Despite the fact that it introduces the Klingons, this episode has some significant problems. Most notable among these is a Captain Kirk who looks not much like the one we have come to know throughout the first season. Slight changes in motivation could have fixed this, but it exposes the biggest problem the creative team had as the season wore on: no scripts.
Gene Coon was pressed into service as the chief architect of the series, and, because he was fast and good, the primary writing duties fell to him during this late period of the first season. While others (Fontana and Roddenberry) worked on fixing other people's scripts, Coon filled the gaps with no less than four complete scripts in the space of five weeks. Quality was bound to suffer somewhat, but these are nowhere near the worst Trek would offer. Indeed, they are among the best.
But he didn't have time to work out all the details, and had to write on instinct. This leads to a Kirk who blows things up, tries to incite a peaceful people to revolt, and gets visibly angry and insulting when they do not respond. Kirk is portrayed as an insurgent and a rebel. It's a long way from the cool tactician of "Balance of Terror." Shatner makes what he can of it, but there is a sense that even he knew this was taking the character where they didn't really want to go. Indeed, he never got close to this version again until "Day of the Dove" when his irrationality was induced by an alien being.
Letting bygones be bygones, I must admit that the whole thing is saved when the payoff comes: Kirk has worked himself into defending war, and realizes his foolishness as soon as it's pointed out to him by the Organians. The moment is quite memorable, but it relies on a setup that could have been better.
But dwelling on that one aspect would not do justice to the many brilliant aspects of this episode. Both the Klingons and the Organians are presented as complete ideas. Coon might laugh to realize that his war-like race has persisted -- actually thrived -- through four sequel series (and counting), while the peaceful race -- the Organians -- have never been heard from again (save James Blish's novel "Spock Must Die," which is not considered canonical). The point of his episode is that humans' war-like tendencies are deeply ingrained, and peace is a stretch which sometimes must be imposed. Ironically, the legacy of this episode is actually a testament to his point.
John Colicos is positively marvelous as the first Klingon. He is aided by menacing hair and make-up, but he probably could have pulled it off without all that. He establishes something of a formality about the brutality which would be a hallmark for the alien race. His scenes with Shatner are quite powerful and entertaining.
Likewise, John Abbott is marvelous in a completely different way as the Organian leader. The character is so gentle and fully-formed that it's easy to forget it's a character. He has numerous signature moments, but reaches the greatest heights in his reaction to Kirk and Spock's violence. He manages to build deep sadness into his admonishment of Kirk, and resists the urge to go over the top while imploring the Captain to never do such a thing again. The part is beautifully written. Multiple watchings reveal that, though Kirk and Spock don't realize it, the Organians are clearly the superior race from the very first moment. What appears, on first watching, as smugness and naivete is revealed to be wisdom (and played as such) when watching with knowledge of the Organians' true nature. It's masterful writing, directing, and acting rolled into one.
Nimoy plays a very restrained Spock, and gives himself over to the various leaps the character must go through to follow Kirk's lead. It's another problem with the script, given that the week before (with the Horta), Spock was acting as Kirk's conscience. Why he does not do so here is a mystery which must be attributed to character motivation problems. Nimoy, for his part, goes with the script despite what I'm sure was his better judgement, and turns in a fine performance.
The sets are very extensive, though it's hard to know how much was built for the episode, and how much was borrowed from something else. The interiors are nothing fancy, but the planet exteriors establish a nice timeless sense of place. The costumes, on the other hand, work against this. Spock ends up looking like one of Robin Hood's merry band, and Shatner in tights was really not the best idea so late in the season. The rest of the Organian costumes are wildly inconsistent. In itself, this fits with the concept of the episode, but that appears to have been coincidental. The Klingon look is established immediately, despite the fact that Kor's sash appears a bit too stiff to be practical (is it a sash or a shield?).
Despite its motivational flaws, this episode makes its point rather cleverly. Without too much questioning, we might follow Kirk right into his aggressive actions, and be equally humbled when outed as an aggressor every bit as cunning as the Klingons. Coon's skill, though pressed by time, was a true marvel.
Rating: Middle-Upper (3)