EPISODE FORTY-SEVEN: A Private Little War
This is a strange little episode. Parts of it are brilliant, parts of it are very silly, parts of it are horribly misogynist, and parts are downright out-of-place. Roddenberry himself takes the reigns on this one, which is appropriate since it is the first time The Enterprise really failed badly at protecting a species. Unlike the personal tragedy of City at the Edge of Forever, this is the critical failure of the Prime Directive and the aiding of a culture to slip into war and mutually assured destruction. Unlike the previous anti-war sentiments, this episode has Kirk insisting on mutually assured destruction as a deterrent, with him arming bow and arrow armed tribe with flintlock rifles to counter the Klingon-armed rival tribe. McCoy insists this is madness, but Kirk spends a huge amount of time justifying the madness; it’s a nice departure from our usually utopian captain and adds another angle to the man. Ultimately, there’s nothing they can do but either give the tribe a bunch of guns, or leave. The ending has them beam aboard and leave, ambiguously (though heavily implied they gave the tribe guns). They failed to prevent war and instead only applied a bandage that ensures balance, but also escalation. They also fail to properly deal with the Klingon threat, leaving potential for even quicker escalation. For everytime I’ve wondered why they don’t simply leave when a speices insists on destroying them/themselves, there’s this episode where this is exactly the case. They use the Garden of Eden metaphor lots here, even going so far as to have a peaceful man commit his first murder with a rock to avenge his wife and as McCoy puts it, Kirk and the Klingons are two snakes corrupting the place. It pains Kirk, but he does it anyway. Neat.
Then there’s the silliness. They fight a creature called a Mugatu (hopefully the inspiration for the classic Zoolander villain of the same name…classic I tell you!) which is a white gorilla suit with a horn and spikes…
The female lead looks like Barbarella if she killed a muppet (she’s wearing a strange orange fur sports bra)
…and the only way to revive Spock from near death is to slap him silly a la Leslie Nielson Airplane! until the pain allows him to focus enough to wake up. Naturally, Nurse Chapel (after holding his hand; yay continunity!) is the first slapper. Good times.
And then there’s the misogyny. This episode is kinda hard to watch at times, as the mystic wife of the main, peaceful tribesman (who is Kirk’s friend) is at times a scheming manipulator, using magic leaves to enchant him and Kirk to wage war, other times completely useless (like when, while holding a phaser and being strapped with a knife, she is almost gang raped by three rival tribesmen…just because she lets them walk up to her and grab her…) It’s incredibly frustrating, after watching women like Uhura and that random ensign a few episodes kick ass and take names, only to this one swing back in forth in status and motivation, seduce people wantonly, and then get killed because she just kinda stood there being useless. No dice.
And the out of place stuff: woman saves Kirk’s life with a magic plant incantation thing, may have cast a spell on him. Never explained. She uses leaves to seduce and control men. Never really explained. She steals a phaser and takes it to the other tribe, poorly explained. There’s a lot of long scenes about magic and suggestion of its power without any real exploration or point.
Nevertheless, the fact the Enterprise failed to protect a culture is a super important one. We love to see our heroes succeed, but if they can’t fail there’s no stakes at play and this is the first time we’ve really seen that (even with the death of Kirk’s love, they saved the human race so it’s still a win). It also evoked a sad reality about weapons and indigenous people that would only worsen with the fall of the Soviet Union and the flooding of the illegal arms market with Soviet tech. There is a great documentary series called Tribe (you can watch the entire series here by virtue of the magnificent internet; this is the episode about the Suri) about a journalist who goes and lives with various tribes, one of whom (The Suri) had the incredibly civil war tradition of both bands of warriors staging combat in an open field, running through each other hitting their enemies with sticks. For each hit, they would add a notch to their stick. The warriors with the most “kills” won the day and the victory. The tribes settled their differences accordingly, having both resolved the dispute and earned individual pride and honour (not unlike the purpose the Olympics theoretically serve). On the day he went to observe, the journalist noted the ‘battle’ was called off, as someone opened up with an AK-47, firing it into the air and causing everyone to scramble. This peaceful, sane version of warfare had been polluted and the village elder warned him that this way of life was rapidly coming to an end.
As usual, Roddenberry’s observation of history serves also as a prophesy for the future, where throughout the world, old rivalries are being fought by new weapons, be they Western, Soviet, or otherwise. Sadly, there’s no balance point in sight.