Robert Bloch, who wrote the script for “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” was a big fan of HP Lovecraft. That’s probably the key to understanding what makes this peculiar episode of Star Trek interesting. One has to overlook a great deal here to get to some sort of profound meaning, because many of Star Trek’s weakest elements are on full display: some shaky performances, bad-looking sets, rampant sexism and horribly dated characterizations cloud the eerie and potentially horrifying central premise. But at the centre of this episode is some of the more disturbing imagery and concepts ever explored by Trek, in any of its incarnations.
This story concerns a famous scientist, Dr. Roger Korby, who was conducting research on an alien planet before something went terribly wrong. His last message of distress was sent five years ago, and though two previous teams of investigators failed to turn up any trace of Korby or his team, the Enterprise has been sent for one final look. Shockingly, as soon as the Enterprise comes within range, it receives a signal from the surface from Korby, indicating that he and at least some of his team are still alive. It turns out that after the climate soured on the surface of the planet (“Their sun went dark,” as Korby’s assistant puts it), an ancient alien civilization developed the techniques of living underground in a series of connected caverns. There they stayed for ages, studying advanced robotics, until the living people had all passed on, leaving only a single android, “Ruk”, to care for the equipment. Korby recruited Ruk, learned the technology and has been building android versions of his dead assistant, Brown, and a beautiful female companion, Andrea. But Korby has become unhinged, and demonstrates to Kirk a machine that can “decant” a human personality into an android body, creating a perfect duplicate that would never age, never get sick and would have the knowledge and responses of the original person. Korby dreams of decanting all of humanity into android bodies, and has become downright messianic in his emotions around the issue. It turns out, in the shocking climax, that Korby himself is an android, having decanted himself into an android body some years ago after having been horribly injured. Korby has, apparently, lost too much of his humanity in the transfer, unable to feel emotions like love and kindness anymore. He surrenders to Kirk, but is killed by Andrea, who Kirk has convinced has no reason to live.
This all takes place on a frozen ice-world, which is the first clue to a strong connection with Lovecraft, particularly “At the Mountains of Madness”. The relationship is fairly clear, especially the scenario of a “lost” arctic expedition that has been frozen into a hermetically sealed world for far too long and lost their collective minds. There’s also the thematic resonance with bodily transformation, awakening dangerous ancient knowledge and proposing radical changes to the world order based upon it. The creepiness of Korby (played in a theatrical style by character actor Michael Strong) and the way the ancient civilization is hinted at by the character of Ruk (played by TV star Ted Cassidy) are easily the strongest elements at work here, and they stayed the most consistent through all the various re-writes the episode passed through. Unfortunately, that intriguing science fiction concept (which extends to feature a Kirk android double, played with great subtlety by Shatner) is surrounded by some problematic elements that drag the quality of this episode down.
The weakest part of the whole episode is the performance at its center: Nurse Chapel, played by Majel Barrett. Part of this might be the writing, but Chapel has never been more simpering, whimpy, naive and easily manipulated as she is here. It’s almost an anti-feminist character, odd for a show that claimed to be a feminist pioneer. Roger Korby, so goes the conceit, was Chapel’s fiancee before he left on this mission, and while most of the federation has given him up for dead, she carries the torch. It’s more than a little disturbing, in 2016, to see an adult woman character acting more like a dumb child crying for her daddy than a woman pining for her lover. And when Andrea is introduced, Barrett telegraphs “Who ‘dis bitch?!” with about as much subtlety as the Kardashians. It’s hard to see where exactly to place the blame here, because Barrett was fairly effective as Number One in “The Cage”, and later she would act wonderfully as Troi’s mother on The Next Generation, so she wasn’t a terrible actress, exactly. She’s given a character to play here that’s fairly weak, but she doesn’t seem to have the resources of a veteran actress, who might have been able to find something interesting in this characterization. Simply comparing the way she delivers lines to literally every other actor on the episode shows the difference between a relative amateur and a seasoned professional. (Compare her to Sherry Jackson, who plays Andrea, a robot seemingly designed specifically for sexual pleasure with a limited range of emotions. Jackson actually comes across as more poised and effective as Barrett, even though Barrett has a more interesting role, on paper.) Chapel’s character seems to exist, in this episode, to provide a connection that provokes emotions in Korby’s character that he would rather not feel. Kirk, for his part, does his best to provoke emotions in Andrea (guess which ones…) and succeeds in teaching her about “love”. (Kirk sometimes gives the impression that he’s on a second five-year mission to kiss every lovely alien in the galaxy.) So, while Chapel seems to have a justifiable reason for existing here, the combination of characterization and performance make that device all too obvious, and it undercuts the episode’s quality.
The sets also don’t help — here we have a veritable cliche of Star Trek’s tendency to rely on styrofoam and dappled plaster of paris to represent ice, rock and snow. (Yes, there’s a famous meme of Kirk holding a ferociously phallic stalagmite.) With Star Trek The Original Series in general, the modern viewer has to make fairly substantial allowances for the show’s age and budget. The 2006 CGI remastering helps a great deal, but there was nothing the artists doing the remasters could do about the sets in this episode. (They probably could today, digitally removing each actor from the frame through rotoscoping and replacing the backgrounds, but that would obviously be a expensive waste of time.) The worst offence here is that never once do we get any sense that the actors are cold. We are sometimes reminded that they’re on an arctic world, but there’s no sense of hiding in the cold and dark against hostile elements. On the contrary, the decor is more suggestive of a stock western ranch, right down to the metal plates and oak dining bench. It simply doesn’t convince, and reads as lazy and cheap.
Aside from those major flaws, there are some interesting easter eggs here, as well, including the first mention of George Samuel Kirk (“Only you call him ‘Sam’”) and a callback to earlier years with a “Cage”-era phaser. Much has also been written about Andrea’s costume, designed to show as much skin as possible under the network standards of the era, but today those costuming choices, along with Kirk’s swaggering heterosexuality, simply read as dated elements of the swinging sixties.
“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” could have been a great episode. It had a great writer (Bloch also wrote Psycho and had been a veteran of Gothic and Macabre fiction for over 20 years by that point), interesting premise, at least one arresting and different character (Ruk) and an emotional climax. Unfortunately, in this case Star Trek’s reach exceeded its grasp. The next episode, “Dagger of the Mind”, combined the elements better and gave us one of Trek’s truly classic horror stories.