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Star Trek – Errand of Mercy (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.

Ah, Klingons. It feels strange to think that we’re almost at the end of the show’s first year and that we’re only meeting the franchise’s most famous aliens now. More than that, in the original version of the show, their distinctive model space ships didn’t appear until the third season, in Elaan of Troyius, the same episode where their iconic imperial crest appeared. They wouldn’t get their bumpy foreheads for over a decade, until Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And a lot of what we’d take for granted about Klingon culture would only be established in the tie-in novel The Final Reflection and later in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Still, Errand of Mercy welcomes the Klingons to the franchise, and offers a demonstration of why the aliens had such staying power. It’s also a rather wonderful Cold War analogy, feeling like something of a companion piece to Gene L. Coon’s A Taste of Armageddon.

I bet a lot of people were surprised that they could Klingon to their reputation as Star Trek's top alien for so long...

I bet a lot of people were surprised that they could Klingon to their reputation as Star Trek’s top alien for so long…

However, since the Klingons are the part of Errand of Mercy most frequently discussed, we should probably talk about them. As we’ve noted quite a bit in discussing this first season of Star Trek, space generally seemed rather empty. With the exception of the Romulans in Balance of Terror and Balok in The Corbomite Manoeuvre, the Enterpise hasn’t run into too many space-faring civilisations, let alone those strong enough to establish an intergalactic power.

In fact, most of the early part of the season was preoccupied with long-dead worlds, with stories like The Man Trap and What Are Little Girls Made Of? taking place in the ruins of ancient civilisations. A lot of the early encounters were with human miners or colonies or individuals. Even in Miri, the show went to pains to emphasise just how human-like that alien world actually was.

How quaint.

How quaint.

It’s only towards the tail-end of the season that we stumbled across inhabited planets with their own civilisations, like Beta III in The Return of the Archons or Eminiar VII in A Taste of Armageddon. Other than that, it seems like the universe is filled with ghosts of highly advanced aliens simply disinterested in our own meagre affairs. Episodes like The Cage (through The Menagerie), Charlie X and The Squire of Gothos suggested that the universe featured any number of civilisations immeasurably more powerful than ourselves.

Even those space-faring civilisations featured in early episodes seemed decidedly small. The Romulan Empire in Balance of Terror seemed composed of only two notable worlds that could easily be contained, and were close enough to Earth to wage a war at sub-light speeds. Their preoccupation seemed to be with Earth rather than with the Federation. That makes sense, of course, given that the Federation would only be established in Arena.

We don't come in peace...

We don’t come in peace…

Similarly, Balok seemed rather lonely patrolling the border of First Federation space in The Corbomite Manoeuvre, with no real sense that he was supported by the might of an interstellar power. The Gorn in Arena seemed mostly preoccupied with defending their own space against what they perceived as Federation imperialism. So the arrival of the Klingons in Errand of Mercy feels like a game-changer.

Givne the Federation was only established in Arena, it makes sense that we are only getting a foil for them in Errand of Mercy. The Romulans in Balance of Terror might have been aggressive, but they weren’t expansionist. They served well as a contrast to humanity, rather than any large space-faring organisation. The Klingon Empire, on the other hand, feels like a compelling contrast to the Federation.

"In a different reality, I could have called you friend..."

“In a different reality, I could have called you friend…”

Naturally, since the Federation espouses traditionally American ideals (freedom! democracy! yay!), the Klingon Empire represents what Ronald Reagan would come to describe as “the Evil Empire.” They were an expansionist and colonial power with ideal in stark contrast to those championed by the Federation. In the context of the Cold War, if the Federation was America, then the Klingons were the Russians.

Indeed, Errand of Mercy seems to consciously play the Klingons as the worst stereotypes concerning communism. They are aggressive, belligerent and prone to acts of violence. They seek to trample the freedoms which the Federation takes for granted. We learn relatively little about the political structure of the Empire here, beyond Kirk’s accusations about “vast slave labour camps”, but what little insight Kor offers into the operations of the Empire can’t help but recall totalitarian communist regimes.

Kirk's disguise is paper-thin...

Kirk’s disguise is paper-thin…

“Do you know why we are so strong?” Kor taunts. “Because we are a unit. Each of us is part of the greater whole, always under surveillance. Even a commander like myself, always under surveillance, Captain.” The Klingons belief that the erosion of these freedoms only make them stronger.  And they see their right to conquer as granted by their strength and military superiority. When Kirk points out they’ve vowed to conquer the galaxy, Kor responds, “Why not? We’re the stronger!”

In short, it is very hard to imagine a race that could exist in sharper contrast to the ideals of the Federation, and which could function so perfectly as a sounding board for fears about the enemy sitting on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain. The Klingons aren’t meant to be the Russians so much as they are meant to be the way that the Americans perceive the Russians. There’s no context for their actions, no history to provide motivation or reason, no deep philosophy underpinning their strategy. They exist in Errand of Mercy as little more than the Federation’s demons.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

Unfortunately, this does raise several awkward racial connotations with the Klingons. Without the ridges that would become part of their standard design, the Klingons are caked in heavy dark make-up, and the more prominent Klingon characters are given distinctive Fu Manchu style beards. Who exactly is responsible for this design choice is unclean. Coon’s original script explicitly defines the Klingons as “hard-faced” and “Oriental.” James Blish’s novel adaptation takes things a step further, telling us, “The Klingons were hard-faced, hard-muscled men, originally of Oriental stock.”

Does Blish imply that these aliens are an off-shoot of humanity, similar to the explanation he offered for the Earth-like planet in Miri? It’s quite possible that Blish’s literary adaptation of the episode just brings out the author’s occasional tendency for unfortunate racial observations, most obvious in his later original novel (and sequel) Spock Must Die! Either way, an internal memo explicitly identified the Klingons as “the Ho Chi Minh type”, which was not a flattering acknowledgement that the Klingons clearly meant to be Asian communists.

Sash and burn!

Sash and burn!

To be fair, actor John Colicos takes a lot of the credit for how the Klingons eventually looked, recalling his arrival on the set and subsequent conversation with the make-up artists, having only read the script on the plane flight over to Los Angeles:

I arrived there and they said, “Well, what does a Klingon look like?” And I said, “I don’t know, you guys tell me what a Klingon looks like!” They said, “I don’t know – do you have any ideas?” I said, “I think – since the script is what it is – let’s make him a futuristic Genghis Khan.” A predator, a warrior.

Colicos was, of course, only building on what was in the script. The script’s original suggestion that the Organians should inhabit thatched cottages and more rudimentary dwelling would have made the story’s Asian themes even more obvious, turning Organia into a westernised version of America’s image of Vietnam.

"I'm sorry, sir, this goatee was the best the make-up department had available..."

“I’m sorry, sir, this goatee was the best the make-up department had available…”

Unfortunately, all of this comes together to create a rather unfortunate picture. As Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture notes, the portrayal of the Klingons could be seen as racially-charged:

Their appearance, especially since the first of the Star Trek films in 1979, marks them as non-“white”, indeed nonhuman: their bony forehead ridges betoken both a beloved Trek tactic of inexpensive alien-making and a routine Trek conflation of cultural differences with visible, physical ones. But even in the less high-budgeted original show, Klingons bore signs of racialized body typing. They were universally goateed and mustachioed, at a time when facial hair was most obviously associated with the Beats, and the Beats with jazz and black culture. They sported dark makeup: the colour of a Klingon soldier glimpsed briefly in the early episode Errand of Mercy varies obviously from ‘blackface’ to ‘whiteneck’, and many other Klingon faces are smudgy, as if the bootblack were melting in the studio lights. And they were played, in two of three starring appearances in the first series, by actors of ‘ethnic’ heritage known for playing ‘ethnic’ roles: John Colicos as Kor in Errand of Mercy and Michael Ansara as Kang in Day of the Dove. The exception was William Campbell as Koloth in The Trouble With Tribbles. Not coincidentally, this was the episode in which Klingons were least threatening, most humourous, and yet most strongly marked by a bodily difference that ‘told.’ The episode’s Klingon spy who “passes” as a (somewhat swarthy) human aide-de-camp is discovered because tribbles, creatures that coo for all humans and some Vulcans, squawk when brought near, as they do around all Klingons.

The criticism isn’t entirely fair. Although all the major Klingons had beards, not every Klingon had hair on his chin. For what it’s worth, I’d suggest that Kor’s facial hair is styled to resemble Fu Manchu and “yellow peril” villains more than the beats – although Koloth and Kang both have more conservative goatees. Koloth isn’t the show’s only caucasian Klingon, with Kras from Friday’s Child also possessing less racially exaggerated make-up. It also seems a bit strange to suggest the Klingons have a bodily difference that “tells”, when Spock has pointy ears and green blood.

The grenade might be a bit much, but Spock is really rocking the cape and leggings combo...

The grenade might be a bit much, but Spock is really rocking the cape and leggings combo…

However, despite these minor qualifications, the argument still carries some weight. It is still a little uncomfortable to watch the Klingons march around Organian like a futuristic horde of Mongols. The make-up and design of the Klingons is striking, and – to be honest – I don’t think it ever needed updating. However, coupled with the script’s decision to cast them as savage invaders, it does seem just little bit unfortunate.

As such, it’s lucky that the episode cast a guest performer as strong as John Colicos in the role of Kor. Colicos is a great actor, and he plays the role remarkably well. As we saw in Space Seed, William Shatner really works best when he is forced to compete for space. According to Colicos, the producers were even considering resurrecting Kor as a foil for Kirk in  the second Star Trek film, before they settled on Khan. Colicos isn’t quite as effective a foil for Shatner as Montalban was, but he’s a wonderful performer, and it is great that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine saw fit to bring him back as a recurring guest star.

The habits of (Klingon) Empire...

The habits of (Klingon) Empire…

Kor works well as a villain opposite Kirk, and underscores Coon’s point quite well. It’s clear that Kirk and Kor share a strange kinship. Kor seems to recognise something in Kirk instantly. “Good honest hatred. Very refreshing.” He respects that. Before he figures out who Kirk is, he notes, “You do not like to be pushed. Very good. You may be a man I can deal with, Baroner.” Even after he discovers that Kirk is a Federation operative, he resents having to kill the man. “Take the Captain to my office. We’ll have a talk before I do what must be done.”

Indeed, while interrogating Kirk, Kor is the perfect gentleman. He even shares a drink with his adversary. This isn’t mere subterfuge. Kor doesn’t hide his brutality, as he is in a strong enough position to accomplish whatever he wants through force. His respect for Kirk seems genuine, and he seems reluctant to torture his foe. Asking questions, he explains, “I can get what I want through our mind-scanner, but there would be very little of your mind left, Captain. I have no desire to see you become a vegetable.” Given how casually he submitted Spock to a probe, it seems a mark of genuine admiration.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Although the Klingons of the original Star Trek are still quite different from the Klingons who would follow, there are some hints of their values to be found in the episode’s presentation of Kor. The notion of Klingon honour wouldn’t really be established until The Day of the Dove, and would be fleshed out in sources like the novel The Final Reflection or the aborted Phase II two-parter Kitumba, before being firmly established in episodes like Heart of Glory or Sins of the Father. Still, one can see the faintest outlines of this characteristic in Kor’s personality.

Kor seems to resent being assigned a military governor of a conquered world. “Bad enough to be a military governor,” he complains, “but to govern a population of sheep!” He’d rather be on the front lines. When he discovers Kirk hiding among the Organians, he is positively disappointed that he won’t get a chance to face his foe in conflict. “I had hoped to meet you in battle,” he confesses. When Kirk points out that rest of the universe won’t give up without a fight, Kor responds, “Excellent. Then it shall be a matter of testing each other’s wills. Of power. Survival must be earned, Captain.”

This is what happens when you try to upstage Shatner...

This is what happens when you try to upstage Shatner…

Which brings us to the whole point of Errand of Mercy, which really relies on the Klingons being power-hungry would-be conquerors. Gene L. Coon suggests, as he did in Arena and A Taste of Armageddon, the two stories establishing the United Federation of Planets, that the Federation is an imperialist power keen to expand regardless of the wishes of other members of the interstellar community. In Arena, the Federation thoughtlessly takes a world belonging to the Gorn. In A Taste of Armageddon, the Federation seeks to make contact with Eminiar VII for the purposes of securing a strategically-important space port.

Here, Kirk and Spock claim to want to help Organia, but it’s telling that the planet’s worth isn’t measured by any intrinsic value, just by its strategic importance. “Organia is the only Class M planet in the disputed area, ideally located for use by either side,” Spock observes. “Little of intrinsic value.” Much like the Federation wouldn’t have been interested in Eminiar VII for the sake of knowledge, Kirk’s contact with the Organians is solely motivated by tactical necessity.

Kirk and Spock decide to disguise themselves as Star Wars characters a decade before A New Hope is released. Ingenious.

Kirk and Spock decide to disguise themselves as Star Wars characters a decade before A New Hope is released. Ingenious.

To be fair, Kirk talks a good game. When dealing the natives, he extols the virtues of Federation membership:

We can be of immense help to you. In addition to military aid, we can send you specialists, technicians. We can show you how to feed a thousand people where one was fed before. We can help you build schools, educate the young in the latest technological and scientific skills. Your public facilities are almost non-existent. We can help you remake your world, end disease, hunger, hardship. All we ask in return is that you let us help you. Now.

It’s a nice speech, on the surface. However, there’s quite a deal of unpleasant subtext. What if the Organians don’t want to “remake” their world? “All we ask in return is that you let us help you,” is a very polite way of suggesting that the aid comes with the understanding that Organia will adopt Federation social values.

Rotten to the Kor?

Rotten to the Kor?

As Lori Maguire notes in Star Trek and History, this should seem quite familiar to any viewers versed in sixties history:

The resemblance to some of the rhetoric of the time is striking. Demonisation of communism was common in American culture, as was the idealistic presentation of America’s aims. The height of this idealism was probably the creation of the Peace Corps, and President John F. Kennedy’s description of the new organisation could have inspired Kirk: “For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps – who works in a foreign land – will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.” But Kennedy’s vision was also close, in many ways, to “the white man’s burden”: the paternalistic vision of nineteenth-century imperialism. Rudyard Kipling, in the poem from which the phrase comes, describes the mission of colonisers as to “Fill full the mouth of Famine, / And bid the sickness cease.”

Coon manages to make this set-up bitterly ironic. It turns out that, despite Kirk’s posturing, the Organians do not need his help.

The writing's on the... er... proclamation...

The writing’s on the… er… proclamation…

The revelation at the end makes Spock’s early judgement seem particularly short-sighted. “This is not a primitive society making progress toward mechanisation. They are totally stagnant. There is no evidence of any progress as far back as my tricorder can register.” Of course, it is technically true, but it says something about Federation values that such an observation has immediate negative connotations. It couldn’t be that Organia is advancing on levels that the Federation can’t perceive, they must be judged by out standards, and by our standards they are primitives.

There’s a lovely sarcasm to the set-up, as the Organians listen to Kirk’s arrogant appeals. Their replies are condescendingly patronising. “We thank you for your altruistic offer, Captain,” one observes, “but we really do not need your protection.” Later on, Ayelborne talks about Kor’s motivations as if they are entirely beneath him. “For some reason, he feels that he must destroy you, Commander, just as you feel you must destroy him.”

"Yes, I take pride in grooming my own facial hair..."

“Yes, I take pride in grooming my own facial hair…”

The only drawback to this twist is that we’ve already had far too many god-like beings this year. There were the Talosians in The Cage, Charlie Evans and his adoptive “parents” in Charlie X, Gary Mitchell in Where No Man Has Gone Before, Trelane in The Squire of Gothos and the Metrons in Arena. It’s not like the Organian reveal could be considered a major surprise. Just playing the odds, it seemed likely that they were either god-like beings or robots.

Still, it’s worth it because it so brutally undermines the credibility of Kor and of Kirk. At one point, Kor proudly boasts, “Think of it, as we sit here, in space above us the destiny of the galaxy will be decided for the next ten thousand years.” Well, he’s almost right. These peasants Kor and Kirk dismiss so easily will manage to force a peace on the Federation and the Klingon Empire which would otherwise be impossible. And they don’t do it out of altruism. They do it because they are sick of those pesky kids messing up their front garden.

Sitting tight...

Sitting tight…

There’s a nice moment towards the start of the episode, when Ayelborne observes, “What you’re saying, Captain, is that we seem to have a choice between dealing with you or your enemies.” Kirk dismisses that observation in the usual manner. “With the Federation, you have a choice. You have none with the Klingons. The Klingons are a military dictatorship. War is their way of life. Life under the Klingon rule would be very unpleasant. We offer you protection.”

However, everything is so concerned about means absolutely nothing to the Organians. They humour Kirk and Kor, but they mostly just want these whippersnappers to go home so things can get back to normal. It reminds me of an excellent line during Neil Gaiman’s Eternals run, when Iron Man appealed to the eponymous gods to get involved in Marvel’s massive Civil War crossover. The head honcho remarks, “If you saw two groups of children arguing over which of them could play in some waste ground, would you choose sides?”

Don't be touchy about it...

Don’t be touchy about it…

And the Organians are correct. Although their methods might be different, the Klingons and the Federation have a lot in common. As Morris Emory Franklin III argues in Do Not Attempt to Adjust the Picture: The Cold War Crisis of Liberal Democracy and Science Fiction Television

It should therefore be noted that aggressive beneficent help is only a disguised form of control, be it in the fictional future of Star Trek or reality. The methods the Klingon Empire and the Federation use in their colonisation are not mutually exclusive, diametrically opposed techniques. They are different points along a spectrum of colonisation. One is simply a lesser form of aggression. Thus, this episode contains more self-critical analysis than other episodes that address the same issues. It is remarkable and playful that the Federation and the Klingon Empire end up with equal amounts of culpability on both sides.

Coon was always a cynical writer, and that shines through here. Rather tellingly, when Kirk is put in tight spot, Coon has his lead resort to guerilla tactics. “History is full of examples of civil populations fighting back successfully against a military dictatorship. We may not be able to destroy the Klingons, but we can tie them up. Blow up their installations, disrupt their communications, make Organia useless to them.” In short, if the situation is dire enough, Coon suggests, our very American heroes could find themselves using tactics associated with the Viet Cong.

War? What is it good for? Quite a lot, if you ask Kirk...

War? What is it good for? Quite a lot, if you ask Kirk…

Kor even argues that he and Kirk are more alike than unlike. “You of the Federation, you are much like us,” he suggests. “I’m not referring to minor ideological differences. I mean that we are similar as a species. Here we are on a planet of sheep. Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great. And there is a universe to be taken.” Indeed, the climax of the episode has Kirk and Kor agreeing with one another about how great war is, as a concept.

There is something quite ironic about that argument. Kirk seems to resent the interference of a more advanced civilisation presuming to tell him how to best wage war. The Organians confiscate his weapons because they fear he might cause trouble and death. “I’m sorry, Captain,” they rationalise. “I cannot do that. Were you armed, you might be tempted to use violence, and that we cannot permit.” Kirk sees this as an attack on his right to self-determination.

Now I really want to see a Star Trek/Game of Thrones crossover...

Now I really want to see a Star Trek/Game of Thrones crossover…

The irony, of course, is that Kirk seldom hesitates to impose his own will over other less advanced civilisations. A Taste of Armageddon essentially cast Kirk in the same role as the Organians here, deciding that two less advanced civilisations were resolving their differences the wrong way. So Kirk took away their ability to wage war in the manner they desired. He never questioned his right to do so, so his protests against the Organians seem a little hypocritical.

Again, Coon writes Kirk very well. He’s a writer who understands that it is okay for his leading character to have a personal flaw. Kirk is still charming and righteous. His ideals are appealing. However, he is hot-blooded and prone to snap decisions – the same sort of characterisation Coon gave him during The Devil in the Dark. It’s a nuance that helps make Kirk seem more like a real character, rather than this broad heroic archetype. It’s one of the more complex approaches to characterisation that really got lost when Roddenberry insisted that the cast of The Next Generation should be perfect humans.

Klingon in there...

Klingon in there…

Errand of Mercy is pretty great, the questionable racial politics of the Klingons and the reliance on god-like beings aside. The production values are great, making excellent use of available materials to create a convincing alien world and alien race. Admittedly, some of the supporting cast are ropey – most notably the supporting Klingons with only one or two lines. Those are minor problems, though.

I continue to be impressed by the work done by the special effects team working on the remastered edition of the episode. Apparently there were early suggestions that they might add ridges to some of the Klingons, but thankfully that didn’t come to pass. Instead, the biggest change to the episode is one quick shot of an impressive Klingon fleet in orbit of Organia. Given the Klingon model wasn’t produced until the show’s first season (represented in the original episode as a swirl of light), it feels like the perfect fit for remastering. It essentially offers a glimpse of what the original production might have done with better resources available to them.

This Cold War just got hot!

This Cold War just got hot!

Errand of Mercy is rightly considered a Star Trek classic, in the midst of other Star Trek classics. It’s a shrewd, politically astute little parable, and one that still holds up remarkably well.

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

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