Students of the show know that this was one of the three scripts used by Roddenberry to sell Trek to the network. No doubt it underwent some changes before being shot some two years later, but it must still be considered (at least partially) in that context. All things considered, Roddenberry is at his best and his worst at various points, and I don't think it depends on whether the viewer is a Yang or a Kohm.
Because of its pedigree, we must first acknowledge that this would have been the first appearance of the dreaded (by me) Prime Directive, and also the first appearance of the parallel Earth scenario, complete with confining disease. Forgiving these cliches for a moment, the internal premise is that war can destroy not just people, but civilizations and principles, reducing them to gibberish. It's a pretty strong statement given the context of the production (height of the Cold War, amid escalation of the Vietnam conflict). Roddenberry probably had to throw considerable weight behind this to get it past the suits.
Unfortunately, the execution of the idea is much like Cloud William's assault on Kirk: blunt. The setup is quite fine, with a nice mystery on board an abandoned starship (one of the creepiest images in the series, abandoned starships are also cheap and give the lighting guys a chance to show off). Once on the planet, the characters are nicely defined, and the suspense about what happened to Captain Tracy is mercifully brief. His character turns out to be well-motivated by a pointedly capitalist scheme. Though out of the norm for starfleet officers, greed born out of desperation and grief feels right for this man (who, it must be noted, becomes the latest in a long stream of blatant Prime Directive violators).
The Tracy story would almost be enough for the entire episode. With a great premise and an exceptional bad guy, Roddenberry could have just run out the clock, and probably should have. It would have been enough to have McCoy discover that the disease is descended from a long-forgotten war and leave it at that. But Roddenberry has an Agenda, which is risky business, but a goal of the creative team (from the Writer's Guide: "...we want you to have something to say, but say it entertainingly as you do on any other show. We don't need essays, however brilliant.").
Subtlety is the key to making this work. But instead of merely suggesting his message through the story and character interactions, he makes the unfortunate decision to spell it out for all to see (and gag on). This leads to a scene which has its amazing and truly regrettable aspects. On the one hand, the Stars and Stripes is a powerful image, as are things like the Pledge of Allegiance and the preamble to the Constitution. They are gripping to an American audience, but not anywhere else. As a storytelling device, they are therefore exclusionary and limiting. And because such stark images symbolize different things to different people across different times, they immediately date the work.
Though well-meaning, the excercise comes off as unusually heavy-handed. What has been -- to this point -- a nice adventure about a starship Captain gone awry on a strange infected planet, is suddenly about The Principles We Hold Dear. The soapbox comes out, and we find ourselves in Roddenberry's church of the future. Despite agreeing with the writer, this is a sermon that none of us really want to hear.
It's interesting to note that whoever composed the very distinctive score was unwilling to be publicly credited (as indicated by the omission of a credit which appears in every episode which contains non-stock music). Forty years later it's risky to read too much into this, but it's quite easy to imagine a scenario in which the Great Bird wanted something so badly that the rest of the creative team simply had to hold their noses and go with it. The flag scene, along with its music, has aged badly, but that could not have been anticipated.
It's not the only problem with the episode. Again, the tired Shatner is seen to yell and flex his abdomen. His summation is completely over the top (although that is as much about how it is written as how it is read). But the guest stars really steal the show. Woodward manages to eclipse his previous appearance ("Dagger of the Mind") with a character even more deranged and desperate. He manages restraint when the script seems willing to dispense with it. And Jensen is skilled enough to make his oafish Yang character seem completely plausible.
Roddenberry is frequently credited with optimism about humanity's future, but I wonder. Whenever future Earth history is mentioned, it seems as if humankind managed to just barely survive some cataclysm of our own making. Here we're said to have survived biological warfare -- which implies that we couldn't resist trying it. He sees us pulling through, but acknowledges the struggles we will face. It's hopeful, but has a pessimistic underbelly. It's hard to know what to do with that. On the one hand, the disease which traps our heroes is said to spring from "bacteriological warfare experiments in the 1990s" -- an ominously accurate prediction given what happened in northern Iraq during the decade. He does say the Earth manages to avoid the great war, but his tone is built on the unspoken word, "barely." These types of pronouncements tend to date the material, and call too much attention to the writer. Ultimately, they detract from an otherwise fine episode.
Rating: Middle Upper (3)
"...this is a sermon that none of us really want to hear."
This may be true, but in talking with people I have learned that very few understand what that sermon means in 2013.
Posted September 10, 2013 7:37 PM by Rick B