This anti-war episode makes its points with such grace that it should be required viewing for American presidents. Kirk utters one of the series' greatest lines: "We can admit that we're killers, but we won't kill today." Violence is a disease, restraint the cure. Gene Coon is credited with writing the line which really is at the heart of how Trek views humanity: flawed but salvageable. And the episode which surrounds this statement is a portrait of what is good about Trek.
The premise may sound heavy-handed, but the script is quite deft and performances all around are able to pull it off quite successfully. Most notable is David Opatoshu as Anan 7, who can utterly convince us that the reasoning behind the computer-staged war is plausible. He attacks the role, and is strong both as cunning diplomat and cut-throat conniver (if those can be considered two different things). His empassioned pleas are really the stuff of a deluded leader who has chosen to stay a course so long-held that no one really remembers the alternative.
It's a stinging critique of the distant war, and remains a powerful statement to this day. Sanitized war, such as that which is filtered through television, leaves a society unmotivated to stop the killing. Kirk, to his credit, realizes that the horror of war is the primary motivator for peace. Shatner knows the material is good, and gives a strong performance. His disbelief is palpable as he remarks, "You mean to tell me...your people just walk into a disintegration machine when they're told to?" His lone sour note (calling Anan to the door with a finger gesture) is a throw-back to the smarminess we've seen in the past several episodes. Thankfully, this aspect of Kirk's character would virtually disappear after these trial inclusions.
But Kirk's character is enhanced by his eloquence once the war machines have been destroyed. Coon makes a strong statement, but it never comes off as preachy. Part of the reason is that Kirk has used violence to get what he needs, and doesn't try to deny human nature. But his actions are so careful -- almost surgical -- that it's clear he's after the common good for these people, and nothing even remotely selfish.
There are missteps. Some of the escapes are simply too miraculous, taking place, as they do, with disruptors drawn by one or both parties of a fight and yet not ever used. In fact, the guards on the planet appear to be something of the Keystone Cop variety. Even when they win and capture Kirk, there's nothing even remotely competent about it. Similarly, when Kirk overpowers the guards in the council chamber, it strains believability substantially. Surely there was a better way to stage this. Similarly, when Spock enters, the blocking is such that any one of the guards could have easily snatched a disruptor and started firing. These are just time-related lapses, the fault of director Pevney and the shooting schedule, not the script.
Colored lighting returns in the planet corridors, and much is made of a single corridor set. Shooting from widely different angles makes this one set look like part of a very large complex. But there are signs of cheapness as well. The disruptors are conveniently sound-based, thus not requiring an optical effect. It's a good idea, but comes off as unbelievable each time. Thankfully, when the time comes to destroy the very cleverly-designed and effective war computers, it's a phaser doing the job. Also, having the escapees return to their jail cell is for economic purposes (minimizing sets) and not, as stated, because it's the last place they'd look.
The musical score, credited to Courage, is actually tracked from various sources. The score from "Where No Man" is quoted extensively, including for Spock's mind meld and Kirk's battle with the guards in the corridor. But the most memorable use of music occurs during the first disintegrator sequence, and is comprised of the Fesarius theme from Steiner's score for "The Corbomite Maneuver." This chilling theme makes the perfect accompaniment for such casual killing. In sound, the disruptors have something of a cartoon sound which detracts from their already low believability.
The script, despite being magnificent, does have a couple of kinks. Spock learns an awful lot about the war computers by opening a single drawer. In truth, there's no real story reason for him to know what to destroy. Simply destroying everything would be sufficient for Kirk's purpose. This is probably there to enhance Spock's image as a quick study, but it's a little out of place. And Barbara Babcock's lovely character disappears with no end to her story. By all rights she should have appeared on the bridge viewscreen at the end to give Kirk an update on the negotiations. It's a disappointment. Her character is underutilized throughout. There is also an awkward moment when Anan, having just seen his world go up in a puff of smoke, heartily accepts the Ambassador's offer of mediation help. Basically, almost any other reaction would have been better. (The other guest star, Gene Lyons, is also quite impressive as the very well-written Ambassador Fox.)
Humor is sprinkled throughout, and for once it is completely welcome. Spock's bursting in as the cavalry is one of those great moments when he sees just what his captain can do. His reaction, bubbling up directly from within the character, is priceless (Nimoy plays it beautifully). Spock also demonstrates a wry sense of humor himself with his "multi-legged creature" ruse.
Much of the credit for this episode's success must go to Coon for the formidable script. It tackles a difficult subject with great clarity, subtlety, and even wisdom. It plays humans for what they are, but also extrapolates to what they are capable of. This is at the heart of all great Trek.
Rating: Top (2)