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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.

14 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    November 4, 2013 @ 5:39 am

    "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" was one of my favourite episodes of TOS, and not just because of the epic title, which is my major draw to "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (and because the 14 year old that lives in my left ventricle just enjoyed that Dr McCoy got a girl-of-the-week instead of Kirk). But I took a different message from the Lokai-Bele relationship than you did.

    I could see where Kirk and the crew were coming from because of a key difference between Lokai's rage and the rage of anti-racism/apartheid/Jim Crow. Lokai didn't just want an end to the discrimination of his people. I got the sense from his dialogue that he wanted to keep the oppressive structures of Charon society, and just switch positions. Instead of wanting reparations and an end to apartheid, he wanted revenge. Lokai treated Bele with a contempt that mirrors Bele's for himself. They always talked about the other's animalistic tendencies. The final fate of Charon likewise suggests that no one on either side of the conflict actually wanted peace, and preferred to use their psychokinetic powers to destroy each other rather than dismantle their racist institutions.

    I remember Kirk and the crew being irritated by Lokai, but also sympathetic to his concerns until he just became so enraged at Bele that he would actually have torn the ship apart to destroy him. I got the sense that Charon's society consisted of cycles of oppression as right-blacks and right-whites gained superiority. That's where Kirk's (admittedly oversimplified) language about throwing away mutual hatred came from.

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    November 4, 2013 @ 6:00 am

    I dunno. I mean I do see where you're coming from and it does definitely redeem the episode significantly, I'm just not sure even that is enough to salvage it for me. Oh, so we're going to do a story about racism and race hatred but we're going to cast the oppressed character as a vengeful manipulator. That still sounds like sidestepping the issue to me, and now it seems kinda ahistorical and unrealistic to boot: I'm having a very hard time coming up with examples of oppressed people who were as vindictive and spiteful as their oppressors. Typically the oppressed have a reason to be loud and angry. They might not always channel their anger in the right directions, but more often than not they should probably be forgiven for that. Lack of voice, respect and education are all side effects of oppression after all.

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  3. Flex
    November 4, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    Like so much of this show, this is anti-racism for Kennedy Liberals (which I actually mean in a fairly affectionate way), which is fine for what it is but doesn't hold up well if you actually want a sophisticated treatment on racism. This is another episode where a lot of the remembered strength is from the visual aesthetics. The make-up work is pretty striking and the sort of thing you remember even when you haven't seen the episode in years.

    As a side note, the "heavy handed" complaint is a pet peeve of mine that drives me up the wall (as in, folks who complain about stuff being heavy handed). As you say, some things are worth being heavy handed about. I think this is partly an effect of the ascendancy of South Park Nihilism in progressive pop culture, where actually taking positions on moral issues is considered anathema among the hip young things who write insipid think pieces on the economics of meth production in Breaking Bad over at Slate or whatever.

    Finally, your entire project has made me appreciate Gene Coon and his contributions to the show in a way I certainly never did before. So thanks for that.

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  4. Flex
    November 4, 2013 @ 6:52 am

    Oh, and where would you like your membership card for the "left anarchists who are ambivalent about violent revolution club" shipped to? 🙂

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    November 4, 2013 @ 7:24 am

    And I suppose I can't complain too much about that: Kennedy Liberalism is slightly better than just straight-up confrontationally retrograde. I guess my issue is that I expect Star Trek to do better because I know it can do better, though I should know more often than not this is probably wishful thinking on my part.

    And you're quite welcome: If drawing attention to Gene Coon is the biggest thing I accomplish here, well, that's fine with me.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    November 4, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    The noösphere, c.o. the secret Tower-Within-The-Tower.

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  7. Adam Riggio
    November 4, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    I completely agree with your point that oppressed peoples (especially those that have suffered several generations of oppression) in real life have the nuances you describe. I find this episode works more like the morality plays that you suggested Roddenberry conceived the show to do in the early days. Yes, it's much too pat and simple to declare that an oppressed people who seeks only to turn the tables on their oppressors commits an equal or worse evil. Like Flex mentions below, this is a sci-fi story for Kennedy Liberals, which isn't quite what Star Trek can achieve at its best, but can still be remarkable, given the political and cultural context of 1968/9.

    But I think that idea still has value as a warning sign not to let reparations become resentment. I see the 'Oppressed Become Oppressor' narrative play out fairly frequently in some partisan discussions of the Israeli Occupation, for example. It's a concept with usefulness and power, despite it not having the nuance and complexity of the absolute best Star Trek.

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  8. Josh Marsfelder
    November 4, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    OK, I can see that. And certainly as a Roddenberry-esque morality play this works, far, far better than, well, anything in the actual Roddenberry era did, I'm not especially fond of that model of the show, especially when we've been through two and a half showrunners who have demonstrated the show can do more than that, but as an execution of Star Trek's original brief one could certainly do worse than "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield".

    And you make a good point about Israel: That probably is one of the few cases where the sort of thing you describe has happened in the real world.

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  9. Adam Riggio
    November 4, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    And of course, the Israeli situation is itself far more complicated and nuanced than the simple story of Oppressed Become Oppressors can handle, given the continual domestic opposition to their occupation that has occurred in Israel since 1967, and the tangled relationships of the state military, the settlement movement, and the ultra-orthodox communities.

    Compared even to the real-world situations it can illuminate, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield still reads more like a fable than insight. I just happen to think it's an extremely good fable.

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  10. K. Jones
    November 4, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

    I'll admit my affection for this episode hinges 100% on Frank Gorshin's magnetic performance. The way he can spontaneously go from calm to spewing hatred and rage is uncanny, and this was the height of Gorshin pop culture relevance as he's bringing the same fervor to Batman's Riddler. A rare case of a guest actor stealing the show so completely.

    I haven't the slightest notion how to tackle the plot problems. I'm certainly an Anarchist, so far left of Left it irks me when men in suits who have government jobs and things like insurance call themselves "liberal", and I believe any non-defensive (a loaded caveat, to be sure) form of violence is an act of cowardice, so neither Bele nor Lokai come across as sympathetic, despite Lokai's righteous offense and all its historical precedent.

    But I've often struggled to reconcile my own fairly complete nonviolence with my ambivalence toward it in banal daily life, or with a more global eye toward pragmatic results. Just because I abhor it near my person doesn't seem to negate its efficacy, or how it sometimes (particularly in the mundane, an old fashioned supervised bout of mouths then fists at a bar) seems to be just the required thing to humble egos.

    But certainly nonviolent noncompliance should have been offered as alternative – and could have been particularly effective even as a futile gesture, naturally from Spock.

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  11. K. Jones
    November 4, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

    And of course that half-moon cookie reference went over pretty well here in Utica.

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  12. Josh Marsfelder
    November 5, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    Certainly agreed IRT Frank Gorshin: He's marvelous. There must have been some sort of sense of natural evolution and contiguousness between Batman and Star Trek: Yvonne Craig shows up next week.

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  13. Josh Marsfelder
    November 5, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

    Happy to oblige!

    Reply

  14. BerserkRL
    December 21, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    The moon is the north wind's cookie.

    Or so I hear.

    Reply

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