Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Original Series, Season 3: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Airdate: January 10, 1969
71 of 80 produced
70 of 80 released


On a desperate mission to the beleaguered colony or Ariannus, the Enterprise encounters a strange interloper - a bi-colored humanoid in a stolen Federation shuttlecraft. When his similarly-colored pursuer arrives, a showdown ensues. Will the Enterprise be able to extricate itself from their conflict, or will Ariannus, and the ship itself, be destroyed?

Riddle me this, Batman... what's black and white and red all over?


Matthew: Here we have by far the most allegorical episode of TOS. Obviously, this story is a comment on race relations. Bele's faction is analagous to the slave-holders, whilst Lokai represents the oppressed minority. Generally speaking, I like the setup very much. It is fascinating to see a liberal critique of race relations circa 1969. Some very interesting dialogue comes from the Bele character, offering a good parody of anti-black sentiment post-abolition - but just rational and articulate enough to provoke thought. Lokai, too, sounds like a version of student protesters of the sixties - intellectual and polemical, and not a little bit sophistic, too. The allegory reaches its finest pitch when Bele describes the reason that Lokai's people are inferior.

Kevin: I like that they made neither person quite perfect. It would have been easy to make Lokai a saint, but the implication that he's done terrible things for a good reason, particularly with the details left vague, gives more depth to the story. And is this even allegory anymore? I mean, they literally fighting over black and white. It's like at the end of the Lord of the Rings when Frodo goes off with Ian MacKellan to the land of the Elves. That's not subtext. That's just text. More than the kiss in Plato's Stepchildren, this episode should get some credit for some serious balls. I have argued before that the people who tend to like Star Trek can already get their arms around the idea of racial equality, so this may be some degree of preaching to the choir, but this is still pretty gutsy for the day.

Matthew: But the fertile concept falters in terms of execution, and this might be why Gene L. Coon went with his "Lee Cronin" pseudonym again, similar to "Spock's Brain." Too many things are flubbed in this episode, from the crew doing stupid things to let the plot progress, to concepts that pop up unexpectedly (usually a sign of rewrites). For instance: when Bele has commandeered the ship, Kirk threatens to destroy it. But they are on a humanitarian mission to save a colony - does destroying the ship really save the people on the colony? As we see, it only took a brief time to get to Cheron by the end of the show.  That said, we get the fun "destruct"  sequence that is seen again in ST3. Would Kirk really let the squabbling aliens loose on the ship, AGAIN, after one had just hijacked them and the other is a confirmed shuttle thief? Galactic geography seems fuzzy - if Cheron is in the "southernmost area of the galaxy, and uncharted quadrant," how does Kirk know about it, and how can they get there within even their 5 year mission? Near the end of the episode, Kirk mentions Bele's "50,000 year" pursuit of Lokai. Huh? It's these sort of logic gaffes that hamper the episode.

Kevin: The mechanism of Bele's control of the ship is also fuzzy to the point of annoying. Why not control the circuits in the destruct device like the circuits of the engines the first time around? 

Matthew: The pacing of this episode is rather odd. The Enterprise actually gets to Ariannus (this is the B story, I suppose) and completes its mission, before the resolution of the A story. I'm not saying it doesn't work, it just extends things in an odd way.

Kevin: The whole Arrianus subplot felt a little tacked on to me. It was done to give the A-plot artificial tension. It would have been more fun to watch Kirk have to wrestle with their respective requests. As written, he never has to take a side; Bele forces the situation. It would have provided some great dialogue pitting the Prime Directive against their nobler instincts.

Matthew: In the conclusion, the "running" scene was kind of silly, especially the physical acting on Gorshin's part. They look kind of funny tramping around the corridors. However, the intercut footage of burning cities was affecting. It was sobering to know that all of this footage of urban destruction was readily available for the producers to use. The moral might have been a little less heavy-handed if a few more Cheronians had survived and the two enemies had been forced to unite for survival.


Matthew: Frank Gorshin was excellent as Bele, displaying range well beyond The Riddler (he was always my favorite 1960s Batman villain, as he seemed the most complex, a credit also to Gorshin). He delivers complex lines very well, and cuts a dashing villain, as he describes the basis of their "righteous" oppression. Lou Antonio as Lokai should also be cited for good acting, he cut the figure of oppressed rabble-rouser quite well. This episode was two for two with guest stars, a rarity on any show.

Kevin: I think they did a particularly good job of acting like they knew each other well and that this was an old fight. It gave a sense of scope to their conflict that lesser actors may not have been able to achieve. Gorshin gets special praise for paraphrasing Kipling on The White Man's Burden without sounding silly.

Matthew: The rest of our cast was fine. McCoy was a bit under-utilized. There was a scene in which Lokai was proselytizing to the crew - I wish we had seen more of it, as it would have given characters like Chekov and Sulu a chance to shine. It was fun to see the bridge crew's reaction to the destruct sequence.

Kevin: I think this episode was ripe for a really great heated discussion between Spock and McCoy on the merits of their claims. It would have been a good mirror for the guest stars' conflict.

Production Values

Matthew: This episode suffered from a distracting use of stock footage, with Chekov and Sulu missing from various scenes when the picture shifts to a viewscreen shot. Also, there is plenty of sloppy continuity, with red alert lights not flashing in some scenes but on in others. In terms of camera work, there was an extremely distracting use of zoom work on the red alert lights.

Kevin: Yeah, what in the hell was that? It was like watching a commercial for a discount electronics dealer. The flashing light and the siren are enough to indicate red alert. The zooming in and out only suggests the possibility that Lokai said today's Secret Word. I didn't catch the stock footage problem until you mentioned it, and now I can't not see it.

Matthew: The makeup work was not great. Certainly it was a stark look, but the black sides were quite shiny, like the actors are dying underneath. In HD, you can see a little purple line between makeup segments, probably when they applied it.

Kevin: This is often a problem when doing non-flesh tones for actors, but it was a necessary evil for what they were doing with the story. You couldn't really add natural highlights and low lights to their skin without diminishing the impact. But seriously, did they use greasepaint for the black side? Was there no other pigment that could achieve that effect? Even a little powder to give it a matte finish would have helped.

Matthew: The alien costumes were uninspired, and lent themselves to some serious crotch shots on our antagonists with the leotards. They left very little to the imagination, to the point where we might be able to tell what temperature a given set was at. Kevin, could you concentrate on anyone else?

Kevin: I never like it when species dress homogeneously, especially when they are supposed to be from polar social strata. And...it's not that I'm opposed to close-ups of junk per se; goodness knows. It's that every time I saw them in this episode, I thought "God, that must be painful." 

Matthew: Invisible ships are nice and cheap.

Kevin: I like to think whereas Lokai stole a ship from Starbase 4, Bele stole a ship from Wonder Woman.


Matthew: I appreciate allegory, I really do. But the problems with execution drag this one to below average status. Too much relies on Enterprise officers not performing their jobs well, and some of our heroes' logic leaves much to be desired. While there was a lot of crackling and interesting dialogue, none of it went far enough for my liking. So this one gets an unfortunate 2 from me.

Kevin: The historical context and courage of the production team to tell the story ups this to a 3 for me. The episode remains fundamentally entertaining, and I think its hard not to let yourself get wrapped up in the scale of your story and forget details. The episode does have some serious issues, but it's basic story is sufficiently interesting and sufficiently impactful to get this into the fat part of the bell curve for me. That makes for a combined 5.


  1. I do seriously love this episode, which might be related to Frank Gorshin who I absolutely adore. He pops up on random shows on MeTV all the time (and sometimes old commercials that they show for added nostalgia value) and he is always totally awesome. There's also something to the episode's general weird yet intense anti-racism sentiment that's appealing, like a super-sincere episode of Futurama. For me, the really cheesy elements of the episode somehow intensify the impact of the parts that work, like the world-wide extinction, and the two survivors clinging to their chase as the only thing they've got left.

    I think you've been more forgiving of the crew being incompetent on other episodes, and I would've liked to see a higher rating. But I can't pretend that this episode doesn't deserve the mocking it gets, my favorite example is it's place at the top of the Onion AV Club's list Space-racism is bad: And 17 other not-so-subtle lessons learned from Star Trek.

  2. I wanted to give this episode a higher rating, and Gorshin is definitely the highlight. I never skip it if and when it comes up. With a good edit, this could have been a 4. But the story is all over the place and the production is just blah.