Sup-Planted, TOS: S1E24 “This Side of Paradise”

Plants are seldom the feature of most SciFi stories, which is a shame considering their vast diversity of interesting characteristics.  In this early episode, we meet an extra-terrestrial plant, as opposed to the usual bipedal, fin-faced Star Trek alien.  Travelling to Omicron Ceti III, the Enterprise crew expected its Federation colony to have perished from lethal radiation exposure, but instead find them alive and well.  In fact, they are better; the colonists not only appear to be happy and peaceful, but they recovered from old injuries in ways that were physically impossible.

The planet was home to a flower whose spores radically improved anyone who came into contact with them, but also made them reluctant to leave the planet.  Even Spock admits that these spores enabled him to feel happy for the first time in his life, but he inevitably had to relinquish the ability in the end.  The strange plant seems to have developed spores which have a profound effect on humans, but it is possibly by accident.

Our world is teeming with complex creatures, many of which produce highly sophisticated substances to aid in their survival and defense.  Biochemical pathways are complex, but they often use the same compounds for multiple processes, such as how ATP is employed as a universal energy molecule.  Plants lack the ability to escape from predators, so they rely on chemical defense most of all.  One such example is the nicotine produced by tobacco plants.  Originally intended by the plant to be an insecticide, smoking tobacco would not kill a human; instead, it acts as a stimulant.

The episode suggests that the plants developed a sort of mutual relationship with humans, granting health and happiness to a host body that can distribute its spores.   We see this strategy often in nature when plants produce fruit or nectar.  Much of the plant’s energy is expended on these high-calorie products, which are not used by the plant in any way; they only distribute reproductive material.

However, if the alien plant wasn’t accidentally or mutually transforming the Starfleet officers, then another more sinister plot may be at work.  Parasitic organisms have been known to manipulate their host to encourage the desired behaviour leading to the parasite’s survival.  The strange flowers imprisoned their victims in a haze of contentedness, and this discouraged the host from leaving the planet.  All of this could have been an evolutionary tactic to ensure a consistent population of spore distributing orgasms that are forced to live near the flowers.  The happiness that the victims felt may have only been a defense mechanism to suppress the anger necessary to expel the spores and overcome their effects.

Mutual, serendipitous, complex, or sinister, plants can be just as interesting as any hominoid alien.  However, we are hominoid creatures, and therefore naturally biased toward the social and political conflicts so important to our kind.  The SciFi genera is just as interested in this inward analysis, even if it claims to be about outward exploration.  This is probably the reason for its lack of plants, but although they are sadly neglected in the Star Trek past, we may see more in Trek’s future.


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