The Cloud Minders: Bringing the Earth to the Clouds

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

While I realize that my focus has been TNG for the last several weeks, I want to step back to 1969 for this post and revisit “The Cloud Minders.” All of Star Trek, even arguably Picard, dialogues with the concept of utopia. Roddenberry’s original vision remains radical not because he foresees a dystopia future, which is all too easily believable, but rather because he dared to conceive of a universe in which humanity did the far more difficult work of bettering itself. As a species, we manage to move beyond petty rivalries and cultural differences to build a lasting a peace that extends through the stars. In TOS Roddenberry deliberately placed Nichelle Nichols, a Black woman, on the bridge along with a Russian, as manifestations of that world-building, and not-so-coincidentally, TNG opens with a reminder of how important those principles are to the franchise in “Encounter at Farpoint.” I do not mean to imply that Trek gets it right all the time; it doesn’t, but the effort made to try keeps us coming back episode after episode. The “Cloud Minders” is not one of Star Trek’s success stories. If anything, the episode uncharacteristically shies away from the message it should communicate, and that failure illustrates just how deeply tied Trek is to the culture that created it.

Plot Ahoy!

Starfleet sends the Enterprise to Ardana, the only source of a Zenite, a mineral necessary to stopping a plague on Merak II. Kirk and Spock beam directly to the mine, hoping to expedite the process by bypassing diplomatic events on Stratos, the literal city in the clouds that serves as Ardana’s seat of government. Disrupters, a group of rebel Troglytes, attack Kirk and Spock only to be repulsed by Stratos soldiers in the service of Plasus, the High Adviser of the Council. Plasus, Kirk, and Spock return to Stratos where Plasus explains that the Disrupters have confiscated the zenite in the hopes to force Stratos to negotiate with them. Given comparatively free rein on Stratos, Kirk and Spock discover Stratos to be an eminently civilized city, full of art and culture to the extent that Droxine, Plasus’ daughter, herself serves as a work of art. While resting, a servant attacks Kirk, revealing herself to be Vanna, one of the Disrupters who attacked the landing party at the mine. Vanna explains that their intent was not murder but rather kidnapping as the Starfleet officers would be useful bargaining chips because the Stratans consider Troglytes inferior, both physically and intellectually. Droxine brings Sentinels, who arrest Vanna, and Kirk, confused as to the situation, presses Droxine to understand why there are two classes of people on Ardana. Droxine insists that the system is perfect and should not be changed. The Sentinels take Vanna to be tortured while Kirk and Spock return to the ship.

Aboard the Enterprise, Dr. McCoy discovers that exposure to Zenite gas causes the Troglytes’ mental faculties to suffer, meaning that filtration masks would level the intellectual playing field between the two groups. Kirk reaches out to Plasus, only to be rebuffed, so he beams into Vanna’s cell, mask in hand. Despite her initial skepticism, Kirk convinces her to give the masks a try. She agrees to give him the zenite in exchange. They go, but Vanna captures Kirk and forces him to mine zenite bare-handed because she does not believe a gas could be responsible for the harm to her people. She sends the mask to Stratos as proof that she has Kirk. Kirk distracts Vanna and retrieves both his communicator and phaser; he then signals the Enterprise to beam Plasus into the mine. Under the gas’s influence, Kirk and Plasus duel until Vanna, now convinced Kirk told her the truth, contacts Spock to ask him to intervene. Spock has everyone beamed aboard the Enterprise, where Kirk offers to refer the Troglytes to the Federation Bureau of Industrialization. On Stratos, Plasus continues to hurl accusations at Kirk, but Vanna talks them both down. Kirk gets his zenite, and Droxine decides to go to the mines to see the conditions for herself.

Analysis

Setting aside the issue of how terrible the choreography in this episode really is, even when viewed in the overall context of TOS, the episode’s greatest flaw is the rather milquetoast ending. Having witnessed the injustice for himself, Kirk should be in the position to provide real aid to the Troglytes—remember, the franchise doesn’t solidify the Prime Directive’s terms until TNG–but he utterly fails to do so. The episode handwaves away any responsibility by having him offer a referral to Federation bureaucracy, which may not even have jurisdiction. Kirk never loses sight of his primary objective, getting the zenite for the people of Merak II. Certainly, Kirk’s adherence to his mission would be laudable in an actual military context, but this is Star Trek and the Original Series to boot. In the previous season, Kirk literally staged a coup to bring an entire civilization under Federation dominion in order to fix it, but here, he tosses the Troglytes a few bones and walks away.

The episode offers a fantastic opportunity to confront issues of classism, racism, and how predatory economic practices contribute to the evolution of societal structures that oppress one group of citizens and elevate another, and while there are moments in the episode that speak to those concerns, the episode never capitalizes on them. Spock immediately grasps the nature of the rot on Ardana and finds it distasteful. Kirk, too, despises the lengths to which Plasus goes to acquire zenite, but the episode’s reliance on face masks as a resolution undercuts any real impact their disgust might have on the viewer. The episode seems to imply that because the Federation got their zenite, they have no further need to address the egregious inequality that exists on Ardana. What happens, in effect, is that Star Trek ideals come face to face to cultural reality and lose to a status quo that creates structural inequality.

Droxine and Vanna, together, become the only source of hope at the episode’s conclusion. When Droxine asserts that she will go to the mines, she demonstrates more courage than Kirk does. Droxine, like her father and like Kirk, could choose to turn away from the problem, but instead, she chooses to step down from her pedestal and get her hands dirty. Vanna, despite having more to lose than anyone else in the episode, talks Plasus and Kirk down from their posturing. She, like Droxine, finds herself open to change when she accepts the evidence that the zenite gas is harmful. Vanna knows what kind of work solving the problems on Ardana will require, and while Droxine does not, she demonstrates a willingness to try. Both of these women exist outside traditional power structures; Vanna is a servant. Droxine is a work of art. They don’t have power in the same sense that Plasus and Kirk do, if Droxine does possess a significant amount of privilege, and given the lackluster end to the episode, I am not sanguine about their chances. The episode certainly does not seem to expect us to care.

However, we should, and even though this episode doesn’t quite reach as far as it should, that’s no reason for us not to try and do better.

Rating:

Two cups of Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts From the Couch:

  1. Interestingly, this episode has a tortured history. David Gerrold submitted the story that formed the basis for the teleplay, and Fred Freiburger assigned Oliver Crawford of “The Galileo Seven” to co-write the episode with him. Freiberger eventually replaced both of them with Margaret Armen, who was to be Freiburger’s pick for story editor in season three. However, the cancellation put paid to that idea.
  2. Spock’s willingness to discuss Vulcan mating rituals with Droxine comes across as weird and possibly creepy. Droxine is not a great character, and while TOS frequently demonstrates some pretty awful sexism, Droxine is a new low for the series.
  3. Yes, this episode is about class warfare, but let’s not gloss over the fact that the Stratans do consider the Troglytes inferior in all ways. There’s a lot of nastiness on Ardana.
  4. There’s an actual lasso sequence. There’s just so much to hate about this episode.

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