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Star Trek: "A Private Little War" / "Return To Tomorrow"

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A more political minded fella than myself could make some good hay out of the premise of the first part of this week's double feature. "A Private Little War" has Kirk revisiting a pastoral society and finding that things have changed considerably since his last trip; they've gotten more violent. The question becomes, what responsibility does he have to the people he left behind, and how far should he go to fix things? Civilizations don't develop at the same rate, and it's human nature to want to interfere with your neighbor, especially when that neighbor lives in cave and still thinks sticks and stones are a really good idea. But it's impossible to see to the end of things, and no matter how good your intentions are, there's no telling what a couple of guns and some helpful physics lesson might lead to.

The "non-interference directive" has come up on the series before, but "War" is the most serious we've gotten on the subject. It's a surprisingly ambiguous take on the issue, too; impossible to say for sure how much of that ambiguity was intentional, but I left "War" with a bad taste in my mouth, for all the right reasons. (Wow, there are a lot of really horrible jokes I could make right here, aren't there.)

Things start off with a bang. In the first ten minutes, Kirk learns that the peaceful locals have gone from bows and arrows to flintlock rifles, he and Spock break up an ambush, Spock gets shot, they beam back up to the Enterprise where Spock's life is in danger, and there's evidence that there's a Klingon ship in the area. That's all before the opening credits. After the credits, Kirk and McCoy beam back down to the planet so Kirk can make contact with Tyree, Kirk's old friend back from his first trip to the planet. Kirk gets attacked by a local beastie called a mugato, which is actually pretty effectively weird, at least by TOS standards; a guy in a white gorilla suit with spines sticking out the back and a horn on his head. It's goofy, but it's plausibly goofy, if you follow. The thing manages to take Kirk down and poisons him with it's talons before McCoy zaps it with a phaser.

Oh, about the phaser use; Spock goes to great pains to keep Kirk from firing his phaser while he's on the planet. Non-interference means blending in (which doesn't explain why they're wearing regular Starfleet uniforms; I doubt the original plan was to meet Tyree, but why risk being seen?), and that means that using highly advanced weapons in front of the natives is a no-no. One of the nice things about the episode is that, without anybody making a big deal of it, Spock's concern is proven well-founded. McCoy shows precious few reservations about using his phaser when the need dictates, and while it was almost certainly necessary that he use it on the mugato to save Kirk's life, the fact that later on he heats up a bunch of stones with the damn thing—and that Tyree's power hungry wife, Nona, catches him doing it—is fine proof that rules exist for a reason.

With Kirk sick, McCoy has to rely on the friendliness of the natives. Fortunately, he gets picked up by some of Tyree's men; there are two different societies fighting it out (hill people, with white hair and bows and arrows, and the village people, with dark hair and guns), and McCoy ends up with the "good guys." Tyree's fallen in love in the years since he last saw Kirk, or at least lust—his wife Nona is a witch woman who uses herbs to bind Tyree to her. The skin tight pants and puffy orange bra probably don't hurt either. (I guess there are wild Muppets in the area, 'cause at least a few of them died to make that top.) Plus, she's got make-up and a fake-looking tan. No red fingernails or ankle bracelet, but maybe she's still finding her way.

Nona heals Kirk of the mugato's poison, with some hoo-doo that supposedly binds him to her. "War" has some dark questions, but it doesn't stint on the overheated melodrama—a spoonful of sugar and all that jazz—and Nona's "treatment" is hilarious. As is Nona in general. Although the campiness is definitely entertaining, she's probably the episode's weakest element; she's basically Evil Power Hungry Temptress 1a, and we never get any reason for her to be so desperate beyond that whole "powerful women are evil!" thing.

Really, though, the episode is about Kirk and McCoy trying to decide how to handle the situation. Once Kirk is back on his feet, he and McCoy check out a nearby village to have their suspicions confirmed; the Klingons have been supplying the townsfolk with guns. (It's interesting that they've been doing this in such a surreptitious fashion; the natives probably would've developed guns on their own eventually, and the Klingons go to great pains to ensure that the flintlock rifles they provide at least look like they could be home grown. Is the "non-interference directive" a universal treaty?) Now that the natives are all trigger happy, there's no way to put things back the way they were, so Kirk is faced with a dillemma. Does he let the townsfolk take over because of their advantage in arms, or does he make some guns of his own?

It's not that difficult a choice for Kirk. He makes up his mind without us or McCoy being in on the process; it's guns, guns, guns all around. When he states his case to McCoy, it's hard to argue with him; he's using the "balance of power" justification that led to nuclear proliferation for the second half of last century, and while it's a dangerous road, it's not an easy one to step off of. The Klingons have given Kirk enough wiggle room to lend aid to his friends, and he's going to take advantage of that as much as he can. What's great is that this is never presented as an unequivocal good. The Klingon that Kirk and McCoy fight with never gets shot, there's never any feeling of heroism when hill people start to fight back. It seems more like an impossible situation that gets an unpleasant solution, and whether or not you agree with it, I think the episode presents its point fairly.

The one hold-out of the hill people to Kirk's plan is Tyree, who refuses to kill. That gets complicated when he catches Kirk making time with Nona. After Nona saw McCoy using the phaser, she decided she wants herself a piece of that; so with her "magic," she seduces Kirk to try and bend him to her will. Tyree sees them making out, and nearly shoots Kirk, but he changes his mind and drops his gun, leaving just before a mugato (probably the mate of one McCoy killed earlier) jumps out. Kirk's in too weakened a state to defend himself and Nona, well, she's a girl, so what're you gonna do. Kirk eventually busts out his own phaser and kills the beast; in lieu of thanks, Nona knocks Kirk unconscious, steals his gun, and makes her way to meet the village folks, determined to find someone who'll be willing to put her new toy to good use.

There follows some unpleasantness, as the town people don't really appreciate Nona's offer, and she can't seem to figure out the phaser well enough to hold them back. Tyree and the others catch up in time to see Nona get killed, and Tyree wigs out. There's fighting, the villagers are either killed or run off, and Tyree has made up his mind; he wants guns and he wants vengeance, in that order. Kirk's finally got his wish, but nobody seems too pleased about it. Ordering up the flintlocks from the Enterprise, Kirk asks for "100 serpents… for the Garden of Eden." The line is a little too on the nose, but it's hard to disagree with the sentiment.

"War"'s all about what happens when advanced civilizations decide to muck around with cavemen; and "Return To Tomorrow" is actually about the same thing, only this time, it's the Enterprise that's living on rocks and shadows, and an alien race that far outpaces them. In a way, we're dealing with another race of god-beings, but for once, they aren't here torment Kirk and the rest. This time they actually need help, and it's not because they're bored. They're stuck in these orbs, see, and they're all energy, no life. The wisdom of the ages, but if they want to get anything done, they'll need to get a little physical, and to do that they need bodies. And y'know, Kirk has one of those. So does Spock.

So does this week's crew-woman guest star, Ann Mulhall, played by Diana Muldaur. Muldaur is best known to Trekkies as Dr. Pulaski, from the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation; her character there was controversial, to say the least (speaking for myself, she was more annoying that Tasha Yar), but she does a fine job here. She isn't given a whole lot to work with, to be sure, but at least she doesn't spend her time bitching Spock out for being emotionless or something.

The Enterprise is moving through unexplored space when they get a hail from a dead planet; the hail becomes a sonorous voice that must be pretty lonely, because he's asking for some company. And he's incredibly powerful, so it might not be a good idea to refuse his request. Communication with Starfleet is on a three week delay, so Kirk is on his own. He tries to play it safe, telling Spock to stay behind on the ship while he and the others beam down, but the power goes out, and Kirk gets the message; Spock is invited. Mulhall receives a similar summons to the transporter room. (Odd that the voice, who calls himself Sargon, resorted to indirect communication when he clearly doesn't have any problem explaining himself in words.)

Inside the planet, our heroes find a orb that blinks light. Sargon's consciousness exists inside that orb, and when he asks Kirk to come closer, that consciousness jumps into Kirk's body. And oh lord, how the Shatning does commence. In general, "Tomorrow" is a solid morality play with sci-fi (SyFy?) trappings; but for that brief moment when Kirk is first possessed, it's something else entirely. I mean, he actually feels himself up. The idea that anybody on set could see that number and not bust a gut laughing is beyond me.

Sargon's invasion naturally puts everybody on the edge, but it seems like his intentions are pure. He's just borrowing Kirk, not buying, and the only real damage he does is ramping up Kirk's metabolism to dangerous levels. Once McCoy's calmed down, Sargon lays out the deal: his race died out thousands of years ago, after being so incredibly powerful that they could do just about anything. (He keeps calling everybody "my child," and there's some speculation that his people might've got the Vulcan race going.) But there were some problems, you know how it goes, and the planet's atmosphere got a little, what's the word for it, destroyed. Now the only three beings left of Sargon's people are Sargon himself, his wife Thalassa, and a dude named Henoch. They've been waiting in these giant ping-pong balls for ages, just for some conscious life to come close enough to contact, and now that Sargon has made new friends, he needs to ask a favor. If he and his two companions can borrow Kirk, Spock, and Mulhall's bodies, they can build humanoid robots to house their energy in.

Much like "War," there's as much time spent talking about what needs to be done as there is actually doing it, and I count that as a point in both episodes' favor. In "War," there was a terrific discussion on the bridge about the relative speeds of a society's development, plus the arguments between Kirk and McCoy on the planet; here, we get Kirk pushing to let Sargon have his way, while McCoy and Scotty express their serious reservations. In all cases, nobody seems over-matched or foolish. Kirk wins out, but he has to work for it, and I love his final argument—that it's important to take a risk and trust Sargon, because of the incredible opportunities an advanced race like Sargon's can provide. Sure, there's something odd about Sargon wanting the Enterprise's captain and its first officer; this isn't intentional plotting on Sargon's part (he, at least, is worth of Kirk's trust), but the simple mechanics of putting a ship's two highest ranking personnel out of commission for an unknown length of time seem prohibitive. But while I don't think Kirk's enthusiasm is exactly practical, I appreciate that he needs to get his way for the good of the episode, and I enjoy how he justifies himself.

What follows is an entertaining mini-tragedy; of the three invading presences, Henoch (who takes over Spock's body) proves himself most untrustworthy, driven half-mad after all his time imprisoned, and really not that keen on leaving such a nifty Vulcan body behind for the confines of circuits and steel. Nimoy gets a chance to ham it up here, and it really pays off. He has a half-smirk on his face most of the time, and he makes a great contrast to the somewhat overplayed nobility of Sargon and Thalassa and their love. Just as interesting is that Henoch's temptations actually start to work on Thalassa; I guess her being a woman and all, she's really keen on sensuality, and wants to get more passionate hugging in her with husband before they go all cybernetic.

Things come to a head when Henoch decides he has to kill Sargon to get his way. (Actually, the decision comes pre-made; five minutes after jumping into Spock, he's already messing with the meds that will keep Sargon from overheating Kirk's body.) There's an unconvincing attempt to generate suspense by telling us that Kirk is dead, and then by having Spock poisoned to force Henoch out; the spheres are destroyed; but everything turns out okay, with Henoch destroyed, Kirk and Spock restored, and Thalassa and Sargon happily consigned to mutual oblivion. (She keeps asking "Can we go there together?" I'm not sure she understands what oblivion actually means.)

Nobody gets any shiny new tech, but that's probably for the best. Given what we saw in "War," it's a wonder that Kirk is so eager to jump start his race's knowledge. Oh, Starfleet is wonderfully peaceful and perfect, no question; but I'm willing to bet that Sargon's people thought themselves pretty perfect too, and look where they ended up. It doesn't matter that most everybody has the best of intentions. In the end, all it comes down to is that one guy in the back suddenly thinking, "Y'know, it wouldn't be that hard to get away with," and everything gets complicated. For now, at least, it's better that those complications won't destroy any planets.

"A Private Little War": B+
"Return To Tomorrow": B+

Stray Observations:

  • The sub-plot in "War" about Spock's health problems is so-so (Spock's self-induced coma was interesting, Chapel's infatuation less so), but it's nice to get anothe African-American profession into the show; this time it's Dr. M'Benga (Booker Bradshaw), an expert on Vulcan biology who we'll never see again. Ah well, at least he gets to slap Nimoy around before he goes.
  • There's a great bit in "War" when one of the armed natives says, "I thought my people would get tired of killing," but then admits that they've actually developed a taste for it. Balance of power or not, that's messed up.
  • The visual style of "Tomorrow" is really striking. Ralph Senensky has directed episodes we've already covered, but this is the first I remember noticing the difference.
  • Next week, Nazis in "Patterns of Force," and presumably non-Nazis in "By Any Other Name."

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