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Comparing two happy planets

Star Trek Discovery, in its first season, did few of the episodic stories that were the staple of most earlier Star Trek. However, there was a notable episode ("Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"[1] where three characters visit a planet (Pahvo) and discover that the life there is really one huge life form, which is apparently trying to contact the universe. What's more, it is super-peaceful. It gets inside one of the characters and gives him a sense of peace. As it happens this is Saru, the Kelpien, a member of a prey species who are basically afraid all the time. So being freed from his fear is a big thing. He decides to force the other two to stay on the planet—they'll soon understand. All the things they say they are looking for, he believes, are here for the taking, so why not?

The others, however, don't go along with this. One (Michael Burnham) gets in touch with the ship and they are all beamed up. Saru takes responsibility for his actions—he wasn't actually under alien control—but he says that for the first time ever he wasn't afraid, so it seems fair to say he was hardly in a normal state of mind. Saru is a very interesting character, exploring an alien psychology, and being freed from the fear that is his basic state is a huge step. Saru tries to make the others understand how profound an experience it was. However, Discovery doesn't follow up on this. (For example, would such an experience help him suppress the fear more, or would it make it worse now that he can imagine being without it?)

This episode is similar in its basic premise to the TOS episode "This Side of Paradise". In "This Side of Paradise" the Enterprise goes to a colony expecting to find no-one alive, because the planet is subject to deadly Berthold rays (this risk had not been properly understood when the colonists went). But the people are fine. It turns out that they are protected by the spores of a plant, which also have the effect of making them all happy and peaceful. (It also has the effect of making them completely healthy.) The crew get hit by spores, and become happy and peaceful too. They all leave the ship to settle on the planet, except for Kirk. He eventually succumbs, but then resists, and finds that violent emotion clears out the spores—they are benevolent, and violent emotion overcomes them. Kirk returns Spock to normal by provoking him to fight, and they then deal with all the rest by sending a subsonic signal to cause irritation.

Comparing the two episodes, it's striking how much more complex the TOS version is. Spock parallels Saru. At the very end of the episode, where TOS often had a lightening of mood, Spock says simply that for the first time in his life he was happy (just as Saru says that for the first time he was not afraid). But there is a lot more going on. It's not just Spock—we see the effect on the crew and also on the colonists, whereas in the Discovery episode it is essentially about Saru's individual experience. The episode explores the significance of it all. Is it a good thing to live like that? Spock tells Kirk that they have everything they need, but he responds that "We weren't meant for that"—there has to be a challenge or human beings stagnate. This comes up again in a discussion between Kirk and McCoy at the end. McCoy says that humanity has been driven out of paradise again, but Kirk responds that this time they left of themselves.

The colonists, when eventually freed from (deprived of?) the spores, have a similar view. Their leader suddenly realizes that after three years they have no accomplishments—they have just done enough to live. They will now have to leave, since without the spores the radiation would be fatal, and they plan to re-try their project elsewhere.

We may pause to ask, though: who is right here? If you don't have challenges, perhaps you won't build things —but why should you, if you can have a world of peace, health, and happiness without them? Isn't that the aim of all those accomplishments? The episode seems to come down on Kirk's side, but Spock's final comment puts a question mark by it. In the Discovery episode, Saru poses this question, while he's under the influence of the life-forms, but afterwards although he shows great sadness he seems not to question the decision to leave.

Also, consider the way in which Kirk overcomes the spores. (In the Discovery episode, Saru is merely removed from the environment following a physical struggle.) They promote peace, and are driven out (or destroyed?) by violent emotion. Spock is provoked to fight and so are the colonists. Kirk does not merely return them to a state where they can fight: he introduces conflict. This shed an interesting light on the conversation at the end about leaving Eden. Arguably, Captain Kirk has deliberately acted as the serpent.

But even more memorable is the love story. Leila, one of the colonists, had known Spock on Earth, six years earlier, and had been in love with him. But he, of course, could not reciprocate. Now, however, when Spock gets spored, he finds that he can and does love her. After Spock is de-spored, Leila beams up to the Enterprise and there is a great scene when she realizes he is no longer one of them. She begs him to come back: this is the only place where they can be together. He tells her that he has responsibilities. "I am what I am, Leila, and if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's." Leila cries, and finds, of course, that she has lost the spores too. She seems less pleased about this than most of the others, asking whether this is supposed to be for her good. And then: "Do you mind if I say I still love you?" The love is real; the spores just made fulfilment possible.

Again, there are question marks about the apparent moral, and not just from Leila, who still loves Mr Spock. Spock doesn't preach about the need for challenges: instead he talks about how we all have to live in our "self-made purgatories". He agrees with Captain Kirk about what has to be done, but he reveals to Leila something of what all this Vulcan control costs him.

The initial arrival, though mainly just setting the stage, is also memorable. After it's established that there is no chance of survivors, the colonists turn up safe and apparently healthy. "These people shouldn't be alive," Kirk comments. At which Mr Sulu asks, "Is it possible that they're not?" Although rapidly dismissed by Dr McCoy, this sudden lurch into horror is odd enough for Star Trek to stay with you.

The DSC episode does have two things the TOS one doesn't: the idea of the planet's life being one entity, and the planet's active peace-making. In "This Side of Paradise" the origin of the spores is left a mystery; apparently they drift through space.

Overall conclusion: In a comparison, "This Side of Paradise" (TOS) wins. It looks at the significance of inner peace (handed to you on a plate) not just for an individual but for a society and indeed all of humanity. It also includes a very moving science fiction love story (meaning not just a love story which happens to be in a SF setting, but a love story which requires some SF element as essential to the story) based on the situation.

[1] If you want peace, prepare for war—a Roman slogan in favour of strong defence; actually a piece of Roman spin suggesting that they were the victims and that it was other people's fault they had to conquer them. It isn't clear what the title has to do with the story. [Return]

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