|Seriously, you guys. Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. You thought I was kidding.|
“The Savage Curtain” marks the return of Gene Roddenberry to Star Trek as an actual creative figure for the first time since “The Omega Glory”, and it’s apparent pretty much right from the start. The whole teaser is made up of unrefined methodology porn, as the bridge crew mulls over conflicting sensor reports from the planet Excalbia, which the script attempts to convey by having Kirk, Spock, Sulu and Uhura shout random bits of starship operations procedure. Almost the entire first half plays out similarly: I feel like I’m watching “The Cage” all over again. Roddenberry genuinely seems to think it’s a good idea to devote lengthy chunks of his script to having his characters robotically quote regulations and jargon. This isn’t even technobabble, this is Roddenberry reveling in his show’s cod-military structure and pedigree. This isn’t writing, this is feeding an academy cadet training manual into a paper shredder placed over a bin full of old Star Trek scripts. We’re not even five minutes in and this is already the worst the show has been in months.
And then suddenly Flying Space Abraham Lincoln.
That’s not an exaggeration. Out of nowhere, a bad transition fade appears on the viewscreen, spiraling around and around before materializing into full-on Abraham Lincoln, sitting on the Lincoln Memorial to boot like it was Wan Hu’s mythical Rocket Chair, except powered by very poor 1960s visual effects. Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. And look, I’m not one to ridicule weird and quirky ideas, especially in a speculative fiction show ostensibly designed expressly for the purpose of exploring them. I’m really not. Nor am I one to make fun of outdated VFX technology, especially on a show that’s been starved for funding all year. Honest. But come on. Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. You look at him and just laugh. There’s no way not to, and even though over the course of the past five years on this show we’ve seen Alien Neanderthal Bigfoot, Actual Lizardmen, sentient lumps of silicon, animate balls of fluff, Poisonous Snow White Monkey Unicorns, a Giant Space Amoeba, Space Spriggans, Half Moon Cookie Aliens and a community of energy beings powered by Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, I’m pretty much going to have to draw my line at Flying Space Abraham Lincoln.
Especially when he’s used to tell a painfully damp squib of a story. It turns out that Flying Space Abraham Lincoln has been either resurrected or conjured up out of Kirk’s thoughts (it’s not clear which), along with Surak, the founder of modern Vulcan philosophy, to side with Kirk and Spock in a deathmatch against history’s greatest villains, namely Genghis Khan, Kahless (the founder of Klingon society) and dictators Zora of Tiburon and Colonel Green (and yes, Genghis Khan and Kahless are made of concentrated racism. Did you have to ask?). None of these other characters, it should be noted, seemed to feel the need to make their presence known to the Enterprise by flying through space on rocket chairs. The Excalbians, sentient piles of magma and rubble that are far and away the most sensible things in this episode, have no conception of good and evil and figure the most reasonable and effective way to learn why humans hold to such principles is to stage an all-star brawl the likes of which are known only in the most storied of ten-year-old boys’ Trapper Keeper doodles and see who wins. The remainder of the episode after the halfway mark mostly consists of one big extended (and badly choreographed) fight scene interspersed with strangled and unnecessarily detailed exposition about why the Enterprise can’t simply beam everyone back.
It’s at this point the analysis sort of writes itself. “The Savage Curtain” is once again quintessential Gene Roddenberry, and every single of one his litany of writerly flaws is perfectly clearly on display. This episode, in fact, reads if nothing else like a fiery declaration from Roddenberry to Arthur Singer and Fred Freiberger that nobody is allowed to fail at his show harder than he does. He’s naive enough to think “good versus evil” (where, I hasten to add, the participants are quite literally Objectively Good and Objectively Evil-They may as well be wearing white hats and black hats. So Roddenberry has a ten-year-old-boy’s conception of morality in addition to a ten-year-old-boy’s conception of storytelling structure) is a deep and profound statement and self-absorbed enough to scream about this to us at every possible opportunity and drag the episode’s pacing out to such a degree it should legally be reclassified the Self-Transcendence 3100 mile. Then there’s the fawning, ahistorical hero worship Kirk (and the script) exhibits towards Flying Space Abraham Lincoln, making “The Savage Curtain” almost as insufferably jingoistic as “The Omega Glory”. I’m not even going to waste time going into the rest of this episode’s simpering, pretentious, provincial, facile moralizing: If you want an overview of Gene Roddenberry’s motifs read literally anything else I’ve ever written about him.
This episode does add one significant twist to the traditional Roddenberry formula inasmuch as it occasionally flirts openly with utopian idealism in a way he hasn’t really done before now, which is fitting for a third season submission. Regardless of whether or not you think Star Trek inherits the lion’s share of its utopianism from Roddenberry, and I think there’s at least some room for debate on that matter, the previous scripts that were largely or entirely his work didn’t actually focus on this aspect of the show all that much, perhaps excepting “Assignment: Earth”. Roddenberry supposedly extensively rewrote all of the twelve scripts produced under his tenure as sole showrunner back in the first season, but none of those stories were really about the idealism of the world of Star Trek either-They were all largely one-off and incredibly simplistic morality plays. In fact the only real bit of proper utopianism I can recall from the first season at all is Kirk’s comment to Stiles in “Balance of Terror” about “leaving any bigotry in your quarters” because “there’s no room for it on the bridge”, and in regards to Roddenberry all that hedges on whether that line was his or Paul Schneider’s.
That aside, the show was only “idealistic” under Roddenberry because the primary creative figure blatantly used the main characters as mouthpieces for his own ideas and moral code, not because the show on the whole was actually demonstrating what a utopian society might look like (the other major selling point being the diverse cast, which from what I gather was at least in part NBC’s idea). The setting was straightforwardly the United States Navy in Space and was only there to move the plot from one place to another: I’m not convinced even Roddenberry thought the Navy was an ideal model for progressive societies. Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana changed that, and, under them, the show started to be more about exploring the concept of idealism in a setting such as Star Trek‘s, and after that breakthrough it seems Roddenberry started to be more open about explicitly talking about his perception of idealism, as both “Assignment: Earth”, and to a lesser extent this episode, demonstrate.
And the idealism on display in “The Savage Curtain” is quite revealing, especially Kirk’s abject reverence towards Flying Space Abraham Lincoln. Roddenberry seems to think that heroic presidents are the model we should aspire to because of their strong and benevolent leadership skills. Incidentally, this is also the only way I can explain why the Enterprise, supposedly a *United Space Ship* from the multicultural United Federation of Planets, has actual procedures in place to welcome visiting presidents from the ancient history of a now-defunct nation-state (which, of course, we need to have explained to us in meticulous detail). And naturally, Flying Space Abraham Lincoln acts nothing like the actual multifaceted historical figure: He’s a caricature who speaks entirely in inspirational soundbites.
The big problem with Flying Space Abraham Lincoln, aside from absolutely everything else about him, becomes evident in the scene on the bridge when he meets Uhura and apologises for calling her a “Negress”, as he’s just now starting to come to terms with how much more advanced human society is now then in his time. First of all, the real Lincoln’s attitude to the Emancipation Proclamation was significantly more complicated than simply him Doing The Right Thing, and deifying him for that is a literally textbook case of the Big Man model of history that effaces the contributions of of the actual former slaves who fought an underground war to wrestle their freedom away from the southern slavemasters for years themselves instead of waiting for politicians to give them concessions, as well as the unpleasant reality the whole thing was by and large a series of calculated political machinations to make Washington look good.
Furthermore, the crew’s reaction to Flying Space Abraham Lincoln’s comment is abhorrent: They claim that our advanced, evolved society has learned words are meaningless and, in Uhura’s own words “to be delighted with what we are”. No, Mr. Roddenberry, actual progressive societies do not acknowledge that words are meaningless and that we should always “be delighted with what we are”. Actually, the complete opposite of that: They recognise that words have power and have centuries of meaning and connotations associated with them and know that understanding this is the key to helping craft a language and discourse where nobody is made to feel silenced, alienated, dismissed or less than human. And furthermore, they realise that nobody is required “to be delighted with what [they] are” because people have the right to feel however they wish about themselves and their bodies, especially if they belong to a group or groups historically made to feel that their bodies are objects of public scrutiny and critique.
There’s Surak too, and while his wandering philosopher archetype is very different from the patrician leadership of Flying Space Abraham Lincoln, that reveals another troubling aspect of Roddenberry’s approach. For the first time in quite awhile, the Vulcans are used here to explicitly tout the superiority of pure, untainted logic as a lifestyle, and nobody once calls this into question. Surak’s logic is shown to be inherently pacifistic and objectively good, and Spock’s flush of emotions at seeing him on Excalbia is portrayed as a failing on his part. Leonard Nimoy and D.C. Fontana have spent over two years showing how Spock is a complex character grappling with notions of identity, faith and belonging and this feels like a giant leap backwards. Furthermore, combined with the fetishistic fixation on protocol in the first half of the episode, it comes across like Roddenberry is once again claiming we should all be some kind of idealized detached and emotionless “rational actors”.
And Surak has other major problems of his own: Roddenberry associates Surak’s logic with enlightened pacifism, which results in the characters behavour not actually making a whit of sense. Surak flatly refuses to harm another person, so he goes alone to Team Evil to broker peace and a cease-fire. Naturally, he’s tricked, betrayed and murdered, because Evil People are Evil and only ever do Evil Things. This has the handy side-effect of either making Surak look stupidly naive and gullible or returning to the old Roddenberry theme that violence, selfishness and an instinct to murder are all inherent aspects of the human condition and that only two-fisted diplomacy ever gets things done. Neither possibility exactly fills my heart with gladness. Annoyingly, there was the potential to do an actually legitimate criticism of pure pacifism here: Claims that, for example, purely pacifist movements are inherently more successful and more righteous than less pacifist ones do tend to overlook the history of civil rights movements in violently oppressive societies. I remain as ever ambivalent about violent revolution, but the situation is a complex and difficult one and there are a lot of variables and perspectives to take into consideration. However, Gene Roddenberry doesn’t seem to be interested in engaging with any of that and just has Surak spout off some vaguely positive sounding pop philosophy and then kills him off to crank up the drama a bit.
One way to perhaps explain all of these confusing and contradictory statements away might be to read “The Savage Curtain” as Roddenberry attempting an early Gene Coon-style problematization of the show’s ethics by way of testing Captain Kirk. Indeed, the whole idea of holding a gladiatorial contest to explore human nature is more than a little reminiscent of “Arena”. But that episode was about punishing Kirk and the Gorn captain for their hotheaded aggression, and Kirk ends up proving to the Metrons he’s capable of mercy after all. Here, while it’s certainly possible to read the Team Good/Team Evil split as being a kind of Angel-and-Devil-on-the-shoulder temptation for Kirk (despite how stupefyingly hackneyed and juvenile that narrative device is), it’s not really clear what Kirk is actually being tested on. If Surak’s supposed to embody an enlightened form to aspire to he absolutely doesn’t come across that way because he acts like a idiot. Maybe then Flying Space Abraham Lincoln is meant to represent Roddenberry’s ideals, which would certainly fit with the rest of the episode, but he’s also the one who encourages Kirk and Spock to fight dirty if they want to win against Team Evil: Even the Excalbians say the experiment was a failure because Team Good and Team Evil used the same tactics, to which Kirk responds with a truly incoherent bit of moral speechifying. And anyway, Roddenberry even has the Enterprise crew come out and state they’re already advanced and virtuous on several occasions, so we’re right back where we started.
This episode is just bad. It’s Roddenberry screwing up in just about all of his signature ways and even a few new ones. It does see him moving more towards utopianism in his writing, which is going to prove critical once he comes back to Star Trek, but this isn’t even a rough draft of where he eventually goes (“The Changeling” is actually the closest we’ve seen so far which, again, wasn’t even his story): It’s a half-baked series of ideas, none of which work together and that combine into an episode that’s an abjectly broken mess even by third season standards. In addition, it makes me even angrier as this is actually one of the most frequently-cited episodes in all of Star Trek: Astonishingly, almost every character introduced here goes on to play a major role in one or more future incarnations of the franchise. And the only reason why that happens is because Roddenberry wrote it, and Roddenberry Can Do No Wrong, even with a script like this one. “The Savage Curtain” is self-evidently silly, impossible to take seriously by any discernible standard and yet another low for the series.
Thankfully there’s not much lower to go from here.