Monday, March 13, 2006

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. In the air he also battled weather (flying once into a typhoon, with his plane facing the trough of a giant wave), and 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. Though we today are nearly 40 years distant from when this Star Trek episode was written and filmed, Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry were little more than 20 years from their wartime experiences. Both continued to use those experiences in their work for the rest of their lives (which for Gene Coon, was not long. He died of lung cancer in 1973.)

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, including anti-war novels and movies of the 1960s, were created by World War II combat veterans, like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., or were war correspondents, like Stanley Kubrick. 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.

We’ll get back to that point in a moment. But I want to add one more thing about the situation on Eminiar. We see that its leaders 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.

Television coverage of our most recent wars, including the current one, has been more 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. 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. In this context, it touches upon two widely debated issues in 1967. One was the role of individual citizens in 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 next 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.


Anonymous said...

Gene L. Coon died in 1973, not 1970.

Anonymous said...

No Gene died in 1971. i was his secretary and a close friend. look me up in nichelle's book or the rip of by bobby justman and herb solow. ande richardson

Captain Future said...

I want to thank Ande Richardson, who was Gene Coon's secretary at Star Trek, for stopping by. On the year of Mr. Coon's death, all the sources I consulted said July 8,1973, including a long account by Herb Solow in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story. So I've corrected my typo to show 1973.

Chris said...

Why does Ande feel that the Justman/Solow book is a rip off? Gene Coon is my hero and I am hoping to find all his scripts somewhere so my writing can someday be a miniscule the part of how awesome his was!

Anonymous said...

Gene L. Coon rocked! I wish there was more info about him. I read about him in Shatner's book. Is there anything Mr, Coon's former secretary could share?

mrwebber35 said...

I see some who knew Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon personally are commenting here so I have a question. In the episode, 'Bread and Circus'', in the closing scene there is several minutes dedicated to Christ and what he seemed to mean to the Star Trek universe. Why and how did that come about? Please, no speculation, just the facts please.