Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Private Litttle War

A Taste Of Armageddon is an allegory of Vietnam war body counts, and more generally about the dangers of making war easy. The Doomsday Machine is an allegory about nuclear weapons. A Private Little War is a 1968 allegory of the Vietnam war itself. However where A Taste Of Armageddon and The Doomsday Machine are both clearly against the subject of their allegories A Private Little War surprises by being very much a pro-Vietnam war story.

The allegory is most clearly stated by Kirk towards the end of the episode when he decides the only solution is to begin arming the hill people with the same flintlock rifles the Klingons have been secretly supplying to the villagers.

KIRK: .. What is your sober, sensible solution to all this? 
MCCOY: I don't have a solution. But furnishing them firearms is certainly not the answer.
KIRK: Bones, do you remember the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt could pull out.
MCCOY: Yes, I remember. It went on bloody year after bloody year.
KIRK: What would you have suggested, that one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No. The only solution is what happened back then. Balance of power.
MCCOY: And if the Klingons give their side even more?
KIRK: Then we arm our side with exactly that much more. A balance of power. The trickiest, most difficult, dirtiest game of them all, but the only one that preserves both sides. 

There's an often used quote from Gene Roddenberry, “I realised that by creating a separate world, a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network.” In the case of A Private Little War it's hard to believe the network would have cared about the message if it had been spotted. 

Star Trek's contemporary audience is often described as containing a large proportion of  high school and college students. How did they react to being lectured about the importance of the Vietnam war by Gene Roddenberry? There's nothing wrong with confronting your audience with ideas and opinions to which they may be opposed. It makes the audience think about why they disagree with the message, and stops them being just passive consumers. That said there is something distasteful about a 46 year old man, well outside the 18-26 draft range of men eligible for selective service, lecturing about the importance of a war which was a very real worry for a large chunk of their target audience. 

What we have here is an actual, genuine generation gap. In 1968 the Second World War had ended 22 years ago. Gene Roddenberry, Robert Justman, and Gene L. Coon had all fought in different branches of the armed forces. Gene Roddenberry volunteered for the United States Army Air Corps, and took part in missions in the South Pacific. Robert Justman served two years in the Navy. Gene L. Coon was in the Marines from 1942 to 1946, and then having enlisted in the Marine reserves was called back to serve in the Korean war from 1950 to 1952. Unlike their young audience World War Two was a reality to them, as was the development and use of atomic weapons, the rise of the Soviet Union, and the Korean war. To a 20 year old viewer even something as recent as the Cuban missile crisis, took place when they were 14; a quarter of their life previously. Seen in this context A Private Little War seems less like the polemic of a typewriter warrior, and more a warning from someone who had fought in World War Two and didn't want to see it refought with atomic weapons. It also explains the odd, slightly dismissive way anti-war protesters are treated in The City On The Edge Of Forever.

Moving away from the tricky area of politics A Private Little War see the Klingons back after their last appearance in Friday's Child. In Friday's Child Kras the Klingon hoped to persuade the natives of Capella IV to cede to the Klingon Empire by backing the more aggressive tribal leaders. Here Krell, who isn't named on screen, is repeating the trick in a slightly more subtle way by supplying weapons primitive by Klingon standards to the villagers, and encouraging them into a war against the hill people. Friday's Child and A Private Little War both show the Klingons beginning to react to the peace forced upon them by the Organians in Errand Of Mercy. They can no longer add planets to their empire simply by invading them. Instead they act as agents of corruption, feeding on people's greed, and turning them into proto-Klingons by using existing disputes to their advantage.

KRELL: You are late, my friend Apella.
APELLA: A quarrel by my people. A division of some skins and a hill woman taken this morning. It's hard to divide one woman.
KRELL: Give her to the man who killed the most of her people. The others will see the profit in bravery. I'll make a Klingon of you yet. 


APELLA: I thought my people would grow tired of killing. But you were right. They see that it is easier than trading and it has pleasures. I feel it myself. Like the hunt, but with richer rewards.
KRELL: You will be rich one day, Apella, beyond your dreams. The leader of a whole world. A governor in the Klingon Empire.

It's not clear why the Organians tolerate this subversion of their treaty. Maybe it's only direct war they care about, but in Errand Of Mercy it was the act of violence itself they found distasteful so presumably they just don't know. There must be some limit to the Organian's ability to detect and prevent conflict between the two sides, and the Klingon's actions here are part of the process of working out exactly what are the Organian's limits.

The script of A Private Little War is a little confused about the exact nature of the peace treaty. Kirk talks about it as if it was an actual physical object signed by both sides, “if the Klingons are breaking the treaty it could be interstellar war, he says. According to Errand Of Mercy the one thing breaking the treaty cannot lead to is interstellar war. Later when Kirk and McCoy sneak into the village they gather evidence as if there is some Galactic United Nations they can appeal to, and hand over any proof they find. This is a little more consistent with earlier episodes. The Trouble With Tribbles established that Sherman's planet would be given to whichever side could develop it most effectively. Possibly if Kirk can prove the Klingons are cheating then the Organians will enforce some penalty on the Klingon Empire in the disputed quadrant referred to in The Trouble With Tribbles. 

The Klingons motivation for all this secret interference is unclear. In Friday's Child both sides are interested in Capella IV because it is rich in the mineral topaline. At the start of A Private Little War McCoy talks vaguely about interesting organic compounds with medical benefits, and presumably the Klingons are also after these compounds. However they could just be interfering out of sheer devilment. Maybe they read the planetary survey report Kirk wrote 13 years ago, using more of their surgically altered spies, and know Kirk has a fondness for this world. Perhaps it is just a way to expand their empire while keeping within the provisions of the treaty. To extend the Vietnam analogy, if the Klingons are the Soviets then they will want their own Warsaw Pact; dependant territories to act as a buffer zone and provide defence in depth against invasion. 

The skimpy character motivation extends to Nona, Tyree's wife. She is frustrated by Tyree's pacifist ways, and wants him to get some “firesticks” and do to the villagers what the villagers are doing to the hill people. So why did she marry him? Tyree says he married her after she cast a spell over him, so he must have had something she wanted. In the end she's just a power hungry woman who is willing to sell out her husband, and his tribe. There's some poetic justice in the way she ends up dead at the hands of a village hunting party who do not understand the advantage Kirk's stolen phaser would give them.

If Krell was going to all this trouble to turn the planet into a Klingon satellite state then there is also no small irony in the fact that he taught the villagers to act like Klingons. If they had been more interested in the phaser than Nona, they might have brought it to him. He could then present it to the Organians as 'proof' of Federation interference, arming the hill people with superior weapons, and gain whatever benefit Kirk thought would come from exposing the Klingon plan.

This is an episode with a lot of stuff going on in the background, but unfortunately what is foregrounded is a rather dull tale of goodies and baddies in which the nasty villagers wage war on the nice hill people. The morality really is that simplistic. The hill people are the goodies because they are the underdogs in the war, and Kirk is friends with one. The villagers are nasty because they have aligned themselves with the evil Klingons. It's a western, and while the goodies and baddies may not wear white and black hats the hill people do have blonde hair, and the villagers black hair; as does nasty Nona.

Extensive location work cannot save this story. Nor can some excellent editing from Donald R. Rode. The Mugato may look silly, think albino gorilla with spines and a single giant horn growing from the top of the head, but its attack on Kirk is well handled and comes out of nowhere. The introduction of Krell is also striking. A cut to a big close-up of the Klingon gazing into the camera as he waits for Apella. 

Is Kirk right? Yes within the confines of the script and the extremely narrow set up of the world. A balance of power is the correct solution. Maybe if the war between the hill people and the villagers can be maintained as a stalemate for long enough then both sides will learn it is unwinnable and return to their peaceful ways. Maybe. But how long can the Federation keep sending down flintlocks every time the Klingons send down flintlocks? What if the Klingons send grenades, or automatic weapons? What happens if the leader of the villagers invites the Klingons to help out by sending in military advisers? Will the Federation follow Kirk's plan and match the Klingons bomb for bomb, adviser for adviser, conscript for conscript? Evidentially not because if it had the space hippies who turn up in The Way To Eden would have sat on the transporter pad, burnt their draft cards, and chanted, “hey, hey JTK, How many kids did you kill today?” 

Enterprise crew deaths: Once again none, the Enterprise crew start making plans for the future. 
Running total: 43

Lots of shenanigans with the closing credits this week. To start with the most confusing one, this is the producer credit for the episode.
 My understanding is that the previous episode made, Journey To Babel, marked the first episode produced by John Meredith Lucas so I'm not sure why Gene L. Coon is suddenly being credited as the producer again. The only explanation I can think of is that before he left Gene L. Coon did the bulk of the production work on A Private Little War, and it was felt more appropriate to give him the credit than John Meredith Lucas.

One of the closing stills appears to be a make-up test for a Tellarite from Journey To Babel.

Lastly, the Mugato is credited as the Gumato. Apparently this was the original name for the creature but DeForest Kelly could not pronounce the name so it was changed. Evidently the change never reached whoever did the closing titles: Gumato/Mugato Mugato/Gumato, let's call the whole thing off.

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