|“This, uh, isn’t what it looks like, guys…”|
If there’s a surer, more immediate sign of the quality of something other than being banned by national governments, I can’t think of it.
“Patterns of Force” was one of the handful of Star Trek episodes initially blocked from airing in certain markets outside the United States for a time. In this case, the country was Germany, which refused to show it for, well, rather obvious reasons as far as banning television shows go. And this is a shame, because Germans would probably have really enjoyed “Patterns of Force”: It’s the most flagrantly anti-authoritarian the show’s been since “Mirror, Mirror”, and in fact this one’s even more blatant and upfront about its message (which is actually a good thing in this case) and a more than capable bit of television to boot. It’s yet another cracking mini-classic of an episode, and I’m genuinely surprised at how many of them there are at this point in the season. In fact the last few weeks may have turned my opinion on the second season around a little bit, as I know two out of the next three episodes are quite good and the one that isn’t is largely irrelevant: This no longer feels like the show that was throwing out garbage like “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “A Private Little War” on a regular basis, which makes it all the more ironic the show’s still facing cancellation at this point.
“Patterns of Force” itself is somewhat deceiving, as at first glance it looks like the most irritatingly pulpish thing ever. Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet that turns out to be ruled by quite literal space Nazis. What follows is a straightforward series of captures and escapes that’s about as dynamic and exciting as it sounds. However, “Patterns of Force” is nothing if not proof positive plot structure is ultimately superficial and meaningless when you get talented actors delivering tight, well-written lines about gripping and interesting ideas. I actually found myself forgetting I was watching a story this stock because what it’s actually trying to say was compelling enough. Dig a little into the episode’s production history though, and, once again, the reasons start to become clear: The original story outline, dating to the first season, and the first few drafts of the teleplay were penned by Paul Schneider, who I maintain is one of the greatest writers and most unsung heroes of the Original Series. Schneider was behind “Balance of Terror”, which I still think is basically perfect, and one of the only people to recognise Star Trek‘s strengths came out of its theatrical heritage.
Although this is a very promising start, Schneider wasn’t the sole writer of this episode. John Meredyth Lucas picked up his draft late in the second season and retooled it into the script for the episode that made it to air (and, as tragically befits Star Trek at this point in time, Schneider went uncredited). I’m not entirely clear on how much of the finished product is Lucas’ and how much is Schneider’s, but what I can say for sure is that “Patterns of Force” shows them both at the absolute top of their game. I expect bristling anti-imperialism from Paul Schneider, and if there was ever any doubt about what “Balance of Terror” was truly about, this episode should lay it all to rest. What I didn’t expect (because I didn’t know what to expect) was to see John Meredyth Lucas working with the same ideas and with the same clarity. There’s some of his trademark logic-emotion alliances on display here, but in this case this serves to reinforce the episode’s staunch anti-fascist stance (one of my favourite motifs in the episode is Spock being impressed with the logical approach to problem solving Kirk displays here, then to have the script turn on its heel and point out how logical the goals of National Socialism were. Not to mention Spock’s “Quite correct. You should make a very convincing Nazi”, which speaks for itself).
It may not seem like an especially bold thing for “Patterns of Force” to come out against Nazism, as Hitler’s National Socialist party are pretty much the default villains for any kind of genre adventure story in the history of ever. It’s not a hugely controversial statement to declare that the Nazis were pretty bad; indeed they may be one of human history’s only clear-cut examples of a objectively, unambiguously evil group of people whom pretty much everyone can agree were evil. However, there’s two things to keep in mind here. One is that this is still only 1968, so while pulp adventure serials may have done the “Nazis are Bad” angle a bit to death already, World War II was still in the living memory of the people writing stories like this. Gene Coon, as I believe I mentioned in the past, had been a Marine in the war. It was sort of expected that Star Trek, given the parts of it that it inherited from pulp science fiction, would eventually have to do the space Nazi angle. However what’s actually interesting here is that “Patterns of Force” is far from the Hitler-punching baseline of the genre. Actually, in point of fact, “Patterns of Force” has very little to do with Nazism at all.
What “Patterns of Force” is actually about is authority. It’s about power structures, and not just totalitarian ones, how they manifest, how they become entrenched in society and how they stay that way for so long. Lucas claimed this script comes out of his fascination with this phenomenon, and it shows. The key figure is, of course, John Gill: A Starfleet historian who, while studying the fractured, violent society on Ekos and feeling compelled to help in spite of the Prime Directive (and I’d like to note despite my problems with it, I appreciate how the show’s attitude towards the anti-imperialist reading of the Prime Directive has shifted in recent weeks), instills himself as the leader of a new National Socialist party. While he knew what happened when Nazism arose on Earth, he was firmly of the belief that despite how evil Hitler’s regime was, it was the most efficient form of government the planet ever saw, and that so long as a benevolent, liberal dictator was at the helm, Ekos would be spared Germany’s fate. There are a couple of things worth looking at here: One is the idea Nazi Germany was an “efficient, logical” form of government. Contemporary scholars will be quick to tell you that the Nazi party was anything but efficient, and was in fact actually burdened by a number of bureaucracies of questionable competence and competing interests mostly operating on stolen funds. However, this was the leading theory of historians and social scientists at the time, and it obviously would have heavily influenced Schneider’s and Lucas’ depiction of National Socialism.
But what’s most important to take note of is the character of John Gill himself, because “Patterns of Force” is nothing less than “Space Seed” done right, and Gill is far closer to how someone like Khan Noonien Singh would have actually turned out. In that post I talked about the classical liberal dream of the enlightened despot, the benevolent dictator, or the philosopher king. They’re all variations of the same core idea. Liberals of the New Deal variety (which in 1968 were still rather new and hip having seen the US through World War II and all) can trace their lineage back to the managerial progressives of the early 20th century. Broadly speaking, these sorts of liberals have been predisposed to fantasizing that absolute power might just not be a bad thing provided one of them were in charge (because, of course, we’d finally have someone intelligent in power who knew what *really* needed to be done. The liberal predilection towards intelligence-based discrimination is a topic for another time and place), whereas those on the actual radical left are vehemently opposed to any sort of authoritarian power structures at all because they recognise them for the tools of social stratification they truly are. This is why “Patterns of Force” is so fascinating and why I say it’s the opposite of “Space Seed”: In that episode Khan was very much in the mould of the enlightened despot, and the crew was in awe of him, even admitting he was intellectually and physically superior. Here, Star Trek, for perhaps the first time, is unambiguously siding with the radical left, because John Gill’s dream of a benevolent, liberal Nazi party is shown to be just as catastrophically misguided as it sounds. If anyone ever tells you it’s impossible to read Star Trek as a truly leftist and egalitarian piece of anarchic idealism, just sit them down with this episode.
While the true horrors of the Ekosian Nazi party are laid at the feet of Melakon, who supposedly betrayed its true purpose for his own means, we’re very clearly not meant to side with Gill either. What he did was wrong and did measurable harm to the Ekosians as well as the Zeon targets of their ethnic purging. Gill’s speech to Kirk as he lays dying after Melakon assassinates him in a fit of panic and rage is one of the most beautiful moments on the show yet, as Gill confesses how he now understands the extent of the mistake he made and how, as he so wonderfully puts it:
“Even historians fail to learn from history…they repeat the same mistakes. Let the killing end, Kirk.”
Which is frankly just about one of the best lines ever.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy’s exchange in the denouement is similarly poetic. That this doesn’t go down as one of the finest bits of dialog in the Original Series is frankly disgraceful:
“He drew the wrong conclusion from history. The problem with the Nazis wasn’t simply that their leaders were evil, psychotic men. They were, but the main problem, I think, was the leader principle.”
“What he’s saying, Spock, is that a man who holds that much power, even with the best intentions, just can’t resist the urge to play God.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I was able to gather the meaning.”
“It also proves another Earth saying. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Darn clever, these Earthmen, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes. Earthmen like Ramses, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Lee Kuan. Your whole Earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.”
“Spock, you obviously don’t understand.”
“Obviously, Doctor, you fail to accept…”
“Gentlemen. Gentlemen, we’ve just been through one civil war. Let’s not start another.”
I think Kirk’s statement is a thing of pure beauty, naturally, but Spock’s and McCoy’s exchange is also very telling. So frequently on the Original Series we’ve had denouements where those two have been throwing thinly veiled slurs at each other and the show desperately wants us to think this is funny and endearing. They’re both absolutely right in this case, and furthermore Kirk implores them to stop fighting in the last line of the episode. It may not be clear if you just watch these in isolation, but after two seasons of watching this show in order, I can’t tell you how refreshing that was for me to hear.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in “Patterns of Force”’s Big Ideas it’s possible to forget what a great production it actually is. While the plot itself is, as I’ve said, dangerously bog-standard pulp stuff, the cast and characters are all fantastic. The Zeons are genuinely sympathetic and likeable, and this is the first time on this show I found myself actually caring about their story and what happened to them. Richard Evans in particular is quite compelling as Isak, a broken and shell-shocked Zeon resistance fighter teetering on the edge of being desensitized to the death and violence that has come to define his life: His vacant stare says it all. “Hero of the Fatherland” Daras, played by Valora Noland, is also absolutely brilliant and the reveal in the beginning of Act 3 that’s she’s actually a double agent when she stages an invasion of the resistance headquarters to test Kirk’s and Spock’s loyalty is a genuinely shocking and unexpected twist that savvily plays off of the audience’s expectations for a pulp adventure structure. Even better, the show treats her as an important, respected and multifaceted character equal to her male comrades: Daras’ story about having to pretend to betray her father and her childhood spent growing up with the Nazi party’s atrocities is actually really, really well done and very touching, and the fact she’s flatly not Kirk’s girl-of-the-week (and is in fact just about anything but) just makes it better. This is the kind of thing I absolutely did not expect to see in Star Trek until 1992. With Doctor Ann Mulhall last time and Daras here, Star Trek has given us two of its best female characters ever one after another.
(Speaking of characters, this leads me to one of the funniest jokes in the series: All of the characters in the story are references to the Old Testament: Isak is obvious, his brother Abrom is a take-off on Abraham, Zeon is like Zion, and so forth. However the name of the Nazi party chairman who was secretly sympathetic to the rebellion movement despite his faith in the concept of an authoritarian state is named Eneg…which is “Gene” spelled backwards.)
It’s maddening to see Star Trek rolling out classic after classic in 1968. Maybe if we’d seen episodes like “Patterns of Force”, “The Immunity Syndrome” and “A Piece of the Action” about a year earlier, the show wouldn’t be facing cancellation now. The world would not be a lesser place had these episodes been booted up in the production schedule and “The Apple”, “A Private Little War”, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” and “Friday’s Child” been dumped. In this regard it is helpful to keep in mind the second season, like the first, was aired just about completely out of order and at least “The Immunity Syndrome” and “A Piece of the Action” did in fact air before a decent chunk of the season, not to mention the show did after all open its year with “Amok Time”. But bafflingly, this one was still kept for the back end. And even so, it was clearly not enough to appease NBC, who were well aware of the show’s steadily declining ratings, nor the actors (William Shatner was so sure Star Trek wasn’t going to be renewed he’d started looking for other jobs) or even the showrunners, as will be plainly obvious in another week or so.
But for now let’s be happy “Patterns of Force” exists at all. Maybe it came too late to save Star Trek, but it’s exactly this kind of thing that proves this mad, tempestuous, conflicted show did in fact have some good ideas occasionally and will ensure that the legacy it spawns will live on.