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Star Trek – The Omega Glory (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.

Gene Roddenberry is a controversial figure who casts a fairly large shadow. It is very hard to talk about Star Trek – particularly the classic Star Trek – without talking about Roddenberry’s influence and vision. Roddenberry was fond of myth-making when he was alive, of playing up his own contributions to Star Trek while marginalising or dismissing the other people who shaped or defined the franchise.

Roddenberry is a polarising figure among fans and critics, insiders and outsiders. To some, Roddenberry was the man who created Star Trek. While this doesn’t immunise him against criticism, it does provide a sense of context – whatever sins he may have committed and whatever faults he may have had must be offset against that. To others, Roddenberry was prone to exaggerate his accomplishments at the expense of people like David Gerrold or Gene L. Coon who shaped the franchise just as much as (if not more than) he did.

Flagging trouble ahead...

Flagging trouble ahead…

While those are two extremes, they are not the only possible views of Roddenberry. There are a broad range of opinions that might be offered, and not all of them are mutually exclusive. Ask a dozen people who know their Star Trek about Roddenberry, and are likely to come up with a dozen nuanced and defensible positions on the man and his legacy. Nobody seems entirely what to make of Roddenberry and his creative contributions to the franchise.

The Omega Glory is an interesting episode, one that invites as much debate as any of Roddenberry’s contributions to the franchise.

A strong constitution to make it through this one...

A strong constitution to make it through this one…

The Omega Glory is the second-to-last episode of the second season. Given that the final episode of the season – Assignment: Earth – was very clearly a tinly-disguised pitch for another television show with the Enterprise crew as guest stars, The Omega Glory would have been the de facto season finalé. If NBC had not picked up the third season at the last possible minute, this would have been the second-to-last episode of Star Trek ever produced.  It was almost the last de facto episode of Star Trek ever produced.

And yet, it was also almost the first episode of Star Trek produced. When NBC had asked Roddenberry to pitch them a second pilot after The Cage, he had suggested a number of ideas. These included the stories that would become The Omega Glory and Mudd’s Women. There is an argument that The Omega Glory haunts both the beginning and the end of Star Trek. It is an idea that floated around for two long years before it was finally produced.

Crystal clear...

Crystal clear…

It floated quite a while. According to These Are the Voyages, Gene L. Coon had recognised the story as a clunker when he was running low on stories towards the end of the show’s first year:

Gene Coon was handed the script before the end of Star trek’s first season. He, too, was reluctant to take it on and chose to write a couple scripts of his own (The Devil in the Dark and Errand of Mercy) to fill the slots needed on the production roster when Glory and another script (Portrait in Black and White) did not meet network approval.

The script for The Omega Glory was like a cockroach. No matter how many people recognised it as a disaster waiting to happen, it continued to shuffle onwards.

"Luckily, the Yangs knew to clip the redshirt..."

“Luckily, the Yangs knew to clip the redshirt…”

To be fair, there are other examples of long-gestating ideas on Star Trek. There is a clear line of development from Roddenberry’s one-line pitch for President Capone in This is Star Trek straight through to the episode that eventually became A Piece of the Action towards the end of the second season. However, A Piece of the Action had gone through a long a complicated chain of custody before reaching the screen – with Gene L. Coon’s fingerprints all over the final product.

In contrast, Roddenberry was there for the beginning and the end of The Omega Glory. He briefly handed the script off in the middle of its development life, he promptly took charge of it again when it became clear the story was not developing in the direction he desired. According to These Are The Voyages, Roddenberry was so invested in his script that he was constantly revising and re-writing it himself. Indeed, the episode was even pushed forward in the broadcast schedule – airing between Return to Tomorrow and By Any Other Name.

Nothing could contain the awfulness...

Nothing could contain the awfulness…

Roddenberry was so attached to his original ideas for The Omega Glory that he had never bothered to update it when submitting the script to NBC for approval. As quoted in Inside Star Trek, NBC producer Stanley Robertson was less than thrilled with Roddenberry’s reluctance to re-work his script:

On March 25, 1966, prior to the production of the first season of Star Trek films, agreement was reached in writing with Gene Roddenberry that the above titled script would be placed in “inventory” and at his discretion reworked and again submitted to us at a future date for our re-evaluation. Except for a few minor changes, we cannot distinguish enough difference in the 1966 script and the script received last Wednesday, November 28, to warrant an approval. Our basic objections, as discussed at great length with Mr. Roddenberry in 1966 are still, we feel, valid.

It’s hard not to get the sense that Roddenberry was very proud of The Omega Glory, despite what Robert Justman might have claimed in Inside Star Trek.

What we've got here is failure to communicate...

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…

Of course, Justman himself was under no illusions about the state of the script. As he confessed in Inside Star Trek, Roddenberry didn’t seem too interested in changing or updating his script:

I wrote a memo in which my comments were devastating. However, not wanting to hurt his feelings, I tore up the memo and made a few suggestions orally. He took the advice, but as anyone who has seen the episode knows, it didn’t do much good.

There seems to be a broad consensus that The Omega Glory is a thoroughly terrible episode on just about all fronts, an irredeemable and inexcusable mess – particularly coming from the man who had created and sought to define Star Trek.

It was the only way to get the cast to watch the final cut...

It was the only way to get the cast to watch the final cut…

At the same time, however, it is interesting that there has been a recent attempt to critically reappraise The Omega Glory. For example, Marc Cushman argues in defense of the episode in These Are the Voyages:

Political agendas aside, lack of subtlety notwithstanding, miscommunication forgiven, Glory deserves reassessment by those who have damned over the years. This is most certainly a quality endeavour in nearly every regard.

It is a very endearing argument, to suggest that The Omega Glory has simply been misunderstood in the decades since it aired and that it deserves very serious reappraisal.

Using the power of staring...

Using the power of staring…

One of the biggest perceived problems with The Omega Glory is the episode’s chest-thumping jingoism. Indeed, Cushman quotes from his own interview with D.C. Fontana about the episode:

Somebody got nasty about it one time and said, ‘Oh, but he was saying that the United States was the greatest kind of political body.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, it’s the Declaration of Independence. It’s ‘We the People’; it’s [the] words and [they’re] beautiful words; it’s [the] expression of ideas and ideals that he was really talking about…

Again, there is something very appealing about this line of thought, as if to imply that Roddenberry’s intent had been misconstrued over the years.

Straight to the point...

Straight to the point…

Sadly, this logic isn’t entirely convincing. There’s no getting around the fact that The Omega Glory is about how American ideals and concepts are apparently the natural and correct flow for a civilisation. Tracey is deemed to be violating the Prime Directive when he assists the Kohms against these Yang ideals, but Kirk is able to instil (or re-instil) good-old fashioned American values in the Yangs without batting an eye.

“A star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive,” Kirk notes in his log – which seems just a little hypocritical when you consider how often Kirk has taken it upon himself to violate the Prime Directive. Here, Spock even calls him out on it. “There’s no question about his guilt, Captain, but does our involvement here also constitute a violation of the Prime Directive?” Spock ponders, not unreasonably.

Talk about getting tied up in this mess...

Talk about getting tied up in this mess…

Nope. Kirk is entirely and unquestionably in the right here. “We merely showed them the meaning of what they were fighting for. Liberty and freedom have to be more than just words. Gentlemen, the fighting is over here. I suggest we leave them to discover their history and their liberty.” Apparently the Yangs only have the freedom to discover their history and their liberty on Federation or American terms.

Not only that, the Yangs are apparently obligated to impose these Federation or American ideals upon other cultures. “These words and the words that follow were not written only for the Yangs, but for the Kohms as well!” Kirk advises the Yangs. “They must apply to everyone or they mean nothing! Do you understand?” They apparently must apply to anybody whether they want them to or not. The problem isn’t that The Omega Glory presents American ideals as good and valorous, but that they are treated as exclusive.

A cutting retort...

A cutting retort…

The other criticism of The Omega Glory – one related to charges of imperialism – is that the story is horribly racist. However, there are those who have argued against this. In The Limits of Star Trek’s Final Frontier, Allan Austin argues that Roddenberry is being subversive:

Ultimately, in fact, the ‘yellow’ and ‘white’ civilisations that Kirk identifies on Omega IV seem to live in a world where the white Yangs have become the Asian “other” of Roddenberry’s own earth. Cloud William latter explains succinctly – if unitelligently – that he did not initially talk because Yangs do not “speak to Kohms. They only for killing.” The Yangs, it would seem, have literally become the “yellow horde” of the twentieth-century world. Tracy describes his battle with them with horror. In one bloody showdown, he relates, the Yangs “came and came”, sacrificing lives to draw the Khoms into the open, not giving up even as their losses mounted into the thousands.

There is some merit to this argument. After all, the Kohms appear more civilised and more organised than the Yangs. What little we see of the Kohms suggests a recovering civilisation, while the Yangs appear more like savages dressed in animal pelts.

This crew's gone to pieces...

This crew’s gone to pieces…

There is some evidence to support this. Tracey refers to Yangs as “animals who happen to look like us”, evoking the racially-charged language that was traditionally used to dehumanise other ethnicities and nationalities. When Kirk is thrown into the cell with the Yangs, both Yangs attack him immediately and without hesitation. In contrast the Kohms provide McCoy with proper meals in the research lab.

However, this is a simply storytelling feint on Roddenberry’s part. Most obviously, it is Tracey who defines the Yangs as “savages.” Given that Tracey is pretty quickly established as a villain, the audience is meant to question his position. The Omega Glory tips its hand quite quickly. The Kohms are introduced getting ready to decapitate a Yang; when Kirk intervenes, they are ready to attack Kirk with an axe. We are told that the Yangs are silent, but the Kohms get less dialogue – playing stoney-faced henchmen for Tracey.

Don't be (Mc)Coy about it...

Don’t be (Mc)Coy about it…

The Omega Glory doesn’t even bother to keep up the feint for long. Almost immediately, Tracey is found to be lying about murdering “several hundred” Yangs; Kirk is taken hostage by him within fifteen minutes, and Tracey kills the team’s red shirt. As Daniel Bernardi writes in Star Trek and History:

As the story progresses, the Yangs are constructed as noble savages; their cause to annihilate the Kohms is established as justified. The Kohms, on the other hand, are constructed as brutal and oppressive; their drive to suppress the Yangs is established as totalitarian. This more hegemonic articulation of race is made evident when Kirk and Spock realize the extent to which the Yangs and Kohms parallel Earth’s civilizations. In this light, the Yangs are no longer savages, but noble warriors fighting for a just and honorable cause. They want to regain the land they lost in a war with the Asiatics.

Bernardi is entirely correct here. There is no way to read the story as less than sympathetic to the Yangs, just as there is no way to read it as sympathetic to the Kohms. The Omega Glory has clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The good guys are Americans; the bad guys are generic Asian Communists.

Wu-ing the enemy...

Wu-ing the enemy…

After all, Kirk himself refers to the Kohms as “the yellow civilisation” and the Yangs as “the white civilisation” in some staggeringly racist dialogue. Kirk quickly connects with the Yangs, while the Kohms are silent and steely – calculating in their brutality. Instead, Kirk and the Yangs bond over their mutual love of the word “freedom.” When Kirk uses it, Cloud objects, “That is a worship word. Yang worship. You will not speak it.” Kirk replies, “It is our worship word, too.” He can relate to these Yangs, not like those Kohms.

The Kohms are the aggressors, while the Yangs are fighting for their way of life. “That which is ours is ours again,” Cloud insists. “It will never be taken from us again.” Even Kirk and McCoy acknowledge that the Yangs are the heroes of their narrative. Kirk reflects, “All these generations of Yangs fighting to regain their land…” McCoy observes, “You’re a romantic, Jim.” Kirk’s final monologue might accept that the Kohms have a right to exist (on Yang terms), but the episode makes it clear they are the baddies.

No Tracey of human compassion...

No Tracey of human compassion…

And then there is the issue of Vietnam, which casts a shadow over The Omega Glory. After all, Kirk arrives in a brutal guerilla war between democratic Americans and brutal Asians. It is revealed that democracy itself is at stake – that the Yangs are fighting for fundamental ideals that need to be universally appreciated and acknowledged. While The Omega Glory takes place in a post-apocalyptic graveyard, it seems to support the Yangs rather than condemn the fighting completely.

Star Trek has a rather complicated position on Vietnam. Episodes heavily overseen by Gene L. Coon – like A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy, and The Trouble With Tribbles – would seem to reject the Cold War entirely. Episodes like that were cynical of the senseless brutality and needless posturing that came with an ideological conflict like the Cold War. However, there were other episodes where it seemed like the show embraced the conflict at face value.

There's a lot that could be cut from the finished episode...

There’s a lot that could be cut from the finished episode…

In Star Trek, Vietnam and the Real Future, H. Bruce Franklin argues that The Omega Glory is Star Trek‘s definitive anti-war statement:

The Omega Glory implies that the war in Southeast Asia, which no longer held any promise of victory or even a suggestion of an end, could evolve into an interminable, mutually destructive conflict between the “Yankees” and the “Communists” capable of destroying civilisation and humanity. True Americanism is shown as antithetical to mindless militarism and anti-Communism, and the episode rather paradoxically uses ultrapatriotic images of a tattered Old Glory and strains of the Star-Spangled Banner to preach a message of globalism.

This is certainly an appealing interpretation, particularly given how comfortably it sits with the popular narrative of Star Trek’s politics.

"It's my bridge, I'll slouch if I want to!"

“It’s my bridge, I’ll slouch if I want to!”

Roddenberry signed an anti-war proclamation published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in March 1968. In his later years, he would define himself as an idealistic pacifist – opposed to needless sacrifice and loss life in any conflict. However, The Omega Glory was originally written and plotted long before March 1968; before the horror of Tet Offensive had helped to cement public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

Earlier episodes written (or heavily overseen) by Roddenberry seemed to support the American position in Vietnam – to suggest that such conflicts were unfortunate, but necessary to help spread democracy. Roddenberry’s oversaw the re-tooling of Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever, adding a subtext to suggest that unqualified pacifism could be dangerous in the wrong circumstances. He suggested playing the Federation competition with the Klingons straight in Friday’s Child. He co-wrote A Private Little War.

They do things by the book...

They do things by the book…

The central moral of The Omega Glory would appear to be about the futility of endless generational war. After all, the Yangs and the Kohms are still playing out a skirmish that began outside of living memory, to the point where nobody seems to remember the ideologies that sparked the conflict. However, the episode seems to dismiss this towards the end. Kirk is enamored with the idea of the Yangs fighting to preserve their way of life.

While Kirk’s closing speech suggests that the Yangs need to come to respect the Kohms, it also suggests that the Kohms need to embrace the moral philosophy and political ideology of the Yangs. It isn’t a generic or universal set of rights and freedoms that are applicable to everybody; it is the American conception of rights and freedoms.  It is very hard to read The Omega Glory in a way that isn’t imperialist or jingoistic.

Oh say can you see...

Oh say can you see…

That said, there are other problems with the script, even outside of the awkward political subtext. As seems to be increasingly common at this point in the show’s run, it is very much bloated – it is a sequence of captures and escapes that eat up considerable time. Kirk beams down to talk to Captain Tracey; he is promptly tied up by the Kohms; he is then thrown in a jail cell for a gratuitous fight sequence; he is then given a gratuitous fight sequence with Captain Tracey; he is then captured by the Yangs; he is then forced to fight to the death with Captain Tracey again.

It’s more severe example of the sort structural problems that haunted A Piece of the Action and Patterns of Force, although those episodes were able to rely on a wry sense of humour and clever subtext to carry them; The Omega Glory takes itself so seriously that it has nothing to fall back on. William Shatner’s hammy performance comes in for a lot of criticism, but really it’s the only thing about the episode that seems energised or enthused. Shatner knows he’s working on a turkey, so he may as well have some fun doing it.

Let him rest; he's all tuckered out. Eating all that scenery takes a lot out of him.

Let him rest; he’s all tuckered out. Eating all that scenery takes a lot out of him.

There’s also something incredibly heavy-handed about The Omega Glory, with Roddenberry once again providing a cautionary tale about mankind’s future. As with his re-write on Return to Tomorrow, Kirk and his crew come face to face with a civilisation that has been destroyed by its own hubris. “The infection resembles one developed by Earth during their bacteriological warfare experiments in the 1990s,” McCoy observes. “Hard to believe we were once foolish enough to play around with that.”

Spock is even more pointed. “The parallel is almost too close, Captain,” he advises Kirk at the climax of the episode. “It would mean they fought the war your Earth avoided, and in this case, the Asiatics won and took over this planet.” Even ignoring the uncomfortable racial subtext of this – suggesting that Kirk’s Earth is a utopia because “the Asiatics” did not win – and the continuity issues – Space Seed had already established Earth’s brutal Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, and The Savage Curtain would soon add the Third World War – it feels a little too on the nose.

More trouble, to boot...

More trouble, to boot…

The Omega Glory perfectly illustrates how regressive the back stretch of the second season seems. The episodes overseen by John Meredyth Lucas seem to hark back to the days of the early first season, when space as a deadly unknown; the galaxy seemed to be a haunted graveyard occupied by monsters and parallel Earths. The revelation that the crew of Exeter have been transformed into crystals seems to fit with the abstract space horror found in episodes like By Any Other Name, The Immunity Syndrome and Obsession.

Similarly, the revelation that the Yangs and the Kohms are fighting in the ruins of a long-dead world recalls the other ancient and collapsed civilisations seen in episodes like The Gamesters of Triskelion or Return to Tomorrow. Even the emphasis on Spock’s convenient mental powers here fits comfortably with similar plot developments in episodes like The Immunity Syndrome and By Any Other Name, just as easily as it sits alongside the sixties fascination with ESP obvious in the show’s eventual second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before.

A captive audience...

A captive audience…

It makes sense that The Omega Glory feels like an early first season episode. It was, after all, an episode that was originally pitched as a potential pilot for the series. However, the fact that it also fits so comfortably with the episodes broadcast towards the tale end of the second season suggests that the show has perhaps regressed – that the aesthetics at this point in the run are much closer to Where No Man Has Gone Before than Errand of Mercy or Amok Time or Journey to Babel.

It’s also worth pointing out just how much Star Trek: Insurrection owes to The Omega Glory, which is often overlook and perhaps indicates that the film’s treatment probably should have gone through a few more drafts before moving on to the script. It does have a nice sense of symmetry, as Michael Piller’s final contribution to the franchise winds up owing so much to one of Gene Roddenberry’s proposed pilots.

Salt of the earth...

Salt of the earth…

Indeed, Admiral Doherty feels like a spiritual descendent of Captain Tracey, even if Doherty is implied to have Starfleet’s backing – at least in theory. Like Doherty, Tracey takes sides in what turns out to be an internal conflict. Like Doherty, Tracey is pursuing a veritable fountain of youth and seeks to exploit the native population to help him attain it. Like Doherty, this pursuit throws Tracey into conflict with the captain of the Enterprise.

“No native to this planet has ever had any trace of any kind of disease,” Tracey boasts to Kirk. “How long would a man live if all disease were erased, Jim?” He insists, “We must have a doctor researching this. Are you grasping all it means? This immunising agent here, once we’ve found it, is a fountain of youth. Virtual immortality, or as much as any man will ever want.” Admiral Doherty would make a similar argument to Captain Picard in Insurrection.

Tracey always thought that his medical officer was just an empty uniform...

Tracey always thought that his medical officer was just an empty uniform…

The Omega Glory is a strong contender for the weakest episode of Star Trek ever produced. More than that, it is the perfect storm of all the less than flattering aspects of the series – if one wanted to make the case that Star Trek was an American fantasy of empire, then The Omega Glory would be a pretty damning exhibit. It’s imperialist, racist, clumsy. These unfortunate aspects are all compounded by the fact that it is also a poorly-constructed piece of television. More than that, it’s an episode that is driven by the self-styled visionary behind Star Trek.

However, what is most damning about The Omega Glory is the sense that this was an episode that Roddenberry actively petitioned and repeatedly pitched. The script was critiqued and rejected, repeatedly, but Roddenberry never seemed to take any of the criticisms to heart. He wanted this to be the first episode of Star Trek produced following The Cage. He eventually got it made at the end of the second season. It seems that Star Trek could not escape The Omega Glory. After two years on the air, all this unpleasantness was still lurking at the edge of the screen.

"Let's get the hell out of here..."

“Let’s get the hell out of here…”

Interestingly, The Ultimate Computer seemed to point forward into the future as the second season came to a close. It foreshadowed Kirk’s character arc in the films, presenting a challenge to the ship and to the crew – forcing Kirk to accept that he may not always be a starship captain. It was a story that was very much looking forward into an uncertain future and pushing the cast into an existential crisis. The Ultimate Computer seemed to herald the future of the franchise, harking boldly forward.

In contrast, The Omega Glory hangs over the series like some grotesque original sin, proof that the show could never escape some of the flaws baked into the premise. The last two episodes of the second season were both driven by Gene Roddenberry, and were both effectively re-worked pilots. At least The Omega Glory was a re-worked Star Trek pilot. As The Omega Glory was in production, Star Trek was staring into the abyss – cancellation was a real possibility. It feels strange, then, that Roddenberry’s final two scripts were not looking forwards, but backward.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve been anticipating you penning an epic take-down of “The Omega Glory” for some time now. It was definitely worth the wait!

    Besides the extremely unfortunate racist and American imperialist overtones of this episode, this one also drives me absolutely nuts because of its sheer implausibility. Just like “Miri” with its duplicate Earth, and “Bread and Circuses” with its 20th Century Roman Empire on an alien planet, we have “The Omega Glory” featuring an alien world that somehow has developed not just Yankees and Communists, but exact duplicates of the American flag & the United States Constitution.

    At least with both “A Piece of the Action” and “Patterns of Force” there was some sort of semi-plausible rational offered for why the Enterprise was encountering alien worlds that looked like 20th Century Earth. But in “Miri,” “Bread and Circuses” and “The Omega Glory” there is absolutely nothing in the way of any sort of attempt to try to explain how any of this is possible, other than some vague comments about “parallel evolution” and such.

    I guess that Gene Roddenberry was a proponent of the “infinite monkey theorum,” the idea that if you put an infininte number of monkeys in front of an infinite number of typewriters, one of them would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Of course, as Doctor Who once observed, “Now, you and I know that at the end of the millennium they’d still be tapping out gibberish.”

    Mind you, I do find it much more of a possiblity that those infinite number of monkeys banging away at those infinite number of typewriters would inevitably produce a much better Star Trek script than “The Omega Glory” 🙂

    • Interesting you should mention the sheer implausibility of it. I’m reading Marc Cushman’s guide to season three, and the writing staff feel the same way. Justman and Fontana wrote memos complaining about the “identical earth” plot device, and vowing to scale it down in their planned third season. Even though many of those plans did not come to fruition, it does seem like this trope plays itself out by the end of the second season.

      (That said, I don’t mind it as an idea – I quite like Bread and Circuses and Patterns of Force, despite their problems. I actually think fandom underrates the latter significantly. I accept that it is a production reality, like fake caves or cardboard sets. But the execution of it in stories like Miri or The Omega Glory is just terrible.)

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