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Star Trek – A Taste of Armageddon (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It’s amazing to think that A Taste of Armageddon and The Return of the Archons were produced on consecutive weeks by the same television show. Both are politically-charged pieces of pop culture, heavily influenced by the realities of the Cold War, but they adopt two completely different philosophies towards the conflict. The Return of the Archons is a story about the need for freedom and individuality, and how the struggle for those inalienable rights is a battle that must be fought. While it’s debatable whether Landru is a representation of the forces of communism, the episode is unquestionably about the triumph of Western liberal values.

In contrast, A Taste of Armageddon can’t help but feel a little cynical about the whole damn thing.

A shooting war...

A shooting war…

To be fair, A Taste of Armageddon lacks the eye-catching weirdness of its direct predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an appealing array of pulpy elements to be found here – proto-Klingon disrupters! funky hats! sashes! However, it’s really hard to compete with the surreal experience that was Return of the Archons. Watching an old-timey community descend into an orgy of debauchery while controlled by killer monks directed by a sharply-dressed ghost is really quite hard to beat in the “wackiness stakes.”

In comparison, A Taste of Armageddon feels almost take, despite its typically impressive futuristic set design and the number of fascinating high concepts on display here. The production design of classic Star Trek was always impressive, and even the corridors and quarters here look suitably impressive. Okay, there’s little that actually defines the culture of Eminiar VII, but it looks pretty. Even before the 40th anniversary remastering, A Taste of Armageddon looked beautiful.

Building on the themes previously established...

Building on the themes previously established…

However, it’s that lack of definition that really feels like the episode’s biggest problem. Of course, these alien cultures were only ever intended as metaphors, and we don’t need to know anything more about the people of Eminiar VII or Vendikar than we actually find out. However, the conflict and the people involved never seem quite real, which robs the episode of a bit of emotional depth. The sets look reasonably solid, but the characters seem paper-thin.

We can understand the motivations of Anan 7, and David Opatoshu gives a good performance, but the adventure reduces him to the status of a cartoon villain. Akin to Wile E. Coyote or Snidely Whiplash, his most dynamic actions seem to revolve around his attempts to trick the Enterprise crew into beaming down so he can brutally massacre them. While we know that he’s only doing this for what he feels is the greater good, the episode never treats him as a misguided idealist. Between his condescending conversations with Kirk and his repeated attempts to lure the Enterprise crew to their doom, he feels like an out-and-out villain.

Arrested development...

Arrested development…

You get the sense that perhaps we’re intended to engage with the human plight of Mea 3, the young woman who is so willing to sacrifice herself after she is “killed” in a simulated bombing. However, Mea 3 isn’t developed enough as a character, and Barbara Babcock isn’t a strong enough actress, to make her death and willingness to sacrifice resonate properly. Instead, she seems like a symbolic victim, a stand-in for untold thousands of others, but with no identity of her own.

That’s probably the biggest problem with A Taste of Armageddon, and it doesn’t take away from the show’s strengths. However difficult it is to emotionally engage with the conflict and the consequences, A Taste of Armageddon is a wonderfully-constructed piece of science-fiction. The idea of two cultures that have found a way to make war more “civilised” is a compelling hook, as is the exploration of what you can convince people to do in service of their country.

Make computer love, not computer war...

Make computer love, not computer war…

The people of Eminiar VII readily volunteer to be vapourised to ensure the semblance of peace, to avoid the untidiness of open warfare. there’s no justice to it, no fairness. The Vietnam draft lottery wouldn’t begin until 1969, but there are faint hints of foreshadowing here, the notion that people should be so willing to sacrifice themselves for their people because their name happened to be chosen at random.

Indeed, A Taste of Armageddon is a rather wonderful metaphor for the Cold War, the ideological conflict that loomed large in the background during the sixties, almost reaching boiling point. This was the decade of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, and also the point where it became clear that this ideological conflict had the potential to span decades. As the two powers conspired to keep their discourse relatively civilised, and staged their conflicts in foreign theatres obscured through allies and satellites, there was a sense that the Cold War could continue as this stalemate for quite some time.

Talk about trial and error...

Talk about trial and error…

Even before the show had finished its first season, it was clear that the Cold War would be a major influence on its moral philosophy. The notion of two rival power-blocks locked in an ideological conflict that threatened to turn into a shooting war informed the back story of the Federation’s relationship with both the Romulans in Balance of Terror and with the Klingons in Errand of Mercy. Those aliens would become two of the most iconic and recognisable creatures to appear on Star Trek.

The episode produced immediately prior to this one, The Return of the Archons, was a story about the triumph of traditional Western liberal values over despotism, and possibly even communism. The second and third seasons would continue to engage with the conflict, telling stories that were disguised through the application of wafer-thin science-fiction metaphors. Apparently the best way to discuss these problems was with liberal application of dodgy special effects and silly costumes.

Spock's attempts to meld with door were less than successful...

Spock’s attempts to meld with door were less than successful…

In Do Not Attempt to Adjust the Picture: The Cold War Crisis of Liberal Democracy and Science Fiction Television, Morris Emory Franklin (III.) offers a summary of how A Taste of Armageddon is a perfectly-tailored critique of that status quo:

A Taste of Armageddon is particularly reflective of Cold War mentality. With a rising reliance on destructive technology, the episode suggests a possible future for 1960s earth. The war operated by computers is analogous to a war run without weapons: a Cold War, one which dominates everyday life, but one whose absurdity is clear to everyone else but the participants. The horror of this episode has less to do with a 500-year war and more with the ways in which the citizenry of Eminiar VII, and presumably Vendikar, accept their roles in it. These are people with a “high consciousness of duty,” who willingly give up their lives not in combat, but because a computer program has dictated such action. War is taken out of its context of violence and replaced with a context of destructive bureaucratic efficiency.

It’s a frightening thought, and it makes the imagery and the ideas of A Taste of Armageddon incredibly potent. Even after the conflict has ending, it’s still somewhat unnerving to watch. History has taught us that humanity has an unsettling capacity to make the unthinkable strange palatable, and the notion of a society of innocents lining up be vapourised in the name of the greater good doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility, considering what some people can convince their followers to do for a cause.

A disruptive influence...

A disruptive influence…

Of course, A Taste of Armageddon reaches a bit deeper than just the Cold War between America and Russia. Some commentators point out that it works quite well as a metaphor for the Vietnam conflict as a whole. As George Takei argues in his autobiography, To the Stars:

In A Taste of Armageddon, two neighbouring civilizations had been at war with each other for centuries. Yet, both still had great cities untouched by the destruction of war. This war was a ‘clean’ conflict, fought with computers and ‘casualties’ were surrogates sent off to be destroyed in disintegration chambers. The physical structures of the two warring civilizations remain untouched; only the people were ravaged. The story presented a science fiction parallel to the Vietnam conflict. Two great civilizations, the Communists and the West, were locked in a cold war; yet with great cities intact, they sent their surrogates to the destruct machine of a tiny country in far-off southeast Asia.

On Eminiar VII, the government works hard to hide the cost of war. When Anan 7 explains to Kirk that their society has been at war for five centuries, Kirk acknowledges, “You conceal it very well.” Hiding the conflict is a great way to sustain it. Avoiding the consequences of war, the brutality, the graphic violence, is a shrewd way of ensuring that the population will continue to tolerate it.

"We appear to have wandered into the sixties..."

“We appear to have wandered into the sixties…”

Writer David Gerrold, in The World of Star Trek, concedes that the metaphor was intentional:

The point of this story was that death had been made “clean.” Invisible. Somehow, it isn’t really there. The analogy with Viet Nam is strong — oh, those damnable body counts. These people were obediently and cheerfully doing their duty and trotting into the disintegrators when they were told to — never questioning why, or whether their war never questioning why, or whether their war could be turned into a useful peace. Kirk changed the situation so that Kirk changed the situation so that death was no longer so clean — if people were going to die, they were also going to have to see the blood and broken bodies. The point here was to force the two combatants to recognize the horror of their waste-based society — like ours.

As we discussed in the review of The Return of the Archons, Gerrold took the show to task for its unquestioning trust in American ideals and political policy. There are quite a few episodes where it seems like Kirk might as well be serving in some futuristic version of the American navy, exporting a version of liberal democracy very in keeping with the American model. The Return of the Archons and The Apple comes to mind, with Kirk effectively over-throwing a political system because he disagrees with it.

Their reception is a bit of a drag...

Their reception is a bit of a drag…

However, I think Gerrold sells the show short. There are times when Star Trek was capable of criticising those ideals, or the price of the pursuit of those ideals. Gene L. Coon is credited as a writer on A Taste of Armageddon, and you can sense his hand at work. His earlier episode, Arena, had deconstructed the notion of Star Trek as a “space western”, effectively conceding that the Federation was a colonial power with little real regard for alien cultures. Coon suggested that the romanticism of human expansion occasionally blinded people to the cost of such development.

There are hints of that here. Arena famously established the existence of the Federation, and the body is officially named here as “the United Federation of Planets.” However, it seems quite clear that Coon was a little cynical of the idea. In the opening scene, Ambassador Fox espouses a policy which sounds remarkably imperialistic and expansionist. When Eminiar VII warns the Enterprise to stay away, Fox ignores it. “You will disregard that signal, Captain,” he instructs Kirk. Kirk pointedly replies, “Mister Fox, it is their planet.” It would seem like Fox doesn’t entirely agree.

It'll do in a pinch...

It’ll do in a pinch…

Apparently the wants of Eminiar VII are secondary to the needs of the Federation. “Captain, in the past twenty years, thousands of lives have been lost in this quadrant,” Fox explains. “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.” The language is hardly diplomatic. In fact, Fox seems to be espousing a philosophy quite similar to that suggested by Landru in The Return of the Archons. Individual freedoms must be curtailed for the greater good.

In this case, it seems that Eminiar VII’s desire to simply be left alone is secondary to the fact that the Federation wants a treaty port. One wonders what might happen if Fox is unsuccessful in his negotiations. The plot of A Taste of Armageddon hints at a Federation that isn’t driven by the altruistic ideals that Roddenberry would instil in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is a political entity that has its own priorities and its own objectives. Cynical individuals might read that as a pointed commentary on American foreign policy.

"Smoke coming from the computer banks? Natives standing confused in the corridor? I believe our work here is done, Mr. Spock..."

“Smoke coming from the computer banks? Natives standing confused in the corridor? I believe our work here is done, Mr. Spock…”

Of course, Fox is presented as a stubborn jackass, like most ambassadors in the classic Star Trek. It’s clear that we’re meant to see his attitudes as imperialist and uncomfortable, much like Arena is designed to make us question the Federation’s policy of colonial expansion. Coon is willing to criticise America through the lens of the show, and to suggest that the Federation is not as idealised as we might like to believe.

One senses that Coon would have been a big fan of the original draft of Tracy Tormé’s Conspiracy for The Next Generation, featuring a corrupt cabal at work within Starfleet. However, times had changed. Roddenberry seemed less likely to tolerate any internal criticism of the Federation or of his characters. In many ways, the original Star Trek worked much better than the first two years of The Next Generation because it was willing to use the Federation as a vehicle to explore American culture and history, without whitewashing it.

Don't worry, you won't feel a thing... ever again...

Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing… ever again…

A Taste of Armageddon is very clearly a condemnation of the Cold War as a concept, rather than one particular side involved in the conflict. That makes it a none-too-subtle critique of American foreign policy, which is quite impressive for a piece of prime-time network television airing in early 1967. As The Republic of Mass Culture: Journalism, Filmmaking, and Broadcasting in America Since 1941 explains, it was very rare for popular culture to engage with the Vietnam War on any terms, due to the commercial nature of broadcasting at the time:

But such efforts proved unusual. “In television drama in the 1960s,” Geoffrey Cowan wrote, “the war in Vietnam didn’t exist. It was too controversial for entertainment television.” Controversy carried too high a price tag for the networks. Fred Friendly resigned as president of CBS News in February 1966 after his network refused to continue airing Senate hearings on Vietnam because too much money was being lost by preempting I Love Lucy reruns and soap operas. Senator Albert Gore denounced “the whole idea of a vast television network using the wave lengths that belong to the whole people to advertise soap, when we should be having critical examinations of the issue of war and peace.”

American network television didn’t acquit itself particularly well in covering the Cold War. So the way that Star Trek handled the conflict deserves a considerable amount of praise. Sure, the show could occasionally be a little clumsily, or fall prey to the lure of jingoism or misjudged nationalism, but it was also willing to be subtly critical of American foreign policy.

Pointed arguments...

Pointed arguments…

It’s interesting to compare the politics of Star Trek to those of its successor, The Next Generation. A Taste of Armageddon is actually fairly close to the political morality of a typical episode of The Next Generation, a philosophical condemnation of war on its own terms, and a stubborn refusal to favour one side over the other. Kirk doesn’t side with Eminiar VII or Vendikar here. Instead, he destroys the whole system as corrupt and barbaric.

However, it’s interesting to note that Kirk’s Enterprise isn’t as prone to moral relativism as the ship commanded by Picard. When the Edo sentenced Wesley to death in Justice, Picard’s biggest problem wasn’t how to help the boy. Instead, he wrestled with the larger moral question of whether he should help Wesley. Did he have the right to ignore the Edo justice system, simply because he had more advanced technology at his disposal?

Kirk's in the hot seat...

Kirk’s in the hot seat…

Similarly, he allows the Ligonians to kidnap his Security Chief, and hold her hostage, in Code of Honour. While there are Federation lives hanging in the balance that may justify Picard’s tolerance for this act of aggression, the show frames his refusal to directly respond as a moral imperative. He procrastinates about whether to intervene in the exploitation of an entire population in Symbiosis. It’s safe to say that Kirk would never put up with any of that nonsense.

The Enterprise is unable to rescue Kirk from the surface of Eminiar VII, but not for lack of trying. There’s never any real suggestion that Kirk should allow his crew to die because of the crazy customs of this alien race. Instead, the plot keeps Kirk stranded on the planet surface by explaining that Scotty can’t beam the away team back through the ship’s shields. While Picard dealt with moral questions, Kirk dabbles action sequences. “The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank,” Scotty boasts, a line you’d never hear from a cast member of The Next Generation. Except maybe Worf, but Picard would shoot him down quite quickly.

I bet they weren't banking on that...

I bet they weren’t banking on that…

I’d argue that A Taste of Armageddon actually marks the “golden mean” when it comes to Star Trek‘s moral philosophy. Kirk isn’t simply tearing down a society because he feels justified in doing so, as he did in The Return of the Archons. On the other hand, Kirk and his crew don’t appear as impotent as Picard and his senior staff would often seem during those early episodes of The Next Generation.

Against his own better judgment, having suggested to Fox that the Enterprise probably should heed the instruction to turn around, Kirk has become embroiled in a political conflict. He clearly doesn’t want that, but it has happened. Once he’s drawn into that conflict, he refuses to be bullied or victimised by the instigators of the crisis. Kirk does dismantle the Eminiarian war machine, but only when provoked to action. He would have been quite happy to heed their initial warning to stay away.

I love how the universe appears to have a common '60s design aesthetic...

I love how the universe appears to have a common ’60s design aesthetic…

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. It never really is. Kirk’s interference is justified, but there’s still something a little bit imperialist about the way that Kirk tells these alien cultures how they should live. We can empathise with his position, and we can forgive him because he’s reacting against a situation he never dynamically sought out, but there’s still a sense that the Federation knows absolutely best.

Writing introspectively in The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold conceded that this was arguably one of the biggest flaws of the show:

The mistake was that the Enterprise was a cosmic meddler. Her attitudes were those of twentieth century America – and so her mission was (seemingly) to spread truth justice and the American Way to the far corners of the universe. Star Trek missed the opportunity to question this attitude. While Kirk was occasionally in error, never was there a script in which the Enterprise’s mission or goals were questioned. Never did they run into a situation that might have been better off without their intervention.

While A Taste of Armageddon comes a lot close to embracing moral relativism than episodes like Return of the Archons, Gerrold’s self-criticism holds up. While this is a situation that Kirk wisely didn’t wish to change, the show justifies his actions. His interference saves millions of lives, and A Taste of Armageddon validates Kirk’s decision by giving him the best possible outcome.

Kirk struggles to find a way to communicate his disdain...

Kirk struggles to find a way to communicate his disdain…

What if Vendikar had responded to Kirk’s meddling by launching an all-out nuclear strike? Kirk rationalises by arguing that he wouldn’t have made the situation any worse. When Spock observes he took a “big risk”, Kirk counters, “They’ve been killing three million people a year. It had been going on for five hundred years. An actual attack wouldn’t have killed any more people than one of their computer attacks, but it would have ended their ability to make war. The fighting would have been over permanently.”

Ignoring the assertion that the immediate casualties from a real attack wouldn’t have been any higher, a nuclear war would have devastating consequences. Radiation fallout wouldn’t kill millions instantly, but affect generations to come. Resources would be tainted, poisoned. Ash clouds would block out the sun, killing the biosphere and possibly rendering the planet uninhabitable. While war had become far too easy for the inhabitants of Eminiar VII, the alternative would have seemed to be complete annihilation.

Stupid like a fox...

Stupid like a fox…

While the way that Eminiar VII had intellectualised war and dismissed it from the collective consciousness was truly monstrous, some of Anan 7’s justifications ring true. Obviously, his appeals about culture and architecture seem trite when the cost of war is measured in human lives, but what about clean drinking water or the ability to have children? Their sanitised version of war is grotesque, and it highlights the absurdity of warfare as a concept, but Kirk’s intervention assumes that people will realise the folly of these conflicts when confronted with the ensuing horrors.

Perhaps I am just cynical, but it seems like the outcome of the situation relied on a great deal of luck. So Gerrold’s well-observed criticism of Star Trek‘s moral philosophy holds. Eminiar VII is no worse off for Kirk’s intervention. In fact, matters have been improved greatly. Then again, Star Trek is an inherently optimistic show, one which ultimately assumes the best in people. There might be mistakes or disagreements, but once everybody is fully informed, the franchise generally assumes that people will acknowledge the greater good.

She can't hide behind Kirk forever...

She can’t hide behind Kirk forever…

As such, Star Trek would never even contemplate an ending where the Enterprise leaves orbit only to discover that a surprise nuclear attack has devastated and destroyed Eminiar VII and left the planet an eradiated wasteland. Kirk gets to be right, and so his meddling is entirely justified. It’s not a bad thing. After all, Star Trek is an aspirational piece of television. One of its most appealing facets is the way that it assumes the best in people under the worst circumstances. I would like to believe that teaching two civilisations the folly of nuclear war would be as simple as blowing up a retro-looking computer.

A Taste of Armageddon works best as an allegory, and it’s a successful one. Indeed, it might be one of the most potent Cold War metaphors of the entire series. It’s certainly considerably more subtle and deft in its handling of Vietnam than A Private Little War winds up being. It’s a demonstration that Star Trek was capable of taking its pulpy science-fiction premise (and production design) and using those to tackle issues that were often more important and more pressing than those being handled by the dramas of the time.

The story is surprisingly worldly...

The story is surprisingly worldly…

A Taste of Armageddon isn’t perfect. The allegory seems a little bit too disconnected and intangible at times. However, it’s a great example of what the show was capable of, and a very clever example of how Star Trek could offer up some thought-provoking social commentary with its aliens and space monsters, something that helped elevate the franchise to the status of truly iconic science-fiction.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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6 Responses

  1. I usually totally agree with you and, indeed, I agree with much of what you write about Star Trek and I am a Trekkie. But the writers of Star Trek are responsible for what you call the “weak” performance of Barbara Babcock. She’s a terrific actress. She won an Emmy for her role as Grace in “Hill Street Blues”, was amazing as Liz Craig in “Dallas” and lit up the screen as Dorothy Jennings in “Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman”. I love watching her acting and she’s extraordinary. For me, it feel unfair to blame her for the misogyny of the writers of the early “Star Trek”. Otherwise, I am really enjoying your intelligent insights and gorgeous writing!

    • Thanks Greer!

      Maybe I was too harsh. And I will concede that a lot of these early scripts had very serious problems with gender roles. (I mean, Dagger of the Mind has a female crew member writing dirty fan-fiction on the inside of Kirk’s brain.) It’s very weird to have to deal with that. It’s tempting to excuse it as an example of the times, but that doesn’t cut it. Star Trek was progressive on occasion. I’m not just talking about the kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren, I’m talking about the two-second bit in The Naked Time where Uhura decides she’s having none of that from Sulu, or Mirror Mirror, when Uhura decides she’s having none of that from… hm, why does Sulu always seem a little “amorous” when he’s uninhibited?

      That said, the casual sexism in the early part of The Next Generation is even more frustrating and inexcusable, because that can’t even hide behind the excuse of “… for its time.”

  2. Also worth noting in regards to the dark side of the TOS era Federation is the General Order 24 mentioned in this episode. Total destruction of a planet? Civilians, children, old, sick, … everything? That to me implies a very sinister nature to the Federation.

    • Yep. Gene L. Coon was really very suspicious of the Federation, one suspects. I’d argue he was the grandfather of DS9 in that respect.

  3. Excellent analysis of a very complex episode. I’ve always liked “A Taste of Armageddon.” Even with its flaws, I regard it as one of the best entries in the original series.

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