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The Enterprise is sent on an emergency mission to the world of Ardana to pick up a shipment of zenite, which is needed to stop a deadly botanical plague on another Federation world. The political and artistic leaders of Ardana live in a city suspended in the clouds, called Stratos. Kirk doesn't want to waste time with pleasantries, so he and Spock beam down directly to the planet's surface, where the miners (called troglytes) live.
The zenite is not there, and Kirk and Spock are soon attacked by three troglytes, lead by a young woman named Vanna. The leader of Ardana, Plasus, beams down from Stratos with some security men, and the troglytes run off. Plasus explains that the troglytes have been restive, stirred into violence and rebellion by a small group of them that call themselves "disruptors". Plasus invites them to wait in Stratos while he has a search undertaken for the zenite.
They beam up to the city of Stratos and find that it is in complete contrast to the planet's surface. The surface was barren, rocky, and cold. Stratos is beautiful and filled with works of art, and apparently warm even though much of the city is open to the air. Plasus introduces them to his daughter, Droxine, who takes a shine to Spock. Plasus and Droxine explain how their society has a complete divide between those who work (the troglytes) and those who pursue intellectual and artistic goals (the Stratos city-dwellers). They give little thought to the needs of the troglytes or what the conditions are like on the surface, saying that the troglytes are mentally inferior and could not appreciate or understand the finer pleasures of Stratos.
Kirk and Spock retire to a chamber to rest. While Kirk naps, Spock ponders the huge inequities in the planet's culture. He ponders whether Droxine truly knows what the troglytes endure. He leaves to speak with Droxine, apparently flirting with her; he even tells her about Vulcans' seven-year mating cycle. This is bizarre, to say the least.
There are troglytes in Stratos to act as servants and security guards, so there are means of accessing the transporter to get to and from the surface. Vanna has gotten into Stratos and enters Kirk's chambers to attack him while Spock is away. Kirk subdues her and tries to bargain with her to find out more about the troglytes, but Vanna doesn't trust him and just wanted to take him hostage. Spock and Droxine arrive, and Droxine calls for guards to take Vanna away.
Plasus proceeds to put Vanna in a torture device to try to find out more about the disruptors and the hidden zenite. Kirk and Spock hear Vanna's screams and race to the rescue. Kirk demands that Plasus end the torture, but Plasus does not appreciate Kirk meddling in his authority. He orders Kirk and Spock to return to the ship to wait for him to find the zenite. The delicate Droxine has no qualms witnessing Vanna's torture - apparently she isn't as innocent as she might appear.
Kirk and Spock return to the Enterprise, where McCoy reports his results from testing zenite. The unprocessed zenite releases a colorless, odorless gas that had serious detrimental effects on the mental abilities of humanoids and makes them more emotionally unstable. He also says that tests have shown that the troglytes really are less intelligent than Stratos city-dwellers, presumably because they have been breathing all that zenite gas. However, McCoy's tests show that once a person stops breathing the zenite gas, his mental abilities should return. He will make filter masks for the troglytes.
Kirk communicates these finds to Plasus, but Plasus scoffs at them. He doesn't have any desire to get the filter masks to the troglytes. Kirk wants to use the masks as an incentive for the troglytes to give them the zenite, but Plasus will have none of it.
In desperation, Kirk decides to try bargaining with the troglytes directly. He beams into Vanna's cell with one of the masks and explains the situation. She is extremely skeptical at first, but eventually seems to believe him. She agrees to take Kirk to the batch of zenite, which is hidden in the caves. They disable the guard and beam down to the surface.
Of course, Vanna has tricked Kirk and has no intention of giving him the zenite. She has another two troglytes disarm him, and then sends them off on an errand while she guards the captain with his own phaser. She makes him dig for zenite. Kirk goes along with it for awhile, and then distracts Vanna, grabs the phaser, and shoots it to cause a cave-in to trap them. The cave must be pretty shallow, though, because he can still contact the ship with his communicator.
Kirk calls the ship and orders Spock to beam Plasus down into the cave with them. After Plasus is finally alone on Stratos, Spock obeys. Needless to say, Plasus is enraged to have been transported into the cave against his will. Kirk says he wants to give both him and Vanna first hand experience with the zenite gas and forces them to both dig zenite.
There are only hours left before the plague on the other world wipes out all the plant life. At first, Plasus denies that the zenite gas is having any effect. However, we can see that Kirk's temper is extremely short, as is Plasus's. We know that the gas has made them lose all reason when Plasus challenges Kirk to a fight with knives, and Kirk accepts, tossing his phaser aside. They begin wrestling. In desperation, Vanna grabs Kirk's communicator and calls the Enterprise for help. Spock beams them all up, and even then he has a hard time breaking up the fight between Kirk and Plasus.
The next thing we know, everyone is cleaned up and on Stratos. Vanna has promised to get the zenite to Kirk in exchange for filter masks for all the troglytes. Plasus claims that he still doesn't believe the effects of the zenite gas, and he's still furious about Kirk abducting him. He has no intention of granting any of the disruptors' demands. Kirk offers to mediate between the two sides (after the emergency mission is finished), but it doesn't seem that they want his help.
This episode is a bit of a hidden gem in the very lackluster second half of the series' third season. It has a lot of good ideas, and the ending is not clean-cut and happy.
The culture on Ardana has taken the institution of slavery to its extreme: the masters are extremely privileged in every way, even living in the sky, while the slaves toil endlessly and never see any of the fruits of their labors. Since the city of Stratos is completely isolated and controllable, it's relatively easy for the city-dwellers to maintain their superiority and control.
I know that the Federation allows individual worlds to run themselves, but I have to wonder if the Federation realized what was going on in Ardana's society when they were admitted; I can't believe the Federation would allow slavery, which is what the troglytes were in fact, if not in name. I wonder if Kirk's report on this mission will cause anyone in the Federation to come and see just what's going on on Ardana, and if that will cause any major changes to their society.
The characters in this episode were much more realistic than they usually are in TOS episodes. Vanna is the traditional rebel, yes, but she was not easily persuaded by Kirk's charm and immediately believe his explanation concerning the zenite gas. She was eventually convinced, but only after Kirk's "test". (Kirk had a great response to her in the cave. When she complained that his trapping them there would cause them to run out of air, he says something to the effect of, "What, we'll be harmed by something we can't even see? Vanna, you astound me!")
Plasus never changed his views at all. After his experience in the mine, he has to realize that the effects of the gas are real, but he has absolutely nothing to gain from giving the troglytes more privileges and rights, and so he's not about to publicly admit it. He essentially had no choice to allow Kirk to barter the filter masks for the zenite, but we can see that he's going to fight the troglytes on everything he can. Frankly, for a society that has the technology to float a city in the sky, it's almost beyond belief to think that they didn't know zenite gas was detrimental.
Droxine's character was a bit of a mish-mash. At times she seemed sympathetic to the troglytes, but at other times she kept to Plasus's party line. It seems that she can empathize with individual troglytes, but doesn't understand them as a group. She is young, however, and may still be developing her views on all of these issues. Hopefully Kirk and Spock have influenced her in a positive way.
The flirtation between Spock and Droxine was pretty silly and unbelievable. After all the half-clothed women Spock has encountered in various episodes, it's hard to believe he'd suddenly be interested in one. Given his introspection regarding Ardana's society, I might think he was faking the flirting just to get Droxine to reveal her views, but I think that's crediting the episode with a bit too much cleverness.
I liked the glimpse this episode gave into how the Federation is organized and what member worlds are obligated to do. It makes sense that one of the benefits of being part of the Federation is receiving aid in times of dire crisis, and that one of the obligations would be to provide that aid. However, it's apparently up to the individual worlds' governments to decide how to implement that aid, since Plasus was in charge of making sure the zenite was appropriated. At what point could the Federation step in if a world wasn't living up to its obligations?