“Work for peace at any price, except the price of liberty.”: Errand of Mercy

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"Tell me, Jim: Why do you fight?"

“Errand of Mercy” is the moment where all the themes and motifs Gene Coon has been working with since the beginning of his tenure finally coalesce into a cohesive, articulate message. It's a stinging indictment of what Star Trek is at this point, but what saves it from the nihilism of “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Space Seed” is that it's paired with a slightly more hopeful outlook gleaned from the other scripts Coon is the sole author of. It's not perfect, even by the standards the show's laid out for itself by this point, but it's a sufficiently effective statement of where the show is placing its ethics now. Also, it's the debut of the Klingon Empire, which is somewhat self-evidently important, so I guess I'd better deal with that.

There are few things more immediately recognisable as undeniably Star Trek than the Klingons. In terms of ubiquity within the pop consciousness, they're on par with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise. They're so well-known and beloved that fans who own replica Klingon uniforms, headpieces and weapons and speak Klingonese fluently are seen to be as quintessentially Star Trek as it's possible to get, and none of these things are even going to be a part of the franchise until 1989 at the absolute earliest. Even the Federation and Starfleet don't quite have this level of memorability and iconic status. In fact, the Klingons are so entrenched in people's ideas of what Star Trek is about there's only one other thing in the entirety of the franchise that can claim to have anywhere remotely near their level of cultural capital and that's the Klingons' own mortal enemies.Why might this be? Part of this has to be the fact the Klingons are the Original Series' only recurring antagonists. Although they only actually appear in seven episodes out of the show's 79 episode run, they do appear more frequently than any other alien race. Certainly the fact they get brought back and heavily retooled to become a lovable culture of proud, honourable (sometimes comically so) warriors in both the original movie series and the Rick Berman era also must have something to do with it, but there remains, after all, a reason they come back in the first place.

All that said, however, one thing that's worth noting about the Klingons in “Errand of Mercy” is that they really don't seem like they're actually cut out for the job: I'm not so much referring to the general execution of the characters here, although John Colicos' intense performance as Commander Kor is pretty much the one memorable, or actually convincing, acting job amongst the Klingon cast, but in terms of their actual conception. Common lore claims Coon based the Klingon Empire on the Soviet Union, and while there is evidence of this (Kor's comment to Kirk about how all Klingons are cogs and everyone is monitored primarily), D.C. Fontana asserts that Coon wrote it as more an amalgamation of all the worst traits he saw in the people he fought during World War II. Apart from the Soviets, Fontana claims Coon based the Klingons just as much on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, which makes a great deal of sense if you look at how they behave in the episode as aired. The problem is that because Coon throws all these disparate groups together, the Klingons end up feeling a bit like bland, generic and overly broad villains here, so any critique they may have been written to convey doesn't really stick.

The result of this is that we have an alien people who are somewhat lacking in distinction, and their effectiveness is slightly...mixed as a result. First of all, lets address the obvious. The costume design of the Klingon, consisting mostly of a bunch of dudes in blackface and fake goatees wearing faux chain mail is deeply unfortunate. Coon apparently didn't give any indication in his script as to what the Klingons were supposed to look like (apart from “Oriental” and “hard-faced” which is, well, bad), so the makeup department left it entirely up to John Colicos to come up with a design. Regrettably, Colicos decided to model them on Genghis Khan. This was obviously a bad idea for any number of reasons, just one in particular being we've already seen a Khan not three episodes ago. I mean I know video recording technology in 1967 wasn't what it is today, but I doubt audiences would have that short a memory. In all seriousness, the larger issue is of course the fact this makes the Klingons a more than vaguely racist mess. I mean, the production team on the supposedly racially diverse Star Trek didn't even approach Japanese actors, not that this would have been much of an improvement, but still defaulting to browning up Caucasian actors with makeup shouldn't be anyone's first move, even in 1967.

All of this adds up to the Klingons not really ticking all the boxes they should have to become a valid and legitimate reoccurring challenge to the Enterprise crew. Their conception is muddy, their execution is something of a disaster and they have a patently ludicrous name that will make them the butt of endless crude jokes in the future (apparently Fontana complained to Coon about this a number of times, imploring him to come up with a better sounding name. Clearly they never found one). All of this might have been OK had they just stayed here, which was actually the intent: According to subsequent interviews Coon never meant for the Klingons to come back, a claim supported by Fontana who tells us she figured he was just looking for a “good, tough” adversary for Kirk for this one episode. Fontana also says the reason the Klingons came back time and time again was because they were exceptionally cheap to costume, as opposed to the Romulans, who she found much more interesting, but which required special and pricey headpieces.

Let's actually think for a moment about what “Errand of Mercy” would have looked like with the Romulans instead, because the parts of this episode that don't have to do with Klingon culture and design are on the whole actually quite excellent. I bring up “Balance of Terror” a lot, mostly because it's incredible, but here the comparison really is valid. Paul Schneider very clearly meant for the Romulans to be a critique of imperialism by showing how the concept harms ordinary people, which is already a better setup in my view than “generic fascist”. Furthermore, however, the Romulan Star Empire was designed to be for all intents and purposes the same as Earth Command, down to Kirk and Mark Lenard's Commander being basically the same person. This approach would have fit “Errand of Mercy” like a glove, as the episode's whole point is that despite his protestations Kirk and Kor are both hot-blooded warriors and the Federation and the Klingon Empire are basically indistinguishable to people like the Organians. In that regard I have to praise not only Coon's script, which gives William Shatner and John Colicos very similar speeches, providing the story with a real structural symmetry and elegance, but also director John Newland, because the cinematography here is positively delightful. My favourite scene is at the end, when the Organians finally intervene and stop the war from breaking out: Kirk and Kor take turns spewing similarly phrased insults and demands at them, before indignantly declaring that they have “no right” to meddle in the affairs of “'my Federation!' 'Or my Empire!'” as the editing brilliantly ping-pongs back and forth between the two of them.

What this also does though is once again draw a contrast between Gene Coon and Paul Schneider. In the “Arena” post, I said the primary difference between the two writers is that while both go out of their way to problematize Star Trek's militarism, or are at least somewhat concerned with using the show to condemn the militarism of the day and provide a counterbalance to it, Coon seems to enjoy using Kirk as a stand-in for the diegetic ethics of the series while Schneider seems to play off Shatner's acting style and writes Kirk as someone larger than the show who might be in some sense constrained by it. While both are valid approaches, I do personally prefer Schneider's in this particular case as it seems to fit the character better. That said, Coon's comes from a curiously metatextual perspective: Despite him having Kirk make several morally bankrupt decisions, not only here (where he is disturbingly patronizing, paternalistic and cruel to the Organians) but also in “Arena” and the first half of “The Devil in the Dark”, this is always framed in the context of Kirk learning from his mistakes and recanting at the last moment to prove he has the potential to grow into a better person.

On the one hand, this would mean using the Romulans in “Errand of Mercy” would improve the script significantly, as Schneider's equation of them with us is arguably even better suited to this story than “Balance of Terror”. On the other hand, Coon's problematizing of Kirk means the effectiveness of the Romulans themselves might have been diluted somewhat: If the whole point of them is that they're part of an empire in decline and whose people are beginning to lose faith in it, than having a Romulan commander fill Kor's role here might not have worked as well. Of course, one other option might have been to create a totally new Romulan character, someone far more conservative in his views. Mark Lenard's character committed suicide of course, and this would also help contribute to the idea the Romulan Star Empire is a vast, sprawling entity comprising a vast array of people with many different perspectives: A Foundation-style galactic empire without Asimov's unfortunate determinism. However, this would also mean equating him with Kirk would have seemed contradictory, given his prior equation with Lenard's character in “Balance of Terror”.

The other area in which “Errand of Mercy” stumbles a little bit is its resolution. While the episode does a very good job building up to Kirk's inevitable fall by telegraphing the Organians as sophisticated, powerful pacifists from the beginning and have Kirk become gradually more adversarial, combative and dismissive, for this to have really worked we would have needed a scene that showed Kirk was more willing to put a stop to the war than Kor was, showing that there's some hope for him, much as we saw in his sparing of the Gorn captain in “Arena”. But we never really get that scene, or at least it's never quite clear enough. Instead, it's left to Spock to paper things over at the end by talking about how it took the Organians millions of years to reach the state they did, so he shouldn't be too embarrassed and disappointed. The problem is this feels like something of a step back for Coon, and it pushes “Errand of Mercy” a bit too close to the nihilism of “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Space Seed” for my particular taste. Both this episode and “The Devil in the Dark” might have been more effective had their positions in the season been switched, with the former episode serving much better as Kirk's final redemption, or at least proof that he's capable of redemption.

But the fact Spock, who has by this point firmly been established as the show's central character in several areas, seems to think it's possible for humans to grow is a powerful statement in of itself. Spock has been subject to no small manner of discrimination on this show, and his positionality gives him a unique perspective on the actions of people like Kirk and organisations like the Federation. If he, who so wishes to distance himself from his human side, seems to think we might not be so bad after all, that should tell us a lot. This leaves us with a fundamental question, however: At the end of Star Trek's first season we've seen an awful lot of reflexiveness, introspection and back-and-forth about what this show is and the consequences to be had as a result of making a firm decision about it. We've had the show ripped to shreds by forces within and above the narrative and had it stressed by more than one entity that in spite of all of this there's potential and the humans of Star Trek are capable of great things. But that's just it; we've heard a lot about potential, but very few concrete steps in a progressive direction. The onus is now on the show to prove not only that it has potential, but that it's actually capable of fulfilling it.

Comments

SpaceSquid 3 years, 9 months ago

Lovely analysis, Josh. It never occurred to me how the episode might work were the Klingons replaced by Romulans, but that's mainly because all my imagination went into replacing them with Cylons instead.

Just one quibble: don't the Romulans count as recurring adversaries as well? I mean, I know plenty of people don't like talking about TOS's third year, but Spock pretending an overly-complex nose-picking technique could be fatal to humans really did happen...

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 9 months ago

Thank you!

Obviously the Romulans are technically recurring adversaries in that they come back, but they only show up twice more in the Original Series while the Klingosn show up six more times. There's simply no way they're going to leave the same kind of impact, and it should tell you something I'd forgotten they were in "The Deadly Years" and had to look it up to remind myself.

That said, I'm of course going to look at the third season. A Star Trek renewed purely to fill out a syndication package and without Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana is still a Star Trek worthy of analysis.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 9 months ago

To some extent the revived series reversed the original conceptions. In TOS, Romulans were honour-focused and Klingons were sneaky and treacherous. In TNG and DS9, it's the other way around.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 9 months ago

There's a really fantastic scene in one of Mark A. Altman's DS9 stories that addresses, and to some extent bemoans, this transition.

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trekker709 3 years, 9 months ago

"According to subsequent interviews Coon never meant for the Klingons to come back, a claim supported by Fontana..." that surprised me, it seems so prophetic that Coon has Ayelborne say to Kirk, “It is true that in the future, you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together.” Maybe a lot of that had to do with Michael Dorn’s personal contributions to TNG.
To me the most amazing thing about Star Trek is that it has appealed to such a wide range of people with diverse or conflicting perspectives and values.

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Unknown 1 year, 6 months ago

Did you know the original quote was actually said by the anarchist Lucy Parsons in the 1890s?

How famous is this quote as a Star Trek quote? I want it as a tattoo but I don't want people to assume it's from Star Trek (no offense!).

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Josh Marsfelder 1 year, 6 months ago

It's not a Star Trek quote. It's a quote from Lucy Parsons.

That's why I used it :-)

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