To fill the empty space left by the Star Trek Discovery hiatus, I’ve decided to look at some classic Trek episodes that I feel are pertinent to Discovery. There will be spoilers but given the age of the episodes I won’t normally give warnings.
First up is Errand of Mercy from the very first season of Star Trek. I must have seen this episode as a kid but when I saw it again as an adult I fell for the surprise twist hook, line and sinker.
The obvious pretext for including this episode as background for Discovery is that it is the first Klingon episode. Like Discovery, Starfleet finds itself rapidly falling into war with the Klingons. However, my main reason for picking on it is as an example of what Discovery is failing to do, which is to examine some of the assumptions of Star Trek that arise out of its post-WW2 and US hegemonic roots. I’m reminded of well of the danger of assuming that what we remember of Star Trek is shaped by later series and the movies. In one of the Feminist Frequency recaps of Star Trek Discovery there was an extended critique of the episode when the crew of Discovery land on the planet Pavoh only to discover it has intelligent life. The critique was how Star Trek in general always treats it as a given that the Federation is good and that other planets and cultures should side with it over, say, the Klingons. I think that criticism is fair but, at the same time, Star Trek actually very cleverly pulled that whole concept apart way back in the very first series.
We begin on board the Enterprise. Kirk has a message from command telling him that negotians are breaking down with the Klingons and war may be imminent. Kirk is told to proceed to the planet Organia – which is in a strategic position and may be targetted by the Klingons. Before the Enterprise reaches the planet it is attacked by a Klingon ship – which signals that the Federation is now at war with the Klingons.
Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet, leaving Sulu in charge of the Enterprise with strict others to skedaddle if the Klingon fleet turns up. Kirk and Spock find the Organians to be a technologically primitive people, with little in the way of government. The Organians lsiten politely to Kirk’s offer of Federation membership and help against the Klingons but they politely decline. Shortly thereafter the Klingon fleet arrives and invades Organia.
It needs to be said that the Klingons are both comical and appalling. The Klingon army is a few guys marching across the set. The makeup manages to be racist in a way that is insulting both to black people and Chinese people – apparently they literally used shoe polish. The Klingon commander, Kor, is perhaps the most urbane Klingon in the Trek canon beating even Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon from the movies. At this point in Trek, the Klingons are just a generic military dictatoship, more 1984 than the syncretic mix of Viking-Samurai from later versions.
For most of the episode Kirk makes a series of speeches at the Organians. Initially he tries to scare them with the dangers of a Klingon invasion. Next he tries to tempt them with the colonial wonders of Federation technology. Later he lambasts them for their cowardice. The script plays this straight, with Kirk very much in character and the tone placing Kirk in the right and the Organians look like naive simpletons. (I don’t think the non-interference Prime Directive was in play yet but the underlying idea does get addressed later on).
But one Trek trope is still in play – no alien planet is ever quite what it seems. There are clues – e.g. one member of the council of elders (all men by the way) is surprisingly knowledgeable about the deployment of Klingon starships in orbit. Also, and I’m sure this must have been deliberate, the door to the council chambers appears to work automatically, swinging open without being pushed. The normally observant Spock doesn’t comment on the door but I can’t imagine why the set designers would have gone to the trouble of a having a door swing open by itself for no reason.
As the episode continues, Spock and Kirk battle Kor and his Klingons in various ways and both Kirk and Kor get increasingly frustrated and contemptuous of the pacifist Organians and their sad smiles. Kirk is also very much characterized as a military commander with a martial reputation that even Kor is aware of.
Then the episode turns on its head.
The Organians simply cannot stand the conflict anymore. Having repeatedly assured Kirk that they were in no danger from the Klingons they finally reveal WHY. Rather than technologically backward peasants, they are actually hyper-evolved energy being just cosplaying as peasants. They psychically prevent Kirk and Kor using their weapons, then they disable the Enterprise and the Klingon fleet and THEN project their minds to Earth and the Klingon homeworld stopping the war completely.
Kor and Kirk are outraged. Kirk vehemently objects to the Organians using their advanced powers in this way. They explain how they prefer not to interfere in the affairs of lesser being but essentially the Klingons and the Federation had just become too annoying. Finally they explain that one day Humans and Klingons will be allies.
Kirk, thoroughly embarrassed, concedes that they won’t be having a war today after all.
The benevolent and patronizing colonialism of the federation, the assumptions of the necessity of war in the face of aggression and the assumptions about some cultures being backward are all aired unironically in the episode and then demolished – although with something of a Deus ex machina but it is played so straight that if you only saw a half of the episode you wouldn’t spot that the script doesn’t actually endorse what Kirk says.
Not a flawless episode and at times accidentally comedic and oh-dear the Klingon make-up and facial hair is so very very awful but…also an episode which happily challenges the show’s and the audience’s own assumptions.
*[Tuesday for me when it appears on the blog, but maybe Monday elsewhere]