Posts Tagged ‘Patterns of Force’

One of our grand old British traditions is the unwisely-conceived fancy dress party in which one or more previously-respected members of the establishment make fools of themselves by turning up in a Nazi uniform. It happened to a Tory MP just the other weekend, it even happened to HRH Prince Dingbat a few years ago. Hell, even I once contemplated attending a showing of Singalonga Sound of Music dressed as an SS officer. You would have thought that this rather dubious habit would have died out by the idyllic days of the 23rd century. But, if the Star Trek episode Patterns of Force is at all to be believed, you would be entirely mistaken.

patterns of force

As the story starts the Enterprise is entering the Ekos-Zeon system, where a famous Federation historian has mysteriously gone AWOL. The Ekosians are warlike but primitive; the Zeons peaceful and more technologically sophisticated – they have interplanetary travel, while the Ekosians don’t. It is a bit perturbing, therefore, when a primitive nuclear missile is launched at the Enterprise from Ekos.

Everyone is rather more than perturbed when they discover that Ekos has become unified under the familiar swastika emblem of the Nazi Party. Cultural contamination from the missing scholar seems like the only logical explanation, but what can have possessed him to break the non-interference directive at all, let alone in quite this way?

Patterns of Force comes from the back end of season 2, at a point where Gene L Coon has departed and one irresistibly gets the sense of a series going ever so slightly off the boil. The mixture of thoughtfulness, drama, and fun which marks the best Coon-produced episodes is too often replaced by garish camp, poorly-judged earnestness, or laboured comedy. It is part of a series of episodes which either concern the Enterprise visiting worlds which, for various reasons, strikingly resemble periods of Earth history (stock plot #4, should anyone be keeping track), or (depending on your point of view) indicate the producers are trying to save money by commissioning scripts they can film on the studio backlot.

On this occasion, of course, the period of history in question is the Second World War, and episode resembles a bargain-basement war movie much more than a piece of SF – the action shifts to the planet’s surface very rapidly, and most of the characters spend most of their time in mock-period dress. Quite how¬†Jewish actors like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy felt about spending most of¬†their day in the uniform of a Nazi stormtrooper I don’t know.

Of course, Star Trek isn’t the only genre TV show to have a little flirtation with the dangerous glamour of the Nazis and their iconography – funnily enough, as I write, I’ve just seen an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise which also puts its aliens in Nazi uniforms – and the real question is that of how they justify this, given it is at best in rather dubious taste. The danger is just to treat it as a jolly exercise in dressing up, with the Nazis as easy stooge villains. One of the best efforts at dodging this pitfall comes from, of all things, the original version of The Tomorrow People, which did an entire story about the mysterious allure of Nazi chic and its appeal to the young. Like Patterns of Force, it also concerns a Fuhrer who is secretly an alien, but this is really where the similarities end.

Compared to a story like Hitler’s Last Secret, Patterns of Force is at best hopelessly simplistic, and at worst wretchedly foolish. Written by the producer, John Meredyth Lucas, the declared intention was apparently to explore the nature of totalitarian regimes and how they function, but it’s impossible to shake the impression that everyone simply fell in love with doing a story which engages so fully with the tropes and imagery of a Second World War adventure movie.

For one thing, as broadcast, the episode basically depends on John Gill – the historian Kirk and co are searching for – being an absolute idiot. The premise is that he reorganised Ekos along Nazi lines because it was the most efficient society in Earth history. (What, better even than the Federation?) Even if this were true (the notion was popular in the 60s but is now discredited) why replicate the Nazi regime in such extraordinary detail? Why use the swastika, for instance, a symbol unlikely to have the same cultural relevance on Ekos? Why would an eminent historian overlook the fact that notions of national destiny and racial hatred were central to the Nazis’ political identity? Even more alarming is the end, which does not see the bloody collapse of the Nazi state, as in real life: all it takes here is for one bad man to be shot, and society can easily and painlessly be redirected onto more productive lines.

Even beyond this, other aspects of the episode are simply facile: this is a story which is heroically subtext-free for the most part (you can hardly read it as a parable about Nazism, given it’s actually about Nazis), but there are some painfully clumsy parallels concerning the victims of the Ekosian’s prejudice – they come from the planet Zeon (Zion) and have names like Isak, Davod, and Abrom. (Though there are passing mentions of a ‘final solution’ to the Zeon problem, the episode steers well clear of tackling the Holocaust itself.)

The episode rattles along apace and there is some entertainment to be had from the way in which it enthusiastically adopts the tropes of the movies it is aping. But, even these days, if you’re going to play the Nazi card in a piece of entertainment you really have to justify it, in terms of saying something significant about this kind of ideology. To treat the horrors of Nazi Germany as simply a colourful backdrop for a cheery runaround is to do a grave disservice to the memories of millions of people – and that’s essentially all that Patterns of Force does. Even worse, by indicating that Nazism itself is in some way a morally neutral ideology, dependent on the character of the man at the top for its direction, it comes dangerously close to quietly promoting the very thing which it is ostensibly trying to criticise. This is not the worst episode of Star Trek ever made, but it is certainly one of the least comfortable to watch.

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