A defence of The Way to Eden: it’s better, and much darker, than you remember

Star Trek IV is called “the one with the whales” but, where that is said with affection, The Way to Eden is often contemptuously dismissed as “the one with the hippies.” Viewers dazzled by the way-out costumes, the “we reach” lingo and the quasi flower-power mysticism often don’t see the dire warning about messianic figures and the cults they build around themselves. The Way to Eden is closer to Charles Manson than to the summer of love. 

It’s not a popular episode, so you probably haven’t watched it in a while. Here are some reasons you should fire up Netflix or pull disc 4 of the Blu-ray set off your shelf. 

Solid production values

The costumes are way out and also fantastic. Tongo Rad asks Chekov “Say, tell me, why do you wear all those clothes? How do you breathe?” and their outfits fit perfectly with that world view. 

All episode images are from TrekCore

The dialogue is often outlandish — “Oh ho, that’s now. That’s real now. I reach that, brother. I really do. Give.” — but it is always delivered realistically, as if it makes perfect sense to the speaker.

It’s also well directed. David Alexander’s only other episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, is also considered to be over the top but he gets strong performances from the actors here. And there are nice little touches throughout. As Kirk exits sickbay just after McCoy explains Sevrin’s diagnosis, for example, a security guard hears the door open behind him and hurriedly tosses one of the egg-shaped One pins back to the blond female passenger. He did not want his captain to know he had been chatting with the group. That small piece of stage direction is not detailed in the second revised final draft of the script, and so perhaps came from Alexander. 

But the direction is not perfect. In the same scene, during Adam’s “Stiff man putting my mind in jail” song, the actor stops playing his “guitar” halfway through but the strumming is heard throughout. 

Good character moments

One three-minute sequence gives us wonderful insights. Kirk returns to the bridge after his initial confrontation with the group. Chekov has heard Irina’s voice from the transporter room and it is clear on his face that he once loved her. Kirk tells Chekov he may leave his post, without the ensign actually asking to do so. The moment says much about the respect these officers hold for each other, and it’s a nice performance from Walter Koenig.

On the bridge of the starship, Captain Kirk and Ensign Chekov have a conversation about Chekov's feelings for Irina

Spock then explains his interest in the One movement by telling Kirk “They regard themselves as aliens in their own worlds, a condition with which I am somewhat familiar.” It’s a small yet powerful statement.

Directly after that, Kirk asks Spock to explain the group’s “Herbert” jabs. Spock reluctantly defines Herbert as “a minor official notorious for his rigid and limited patterns of thought” and William Shatner’s reaction is a wonderfully understated bit of acting. 

The script was written by Arthur Heinemann and Michael Richards. The latter is the pseudonym Dorothy Fontana employed after her script Joanna somehow morphed into this episode. (I wrote about that a little here.) She was clearly displeased with the screened version, but the script is strong and this brief scene on the bridge is reason enough to watch this episode.

The Federation doesn’t suit everyone

The Way to Eden is a rare look at people who are uncomfortable living in the Federation. This otherwise utopian society, Sevrin tells Spock, “is poison to me. This stuff you breathe, this stuff you live in, the shields of artificial atmosphere that we have layered about every planet. The programs in those computers that run your ship and your lives for you…” Spock describes the One movement to Kirk as “almost a biological rebellion. A profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilised, artfully balanced atmospheres.” 

That no one social model serves everyone’s needs is an important message, especially for those Star Trek fans who, like Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would jump at the chance to board a starship. 

The social warnings

The limits of authority. The episode is an interesting examination of the limits of Kirk’s authority. Accustomed to command hierarchies, what does he do when people simply refuse to obey? He faces the same dilemma when his crew, stoned on spores, mutinies in This Side of Paradise. When Sevrin and his followers do not accept the captain’s authority, Kirk gives up and turns to someone who will obey: “Mister Spock, you seem to understand these people. You will deal with them.”

Dr. Sevrin and his followers stand in the Enterprise transporter room, holding their hands in front, forming triangles, in the One gesture of their faith.

Religious fanaticism. It’s striking that Sevrin never really explains his belief system, and his followers seem fine with that. Asked by Spock to state the group’s purpose, Sevrin says only “If you understand One, you know our purpose.” Pushed a little, he adds “We turn our backs on confusion and seek the beginning.” But that beginning is identified as the planet Eden, so at best his religious system is built on an adaptation that replaces a garden with a remote planet in Romulan space. That certainly stretches the source material, but his followers buy into it.

Cults. Sevrin is a cult leader. Like many before him, his followers are willing to die and kill for him. They barely question that requirement. When Sevrin announces he will kill all the crew on board Enterprise, their quick acquiescence is chilling.

Sevrin: I’m using sound against them, beyond the ultrasonic. It will stun them and allow us time to leave. We’ll go in one of their shuttlecraft.

Irina: Sound pitched that high doesn’t stun, it destroys. I remember when we read in the text that it…

Sevrin: I’ve gone beyond those texts, Irina. It’s correct for you to be concerned, but be assured also.

Rad: We are in orbit over Eden, Brother Sevrin. (pause) It does destroy.

Sevrin: We cannot allow them to come after us. 

The cult leader has spoken, his followers nod, and then Adam sings an upbeat song as the entire crew is dying. 

Sevrin is a deep and dark character

A screen cap of Dr. Sevrin standing in his cell, with a creepy and self-satisfied smile.

The fun songs and crazy outfits tend to obscure the truly dark nature of the main antagonist. While Sevrin is not one of Trek’s best bad guys, he is one of the darkest. Khan tries to kill Kirk in a decompression chamber, sends Spock to die and threatens “Each of you in turn will go in there” until he gets cooperation — and all of that is bad, but Sevrin decides to flat-out slaughter every person on board the Enterprise. He does that just so he can get a ride to a planet.  

His character gives us an interesting look at madness and the power of a charismatic figure to lead others to their doom.

Of course, there are problems here too

People dislike The Way to Eden for its crazy costumes, far-out dialogue and the music. Those elements do not bother me; my criticism is far more substantive.

Sevrin and his followers tried to murder all 430 people on the ship and, at the end of the episode, everyone is fine with that.

After barely escaping certain death, the landing party beams down to Eden. Sevrin and Adam are dead, all the others are horribly burned by acid, and Chekov’s response is to put his arm around Irina and comfort her. Later, the two share an emotional goodbye and a tender kiss on the bridge. 

This is the woman who agreed to his death and that of everyone around him. Worse, Kirk makes this ridiculous statement to Chekov: “You did what you had to do. As did we all. Even your friends.”

What? This band of psychopaths had to kill them all? Oh well. Shrug.

If you want to hate on The Way to Eden, do it because the ending is absurd and offensive. I believe it was an attempt to say that the methods were wrong but that the basic beliefs of the group had merit. Spock outright says that to Kirk: “There is no insanity in what they seek.” This fit with the progressive thinking of the 60s that dismissed conformity.  

Even with its faults — or, more likely, because of them — this is a deeply misunderstood episode. It is not a hippie-dippy story about a bunch of quirky malcontents who just want to sing songs and eat fruit. It is a warning about the power of cults, the discontent that even utopian conformity can create, and a cautionary tale about a society that most viewers (myself included) would embrace.

Postscript

Victor Brandt played Tongo Rad and had a small role in Elaan of Troyius, and there are two interesting bits in this interview with StarTrek.com. The first is about his legacy as an actor:  “I had no idea at the time Star Trek would be on my gravestone. It will say, “Here lies Victor Brandt, who played Tongo Rad.”

He also tells a great story about his guest shot on Shatner’s T.J Hooker

I went in and auditioned, and I got the part. It was an interesting part, a cabbie who was being coerced into ratting out a fare. I went on the set in the morning – and this is true – and I introduced myself to Bill. I said, “By the way, Bill, do you remember me?” He said, “From what?” I said, “Well, I did two episodes of Star Trek.” He looked at me and he said, “Victor, I’ve got to tell you the truth.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I only remember the women.” I wasn’t insulted. We both laughed. He wasn’t kidding.

Postscript the second

Overall, I far prefer to watch my TOS with its original effects, but the remastered episode features a nicely reimagined space cruiser Aurora. The ship was originally the Tholian vessel from The Tholian Web with nacelles glued on the model. By contrast, the remastered version actually looks like a ship that would exist alongside the Enterprise. Kudos to the remastering team.

2 Comments

  1. A very thoughtful defense of a not-so-beloved Star Trek episode! I like how you acknowledged its flaws while presenting a spirited defense. I learned something new about Star Trek (which I didn’t think was possible) with Victor Brandt’s role (was he the ill-fated engineering ensign in “Elaan of Troyius”?) and his T.J. Hooker anecdote (which sounded very Shatnerian). I too think there’s a great story possibility with people unhappy with Federation life (which was hinted at in “The Conscience of the King” and would be explored with the Maquis and other stories in future Treks), but I still think the final product was very disappointing. Neverthless, your refutation is very good!

    Like

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