Friday, August 3, 2012

A Taste Of Armageddon

Passage of time stops us from seeing some stories properly. Watching Space Seed without thinking of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is like trying not to think of blue elephants. Tomorrow Is Yesterday used to be a story about the Enterprise crew travelling back in time to the near present, now it's a story about them travelling back in time to a historical period. Likewise the gap between now and the 1967 broadcast of The City On The Edge Of Forever is larger than the gap between when that story aired, and when it was set in 1930 (some of the production team probably had memories of 1930, Gene Roddenberry was born in 1921, Robert Justman and Gene L. Coon in 1926).

So, time makes fools of us all. That's fairly obvious. Unfortunately for some Star Trek episodes what it also does is remove us from the original context. Breaking the connection between
a then current event and a writer making it into a story. Maybe the reason Dagger Of The Mind feels so flat is because it refers back to some specific event or scandal in 1960s' psychiatry, and with the roots of the story forgotten by a modern audience the episode loses some of its meaning. 

A Taste Of Armageddon has been luckier. It works as a story on its own terms. You don't need to know the allegory to appreciate a story where Kirk visits a planet fighting an insane war, and decides to get both sides talking with his own personal brand of intervention. Other stories weren't so lucky (space hippies). According to David Gerrold in his book The World Of Star Trek it's an allegory of Vietnam body counts. These came about because the US was fighting to preserve the South Vietnamese government rather than invade the north. Measuring progress was difficult and so the idea was to count the number of enemy deaths. Kill enough of the enemy and the war could be won by simple attrition. Put in this context A Taste Of Armageddon snaps into focus. The relevance of computers calculating the numbers of dead on either side of the never ending war between the planets Eminiar VII and Vendikar, and the required population obediently marching into disintegration machines so reality matches the numbers, suddenly makes sense not only as a story but within a real world context.

A Taste Of Armageddon hits similar plot beats to The Return Of The Archons ; the Enterprise visits a planet to find out what happened to a vanished Federation ship; there's a computer which, in one way or another, controls the lives of the inhabitants; the Enterprise landing party is cut off from the ship when it comes under attack; Kirk destroys the computer forcing the inhabitants to take control of their lives. However, within that similar plot framework both episodes tell suitably different stories and of the two A Taste Of Armageddon is superior. Partly, this is because Kirk has to work harder in A Taste Of Armageddon. He makes decisions, and takes action, and argues his case to Anan 7, Mea 3, and the High Councillors; all of whom are quite happy to keep the 500 year status quo. Kirk's decision to destroy the war computers is more morally grey, and so more interesting, than when he confuses the Landru computer to death. Once Spock joins Kirk in the High Council chamber Kirk is in a position of strength. The landing party have reclaimed their communicators and phasers. Kirk could just leave. No one on Eminiar VII wants to go back to physical warfare. There is no underground movement like the one on Beta III. Kirk uses saving his crew as an excuse to intervene. As an outsider he can see the bigger picture. As he says, “Death, destruction, disease, horror. That's what war is all about, Anan. That's what makes it a thing to be avoided. You've made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you've had no reason to stop it.” The war has lasted 500 years, it could go on forever. But is Kirk right to give these horrors of war back to people who have clearly expressed a desire not to see them return?

Although the population of Eminiar VII is represented by the standard dozen or so extras they've being given slightly different actions to perform. When Spock nerve pinches a guard, people mill around and rubberneck. Kirk has to tell them to get out of the way before he blows up one of the disintegration machines. Later, when Spock rescues Ambassador Fox, extras run as Spock's armed party approaches. This is more than just a society of leaders and security guards and as a result it feels like the most fully realised world we've seen so far in Star Trek.

A Taste Of Armageddon gives the audience a new Federation official to roll their eyes at, Ambassador Fox. Although not quite as one dimensional as Galactic High Commissioner Ferris from The Galileo Seven, his early actions are deliberately and unfavourably contrasted with Kirk's. 

UHURA: Captain, message coming in from Eminiar Seven. Sir, it's code seven-ten.
KIRK: Are you sure?
UHURA: Positive. It repeats over and over.
FOX: Is that supposed to mean something?
KIRK: Code seven-ten means under no circumstances are we to approach that planet. No circumstances what so ever.
FOX: You will disregard that signal, Captain.
KIRK: Mister Fox, it is their planet.
FOX: Captain, in the past twenty years, thousands of lives have been lost in this quadrant. Lives that could have been saved if the Federation had a treaty port here. We mean to have that port and I'm here to get it.
KIRK: By disregarding code seven-ten, you might well involve us in an interplanetary war.
FOX: I'm quite prepared to take that risk.
KIRK: You are. I'm thinking about this ship, my crew.
FOX: I have my orders, Captain, and now you have yours. You will proceed on course. Achieve orbit status and just leave the rest to me. You're well aware that my mission gives me the power of command. I now exercise it. You will proceed on course. That's a direct order.

The audience is meant to tut at the stupidity and inflexibility of Fox, and punch the air when Scotty refuses to obey his orders and lower the Enterprise shields. Later Fox does change his mind when he discovers the extent of Anan 7's duplicity but for large parts of the story he's there just to be wrong. Surely there needs to be a better reason for creating an irritating character beyond allowing the writer to nudge the audience in the ribs and go, “check out this dunce” In the end teleplay writers Robert Hamner and Gene L. Coon are so keen to get Fox into trouble they trip themselves up. Fox beams down while the Enterprise shields are still up; something Coon has forgotten he mentioned as impossible in his own script for Arena. The cumulative effect of characters like Ferris, and Fox, is not to make the Enterprise crew look good in comparison but to make the Federation look bad.

Something else which makes the Federation look bad is General Order 24. When Anan 7 contacts the Enterprise Kirk yells, “General Order Twenty Four. Two hours! In two hours!” Subsequent dialogue fills us in on what General Order 24 involves.

KIRK: ...You heard me give General Order Twenty Four. That means in two hours the Enterprise will destroy Eminiar Seven.
ANAN: Planetary defence System, open fire on the Enterprise!
SECURITY: I'm sorry, Councilman. The target has moved out of range.
ANAN: You wouldn't do this. Hundreds of millions of people.
KIRK: I didn't start it, Councilman, but I'm liable to finish it.


SCOTT: Open a channel, Lieutenant. This is the commander of the USS Enterprise. All cities and installations on Eminiar Seven have been located, identified, and fed into our fire-control system. In one hour and forty five minutes the entire inhabited surface of your planet will be destroyed.

It's clearly not a bluff. Once Kirk has recovered his communicator he contacts the Enterprise to reiterate his instructions and, once the war computers are destroyed, takes time to contact the Enterprise to cancel implementation of the order. While the audience is never told the exact wording of General Order 24 it must be a reasonably explicit instruction to destroy a civilisation or the infrastructure of a civilisation. How else could Scotty know to respond to Kirk's brief order by targeting all cities and installations on Eminiar VII? And, given that the Federation has written instructions to make sure their crews follow the correct procedure when destroying civilisations, how often does this happen?

Crew deaths: None, again. Nobody has died since Arena which was five episodes ago.
Running total: 25

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