Summary of shakedown trials for prototype codename “VOYAGER”…
In orbit around Shadir, a planet whose inhabitants are rumoured to be highly cultured and refined aesthetes, the Enterprise receives a distress signal from a passing spacecraft that’s apparently been through a massive battle, as little remains of it but debris. There’s also the larger issue that Xon and Uhura can’t pick up any lifesigns on either the ship or the planet. Kirk takes Xon and McCoy over to the ship where they meet Yra, a soldier who claims she and her ship are casualties in a planetary war that has overtaken Shadir. Before Kirk can pontificate on the tragedy of such a civilization falling to warfare, a massive blast strikes the Enterprise, rendering Decker unable to raise shields and crippling its critical systems. As the landing party returns to asses the damage, Kirk sends Yra to sickbay, where McCoy discovers that she’s actually an android.
Decker and Scotty tell Kirk the ship can’t survive another attack, but Yra claims another attack is forthcoming and asks to return to Shadir, where she might be able to help stop another projectile from being launched. Kirk agrees and takes her, Xon and McCoy down to Shadir to investigate. There, they learn that Shadir is organised around two basic premises: Upholding and preserving the sanctity of all life and the notion peace can be achieved through using armed conflict to resolve differences. The reason the ship’s sensors couldn’t pick up any lifesigns is because the Shadirians all live underground, but project their consciousnesses into android duplicates who fight a neverending war above ground and in space (an apparent “corruption” of the original purpose of Shadir). Furthermore, it turns out Yra was a double agent, and attempted to capture the Enterprise and her crew to attain a credit bonus from her superiors (so apparently war on Shadir isn’t just perpetual, it’s a form of capitalist labour as well).
I mean, it isn’t good. The fact I can barely remember any of the major plot details is probably a bad sign, as is the fact I kept thinking of the Original Series episode “A Taste of Armageddon” all throughout. Both stories look at worlds where war has become a banal fact of everyday life and is considered necessary to uphold a tenuous peace, and both stories end with a massive explosive conflict that brings about the end of the existing social order. “The War to End All Wars” comes across as the more effective and acceptable of the two because it has Kirk state on numerous occasions that war is never the solution to anything, as opposed to having him go on a bizarre tirade about humans being natural-born murderers (but then again, it damn well better come across as more effective given how morally bankrupt this show has gotten in recent weeks).
This episode’s particular tweak is the concept of voluntary rather than obligatory warfare. While it was never especially clear to me whether or not the Shadirians were engaging in this elabourate ritual for recreational purposes, there is the sense this is something they do not just to resolve disputes, but for excitement (Kirk says something to the extent of “the mistake the Shadirians made was that they became numb and needed to seek out more and greater thrills”). This is beginning to push the story in the general vicinity of a potential critique of spectacle (in the Debord sense) and the connection between television and violence, which is intriguing territory for Star Trek to be plumbing in 1979 that would put it the Long 1980s tradition of critical postmodern cinematography and ahead of its time. The problem is, however, as always, the episode stops short before doing anything really substantial with this theme and ends up at the comparatively soft and facile conclusion “violence is desensitizing the youth”, which is really nowhere near as mature or satisfying as it could have been.
That is, it would be if this is indeed the intended message of the story in the first place: I’m not actually convinced that it is. Critical postmodern cinematography sort of requires a commitment to the aforementioned cinematographical techniques hence, you know, the name. But “The War to End All Wars” isn’t shot any special way that would reinforce these themes in a manner that would get us to pay attention to them. Furthermore, a reading putting this episode in the Debord situationalist school runs into problems when taking into account this is quiet possible the most cinematic and spectacular Star Trek episode to date: It even gives “In Thy Image” a run for its money. There are massive, epic battle scenes, intricate, sprawling sets for both the above ground and underground Shadirian societies, armies of undead warrior robots, gigantic alien tanks and any number of spammy beam weapon and explosion special effects shots. Having this in an episode supposedly about discouraging the fetishization of war seems…a tiny bit hypocritical.
One way to reconcile this might be to read “The War to End All Wars” as another stab at critiquing Star Trek itself. Maybe the hypocrisy was intentional, and meant to call Kirk’s claim for moral authority into question. But again, the actual cinematography of the episode itself would seem to work against this interpretation. Furthermore, one of the innovations of Star Trek Phase II has been to pretty squarely keep the Enterprise crew atop the moral high ground: That commitment to utopianism and idealism we saw in nascent form throughout the last third of the Original Series and all during the Animated Series is definitely a guiding principle here. Indeed, the one serious drawback to “Deadlock” was that in that case the show played its utopianism too casually and didn’t seem aware of the full ramifications of saddling the Federation with Project MKUltra and tried to backpedal before it began to raise any serious allegations. To assume the show has changed its tune a couple months later seems a bit of a stretch to me.
Then there are the usual raft of problems. The action largely revolves around Kirk, Xon, McCoy and the guest star of the week, Ilia, Chapel and Rand are all M.I.A. and Decker and Scotty are basically interchangeable. You’d think thirteen episodes in this show would have found a way to make its cast work together, but that hasn’t happened: With very rare exceptions, pretty much everyone writing for this show has fallen back onto familiar structural patterns and cliches from the Original Series, completely ignoring the potential for change and growth the new status quo of Star Trek Phase II allows them. This, and the episode’s larger overall failure to actually do anything with its premise, are symptomatic of this series’ fundamental failing: In the end, it’s ultimately a retrograde throwback. As much as it’s improved on the Original Series significantly in some ways, Star Trek Phase II has proven to be overall a second draft rather than a proper sequel. It’s not that it couldn’t have been one, but this creative team is far too blinkered and complacent to take any serious risks or make any real attempts at change, because everyone who knew how to experiment left the party long ago.
Star Trek’s creators have let it down. Once again, the franchise is in a rut. This isn’t Star Trek for the Long 1980s, it’s a show that’s become obsessed with past glories and its own iconography and pop mythology. Fixated on the idea of its own greatness, Star Trek now looks backward instead of forward, which is as good a sign as any that something’s gone badly wrong.
…catastrophic failure states recorded across all critical systems…Recommend immediate recall of “VOYAGER” project, followed by scrapping of current model in favour of a complete redesign…will send copies of revised plans upon to following-and-fifth temporal reality…