|Jimmy wants big boom.|
What’s most immediately interesting, to start with, is that we seem to have encountered a temporal event of our own and skipped several episodes. The Federation was established in “Arena”, and Starfleet way back in “Court Martial” but we haven’t seen much of either of them since and it didn’t seem to alter the status quo of the show in any meaningful way. The Enterprise still putted about on routine patrol for the most part. “The Alternative Factor” and “Tomorrow is Yesterday” gave us some sweeping, dramatic shakeups, but both of those seemed like special exceptions: Not quite narrative collapses, but definitely temporary crises in the way things worked. Still, nothing we didn’t really think we wouldn’t come back from. The only indication things might be changing at all was in, ironically enough, Gene Roddenberry’s own “The Return of the Archons”. In “A Taste of Armageddon”, however, the Federation now has the full name of the United Federation of Planets (implying a structure larger than just Earth and its colonies) and the Enterprise is now escorting its ambassadors on a mission to open up friendly negotiations with civilizations around the galaxy (confirming it). This is, to understate things considerably, a rather immense shift in standard operating procedure for Star Trek.
A cursory glance at the credits reveals this to be not completely unprecedented or unexpected, as this is the second script from Gene Coon, who, recall, penned “Arena” himself as well. This one is also credited to a Robert Hamner, but, aside from an interesting note that he is listed as the creator of the police procedural S.W.A.T., I can’t find a lot of biographical information on him and not having seen that show personally I’m somewhat at a loss to talk about his positionality and interests as a writer. But Coon is a known quantity to us by now, and as his name shows up twice, as both the co-writer of the episode and the current showrunner, it’s probably safe to attribute an at least not-insignificant amount of the ethics here to him. And besides this makes sense as “A Taste of Armageddon” is very much the evolution of the territory we first found ourselves in with “Arena”.
At first glance this episode would seem to be about the juxtaposition of the Enterprise crew and the world of Federation diplomats. Ambassador Fox is depicted first as just as much of an obstructive bureaucrat as Commissioner Ferris in “The Galileo Seven” and he frequently butts heads with Kirk, and later Scott, in a rote safety of the mission vs. safety of the ship debate that’s already become a stock and hackneyed Star Trek plot. It’s Fox’s bizarre fixation on opening relations with the Eminians at all costs that puts the lives of everyone on the ship in grave jeopardy, leads to Kirk’s away team being captured and thrusts everyone headfirst into the EminianXVendikan war. Following the logic the show has established up to this point, it would seem sensible to read the episode’s central conflict as one between distant officials in fancy suits and the soldiers on the front lines who know the reality of living day to day on the edge. Further evidence for this interpretation would be in the scenes where Fox keeps acting bullheaded and naively trustworthy, lacking the gut sense of trouble Scott and McCoy have and the climax, where, after being rescued from the disintegration chamber, he flatly tells Spock that he’s “never been a soldier” but “learns quickly”.
What’s also interesting is this also further condemns the Federation. Absolutely nothing related to the UFP seems to work in this episode: The Federation’s obsessive demand to open up trade agreements in the NGC 321 cluster seem comically overstated and it’s really never fully explained why the area is so important to them. We just have to open up diplomatic relations because…they’re diplomatic relations. You’ve got to open diplomatic relations, I guess. Fox’s overtures just about get him and the crew sentenced to death, and every other discussion tactic he attempts fails both decisively and hilariously. Diplomacy is shown to be, on the whole, ineffective and overly convoluted at best and blinkered to the point of being actually dangerously counterproductive at worst. Fox does get a manner of redemption in the end when he offers to stay behind on Eminiar VII to help moderate talks between them and Vendikar, but it’s clear this isn’t quite in either his job description or his area of expertise: He says he’ll do the best he can, but by no means does he give us the indication he’s the best person for the job, or even that this is the right job for the situation at hand. Even Spock says normal diplomatic procedures aren’t going to work here.
So obviously what we have is another chest-thumping, tale about honour and duty and the rugged, manly heroism of the militaristic way of life, a la “The Corbomite Manuever” or, to a lesser extent, “Court Martial”? Not quite. Coon may have been an ex-marine, but sometimes it takes a veteran to realise the ugliness that can exist in the world. The reality is “A Taste of Armageddon” is a deeply, deeply cynical story. Just about every element of the show at every level is seriously problematized. Fox is misguided and dangerous, but so is everyone else: The Eminians and the Vendikans have made killing clinical and routine because war is too important to their cultural heritage to move beyond and even Kirk and the Enterprise crew, who are definitely meant to have the moral and ethical high ground, are retroactively made, and by their own admission, natural-born, instinctive killers. On the one hand this episode isn’t quite as dark, somber and brutal as “Balance of Terror” as it does have some exciting setpieces and Kirk, Scott, Spock and McCoy all get to deliver some very rousing and triumphant speeches. On the other hand, this episode is extremely disquieting in some other areas, namely, in that it makes the audience *uncomfortable* for liking these things.
Indeed, this is essentially the entire point of the story-Kirk freely calls himself a barbarian and a bloodthirsty killer, is willing to risk the total destruction of both Eminiar VII and Vendikar and his big speech involves widening the net of that condemnation to everyone on both planets, the Enterprise and basically all of humanity itself. The central failing of the Eminians is that, in reducing war to a numbers game, they’ve forgotten how horrific and destructive it is and why it’s something to be avoided. But this is by no means a hypothetical or a thought experiment: Coon has a very clear target in mind he’s satirizing here, and it’s us. Or, at least, the US in the 1960s: Dave Gerrold, an important Star Trek creative figure who we’ll start to talk at length about next season, says the computers tallying up the simulated war casualties was a direct reference to, and condemnation of, the way the mainstream news in the United States at the time covered the constantly updating ground reports of similar casualties Vietnam War. This goes beyond problematizing war as a spectacle to attacking war as a mundane reality, and no-one is spared from judgment and reproach: In order to teach us war is monstrous, Kirk turns himself into a monster and, in the process, shows us we’re all monsters too. It is unbelievably disturbing.
The key line comes in the denouement, where Kirk states how “instinct can be fought”, and all it takes to start working towards peace is for a killer to say “I’m not going to kill today”. Which I mean yes, but…Bloody Hell is that depressing. It must be stressed that absolutely no-one in the story denies that humans (or I guess humanoids, as the Eminians and Vendikans aren’t meant to be human) are at heart murderous, bloodthirsty savage killers. The best we can hope for is that we eventually figure out how to work against our baser predilections to reach some semblance of social harmony. And well…There just really isn’t anywhere to go from that, is there? As much as Coon’s stinging critique actually does stick, my objection is we really don’t have any actual heroes here. The Federation is, again, tunnel-visioned, self-interested and shortsighted and Kirk and the Enterprise are essentially telling us they’re all murderous savages and we should feel bad for watching them.
This is particularly awful coming off of “The Return of the Archons”, an episode all about Gene Roddenberry just straight-up bearing all and saying no, he’s not a utopian and neither is Star Trek. Now we have Gene Coon telling us to our face, and in no uncertain terms, that we’re all terrible, cold-blooded monsters. In my darker moments I might agree with Coon’s indictment, but I’d kind of like to think we’re capable of being more than that. We don’t quite want a utopia: Roddenberry (and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this) quite sufficiently laid out the problems with that particular intellectual tradition last time. What we need is hopefulness and optimism; some kind of hint at a way forward. But we don’t get anything along those lines in “A Taste of Armageddon”: There’s no-one to actually root for here, nor any inkling there’s a way out of this. This isn’t just not Vaka Rangi, it feels like Star Trek throwing in the towel and flat out giving up on the possibility, however distant, of ever being Vaka Rangi at all.
In the last post I tried to argue that despite Roddenberry rejecting any claims of being a utopian in “The Return of the Archons”, there was still enough that was positive and hopeful about Star Trek that the chance of it remaining *idealistic* was still there. Is it possible to do some similar salvage work with Coon and “A Taste of Armageddon”? Very possibly. I’m at least not as willing to give up on the show as the show seems ready to give up on itself here. Not after 24 episodes and with two more seasons, five more TV shows, twelve movies and a frankly frightening amount of comic books, video games and mass-market paperback tie-in books in my future. Firstly, there is the truism argument: It’s a fact that countless people have read Star Trek as expressly progressive and idealistic series, so there has to be something here to support that. It’s simply ludicrous to expect *that many* people to be misreading the show. As I count myself as among those people, given the fact I’m doing this blog at all, I’d tend to agree with them at least in the very general sense. Last time I talked about how the mere presence of a mixed-race, mixed-gender and mixed-species crew is enough to inspire many people in spite of how unintentional or coincidental that might have been. I still stand by that, but let’s go one further. Let’s go back to Coon’s last episode.
Putting aside the possibly problematic aspects of their characters for the moment, the Metrons said humanity showed great promise. Kirk displayed “the advanced trait of mercy”, as it were, surprising them (and Coon, apparently, as well, given his attitude in this episode). We’re not quite good enough to make the cut now, but it’s entirely possible we might someday. I think the same can be said about Star Trek as a whole. Nearly a full season in, we have a rocky, confused and occasionally actually brilliant show that has the makings of something truly great about it. It’s not good enough to actually live up to its potential, and it’s frequently acting actively contrary to realising it far too often for my liking, but it’s worth keeping in mind when we caught our first glimpse of the Enterprise bridge in 1964 during the opening for “The Cage”, there was absolutely no indication the show would ever be able to achieve even the things it has 24 episodes in. I’m also lucky enough to speak from a privileged position: I know the future. I know what Star Trek will eventually beget, and it’s even more wonderful, bizarre, heartening, inspirational and magickal then even the most wild speculation about the show’s prospects as they stand now would suggest.
That this franchise will eventually spawn that, and still has the potential to become even greater things even today, is all the redemption I need.