Ideas may be bulletproof, but nobody’s tried plasma rifles

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Aaron
    July 3, 2013 @ 7:47 am

    Most episodes of TOS (or any Star Trek series besides Enterprise) I can't really evaluate, because I haven't watched them in so long that they are just childhood memories. Given that, the ones that have left a firm imprint on me are the ones that I remember fondly. And this is absolutely one of them. To me, this episode defines one of the early shows themes, which is that logic and bureaucracy, bereft of human feeling or ethical guidance, can lead humanity down a nightmarish path. I really love the premise of this episode- it really feels like Golden Age sci fi to me.

    It also encapsulates an ongoing theme in American (and British, for that matter) life in the 50s and 60s- the fear of conformity, of the organisation man, and of bureaucracy. After World War II, American men worried that there was an erosion of the traditional foundations of masculinity in society: autonomy, individualism, and personal achievement. Computers (and communists, for that matter) seem to exemplify the end result of this fear: that modern society will become led only by heartless, number crunching bureaucracies. As a result, a lot of the sci-fi in these two decades works as a reaction to this. On the other side of the pond, Doctor Who's the Ice Warriors is tackling the exact same idea at the exact same time. In the Ice Warriors, human leaders don't know how to act without first being told by computers, and it takes the Doctor and his intuitive, personal mode of doing things to make the right decision. Here, Kirk takes the same role: it takes someone with genuine emotions, someone who is defined through personal, individualised achievement, to topple the system of pure logic.

    You've touched on this theme a couple times in previous episodes, but treated it a) as a silly moral, when I think it captures a fundamental cultural worry of the time period, and b) treated it as something only Roddenberry is concerned with, when Coon and basically every other sci fi writer (and quite a few mainstream writers) were tackling the same idea. I think it's also important to recognise the gendered component: Kirk exemplifies manhood because he can work within an bureaucracy without becoming subordinate to it. In doing so, he's teaching us how to navigate the office jobs of the sixties and fifties while still keeping our manhood intact.

    Sorry if that's all over the place- I'm a historian, but it takes me forever to write anything, and so I normally save my writing energy for the papers I have to write. So when I post on message boards my writing comes off as really scatterbrained. But this episode touches on one of my specialties as a historian, so I wanted to talk to you about it.


  2. Josh Marsfelder
    July 3, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

    And you've done a very good job articulating your thoughts on it! I do, however, disagree on some accounts and will respond to them.

    Firstly I have to state upfront this is a viewpoint I'm never going to be especially sympathetic to, regardless of whether or not it's made in the 1960s or today. My beliefs in regards to gender roles are "anarcha-feminist" to the point of "borderline female supremacist" so, bluntly, I'm not going to have a lot of time for people fretting about the degradation of proper, traditional masculine values.

    I'm also not entirely convinced Kirk is the best example to call on as an example of traditional manhood anyway, given William Shatner is blatantly playing him as a campy drag action hero as far as I'm concerned and the homoeroticism between him and Leonard Nimoy's Spock is legendary. I grant Roddenberry might have seen him that way (this is the same guy who cast Jeffry Hunter in "The Cage" and seemed to think Jean-Luc Picard was equitable to John Wayne, after all) but I don't think that's at all the way Shatner sees him, or indeed what his pop culture legacy truly is.

    In regards to the thread of skepticism over emergent computer technology and the subsuming of human individuality, I fully intend to cover that in TOS, just not quite yet. I figure "The Ultimate Computer" is the best place to talk about that and its appearance in previous episodes is more nascent and ill-defined in my opinion. Right now I'm more interested in how the show as it exists in 1967 is slowly assembling the pieces that will make it a pop culture staple.

    If I've dismissed anything Roddenberry's penned as a "silly moral" it's because that's how he writes and demonstrably the kind of thing he first created Star Trek to be about. Roddenberry likes very simplistic morality plays at this point, and in many ways the science fiction trappings are, at least under him, almost more trendy window dressing; an attempt to make the show current. Coon's brought in more of a sci-fi mindset and seems much more willing to look at the show from a 1960s sci-fi perspective and what the ramifications of that might be, but we're still in the early stages of this. Not for much longer though: In three episode's time we get the first recognizably "Star Trek" story of TOS and it's brilliant.

    I grant the thread you're interested in is there, but I think it's a bit more complicated than that and thus requires a lot of context and qualifiers to properly analyze in this specific case. What makes Star Trek interesting to me is that it's a jumbled mess of a lot of different ideas and concepts that shouldn't, and really still don't, go together. It's contradictory and paradoxical, frequently to its advantage, but just as frequently to its detriment as well.


  3. Aaron
    July 3, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    Well, I mean, we're all feminists here, so that's neither here nor there. But I think you can discuss how those in power view the degradation of masculinity without necessarily making moral judgements on the legitimacy of those views. I think often it's our goal to see how people viewed the world around them, whether or not they're male or female, privileged or not. I'm not a fan at all of traditional masculinity, whatever that means. But it's a common theme in the 50s and 60s, and thus it pervades a lot of popular culture.

    I grant you your reading of Kirk as a camp hero, and that's an interesting one that I haven't seen before. But he's often written like mid-fifties John Wayne. I'm in particular thinking of Wayne's role in Big Jim McClain, where he tries to root out a communist conspiracy in Hawaii. Most of that film is showing how John Wayne, as a representative of the government, uses the power he's granted to work together with others, and in doing so mutes the effects of the dehumanising bureaucracy. Often, I see Kirk doing just that: he's a recognisably male voice, but one that functions in a world that requires teamwork and cooperation. He's often used, as he is in this episode, as the voice of humanity that serves as the ethical check on bureaucracy.

    I also wouldn't characterise my reading of Kirk as a image of traditional masculinity, but rather as a guide to masculinity in a new era. Kirk can't be the cowboy that Roddenberry envisions Pike as. Instead, he has to find a way to work within the system and still retain masculine virtues that 1960s American culture still values. If anything, I think he's a flailing around for a new type of masculinity, one that melds together the strengths of the organisation man (Spock) and the older intuitive (inner-directed) McCoy. But of course, like you have tried to demonstrate throughout this blog, it is what it is: confused.

    Granted, Shatner might be playing against this, that's totally fair. But I don't think that means that it's not there.

    I guess I just see the logic versus emotion as being the defining theme that pervades all of TOS. But fair enough if you're saving this thread for later, I'll be excited to see it.

    Anyways, thanks for the reply, it's a good conversation.


  4. Ununnilium
    July 4, 2013 @ 5:54 am

    Interesting. I don't see this episode this way at all.

    To me, it does have clear heroes – the crew of the Enterprise. Yes, they're flawed heroes, but what they're showing us is that the only way to overcome one's flaws is by acknowledging them and consciously deciding not to give in to them.

    For all that this story is powered by Vietnam-rage, I always thought it was expressing simple lessons in a straightforward way – don't believe it when they tell you about the "necessity" of war or the idea of a "clean" war; don't let people sitting far away from the ugliness of war dictate its course; don't make war automatic. Simple lessons, but ones that don't get said enough.


  5. Ununnilium
    July 4, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    I think part of this aspect is that the things considered "masculine values" at the time really, of course, aren't; stuff like, as Aaron said, autonomy, individualism, and personal achievement. And thus I think it's reasonable enough to look at people's perception of the loss of those things without it necessarily being shackled to Those Damn Commies Flouridating Our Pure Natural Essence.


  6. Josh Marsfelder
    July 4, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    @Aaron, Unonnilium

    Fair enough, and I'd just like to make clear I wasn't fingering Aaron personally in any of my critique if it wasn't: The crisis of masculinity and how it relates to feminism is a theme I've worked a lot with other places, and I was just trying to lay out my views on the matter.

    The bureaucracy argument is an interesting one and I agree there's something there, I'm just not sure it's as applicable to this particular story, which I see as being just overwhelmingly cynical and critical to everyone. Yes, the Federation (via Fox) is depicted as bull-headed and stubborn, but I have a hard time seeing Kirk's "we're all bloodthirsty murders and monsters and the way to move forward is to internalize this" argument as a viable response to it either.

    As for the Eminians, I see their failing as the fact they've turned war into a mundane reality, not that they've become too focused on computers. The bureaucratic structure their government has is shown to be the least of their problems, and furthermore I just don't see the script allying itself with anyone here: It strikes me as a particularly bleak bit of Vietnam-era despair that goes out of its way to problematize everyone involved. If anything I see this thread more present in something like "The Galileo Seven", "Court Martial" or even "The Return of the Archons" than "A Taste of Armageddon".

    I agree the logic vs. emotions debate is a central one to Star Trek but I guess I read it a bit differently. The thing about Number One is she was very clearly Gene Roddenberry's favourite character. She was written expressly for Majel Barret for one, but also Roddenberry has said he came up with the idea after musing that pure, untainted logic would be a preferable way to handle certain crisis situations as it would allow a person to think without being distracted by emotions. As a result tying this to masculinity is problematic to me, even granting all of Number One's significant feminism problems and Roddenberry's own confused attitude about gender roles. That aside, I see Roddenberry pretty clearly in favour of an emotionless logician character, and even after Number One became Spock a lot of the earliest episodes in his tenure seemed to side pretty unequivocally with him.

    What I see Roddenberry interested in now is trying to balance logic and emotional instinct and weighing the two and trying to come up with some middle ground approach that is both a better approach to leadership than exists now that still recognises the value of human emotion. In that regard though the key character for me is Spock, not Kirk, who is now explicitly half-human and half-Vulcan and this, tied with Leonard Nimoy's performance, allows the tension between his logic and his emotions to become even more obvious than it would be otherwise. There's a story coming up two episodes from now that deals overtly with this.



  7. Josh Marsfelder
    July 4, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    (and apologies for misseplling Ununnilium's name)

    As for Kirk himself, camp is certainly a way to reconceptualise masculinity: Gay men would certainly like to be called masculine and drag performers definitely know what the word means, they just decentralise and shift its definition and connotations in an attempt to make it less authoritarian. I'm just not entirely sure Shatner is interested in masculinity in the same way Roddenberry is, and I'm still trying to tease out how Kirk's relationship to Spock and McCoy works. Aaron's analysis reminds me a little of the id/ego/superego debate I mentioned in "The Enemy Within", but I personally haven't seen many of the episodes since then lend themselves especially well to that kind of reading.

    Certainly "autonomy, individualism and personal achievement" were considered "masculine values", at least by Gene Roddenberry: He pretty much says precisely that in "Mudd's Women". But again, as with the computer argument, I maintain "The Ultimate Computer" is the story to talk about that in the context of, not "A Taste of Armageddon".


  8. Josh Marsfelder
    July 4, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    I like that reading a lot and it would certainly fit with Gene Coon's larger attitude in regards to Star Trek but that was a very difficult reading for me to tease out in the context of the month this story goes out in. It's bookended by some spectacularly bleak work IMO.

    But yes, railing against war becoming mundane is most definitely a worthwhile message and worthy of praise, even if it does seem to cripple everyone in the process.


  9. Adam Riggio
    July 4, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    The thing with the reading of Kirk as a hyper-masculine figure is that it's old hat, almost taken for granted. The sheer amount of multi-terrestrial venereal diseases he picked up and spread over the course of the series is one of the most familiar jokes about Star Trek. It's so familiar that it isn't even funny anymore. So a blog like this, looking for new angles to take on Star Trek criticism, would be advised to stay away from that dry well.

    The contrast between Kirk and Pike can be quite illuminating, though. Both are clearly cowboys, Wild West archetypes translated into sci-fi contexts. Pike is the sheriff: the stoic lawman who thinks of justice as following orders. But Kirk sees through his orders to the morality underlying them, and if the morality of his orders is uncool, he'll point that out and fight against them. If Pike is Gary Cooper, then Kirk is Clint Eastwood. Star Trek's intriguing take on this is to make the spacefaring Clint Eastwood into a figure of authority. He's a starship captain, occupying a place in the chain of command. But it's a place that gives him freedom.

    Jumping quite far ahead, this is why Kirk's character chafes at being made an admiral in the movies. Being a starship captain gives you the power of institutionalized authority, but also the space to follow a morality beyond the bureaucratic demands of the authority. Kirk is out in the daily life of the universe, where he can see the clean lines of plans and designs that make perfect sense in the abstraction of an admiral's office for the laughable idiocy they make in the world. Kirk is a hero, not only to the viewing audience, but also within the diegetic world of Star Trek, even though his most remarkable moments are when he disobeys orders or kicks his way through bureaucratic authority, even the authority that employs him.

    It reminds me of how Phil Sandifer analyzed Robert Holmes' vision of Doctor Who. The Doctor can exist well outside the constraints of authority while he fights against its injustices because the TARDIS is a space free of bureaucratic hierarchies to which he can retreat when the adventure is over. Kirk's home is in Starfleet, in his quarters on a military starship, and he's a captain in the military order. So the subversiveness of his character, that voice against bureaucracy in the name of the ideals he represents at his best moments as a Eastwood rebel cowboy, must simultaneously exist within that authority's structure. That's why Kirk is so wily and slippery. A manly camp hero. A captain who won't take orders.

    One of the central character narratives of Star Trek is Kirk seeking freedom within the constraints of his military life.


  10. Ununnilium
    July 4, 2013 @ 8:06 am

    That's fair. Basically, this is the reading I took of it when I saw it growing up.


  11. Ununnilium
    July 4, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    I'll definitely agree that, in this one, the use of computers isn't based around anxieties around computers; they're just a tool here, only flawed because they're part of the dehumanization process.


  12. trekker709
    July 4, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    I think it's true that Kirk & the crew do come off as heroic, at least relative to the others in this episode. To me, Kirk’s ‘savage’ words about humanity are not hopelessly cynical, they’re intended for effect, part of his strategy to save the crew and stop the killing (or rather, the brainwashed suicides). From the start, Kirk was firmly against putting the ship in danger until forced to do so by the ambassador. And finally Kirk’s actions do convince Anan to try negotiating for peace. Still I also agree that the main reason for associating Trek with optimism is not so much stories like this, but because “the mere presence of a mixed race, mixed gender and mixed species crew is enough to inspire many people.”


  13. Josh Marsfelder
    July 4, 2013 @ 11:39 am


    "The thing with the reading of Kirk as a hyper-masculine figure is that it's old hat, almost taken for granted. The sheer amount of multi-terrestrial venereal diseases he picked up and spread over the course of the series is one of the most familiar jokes about Star Trek. It's so familiar that it isn't even funny anymore. So a blog like this, looking for new angles to take on Star Trek criticism, would be advised to stay away from that dry well."

    Oh, don't worry: I plan to stray as far from the dry wall as it is possible for me to travel, not just IRT Kirk, but in many other areas too 🙂

    "A captain who won't take orders."

    You've touched on one of the core tenets of why I do actually like Star Trek and think it's valuable from a progressive perspective. And Kirk won't be the last person we meet that will be applicable to.


  14. Josh Marsfelder
    July 4, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    When taken on its own I can definitely see this, and it would certainly be in keeping with Kirk's character. But again, that's not the reading that came to me when taken in the context of the surrounding episodes. Early Coon-era Trek is about looking at what makes the show what it is and problematizing it in an effort to find a way forward IMO, and this month is a howling, screaming, despair-filled reaction against that process. But, er, that's mostly a concern for next time…


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