Thursday, August 28, 2008

TOS Rewind #20: "The Return of the Archons"

The episode:  The Return of the Archons (2-9-1967)

The drink:  more vodka/lemonade.

We have three reviews for you on this one.  Plus, an audio podcast!

Here's the podcast (for real fans only--30 minutes of Trek geek yacking!)

I'm going to let Eric start us out:

To pick up where I left off in my last review (“…I want to see science fiction!"), I get what I want with “Return of the Archons".  In fact, this episode kicks off a string of excellent episodes that runs right up to the end of the first season.

“Return of the Archons" scores high in pretty much every category. The “cheese factor" is low, the production (acting, directing, cinematography, etc.) is good (maybe great), and the story kicks ass. It’s not only good science fiction, it addresses a social topic very near and dear to me—religion. John and I chatted a bit about this episode, and I think he’s of the opinion that it’s more of a commentary on communism. I can see that, but to me, the religious overtones are blatant:  blind obedience and slathering, beatific devotion to an unseen guru (i.e. Landru); the emphasis on unity and brotherhood; referring to the group as a “body"; and perhaps most of all, the violent reprisals for anything that can be vaguely construed as sacrilege. (I half expected Michael Palin to come jumping out yelling “You never expect the Spanish Inquisition!") Of course, in this society, the brainwashing is overt and direct. And instead of leaving a set of teachings (of questionable origin), Landru programmed a highly sophisticated computer to perpetuate his faith. It all boils down to the same thing, though—a repressed, stagnant society where there is no freedom of thought or action.

Which leads to the “Red Hour". In the society in question, everyone under a certain unspecified age periodically goes nuts and has a giant orgy/riot, presumably to vent the emotions that are at all other times suppressed (kind of like the Vulcan pon farr). This is an interesting observation about most of our religions. They demonize some very basic facets of human nature (violence, sexuality, etc.) and try to force their adherents into rejecting or controlling these facets to a ludicrous degree. I’ve often thought that part (maybe a large part) of the high crime rate is that the religions such a large percentage of the population are indoctrinated into don’t teach people how to live with the less genteel aspects of their natures and channel the emotions they generate into healthy outlets. Not that I’m saying Landru’s “Red Hour" is a healthy outlet, but it is an interesting solution to the problem.

So, in any case, the denizens of Beta III had James T. Kirk to rid them of their oppressive guru, which turned out to be a computer. So, once again, we’re dealing with man vs. machine. Or more accurately, Kirk vs. supercomputer. And it won’t be the last time. (Not by a long shot.) But that particular theme is still very well done in this episode. I have to admit that I love watching Kirk out-logic computers until they go nuts and fry themselves. This leads to one small problem, though:  despite Kirk’s protests to the contrary, it seems to me that he really did break the Prime Directive. The controlling power in the society may have been passively malignant and repressive, as well as personally repugnant to the good captain, but that really didn’t give him license to destroy it and completely disrupt the life of every person on the planet. And, as Spock alluded, an extensive study of Landru’s computer would’ve been very valuable. But Kirk, as he was wont to do, set the people of Beta III back on a normal, human path. Then again, they weren’t humans. Hmmm…


And for the first time, Rob takes a crack at TOS:

Thanks to Eric and John for inviting me to co-blog this one.

"Archons" has always been one of my favorite Trek episodes, and it holds up well.  The writers tackled big subjects – totalitarianism, communism, religion, colonialism, and mob psychology– without leaning on specific comparisons with current or historical events (as in 'Patterns of Force" or "The Omega Glory").  There are lots of striking and creepy images, such as the (viewing it now, very well-choreographed) crowd scenes, and the sinisterly-gentle holographic Landru.  But there's some fun Kirk-Spock banter as well.  And I love the way George Takei and DeForest Kelley play their characters after they've been absorbed.  Their portrayals are essential for the plot.    

So what's the deal with "the Red Hour"?  Probably added as a "fight scene," it gives the story an extra layer of mystery – one that is never explained.  My theory:  it's the Landru-computer's concession to the id.  Humans can't tolerate perfect peace and harmony.  Like the underground man says in the Dostoyevsky book -- the crystal palace is lovely, but you wouldn't want to live in it.  Deep stuff!

It's been said that Star Trek is all about the Cold War.  This episode's a powerful take-down of communism, but it seems to have implications for religion as well.  St. Paul referred to the Church as "the Body of Christ."  "Archons" is also, less positively, an argument for overthrowing communist governments in Third World countries.  Kirk justifies violating the prime directive because it only applies to "living, growing" cultures.  Really?  He'd make a great CIA lawyer!  And the local resistance is led by half-committed wimps who require outsiders (read:  Americans) to give them spine.

Some would dismiss as ridiculous Kirk's amazing ability to talk computers into destroying themselves.  Well, how else is the Enterprise going to defeat a foe with vast technological superiority?  IMHO, that's how "The Squire of Gothos" should have ended.  (Sorry, Eric!)  That's a classic Trek theme – the triumph of reason and creativity over brute force.  I just told my PC:  "A question has been put to you.  Answer it!"      

Thanks bro!

All three of us really liked this one.  I don't remember it being one of my real faves long ago:  the shortage of fistfights and space battles makes that tough when you're ten.  However, I have much more appreciation for it as an adult.  As Eric and Rob both point out, this episode covers a lot of intellectual ground, much more than the usual TOS Trek episode.  I can just imagine the NBC censors looking at this one and saying, "well, that's okay, it isn't about religion.  Jesus wouldn't build a mind-enslaving computer to run the Earth!"  Uh, yeah.  However it happened, this one got on the air with some thought-provoking ideas.  It'd be interesting to see what the 1967 audience thought of this one.

This episode does a really good job conveying the creepy oppression of the Landru-state.  The way the people behave as well as Sulu and McCoy's behavior after being absorbed makes it even more of a menace.  But this guy takes the cake:

Just plain weird.  He's played by a guy named Lev Mailer who apparently is an acting coach currently living here in MN.  He looks like he should be in a Kurt Weil production and talks very strangely. 

In the end, I think this episode strikes the right balance of science fiction ideas and social/political commentary.  Here are a few odds and ends I liked/noted about this one:

"The Red Hour."  It's a really interesting idea, a "pressure valve" as Eric calls it in our podcast, for the forcibly contented people under Landru.  I also like the way that the story doesn't really explain the reason for it.

Marplon and Reger, the two who resist Landru, aren't your average underground resistance movement.  They are actually wracked with doubt and are unsure of what they're doing on some level.  All the better for Kirk to swoop in as the confident American to save them!

Kirk vs. Landru the computer god/commie party dictator.  As Eric said, it was the first, but far from the last time he's found himself in a position to talk a computer to death.  Sometimes the original is the best.

The mystery of how Landru manages to channel his power through thin air as well as telepathically control an entire population is an interesting sci fi idea.  It may not be entirely original, but for TV of the 1960s, it must have been pretty fresh and potent.

I really like the teaser/intro of this episode.  There is no Captain's Log or other expository dialogue to tell you what Sulu and O'Neil are doing and why they're being chased by these guys in robes.  It sets up the episode very well.

So, there you have it.  One of the better episodes and we still have some real classics coming up.

Next time:  "Space Seed"


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