STAR TREK At 50: Who Mourns For Adonais

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To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, every week throughout 2016 we are looking back at a Star Trek episode picked by one of our team or by a guest contributor. Today Nev Sutton looks back at a classic season two episode for the Original Series crew...

Whilst orbiting the Class M planet Pollux IV, a huge energy field in the shape of a glowing green hand grabs the Enterprise, halting its movement. A humanoid apparition, wearing a golden laurel wreath on its head, appears on the bridge view-screen and addresses the ship's crew as his "beloved children." The words of the figure boom with a godlike presence, and he seems impressed with the human species for finally making their way into deep space.

Kirk demands that the ship be set free, but the being responds by tightening the grip, threatening to crush the ship. Kirk backs off, and then the apparition invites them down to the planet, all except for First Officer Spock, whose pointed ears remind him of Pan's annoying nature. The away team arrive in what appears to be an ancient garden from Mount Olympus, complete with marble columns and Greek statues. They soon encounter a humanoid male dressed in a short chiton who identifies himself as the god Apollo and informs the party that he will not allow them to leave, rendering the team's communicators and transporter room nonfunctional. He indicates that he wants the crew of Enterprise to settle on Pollux IV, and to serve and worship him as their god. Kirk, naturally, refuses.

By episodes end, Apollo's 'god' powers are nullified by man. Weakened, he turns to the sky and pronounces that there is no room left in the universe for gods. He then pleads with his fellow deities to take him away, and fades from sight.

There is a lot of symbolism in this episodes, much of it is very evident, but also there is much that, I think, is rarely acknowledged or commented upon. For instance, Star Trek chose Apollo as the particular Greek god to meet somewhere out in space where he has apparently been waiting millennia for the earth creatures that resemble himself to develop space-faring technology and eventually find him. In reality, after millennia of looking at the night sky, naming the stars and planets, telling our seasons by them, and thinking up fables and superstitions about them, the program to actually land and walk on another world happened to be the Apollo Moon Program.

The moon, itself, was only feasibly reachable a short decade or two before it was actually done, and was once thought a god 'himself' by many cultures. Who Mourns for Adonais was broadcast less than two years prior to man reaching what was once thought of as a god, which in fact was not a god, nor was a god's help needed to land on the moon; it was pure applied science.

Knowing Gene Roddenberry was an agnostic, perhaps an atheist, the point is clear: there are powers and forces in the universe, but it was humans that invented the god hypothesis to explain them on the elementary level, and this hypothesis can be destroyed, and that will be one facet of our scientific legacy.

Injecting this philosophy into Star Trek from its very early days was a bold move for Roddenberry, especially considering the 'popular' opinion of belief among most US audiences in 1967. Here we meet Apollo, but the god Roddenberry and episode writer Gilbert Ralston really had in mind, of course, was not the loyal friend of Hector of Troy, but the God most of the western world eventually turned to, the one originally of the ancient Hebrews. He is not necessarily saying that that God (or his race of beings) may be found some day as having been Wizard of Oz type "humbugs," but it is at least such a thought experiment to that effect.

During the episode Apollo takes lieutenant Carolyn Palamas (played by Leslie Parrish) as his consort and intends for her to be the mother of the thousands of gods he wishes to sire. It is Carolyn, whilst starry-eyed in love, who learns that Apollo belonged to a group that were god-like, though not in the sense that the ancient Greeks believed them to be. This leads Kirk and McCoy to conclude that he is indeed the real Apollo, but was part of a group of powerful aliens that visited Earth 50 centuries ago, and thrived on the love, worship, loyalty and attention of the ancient Greeks. Eventually all of the aliens, with the exception of Apollo, realised that humanity no longer worshiped them, so they spread themselves "upon the wings of the wind" and faded away into nothing.

Carolyn, whilst still bewitched with love, puts responsibility before her own romantic desires, scientific reasoning before blind devotion, and tells Apollo she was only using him to get information, that she is not a "simple shepherdess that Apollo can awe" and could no more love him than she could love a new species of bacteria. This act, this withdrawal of devotion, along with the destruction of his temple, aids in destroying Apollo.

When Star Trek began its Western audience were largely considered to be "believers", a fact that did not stop Roddenberry from wavering in his vision of the 23rd Century. Fifty years later religion remains a primary source for global conflict and a day to day necessity in many people's lives, but it is a fact that the number of believers are significantly lower today than they were five decades ago. Fewer and fewer people count a god as their guiding force in life, and each year fewer more regularly attend a place of worship. This withdrawal of devotion, this withdrawal of belief, may be to do with our own advances in scientific knowledge. It may be that, just like this episode of Star Trek showed, we created our own gods, and we're now in the process of tearing them down.

Which is your favourite Star Trek episode (from any series)? If you'd like to share your love for a particular story, and would like to write about your favourite (either a paragraph or two, or a full blown 500-1500 word article) then please contact us at and put Trek@50 in the subject bar. We'd love to hear from you.

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