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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.

9 Comments

  1. Flex
    August 30, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    Oooh, finally, something to disagree with you about since I've stopped lurking.

    I love this episode, for all its faults, and it's because I fundamentally disagree that it's an episode that's been turned into a pro-war/pro-imperialist message. For all that the script has been watered down, I don't think it gets turned on its head that much.

    The key here is Spock getting incapacitated and not being part of the decision making process. Spock is, ostensibly, the character who could bring a logical, peaceful alternative to the table. Instead, we get Kirk and McCoy, both characters it's made clear who have ideological blinders on and can't see the wide range of possible solutions available to them outside of the self-made narrow set of solutions they create for themselves. So, in the end, when Kirk chooses his Vietnam policy it's not a sad but necessary evil or something like that. It's a wholly avoidable tragedy that could have been prevented had those in charge been capable of considering alternatives that reached beyond their narrow, prefigured understanding of how the situation should be dealt with.

    If Roddenberry & co. had wanted the viewer to endorse Kirk at the end of the story, I think they would have had Spock written into the decision making process to give his sign-off on the eventual outcome (or, at least, present an alternative that gets shot down). His absence screams (me, anyways) that we aren't supposed to accept or be okay with how things went down. It could have all been different if only our leaders weren't working within the ideological framework that forces them to a narrow set of conclusions, if only they were genuinely interested in making available alternative viewpoints.

    And the way the episode portrays all this without character assassinating either Kirk or McCoy is brilliant: the realization is that these are guys who may be acting in good faith and with the best of intentions, but they're part of a larger systemic problem that utterly fails to properly value and respect human life, peace and autonomy in this situation. It's the shows way of damning not just a small set of leaders but the entire imperial apparatus of the United States. It's a brilliant turn for the show. Flawed brilliance, given the rewrite, but even if Roddenberry did his best to undermine the message of the episode he wasn't able to eradicate the essential anti-war heart of the tale.

    I can't argue too much with you about the troubling portrayal of the natives, although I think there's a thread here where we're supposed to realize that part of our information is coming from the extremely biased and blinder-ridden Kirk so we shouldn't necessarily totally trust his Garden of Eden idealizing of the planet. But the point isn't really hammered home and made more problematic by, well, the actual portrayal of the natives. But I think the narrative is more complicated than in the abysmal The Apple.

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  2. K. Jones
    August 30, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    It was certainly essential that the characters be Kirk and McCoy, the two Americans of the crew. The Neural natives weren't interesting, not even to look at (a tribal, slightly 'savage' alien could still look like an alien). Kirk's having been there before had no character exploration or growth involved and felt like a McGuffin. The Klingon was the worst portrayed TOS Klingon I can think of, and I think even the shaggy guy in Friday's Child got a way better role before I even get into the strides taken with Koloth, his Lt. Korax, and Kor's juicy, well-acted role. I've only realized just now that by the time of DS9, Kor wasn't getting fake Klingon spray-tans anymore. None of them were.

    Definitely the memorability is the big white horned toxic ape creature.

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  3. K. Jones
    August 30, 2013 @ 10:37 am

    (I'm very excited now for Gamesters of Triskelion)

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  4. rayna
    August 31, 2013 @ 4:06 am

    If you see this episode as a deliberate political message favoring war, then yes it’s a disaster. I tend to see it as a disturbing story that raises questions with no easy answers and makes us think. Apart from the dark ending, I appreciated the memorable scenes —the Mugato, the Kahnutu ritual with the mako root, the parallel healing scene with Christine and Spock. I admired Nona’s spirit and beauty–Nancy Kovack was one of TOS’ most gorgeous guest stars (though the costume was a little too Sonny-and-Cher). To me, it would have been more fitting for Nona, as a shamanic / mystic healer who saves Kirk’s life, to be the one who opposes the escalation of violence; but her character seems to have been written in the stereotype of "strong women must be evil” category.

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    August 31, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    I think the problem I have with reading this episode as a story about complex moral dilemmas with no easy solutions is that ultimately it's a Gene Roddenberry script, and if there's one thing I'm almost positive Gene Roddenberry wasn't interested in at all it was complex moral dilemmas with no easy solutions.

    From the very outset, Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek to be about morality plays, and all the episodes made during his tenure as sole showrunner do in fact reflect this IMO: The Enterprise crew shows up, encounters a problem, delivers the straightforwardly correct solution and then blasts off while leaving the natives wiser with a moral so ham-fisted and blunt it would make Aesop say the script was a bit on the nose. It's moralizing by way of blunderbuss.

    Furthermore, Roddenberry absolutely sees the Captain character (in this case Kirk) as the pillar of strength and arbiter of moral superiority: It's obvious in every single script he wrote and it's the exact same mindset that will eventually result in his truly baffling declaration to Ira Behr in 1990 that Jean-Luc Picard is equivalent to John Wayne, is always The Hero in an almost Campbellian sense, that he doesn't get to to do enough "shooting and screwing" and demanding Behr rectify this.

    To claim that we're not meant to see Kirk as the mouthpiece for the episode's moral agenda in a story with this heavy influence from Roddenberry is…difficult…for me to accept.

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  6. rayna
    September 2, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    With all due respect, I wasn’t trying to claim that at all… I just feel it’s worth pointing out the highlights even in a dark episode like this.
    I think part of what you’re proving is that Trek’s popularity was not based on a vision of utopia, but on a more basic optimism – that humans survive into the 23rd century, and thrive enough to explore space. You’ve shown how moral progress does not necessarily accompany technological advances –but at least humanity does not destroy itself. The heart of Star Trek that people continue to respond to, has always been about very different characters working together, about the strength of friendship.

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  7. Josh Marsfelder
    September 3, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    I didn't mean to insinuate that you, personally, had implied that, I was just trying to better clarify and articulate my perspective and why I read it the way I did.

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  8. K. Jones
    September 3, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    There's a fun question: Can a morality play be morally ambiguous? It can certainly be sophisticated in a lot of ways; execution, production, complexity and structurally. But what about ambiguity?

    The greater Star Trek episodes have been when the complex moral areas – ambassadorial diplomacy in space, shuttling foreign dignitaries, territorial disputes – have basically just been set-dressing for a far more humanistic quandary.

    Even a D-Grade episode like "A Private Little War" could have been interesting had they shifted their perspective away from placing importance on Kirk's moralizing crusade via proxy war and instead focused on the psychic toll on everyone involved (just following S.O.P. or orders).

    But I will say this; historically speaking this episode does at least act as "another step" toward something far greater later on. Every episode featuring Klingons from now on act, unknowingly, as as a domino toppling toward The Undiscovered Country. So even this paltry dilemma and two-dimensional Klingon have their purpose in the grand scheme.

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  9. Mahesh Kumar
    June 16, 2016 @ 11:14 am

    The Klingon was the most exceedingly bad depicted TOS Klingon I can consider, and I think even the shaggy person in Friday’s Child showed signs of improvement part before I even get into the steps brought with Koloth, his Lt. Korax, and Kor’s delicious, very much acted part.Thanks for sharing, I am working in out of home advertising company, if you need help to promote your product visit here.

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