Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Original Series, Season 1: The Return of the Archons

The Original Series, Season One
"The Return of the Archons"
Airdate: February 9, 1967
23 of 80 produced
21 of 80 aired
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The Enterprise discovers a world where the people are euphoric zombies controlled by an unseen leader, Landru. Disobedience to this leader is met with swift consequences. Several Enterprise crewmen have been taken and apparently brainwashed. Can Kirk free his people and this planet from the mysterious Landru?
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Kevin: This episode does have a pretty solid science fiction conceit, even if it comes in a really boring package. Increased automation to the point where every aspect of life is regulated would be one in the minds of 60s writers, witnessing the boom of technology in decades following World War II. The problem with this episode is with the execution. First, several aspects of this society make no sense and as a result, I never really come to care about them or what happens to them. First, what in the hell is Festival and why does it happen? Given the way Tula sobs afterwards, it appears to be some sort of rape party. Also, why are old men excused from Festival? They don't even attempt an explanation.

Matthew: One of the key intellectual struggles of the post-war 20th century was between the ideologies of central planning and individualism. This is clearly one of the elements at play here. So indeed, it is a strong science fiction concept, since telepathic computers would indeed be able to control individuals in accordance with a central plan. It could be seen as a precursor to ideas like the Borg, just played out in a completely different way. We will see future plots with a central planning computer, but not one which also alters the minds of its subjects.

Kevin: Second, I never really get the motivation for Reger or his cohorts. If the cycle of Festival and zombie-euphoria-brain washing last their whole lives, how do they even develop the basis to object to festival? How did one rise to be the high priest when Landru seems essentially omniscient? They don't seem to have a credible motivation or plan in terms of changing their society, so it's hard to actually care about them.

Matthew: I agree, but that said, I do like the fact that we have an opportunity for Zombies in Star Trek. Not that I want it over and over. But it's fun to see once or twice.

Kevin: I will say the idea that an idyllic society is also a stagnant one is pretty interesting, and one explored with varying success in a lot of science fiction, like the Eloi in H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" or less successfully discussed in The Matrix. I also like the idea that a less technologically sophisticated one will the happier, more stable one is a very 1960s science fiction idea, given that they seemed perpetually on the bring of technological self-immolation. However, an actual idyllic, not immediately horrifying society might have gotten the message across a little better. As it stands, no one could possibly think Beta III's existence was worth the cost. It flattens the drama by making the correct choice obvious. It should have felt like Kirk was taking away something of value in exchange, ultimately, but certainly not immediately or pleasantly, for something of greater value.

Matthew: I like the concept of a regressed society very much, also. The "lighting panel" is neat, I can imagine it being a dazzling notion to someone in the 19th or even mid 20th century - it's nice to have a "mundane" technological object represented in the story. So at its core, there is a lot of good science fiction going on here. But, as you say, the execution is lacking. The "resistance" on this world makes little sense. "The Body" is a nebulous concept at best - if they are linked to a group mind, wouldn't it be relatively easy to tell if someone you're looking at is a part of that body? There are very rarely body parts in my vicinity that I mistake for mine.

Kevin: This episode introduces the Prime Directive, and the canon is certainly more complex for it. However, the way it is introduced is stupid. Kirk dismisses it out of hand by engaging in the Earth/human-centric value judgment of another culture exactly of the kind the Prime Directive is aimed at preventing. At the end of the episode, we essentially have the Federation tasked with taking a pre(maybe once-but-no-longer-)-warp society and molding them in their own image. In its first time out of the box, the Prime Directive seems anything but.

Matthew: It was quite off-putting when Kirk, after talking Landru to death, says "well, it's up to you now, might as well get rid of those robes and look for a new job." This is shockingly cavalier with regards to a society that one has just plunged into chaos. Granted, a line of dialogue later establishes that a team of experts (who were apparently on board already) will oversee a transition. But a team of no more than 390 (assuming everyone but the bridge crew stayed behind) for a planet of millions (Spock established in dialogue that there were millions, plural, meaning at least 2 million people)? If we can't do it in Iraq, I have a hard time seeing how a team of experts can do it in an alien culture with a ritual orgy-rape festival.

Kevin: Lastly, we get another, more intense round of Kirk talking a computer to death. This has always troubled me. Intelligences that advanced, artificial or no, must have the ability to hold contradictory thoughts at the same time and evaluate them in a non-binary way. Further, once presented with evidence of its misdeeds, why is the solution some form of suicide? Why not simply change in response to the stimulus. At no point in the past 6,000 years did the machine realize circumstances required a new way of doing things to achieve its goal, and just make the changes without exploding?

Matthew: I'd like to know what this 6,000 year old computer is made of that it doesn't break down after so much up-time. I mean, presumably Landru would direct someone to maintain it and then wipe their memory, but this is never established. Instead, we are forced to accept a completely isolated server room with no maintenance, and a computer that never overheats, gets dusty, never suffers an OS crash or virtual memory problems, never has a part or transistor that wears out, etc.


Kevin: The main and guest cast turn in solid to good performances. Sulu and McCoy in the thrall of Landru were pretty well done. In a vacuum, I bought Reger's concern and fear as a matter of acting, it's just that the writing never brought it together effectively with the story.

Matthew: I enjoyed DeForrest Kelley in his role as brainwashed body-member. He played it with a nice amount of comedy, which turned chilling when he began screaming that Kirk and Spock were impostors.

Kevin: Shatner turns in a pretty good performance for me, too. Realizing the Lawgivers have never had to deal with and thus cannot deal with disobedience was a nice little scene.

Production Values

Kevin: The production values were pretty good, actually. They were clearly using a Western set on Paramount's back lot, but they use it well. There are several locations both in and out of doors. Costuming was good as well, as long as you overlook the conceit that Beta III has fashions identical to the 19th Century American west.

Matthew: In this case I found the backlot distracting. We are forced to consider yet another perfectly human-seeming society with identical architecture, curtains, lamps, everything. While the sets looked nice, I felt they were inappropriate. Did this society tear down all the buildings from the era of lighting panels and replace them with an old-west set?

Kevin: Once critique is Landru himself. The machine looks far to similar to the Enterprise computers that I would not be surprised if it were repurposed from the Engineering set.

Matthew: Engineering computers have showed up in A Taste of Armageddon as well as other episodes. However, I think this one is a new creation. It may have had various lights pasted onto the box, but the box itself is a new creation for this set.


Kevin: Overall, this gets a two from me. It's a weakly executed story that is bogged down by funeral pacing. I never really come to care about these people or their problems, and the problem is solved in almost a glib way. Several large, attractive sets and the core of a good idea save it from a 1.

Matthew: Yeah, I hate to sound like a broken record here, but this is a 2. There are enough big ideas to lift this from the lowest rungs of television and Trek, but not much more. Choosing one or two of these concepts and really examining them in a logical way might have helped, but instead we just get a bunch of failed springboards from a more interesting story. That gives us a total of 4.

1 comment:

  1. I could buy a 6,000 computer having some means of maintaining itself, but I do think Kirk should consider himself really lucky he never ran across a super computer tyrant whose engineer had been all "and if somebody tries to point out you're flawed and ought to destroy yourself, just go ahead and have him killed." (I'm still working on this principle with my netbook, just in case.)
    At least this version of confusing the computer to death sounds a lot less painfully embarrassing than using illogic in the form of dance, mime, and bizarre statements to defeat Mudd's robot army.