Omega Glory and Spock’s Brain are arguably the Star Trek episodes most famous for being bad. I’ve picked on Omega Glory for this Star Trek Discovery interregnum not to highlight how every series can have its low points but because it illustrates what I’m calling the ‘bad federation’ theme. As such it forms a pair with the much better Patterns of Force (aka the One With the Nazis) in that it features somebody from the Federation getting up to some really bad shit – in this case a starship captain. Also I get to use that Straw Puppy picture YET AGAIN (see here for when Yangs appeared before on this blog).
This episode does need a plot summary because I was surprised by parts of the plot that I’d forgotten. The set up and some of the motivation of the Bad-Captain are more complex than what the episode is famous for.
The Enterprise is looking for the Star Fleet ship Exeter . They find it apparently lifeless in orbit over a planet. Beaming aboard McKoy, Kirk and Spock find to their horror that all that remains of the crew is empty uniforms and piles of crystals. McCoy reveals that the crystals are made up of the same elements as a human being but without the water. Checking the logs they discover that an away team had accidentally brought back a terrible virus. The ships doctor, in his dying moments, had recorded a warning but with one message of hope – beaming back down to the planet prevents the disease from killing you! Kirk et al do the smart thing and beam down.
They land in a village and interrupt an execution. The villages are all Asian in appearance (a small mercy – they are played by ethnically Asian actors) and they have captured a big blond barbarian man and an equally barbarian woman. Just then Captain Ron Tracey of the Exeter appears and calms the situation down. Long story short: Tracey was on the away team but didn’t beam back up to the Exeter and so is still alive. He is living in the village of the Khoms which is under regular attack by the big blond barbarian Yangs.
Kirk rapidly begins to suspect that Tracey has become too interventionist protecting the Khoms from the Yangs in violation of the Prime Directive (which is really elevated up this episode into its ultimate Star trek status). As matters progress, Tracey reveals he has broken very much bad – the Khoms are super long lived and he thinks he is on the verge of discovering the secret of eternal life.
There are various ins and outs – mainly Kirk trying to have a fist fight with Tracey on and off. Kirk, Spock and McCoy work out that the planet must have had an apocalyptic war using biological weapons. The war nearly destroyed what Kirk calls (sorry) the “Yellow civilisation” and completely destroyed the (oh dear) “White civilisation” (actual quotes).
Meanwhile, off screen, the Yangs defeat the Khoms, the Khoms flee their village and the Yangs take over. OMG! By a mircale of parallel evolution the Yangs…gosh are actually “Yanks” and have a Stars and Stripes and a mouldy old copy of the US Consitution! Further shenanigans ensue and Kirk fights Tracey again. Finally Kirk gives the Yangs a lecture on the true meaning of the US Constitution. I vomit into a bucket and then Spock wonders if Kirk didn’t also just break the Prime Directive. Good point Spock.
What to say? The episode is famously and irredeemably awful. The fact that this was an episode that Roddenberry wrote himself somehow makes the awfulness worse. The casual racism is quite shocking and the jingoism is unpalatable. Indeed, it is so awful that essentially ONLY somebody in charge of the show could have written it.
Writers know what they are intending to do and say with their writing but it is much harder for them to look at their writing from the outside and see what they APPEAR to be saying. Roddenberry was clearly enamored with his vision for this story but any and every creator is a poor judge of their own creative vision.
So can we redeem the irredeemable? No, the episode is awful but we can look for what the author thought it was doing.
There are really two plots here.
The A plot is not really the whole Yanks-v-Commies story but the biological warfare story and Tracey’s mistaken notion that he could somehow isolate the factor that makes the planet’s inhabitants long lived. McCoy reveals later in the episode that there is no such factor – the Khoms et al have just evolved post-apocalypse to be super disease resistant in lots of ways. Yes, there is a plot hole here as to why Star Fleet crew survive the desiccating virus if they stay on the planet for long enough but better episodes have bigger plot holes. That a Star Fleet captain turns bad to try and capture the secret of eternal youth is a decent enough idea and was much later used as the basis for one of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_Insurrection#Plot
There are also some similarities of ideas between this episodes concept of people evolving in responses to a high-tech military apocalypse and the original Dr Who Dalek story https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Daleks
The B plot on the other hand is desperately trying to make forward-thinking points about race and racism but is so encumbered with racist assumptions that it collapses. “Forward thinking points”? Well, trying to, they just aren’t good ones.
The Yangs have a contrived satirical aspect to them but that aspect relies on racist assumptions itself. Firstly they are intended to resemble Native Americans – they don’t particularly resemble Native Americans but the dialogue insists that they do. When the Yangs get to speak, they speak like stereotypical Native Americans from the worst kinds of Hollywood depictions. The awfulness of this is just another layer of the awfulness – i.e. the assumption that the supposedly clumsy speech patterns are because the Yangs are savages rather than such speech patterns arising out of language differences. The point trying to be made (and failing) is that the Yangs are like that because of circumstance RATHER than because of race. So a double metaphor where the Chinese “Khoms” are meant to be equivalent to the European settlers of North America and the blond blue-eyed Yangs are meant to be equivalent to the indigenous population of North America. It is meant to be wheels within wheels but nope, it really is just awful.
Finally, the Yangs patriotism is intended to be shown as shallow and lacking any understanding and Kirk insists that the principles (freedom etc) are meant to be for everybody. That this sounds obnoxiously imperialistic surely would have been clear at the time? At least to a non-American audience? I don’t know.
I can only imagine it sounded so much better in Roddenberry’s head. I suppose he imagined the points he was trying to make being directed at a white, jingoistic audience who would have their worldview subtly subverted by having Americans playing the role of the ‘savage’ and then having Kirk give them a stern lecture about people who only care about the trappings of American patriotism rather than its democratic principles.
What we are left with is an unworkable episode. It has other faults:
- the repeated physical fights between Kirk and Tracey just end up being silly.
- a key plot element of Patterns of Force was that a society coincidentally inventing Nazism was next to impossible yet a few episodes later we are asked to believe an even more detailed parallel historical evolution happened.
- the disease that kills the Exeter crew makes little sense nor does how Kirk et al survive it.
- The Prime Directive is now a fundamental law to the point that Kirk implies Tracey shouldn’t have even used a phaser to defend himself – fair enough but at odds with a whole bunch of previous episodes. Interesting what becomes canon.
- Spock gains new psychic powers, which he uses in a situation where he really needs to convince some superstitious people that he isn’t a demon. Um. Spock that makes no sense. At least this time Spock doesn’t extole the virtues of being a Nazi – so that is a small mercy.
On a final note, I have been remiss not linking to the Vaka Ragni blog that systematically went through all of Star Trek and examined them a cultural artifacts. The essay on Omega Glory is particularly good http://vakarangi.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/when-wayfarer-whistles-in-dark-omega.html