This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
Star Trek‘s 8th episode, Miri, aired on October 27th, 1966. Miri was the first of many Star Trek episodes to stir up controversy, and actually reached the point of becoming banned in the UK for being “too distressful.” In all fairness, the episode does contain several unsettling Children of the Corn-esque elements, complete with children chanting eerily and adult-less ghost towns. Miri guest stars Kim Darby (famous for starring alongside John Wayne in the 1969 western, True Grit) as the episode’s title character.
Synopsis (from IMDB):
The Enterprise receives an old style SOS signal and finds on arrival a planet that is virtually identical to Earth. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Yeoman Rand beam down to the planet only to find that it is inhabited solely by children. Kirk befriends one of the older children, Miri, but they soon learn that experiments to prolong life killed all of the adults and that the children will also die when they reach puberty. They also learn that the children are in fact, very old. Soon, the landing party contracts the virus and has seven days to find a cure.
What this episode does (and potentially why it was seen as so “distressful” in the UK) is take the beloved classic play, Peter and Wendy (better known by newer incarnations as Peter Pan), and give it a twist straight out of The Twilight Zone. The story quickly establishes a reverse-Neverland setting which introduces us to the gang of pre-pubescent old-folks (mentioned in the synopsis), who are in reality over 300 years old, but have yet to physically age due to the experiments of their late elders.
An interesting science-fiction element to this episode is that it exhibits various facets closer to a dystopian story as opposed to the optimistic space-opera setting that Star Trek had usually showcased up to this point. By setting the story on an exact replica of Earth (which, oddly, is never quite explained in this episode) and using humans as the antagonists, the writers created a world that very well could have been Earth – serving as a warning, as many dystopian tales tend to do. This element aims to craft a social commentary on experiments of human life and playing God – nothing incredibly new to the Star Trek universe, even this early on in the series – but more interestingly, it allows us as viewers to take an outsider’s approach. Doing this allows the writers to flip Roddenberry’s optimistic vision on its head, and ask the question, what if Earth didn’t unite and reach for the stars to better ourselves through exploration? What if we instead tried to use science to artificially better ourselves at home?
There is also a very human element to this episode’s story, looking at biological and social-emotional development in children, specifically relating to prosocial behavior such as empathy and sympathy. Psychologist Dr. Lawrence Kutner writes in his article, How Children Develop Empathy, that empathy is a skill that children learn. He continues on to point out that infants and toddlers show signs of empathy and altruism at early ages, however this behavior needs to be fostered through teaching and parenting. We don’t quite know how old the children in Miri were when all the adults died out and how truly slow their rate of biological development has become, but the gang of children that plots against the away team appear (at least at first) to be devoid of any basic tenants of empathy.
The nature of these children could also very easily tackle issues of innate humanity; are humans – by nature – kind and altruistic or are we inherently selfish – or evil? We as a society like to look at this question and point to the center, painting a more neutral picture of innate humanity to be shaped one way or the other through various combinations of our biological and sociological development. Because of this view, those who develop much closer to being intrinsically selfish/evil, are viewed as abnormal. They are seen as having behavioral disorders such as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) or Psychopathy, and labeled a ‘psychopath,’ or ‘crazy.’
It’s possible the gang of children in Miri were meant to represent psychopathy in children.
Many adults would prefer not to believe psychopathy exists in children, as it is an unsettling and ugly concept to face. However, a University of Chicago study shows that callous and cold children show dysfunction in similar areas of the brain as psychopathic criminal offenders. This begs the question, if abnormalities such as psychopathy develop early on in childhood, are they learned, socialized disorders, or do they stem from root biological causes?
The children in this episode definitely display callous and even criminal behavior representative of psychopathy as they steal the away team’s communicators, kidnap Janice Rand, and attempt to physically beat Kirk. However, despite the bleak atmosphere of this episode, we are given a taste of Roddenberry optimism at the very end:
(FYI, “Grups” is a slang term the children came up with for “grown-ups.”)
“Look at the blood on my face. Now look at your hands. Blood on your hands. Now who’s doing the hurting? Not the Grups, it’s you hurting, yelling, maybe killing, just like the Grups you remember and creatures you’re afraid of. You’re acting like them, and you’re going to be just like them unless you let me help you. I’m a Grup, and I want to help you. I’m begging you, let me help you or there won’t be anything left at all. Please.”
Through this soliloquy, Kirk digs a path into the children’s buried, innate empathy, appealing to their humanity and showing them that what they’ve become is no better than what they fear. In swaying them, this episode ultimately postulates that humans (or at least children) are not inherently “evil,” but that, once we have strayed from the path of kindness and altruism, it is possible to be brought back.