The most significant event in “Miri”, the twelfth episode of Star Trek – halfway through the first season – was the arrival, behind-the-scenes, of a new producer named Gene L. Coon. Whenever the production and writing staff of The Original Series is interviewed, they rarely forget to mention Coon’s name and stress how important he was to the success of Star Trek. (In fact, many posit that he was more important than the other Gene, who kept meddling with scripts and issuing arbitrary rules.) Coon’s job is one that is familiar to many of us who study popular culture today, but went almost entirely under the radar fifty years ago: the “showrunner”. Not having anything to do with jogging, a showrunner literally “runs the show” — they hire actors, writers and directors, they make sure the show keeps to a budget, they have re-writing privileges, although they’re usually too busy to do anything other than a proofread, and they’re responsible for the overall show quality. Coon laid the foundation for people like Greg Berlanti or Joss Whedon in terms of being a creative producer as well as a business-oriented producer.
Coon was brought in because Roddenberry was simply overworked. The Star Trek creator was so busy re-writing and performing the duties of a producer that he freely admitted he needed help. After offering the job to a few of the ex-Directors, including James Goldstone (who turned Roddenberry down on the basis that he couldn’t stand to watch the show), Roddenberry finally found this TV veteran who had written for many shows over the years. Coon was a tough guy: a US Marine who served in World War II, but he had a softer, gentler side that he showed to people who knew him well. And he loved to write, once generating eleven scripts in two years. He brought clarity, order and professionalism to Star Trek, and halfway through its first season, this was badly needed. He also upped the character commitment through the writing, creating, among other things, the concept of the United Federation of Planets, the Prime Directive, the ongoing good-natured sniping between Spock and McCoy and the well-known super-villain Khan Noonian Singh. Coon died far too early of lung cancer at the age of only 49, four years after Trek was cancelled and right in the middle of developing a new show with Gene Roddenberry, The Questor Tapes. For this reason, some have forgotten how important he was to the show, since he passed before it became the pop cultural phenomenon we know today. But ask David Gerrold or any of the surviving behind-the-scenes staff, and they’ll emphasize that Star Trek really had two parents, both named Gene.
As for the episode itself, “Miri” is one of those instalments that plays out almost entirely off the Enterprise, in less-than-convincing backlot sets clearly designed for westerns. That undercuts the verisimilitude a bit, but the story is an interesting one, and there are some good performances from the guest cast, in this case almost entirely consisting of children. (It’s many times more effective than the lamentable third-season episode “And the Children Shall Lead”, but we’ll get there in good time.) The premise of the episode is classic science fiction: an experiment gone wrong. The Enterprise receives a distress signal from a planet that seems like an exact duplicate of earth (rather convenient for model makers and line producers looking for locations). After beaming down, they find a run-down city populated only by children. It turns out that over three hundred years before, a group of scientists had been attempting to find the recipe for immortality, but wound up creating a virus that killed (horribly) anyone past puberty. The “children” are actually centuries old, ageing very slowly, but the closer they get to puberty, the closer they get to their death. Once an adult is infected, they have only a week to live. The human members of the landing party (Kirk, McCoy, Rand and some redshirts) are all infecting, and immediately start dying, even as McCoy works feverishly on a cure. (Spock is a carrier, and can’t return to the Enterprise at the risk of infecting the whole crew.) Eventually McCoy comes through, the crew is immunized and the children start to age normally.
The good news is that some of the performances, especially from Kim Darby as the title character and Michael J. Pollard as Jahn, are creepy and convincing, even if both actors were well past their teenage years when playing the role. The murderous fury that the children summon towards the Enterprise crew (based on their historical memory of being attacked by their own dying parents) is as creepy as anything from The Twilight Zone, and this raises the dramatic stakes considerably. There are some horribly dated moments, such as when Rand begs Kirk to look at her legs (which of course the uniform shows off nicely, including a blemish developing due to the disease), and their whole attitude towards the children seems ripped from a sterner, earlier time. The writers on this show demonstrate once again that while they were working in the mid-1960s, the counterculture was still very alien to them.
The moral message here is a simple one: don’t try to violate the laws of nature through science (ironically something the Enterprise does every time it travels faster than the speed of light). Medical science in the 1960s was developing along with everything else, and many Americans could have been forgiven for thinking that the secret to immortality was just around the corner. Shows like Star Trek tended to sound both the optimistic note (science will make our lives better) along with cautionary note (but it should be carefully controlled). The next episode marks one of Trek’s several forays into Shakespeare, a radical but effective change in tone for the series.