To continue on the them of classic Trek episodes relevant to Star Trek Discovery, I wanted to look at some episodes that I call ‘bad Federation’ episodes i.e. episodes in which the Federation or agents of the Federation do particularly bad things.
Patterns of Force is not a famous title for an episode because it is simpler to call it ‘the one with the Nazis’. I think of it as also one of many episodes where the Enterprise find themselves in a different time period – sometimes because of literal time travel, sometimes because of alien shenanigans and sometimes because a future planet resembles Earth of a given time for some reason. Now, I had mis-remembered the ‘some reason’ in this case being a rogue starship captain but it is actually a Federation historian who was off on a non-interference observation mission but decided to make everybody Nazis instead. I feel it forms one of a pair with the later (far worse) episode “The Omega Glory” which I’ll get to next time.
A quick plot summary:
The Enterprise is heading to a system with two inhabited planets: Ekos and Zeon. When Starfleet last visited, Zeon was peaceful and more technologically advanced than Ekos. Spock and Kirk beam down in disguise (jeans! a wolly hat!) so as to blend in with the locals as they look for the lost Federation historian John Gill. On arriving they are mystified to find that Ekos is run by Nazis who are stoking up hatred of people from Zeon.
Various shenanigans ensue, mainly involving knocking out passing gaurds and stealing their uniforms. Kirk and Spock discover that the Führer is actually John Gill and then later discover he is no more than a figurehead, kept drugged by an even more evil Nazi. McCoy helps Gill get better and he denounces the more evil Nazi only to be shot. At that point everybody gives up being a Nazis – mainly because the inner party seems to have been largely infiltrated by Zeon sympathizers.
It’s better than it sounds. It is often inadvertently funny and sometimes deliberately so. The major and glaring problem is John Gill – who seems to have had some utterly delusional ideas about Nazism. Worse, Spock also affirms these idiotic claims that somehow Nazi Germany was particularly efficient. In Spock’s defense, at the start of the episode Spock had revealed that he’d learned about Earth history from Gill’s books – so there you go, if you learn history from a closet Nazi you’ll end up saying stupid things about Nazis even if you are Spock.
Spock’s history mangling is there to both explain Gill’s very odd behaviour (and direct violation of Federation policy on non-interference) but also to give Kirk something to push back against. Kirk more clearly articulates a Nazis-are-always-bad line but we are still left with an uncomfortably equivocal stance on the obvious badness of Nazis.
The positives? The episode forms part of a growing emphasis on non-interference and a concept of planetary civilizations needing a chance to develop at their own pace. In this case we have a Federation observer breaking that directive in the worst and least subtle way possible.