Now that I’ve finished obsessively watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine–well, until Season 6 comes out in January, that is–it’s time to return to TOS.
Today’s episode is all about the cost of war, and while it’s probably one of the best TOS episodes I’ve watched thus far, I still have some serious ideological problems with it.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
Eminiar VII is not interested in guests. The planet has more-or-less posted a warning sign that reads “Keep The Hell Off My Lawn – Seriously Don’t Come Here, Not For Any Reason.” Unfortunately, this Chief Asshat Diplomat wants to establish diplomatic relations with the planets in this particular star cluster and orders the Enterprise to enter their territory anyway.
Reluctantly, Kirk does so, beaming down to the planet’s surface with Spock and a few people from Security. At first, they’re treated politely, assured that the warning is merely for their own safety, as Eminiar VII has been fighting an interplanetary war for 500 years. Quickly, however, the city is attacked . . . except no bombs have been dropped, nobody has died. Kirk is understandably confused until he realizes that the two planets have been fighting this war with only computers: no real damage is ever done, but casualties are calculated and the same number of actual people are selected to die; otherwise, the agreement will be broken and real war will begin. Worse, the Enterprise was marked as destroyed in battle, which means everyone on board must die if the agreement is to be upheld.
The Eminians all consider it their duty to die for the agreement; Kirk, not so much, so he and the others break out of confinement. Stuff happens–Chief Asshat Diplomat is a dumbass, Eminian leader Anan 7 tries to trick Scotty, Kirk and Spock destroy disintegration stations, there’s a pretty blonde for no real reason, etc–but ultimately Kirk blows up the machines responsible for fighting the war, forcing Eminiar VII into one of two options: begin the war for realsies or actually talk to their enemy and try to make peace. The Chief Asshat Diplomat stays behind to help out, while the Enterprise sails off on its merry way.
So. There are things here that I really enjoy.
This episode plays with what happens when you change the cost of war, which is an interesting hypothetical and philosophical question. I like Kirk’s whole speech about how the attempt to sanitize war has actually extended it indefinitely, and I really like the bit where Kirk talks about humanity’s predatory instincts, how we can fight these impulses day by day to become better people. I also enjoy the moment where Spock makes the distinction between understanding what the Eminians are doing and approving of it. Conceptually, all that stuff is great.
Still, I’m bothered by a couple of pretty big things here:
One: I feel like there isn’t enough acknowledgment that the Enterprise puts the Eminians in a really dangerous bind. Sure, Kirk was reluctantly following orders. Sure, this method of war seems pretty fucked. None of that changes the fact that outsiders, clearly warned not to come for any reason, went and did it anyway, wading into a situation they didn’t understand and risking not only their lives but the lives of everyone on two planets. Obviously, I don’t expect Kirk to just give up his people and calmly lead them towards death, but he also shows little to no responsibility for what’s happened; on the contrary, he often comes across quite smug in how well he clearly believes he’s handled the situation.
Which leads me to Two: fucked up or not, the Great Computer War is a part of how this society functions, and while I’m occasionally Team Fuck The Prime Directive, this is definitely one of those times where I think we should, you know, at least reference it. Cause here’s the thing: we see no evidence of anyone being disintegrated against their will, nor do we see any evidence of mind control or brainwashing. We see no evidence of any particular race, religion, gender, or sexuality being disproportionately selected for death. There aren’t any protests or rebellions or underground resistance groups fighting against the system. No one here is asking the Enterprise to rescue them; no one here is asking for help at all.
But Kirk decides to help anyway, imposing the values he chooses and endangering the shit out of everyone else in the process. And sure, a change in strategy is probably in order if you’ve been fighting the same war for 500 years, but Kirk’s solution is to put two planets in a peril that they weren’t in before and take off with nothing more than a “well, guess you better figure this shit out, huh? But hey, not my monkey, not my problem, so why don’t you take this Chief Asshat Diplomat who knows nothing about your culture off my hands and PEACE OUT, BITCHES!”
And that, that I have ethical problems with. Sometimes, the Enterprise feels like nothing more than a wrecking ball of good intentions: their hearts are in the right place, but their actions are not always justifiable and they never really seem to stick around for the follow-through.
Sulu Watch: Once again, Sulu is sadly absent. I assume he’s off acquiring new firearms for that antique gun collection he mentioned that one time.
Code 710 is the warning signal that says NO, SERIOUSLY, DON’T COME HERE. This is the first I’m hearing of Code 710, and I’m thinking this might have been a more reasonable approach to Talos IV, instead of, you know, executing anyone who dares step foot on that planet.
I’ve also never heard of General Order 24 before, possibly because it seems to embody the exact opposite of everything the Federation is supposed to stand for: like, wait, Starfleet has a general order for destroying ALL life on any given planet? Naturally, I immediately assumed this was one of Kirk’s bluffs, another Corbomite Maneuver, if you will, only to realize, “Oh, no. Kirk was absolutely gonna have everyone on Eminiar VII murdered if Anan 7 didn’t free the away team.” This seems . . . ah, I believe the word these days is “problematic?”
Spock psychically influences a guard through a wall. Admittedly, it looks pretty cool–Leonard Nimoy’s physicality is strange and fascinating here, much as it was in “Dagger of the Mind”–but also, what the shit? You’re supposed to be a touch telepath, sir! What is this “through a wall” nonsense?
With Kirk and Spock on the planet, Scotty is left in charge of the Enterprise and he does a damn respectable job of it: he doesn’t fall for any of Anan 7’s tricks, doesn’t let the Chief Asshat Diplomat put the Enterprise in danger, etc. As Keith R.A. DeCandido points out in his awesome Tor.com recaps, TOS’s Kirk isn’t exactly the rule-breaking maverick he’s made out to be in the films; that, apparently, is Scotty, at least in this episode.
Bones is apparently a total backseat commander: all snappish worry, no actual suggestions. It’s pretty in character, TBH.
I do wish that Chief Asshat Diplomat was a more nuanced character, rather than just an obtuse, obstinate little asshole. Especially since I feel like “A Taste of Armageddon” gives off slightly mixed messages: Kirk, in his own completely irresponsible way, ends this episode being all “give peace a chance,” but everything leading up to that moment has come across more like “diplomats are losers” and “let the real men make the decisions.” So . . . give peace a chance, but let the military be in charge of when and where and how and why? I’m not sure that’s gonna work out well, longterm.
FASHION REPORT: Unnecessary Blonde’s outfit is interesting, of course: she’s wearing a blue, white, and black striped toga-sheet over tight black pants, leaving the side of her abdomen exposed. But it’s the guards who particularly crack me up today: their weird criss-crossing jumpsuits–mildly reminiscent of the jumpsuits in “What Are Little Girls Made Of”–and their HATS. Look at these HATS.
Unnecessary Blonde is played by Barbara Babcock, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance; she just isn’t given very much to do. For starters, she’s introduced to the subtle sounds of TOS’s signature “Hot Lady Alert” music, signifying a possible romantic relationship between her and Kirk . . . only that never gets off the ground. Which is fine, really; the last thing Kirk needs is another hot blonde to make out with. And the beginning of her story is interesting enough: along with the crew of the Enterprise, UB is selected as one of the many people who must kill themselves for the sake of the agreement, and while she’s definitely not jazzed about it, she also 100% believes that it’s her duty to do this. It’s no big surprise that Kirk saves her, of course, but unfortunately that’s pretty much the end of her story: she’s never allowed the competition of an actual arc. We never get to see her come to the realization that she was wrong, for instance, that she shouldn’t be asked to throw her life away like this. Alternatively, she’s never given the opportunity to double down and be an actual foil to Kirk, say, sacrificing her life in an attempt to keep him from destroying the war machines. Presumably, UB’s around to put a human face on all the people needlessly dying, but really, she’s just a half-written character who, after a promising 15-minutes, gets dragged around from room to room while occasionally repeating token protests.
On the upside, today’s random yeoman is an Asian woman who gets a name (Yeoman Tamura) and actual dialogue (not, like, a lot, but still). She also gets to double as Security, when she holds a phaser on UB to make sure our arc-less character doesn’t try and vaporize herself. I don’t imagine Tamura will be back, sadly, but still, it was nice to see her.
You know who hasn’t been back in forever? Nurse Chapel. She is coming back, right?
Kirk Fu: I went ahead and made this category because it’s not an episode of Trek if Kirk doesn’t brawl with someone, right? This fight is particularly notable because a) his shirt isn’t torn in half (boo, hiss), and b) he loses! (Although he easily gets the upper hand in a different scene later, of course, but still. LOSER!)
Seriously. Are there TOS episodes that don’t end with Kirk and Spock bantering on the bridge? I mean, I enjoy their banter and all, but I’m starting to think this happens more than Sam and Dean pulling over to the side of the road at the end of every Supernatural episode, you know, to manfully talk about their feelings while crying the occasional, silent tear. (Disclaimer: it’s been roughly eight years since I watched SPN, so I don’t know if they still do this.)
There’s some decent dialogue in this episode. My favorite bit of humor comes from Spock casually telling a guard, “Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder” before neck-pinching said guard when he looks down. Still, much as Kirk frustrates me in this episode, I do very much like his speech to Anan 7. And so . . .
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“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.”