This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
Throughout its long run and various series, Star Trek has prominently featured Starfleet’s various encounters with powerful, god-like beings, more highly evolved and significantly more advanced species than our own. Often these beings or species possess a higher order of thinking than our own and serve as a comparison for how far humanity (in the Star Trek universe) has come since the days of consistent violence and war (such as in our own present day). However, in some cases, their superiority leads these particular beings to lose themselves in a sense of arrogance that develops into apathy and callousness, towards the “lesser” beings making up Starfleet.
One such example of this is the character of Trelane presented in Star Trek‘s seventeenth episode, The Squire of Gothos. In this episode, through a vast array of mental powers and an ability to convert energy to matter and vice versa, Trelane forces several members of the Enterprise crew to serve as his entertainment – or more accurately, playthings – under the guise of being his “guests” on the planet, Gothos. Throughout the episode, actor William Campbell portrays the eponymous Squire of Gothos, Trelane, with glee and flamboyance, a stark duality to the growing frustration of Kirk and company. Trelane’s jubilance ultimately toes the line into malice as the Enterprise crew members begin to resist his manipulative games and attempt to disrupt the source of his seemingly endless power.
Trelane displays an obvious superiority complex when it comes to dealing with the “simple” humans (and Spock) of the Enterprise. In a very basic sense, he embodies an example of a dominant being treating perceived lesser creatures with a lack of compassion and understanding. Trelane presents a sense of narcissism and moral apathy towards those he’s deemed beneath him. This manifests through an initial wanton curiosity and quickly becomes manipulative and malevolent.
Ultimately, Trelane’s early childlike interest is played literally when (Warning: 49 year-old spoilers!) it is revealed that he is in fact a child of his species. At the end of the episode, Trelane’s parents arrive and scold him for playing too carelessly and rambunctiously while apologizing to the Enterprise crew, during which time, Trelane whines like a human toddler.
Although regarded as a very topical and progressive show, several Star Trek episodes simply do not have a stark social commentary and simply try for interesting and/or fun space stories. As Star Trek tended to make an effort to present an outsider’s perspective into aspects of our own society and culture, I was left wondering what exactly these characters were meant to represent.
I found myself drawn to the fact that Trelane’s initial arrogant superiority was flipped on its head with the reveal of his true immaturity. With that, I thought about our own treatment of creatures perceived as less than or beneath humans.
Despite the presence of animal rights organizations, the prevailing thought in our society is that, as humans, our superiority places our needs and desires above those of the rest of Earth’s diverse array of life. We see this in our continual destruction of various ecosystems and environments in favor of sprawling luxury home developments and a stubborn reluctance to move away from the use of fossil fuels as our primary energy source. We also see it in our society’s seeming indifference to the meat industry and the miserable conditions for animals living and dying in factory farms by the billions every year (see the ASCPA’s report, A Closer Look at Animals on Factory Farms for more information).
We’ve all seen the stereotypical image of a child holding a magnifying glass to a colony of ants, right? In general, as a society, we dismiss this act along with some children’s other various tormenting of pets and bugs as curiosity or an exploration/testing of their surroundings. I wonder, is this how Trelane’s parents perceived – and maybe even validated – his actions towards the Enterprise crew even though they ultimately put a stop to it? Further, has our own childlike curiosity – left to grow with us into adulthood – morphed into the apathetic indifference we see in the examples listed above?
The character of Trelane in The Squire of Gothos might represent humanity as a whole in some ways. While considering ourselves and our civilization advanced in countless ways, maybe we are still but children in regards to our development as a greater species due to our callousness towards perceived lesser creatures and forms of life with whom we share this planet. We often justify this attitude by maintaining that we are in fact at the top of the food chain and we have the intelligence to stay on top and exert our dominance; any consequences of that are written off as natural selection, the predator/prey relationship, or simply collateral damage. However, I would counter that by pointing out that maybe our “superior intellect” gives us a moral responsibility to care; and that levels of intelligence shouldn’t be the deciding factor for who or what deserves our care. Left to ponder this, I’m reminded of a particular quote from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:
“I don’t know about you, but my compassion for someone is not limited to my estimate of their intelligence.”