The Great Star Trek Rewatch: The Cloud Minders

Desperate to cure a botanical plague on Merak II, the Enterprise heads to planet Ardana to collect a shipment of zenite – a rare mineral which is the only known cure. On Ardana, the upper class lives serenely in their beautiful cloud city, whilst the worker Troglytes must toil in the mines. But the Troglytes are no longer content with their lot, and as part of their rebellion, they withhold the Enterprise’s zenite, forcing Kirk to intervene in Ardana’s planetary politics.

Although somewhat watered down in the final teleplay, The Cloud Minders is meant to be a hard-hitting story about slavery, with the patrician sky dwellers living a life of academic study, whilst the intellectually inferior working class are condemned to a life in the caves, churning out zenite for all who need it. It’s still clear to see what the episode is getting at, but instead of going all-out and saying “actually, the Troglytes aren’t inferior”, the message ends up being “well yes, they are inferior, but it’s because of this nasty gas, and if we give them air filters, everything will probably be fine”.

Ardana…

  • High Advisor Plasus is the epitome of the privileged class in this episode, desperate to hold on to a status quo that guarantees him a confortable life – and unwilling to accept that the Troglytes might have the potential to be the equals of the sky dwellers.
  • His daughter Droxine has been brought up to believe in her own privileged status, but is more open to considering other points of view. She does spend most of her time flirting with Spock, however. In turn, Spock is remarkably open with her about Vulcan mating habits, despite risking death rather than talk about it to his best friends Kirk and McCoy back in Amok Time. Perhaps Droxine already knew somehow and so there was no point denying any of the details, although given that Droxine has never met a Vulcan before, this seems unlikely.
  • Vanna is one of the leaders of the Troglyte rebellion; having worked as a retainer in the cloud city, she has suffered less brain damage than those who have mined all their lives. She attacks Kirk at various points during the episode, although the slowness with which she approaches him when intending to knife him in his sleep seems to indicate that she was hoping not to have to go through with it.
  • The Troglytes appear to have to mine for zenite with their bare hands, which seems highly inefficient and even implausible.
  • The Stratos security guard is very inattentive and inefficient – when he delivers Vanna’s food, he leaves the cell doors wide open. Obviously he was intending to get out again, but is it any wonder Kirk and Vanna were able to escape so easily?
  • When Kirk is sneaking around the cloud city, a subcutaneous transponder that let him be beamed back to the Enterprise post-haste would have been highly useful. Just saying.
  • Stratos City is said to be a fine work of anti-gravity engineering. Since its dwellers don’t do any manual labour, it seems that Troglytes must be responsible for generating power and resources for Stratos, although this presumably requires them to do more advanced things than mine for zenite with their bare hands. Or perhaps it’s just that sales of zenite give the Stratos dwellers the money they need to buy automated systems to take care of their day-to-day needs.

…and the Federation

For me, one of the interesting moral twists of this episode is that Ardana is actually a member of the Federation, in spite of the planet’s institutionalised slavery. One likes to think of the Federation as this morally evolved utopia where every member enjoys a decent quality of life – and maybe that’s the case by the TNG era – but here we see something quite different. Is it mere pragmatism? After all, Ardana is the only known source of zenite, which is vital for curing botanical diseases – if they’re willing to become allies and share this miraculous substance, who wouldn’t look the other way when it came to the welfare of their working class?

Summary – The Cloud Minders: HG Wells called; he wants his idea back.

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