Spock laughs, loves, and then Kirk creates an environment that kills stagnation
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek TOS, This Side of Paradise (Season 1, Episode 25). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Kirk.
SPORES! Spores everywhere that lead to mutiny on the USS Enterprise. How does Kirk deal with it? By not allowing people to become stagnant.
Jeff shares how you can ensure your teams don't become stagnant, in a much less violent and annoying way than Kirk and Spock come up with.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Captain Kirk asks a profound question about the very nature of humanity and I’m going to talk about what that means to you as a leader that is working to develop and grow the people you work with. We’re also going to see a side to Mr Spock that, up to this point, no viewer had seen before, here in the 25th episode of the 1st season of the Original Series, This Side of Paradise.
The Enterprise comes to Omicron Ceti III. 150 Federation colonists came here about 3 years ago. Turns out the planet has been bombarded with berthold rays which are deadly to living beings. Kirk and crew are here to study and catalogue the effects of the rays on the likely dead colony. “Berthold rays are a new discovery.” 0:47 They are confident they will be safe for a short, limited time, maybe a week, to collect samples and observe the effects. But, what they find when they beam down is wildly unexpected. “Welcome to Omicron Ceti III” 2:34
All of the colonists are still alive and are the picture of health! In fact, past scars and scar tissue, and impacts from prior health issues are all healed. Too perfect. Plants and food are growing miraculously, but all of the livestock and animals have died. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are dumbfounded, but not nearly as much as when Spock comes face-to-face with his past. “Mr Spock and I have met before.” 6:10 Leila, the botanist of the colony, and Spock met on Earth about 6 years ago where she fell in love with him. Spock is, as he was back then, very Vulcan about seeing her. The team disperses and starts pulling samples and researching the area. But Leila and Sandoval, the leader of the colony, have other plans. “Would you like him to stay with us. There is no choice. He will stay.” 8:10
Kirk checks in with Starfleet and they order him to evacuate the colonists but Sandoval refuses. He didges any questions be sticks to his point that they are safe and everyone is healthy.
Leila finds and joins Spock as he investigates. He is trying to work but she is trying to reconnect with him. She agrees to show him how the colonists have survived and leads him away. They come upon a plant, a flower, and “Spores? Sploosh! Now you belong to all of us. I love you.” 15:16 What is up with Spock?? He is emotional, cool, and he kisses Leila!!
Kirk has his teams packing up the colony to beam their belongings to the Enterprise. He notices Spock is missing and calls him. Somewhere between then and now, Spock has changed his clothes and has his head laying in Leila’s lap. Yeah, Vulcans don’t need to wait for Pon Farr… After awhile, Spock finally answers. “Where are you? I don’t believe I want to tell you.” 19:24 He totally ghosts Kirk and drops his communicator. Kirk is on the hunt!
He finds him, hanging from a tree, and laughing with Leila. “You were told to report to me at once. I didn’t want to, Jim.” 21:57 Spock says there will be no evacuation, but agrees to head back to the colony.
At the colony, more and more people are getting blasted with the spores. Kirk has avoided it, but everyone is getting the chill vibes. “Mr Sulu understands. Yes, I see now.” 22:56 The crew stops beaming equipment to the ship and start beaming the flowers. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get spored, though some fare better than others, “Sho ‘nuff. You ever have a Georgia style mint julep?” 26:19 Oof, terrible accent on McCoy. Uhura short circuits all the communications and everyone is beaming to the planet; they’re going to live there now. Despite his best efforts, “Get back to your stations. This is mutiny, mister!” 25:05 after awhile, he’s the last one on the ship.
He keeps trying to learn about the spores and find out what’s going on. He does learn that they thrive on berthold rays; that’s how the people have done so well on this planet. It’s kinda cool that the affected people aren’t violent at all; they just want to live in their paradise. Kirk heads back to the Enterprise, alone, when, BAM! “Sploosh!” 31:31 He gets spored too! He heads to his quarters to pack and is heading down. We get a cameo from his green casual tunic in his suitcase. As he’s about to beam down, though, he has a moment. A moment of doubt. “No! I can’t leave!” 33:31 He gets furious and slams his fist on the console…and he’s free! He believes that violent emotions and anger are the antidote. Now, how to impact over 500 crew and colonists? “Mr Spock is much stronger than men, this is a risk I have to take.” 34:27
He convinces Spock to come on board to help him finish packing, and then he tries to infuriate him. He lobs a few insults, but he’s taking it in stride, even tries to warn him. But then he really lays into him. “How dare you make love to that girl. You belong in the circus, right next to the dog faced boy!” 36:43 Spock takes a swing and they’re off! He busts through Kirk’s weapon and starts wiping the floor of the transporter room with Kirk’s stunt double – seriously, they didn’t even try to hide it. But it works. Spock is back, but he has feeling about it, “I don’t belong anymore.” 38:06 Oh, that’s big. Really big. But, he recovers and he and Kirk start trying to figure out how to affect the rest of the people.
They come up with a frequency, almost like a dog whistle, that will agitate the nerves of the people on the planet. “What do you think you’re doing?” 44:55 It works like a charm, “would you like to see how fast I can put you in a hospital?” 45:55 and after a little while, the spores have left everyone.
Without the spores, the berthold rays will be lethal. They have less than a week. Sandoval and the colonists agree to be evacuated and they all get right to work.
Mister Spock. For many, he is the face of Star Trek; I mean, for many, he IS Star Trek. Growing up and watching with my Mom, in the days before TNG or anything else, Spock was king. Up to this point in the Original Series, we knew he was half-human and half-vulcan, but we didn’t really know what that meant. The show had really focused on his Vulcan qualities. But this was the first time his human side really showed. And it was the first time we started to see that toll his genetic heritage took on him.
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This is a fantastic episode of Star Trek; super good. In fact, there are some publications that list it as a top 10 episode. For me, I could see it as top 10 of TOS, but of all Trek? Hmmm. Yeah, probably not. But still, so good.
One of the things I appreciate about earlier TV, sci-fi in particular, is that they could have wild and unexplainable things happen and just brush off the need for an explanation. Like, I feel like if this episode happened in 90’s Star Trek, the point would have been to figure out what they spores were, why and how they were doing what they were doing, and then mitigating the threat either through some kind of Trek science or diplomacy, when they, of course realize they’re sentient. If this was in modern Trek, Discovery especially, there would be an entire season dedicated to them and the inadvertent threat they posed to the entire galaxy.
But in this episode, as part of the earliest TOS episodes, none of that matters. “Its basic properties are not important.” 14:46 But they don’t just entirely brush it off. Like, there is real dialogue and even logs wondering what they are, but they eventually double-down on not caring about that part of it. “Nor can I get Dr McCoy to explain them.” 25:53 Like, yes, there’s a weird thing going on. Yes, we know it’s weird. Also, who cares? Not the important part of the show! Like Sandoval says to Kirk at one point, you are stressing over unimportant matters.
Not gonna bring up McCoy’s borderline offensive attempt as a southern accent. That was just terrible. That said, I do enjoy a good mint julep, and, there is such a thing as a Georgia style one! They got it pretty close on the show too, I think. They had it in the right glass; a regular mint julep is served in a julep cup, and occasionally a collins glass. The Georgia style is always served in a Collins glass. It also has some peach schnapps or, sometimes, peach brandy in it along with the bourbon. So, hey, maybe we both learned something here!
But this episode is about Spock. All about Spock. And we really get to see Leonard Nimoy flex his acting muscles to tell the story.
They have some fun with it, “You never told me your real name.” 44:03 Spock’s real name, but the reality is that this is a heartbreaking story. Spock has spent his entire life learning to manage, control and suppress not only his emotions, as all Vulcans do, but also his humanity. In the timeline of Star Trek airing, we don’t know a lot about Spock, like, this is the first time we hear mention of his parents. But we know a lot now, today, and are learning more as Strange New Worlds continues. At the time I’m recording this, the first season has just ended and the second has finished filming and we have every reason to believe the second season is going to have a lot to do with Spock.
But, it’s cool watching this episode after we know so much about him, because it all checks out. His struggles, his drive to love, and his desire to be Vulcan. I have to imagine that this episode was one Ethan Peck spent some real time on when preparing for his role in Strange New Worlds. I can imagine him delivering this line, but also the way Nimoy delivers it is so much of how Peck portrays him, “I am what I am, Leila.” 42:59
Now this episode was good and worked. But what put it over the top into best-of status is Nimoy’s acting. There are three Spocks in this one. The first is the Spock we know – cold, logical, sticking to the parameters of the mission. Nimoy literally wrote the book on what that looks like. Well, him and DC Fontana, who wrote this episode and is really responsible for creating a lot of the Vulcan culture we’ve come to know. Second, he’s spored. Wisecracking, happy and in love. Finally, he’s Spock again, but a Spock that knows what could have been. The way Nimoy lets regret seep into his lines, the way his voice breaks, just slightly…it’s brilliant.
With all of this, outside of the lesson on mint juleps and Kirk’s apparent love affair with that terrible, green shirt…I mean, the rank braids are on the v-neck collar!! Come on! But outside of those things, this was a touching, meaningful and heartbreaking episode. “We haven’t heard much from you, Spock. It was the only time in my life I was happy.” 49:01
What is the nature of humanity? What environments do people thrive in? And what do those things have to do with leadership? Well…everything. The Enterprise crew are faced with paradise, a perfect utopia, but Kirk rebels against it. Why? Well, we’ll talk about that and we’ll talk about how Kirk’s answer to this builds environments and cultures that develop highly functional teams and super capable people. Is our drive to be more than we are innate? Maybe, maybe not. But as a leader, it’s up to us support people in trying to achieve that.
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A few episodes ago, when we watched DS9 The House of Quark, I talked about managers that try to get in and solve problems for people, or just tell people what to do whether they know what should be happening or not. There are a few reasons this happens, but systemically it’s because organizations tend to be built with a ceiling for skilled people. You get to a level where the only options for promotion are leadership and management positions. So we end up with great widget-makers becoming the, quote, leader of the widget-makers. This literally sets everyone up for failure. It inherently ignores the fact that both leadership and management are skill sets.
I bring this up because, first, people need to hear it and, fundamentally if organizations changed this one thing every company’s performance would improve. But also because we see what it looks like when you have someone with actual management skills leading a team in this episode.
Issues start to present themselves: no animals, people alive when they should be long dead, unexplainable agricultural things going on. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are talking through these things, away from everyone else, essentially in the working onsite office. In a moment of true brilliance, Kirk says a thing that I want you to hear. No, I want you to not only hear this, but write it down. Hey, maybe print this out on a massive poster and slap it on every wall you look at during the day. Kirk says, “We’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.” 5:04
Let me say that again: We are debating in a vacuum. Let’s go get some answers.
Am I wrong here, or is this at least half of the meetings managers have? Talk your way around questions, gather data, maybe have some analysis done and then someone presents a slide deck to a group of people that are layers removed the actual problem for them to sit in a room and think they are solving it. I’ll tell you, I have probably spent a real percentage of my life in this very meeting. And here’s what I’ve learned from all those hours – we never solved anything! In fact, in fact, I am about 100% certain we just created more problems. But, I’ll tell you what…it can sure feel satisfying to spend all that time asking questions of someone that looked at reports put together by someone that might have talked to the people doing the work but most likely just pulled some reports from the broken system you keep pretending is good enough.
Wow…that was a little intense. But again, I ask…am I wrong?
All the way back in the 4th episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy, DS9 Emissary, we talked about the gemba. Gemba is a Japanese word used in lean and often six-sigma to signify the place where the work happens. Don’t go through the circus of wasted activity I described earlier, just go to the place, go to the gemba! Go talk to the people doing the stuff! And that is precisely what Kirk and crew do here. They talk with Sandoval and Leila and start getting closer to real answers.
So, I’m going have Kirk say his thing one more time because it is truly that important for you to hear, understand, and most importantly do: “We’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.” 5:04
Iron sharpens iron, the reward is not great without the struggle, great men are forged in fire, good things come to those who wait, As with the butterfly, adversity is necessary to build character in people. There are so many of these sayings and platitudes out there that you almost have to think there must be something to them.
A lot of years ago, I think I’ve told some stories from this job, I managed movie theatres. A super fun job, most of the time. One of my last roles, in fact, I think it was my last role with this company was to manage a small, four-screen theatre for the end of its days. The company was going to close it, demolish it and build a much bigger, modern theatre in its place. My job was to be sure the location didn’t lose too much money in its final few months. A challenge that I loved back then and still enjoy to this day! There is a real winning feeling when you can outperform your profit and loss projections!
One of the main ways I kept our costs down was not having a lot of people work there. Minimum staffing, all the time. This meant I had a small team, but they were getting a lot of hours and we worked really well together. Most of the time, it was an awesome job – super slow, easy stuff. We were budgeted to lose money so the pressure was only on me and the pressure was to only lose as much as expected, or less – fun side story, we actually made money there because of a deal we were able to make with a very niche, family-friendly film distributor. But that’s a story for another time.
But, for everyone on my team, this was kind of the dream. We got to watch free movies and had a pretty fun day-to-day. But what this meant was that when we did get busy, or something went wrong, we weren’t really ready for it. And when that day came, it almost got ugly.
The community we were in sponsored an event with the theatres in the areas every year called the Cans film festival. Sounds fancy, right? Well, for movie-goers it very much was! They brought in three cans of food for the local food bank and they got free admission and a free, small popcorn. Super great program. We really had three priorities on that day: maximize our revenue by upselling as much as we could, pop corn and fill bags at superhuman speed to keep the concession wait times down, and keep the theatre and auditoriums clean. And we weren’t prepared for any of these things.
To put this in perspective, in one day, we had more than 10 times the weekly number of people come through our doors. Yeah, this was a rough, rough day. Every single one of us worked open to close, and the stream of humanity never stopped. So many people wanting their free movie and popcorn and nothing else. Oh, yeah, some of them were also eager to help the food bank serve the people in our community too.
During the day, we had 4 sets of shows; each movie ran 4 times. We scheduled them out to give us as much time between sets as possible, but the breaks were few and far between. All of this came to head during our busiest set, the 7:00 set. We were already pretty exhausted from the day, but this amount of people was unimaginable for us. I was at the popcorn machine, popping corn and filling bags. One of the younger people on the team, we’ll call him Nathan, was working the register. I looked over at him at one point and I saw that look in his eyes. If you’ve managed a team for a period of time, or coached a sports team, you know this look. In fact, I’ll even fire a shot over at the wave of academics and coaches out in the world today that have a ton of really great quotes and might even have some books out there, but no amount of leaders eating last will prepare you for this moment. That look of sheer panic; of absolute, well, fear. That split second before fight, flight or freeze kicks in. When you see that look, you need to act, and you need to act immediately.
Nathan had that look, and I got right to work. I pulled him aside and the first thing I told him was that he was going to be ok and that we were going to get through this and get through it together. Then I told him, I said, Nathan, pressure like this does one of two things. It either crushes you, or turns you into a diamond, and Nathan…I work with diamonds.
And we got back to it. Yes, we got through it. Yes, it was a wide-awake nightmare. And, yes, I worked with a team of diamonds. Now I know it wasn’t my kind of corny pep talk that got him through that. Honestly, it was a little bit because of the few seconds I pulled him away and assured him we were going to get through it and very much because he was, and is, amazing and was absolutely capable of meeting the challenge.
Now I share this story because we had stagnated. We had gotten comfortable with the easy day-to-day we had going on. And the result was almost catastrophic, at least for Nathan. Kirk outright said this in the episode. “No wants, no needs. We weren’t meant for that. Man stagnates without trying to be more than he is.” 27:53 He was railing against the assumed paradise the spores provided, but what he did is what is important. He changed the environment so people weren’t stagnant anymore.
He used a really annoying sound to change the environment; I do not recommend that. But I do recommend creating an environment that regularly pushes people just outside of their comfort zone. Put simply, we are either comfortable or uncomfortable, but, well, it gets a little more complex than that. We have our comfort zone, which is awesome; feels really good. And it is important for us to spend time in this zone. It’s good for our well-being. But we don’t want to stay there too long. Next is our opportunity zone or learning zone. The is where we’re uncomfortable, but we are able to learn. Beyond that is the red-alert, or panic zone. Here, we’re not learning, we’re just freaking out. When I saw that look in Nathan’s eyes, that was him transitioning from his opportunity zone into the red-alert zone.
For me, at the theatre, instead of just enjoying the cakewalk of a job we all had, I could have run scenarios, drills almost that could have better prepared us. You, in your workplace can find ways to shake things up as well. This doesn’t have to be dramatic. You don’t need to create fire drill type situations. One of the ways I do this now is in visioning sessions with teams where we talk through strategic plans and visions over the next 6, 12 or 24 months. What will your workplace look like if, say, hypothetically a virus spreads across the world and changes every single part of how and where you do your daily work?
You know, just before COVID triggered a public health emergency, when we knew it was a thing but it hadn’t spread out of any major areas in the United States yet, I participated in a series of tabletop exercises in our long-term care community. I’ll never forget the first one. The facilitator told us that Facility X has its first presumptive case, now what happens? And we walked through a series of events, challenged each other’s assumptions, and tried to imagine what the environment in these facilities would look like. It got heated in there, people were getting passionate; there was a lot of yelling. But not in a mean or disrespectful way. No, people were outside of their comfort zones and were getting passionate and, honestly panicked. Now, whether or not the right calls were made is still being debated and we will likely never know the truth, but the reality is, we were more prepared because we took the time to run through these exercises.
In hindsight, it’s kind of ironic. To plan how to combat a respiratory virus, we put most of the state’s experts and head regulators into a small room and had them basically yell at each other for a few hours. Maybe not the best call there, but, hey, we were still figuring stuff out, right?
I think it’s important to take a moment and define stagnant, or what did I call it, cakewalk day-to-day. The picture I painted at the theater is not the only way this can look. Have you ever watched the show Scrubs? Was pretty popular back in the aughts. I forget the episode, but I was watching it here recently and it did this amazing thing. Dr JD Dorian was working in the chaos that is a hospital. In the scene, everything around him was moving at like triple speed, but he was moving normally and the narration was about how even when things were wild and busy, it was still just another day at work. In that moment, JD was noticing the stagnation of his job. So it’s not about not having anything to do, it’s about the normal, daily routine no longer being a struggle.
As he often does, Kirk doubles down on this concept at the end of the episode. He, Spock and McCoy are capping the adventures they just had, as they often do at the end of the TOS episodes, and Kirk says, “Maybe we aren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we’re meant to struggle.” 48:37
This is not an idea or a concept unique to Star Trek. No, The Matrix brough this up, a couple of times, actually. And then. There are also a number of notable philosophers that have spoken at length on the subject: Nietzsche (knee-chuh), Kierkegaard, William Irvine, Marx, and more. In fact, Nietzsche said that to anyone he cares about, he wishes suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, and indignities because those things show that we can endure and we can be better. These philosophers basically say that our purpose in life is to face hardship and struggle and to come through with more experience, knowledge and wisdom.
So challenge the people you work with. Push them into that opportunity zone. But then you have to be an artist. The art here is creating an environment that lets people exist in their comfort and opportunity zones, but keeps them out of the red-alert zone. Because when you’re at red-alert, very little that is good happens.
We got a new 5-star review on Apple Podcasts! This one is from Erin Ollila. Erin says:
I really enjoyed the episodes I listened to, and I’m not even a Star Trek fan. That being said, it brought me back to my days of watching this show as a kid with my parents and I learned a few valuable lessons.
Thanks, Erin! Head on over to Apple Podcasts and rate and review the show and I’ll read it here on the podcast. Not all the podcast apps notify me or make it easy to see when a review comes through, so to be sure I see it and can share it, take a screenshot and send it over. You can send it to me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast or most of the other the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in X, a k i n.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
The second episode of the first season of Lower Decks, Envoys. This is a fun episode that I actually watch quite a bit. Not only does it have some of THE most incredible examples of organizational leadership that is truly person centered, but it also has a hilarious bit about speed-walking that plays very well in my family. I’m excited to share my thoughts on this one with you.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!