Trek Tuesday: Patterns of Force

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.

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13 thoughts on “Trek Tuesday: Patterns of Force

  1. This episode was never shown onm German Television. But it was dubbed, so they had intended to show it and then decided it was too hot (probably rightfully so!). It was only availible on DVD (not VHS!) much later and thats when I saw it for the first time. Its pretty basic stuff and probably what you would expect from a story like this.

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  2. Even as a kid (which was when I first watched this) the Nazi apologism in this episode bothered me. If it had been put in the mouth of some other character — which it could have been, easily — it wouldn’t have been as problematic. But we’re supposed to believe Spock is rational and intelligent, and therefore we give his verdict weight.

    Not cool, Star Trek.

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    • Yes! Kirk is given the last word and explains why Spock is wrong but you just can’t have Spock saying crap like that. Nor is there any member of the crew were it would make sense. Bones is the most credible person to say stupid shit that hasn’t been thought through but he’s the last person who’d suggest that there’s anything sensible about the Nazis.

      I guess they could have got Chekov to say something in favour of *dictators* rather than Nazis? But that would be a different kind of ick.

      We are back to John Gill having no motivation for his ‘Nazis but benevolent’ experiment other than him being a closet Nazi with stupid ideas. In 2017 that’s sadly plausible.

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      • If they HAD to have someone explain John Gill’s thesis, I’d have given it to a young and foolish Red Shirt, who then could have been murdered by a Nazi, as an object lesson. 🙂

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      • The problem with reassigning the speech is that it would have left Nimoy with fewer lines than Shatner. Never mind “Balance of Terror,” the name of the game here was Balance of Stardom. For that matter, it seems not totally unimaginable that the lines could have been someone else’s to start with. It would be irresponsible not to speculate!

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      • John Gill praising the Nazis as efficient is the biggest “WTF is wrong with the Federation?” moment in the original series along with “The Menagerie”. Though it does explain the dystopian Federation of Discovery existing only ten years before the original series.

        Having Spock of all people agree with him is made doubly offensive by the fact that Leonard Nimoy was Jewish. They should really have given that line to a redshirt.

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  4. The myth of Nazi efficiency is quite persistent. For example, earlier this year describing the Nazi regime as inefficient is described as controversial.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/02/nazi-war-machine-spectacularly-inefficient-new-history-claims/
    Possibly no-one in the production team or the cast was aware that it was a myth.
    Elsewhere in SF Mack Reynolds’ “The Rival Rigellians” has both the myth of free market efficiency and the myth of communist efficiency, though in the end he comes down against both of them. In “Tomorrow Might Be Different” he plays the myth of communist efficiency straighter.

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  5. I’m too late to this thread to be noticed, but still: I didn’t take the “efficiency” thing as Nazi apologism. I thought that the point was that, even if you’re desperate for order and think these leopards won’t eat your faces, Nazis gonna Nazi. Even as a kid, though, I wondered how a supposedly brilliant historian could be so damn stupid…
    Aha! Remember the historian in “Space Seed” with a thing for authoritarian rulers? (She ends up going off with Khan to build a new, more fascist society and gets killed by a brain worm.) Somewhere between now and the 23rd century, most historical literature must have been destroyed — maybe during the Zefram Cochrane era — and some entity playing a very long game convinced several generations of historians that authoritarianism worked out well for everyone.
    All right, that’s a dumb theory, but it isn’t as dumb as “Genius historian thinks he can replicate just the ‘good’ parts of Nazism.”

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