line “Even Vulcans?”. Coming from Bones, this should be a pure acid burn, a dig at a culture that has venerated a narrow definition of intelligence over all other concerns, included empathy. Unfortunately, Kelley chooses to deliver this line entirely straight, as though he genuinely is astonished these creatures could consider Vulcans a simplistic species. Maybe it came out as more sardonic in the booth, but the line as read fails to land. Which makes this an episode so uninspiring even Kelley couldn’t help it out, which is probably about as damning a criticism as exists for the pre-TNG franchise.

Out Of The Minds Of Babes

Let me just head off one of the most obvious criticisms of my position above. Yes, thank you, I realise that I’m extrapolating wildly. I’m objecting to implications it’s almost impossible to believe David P. Harmon even recognised he was making.

That’s the problem with offering up an episode that’s as shallow as this one, though. There’s nothing to do while you’re paddling but let your mind wander.

Eventually, the story paints itself into so barren a corner it’s reduced to desperately lunging for tension by slapping together an accidental kidnapping. Which isn’t without its charm, I confess. The image of Scotty being carried around his ship like he’s his own action figure is certainly a fun one. That’s not enough to overcome the impression of a last-ditch attempt to inject mild peril, though. Oh no! The episode is almost over! Must be time for Kirk to risk his brain being mixed into a grey souffle FOR SOME REASON.

Even on its own terms, this eleventh-hour swerve into crisis doesn’t do the job. Once you’ve made the decision for Scott to be captured by a gigantic telepathic alien child-mollusc, which he then needs to engage in a dialogue to save his captain, the correct decision is obviously to show that. Having Scott describe this in a few lines of dialogue so Kirk can spend a little while squirming on the floor is baffling – yes, the latter is quicker, but it wouldn’t have been remotely difficult to give more time to the ending by simply truncating the safari trip earlier on.

There is one undeniable saving grace. It absolutely delights me that the only way our heroes manage to communicate with the aliens is through one of their children. The initial implication, given what we’ve seen so far, is that this race is so much more intelligent than our own, only one of their children could possibly understand us. Delightfully, though, this is almost immediately undercut. Scott is very clear on the fact that his new friend has an IQ “in the thousands”. On one level, that makes no sense – IQ is a ratio of intellectual age over chronological age, which means Scotty is suggesting the child has an intelligence equal to a six thousand year-old human, perhaps as clear an example of the crime of extrapolation as ever existed (I did warn you IQ is a terrible measurement). What’s more important, though, is that we’re being explicitly told it isn’t the child’s still-developing intelligence that has allowed them to make contact.

So what has? It’s their empathy, obviously.

A child’s empathy is a wonderful, if inconstant, thing. It’s not so much that children are more empathetic than adults – as a psychological property, it takes time to develop. It’s more that it’s less bounded than empathy in adults, because it also takes time to develop the restrictions placed on us from outside. That can give kids the edge when it comes to the idea that people can be taken as they are, and that difference doesn’t preclude communication. That’s something we’re taught, and it takes time to stick. Adults talk about how cultural differences means all those unlike us can comprehend is intransigence and threat. A child will chat with a butterfly and assume it can understand. I know which of the two I prefer. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, if you get my meaning.

Scotty’s new friend is a nice nod to all that. The problem with nods, though, is that they’re over very quickly. All we get here is the briefest indication of where the episode could have gone, had it not decided to go nowhere.

What’s worse is that no-one particularly seems to care. This total absence of ambition is apparently just what the franchise does now. The writing is on the wall, and nobody seems to want to expend the elbow grease necessary to scrub it off.


2. The Eye Of The Beholder

[1] The only potential issue I see with the analogy, actually, is that fatphobia is a real and damaging form of bigotry, in a way that's not so directly true of people whose IQs lie below some arbitrary line. Honestly, that's probably at least in part because it's tough to judge IQ just by looking at someone, that's why bigotry that stems from the score has to rely on nonsense pseudo-science like The Bell Curve to get off the ground. And even then, you've got the ridiculous notion of "sapisexuals" knocking around.

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