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Star Trek – A Private Little War (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Star Trek is a pop culture relic of the sixties. It’s possible to see the decade reflected in just about every facet of the production. The show’s costume and set design speak to the decade, as do the series’ sexual politics. The Cold War colours a significant portion of the series, reflected in the Klingons and elsewhere. The Second World War is treated as the beginning of the future, while much emphasis is put on mankind’s expansion to the stars.

Even outside of these general parallels, there are episodes that speak to particular facets of the sixties. The Naked Time, This Side of Paradise and The Way to Eden all play with the idea of social liberation. The Ultimate Computer, Return of the Archons, The Apple and The Changeling all speak to concerns and insecurities about the rapid advance of technology and the people left behind. Journey to Babel touches on the gap felt between conservative parents and liberal children ready to embrace life’s possibilities.

Make war, not love...

Make war, not love…

And then there’s the Vietnam episodes. Shows like Errand of Mercy and A Taste of Armageddon reflect the conflict in a number of ways that were not possible in the scripted dramas of the time. However, A Private Little War is perhaps the definitive Vietnam episode. Part of this is due to the script and the production, which makes explicit reference to “the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent.” With the Klingons and the Federation meddling directly in the conflict on a small backwater planet, comparisons invite themselves.

However, there were factors at play outside the control of the production team. A Private Little War was produced in late 1967. It aired on February 2, 1968. However, North Vietnamese forces had launched the Tet Offensive only a few days earlier – the campaign would land through the end of March. The Tet Offensive would end with the North Vietnamese suffering heavier losses than the American or South Vietnamese forces, but the attacks would have a devastating affect on public opinion.

"Got your nose! And, soon, your planet!"

“Got your nose! And, soon, your planet!”

A Private Little War is placed terribly. It is a reluctant justification of the Vietnam War, presenting interference in a foreign war as a terrible (but necessary) burden weighing on Kirk’s conscience. The episode closes with Kirk committing to arm the natives, even if the show doesn’t have the courage of its conviction to follow the idea to its logical consequences. For all that Star Trek is described as a liberal and pacifistic vision of the future, A Private Little War endorses American interference in Vietnam.

The broadcast of A Private Little War only a couple of days following the turning point of the public perception of the war is an absolutely fascinating pop cultural synergy – a demonstration of how Star Trek was inevitably and inexorably of its time in a way that even a few months delay between filming and broadcast could change the context of the episode so dramatically.

I wouldn't look so happy with myself...

I wouldn’t look so happy with myself…

There is an argument that the Vietnam War was the first war fought on television. Indeed, some historians would argue that it was the first war lost on television. For the first time, American viewers at home could witness the horror and devastation beamed into their living rooms from independent sources, as opposed to the the propagandists who documented the earlier war efforts for news reels and bond drives.

The Vietnam War was fought as much in the headlines as in the fields. Reporters were entrenched with both sides, documenting various facets of the conflict. Journalist (and KGB operative) Wilfred Burchett documented the Northern Vietnamese campaign for The National Guardian, with Madeline Riffaud writing for  L’Humanité. Photo journalist Eddie Adams captured perhaps the most iconic image of the war in Saigon in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the execution of a North Vietnamese prisoner by a South Vietnamese officer.

A Mugatu shoot!

A Mugatu shoot!

As Thomas Doherty notes in Vietnam and Film, advances in media technology meant that American audiences would have been treated to images of the destruction wrought by the Tet Offensive shortly before the broadcast of A Private Little War:

For twentieth-century viewers, the telecast date of Star Trek’s A Private Little War – Friday, February 2, 1968, at 8:30-9:30pm EST – must have been more resonant than the star date entered in the captain’s log. Three days earlier, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, the high-stakes semi-suicidal assault that turned allegedly pacified regions of South Vietnam into raging combat zones. Beamed by satellite from Japan, the first news images of the carnage and chaos in the cities of Hue and Saigon, thought to be citadels of American control, hit the nightly news shows of the three major networks just hours before the didactic episode of NBC’s short-lived by eternally syndicated series.

While A Taste of Armageddon had decried the coverage of the Vietnam War as nothing more than idle statistics, the images were finally filtering through. The true horror of the Vietnam War was finally being shown to the American public.

Star Trek in the wilderness...

Star Trek in the wilderness…

Speaking to The National Association of Broadcasters at the start of April, even President Lyndon B. Johnson had to concede the impact that these broadcasts were having on the popular perception of the war:

As I sat in my office last evening, waiting to speak, I thought of the many times each week when television brings the war into the American home.  No one can say exactly what effect those vivid scenes have on American opinion. Historians must only guess at the effect that television would have had during earlier conflicts on the future of this Nation:  during the Korean war, for example, at that time when our forces were pushed back there to Pusan;  or World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, or when our men were slugging it out in Europe or when most of our Air Force was shot down that day in June 1942 off Australia.

Johnson raises some interesting questions, and it is fascinating to think about what might have happened if those images hadn’t filtered out of Vietnam in the wake of the Tet Offensive. Nevertheless, they did get out. And they did make a difference.

Kirk can't see an end to this...

Kirk can’t see an end to this…

Public support of the Vietnam War dropped suddenly and sharply when confronted with the cast of the conflict:

When Operation Rolling Thunder began in 1965, only 15 percent of the American public opposed the war effort in Vietnam. As late as January 1968, only a few weeks before Tet, only 28 percent of the American public labeled themselves “doves.” But by April 1968, six weeks after the Tet Offensive, “doves” outnumbered “hawks” 42 to 41 percent.

Although North Vietnamese casualties during the Tet Offensive outnumbered American casualties by almost fifteen-to-one, the damage had been done.

If at first you don't succeed, try Tyree again...

If at first you don’t succeed, try Tyree again…

Of course, nobody associated with the production of Star Trek knew that the Tet Offensive was pending when they scheduled A Private Little War for the first week of February. After all, the United States military had been unable to make the connection between the thousands of extra trucks traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail in late 1967 and the possibility of a massive offensive in 1968. A Private Little War was an episode that had been written and filmed while the public consensus broadly supported United States intervention in Vietnam.

It’s worth noting that A Private Little War was hardly a departure for the series at this point in time. While there have been attempts to craft a consistent political philosophy from the original Star Trek, the show tended to flip-flop on various issues. While the series would condemn Vietnam in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy, it would offer support in shows like The City on the Edge of Forever or Friday’s Child.



An episode of the show could often change philosophical position between drafts, like Mirror, Mirror – which began as a story about Kirk bringing weapons to a peaceful Federation and ended as a criticism of imperialism and expansionism. Indeed, the original pitch for A Private Little War was a lot readier to condemn Kirk’s decision to arm the natives as part of a proxy war against the Klingon Empire. One suspects that the softening of the theme was part of the reason that writer Don Ingalls asked to be credited as “Jud Crucis.”

A Private Little War was produced around the time of Gene L. Coon’s resignation. As a result, the script was passed around and ultimately handled by Roddenberry. It seems quite likely that a lot of the pro-Vietnam rhetoric in the script originated from Roddenberry. Although he fashioned a reputation as a utopian and idealism, a lot of Roddenberry’s Star Trek work seems to support the Cold War as a tragic necessity for the betterment of the world. (After all, Roddenberry refused to let anybody stop him producing The Omega Gloryfthe app.)

"This doesn't really work so well without Spock, does it?"

“This doesn’t really work so well without Spock, does it?”

This suspicion is borne out by production memos. Commenting on Ingalls’ pitch, it was Roddenberry who made it clear that the show must be explicit that it is not condemning the war in Vietnam:

More important, what is the theme? Don writes best when he has a meaningful, powerful theme. What is he saying here– don’t screw up simpler societies? If he is aiming for a Viet Nam [sic] theme that certainly can’t be it. The things at stake in Viet Nam [sic] are much more important and powerful than a charitable attitude toward simpler people in the world.

That is a very troubling attitude, particularly in light of the difficulties that Star Trek has had wrestling with issues of imperialism and intervention. The series has struggled with questions of moral authority and moral relativism.

Where's your head at?

Where’s your head at?

A Private Little War is a frustratingly condescending piece of work. As with The Apple, the episode’s teaser awkward compares the planet of the week to the Garden of Eden. Remarking on the evil poisonous ape creatures that wander the wilderness, Spock reflects, “Aside from that, you say it’s a Garden of Eden?” However, while The Apple suggested that Eden was an illusion, A Private Little War embraces the romance of Eden head-on. While Kirk could not wait to shepherd the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI out of Eden, here he seemed to long to preserve it.

“Quite Earth-like,” Spock observes. “Except these people stayed in their Garden of Eden,” Kirk responds. “Bows and arrows for hunting, but absolutely no fighting among themselves. Remarkably peaceful and tranquil.” This seems incredibly patronising behaviour, as if Kirk is embracing the idea of the noble savage, that most offensive of colonial stereotypes. It denies the planet any nuance or complexity, suggesting that Tyree and his people exist solely as ideals to be appreciated by Kirk, rather than people in their own right.

An easy target...

An easy target…

Building on this, A Private Little War presents Kirk’s eventual interference in local affairs as a burden. It feels uncomfortably close to the white man’s burden, as Kirk has to find a way to manage and protect a primitive people who are unable and unwilling to protect themselves. A Private Little War is fixated on how tough this is for Kirk, rather than exploring the perspective of the people actually fighting and dying. “Not what I wanted, Bones,” Kirk mournfully reflects towards the end of the episode. “What had to be.”

It makes it seem like Kirk is the tragic figure here, the man who has to make the tough decisions. Of course, Kirk ultimate gets to fly off into space at the end of the episodes, while the residents of this planet murder each other as part of a larger conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. The episode even lacks the courage of its convictions. The closing scene has Kirk ordering rifles supplied to the natives – “a hundred serpents; serpents for the Garden of Eden.” However, we don’t get to see our heroes handing the weapons over. That would, perhaps, be too questionable.

Flowers in her hair?

Flowers in her hair?

More than that, A Private Little War refuses to suggest any alternative to Kirk’s behaviour. It is presented as the only way out of this situation. Referring to the Cold War, Kirk reflects, “The only solution is what happened back then. Balance of power.” Kirk ignores any suggestion that he might be wrong for trying to impose a rather biased view of Earth history on to an alien culture. Discussing the development of firearms by the villagers, Kirk insists that the weapons must come from another source, because the technology is advancing much quicker than it did on Earth.

“Sir, the fact Earth took twelve centuries doesn’t mean they had to,” Chekov suggests. “We’ve seen different development at rates on different planets,” Uhura adds. These are valid points. However, the episode confirms that Kirk is entirely correct. It isn’t that the planet has its own social development, it’s that Earth’s history is the “right” template for any civilisation to follow, and any deviation from that template is the result of outside interference. It is quite similar to the view expressed about the decline of the Roman Empire at the end of Bread and Circuses.

Blood on their hands...

Blood on their hands…

Nobody points out that Kirk’s interference is more concerned with the interests of the Federation than it is with the welfare of the indigenous people. After all, Kirk manages to find evidence that the Klingons are supplying the natives with guns. This would provide a basis for a complaint to the Organians, or justification for an attempt to forge meaningful peace, or public condemnation of the imperialist policies Klingon Empire. However, Kirk doesn’t do anything with the evidence of Klingon involvement, besides using it as a justification for his own meddling.

Why doesn’t Kirk try to stop the Klingons from interfering, rather than simply matching them blow-for-blow? Simple. Kirk is happy to enable a war involving foreign soldiers on foreign soil, but is reluctant to risk Federation lives. “If the Klingons are breaking the treaty it could be interstellar war,” Kirk warns McCoy. Instead, Kirk can neither cede the planet to the Klingons nor call the Klingons out. So he makes a decision that allows the Federation to oppose Klingon influence while putting no Federation lives in jeopardy. And the show sells this as the right decision.

A beast of a creature...

A beast of a creature…

The result is an episode that very clearly and uncritically condones the establishment narrative concerning American intervention in Vietnam, as H. Bruce Franklin contends:

The Enterprise visits Neural, a planet Kirk remembers from an earlier visit as so primitive and peaceful that it seemed like “Eden.” However, an unequal war has begun on Neural, with one side—known as “the villagers”—mysteriously armed with firearms, devices far beyond the technological level of any society on the planet. The villagers, who represent the official U.S. view of the North Vietnamese, have been attacking and attempting to conquer the peaceful “hill people,” who represent the official U.S. view of the South Vietnamese. Like the National Liberation Front (or “Viet Cong”), the villagers at first seem to be armed with primitive handforged weapons, in this case flintlocks. But these weapons in fact have been mass produced by some outside imperialist power, which has been smuggling them in and making them appear to be indigenous. Who could this evil empire be? The Klingons, of course, Star Trek’s analogues for the Soviet Union and/or Communist China. Their aim, needless to say, is to subvert and take over this primitive planet, itself an analog for Vietnam, Indochina, and the rest of the Third World menaced by the domino theory of communist expansion.

Thus A Private Little War promoted the official Administration version of the history of the Vietnam War—that it had begun as an intervention by an outside evil empire—the Soviet Union and/or Communist China. In fact, as millions of Americans were then discovering, the war had begun as a defense of an existing empire (France) against an indigenous movement for national liberation, and then transformed into a war of conquest by another nation attempting to advance its own imperial interests in Southeast Asia— the United States of America.

A Private Little War is an episode that seems curiously out of touch – accepting the traditional account of American intervention in Vietnam without any hesitation.

Injecting a little excitement...

Injecting a little excitement…

It is worth noting that the official account of America’s intervention had already come under high-profile criticism by the time A Private Little War entered production. Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright had popularised “the credibility gap” in 1966 while trying to successfully reconcile the official version of events and the reality of what was happening in Vietnam. In fact, it could be argued that A Taste of Armageddon was a criticism of the gap between the theoretical concept of the war in Vietnam and the real brutality of the campaign.

A Private Little War would still be questionable had it aired before the Tet Offensive began. There is a question as to whether A Private Little War ever touched on the realities of United States involvement in Vietnam, or if it simply endorsed a narrative that was easier to sell to the American public. There is something quite uncomfortable about how A Private Little War is more concerned with Kirk’s troubled conscience than the deaths of countless natives.

This is my boom stick...

This is my boom stick…

To be fair, A Private Little War was reflecting a different version of the Vietnam War than the version waging across the country in 1968 – or even 1967. As Franklin observes in Vietnam and Other American Fantasies:

Even as it was being produced, A Private Little War was anachronistic in its view of the Vietnam War, referring more clearly to the period of covert U.S. involvement prior to the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 than to the open U.S. war of 1968. Kirk even points out early in the episode that “keeping our presence here secret is an enormous tactical advantage” over the Klingons. The leader of the hill people has a wife obviously modeled on President Diem’s wife, Madame Nhu, the infamous “dragon lady”; and the fictional wicked woman, like her model in Siagon, helps precipitate the event that triggers escalation by the good outside power. In late 1967 and the first month of 1968, despite all official and media reassurances, Kirk’s policy of measured escalation had certainly not led to any resolution, and McCoy’s warnings about “a war that may never end” could not easily be dismissed.

Still, even in that context, A Private Little War seems hopelessly naive and more than a little presumptuous when it comes interference in foreign wars – a problem emphasised by the fact that the show paints the planet as a two-dimensional paradise and luxuriates in Kirk’s sense of guilt and angst rather than any suffering on the part of the natives he will never see again.

No Bones about it...

No Bones about it…

There are other mitigating factors here. In the teaser, Spock is shot. He spends most of the rest of the show incapacitated in sickbay while Kirk and McCoy beam down to the planet surface. Even when he takes command of the ship towards the end of the hour, he is curiously divorced from Kirk’s decision making process. Given that Star Trek emphasises the relationship between Kirk and Spock – and suggests that Spock’s advice is of crucial importance to Kirk – one gets a sense that A Private Little War might be trying to suggest that Kirk’s decision-making is somewhat flawed.

Of course the away team down to the planet consists only of Kirk and McCoy. These are the two American crew members, explicitly suggesting that the episode will be exploring an American (rather than an international) perspective. The fact that McCoy protests about Kirk’s decision to arm the natives raises an interesting prospect: given Spock’s defense of the Prime Directive in The Apple, would a version of A Private Little War featuring Spock have seen Kirk rejecting the advice of both Spock and McCoy completely?

Spock the difference?

Spock the difference?

Certainly, the first act makes it clear that Kirk is profoundly affected by Spock’s injury, and that he is not entirely willing to listen to reason. When the other members of the senior staff make observations and recommendations, Kirk will hear none of it. “I did not invite a debate,” he states bluntly. He then apologises, “I’m sorry. I’m worried about Spock and concerned about what’s happened to something I once knew down there.” This is to say nothing of how Kirk’s judgement is affected by the herbal remedies and Mugatu venom applied on the planet.

Of course, this suggestion that Kirk’s judgement is impaired is undercut by the fact that he is entirely correct in his theory about what has happened. Kirk is correct to assume that the natives could not have advanced faster than humanity. He is correct that the Klingons are supplying one tribe with guns. He is even proven to be correct that Tyree must fight, and the episode contrives to make sure that Tyree himself realises this by the end of the episode.

Heated debate...

Heated debate…

Which brings us to Nona. Star Trek has never really had a great track record with female characters. This is show whose final episode (The Turnabout Intruder) features a woman hijacking Kirk’s body because of… feminism! The Enemy Within features Spock (!) cracking a joke about an attempted rape of a female crew member. The franchise would gradually get a little better at dealing with female characters, but not for a while.

Nona may just be the most offensive part of A Private Little War. She is a magical shaman woman who uses sexy to get what she wants – mainly power. She bends the will of the men around her to suit her whims, which are short-sighted and narcissistic. However, A Private Little War makes it clear that Nona might be sexually-charged and power-hungry, but she’s not very smart. She steals Kirk’s phaser, doesn’t bother to figure out how it works. And then the script has her sexually assaulted and murdered so that the male characters can have a motivation for war.

And with another man's wife!

No subtext here, whatsoever.

There’s something that feels more than a little reactionary about this. Nona practically oozes sexuality. The script makes it clear that she uses her “womanly wiles” for her own ends, and the scene where she heals Kirk undoubtedly made quite an impression on any teenage boys watching. However, the show tries to have it both was. Nona is a sexual creature, but she must be punished for expressing that sexuality. The show is quite happy to objectify actress Nancy Kovack, although it is sure to be clear that she’s ultimately less important than the male characters.

There is something disconcerting about this. A Private Little War rather creepily mingles sexual kinks with sexual violence. Nona is objectified by the camera for most of the episode, and then is the victim of an attempted gang rape before being killed off by a knife to her chest. Roddenberry is sure to write a kinky borderline bondage scene for Chapel and Spock (“if he speaks,” M’Benga tells Chapel, “do whatever he says”; it turns out Spock says “hit me”) while throwing in casual references to organised rapes (“it’s hard to divide one woman”).

"She's... well, you get the idea..."

“She’s… well, you get the idea…”

In a way, this demonstrates the biggest problem with A Private Little War as a whole – the episode seems to completely lack any sense of awareness. It is a script that never seems to pause and think through the implications of what it suggests beyond the scene in question. There’s no broader perspective to the episode. It is a collection of lazy archetypes and cheap sentiments more than a fully-formed story.

A Private Little War is notable for featuring the Klingons once again. However, after Friday’s Child and The Trouble With Tribbles seemed to downplay the “yellow peril” aspect of Starfleet’s arch enemies, A Private Little War is sure to bring those unfortunate implications right on back. The arched eyebrows and bronzed skin are in full effect. It feels like a step backwards for the show, after The Trouble With Tribbles made an effort to present Klingons as working stiffs not too unlike Starfleet.

"Spock isn't reacting well to the script..."

“Spock isn’t reacting well to the script…”

Interestingly, despite earlier plans to make William Campbell’s Koloth a recurring character, Don Ingalls’ original pitch for A Private Little War featured the return of John Colicos’ Kor. As quoted in These Are The Voyages, Robert Justman apparently took exception to this:

Kirk gets close enough to the headquarters to recognise Kor. … Here we are in the outer reaches of our galaxy and who should Captain Kirk run into but good old Kor — an adversary that he has encountered before and with whom he has been unable to get very far [away from]. Just think of it — billions of stars and millions of M-class planets and who should he run into but a fella he has trouble with before. No wonder Kor doesn’t recognise him at first. The coincidence is so astounding that he must feel certain it couldn’t possibly have happened.

This is more than a little disappointing. Ignoring the fact that the universe was small enough for Kirk to run into Harry Mudd again, it would make sense for Kirk to have a Klingon counterpart on the other side of the border whose area of influence intersected and overlapped with his own. (An entire planet is not large enough to prevent Kirk bumping into Tyree again.)

"Quick Spock! Dynamic pose!"

“Quick Spock! Dynamic pose!”

So A Private Little War introduces the character of Krell, the only done-in-one Klingon adversary to survive his episode of Star Trek and never appear again.  It is easy enough to see why that is. Ned Romero does what he can with the character, but Krell only appears in one brief scene. Even then, he is little more than a two-dimensional plot function. He exists to assure us that Kirk is correct and that the Klingons are not nice people.

The Klingon agenda here seems to be relatively simple: destabilise local politics to the point where they can justify intervening and thus gain a foothold on the planet. As villainous plans go, it’s hardly nuanced – and Krell exists simply to get the point across. It is fascinating to think that the Klingons had been introduced in Errand of Mercy as a vehicle to criticise American participation in the Cold War – a two-dimensional enemy that makes it possible for Kirk to justify imperialism and war-mongering.

All fired up...

All fired up…

However, the irony seems to get lost in some their later appearances. Shows like Friday’s Child and A Private Little War play the idea entirely straight, presenting the Klingons as a race of savage barbarians that must be opposed at all costs. “So, they’ve broken the treaty,” Kirk guesses as soon as the Klingon ship arrives. “Not necessarily, Captain,” Scotty points out. “They have as much right to scientific missions here as we have.” Kirk replies, “Research is not the Klingon way.” The episode makes it clear Kirk isn’t being racist or prejudiced; he’s stating fact.

It’s a lazy way of making the Klingons appear like barbarians, but would ironically become a core part of Klingon culture across the franchise. Just ignore the logical holes it opens up. How does a race without scientists or researchers develop faster-than-light travel? How does a race that values combat above all else find competent mid-level administrators and civil servants necessary for the functioning of a society?

The Klingons are not Krell served here...

The Klingons are not Krell served here…

To be fair, the idea did come up once or twice across the franchise’s history. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced a Klingon scientist in Suspicions. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would toy with the idea of Klingon technological advancement slightly in episodes like Dramatis Personae and The Sword of Kahless. However, it would not be until Star Trek: Enterprise that the franchise seriously examined that point of characterisation in episodes like Judgement or Affliction or Divergence.

As such, A Private Little War feels like a step backwards in the portrayal of the Klingons, and one that would have a significant impact in how they were portrayed going forward. The Klingons of The Trouble With Tribbles would wind up feeling more and more like an anomaly, a strange mid-second-season oddity. To be fair, The Day of the Dove would work hard to tweak the version of the Klingons cemented here. That third season episode would suggest that the Klingons might be barbarians, but they could be decent and fully-formed barbarians.

She puts a spell on you...

She puts a spell on you…

A Private Little War comes at an awkward moment in the series’ history. This is the episode where Gene L. Coon departed from Star Trek. It is his last production credit for the series. It is tempting to write off the disjointed nature of the episode as a result of behind-the-scenes turmoil. Coon had been in charge of the series for over a year at this point. He had radically changed what Star Trek was. His resignation had been relatively sudden, and John Meredyth Lucas was being thrown in the deep end as Parmount was making its own changes to the production of Star Trek.

Lucas stepped into a tough role at what must have been a tough time. He had little opportunity to find his feet, as Star Trek was in the middle of a production run, and was struggling to hit scheduling deadlines and budget targets. Lucas would produce a few genuine classics during his relatively short tenure as producer on Star Trek, but the transition was not necessarily easy. The first two episodes overseen by Lucas were Obsession and The Gamesters of Triskelion, suggesting that the new producer had something of a learning curve in his new role.

Time for another stone knives and bear skins joke? I think so!

Time for another stone knives and bear skins joke? I think so!

A Private Little War is a point of transition for the season. While Coon oversaw the production of A Private Little War, NBC’s Stan Robertson was sending memos about it to John Lucas Meredyth, as quoted in These Are the Voyages:

We realise, John, that the episode in question was not produced by you, but, as a guideline for the future, we must reiterate our position that the costuming, the implied sex, and the forms of violence as we discussed, are totally unacceptable to NBC for airing over our facilities.

Watching the episode now, it’s hard to imagine that the script might not have been better served at an earlier or later point in the season, where there might have been more time to hammer out the various problems with it.

Wake up and smell the... whatever this is...

Wake up and smell the… whatever this is…

Still, A Private Little War is what it is. It’s a nice snapshot of Star Trek as a very particular piece of sixties pop culture, a piece of sixties pop culture that was so much a part of its time that it could become outdated in the gap between production and broadcast. It is not a classic, or even one of the show’s stronger episodes, but it is among the most fascinating.

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

4 Responses

  1. I’m surprised no one has commented on this review, but are you sure Kirk gives the guns to the Neural hill people? This is a controversial Trek point, as many (if not most) think he reconsiders and leaves without having the Enterprise beam down the weapons.

    It’s a sloppy, poorly done ending on a very mediocre episode, but I’m surprised you gloss over this point so quickly. It’s one of the most lively TOS discussions.

    • To be fair, if Kirk doesn’t give them the guns, it makes no storytelling sense not to show that decision. Kirk is not asking “should I do this?”, Kirk is asking “what have I done?”

  2. The argument is that they do show that decision. They show Kirk reconsider, by rephrasing it as “serpents” and then ordering Enterprise to immediately bring him home.

    If Kirk does deliver 100 muskets, what is supposed to have happened here? They just beam them down unattended and hope the Hill people find them first?

    To me, while it makes less sense for the over all message, the easiest read of the end is the literal one. Kirk asks for muskets, reconsiders when his senior officers push back, and then beams up to the Enterprise, which immediately leaves orbit.

    Some brief googling couldn’t find an official word on this, but I bet it’s out there. This episode used to generate the most intense Kirk arguments on forums.

  3. Once the Klingon interference was stopped, the right solution would have been to do a wide field stun (similar to A Piece of the Action) and have a landing party systematically remove all of the Klingon provided flintlock piece parts, thus restoring the original balance of power. The civilization was not yet at a point where they could reproduce the piece parts and it is doubtful whatever residual knowledge they had could have been used to recreate their own firearms for several generations and without writing, such knowledge may have been lost, again preserving the original balance of power.

    I think you are too hard on the treatment of Nona. One valid criticism is that she was short sighted and power hungry and she was ultimately willing to betray her people. But it is sexist to think that women are always morally good, they are just as capable of being morally weak as men.

    Additionally, think back to the 12th century in Europe as a parallel to Hill people civilization. Without political power, women probably did have to resort to their sexuality to be persuasive. And men did kill and rape women of those peoples they raided. I did not see her murder “as being punished for her sexuality”. Her murder, though terrible and brutal, was not out of place given the context of marauding villagers. She would have met the same fate regardless of her looks as our own terrible history would suggest.

    The murder of a wife (or husband, son, daughter) has been the revenge motive of many, many people in history. Maybe too cliche, but I don’t see it as necessarily sexist.

    Regardless of what one might think about the script or setup, I found the scene where Kirk stops Tyree from continuing to bash the Villagers head very powerful. Those several wordless seconds where they stare at each other in horror and exasperation was well filmed and resonated with me even as a kid.

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