One thing is for certain, Roddenberry's presence forces everything up at least one notch. This episode shows signs of life, and signs of what Trek once was. It also, unfortunately, shows some of what killed it.
The setup is really astounding, and so far above the rest of the third season that it appears almost foreign. The dress uniforms, the "taped" music (regrettably not playing "Hail to the Chief"), the disarming nature of the guest character (played very skillfully by Bergere), the routine interactions associated with a touring dignitary, and the splendid briefing room discussion which recalls the best moments of season two.
Once on the planet, we're greeted with an unfortunate looking monster who appears out of a very fine combination optical/special effect (complete with wisps of smoke). The planet set is something of a disappointment, and the throwing of spears never looks even remotely plausible. But the discussions are quite plausible. The Surak character makes the case for peace admirably, and we really want Kirk to follow this route. But it's clear that he has to choose between peace (his preference) and the most likely route to save his ship (his duty). It's a good choice for this character to have to make. Unfortunately, we know enough about Kirk to know in advance which way he will go, and he stays true to character. Thus the drama of the choice is muted, to say the least.
Unfortunately, the battle ends with a cop out when (I think) one of the opponents is killed and the others run off. It would seem as if the game isn't over until one team completely kills the other team, although the challenge did only include the word "defeat" ("Your ship will blow itself to bits within four hours...unless you defeat the others before then."). It's a cop out because our heroes are not even allowed an opportunity to show what makes them different from their adversaries. The solution to "Arena" (of which this is essentially a remake) was far more satisfying. And given the goal of Rock Man, you'd think that a peaceful solution would have at least been possible (maybe a fake negotiation followed by a clever capture and a chance to kill not taken).
Roddenberry avoids preachiness for the most part. The exchange between Uhura and Lincoln is pure Roddenberry, but the good kind. In the heat of the civil rights movement, Trek has the courage to play it as completely resolved for the better. This type of optimism is always welcome, and both actors play it so beautifully that this is a genuinely memorable exchange. But the overall lack of preachiness almost leaves a void in the episode. Giving up on the message leads to the unsatisfying conclusion where ours boys are ultimately powerless to demonstrate what they stand for. Without that, it's a pure adventure episode with only a slight tinge of commentary. Of course, the Great Bird could always be a little heavy-handed, and maybe editing was merciful in this case (as it would have been in "The Omega Glory").
Technically, I wish Lincoln had been allowed to shed his coat at some point to reveal suspenders, and that Surak had not been wearing such a busy and, if you'll pardon the expression, illogical pattern. And given the time crunch posed by the big story, the adversaries were way underutilized. Genghis Khan, one of the fiercest warriors in human history, is left to hurl the occasional Styrofoam rock at Spock. This could easily have been a two-parter, with the setup taking one hour and the battle taking the second. As it is, it feels rushed, and a big part of the story is short-changed.
But it did shake the malaise of the late third season, which prepared the entire cast and crew for their final moment of glory the following week.
Rating: Middle (4)