Sunday, October 26, 2008

TOS Rewind #22: "A Taste of Armageddon"

6/13/2016 update:  We went back and finally recorded a podcast review for this very worthy episode. Check it out here

This time, we tackle A Taste of Armageddon (aired 2-23-1967).

We did do a podcast, but a technical glitch (or user error) prevented it from being recorded.  I assure you that heroic efforts are being made to prevent this from happening again! 

My old friend Lee joined us this time and he gets the first shot:
       As I noted in our podreel, I found myself quite sympathetic to the Eminiarans. They came across as humane, thoughtful, sensitive, and (in the case of Anan 7) morally conflicted beings. Kirk and friends, meanwhile, were 23rd century neocons, inserting themselves into a situation they did not understand and deploying shock and awe, enhanced interrogation techniques, ethnocentrism, the radical over-valuation of military force and technology (with concomitant denigration of diplomats), and the true Bush Doctrine, which is gut feeling combined with near-absolute certitude. Anan 7 compromises his strict morality in an effort to (as he believes) save his world, while Kirk and Scotty risk committing genocide against an entire planet primarily to save their own asses. (E.g., it’s curious how Scotty disobeys a direct order that would put the Enterprise in danger, but unblinkingly obeys an order to prepare to murder hundreds of millions of innocent people.)

       The inhabitants of Eminiar and Vendikar are so disturbed by the correlatives of war (suffering, violence, destruction, cultural implosion, sudden death—the screams of agony and grief and, everywhere, the corpses, blood, and gore) they’ve crossed a computer game with a lottery to create a form conflict in which every negative consequence but death has been removed. You die without ever seeing your enemy: indeed, the people who actually kill you are your own. If declared killed, you have 24-hours to prepare, say your good-byes, and report to a painless and efficient disintegration booth. Failure to do so would bring “real" war, and so the choice to be disintegrated is also a choice to protect one’s planet—even save it, as the Eminiarans believe that real war would mean cultural extinction.

       Kirk expresses disgust at this arrangement, apparently forgetting that soldiers are also expected to “do their duty" and willingly die, if necessary, in times of war. He simultaneously appears, at times, to relish the idea of “the real thing", while Scotty notes, “the best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser-bank". Even McCoy hops on the technology and militarism bandwagon when he says, in response to Scotty’s noting “it’s a big planet", “Not too big for the Enterprise to handle!" Considering the episode aired in 1967, around the height of the war in Vietnam, this is not what anyone in the U.S. needed to be hearing.

       Of course, the adolescent fantasy of omni-competence—which is often found in film and television—guarantees Kirk’s gambit saves the day and (probably) ends the war. His gut conviction that the inhabitants of the two planets are too soft to fight a real war when given an opening for peace is shown to be correct. The idiotic and petulant  Neville Chamberlain aping Ambassador Fox transforms himself into a humble, soft-spoken, mediating Jimmy Carter figure to help mother in the final credits. We are blood-thirsty killers, Kirk says, but we don’t have to kill today. (Ignoring the fact that, over the past 500 years, the people of Eminiar have not technically been killing anyone but themselves.)

       In conclusion, this was a very entertaining, complex, and thought-provoking episode with a particularly effective performance from David Opatoshu as Anan 7. I wasn’t expecting an actual, well-rounded character, but there it was, and this actor’s presence made it real.

Bonus Track:  The Dick-Putz (plus Asshole) Theory of Interpersonal Conflict on the Enterprise

This goes back to my confusion over Spock being such a dick to other crewmembers in the awful episode, “That Which Survives". I assumed this was an isolated incident. But then again, sure enough, in “A Taste of Armageddon" Scotty goes all dickish on McCoy in a very similar way. Suddenly I realize: there are two roles, almost archetypes, that are being juxtaposed, again and again, for dramatic effect. I call these roles the Dick and the Putz.

       The Dick is logical, forceful, intolerant of dissent, certain, and ALWAYS right.
       The Putz, on the other side, is emotional, whiny, disorganized (no real plan), confused, and ALWAYS wrong.

       The Putz serves to stimulate emotion and raise tension (“we’ve got to do something!"), while the Dick (at least in ATOA) shows why nothing can be done and the Captain needs to handle it himself.

       Spock’s a natural Dick, because he’s so logical. Kirk can also go Dick. McCoy, meanwhile, makes the perfect Putz, because he’s so temperamental and probably drunk. Uhura is also a big Putz, though utilizing (because she is a woman) gasps and shocked expressions in lieu of actual words. Scotty, interestingly, goes both ways. He’s often a Putz, but if he gets some serious power he swiftly swells to Dickish proportions. (You know Scotty’s shifting into Dick-mode when he says to Kirk, in a weirdly forceful, commanding way, “Have a bonny trip.")

       McCoy misses out on the chance NOT to be a  Putz when he’s apparently stuck in the shitter when the order to destroy Eminiar in ten minutes comes in. This would’ve been a great place for the humanitarian, emotion-laden doctor to get riled about something he could actually be right about.

       Ambassador Fox, meanwhile, is neither Dick nor Putz, but Asshole—a figure who combines the worst aspects of the Dick with the worst aspects of the Putz: i.e., forceful, emotional, intolerant of dissent, certain, and ALWAYS wrong.

       Anyway, I’m not sure how far this theory can be pushed, since I’m basing it on maybe three episodes and a number of vague impressions. So feel free to take it with a grain of salt. But be on the lookout, from now own, for Dicks, Putzes, and Assholes in TOS!
Now it's my turn.  The drink of the episode is a Macallan 19 yr/old Scotch (natch!).

Eric had mentioned that this could very well be his all-time favorite episode of TOS.  At first I was a bit surprised.  I remembered it being a good one, but not one of the ones I considered to be cream of the crop.  Revisiting this one has changed my opinion somewhat.  I do think that this is one of the best, no doubt.

This episode is an example of why TOS holds up as well as it does today.  The effects/sets/costumes (especially those uber-silly hats the Eminiar guards wear) are dated, but the ideas and execution of the show still have resonance 40+ years on. 

One thing I find interesting about this episode is how it shows a potentially less-than-perfect Federation (I think this may be the first time the Federation is mentioned by its full name).  This is embodied in the Ambassador Fox character, who, as Eric points out, isn't that likable a character.  Fox is the classic government bureaucrat that finally sees things the right way.  One could argue that Fox is the softie left-leaning type where Kirk and Scotty are the free-thinking types that get things done and clean up the messes that the weak pandering peaceniks have made.  Of course this doesn't entirely fit, but it's fun to ponder the political implications of episodes like this.  The material practically demands it.  There are so many episodes throughout the whole of Trek where the Federation is held up as a model peaceful government that it's fun to see it assume a more "human" side (even though Fox appears to be some kind of alien).  Of course at the opening of the episode it is Kirk who doesn't want to charge into a potentially dangerous situation after being warned to stay away from Eminiar.  Fox makes it clear that there is a military priority to this mission:  some sort of base of operations.  A bit of a reversal.

Another thing that caught my attention is the fact that we are never shown anything of the Vendikar people, the ones the Eminiarians (?) are at war with.  Not even some guy on a viewscreen.  I believe this makes the show work even better. They truly are the "faceless enemy," even though for all we know, they may wear the same silly hats.  I found myself wondering how this plot would have been handled as a Next Generation episode.  I'd have to guess that Picard would have set up negotiations with both sides as soon as possible while still condemning their way of fighting war.

The characters in this episode are compelling and complex, particularly Anan 7.  I'm in complete agreement with Lee on this:  the character is well written and the performance convincing.  He really does come off as a sensitive character that is grappling with a very big issue that he doesn't see an easy answer to.  Kirk is earnest and appropriately snarky at times.  He arguably assumes the role of a terrorist once he begins destroying the Eminiar death chambers:  he makes no apologies, "I'm going to end it for you – one way or another."  Spock is a lot of fun in this one as he deduces the real war going on between the planets.  As always, he skillfully adapts to being a military badass when the situation requires it.  Scotty really gets to have fun here where he stands up to Fox and gets some choice lines. 

I sampled the remastered version of this episode.  Aside from the cleaner looking picture, there weren't that many effects changed.  The most noticeable one is the replacement of the matte painting when the landing party beams down.  The new one looks much more realistic while keeping the look of the original.  A nice touch.

And here's Eric to finish this one:
I’ve been anxiously waiting to do this review. “A Taste of Armageddon" is a strong contender for my favorite original Star Trek episode. Everything about it is excellent—the acting, the directing, the production, and especially the story.

All of the acting in this episode is solid if not superb. It’s particularly good to see Scotty get so much more to do than usual. He’s a great character and Jimmy Doohan made the most of his scenes. I always get a kick out of the line:  “Aye, the haggis is in the fire for sure."

The guest stars turn in excellent performances too. The late David Opatoshu does a nice job as Anan 7. The character isn’t exactly likable, but he is understandable. Opatoshu is able to imbue him with surprising depth. His motivation is essentially noble—to save his civilization—but his methods are questionable…at best. Still, he isn’t evil, just misguided and ruthless. His conflicted feelings about the whole situation are sincere, but ultimately, I don’t think he changes his philosophy about killing and war—he is just given a choice that forces him to pursue peace. (More about this later.)

Another well done guest character is Ambassador Fox (played by the late Gene Lyons). This guy really annoys me. I’ve never liked pompous bureaucrats and Fox, intentionally I’m sure, elevates being an obnoxious ass to an art form. What I like, though, is that he comes around at the end and manages to redeem himself to a large degree. He has to be threatened with disintegration before he relaxes his sphincter, but at least he does. And in the process, he proves that he can be useful.

And finally, Kirk is at his best in this episode. Shatner does a good job of keeping his habitual overacting at bay, and his delivery of Kirk’s lines about war and killing is great. He isn’t preachy, and what he says really resonates, especially when he talks about the horrors of war being the reason war should be avoided and when he tells Anan 7 that all it takes to avoid killing is to make a conscious decision not to kill. I also appreciate the fact that for once, he doesn’t break the revered Prime Directive. Nor does he play god—he destroys the Eminian war computers and disintegration stations because the Enterprise and the lives of her crew hang in the balance.

So now to the story. Put simply, it’s superb. (Even the title is excellent.) After seeing this episode more times than I can remember, I still love the moment when the nature of Eminian warfare is revealed. It’s all done with computers and those who are designated casualties are obliged to report for disintegration. It’s understandable. It’s even logical, as Spock points out. But, as Spock also asserts, it cannot be condoned. This is a perfect example of a mind-bending scenario that can’t be done anywhere other than science fiction. It reminds me of the SF short stories (particularly those by Isaac Asimov) that I used to read voraciously.

One aspect of this story that makes it work so well are the similarities and the contrasts. Both the Federation and the Eminians are ready and willing to make war, and kill, and wreak destruction. But Kirk and the Federation do it with all the gruesome trimmings, and as a result, don’t make war lightly. The Eminians, on the other hand, have removed the horrors of war, and therefore haven’t bothered to stop theirs for more than 500 years. It lends them a coldness. Notice that the Eminians have numbers in their names—could this be because it dehumanizes them to certain degree? (Of course, “dehumanizes" is a misnomer because the Eminians are not human. But they do represent humans.) Still, Mea 3 asserts that her life is dear to her, when she is declared a casualty, so perhaps the Eminians are no colder than humans who march off to war to kill and be killed for some cause (regardless of whether or not the cause is just). Maybe it’s the fact that the Eminians conduct their war so neatly and cleanly that is objectionable. The tidy, efficient (even industrial) killing has an uncomfortable Nazi quality to it.

What really makes this story stand out, however, is that it manages to present the questions anti-war polemics typically ask in a unique and clever context, without bludgeoning the audience. And those questions are:  Is the killer instinct undeniable, and can war be avoided? I’m not sure either is clearly answered, but there are some hints. As I pointed out earlier, Anan 7 decides not to kill, but it is because Kirk gives him the choice of stopping the killing or waging a real war with all the attendant carnage. So it’s a coerced decision. Kirk, on the other hand, makes a conscious decision not to kill, but if things had gone differently, it’s clear that he would have. Given this, it would seem that our killer instinct can be denied. But when the decision to do so isn’t freely made, or when it depends on a situation unfolding in certain way, war is probably inevitable. Still, “A Taste of Armageddon" ends on a hopeful, optimistic note—our good sense and good luck may yet save us from ourselves.

Next time:  “This Side of Paradise"

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