Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 12

James T. Kirk does everything right, always. Well, ok, not always. He has made a couple mistakes. Today, Andrew points out one of these rare failures.

Question from Scott: Andrew, name an episode where you felt Kirk made the wrong moral choice.

Andrew’s Answer: I am troubled by Kirk’s actions in the episode Errand of Mercy. Errand of Mercy is the episode which introduces the Klingons. As the story begins, the Federation and the Klingons are on the verge of war. Kirk has been sent to Organia, a non-aligned planet on the border, which the Federation believes the Klingons will try to grab. Kirk beams down to convince the Organian council to accept Federation protection, but discovers they wish to remain neutral. As he argues with them, the Klingons invade the planet. The Organians refuse to fight back. That’s when things go wrong. Kirk takes it upon himself to start a guerrilla resistance with Spock against the wishes of the Organians. He is captured and the Organians free him. As punishment, the Klingons execute two hundred Organians. Then the two fleets meet above the planet.

At that point, the Organians reveal themselves to be energy creatures and they use their powers to prevent the Klingons and Federation from fighting. Kirk and Commander Kor are furious and scream about the Organians having no right to stop them from fighting. Eventually, they see how stupid it is to whine about someone else stopping their war and both sides go home. Kirk is then ashamed of himself for wanting war.

Here’s what troubles me. First, I am a firm believer that when you are at war, you fight back with all means at your disposal. BUT it troubles me that Kirk would begin a guerrilla war on someone else’s territory when they have declared their neutrality. That strikes me not only as “world’s policeman” stuff, which I oppose, but it also strikes me as Kirk imposing his beliefs upon the Organians. That’s the same impetus which lets liberals think they have the right to force laws upon countries or tell parents how to raise their kids.

Further, I don’t like the conclusion at all. For one thing, Kirk doesn’t espouse genuine principles, as he normally does. Instead, he’s given this childish “if we want to kill each other, then you have no right to stop us” speech. That’s not really fitting of the character. Kirk’s role in the series is to problem-solve his way through moral dilemmas and to come to the right conclusion himself, not to whine as a solution is imposed upon him. Moreover, Kirk was actually set up here by the writer because the war itself is a strawman because we’re never told at any point in the episode why they are really fighting. Thus, we have no idea if Kirk is justified in wanting it or not. Consequently, Kirk’s entire speech about having a right to fight is meaningless because we don’t even know why he’s fighting. As far as we are concerned, he’s basically a war monger because he wants to fight for no other reason than to fight.

Then Kirk realizes he’s being childish about the Organians stopping the war and he agrees that the Organians were morally right to separate the Klingons and the Federation and interfere in their business. Wrong. That’s not the Jim Kirk I know, the one who believes in self-determination. What Kirk should have done is make a very clear statement about how morally incorrect it is for more powerful countries to decide to manage the affairs of less powerful countries and to outline the importance of people being allowed to live their own lives and make their own mistakes. Then, he should have found a way to prevent the war with the Klingons -- though that is impossible because this war has no actual cause other than the writer wanting it. I find this frustrating.

Scott’s Response: Watching the episode again, it's not bad, though I felt it went a bit off the rails in the last five minutes or so (when we find out the true nature of the Organians). You can't say Kirk isn't pro-active, though I disagree that he went about imposing his beliefs - to me, it seemed to be a simple matter of self-preservation. (Star Trek has always been inconsistent in this area anyway.) Regarding the "world's policeman" concept, it would be interesting to see what other conservatives think, given that some are more agreeable to that concept. I also disagree about Kirk admitting the Organians are right: he still reminds them that, while no one wants war, "People have a right to handle their own affairs." While he later admits that he's embarrassed for underestimating the Organians, that's not the same as admitting they were right. Lastly, this episode might be rather unique in the canon: we rarely ever had a Star Trek character arguing for the right to wage war.

Andrew's Reply: It wasn't really self preservation because Kirk could have simply sat out the war in hiding as an Organian. Instead, he set about blowing up a munitions dump, and thereby forcing the Organians into it on the Federation side. On the other point, you are right that Kirk does say that people have a right to settle their own affairs, but I see that as face saving really because Kirk abandons the point rather than arguing it till he wins. All in all, it feels like an endorsement of big powers controlling small countries for their own good to me, especially when Kirk then admits that he feels ashamed of being angry at them stopping the war he wanted (another un-Kirk-like thing). Either way, this is not one of Kirk's prouder moments.


Joel Farnham said...


This is the episode which set up the Organian Peace Treaty. It was a written by Gene Roddenberry and it features a peace treaty which basically stops Klingons and Humans from fighting each other. Serves the them right for trying to interfere in the Organian way of life!

War is NOT the answer is what G. Roddenberry was trying to get at! All it did was frustrate the writers to no end.

Another way of putting it, two small countries like Monaco and Portugal come over to the United States and start fighting on our ground. At first we are nonplussed then we get mad, separate the two countries and take away all their war toys and put them back to their own countries to contemplate what they have done.

It is a very weak story and it feels more of a "deus ex machina" situation. Two great races coming together to fight a glorious war and then the gods stop them and put them in time out like five year olds?

T-Rav said...

Hey, I've actually seen this episode! Shocking, right?

Yeah, I didn't like it either. Mainly because I wanted to slap the Organians for being stupid all the way through, so then when the "big reveal" came along, I was less impressed than just put out. And like Joel says, the "deus ex machina" ending is a poor resolution.

tryanmax said...

I say we all agree to declare this episode non-cannon. Little in this episode seems to fit what we know about the Enterprise crew.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, This story absolutely feels like deus ex machina. None of it fits. Kirk is not a war monger. The Federation doesn't go to war without a reason. There's no hint of why the Klingons would actually take this planet. How can they not recognize James T. Kirk -- whose face would be known to all Klingon commanders. Etc. It's all a poorly thought out set up.

And then the ending is just wrong. Kirk usually works his way through moral problems until he comes to realize the right answer. Then he brings everyone else to his position with unbeatable arguments. But he can't do that here and make the episode work. So instead, he just whines about having a right to fight a war over nothing until he gets spanked by the Organians. Then he acts all embarrassed and the episode ends. Huh?

I think this episode was meant as a blunt statement that war is wrong and big powers are right to step in and stop smaller countries from fighting -- which is a strange contradiction to the anti-colonialism of the prime directive.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. This episode simply doesn't fit anything we know about the Enterprise crew or Kirk himself. If feels like they were just used to make a point.

Now I'm not saying the episode doesn't have its moments, but nothing about this episode fits with the rest of the series.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, This is not one of their better episodes. It's not horrible, but it's not good. And I think you're right about the whole deus ex machina feel. Ask yourself for a moment what would have happened if the Organians hadn't been these big magic creatures? There's literally no other way for Kirk to solve this episode.

And I agree about the Organians being stupid. If they are so powerful and just want to be left alone, why appear to Kirk and the Klingons at all? Why not just make the planet appear abandoned or prevent them from beaming down? And why not explain to Kirk why he didn't need to protect them? It's like they baited a trap.

Tennessee Jed said...

my take is very similar to Joel's. There is no question in my mind Roddenberry is raising the whole world police issue. It has always been clear the Federation were the "good guys" and the Klingons the "bad guys." I don't really believe as some have suggested, that it was a moral equivalency thing with the U.S.A. and the Soviet evil empire. Tather, the Oranians were meant to show that eventually, a higher form of life transcends the need for violence. And, the point is hammered home in an overly obvious way, by making the two sides justify their actions as protecting a third party that neither needed or wanted their help.

Jason said...

tryanmax, Given that the Organians are never seen again (except on Enterprise), and there's no hint of their peace treaty restraining the Federation and the Klingons, I wonder if this episode is almost treated as non-canon. The Organians didn't seem to put a dent in the "70 years of unremitting hostility" between the Federation and the Klingons as of Star Trek VI.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's true, and where I think this episode really fails is in the justifications. It ignores the fact that sometimes war really is justified. Here, Kirk argues for a right to go to war because the Klingons "are aggressive." The Klingons are arguing for a right to fight because "we're more powerful." Those aren't serious justifications. Real justifications are that someone has something you want/need to they are doing something you want/need stopped.

By not giving either side a more valid justification, they have set up a strawman argument, guaranteeing that the Organians will be right.

A more fair (and better episode) would have explored these issues rather than just trying to make the generic point.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I think the peace treaty was mentioned again in "Trouble With Tribbles," but you're right that the whole issue basically goes away again and everyone stops caring about the Organians.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good takedown! This was definitely one of those episodes where Rodenberry was trying to have his replicated cake and eat it too.
Talk about forcing a square peg into a round hole.

I recall when I saw this episode as a boy I was really pissed at the Organians.
My impression at that time was that Kirk was just trying to help those hippy idiots and save them.
And the Organians turn around and essentially say Kirk and the Federation is just as bad as the Klingons? WTF?

Of course, as I grew older I saw more of the deeper implications and very un-Kirk-like behavior, giant black holes in the plot, the "strawman" and "set-up" you mentioned.

Very good job putting it all together. :^)

I concur with Tryanmax: this episode is officially, ipso-facto, non-STOS canon.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben. This one bothered me as a child too for the same reason. At the time, I took this as Kirk doing his best to save them from becoming slaves of the very cruel Klingon empire and they were incredibly ungrateful. Moreover, they ended up putting the Federation on a moral par with the Klingons, which really irked me too.

But now I see the more insidious aspect of this episode. This is one of the few liberal-liberal moments in the show where they make this silly statement that war is categorically wrong without ever asking if there isn't a good reason for war. It's like the BS liberal bumpersticker: "War never solved anything." Really? Tell that to the Jews or the slaves.

And what really irks me is the ultimate message here that it's better to live as slaves than to defend yourself. That's the kind of nonsense that only a liberal living in the safety and comfort of California can say.

The strawman is the real give away by the way. It puts Kirk in an un-Kirklike position and gives him no way to solve the problem in this episode. Essentially, he's just a passenger in the writer's desire to lecture us, rather than convince us as is done in the other episodes.

Backthrow said...

So, to recap--

Capt. Kirk: "TASTES GREAT!!"

Commander Kor: "LESS FILLING!!"

Organian spokesman: "Did we mention earlier that we are actually super-powerful energy beings? No?? Well, you're ALL getting WARM BEER."

*muted trumpet 'wah-wah-wahhhh' sound effect*

Gene Roddenberry (dressed in a Billy Jack costume): "We hope you've enjoyed our little skit... G'night folks!"

*tepid applause*

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, That just about sums it up. That's why this episode is so weak. It's got two strawmen arguing, and then a deus ex machina ending. There's really none of the usual intellectual rigor.

I think in part, they tried to defend something which can't be defended: "war is always wrong." But in part, they also bit off more than they could chew in this message.

It's also interestingly contradictory to the other ideas Roddenberry has about colonialism because it's arguing for a world nanny.

T-Rav said...

I dunno, maybe someone felt they needed to jam in an episode like this to make Kirk seem like less of a superhero and more human and all. All I know is, it didn't make me want to watch more Star Trek, which is probably not what they were shooting for.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Backthrow: LOL! I like your version better.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I'm not sure at all what they were thinking. I don't know if this was just a story idea they liked and then executed poorly or if this was meant as a response to something specific in the news at the time or if this was simply an ideological statement which doesn't really mesh with the rest of the show, but in any event it doesn't serve the series well.

It's an entertaining enough episode and it's good to see Kirk as an action hero, which is what this really is, but it is not one of his finer moments and the writing lacks the usual punch and the usual philosophical coherence.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I'm sensing a new set of parodies -- Star Trek done as beer stories. The story of the crew of the USS Millerlite, featuring:

Capt. Bud T. Kirk
Mr. Wise Spock
Doc. Er McCoy

ellenB said...

I like Kirk stomping the Klingons and blowing up their munitions dump, but I don't like the philosophy of this episode either.

AndrewPrice said...

ellen, It is kind of cool to see Kirk the action hero. He's definitely earned his stripes as a captain and I can't see Picard being as proactive. But like you, I just have philosophical problems with the episode throughout.

Jason said...

J.M. Dillard did mention the Organians in the Star Trek VI novelization, but only to say they "disappeared." There was also a DC comic storyline that pitted the Organians and the Excalbians against each other...ending with the Organians disappearing. (I'm noticing a pattern)

"Errand of Mercy" did give us John Colicos as Kor, and he's always fun to watch. I'm glad he reprised the role a few times on DS9 before he died...sad he couldn't do the same for Baltar.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, True. Colicos does a fantastic job as a Klingon. He's both smarmy and yet quite likeable, and he was excellent as Baltar!

This is the episode which introduces the Klingons, so that's a good thing no matter what else about the episode. And I don't hate this episode, it just comes across as weak and unprincipled.

So the pattern is "disappearing." Hmm. Actually, I think it's impossible to keep characters like this around because otherwise they could disrupt basically any plot and solve basically any problem. So they probably had to disappear.

Ed said...

Ok, I'm alone in enjoying the episode apparently. I agree with your analysis, but I still like to think Kirk has that killer instinct which he shows in this episode. :D

Ed said...

Which is not to say I like the hippie Organians. But I like Kirk kicking butt and Spock overpowering their scanners. Go team!

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, It's not that I dislike it. I enjoy the episode enough and for the very reasons you mention. BUT philosophically speaking, this one does not fit in with the rest and I don't like the message. Also, the whole thing is a giant set up for the message. Plus, I don't like the deus ex machina feel of the ending.

Anonymous said...

When you said you were criticizing Kirk, I began asking myself what episodes Kirk screwed up. There aren't many.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, It took some thought to come up with a time when Kirk got it wrong. He sometimes gets it wrong at the beginning, but always recovers by the end. Finding a time when he got it wrong at the end was quite difficult.

Doc Whoa said...

I actually wondered about this when you guys did the TNG episode. I wondered if you could come up with Kirk versions. Personally, I'm fine with him starting a guerrilla movement because if they're a bunc of idiot pacifists who won't fight back against an evil empire, then I don't really worry about their rights. BUt I agree about the ending.

Doc Whoa said...

"bunch" not "bunc"

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I haven't thought them all through, but I'm pretty sure there are a couple moments where things went wrong.

Doc Whoa said...

Care to list others? Just kidding, I know you guys will get to it.

Commander Max said...

Andrew I agree with your analysis, it is a very weak episode. But there might be a bit more behind this episode.
One thing Gene didn't want was an adversary like the Klingon's, but the network wanted bad guys.
This could be an example of people just going through the motions, in an attempt to make others happy(as to prevent cancellation).

But regardless of the poor episode, John Calicos was the shinning star in this episode. Which lead to his roll as Baltar in BSG. It's to bad he didn't show up in other STTOS episodes.

One side note the Klingon D-7(ship) wasn't seen until season three.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, In time! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Max, That's a great point. This could well be a statement by Roddenberry et al. aimed at the network: "If you try to force us to create a Soviet metaphor and have Kirk fight them, we'll get all deus ex machina on your plans!" I hadn't thought about that!

Calicos was great. He's the kind of bad guy you just love to hate. He revels in being evil and gives the role just a tremendous amount of joy. And then as Baltar, he just made my skin crawl because he had that "I'm so innocent" look but his actions were pure evil. And I love how he figures out who Count Iblis was... Satan.

You are correct about the Klingon ship. BUT in the re-worked "de-mastered" version (which I refuse to recognize), they insert Klingon ships into this episode... jerks.

darski said...

sorry - I just got a kindle so I am doing 6 yrs worth of reading as quickly as I can....

RE: this episode. it never made any sense to me. The only excuse would have been a writer's strike and the char ladies filled in. Though char ladies usually have more sense.

AndrewPrice said...

darski, No problem. I know the feeling. I got a Kindle about a year ago and just couldn't put it down.

This was indeed a poorly done episode with a really weak ending. I wonder if Max isn't right above that this was a bit of a middle finger to the networks?

Commander Max said...

Andrew, I always try to keep human nature in mind. That's something that hasn't changed in millenia, I don't think it's going to change in future millenia.

There were two D-7's made, one made it to the show. The other was used for the model kit.
They were both made by Amt models. One ended up in the Smithsonian, the other in private hands.
Both studio scale ships were available as kits.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, You mean the D-7 which looked like this: Max's Place? ;)

I agree with you about human nature. Our views may shift one way or another, but fundamental human nature simply doesn't change.

Commander Max said...

Thanks Andrew, my site numbers did go up, lol.

It's real hard to argue with biology. But I've seen many try. I'm sure Andrew you have seen quite a bit of it in the legal profession.
My favorite one, girls dressed in such a manner to leave little to the imagination. Those same girls then complain about guys hitting on them.

It's to bad we can't go back and ask Mr. Roddenberry about this very subject. I'm sure there are other episodes inspired by the execs of NBC.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, Yep, biology does not change.

Glad to hear your site numbers went up!

I would love to sit with Roddenberry (assuming he was still alive and not a zombie) and really dig into his brain about each of these episodes and what he saw at the time compared to how he sees them now.

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