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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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---“
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.)
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.