Thursday, March 09, 2017

Trek50: Mirrors and Doves

Largely because the Vietnam War was ongoing, war was an obsessive subject in stories created during the first run of original series Star Trek. But war was also a kind of stand-in for other barriers to a better human future.

 How could those barriers—war, brutality, greed, racism and other prejudice, for instance—be overcome? Star Trek stories suggested two ways: by institutional and cultural support for better ethical standards and behavior, and by individual self-knowledge and determination to become better.

 It turns out that primary examples of each approach were second and third season episodes written in both cases by Jerome Bixby.

The parallel universe was not a new concept in science fiction (Bixby had himself used it in a short story, “One Way Street” published in a 1952 issue of Amazing Stories magazine.) The mirror universe—in which major features of each universe are directly opposite—became a story device used several times in the Star Trek saga. I would argue that it was mostly misused.

 But its first appearance, in Bixby’s second season episode “Mirror, Mirror” had a very clear point, beyond the novelty of actors portraying deliciously villainous and more overtly sexy versions of their characters, as would happen more blatantly in later mirror universe stories.

 The stakes were stated in the opening scene, when Captain Kirk and his landing party from the Enterprise are completing unsuccessful negotiations with the Halkan Council, representatives of a planet dedicated to total peace. The Federation wants to mine the planet’s dilithium crystals, but the Halkans refuse, fearing that they would someday be used to take life.

Distracted by a raging ion storm above, Kirk suggests they resume negotiations later, though the Halkan leader gives him little hope their position will change. “Captain, you do have the might to force the crystals from us, of course,” he says. “But we won’t,” Kirk replies. “Consider that.”

 He then asks the Enterprise to beam his party aboard. Their materialization is troubled, and when they do appear, their uniforms are slightly different. They are greeted by Mr. Spock—who has a beard.

 Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura soon realize they have arrived on board an Enterprise in a mirror universe. One of the first indications is Mr. Spock’s assumption that because negotiations were unsuccessful, the Enterprise would immediately destroy the Halkan civilization.

By portraying a mirror opposite of the Federation and replacing it with the Empire, the role of institutions and their rules and expectations in governing everything from war to individual violence is highlighted. The Empire is about conquest. The Captain is obeyed because he is feared. Advancement is through assassination of superior officers. Brutality is expected and respected. Sexual relationships are impersonal, based on power.

 The power of the institution and its rules is dramatized by the same characters living in this different situation (notably Chekov and Sulu) who behave as they are expected to—with brutality, cynicism, greed and without conscience.

 But in the prime universe, the same characters behave with compassion, idealism, unselfishness and conscience. Their society supports these qualities through their culture, through Starfleet’s training and how it operates (including what is rewarded, and what is not.)

The mirror universe is not without its compensations, and temptations (which follows from the fairytale question “Mirror, mirror on the wall/who is the fairest of them all?”) Power is rewarded by status, wealth, and in Kirk’s case, the lovely Captain’s Woman.

 But the cultural and institutional standards of the prime universe become part of the individual’s moral integrity. Its rewards are more valued. On a societal level, the difference is basic—in its soul. It is the difference between a power that forces its will on others with violence, and one that does not—with all this difference implies.

 Though Star Fleet’s Prime Directive isn’t mentioned, it is relevant because it is a rule preventing an Empire’s conquest, oppression or exploitation. “Non-interference” in the natural development of a culture is secondary to this goal. As a later Enterprise captain would say, “We are not invaders. We are explorers.”


The episode mixes revelations about this brutal mirror universe with the landing party’s efforts to get back to their Enterprise, with Mr. Spock as the key figure. Seeing the imbalance of the switch, he cooperates to send them back, assuming his landing party will return at the same time.

Kirk gets him to admit that the Empire is doomed, and that supporting it is illogical because it cannot last. It’s not really the strongest argument, but it does get Spock to consider leading a revolt.

 When the prime universe landing party returns to their Enterprise, they discover that the mirror universe landing party had been quickly identified and locked up. “What I don’t understand is how were you able to identify our counterparts so quickly?” Kirk asks. “It was far easier for you as civilized men to behave like barbarians,” Spock says, “than it was for them as barbarians to behave like civilized men.”

 That is a potent message about civilization, and about the painstaking changes supported by years of culture and education that results in a better future. It is hard to achieve, and dangerously easy to destroy.

While there perhaps is more resilience in civilized behavior and ideas than that, it is equally true that the erosion of civilization can begin in small ways and rapidly threaten it. This suggests that it takes effort to withstand the temptations of giving into violent impulses. When institutions and culture don’t support self-knowledge and ethical behavior, the mass psychology can work quickly to unravel a society, and destroy a future.

 The nature of those impulses in creating mass psychology that is in turn institutionalized to make destructive behavior normal—all of this is explored in a third season story by Jerome Bixby: “Day of the Dove.”

Day of the Dove” begins with a landing party on a barren planet, investigating a distress signal from a Federation colony that now seems to have completely vanished.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise detects a Klingon vessel heading their way, and the landing party quickly concludes the colony had been destroyed by Klingons. But after responding to a distress call the Klingon ship has been attacked and disabled, with heavy loss of life, and its armed landing party suddenly appears on the planet to take the Enterprise crew hostage.

The Klingon captain Kang (Michael Ansara) accuses Kirk of attacking him with a new Federation weapon, and claims the Enterprise in compensation for his disabled ship. “Go to the devil,” Kirk says. “We have no devil, Kirk, “Kang responds. “But we understand the habits of yours.”

 Chekhov suddenly goes berserk (not for the last time), desiring to avenge the death of his brother, killed by Klingons. Kang uses a device to torture him until Kirk relents (with Chekhov screaming, ”Don’t let these animals have the ship!”) and arranges to have them all beamed aboard the Enterprise.

 But he secretly signals Spock, and the landing party is beamed aboard, while the Klingons are kept in the pattern buffer until Security is ready.

 But also aboard the ship is the Alien Entity, defined so far only as a shimmer of light. Because the Klingon ship is spewing radiation, the Enterprise beams its remaining crew over, so a total of 38 Klingons are aboard. At this point, the apparent coincidences accelerate---along with the Enterprise, which is suddenly bolting for the edge of the galaxy at warp 9.

It is also attacked from nowhere, trapping 400 crew members beyond sealed bulkheads. Now there are also 38 on the Starfleet side. When both sides confront each other, their modern weapons disappear and are replaced by swords. The alien light appears pleased when they fight.

 But there’s another clue to the accelerating blood lust and racial slurs when Chekhov runs from the bridge still intent on avenging his brother, but Sulu tells Kirk that Chekhov doesn’t have a brother.

Spock locates the alien force. “We must contact it,” Kirk says. “See what it wants.” Spock theorizes that it can manipulate both matter and mind. But to what end?

 Kirk decides to defuse the hostilities with Kang, to “bury the hatchet,” which Spock points out is an apt phrase given the circumstances.

But there’s another burst of war fever and racism on the bridge. Scotty calls Spock “ a green-blooded half-breed freak” among other things, and McCoy joins in. Spock says he’s not so pleased about being around humans either.

 “What are we saying?” Kirk says. “What are we doing to each other?”

 “This is war!” Scott cries.

 “There—is—no—war,” Kirk says. “We’ve been trained to think in other terms, to fight the causes of war if necessary. Has the war been staged for us—complete with weapons, ideologies, patriotic drum-beating, even race hatred?”

 Kirk’s statement about being “trained to think in other terms” refers to the institutional support for “fighting the causes of war if necessary.” But there is another cultural context: the war fever drama---“complete with weapons, ideologies, patriotic drum-beating, even race hatred.” This is also powerful cultural support. But it works on individual emotions, which can be examined. And logical Mr. Spock does exactly that.

Spock hypothesizes that basic hostilities between humans and Klingons have been magnified---that they are to fight apparently by design. Note that he doesn’t say the hostilities have been invented, or that they are completely foreign. But they have been magnified, and are out of control.

 What that means becomes increasingly clear as ordinarily decent humans do what they would not have believed within their capabilities. A rampaging Chekhov has trapped Kang’s wife (who is also his science officer) and is in the act of trying to rape her when Kirk intervenes. “Is this what’s in store for us? Violence? Hatred?”

 Dr. McCoy—who has been railing against Klingons as butchers—reports that everyone’s wounds are healing. It appears that the entity will heal them so they can continue fighting, perhaps forever. McCoy then apologizes to Spock for his racist outburst earlier. “I, too, felt a brief surge of racial bigotry,” Spock says. “Most distasteful.”

 A wounded crewman, now healed, appears with his sword, crazed to kill Klingons and “even the score” (even though he is no longer hurt.) Kirk and Spock observe the alien hovering above---they note that it grew more vibrant when the crewman expressed a lust for vengeance and violence.

 “It exists on the hate of others,” Kirk concludes.

 “It has acted as a catalyst to that violence,” Spock adds, and suggests that to defeat it “all hostile emotions must cease.”

At this point the Enterprise has only a short time before its dilithium crystals fail and the ship will be helpless far from Federation space. With the help of Kang’s wife, Kirk meets with him, but Kang won’t buy it. “We are hunters,” he says. “We take what we want.”

 “There’s another way to survive,” Kirk says. “Mutual trust and help.”

 There’s some swordplay and a vintage Captain Kirk speech, aggressively delivered as counterpoint to its meaning. “The good old game of war—pawn against pawn---stopping the bad guys, where somewhere something sits back and laughs---and starts it all over again.”

 “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves,” Spock says, “otherwise it is not stopped.”

 “Be a pawn, be a toy, be a good soldier who never questions orders,” Kirk taunts Kang.

 This is a dramatic combination of statements. Spock shifts the responsibility from cultural and institutional norms to individual consciousness and behavior. “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves. Otherwise it is not stopped.” 

 Kirk’s taunt has historical resonance, especially for Earthlings. The good soldier “who never questions orders” is an obvious reference to Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis were accused of war crimes, including the slave labor camps and wanton killing of millions of prisoners, mostly Jews. Their defense often was that they were just following orders.

 (It’s especially appropriate that Captain Kirk makes this comparison, for William Shatner appeared as an American officer in the feature film Judgment at Nuremberg, released some 8 years before this Star Trek episode.)

Kang sees the entity, finally believes it is manipulating them, and throws down his sword. “Klingons fight for their own purposes,” he says.

 “Cessation of hostilities have weakened it,” Spock observes. He suggests good spirits might do it in. Kirk tells the entity to go away. “We don’t want to play. We know about you. Maybe there are others like you around, maybe you’ve caused a lot of suffering, a lot of history, but that’s all over. We’ll be on our guard now. We’ll be ready for you.”

 “Only a fool fights in a burning house,” Kang cries, and joins in the general laughter, and even slaps Kirk on the back. (If you take a look at this episode, don’t miss Spock’s expression in the background after Kang’s back-slap.)

 Notably, the episode ends here---there is no coda or final scene of the Enterprise bridge crew discussing the mission and joking around.

 This is the second time I’ve written about this episode (with much the same plot summary. Those posts follow this one as accessed by the “Day of the Dove” label.) The first time was in the early 2000s, the aftermath of 9/11/01 and the ongoing Afghanistan and Iraq wars. My emphasis then was on the “war fever” aspect, the cultural dynamic that swept aside rational analysis and—more insidiously—silenced and castigated those who even had doubts. “Those who aren’t with us are against us,” no less than the President of the U.S. said.

Yet it was only a few years later that the Iraq war was widely repudiated, along with many of the excesses in the war on terrorism that in some respects put America in the moral company of Nazi Germany.

 In this Trek episode, the fever indeed spreads. The alien entity feeding on it is an apt metaphor for such war fever or other mob emotion growing stronger by feeding on itself.

 But my emphasis this time is on individual responsibility. For the individual has the power to refuse the emotion. Carl Jung explained this as the action of the individual unconscious, that believes it is being rational even when it is not.

Notice that many of the “reasons” for hostility in this episode turn out not to be true: there was no colony to be wiped out, there was no Federation attack on the Klingon ship, and notably, Chekov rages to avenge a brother he did not have.

 There are personal and collective reasons for these delusions, including deeply archetypal fears of the Other. The remedy for this fever is for the individual to step back and observe their own behavior, and measure it against what they really know. Which is what Kirk and Spock do.

 This episode first aired on November 1, 1968 at a crucial moment in the Vietnam War. It was a year of death and violence, and deep emotional divisions. The U.S. was bombing in both South and North Vietnam, and thousands of troops were involved in a ground war in South Vietnam. In a two-week period in May, more than 1,100 U.S. soldiers were killed.

 A kind of low intensity war fever still gripped the nation. The political atmosphere was highly charged, and two significant symbols of opposition to the war—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy—were assassinated in 1968.

These were the “Generation Gap” years in which parents and their children often had significant differences that resulted in alienation and even hostility. Opposition to the draft and the war contributed. One flashpoint was in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where mostly young protestors were beaten and gassed by police, with the nation watching on live TV.

 Almost 300,000 Americans had been drafted that year. In total, about 1.75 million young men were drafted during the Vietnam war. These numbers sparked closer examination of the official reasons for the war and how it was conducted. Perhaps for the first time in American history, it was widely discussed that participating in the draft and the war was a matter for individual conscience and decision.

 The draft had become so controversial that it switched to a lottery system in 1969 with much lower numbers, and was essentially abolished at the war’s end.

 Individual responsibility came forward in a sadly familiar way in 1969, about a year after this episode first aired. It was then revealed publicly that American soldiers had massacred several hundred unarmed civilians in South Vietnam. The incident which became known as the My Lai Massacre had occurred in March 1968.  Once again, war crimes reveal the toxic atmosphere of war.

 Over these years (and particularly after 1968) many Americans were faced with the need to step back and reexamine their perceptions of the war. They had to start with the very difficult admission that they might be wrong. This is perhaps the hardest step, and people will often avoid it at all costs. (Even when they turned against the war, some people were enraged that they had been lied to, but still didn’t accept responsibility for not questioning the lies, or for asking themselves why they believed the lies for long after they had been exposed.)

 For Kirk and Spock such self-examination is part of their duty, and presumably widespread in the 23rd century. For a better future needs both better institutions and better people.

 "Our burgeoning interest in the existence and source of our prejudices, hidden hostilities, irrational fears, perceptual blind spots, mental ruts, and resistance to growth is the start of an evolutionary leap," Scott Peck writes in his book on the nature of evil, People of the Lie. This is an evolutionary leap into the Star Trek future.

 The dark side, the shadow, the Stranger inside is part of us (as Kirk learned in "The Enemy Within."  It is essential to us, and—as the Billy Joel lyric goes—it is not always evil, and it is not always wrong. But it is tricky, and unless we understand the mechanisms by which it can convince and compel us, we are its slave.

 The alien that gets its energy from hatred and brutality is a metaphor, not only for the psychological engine of the mob but for the individual unconscious. Kirk and Kang can look up and see how the entity thrives. But we must use our reason, knowledge, empathy and imagination to get outside our own heads to see what parts of ourselves are being fed.

 There’s a story, a fable, that is attributed to several Indian tribes. A version is told in the recent feature film Tomorrowland. It goes like this:

 A wise elder tells his grandson: “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, vanity and ego."

 "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

 “The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

 The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

"The one you feed," the old man said.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Trek50: Errand of Mercy


Fifty years ago this March, Star Trek premiered another of its most enduring episodes: “Errand of Mercy.” Once again the subject was war, centered on the war in Vietnam that roiled the 1960s. It’s time to get a little deeper in describing that connection.

 Three subjects in the news dominated the three seasons of Star Trek’s first run in the US, 1966-69. First and foremost was the Vietnam War, and to a lesser extent race relations. Nuclear weapons matters were a consistent undercurrent. But probably the second most important and persistent subject was the US space program, in its most active phase.

 These stories overlapped and occasionally collided, suggesting the peculiar blend of idealism and despair, of optimism and cynicism, that characterized the late 60s. Understanding Star Trek requires at least noting this strident combination, and this collision of passionate moods.

 So on the day “Charlie X” broadcast---only the second episode to air—millions of Americans watched the Gemini space capsule splashdown with its two astronauts and the recovery in the Atlantic on live TV.

“Shore Leave” debuted after China’s fifth nuclear test, and just as U.S. bombing of Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities began for the first time.

 “The Squire of Gothos” aired as the U.S. announced an increase in troop strength to 380,000 in Vietnam, as it disclosed that U.S. military had suffered more than 5000 deaths there in 1966. There had been about 1500 total deaths from 1961 to 1966.

 Just hours before “Tomorrow is Yesterday” first aired, U.S. astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee were killed when fire swept through the Apollo spacecraft as they were performing a simulated lift-off atop the Saturn rocket. Earlier that day, the U.S. and USSR signed a treaty banning nuclear weapons in space, and military bases on the Moon or any other “celestial body.”

 “This Side of Paradise” was first seen on the day Senator Robert Kennedy criticized U.S. escalation of the Vietnam war and proposed a peace plan on the Senate floor.

Two days after “Operation Annihilate” ended the first season, some 300,000 anti-war protesters marched in New York, and heard speeches by Martin Luther King and Dr. Benjamin Spock.  The second season “The Doomsday Machine” would be airing as demonstrators gathered for an even larger March on the Pentagon in October.

 In between, while Star Trek was in summer re-runs, China exploded its first hydrogen bomb.

 The day after “Mirror, Mirror” premiered, General Lewis Hershey, director of the Selective Service, ordered local draft boards to place at the head of their lists any college students who interfered with Army recruiters on their campus.

 A few days after “The Gamesters of Triskelion” aired in early 1968, the unmanned U.S. spacecraft Surveyor 7 made a soft landing on the Moon. “Patterns of Force” played the day that the Selective Service ended graduate school draft deferments.

 A few days after “The Ultimate Computer,” Senator Eugene McCarthy, running as the anti-war candidate, got 40% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, shocking supporters of President Johnson. A day after “Bread and Circuses,” Senator Robert Kennedy announced he would run for the Democratic nomination for President, also as an anti-war candidate.

 “Assignment Earth” ended the second season, as President Lyndon Johnson told the nation in a television address that he would not run for re-election.

 A day before “I, Mudd” was re-run for the first time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee.

 King had become a strong antiwar advocate, urging young men to boycott the draft. But his assassination was felt most deeply in black communities, and for the following week, riots and unprecedented destruction requiring federal troops and National Guard to end the burning of entire parts of Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other cities.

Days before “The Immunity Syndrome” was rerun, Senator Robert Kennedy won the California presidential primary, and was shot and killed by an assassin in Los Angeles.

 The day before the third season episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” premiered, Apollo 7 astronauts held the first live TV broadcast from earth orbit. Several days after “Day of the Dove,” Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey for the White House. “The Empath” has just debuted when U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam surpassed 30,000.


Between the airing of “Whom Gods Destroy” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” a series of protests began, leading to colleges shutting down in January and February 1969: the issues included agitations for black studies programs, and opposition to ROTC and Dow Chemical, the chief manufacturer of napalm, recruiting on campus.

A few days after “The Way to Eden,” Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched a three day offensive, including the shelling of Saigon. While “The Savage Curtain” was broadcast, astronauts aboard Apollo 9 were in the midst of a 10 day mission orbiting earth to test the Apollo lunar module.

 In the nearly 3 months between “All Our Yesterdays” and the initial airing of the last of the 79 episodes, “Turnabout Intruder,” the total number of combat deaths in Vietnam exceeded those in the Korean war. There was another series of campus revolts and building takeovers—this time including Harvard University—and Apollo 10 orbited the moon.

All of this suggests the turmoil and drama of those years (and why some of us didn’t see all of these episodes until the 1970s.) The overall premise of Star Trek was made a credible dream for the future partly by the space shots covered in detail on national television and in major magazines and local newspapers. But these other despairing events made their way into the content of Star Trek adventures.

 The Vietnam War in particular was pervasive. By these last years of the 60s, it was an all-consuming topic.  Everyone talked about it, and nearly everyone was affected by it.

  It was in that sense unique. A few circumstances made it so prominent in everyday life. First, there were a lot of young Americans, and there was a military draft governing all young men. When the 1960s began, half the U.S. population was under 30 years old. By the end of the decade, half the population was under 25, with 40% younger than 18.

 Second, the tradition of media covering war zones combined with new technologies to enable rapid reporting, including images of actual combat on the evening news, as well as dead bodies, napalm victims, burning villages, massive bombing from the air—and the arrival of coffins back in the US. This was before the censorship of such images in more recent wars.

There were several lines of debate during the Star Trek years. On the one hand, supporters of the war called for automatic approval of the nation’s war as simple patriotism, and denigrated opposition as disloyal, and aiding the enemy. They accepted the government’s claim that America was threatened, that the loss of Vietnam to “the Communists” would lead to losing the entire region (the so-called domino effect) to the Communist bloc.

 Those who opposed the war marshaled facts to show that the government’s rationale was faulty, that the US was not threatened, that Vietnam was a civil war, and that a land war could not be won in Asia. They asserted that the official facts about Vietnam, southeast Asia and the actual state of the war were wrong, sometimes intentionally so. 

Given the lack of rationale, the war was immoral. Increasingly, the massive destruction itself became a major issue in the question of the war’s morality, as the US used its massively destructive technology on a population of largely peasants.

 Supporters insisted that only the government had the true facts. They said no one wanted the war, but it was forced on the US. They insisted that once conflict started, there was no way to end it without losing national prestige.

They also argued that to oppose the war was to undermine US troops, but by 1968 many Vietnam war veterans were openly opposing the war, and there were soldiers in Vietnam (in an alarming number of instances) shooting and killing their own officers, for leading them on hopeless missions.

 Some of these issues—as well as the cultural and racial issues raised by the war, both in Vietnam and in the US—were integrated in Star Trek episodes. But while these episodes were responses to Vietnam and the turmoil in the US (and it was considerable—talk about the war was nearly incessant, especially among the young), these stories live because they transcend the details of Vietnam to deal with deep questions of war as well as other recurrent issues in subsequent conflicts.

 Raising these issues may have been seen as a form of protest, but they also reflected 1960s idealism: that there had to be better ways for the future, and we had to be better people if we were even going to survive into the 23rd century.

Errand of Mercy” was a first season story written by Gene Coon, who had recently taken on the role of Star Trek’s producer. As mentioned in a previous post, Coon was a veteran of World War II who had written a novel about the Korean war.

 This episode is famous for introducing the Klingons as a Federation adversary. Both in appearance and story function, the Klingons were the analogues of US adversaries in the Cold War, China and particularly the Soviet Union.

 The story begins with the Enterprise learning its mission—to prevent the Klingons from using the strategically positioned planet of Organia as a base. At the same time, the crew learns that war has in fact broken out with the Klingon Empire.

 So from the start, the episode sets up the conventional geopolitical view of Vietnam war supporters: two major adversaries battling over a small and apparently primitive society, valuable only for its physical position.

Also from the start, the conventional arguments for the Vietnam war are represented, though sometimes ironically undermined, as in this exchange between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock when confirmation is received that the war has started: “Well, there it is: war,” Kirk says. “We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it.”

 “Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want,” Spock says dryly.

For part of the Vietnam debate quickly became over motives for the war: whether those who profit by military action, or simply desire the activity of warfare, were promoting the war. Eventually it was revealed that many of the premises for the Vietnam war—including the supposed attack on a US ship that inflamed Congress to give sweeping war powers to President Johnson—were inflated or deliberately false. Those who repeated the empty phrase that Kirk repeats again later (“No one wants war”) were often either lying to themselves or to everyone else.

Kirk and Spock beam down to Organia, and indeed find a society of gentle beings living simply among buildings suggesting the Middle Ages.

While Kirk tries to convince the Council of Elders that Klingons will soon invade and do terrible things, Mr. Spock quickly comes to a shocking conclusion: “This is not a primitive society making progress towards mechanization,” he reports. “They are totally stagnant...For tens of thousands of years there has been absolutely no advancement...This is a laboratory specimen of an arrested culture.”

 This attitude suggests a similar feeling about Vietnam, where many lived in huts in small villages, harvesting rice as their ancestors had for many generations. Moreover, the Southeast Asian peoples—like the Organians—appeared passive, inert. Westerners could not understand this—and in many cases, did not respect these people. They felt superior.

 Much is made later of the gentle smiles of the Organian council members. Buddhism was the major religion in Vietnam that Westerners could identify, and the image of Buddhism in the 60s—before it was practiced all over America in later decades—was of passivity.


In several episodes Kirk and his Enterprise had a clear bias in favor of “progress” towards high technology and against “primitive superstition” or a stagnant society. But what may appear as stagnant may also be seen as a society in balance with its environment, or a more subtly changing organic relationship with the world or indeed the universe. “Organia” suggests this idea.

 In any case, this was a common bias that appeared during the Vietnam War, leading to efforts to bring “progress” to primitive people. When Kirk makes these proposals he is obviously sincere. But history shows that others are more interested in profiting by radically changing an indigenous culture, ultimately to overrun and eradicate it.

Soon the Klingons arrive, and their leader Kor, is equally dismayed by the Organians, their passivity and little smiles. (Kor is played by John Colicos, who took credit for the Klingon look, basing it on Genghis Khan. If so, it was hardly original to Star Trek. The leader of the Mongols was likely a model for the leader of Mongo in the Flash Gordon serials, and many science fiction alien cultures and villains have an Asian look. Still, the Mongol empire reached from China into areas of the 20th century Soviet Union, so they would be an apt model for the Klingons as stand-ins for both countries.)

Kor sees Kirk as a more kindred spirit than the smiling, Buddha-like Organians, not only because he is a soldier but because their species are similar. “Here we are on a planet of sheep,” he says. “Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great.”

 The leader of Eminar makes the same analogy in “The Armageddon Factor.” But this time Kirk does not argue, for he has already blown up a Klingon ammunition dump. It’s important not to dismiss the danger Kirk sees—the suffering caused by a zealous and violent force would be seen in Cambodia as it has been seen elsewhere in the world, before and since.

 But the story’s argument is perhaps with Kor’s contention that warfare is “what makes us great.” This turns out to be another lie. The ins and outs of the plot only return these two adversaries to the confrontation that belies their stated misgivings.

 But the escalating violence alarms the Organians who finally must intervene. They are of course not the passive primitive humanoids they appear to be, but beings Spock later describes as “pure energy...as far above us on the evolutionary scale as we are above the amoeba.”

 The Organians stop the war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, not only on Organia but everywhere. Both Kirk and Kor are furious. They protest the limitation on their freedom. In the key moment, Kirk cries: “You have no right to dictate to our Federation...how to handle our interstellar relations! We have the right---“

 “To wage war, Captain?” asks the Organian leader in a calm but cultured voice. “To kill millions of innocent people? To destroy life on a planetary scale? Is that what you are defending?”

 And so the point of view has switched, to a key assertion made by Vietnam War opponents: that all the geopolitical arguments made by proponents were wildly out of proportion with the realities of the war: the immense destruction (it was said that a normal bomb load on a B-52 would result in the death of every living creature in a fifty mile radius, including insects) and cruelty to innocents, not to mention the needless American deaths and injuries.  (And fifty years later, that suffering is not over.)

There is also an echo of the argument in the form of a question that was so prevalent that Norman Mailer used it as a title for a novel: "How can we get out of Vietnam?"  It was essentially a confession that the political establishment could not imagine how to end the war without admitting defeat, which was unthinkable.

The logic of war becomes self-referential so no one could imagine how to end it.  But the Organians did.  Likewise, the so-called logic of war (which includes the emotional logic of war) that only takes particular facts into account, that refuses to see wider consequences or to judge the proportions. It results in a kind of tunnel vision. What the Organians did, especially to Kirk, is to force a change in proportion and perspective. The result was a shock of recognition.

The Organians provide one result of their perspective that shocked both Kirk and Kor. “It is true that in the future, you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together.”

 This brilliant observation rings true not only for subsequent Star Trek history but for many wars, such as World War II (after which, deadly adversaries—the US and Western Europe versus Germany and Japan—became instant allies) and even, in fact, the Vietnam War. After many more bloody years of war, the US could not provide a victory for its South Vietnamese allies. North Vietnam unified the country, which became socialist but not particularly aligned with the Soviet Union or China. The terrible consequences that supporters warned of mostly did not happen, and now Vietnam is an American trading partner: friends working together with the US.

 The irony in the story’s title has to do with societal hubris. The Federation was on an errand of mercy to save the primitive Organians, but in fact the Organians provided mercy to the Federation and the Klingons by sparing their societies a ruinous war. That is a universal lesson about being trapped in preconceptions, and the inability or refusal to look from a different and perhaps higher perspective.

With fifty years under our belts, it may also appear a bit prophetic. For the West has now learned that Buddhism (at least as it was practiced in Tibet and Japan for centuries) was engaged in an investigation deep into the human mind through meditation, to limit suffering and increase freedom and happiness. Western scientists are currently engaged in learning all they can about these practices and this perspective.  Such apparent "passivity" is an engaged and subtle activity.

 It is also more allowable now, and more common, for the costs of war in lives and destruction to be openly discussed before the dogs of war are loosed, and war’s insidious logic takes over the hearts and minds of mortal men.

But also as we've seen in more recent history, war fever still can overwhelm judgment, panic feeds on itself and the frenzied mob follows leaders who manipulate them with secrets and lies.  And once the dogs of war are loosed, they are very hard to bring back.

 Other questions about hearts and minds as apply to war and the future were engaged in later original series Trek episodes. A couple of those instances in a further post should wind up this aspect of the soul of Star Trek.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Trek50: War and "A Taste of Armageddon"

Re-examining Star Trek on its 50th anniversary gives us a unique look into its soul. It suggests the question: How can many Star Trek stories, inspired by contemporary events and issues of the 1960s, remain relevant to our concerns today?

 The answer is in both the selection of those subjects and in the approach that Star Trek takes to them. The science fiction distance and the dramatic concentration combine to get at certain essences of deeply felt events that focus universal issues.

 The urgency of these issues was part of the tumultuous period of 1966-69. Some believe we are entering another period of turmoil, of conflicts that raise basic questions and test ideals. These stories may speak urgently again.

 I’ve taken some care in these Trek50 posts to suggest a living historical perspective of those times, and especially the experiences that both the creators of these stories and their audiences brought to them.

 But in all the intervening years they have been discussed and debated in light of contemporary events and concerns. Not everyone makes the same conclusions, or even sees the same questions, when they talk about these stories. (Although viewers with different ideologies or perspectives also often select different episodes as the more characteristic.)

 There are some episodes however that have emerged as most central. They express aspects of the soul of Star Trek most dramatically and directly, though not exclusively. Much of the Star Trek “vision” is cumulative, expressed also in other series in the saga.

 But those later expressions would not exist without the groundbreaking episodes of the original Star Trek series, particularly in this 50th anniversary first season. Though the subjects of the stories remain relevant, resonant and important, they had their greatest impact when they were first aired (and shortly afterwards, in early 1970s syndication, when the Vietnam war was still going on and the country was in turmoil about it.)

 It was because they addressed those active concerns in ways that audiences understood, even in the less than obvious languages of science fiction, allegory and metaphor, that Star Trek began to be legendary.

 This is especially true of the stories that confronted issues of war. American participation in the Vietnam War was reaching its height in these years of 1966 through 1968, but it would continue to rage and cause larger and more contentious debate and dissension until its ignominious end in 1975.

 For many in Star Trek’s first audience, this was a topic that changed the course of lives, and for some it was literally a matter of life and death. But the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust was concurrently present throughout these years, beginning earlier and lasting much longer.

 While Vietnam was seldom the subject of movies and television shows, the subject of nuclear war had emerged from the radiation monster movies of the 1950s through the satirical Dr. Strangelove and the lyrical apocalypse of On the Beach to more direct portrayals.

 So while Vietnam was often foremost, thermonuclear war was always in the background. First season Star Trek stories that dealt in some way with issues of war include “Arena,” “The Squire of Gothos,” “Balance of Terror,” “Errand of Mercy” and “A Taste of Armageddon.”

 These—and the third season “Day of the Dove”—would be regarded as anti-war in the 60s. But Star Trek explored other sides of the question, particularly in the second season episodes “A Private Little War” and arguably “Omega Glory.”

 Other stories could be added to these lists, such as “The Return of the Archons,” with its suggestion of the tyranny of social conformity that many in the 60s saw as a prime source of support for the Vietnam War (which in this sense relates it to "A Taste of Armageddon,") or even the contrasting societal visions of “Mirror, Mirror.”

In this post I'll look in detail at one such episode: "A Taste of Armageddon."
What follows is a revision of a post I did on it several years ago.  But because the original post makes some slightly different points, it remains in the index.

This first season episode "A Taste of Armageddon" is one of the more complete Star Trek treatments of issues related to the Vietnam War--the kind of issues and especially a point of view that no other TV show or feature film dared to dramatize.

First, the story:

The Enterprise is approaching the system in Star Cluster NGC321 with Ambassador Robert Fox aboard, who is intent on opening diplomatic relations the planet Eminiar VII. Spock informs Kirk that the only information on the planet came from the U.S.S. Valiant fifty years earlier, which reported a technologically advanced civilization that had not ventured outside its solar system, and was then at war with a another planet in the system. But the Valiant then disappeared here, and was declared missing in space.

Enterprise hails are finally answered with Code 710, meaning that under no circumstances is the ship to approach the planet. Ambassador Fox insists they ignore it. “It’s their planet,” Captain Kirk says, but Fox orders him to proceed. (The vaguely stated reason is that thousands of lives have been lost in the vicinity and the Federation needs reliable relations in the system.)

So Kirk, Spock, an ensign and a security detail beam down to a matte painting, representing an advanced city. They are greeted by a small delegation, led by radiant blond Mea 349, played by Barbara Babcock (later of Hill Street Blues fame, who did voices on several early TOS episodes, and appeared again in “The Tholian Web.” ) Kirk and Spock are surprised there is no hostility, though Mea tells them there is danger. They don’t see any. The danger exists, she warns, but “it would be morally incorrect to do less than extend our hospitality.”

The people of Eminiar, who tend to accessorize their futuristically form-fitting body suits with colorful draped fabric, are shown with the trappings of a highly civilized society. This is especially true of the leader of their Council, Anan 7 (David Opatoshu), with his goatee, cultured language, and pants with legs of different colors.

Anan informs Kirk and Spock that Eminiar has been at war for 500 years. “You conceal it very well,” Kirk observes. Spock sees no evidence of warfare. The planet is prosperous, peaceful, advanced. Yet Anan tells them that they suffer losses of one to three million dead a year from direct enemy attack from Vendikar, the “third planet in our system,” originally settled by them, but now an advanced, ruthless enemy. (Earth is of course the third planet in our system, and America was settled by Europeans and people of other continents as well.)

Their conversation is interrupted by an attack. Though they hear nothing, Kirk asks why the Eminiarians don’t take shelter. “There is no shelter,” they are told.

A room with computers and a large display opens up and there is much activity, Mea is horrified that there has been a hit in the city, but the landing party can’t detect any falling bombs, etc. Kirk contacts the Enterprise and Scotty reports all is quiet on the planet. But at the computers, Anan and a military aide note a hit ---“just as it happened, 50 years ago.”

Kirk suggests it is all a game. “This is no game,” Anan says. “Half a million people have just been killed.” He orders a counter-attack.

“Computers, Captain,” Spock realizes. “They fight their wars by computers, totally.”

“Of course,” Anan says.

“Computers don’t kill people,” Kirk exclaims.

“Their deaths have been registered. Of course they have 24 hours to report to our disintegration machines,” Anan says calmly. “You must understand, Captain, we have been at war for 500 years. Under ordinary conditions, no civilization could withstand that. But we have reached a solution.”

Spock suggests the attack was theoretical, but Anan insists, “Oh no, quite real. An attack is mathematically launched… I lost my wife in the last attack. Our civilization lives, but people die. Our culture goes on.”

“You mean your people just walk into a disintegration machine when told to?” Kirk says.

“We have a high consciousness of duty, Captain.”

“There is a certain scientific logic about it,” Spock observes.

“I’m glad you approve,” Anan says.

“I do not approve,” Spock corrects him. “I understand.”

Anan then tells Kirk the Enterprise has been classified destroyed. All persons aboard must report to the surface to be disintegrated. The landing party will be held until they surrender. (They aren’t among the casualties.) “If possible we will spare your ship, Captain,” Anan says. “But its passengers and crew are already dead.”

So at this point in the story the build-up--the mystery of what’s really going on—is over. Now the question is what is Kirk going to do about it.

Now we have the basic theme: the abstract nature of a war, but with real consequences in death, if not destruction. Part of that theme is what is does to individuals, to individuality and individual rights. This element has been prepared for with the people of Eminiar having names but also numbers. And though the Trek reference books spell the leader’s name “Anan,” in the show it sounds like it’s being pronounced “Anon,” as in “anonymous.”

Kirk expressed disbelief that individuals would simply walk into disintegration chambers when told. He raises this objection again to Mea, who herself has been declared a casualty of the latest attack. “Is that all life means to you?” She insists her life is precious to her, but if she refuses, others will, the treaty will be broken and both sides will begin using real weapons. “More than people will die. A whole civilization will be destroyed. Surely you can see that this is the better way.”

She means this, as Anan does: they are quite sure that any rational, intelligent and civilized being would come to this same conclusion. They are sure of it.

Kirk isn’t. “No, I don’t see that at all.”

“It’s been our way for 500 years.”

Meanwhile, Anan is exhibiting one of his extra little talents, the ability to mime Captain Kirk’s voice (perhaps assisted by an unseen “voice duplicator.”) As Kirk, he orders the crew down for shore leave, but the always skeptical Scotty doesn’t buy it. A computer analysis confirms the deception.

Kirk and the landing party are locked up and guarded, and so they must escape. Getting captured and escaping is always good for some action and suspense—it wasn’t rare for Doctor Who and his companion to go through this two or three times in a single story. Spock uses “Vulcanian telepathy” ---of the type later used by Obi Wan and Luke Skywalker---to confuse a weak-minded guard to fall prey to Kirk’s karate chop.

Out in the corridor they observe people going into a disintegration chamber. Kirk destroys it. He says he is “throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery.”

Anan learns of their escape over an intercom (fans will note the voice is the same as Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver.”) He orders that the Enterprise be attacked (They use sonic vibration weapons.) Scotty raises screens but Ambassador Fox is sure it must be a misunderstanding. But the Enterprise sensors can’t find the landing party.

While Kirk tells Mea “we’re going to try to stop the killing,” Anan confesses he is at a loss how to proceed, when the call comes through from Fox (who is played by Gene Lyons; if I’m not mistaken, he voiced a lot of commercials. I seem to remember some for cigarettes.) Anan invites Fox down, intending to attack when the Enterprise screens are down. But Scotty refuses Fox’s order to lower them.

Anan is having a quiet drink alone when Kirk approaches from behind him. Anan reveals another talent—he greets Kirk by name without seeing him. “My first impression of you was correct,” Anan says, on Kirk’s approach, weapon in hand. “You are a barbarian. Don’t look so incredulous, Captain. Of course you are---we all are! A killer first, a builder second. A hunter, a warrior, and let’s be honest, a murderer. That is our joint heritage, is it not?”

“We’re a little less cold-blooded about it than you are,” Kirk says. Then adds: “You don’t seem to realize the risk you’re taking. We don’t make war with computers and herd people into suicide stations. We make the real thing. I could destroy this planet.” Kirk says he can do it alone.

Anan mocks him. “I had no idea you were so formidable.”

“You seem to think I’m joking,” Kirk says, smiling. He then again demands his communicator and phaser. Anan directs him, pushes a button alerting guards, Kirk pushes him into the corridor first, which deters the first wave of guards, but after putting up a valiant hand to hand battle (while Anan looks on, apparently disgusted by the physical violence), Kirk is subdued and taken to the council chamber.

In the meantime, Spock has rigged the Eminiarian communicator to talk to the Enterprise. He orders Scotty to take the ship to a safe distance, and tells the young ensign to “prevent this young lady [Mea] from immolating herself.”

Fox has meanwhile beamed down (if something changed about the shields, I didn’t catch it), was captured and is being marched to a “suicide station,” when Spock rescues him, and destroys another chamber. Fox tells him that Kirk is being held in the council room. Spock tells Fox that normal diplomacy is not going to work here. Fox says, “I’ve never been a soldier, but I learn quickly.”

Anan and Kirk in the council room are having another thematic dialogue. If the Enteprise crew doesn’t beam down and give themselves up, Anan pleads, “You will be responsible for an escalation that will destroy everything. Millions of people horribly killed, complete destruction of the culture here, and yes, the culture on Vendikar. Disaster, disease, starvation—horrible, lingering death, pain and anguish!”

Kirk has been playing the wily Ulysses all along, never more so than in this scene.

“That seems to frighten you,” he retorts, in a cool, calm voice.

“It would frighten any sane man!” Anan exclaims, as if Kirk still doesn’t get it.

“You’re quite right,” is all Kirk says.

Anan is so convinced he’s right, he continues to try to get Kirk to comprehend the obvious. “And you understand, Captain, we have done away with all that. Now you are threatening to bring it down on us again. Are those 500 people of yours more important than the hundreds of millions of people on E and Vendikar? What kind of monster are you?”

“I’m a barbarian---you said it yourself.”

“I had hoped I’d spoken only figuratively,” Anan says, pronouncing every syllable.

“Oh, no, you were quite accurate. I plan to prove it to you.”

Ana turns away, and orders that a channel to the Enterprise be opened. “You give me no choice, Captain,” he turns back to Kirk. “We are not bandits. You force us to act as bandits.”

But once Scotty answers, Kirk shouts an order—General Order 24 in two hours.

With Kirk restrained, Anan tells Scotty, he has 30 minutes or the Captain and the Ambassador and landing party will be killed until crew transport begins. He turns to Kirk.

“I mean it, Captain.”

“All it means is I won’t be around for the destruction.” He explains that General Order 24 is to destroy the planet. Anan is aghast. It would mean the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And then word comes in that Vendicar is complaining that they aren’t keeping up with their casualties.

Anan is again fixated on their war. If Vendikar decides they are violating the treaty, it will certainly mean real war. “I can’t stop it—escalation is automatic!” Anan cries. “You can stop it!”

“Stop it?” Kirk says, this time with attitude. “I’m counting on it.”


Scotty contacts the council to report that the targeting of the planet is complete. Suddenly Kirk overcomes the guards and orders them and Anan to the other side of the room. Meanwhile, Spock and his group break in. Spock, sizing up the situation, utters a classic Spock line:  “I assumed you needed help. I see I’m in error.”

The clock is ticking, and the climax is at hand when the landing crew reclaims their communicators and phasers, and Spock begins figuring out how the Emimiar computers work. Anan watches them, still in disbelief. How can Kirk not understand what he is doing? But he does understand, and explains.

“Death, destruction, disease, horror---that’s what war is all about, Anan,” Kirk says. “That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it. And you had it for 500 years. Since it seems to be the only way I can save my crew and my ship” (though by now, this doesn’t seem to be true anymore) “I’m going to end it for you, one way or another.”

As Anan looks on in anguish, Kirk and Spock destroy the computers linked to the computers on Vendikar.

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Anan says.

“Yes, I do,” Kirk replies. “I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikar will assume you’ve broken your agreement, and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They will want to do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do more than just count up numbers on a computer. They’ll destroy your cities, devastate your planet. You, of course, will want to retaliate. If I were you, I would start making bombs. Yes, Anan, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.”

“There can be no peace,” Anan answers. “Don’t you see, we’ve admitted it to ourselves! We’re a killer species, it’s instinctive. It’s the same with you.”

And now comes one of Kirk’s most famous speeches. “All right, it’s instinctive,” he says. “We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we’re not going to kill---today. Contact Vendikar.  I think you’ll find they are just as terrified, appalled, horrified as you, that they’ll do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you. Peace, or utter destruction. It’s up to you.”

Anan acknowledges there might be a chance. There is a direct communications link that hasn’t been used in centuries. Ambassador Fox offers his assistance. Kirk cancels General Order 24, and after some repartee on the bridge (during which Captain Kirk points out that had the war been real fewer people would have died, and it would have been over long ago), the Enterprise warps to its next mission.

"A Taste of Armageddon" has become one of the signature stories of Star Trek.  These stories speak to us fifty years later, on their own merits.  But the context in which they were created deepens our insight and experience. This historical context and Star Trek's response to it are part of the soul of Star Trek.

 A Taste of Armageddon first aired on February 23, 1967. There were some 338,000 American troops in Vietnam. Close to 7,000 Americans had died in the war so far, with some 40,000 injured. The largest air battle of the war occurred over North Vietnam in January. Extensive damage to North Vietnam from American bombing, including civilian deaths, was documented.

This script is full of this war’s vocabulary. “Escalation” was a relatively new term, widely used for the first time concerning Vietnam. Even Spock’s apparently offhand comment about Mea not “immolating” herself suggests the Buddhist monks in Saigon immolating themselves in protest of the war. And Kirk’s phrase, “throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery” was a metaphor used by young dissidents in the U.S. and Europe, sometimes applied to the “war machine,” sometimes to the larger mechanisms that support war and injustice. The line about the people of Eminiar VII having a sense of duty, and walking into suicide machines, reflects the Vietnam era debate about patriotism versus refusing to participate in the war.

But in its emphasis on total war, the script also speaks to the continuing threat of thermonuclear war. Because missiles could be on their way to their targets before definitely detected, and possibly could destroy the enemy’s bomb-tipped missiles before they could be fired, there was increasing talk of putting computers in control.

This led to many films of accidental warfare caused by screw-ups in command-and-control mechanisms, like Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Or all-powerful supercomputers launching a war that humans couldn’t stop (War Games in 1983) or simply holding humankind hostage by controlling nuclear weapons (Colossus: The Forbin Project in 1970, directed by Trek director Joseph Sargent.)

This script weds the computerized warfare idea from nuclear war scenarios (the very idea of “scenarios”, projections and using computers to study the future came from attempts to predict nuclear war casualties and effects) with a particular aspect of the Vietnam war: its visibility, yet its abstraction.

In 1967, there were daily body counts reported on the evening news, night after night. The dead were categorized as American, South Vietnamese, and Viet Cong/North Vietnamese. The American casualties were the most accurate, and the enemy casualties the most obviously inflated.

But the war was far away, and Americans were largely unaffected. No bombs fell in American cities, no buildings were destroyed. In 1967 the largest draft calls of the war were still ahead, and not so many families were directly affected by the war as eventually would be. Americans were otherwise pretty prosperous. Until early 1967, they weren’t even feeling an extra tax bite to pay for the war. It was still pretty abstract.

In some ways, Vietnam was an anomaly. It was “the television war,” seen every night on newscasts. The U.S. still honored the rights of news media to cover a war (which they’d done in World War II) so those images were seen every day, eventually dominating the news.

As the war went on, the images became more graphic. Bombs fell, napalm flared, soldiers and civilians died onscreen. The TV showed a Vietnam prisoner being suddenly shot, and American soldiers setting fire to a village with cigarette lighters, and the villagers running away, screaming. There were pictures of the wounded in pain, and pictures of body bags, and flag-draped coffins. It was all so real, and yet it was all a TV show. It was all very strange.

But in 1967, that kind of coverage was just beginning. The war was big news, but the news always ended with the body count. It could seem as if soldiers far away walked unseen into disintegration chambers, so that life could go on as usual in the U.S.

The story for “A Taste of Armaggedon” was written by Robert Hamner, but the script was largely Gene Coon’s. He’d recently become Star Trek’s producer, with Gene Roddenberry now as Executive Producer. Coon worked on stories and scripts within the universe Roddenberry created, and told the stories that defined Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek for all time.

Star Trek’s approach to war itself helped to define what Star Trek has always meant since. There was not always, strictly speaking, an anti-war message or theme, yet the very strongly articulated point of view in this story was and is essential to Star Trek, and its unique approach to conflict and war.

And that point of view was knowledgeable and earned. Gene Coon had been in the Marines for four years in World War II and after. He saw combat in the Pacific, and served in occupied Japan and in China. Recently I happened on a paperback copy of The Short End, one of his two novels, this one published in 1964. It’s about the Korean war, and pulls no punches. There is violence of all kinds in it, including soldiers brutally fighting among themselves.

Gene Roddenberry also served in the Pacific, going on bombing raids as a pilot in B-17s, without fighter escort, under fire from the ground and from enemy planes. He saw military bureaucracy and the stupidity of some commanders cost the lives of men he knew.

Their beliefs about war came from experiencing and knowing war, as well as considering the alternatives. If they had wanted to write “gritty” war stories, they could have done so from their experience of the real thing, not from watching war movies or imagining how it works. But at least in Star Trek, they chose to make this statement about the essential issues.

Most of the literature examining the nature of war in the 1960s, including anti-war novels and movies, were created by World War II combat veterans, like Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Slaughterhouse Five), or were war correspondents, like Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket.) They knew what they were talking about.

And that is a major point of this episode: experiencing the reality of war is the best deterrent to war. This is also the message of other anti-war novels and poems from World War I (All Quiet on the Western Front being among the most eloquent) and before. But of course, these authors didn't mean people had to experience war in order to try to prevent future wars. They didn't write of the horrors of war so that people would start new wars. We can experience those horrors by reading their words, or inhabiting their images.

In this episode, Gene Coon is saying very clearly that the violence and madness of war is very different from anything abstract that can be said about why it is fought. It becomes its own evidence and argument.

In this story, Eminiar VII has found a very intelligent and logical solution to being unable to settle their differences without war. The reason stated in the story is because people cannot rise above their enmities, or resolve their differences without violence. The history of humankind would tend to support this idea. But Star Trek is about learning, including learning from mistakes. It's about starting over, consciously, and creating a new history, with new self-knowledge and a new realization of human potential.

There is another value in contention.  The leaders of Eminar value the continuity of their culture over the lives of individuals. They are amazed that the Enterprise people can’t see the wisdom of this. By some premises, it is logical, even scientific. There’s a sense that tradition is preserved, and that artistic and intellectual advances continue---perhaps even evolutionary ones.

This is the kind of thinking that many people do associate with science and logic, and there was a sense during Vietnam that the “best and the brightest” always had logical, even scientific reasons for continuing the slaughter (in the sense that geopolitics, or military science are scientific.)

But the graphic images of the television war, along with the reporting from Vietnam in magazines and books, brought the reality of war---and the feelings generated by imagining that reality—into the public debate. This led to a different kind of logic---more like Mr. Spock’s than Anan 7’s---that destroying countries in order to save them was illogical, and morally wrong.

It's interesting that the strongest argument for the Eminar system isn't stressed in the story: that given the carnage of war, the painless method of being disintegrated is more merciful.  Yet this only exposes the absurdity of a "bloodless" war in which individuals die ostensibly for their society, based on mistaken beliefs it has become unthinkable to question.  This also relates to attitudes towards the Vietnam War especially in the 60s.

Since the 1960s and 70s,  the abstraction of real war has only become more pronounced. Fewer families have loved ones in the armed services. More killing is done by remote control.  There is less television coverage of actual warfare.  During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, images have been carefully managed.  No flag-draped coffins or body bags are permitted to be shown, and few images of civilians wounded or killed. Much of the imagery we’ve seen is of computer-guided bombs, and computer simulations. War as most Americans experience it has become a computer game. For most people, war has become abstract.

Another point to touch on briefly: Star Trek often champions the individual, very important when dealing with sweeping changes or differences in how societies are organized.

 One choice of individual citizens was deciding whether their country's war was legitimate. Many people felt even questioning the Vietnam War was unpatriotic, that we had to support and trust our leaders, that they knew things we didn't.

The role of individual decisions was even more acute when it came to the draft. Was obeying the draft a civic duty, or did individuals have the right and the duty to refuse to participate in a war they felt deeply was illegitimate and immoral? Draft resistance would become even more of an issue in the following few years, but it was already being raised in the public arena in 1967. The spectre of people voluntarily marching into disintegration chamber cast this issue in a disturbing light.

Beyond the points made in this episode, there is something else to consider about the continuity on Eminiar VII. That means of waging war preserved not only the culture but the power structure. Perhaps Anan faced voters irate about the bad math the computer used in its attacks and defense, but it’s unlikely. The people with real power were secure in an abstract war.

The most famous element of this episode is Kirk’s line “We’re killers—but we’re not going to kill today.” It’s a bit reminiscent of the Alcoholics Anonymous approach of controlling addictions one day at a time (though “twelve-step programs” didn’t become common knowledge until the 1980s, AA has been widely active since the 1940s.) It’s also a bit reminiscent of the time Traveller in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who when he realizes the Morlocks are helpless, drops his weapon and controls his frenzy of killing. “I struck them no more.”

But the essence of his statement is choice. By exercising choice, even once (“today”), it suggests that choice is possible. Becoming conscious is part of choice: conscious not only of possibility and capability, but of what drives you in your choices. Consciousness itself becomes an important drive: the will to understand your unconscious drives and expressions, and the will to make conscious decisions.

Anan’s argument is an old one, yet it comes in a contemporary guise. Anan talks about the “instinct” to kill; today we might talk about this in terms of genes, or natural selection. But it amounts to the same argument, which is both based on a false premise of human nature, and on a false and defeatist sense of human capability.

Although Kirk agrees with Anan’s premise, that we are killers “with the blood of a million savage years,” he didn’t need to, because in a meaningful way, it’s a false premise.

First of all, we’ve been becoming human for more like two million years. It is of course true that humans, like every other living species, live directly or indirectly from the death of other life. Like most creatures, we kill to live. (Even vegetarians do.)

But we ought to be careful about what we assume or extrapolate. We can look at animals, and see how they hunt and savagely kill. We can look at our history of organized slaughter of other animals and of each other in warfare. And we can devise theories about how all this must be so: it’s in our genes. Survival of the fittest. Every human---every individual and his genes--for himself.

But it’s all pretty oversimplified. Humans, like many other animal species, live by killing but also by cooperation. Individuals in social species don’t survive without each other, and humans are the primate species most dependent on each other to survive. This simple fact flummoxes a great deal of otherwise scientific theory.

There are scholars---the human ecologist Paul Shepard being the one I know best---who tell a much different story of “primitive” or primal humanity in pre-history than we’ll find in our caveman clich├ęs. It is our image of our ancestry that is primitive, as further evidenced by existing Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and traditions. Primal peoples hunt animals, but they feel deeply related to them. They feel fear and awe and gratitude. Humans living in the same environment as animals learn from them. Their attitude about killing them is much more complex than we generally suppose.

We basically extrapolate the origins of our “instincts” and what they mean in terms of behavior from historical time: from our few thousand years of so-called civilization. We certainly have instincts, and our survival often does depend on knowing friend from foe. But how that plays out may have much more to do with our particular civilizations, religions, technologies, and particularly our power structures than with our genes or instincts.

Instincts--and genes--operate correctly when they switch on in correct contexts. But they often are summoned falsely, in inappropriate contexts. And as our lives and relationships with the world and each other get more complex, the inappropriate release of behavior motivated by "instinct" or the unconscious becomes more common, and more of a deadly problem.

Both Anan's "we are killers" and Kirk's "we aren't going to kill today" are broad statements that basically support the idea that we have choice--that human consciousness can decide to alter an instinct or unconscious motivation.  But the idea of humans as killers isn't quite enough to explain war.  In fact, it may well be a secondary reason.

For the roots of war are often not the killing instinct but other human failings, like fear, greed, arrogance and others, together with instruments of deception and manipulation.  The motives of warmakers may be hidden, but such leaders get people to go along with them by pushing psychological buttons.

We need to become more conscious of what those buttons are and how they are pushed, and how our unconscious can trick us into believing we’re acting rationally when we’re not. We do that individually, and we do that together (and speaking of primitives and killers, it’s in Indigenous and tribal societies we find the deepest traditions and commitment to talking through problems until a peaceful solution is reached.) We also need to be a little smarter about the people we follow, and whose interests are served when they push our buttons.

A couple of other Star Trek episodes speak to these issues, such as "Errand of Mercy" and "Day of the Dove."  Hopefully we'll look at those in future posts.