I happen to like Star Trek: The Animated Series, so I was thrilled when I heard that they were releasing new shorts with its animation style in a series called Star Trek: Very Short Treks. I have to admit that they’re a bit of a mixed bag for me. Humor is very hit or miss; we’ve all got our own particular brand of humor, and I admit that mine does not trend toward the nihilist. Long time readers might remember that I wasn’t a fan of the Star Trek: Short Treks episode “The Trouble with Edward” for this reason, and the first episode of Very Short Treks called “Skin a Cat” gives me some of the same vibes.
Yes, I understand that the Very Short Treks are meant to be fun, four-minute long gags riffing on canon. However, there’s something about “Skin A Cat” that just doesn’t fundamentally work. In case you haven’t tracked down the episode for viewing, basically, what happens is the Enterprise finds itself in a firefight, surrounded by Klingon vessels. Spock asks about a plan, and Kirk suggests that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Lieutenant M’Ress, a Caitian, makes her triumphant return to the small screen to be horribly offended by Kirk’s unthinking use of the old chestnut. Kirk continues spiraling, with each phrase conjuring up a new species to be offended by it, including the Knickertonian, who basically is a female character whose head resembles old-fashioned britches. Kirk then tries to conjure his perfect woman who will have the needed solution to the problem, but he’s too busy proposing to listen to her solution. The Klingons fire on the Enterprise, destroying the ship.
The gag pokes fun at how easily folks are offended by language, and when M’Ress turns around, it’s funny. I mean, who hasn’t put their foot in their mouth at one time or another? We’ve all done it, and had the gag stopped there, we would have had our chuckle and moved on to another gag. However, the script doubles down on the gag, repeating it in increasingly ridiculous ways, culminating in Kirk becoming nearly paralyzed until he seizes upon the inspiration to Weird Science not only a solution but his dream girl in the process—and isn’t that something to unpack. The skit ends with that paralysis resulting in the destruction of the ship and ostensibly the deaths of all of her crew as a final nod to the general silliness of getting so wrapped up in being offended over language that they ignore the greater threat.
Y’all, that skirts awfully close to the endless arguments we’ve all heard about how fragile people get bent out of shape over “harmless words.” Well, here’s the deal, language is important. It’s how we express ourselves to each other and even how we frame our thoughts. We normalize something by assigning a word to it, and we use language to create and rip apart our social groups. We know words have power, which is why there are words we (should) no longer say, and we assign criminal penalties to shouting certain words in certain contexts. If words have that kind of power, it follows that we should be aware of and respect their impact, including being careful with what we say and how we say it.
The “Skin a Cat” episode wants to make the argument that people worried with language are being ridiculous, but the reality is that the words we use can, intentionally or not, exclude people and establish them as other. Star Trek as a franchise is all about inclusion, so no matter how funny the gag in “Skin a Cat” may be, it’s not really a Star Trek kind of joke to make.