OVERALL RATING: B-. WRITING: C+. ACTING: B. SPECIAL NOTE: This is the episode in which Lt. Tasha Yar gets killed--a result of actor Denise Crosby's desire to leave the series.
THE SHOW: The notion of a civilization shedding all of its own negative feelings, evil desires, murderous impulses and other bad vibes, thereby creating an entity who embodies all the evil, then isolating that entity on its own planet where it can't hurt anybody, is certainly thought-provoking--and perhaps sums up the collective wish of all of the many peace-loving citizens of planet earth in the face of humanity's cruelties. One cannot help but think of the Nazi death camps, the Inquisition, the extermination of the Indians, the torture, rape and murder of thousands of people in Yugoslavia, the mass slaughters in Rwanda, Jeffrey Dahlmer killing and eating his victims, and all sorts of madness, horror and crime--wouldn't you like to remove it all to another planet and lock the planet up for good?
Hysterics are now calling for more capital punishment, to accomplish just this--the removal of evil to a safe distance from which we can comfort ourselves that it is not part of who we are; that it is other. This is the premise of "Skin of Evil," that evil is, or can be made to be, something apart from ourselves.
This idea of accumulating evil in one place has been done before, elsewhere, by other writers in other media, and will be done again by Star Trek--but never quite so graphically as it is done here, in "Skin of Evil," which presents the negative being as a big glob of motoroil with a voice. It is absurd, cartoonish, funny, and scary, all at once. It is audacious--and risky. It is even a bit silly, yet one cannot help but admire its chutzpah.
Ursula Le Guinn dealt with this concept, in a story in which the happiness and mental freedom of an entire people was premised upon the imprisonment and torment of one child. All evil gets removed from the other citizens and projected onto her. The Catholic Church and other religions project the evil onto Satan, a "fallen angel" who resides in Hell, a place of eternal torment. Satan can also move in the world, can inhabit a living person, and can be "exorcised," that is, cast out. (The New Testament has Jesus casting evil into a herd of pigs.) And many shamanic religions hold the belief that evil can be projected, contained, warded off with talismans and cast away. It is a spiritual idea, rather than a scientific one; although, in this episode, "Skin of Evil," Star Trek tries to give it a scientific gloss.
The evil entity Armus, which resembles a large oil slick, and which inhabits a planet called Vagra II, possesses the scientific wherewithal to pull a shuttlecraft out of the sky (with Counselor Troi aboard), and to protect itself with shields. Its sole purpose in life is to torment whatever creatures it can ensnare. It is the personification of all of the evil of its race, which cast all of its evil into Armus, then left Armus behind. (One wonders where these super-clean beings now reside, and whether or not they suffer guilt for creating such a monster--and are now looking for somewhere to project their guilt)
The story never really explains where Armus' scientific devices reside, nor how they operate. Its technological powers come across as magical--as being, somehow, the result of its psychic energy. In truth, its technological powers are merely plot devices, with no explanation. No one thought the matter through.
Anyway, the plot gives us some exciting situations: Riker drowning in a gooey black pit, suffering the torments of Hell, while his comrades helplessly watch, prevented from rescuing him by the creature's shield. Data accusing the creature of "pure sadism," and pronouncing Armus to be "irredeemable" (a rare judgement from Data). Troi trapped within the creature's shield, her empathic powers overwhelmed by the presence of total malice. Lt. Yar getting killed.
A Star Trek lead character getting killed is a bit shocking, especially such an attractive one--the spunky, tough, beautiful Lt. Tasha Yar. The hologram she leaves behind, containing a holographic image of herself saying goodbye to each of her comrades--which she had apparently prepared beforehand, in case of her death--provides a more graceful exit, with Yar noting the innocence of Data's character (while yet Data, as we know, is the only Enterprise officer with whom Yar has had sexual intercourse), her warm praise of Captain Picard, and so on. Yar's death--and Crosby's farewelll--rather takes over the episode. Her shining blonde figure sharply contrasts with foul oil slick left to suffer in its own evil stench on Vagra II.
Crosby felt that her character didn't get enough screen time. She had just been featured in Playboy magazine and wanted to pursue a film career. She later returns to Star Trek, for a guest role as Yar in an alternative universe ("Yesterday's Enterprise), and a guest role as Yar's daughter--a daughter given over to evil plotting with the Romulans. Her image is used in "The Measure of a Man" to prove that Data is, well...human. Her legend is referred to, in "Legacy," when the Enterprise suddenly encounters Yar's sexy but very untrustworthy sister Ishara. Evil seems to linger around the character of Lt. Yar--the sticky residue of Armus? As the Enterprise crew stand on the bank of the oil slick entity and gaze down into the pit of pure evil, they resemble nothing so much as Dante and Virgil gazing down the ridges of Purgatory. The stance is absurd, rather like looking into a mirror and judging that reflected image of yourself to be an independent being. The "Purgatorio" is absurd. "Skin of Evil" is absurd. But what the hell? They can fill an empty hour with thoughts of a better world.
TERGIVERSATION METER READING: +1. A difficult episode to judge, as to ambiguity, evasiveness, and betrayal of the Enlightenment. The very idea of evil being an entity and residing in a place would seem to be anti-progressive, anti-rational and anti-humanistic. Yet the depiction of such an idea can be cleansing--the way horror movies can expunge our fears by enacting them. Remember Bettelheim's notion that children need scary fairy tales--with witches and monsters--to personify their fears. By graphically depicting images of horror and evil, we allow ourselves to give them conscious consideration. In the humanistic philosophy, everything that human beings (or other sentient creatures) do needs to be noted, observed and studied, including projecting all evil into a place or an entity, however ridiculous this idea may seem to the rational part of our minds. For all its cartoonishness, "Skin of Evil" makes the sophisticated point that projecting evil away from ourselves (into others--into "witches," into "communists," into the Devil, or into an Entity) can be dangerous, but it stops short of making any further point--for instance, that understanding and dealing with our "dark side" (without projecting it) makes for a safer and healthier culture.
Tergiversate (tur-ji-ver-sat): 1. To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate. 2. To change sides; to defect; apostatize. The Tergiversation Meter scale runs from -5 (very defective) through +5 (unambiguous, true blue philosophical humanism with no negative subliminal messages).
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