Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Original Series, Season 1: A Taste of Armageddon

The Original Series, Season One
"A Taste of Armageddon"
Airdate: February 23, 1967
24 of 80 produced
23 of 80 aired
Click here to watch on CBS.com


The Enterprise is tasked with establishing diplomatic relations with a curiously recalcitrant world. Why are the inhabitants of Eminiar VII so isolationist? And when the Enterprise discovers their horrifying secret, will they be able to escape?
"PC Load Letter?" WTF does that mean?


Matthew: This episode is certainly high up there on the "Allegory scale." The Eminiar and the Vendikar have reached a compromise in their centuries' long war - computers will carry out the attacks, and calculate casualties, which will be exterminated in an orderly manner in disintegration chambers. This avoids the destruction of cultures and the human suffering caused by a real war.

I'm of two minds about this episode. On the one hand, the notion that people would continue to do this, to abide by such a treaty, is very hard to believe. What possible reasons could people 500 years down the line have to continue such a policy? Who remembers what the "war" is about in the first place? But the fact that it is so ridiculous does play into the theme - living under the constant threat of annihilation for no apparent reason is something Americans and Soviets in the 1960s knew quite well. What real danger was there, when the spheres of influence in question were so remote from each other? We may as well have been on different planets. Yet we lived under a Nuclear Sword of Damocles, which seemed just as likely to go off simply because it existed, rather than for some identifiable reason. So it's a difficult concept when pushed too far for realism, but it is certainly thought-provoking and functions well as an allegory.

Kevin: The allegory here is pretty heavy-handed, but it had the virtue of novelty for prime time television. At the time, it had to border on the treasonous to even suggest that the doctrine of mutual assured destruction is pointless regardless of what the war is actually about. I am willing to allow bravery and trying something new to balance out a story that when you really analyze it doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny, for the reasons you cite above, Matt. I am largely okay with expanding the suspension of my disbelief to not over-question how the society got here, instead simply being intrigued now that it is.

Matthew: There are, however, other story problems here. My main ones have to do with Starfleet General Orders. Kirk gives "General Order 24," mandating the destruction of an entire planet. Really? The whole planet? When the story is about the foolishness of such policies? It seems to run counter to the ethos of the Federation and the show in general, and even this episode in particular.

Kevin: Right up until the last moment when Kirk countermands General Order 24 to Scotty, I was holding out hope it was a bluff. It would have served the episode as well, even better. When Anan 7 tried to use General Order 24 as an example of human barbarism, Kirk could have revealed the bluff.

Matthew: And what about General Order 1? This certainly seems to be an instance of interfering with the natural evolution of a world - one which has heretofore had no contact with the Federation or its neighbors. I'll grant that we're still somewhat early in the run of the show, but "Return of the Archons" demonstrates that it at least exists (though it is violated in that show as well), and Kirk's behavior seems to run pretty baldly against it.

Kevin: It's not that the Prime Directive gets disregarded so often, it's that it gets done so cavalierly by Kirk. He upends planet after planet and at points explicitly states that it's the natives job to clean up the mess. At least when Picard does it, he has the decency to look abashed.

Matthew: On a minor note, I wish the writers had come up with a technological means of mimicking Kirk's voice. It was pretty silly to imagine Anan 7 possessing such a keen ability to mimic voices.

Kevin: One element of the story I really liked was that the people submitted to disintegration. It may have been more realistic to have Eminian forces execute citizens directly, but it increased how unsettling the whole arrangement felt emotionally. One element I did not like was Spock's telepathic telekineses with the guard. I don't like how Vulcan telepathy/Trill symbiotes/Borg nanoprobes essentially become this repository for whatever skills the plot requires and then is never heard from again.


Matthew: Although Barbara Babcock is not stellar as Mea 3, she is quite lovely, and this begins a relatively long career as a guest actress and voice on TOS. The Robert Fox character is annoying, to be sure, and fits into that bureaucratic trope that is frequently used in TOS, but the actor does the job, seeming suitably imperious and mealy-mouthed. David Opatoshu is quite good as Anan 7. He conveys a world-weary air, with just enough absurd devotion to duty to sell the concept of this allegorical tale.

Matthew: Kirk is the main character of this episode, and although Shatner turns in an adequate performance, I got the feeling he was phoning it in a bit. Perhaps he felt that his roles were falling into a pattern (which is fair), and this explains the sort of easy air he takes with the lines.

Kevin: He did seem to be verging on the attitude so easily parodied by Zapp Brangian in Futurama.

Production Values

Matthew: In this episode we get a few conspicuous re-uses - A reuse of the Starbase backdrop from The Menagerie, as well as the red General Order 7 book from the same episode. The corridors of Eminiar VII were nice looking, and decorated with plenty of 60's modern sculptures and paintings. Costume designs were somewhat similar to Friday's Child for the military men, whereas the civilians are dressed in a stark black tights and colorful wrap look. I liked the Eminiar disruptor design. My favorite set was the Eminiar computer room - while the consoles are a re-use from previous shows, the status screens are very cool, and the effect of the "explosion" graphics is simple, yet chillingly effective.

Kevin: I agree with your assessment of the Eminian computer room. Overall, I thought Eminiar was one of the more effective attempts at created a complete aesthetic for a people. The military, council and civilian wear had common threads, but were sufficiently distinct.

Matthew: A note on the re-mastering - this is one of the best episodes for remastered matte paintings. The city backdrop that is inserted over the original optical elements (the beam down site) is truly wondrous. It is animated very well with people and monorails, and fits that 60's futurism feel to a tee. It really adds to the episode without feeling tacked on. Kudos to the remaster team on this one.


Matthew: This was a tough show to decide on, between a 3 and a 4. If it didn't have such a strong science fiction and allegorical premise, it would be an easy 3. There are issues of story logic, but those might be inherent with any such strong allegorical tale. Humanoid motivations take on an impressionistic quality, to drive home a point about how insane YOU, the viewer, are to live in such a world. Although I really like this episode for a lot of reasons, I'm going to go with a 3. Had there been a more detailed discussion of the social effects of such a treaty, and an indication of any undercurrent of dissent, I might have given it a higher rating. But it doesn't rise above the fat portion of the bell-curve of Trek for me. I love it for being such a think-piece. But when I think about it, I think about what I would change, not about what I couldn't change.

Kevin: I feel like I haven't contributed a lot to this review, largely because I agree with Matt. I am also going with a 3. There is something to be said that this is one of the more memorable episodes of TOS, but enough elements are off that keep it out of the upper echelons. That's a total of 6. Respectable, but not spectacular.


  1. This is one of those that I feel bad for giving a three. It's about one of my pet issues, and it is an entertaining show, to be sure.

    Oh well.

  2. Are you sure that Anan 7 was just mimicking Kirk's voice. It looked to me like there was a device(not the communicator) that the cameras focused on as he was speaking. Also am I the only one who sorta wanted Mr. Fox to die.

  3. I looked again. It's at 16:05 in the episode.

    It's not clear what is making Kirk's voice. There is a computer console with a light on it, but it is unconnected to the ship's communicator (that Anan 7 is holding for some reason). Then the camera pans up to Anan 7, and his lips are moving precisely in time with the Kirk voice. It may be that they were trying to imply that the computer was doing the talking, but the way the scene was constructed, it was a failure.

    And no, I don't think you're alone in that desire. Poor Mr. Fox was a bit overdone as a character. He actually does turn up in a Star Trek comic later on, as a cooler guy. I guess he learned his lesson by the end of this episode: don't mess with the Shat.

  4. "living under the constant threat of annihilation for no apparent reason is something Americans and Soviets in the 1960s knew quite well."

    No apparent reason? Um, try the fact that the Soviet Union and its allies were practitioners of the most repressive ideology in the history of mankind with a death toll collectively of 70 million over the course of the 20th century as a result of the practices of Soviet style regimes. And that threat of nuclear war only ended not when we engaged in an embrace of kumbaya Trek philosophy let's all be friends, but when commuinsm in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe went into the ashheap of history as one leader proclaimed.

    This is what I often find amusing about shows from the 1960s that tried to make some supposedly profoundly subversive insight about the Cold War, because history proved such insights WRONG. The sooner we recognize that the message of Trek in terms of its attempt to comment on our own times missed the mark, the better we can study the episode on its own terms for something unrelated to our own time.

  5. For my part, I am not claiming that the conflict between communism and capitalism was occurring for no reason. I agree that centrally planned, aggressively expansionistic communism is an untenable system for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is human rights and civil liberties abuses.

    What I think was unreasonable was the tactic of Mutually Assured Destruction that poised the world on the edge of a nuclear knife. I think this was an unreasonably risky (and expensive) posture for both powers to maintain. Their cold warfare could have carried itself out in any number of other ways.

    And this is what the episode in question was driving at - not claiming in any way that communism was OK (in fact, several episodes feature centrally planned societies that were atrophied, such as "Return of the Archons"), but that Mutually Assured Destruction as a "diplomatic" posture really does nothing but stunt real dialogue and risk permanent, irreversible catastrophe.