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Posts Tagged ‘annoying alien gods’

The last time I watched Star Trek in any great quantity was six or seven years ago when I was in Japan, and there sometimes seemed to be little to do down the internet cafe of an evening but enjoy a few episodes. I don’t remember choosing the episodes on any criteria other than my memories of them being really good and memorable ones: and so it is perhaps telling that most of the ones I ended up watching were from towards the tail end of season one – Tomorrow is Yesterday, Space Seed, A Taste of Armageddon, This Side of Paradise, and so on.

In short, the back end of the first season sees Trek hitting a run of consistently great episodes matched only by a handful of other fantasy TV series, and never for that long. Much of this, I think, we can put down at least in part to the shift towards a broader, more ensemble-based approach, with a hugely engaging vein of wry humour added to the mix. At this point the show is simply great fun to watch, and I suspect the main person to thank for this is producer and occasional writer Gene L Coon.

One of Coon’s episodes as writer from around this point is Errand of Mercy, which isn’t a particular favourite of mine. It is certainly a landmark piece of Trek, and quite possibly a classic piece of Trek, but I just don’t think it’s a really great piece of Trek.

errand

Our story opens with the Federation bracing itself for war with the rival Klingon Empire (the Klingons’ debut on the show, of course) – negotiations are going poorly. The Enterprise‘s mission is to ensure the peaceful primitives of the planet Organia do not fall under the fiendish Klingon yoke.

However, the Organians seem strangely unconcerned by the building threat of war, or indeed the arrival of a Klingon fleet in the system. This forces the Enterprise to retreat, stranding Kirk and Spock amongst the weirdly passive yokels. Kirk finds their refusal to resist the Klingon occupation quite infuriating – and so, to be honest, does the Klingon military governor assigned to the planet, Kor (John Colicos), who would prefer to deal with people of backbone.

What follows is a bit like a Second World War resistance movie, with Kirk and Spock cast as the gallant resisters and the Klingons as the Nazi occupiers. This stuff is reasonably engaging, but the whole episode is clearly building up to – well, here’s the thing, it looks like it’s supposed to be a twist ending, but the whole thing has been so broadly telegraphed since the start of the episode that it doesn’t really have any twist value. Or perhaps I’m just viewing this episode with the benefit of hindsight, because on one level it boils down to another example of our old friend, Stock Plot #3: being with god-like powers behaves like a bit of a tool.

In this case, of course, it’s the entire population of the planet Organia who turn out to be god-like beings whose behaviour leaves a bit to be desired. I suppose I’m being a bit harsh in singling them out in particular, as the Trek universe seems to be littered with civilisations who have evolved to a god-like state but still have no real idea of how to comport themselves responsibly (there’s the Q, the Phasians, the Metrons, the Organians, Trelane’s species – the list goes on and on).

Now, if I were in charge of an alien civilisation recently ascended to omnipotence, it seems to me that there would be two obvious lifestyles available to me. Either I could properly and fully engage with the lesser beings around me on more-or-less a full-time basis and do my best to help them along in a properly paternal manner, rather like the Vorlons in Babylon 5. It does occur to me now that the Vorlons represent Joe Straczynski’s take on the classic omnipotent Trek alien, in which case it is telling that the Vorlon influence on the younger races in that show is ultimately presented as a negative thing. It would certainly be contrary to the spirit of Trek‘s own Prime Directive, which strikes me as a very sensible rule.

Which leaves us with the other option, which is to withdraw from interacting with the less-developed races at all and just let them get on with it (I suppose this is rather akin to the attitude of the Sublimed races in Iain Banks’ Culture stories). Unfortunately this does not make for very interesting stories, which is why Trek‘s alien gods seem incapable of resisting the urge to interfere with the lesser races, but only to facilitate plots.

Essentially, all of these characters and races don’t behave like credible alien beings, but rather like the plot devices that they clearly are: and slightly shonky plot devices at that. The story in Errand of Mercy is, at its heart, about hubris and arrogance – both Kirk and Kor express their contempt for the passivity of the Organians, the punchline being that this is actually an expression of their greater sophistication – but quite what the message of the story is seems a little unclear to me. Is it about the atavistic nature of violence? The inability of human beings to live in peace without the presence of God? I’m not sure.

Oh well. Looked at in those terms, you could argue that Errand of Mercy is a semi-remake of Arena, which I’ve argued was itself a bit of a rehash of Balance of Terror. Here again we see the same lines of similarity being drawn between Kirk and his adversarial counterpart – Kirk and Kor (note the similarity of their names) both disparage the Organians, and are both furious about not being allowed to have the war they’ve been gearing up for.

On the other hand, the Klingons are presented as the bad guys much more clearly than the Gorn were, and Kor is considerably less sympathetic than the Romulan Commander in Balance of Terror. To be honest, to a modern eye, the Klingons here are virtually unrecognisable as the rich, if slightly corny culture, that developed to be one of Trek‘s great achievements. Never mind the difference in their appearance – the fact that these early Klingons are generally played by Caucasian actors in blackface make-up goes curiously uncommented upon, it seems to me – these Klingons have slave labour camps, carry out mass summary executions, and – it appears – routinely torture their prisoners. Were they intended from the start as a recurring feature of the show’s universe? I don’t know.

Better episodes than this awaited the Klingons (though I must confess to a certain fondness for John Colicos’ turn as the gleefully evil Kor, which on some level must act as a dress-rehearsal for his role in Battlestar Galactica), as well as numerous encounters between Starfleet personnel and annoying alien gods. But, as I say, this episode seems to me to be competent but rather hokey, and perhaps just a little bit obvious.

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