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Star Trek – Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is iconic Star Trek.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a reminder that the iconic Star Trek is not necessarily good Star Trek.

Half and half.

Half and half.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield has become a cultural shorthand for the show.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a testament to the weird influence that the dysfunctional third season has on the cultural memory of Star Trek.

Two sides of the same coin.

Two sides of the same coin.

This blog cannot accurately capture the cultural shorthand for Star Trek, being written by a life-long fan of the franchise who writes thousands of words about entire shows that have been all but forgotten by the mainstream. The perspective is skewed. What Star Trek means to fandom is different to what it means to the public at large. It can be difficult to get a sense of scale or distance. Indeed, it is tempting to read the controversy over Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness as a conflict over the popular and fan memory of the franchise.

Still, trying to imagine the cultural memory of Star Trek is a fun exercise of itself. What images pop into the average viewer’s mind when they hear the words Star Trek? It seems to be a collection of images, grabbed almost randomly. Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock. The music as Kirk and Spock fight to the death in Amok Time. Kirk manufacturing a “rudimentary lathe” and fighting a man in a rubber lizard costume in Arena. Andorians from Journey to Babel. Orion Slave Girls from The Cage and Whom The Gods Destroy.

J'accuse, Monsieur Bele!

J’accuse, Monsieur Bele!

Some of those images stretch beyond the original Star Trek show. Kirk yelling “KHAAAAAN!!!” in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, veins throbbing in rage. The franchise’s fixation on Moby Dick, perhaps an acknowledgement of its own yearning to be a formative American text. Perhaps that cultural memory stretches to the rough outline of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the cliffhanger to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I would seem to represent the far edge of it.

Indeed, the cultural memory of Star Trek is fickle and as prone to distortion as the fan memory. As every fan knows, the line “beam me up, Scotty!” was never spoken on the show, but becomes a go-to line for anybody referencing the franchise. William Shatner’s performance in Star Trek is certainly memorable, but the cultural consciousness seems to conflate Shatner’s work on the show with his even-more-over-the-top works of performance art like The Transformed Man or his unique interpretation of Rocket Man.

"I... eh... haven't yet listened to the album, Captain."

“I… eh… haven’t yet listened to the album, Captain.”

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is definitely a part of it. The episode is frequently and casually dropped into discussions of the franchise’s legacy. “Remember the futility of the mutual hatred between the half-white-half-black race and the half-black-half-white one?” asked Sneh Rupra in a piece about Star Trek Beyond published in July 2016. Steven D. Greydanus singled it out on the death of Leonard Nimoy in March 2015. Mark E. Anderson cited it as an allegory for modern race relations in December 2014.

Even viewers who have never watched a full episode of Star Trek in their lives can point to the episode as a prime example of “what Star Trek does.” It is an incredible simple (and incredibly potent) commentary on the modern world, filtered through a high-concept science-fiction lens. There is an almost fairy tale quality to the allegory here. It is the kind of example that can be used in primary discussion of racism, or that parents might present to a curious and impressionable young child. The beauty of the idea lies in its simplicity.

The Bele of the ball.

The Bele of the ball.

Even William Shatner still cites the episode as a prime example of the franchise’s social commentary and willingness to engage with social issues:

The best Star Treks had an underlying philosophy… It was a brilliant show. [In the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield], actor Frank Gorshin was half black and half white. Half black on one side of his face, and half white on the other side of his face. And he hated this other guy, who was half black on the other side — the opposite side.

And so the idea of racism, the stupidity of racism, was dramatized. And I thought that was a really clever science fiction idea.

Nearly half a century later, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield still exists as a fixture in the culture memory.

Destructive impulses.

Destructive impulses.

Even individual scenes have had a lasting cultural impact. Not only do a large proportion of viewers recall the basic premise of the episode, they also recall the twist, when Bele reveals the key distinction that exists between himself and Lokai. “I am black on the right side,” Bele helpfully explains. “Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side.” It is a delightfully obtuse justification for millennia of oppression, one that remains almost as well-remembered as the episode itself. (It helps that the twist flows from the premise.)

Even within the franchise, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield has a considerable impact. Manny Coto would establish his credentials as a dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek fan by scripting a clumsy and heavy-handed adaptation of the episode for the War on Terror era with Chosen Realm during the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise. The self-destruct sequence from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield would be used as a clear frame of reference for the self-destruct sequence in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Riddle me this.

Riddle me this.

From the perspective of even the most casual Star Trek fan, there is something perplexing about all this. It is strange to think that Lokai and Bele are among the franchise’s most iconic creations; certainly their design is more recognisable to the general public than that of the Ferengi or the Cardassians. Only two Cheron characters ever appeared in Star Trek, and only in one of more than six hundred episodes. That is a phenomenal impact for characters that are so straightforward in their design.

It is all the more ironic for the fact that the distinctive design came about rather late in the development process. Much like Wink of an Eye, this episode was developed from a story provided by Gene L. Coon under the alias of Lee Cronin. As with Wink of an Eye, the original plot for Let That Be Your Last Battlefield drew upon a more primal iconography than that which drove science-fiction. If Spock’s Brain had been an homage to b-movies and Wink of an Eye was a story about the fair folk, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield would draw upon religious iconography.

"We're detecting a metaphor, sir. It's off the charts."

“We’re detecting a metaphor, sir. It’s off the charts.”

Marc Cushman summarises the original pitch for the episode that would become Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in These Are the Voyages:

Coon’s Down From Heaven dealt with racial intolerance in a way never before seen. Satrana, a creature rescued by the Enterprise, does indeed resemble a stereotypical devil, complete with red skin, pointed ears, arched eyebrows, two horns growing out of its head, and a forked tail. As Satrana is brought aboard, he collapses on to the deck. Scott takes a look and exclaims, “Lord save us, Captain, it’s the devil himself!”

It would certainly have been a distinctive visual, standing out in a season which would later feature Abraham Lincoln as a guest star in The Savage Curtain.

The devil's in the details.

The devil’s in the details.

As with Wink of an Eye, Coon was unable to complete the assignment himself due to outstanding commitments to It Takes a Thief. As it turned out, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield would be the last Star Trek credit afforded to Gene L. Coon. He would pass away in 1973, suffering from lung and throat cancer likely connected to his smoking habits. As such, Coon would not live to see the renaissance and rebirth of the Star Trek franchise. While Dorothy Fontana and David Gerrold would work on the later shows, Coon’s involvement ended here.

Gene L. Coon would become known as “the forgotten Gene”, his involvement and influence in the franchise largely overlooked while Gene Roddenberry built up his own legend during the wilderness years. Recent reappraisals of the Star Trek franchise have been kinder to Gene L. Coon, acknowledging his huge influence upon the franchise in its formative years. However, there is something bitterly ironic in the fact that Coon’s final contribution to Star Trek should be a truly iconic episode hidden behind a fake name.

Don't you know he's Lokai?

Don’t you know he’s Lokai?

Coon’s concept would remain part of the episode, although the design of the characters would change. As producer Fred Frieberger explained to Starlog:

Gene Coon had a script that called for a devil with a tail to chase an angel with a halo …and I felt that we didn’t want to do something so “on the head.” I asked Coon if we could change it, and he said to go ahead. I wanted to keep the concept of good chasing evil, so I got Ollie Crawford, and came up with this idea of half black and half white, and I think it worked out as a pretty good  show. The program came in a little short and we had a chase that went on forever in the Enterprise to fill the hour.

Inside Star Trek credits director Jud Taylor with the “half-white, half-black” visual, although Taylor suggested that they should be bisected at the waist.

"Shield yourself!"

“Shield yourself!”

Because Gene L. Coon could not complete the script assignment, Frieberger drafted in Oliver Crawford. Crawford already had one Star Trek credit to his name, The Galileo Seven from the first season. Although the production of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was fraught, with a number of significant changes being made at the last minute, Crawford would prove a reliable writer for assignments like these. Freiberger assigned him to work on The Cloud Minders later in the season.

It should be noted that both Let That Be Your Last Battlefield and The Cloud Minders are prime examples of Star Trek as allegory. In fact, both episodes could almost be considered “Star Trek fairy tales”, the sort of iconic metaphorical stories that explore key social themes through their use of a science-fiction framework. In Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the science-fiction framework provided a vehicle to explore issues of race. In The Cloud Minders, the show would touch on class and power.

The eternal struggle.

The eternal struggle.

Crawford was a very socially-conscious writer. As he explained to Starlog, he had been blacklisted during the witch hunts of the fifties:

“Two hundred writers were blacklisted  from 1953 to 1957,” Crawford explains. “Of them, only 10 percent were able to recover their careers, and I was always grateful to be among them. People have often said, ‘How could the blacklist happen?’, but it’s amazing what can happen: what form intolerance can take, as well as intimidation. I like to think that any situation you’re involved with during the course of your life equips you to become a better person and, in my case, a better writer.”

With that in mind, it seems only reasonable that Crawford should be so socially conscious.

The colour of hate.

The colour of hate.

The analogy at the heart of the story is very simple and straightforward. Just because people look different from one another does not justify prejudice or hatred. It is a very effective metaphor for issues related to race, particularly in the context of the sixties when race exploded into a national issue after decades of bubbling away in the background. As with a lot of the third season, the simplicity of the metaphor is at once part of the charm and a source of great frustration.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield argue that “colour” doesn’t really matter. It is a very idealistic argument, and a very pure distillation of the concept of equality. However, the simplicity of the premise lends the episode an elegance that explains why it has lingered in the popular consciousness so long. It also feels somewhat reductive. Skin colour should never be used to justify prejudice and hatred, but issues relating to race and ethnicity cannot simply be ignored. That is why saying “all lives matter” is not an appropriate response to “black lives matter.”

It's not a black-and-white matter...

It’s not a black-and-white matter…

In some ways, this approach to racism is akin to the popular belief that the modern world is a “colourblind” or “post-racial” society. This is a view that tends to stem from a position of privilege, assuming that the process of stopping active overt racism resolves every lingering issue. As Zach Stafford argues:

This ideology is very popular – like a racial utopic version of the Golden Rule – but it’s actually quite racist. “Colourblindness” doesn’t acknowledge the very real ways in which racism has existed and continues to exist, both in individuals and systemically. By professing not to see race, you’re just ignoring racism, not solving it.

Still, the idea of “colorblindness” is incredibly popular, especially with young people who believe racism is a problem for the older generation and will soon die out. According to a 2014 study done in partnership with MTV and David Binder Research, almost three-fourths of millennials believe that we should not see the color of someone’s skin, as though it’s a choice. Nearly 70% believe they have achieved this and are now actually colorblind; and the same percentage shockingly believe that we make society better by not seeing race or ethnicity.

It is a laudable and utopian ideal, but it does ignore that systemic prejudice and years of oppression cannot be undone simply by ceasing to actively inflict harm upon the oppressed group.

Monomaniacal...

Monomaniacal…

There are moments when Let That Be Your Last Battlefield feels quite reactionary, as angry at Lokai as it is towards Bele. It almost suggests an equivalence between the two. Lokai is presented as incredibly self-righteous and untrustworthy; the Enterprise first encounters him flying a stolen shuttlecraft, and he responds by shrugging off the charge of grand theft shuttle. “I do not make off with things,” he warns Kirk. “My need gave me the right to use the ship. Mark the word, sir: the use of it.” He argues with Kirk before thanking him, ungrateful for the rescue.

In contrast, Bele is treated as an honoured guest during his time on board the ship, even after his attempt to hijack it. Whereas Lokai eats with the crewmen on the lower decks, Kirk and Spock share a dinner with Bele in the private mess. In some ways, the sequence feels unsettlingly close to the icky racial politics of Alliances on Star Trek: Voyager, where Janeway seems far more comfortable dealing with former slavers than freed slaves. Bele might technically be a visiting dignitary, but those privileges should probably be scaled down after trying to commandeer the ship.

Eye opening.

Eye opening.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield comes dangerously close to suggesting a false equivalence between Lokai and Bele. “What’s the matter with you two?” Kirk asks at the climax. “You both must end up dead if you don’t stop hating.” It is as though both Lokai and Bele are equally responsible for the status quo, and that there is an appropriate solution to be found at some point between the two extremes. Bele must learn to be a little less racist and less fascist, and Lokai must learn to… stop being so tightly wound.

While Star Trek gets a lot of credit for being progressive, there is also a very conservative element at the heart of the show. This is perhaps most obvious in the way that the series approaches counterculture, in episodes like This Side of Paradise or And the Children Shall Lead or The Way to Eden. For all that Star Trek is a utopian show, it is deeply uncomfortable with contemporary anti-establishment viewing points, dismissive of concerns raised by the younger generation about the direction society has taken.

Engines of progress.

Engines of progress.

There is also a much deeper fear rooted in the three seasons of the original show. Star Trek is incredibly nervous about the breakdown of established social order, as memorably expressed in the wave of insanity and violence spreading across the universe in Operation — Annihilate! The threat posed by Gorgan in And the Children Shall Lead is threat of wide-scale social collapse spreading across the cosmos. At times, Star Trek could think in quite apocalyptic terms, very much reflecting the tone and mood of the elder generation during the sixties.

To be fair, this is not a surprise. Many of the veterans working on Star Trek were part of that older generation. They had served during the Second World War; Gene L. Coon was in the Marine Corps, Gene Roddenberry and Fred Freiberger were in the Air Force. As a result, the show seemed more likely to see the sixties through that lens, as a generation who had fought tyranny in order to build a safer world, watching the sixties descend into social strife and protest marches and chaos, to see criticism of the establishment as a threat to social order.

His world is gone.

His world is gone.

After all, there was a palpable sense of apocalyptic despair running through 1968. Lyndon B. Johnson had effectively abdicated by declining to run for another term in office at the end of March, throwing the politic sphere into chaos. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in June. The Doomsday clock had been moved back to twelve minutes to midnight in 1963, but found itself brought forward to seven minutes to midnight in 1968. The very world seemed to be burning.

Following the death of Martin Luther King, there were riots in Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas, Washington and Wilmington. The following month, there were riots in Louisville. Chicago endured a second set of riots in August, when it hosted the Democratic National Convention. These scenes of urban unrest were not confined to the United States. Paris was caught in the midst of a failed student revolution in May. To American audiences, it seemed like the world was on fire and cities were burning to ground; like those inserts at the climax of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Boy, that "Stardate Armageddon" is going to cause issues when sorting chronologically.

Boy, that “Stardate Armageddon” is going to cause issues when sorting chronologically.

The third season as a whole seems more preoccupied with apocalyptic imagery. Spectre of the Gun opened by presenting Kirk with a literal ghost town in which he was cast as a dead man. Both The Paradise Syndrome and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky focus on asteroids hurdling towards inhabited planets. And the Children Shall Lead found a space ghost turning children against their parents. Is There in Truth No Beauty? cast the Enterprise out of the galaxy. Day of the Dove set the Enterprise hurdling out of the galaxy on “stardate armageddon.”

In some sense, these apocalyptic anxieties reflected the show’s uncertainty about it’s own fate. After all, this is a show that had been resurrected at the last minute, only to have its budget slashed and witness the mass departure of key creative staff. However, it also spoke to the general mood around the show, the apocalyptic dread lurking in the collective consciousness as the sixties faded into the seventies. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is the second consecutive episode to end in extinction; the third of four consecutive episodes to feature extinction as a key plot point.

Getting crewed in.

Getting crewed in.

In that context, it makes sense that Lokai’s radicalism is presented as a threat that social order and as particularly dangerous on those grounds. There is a sense that Let That Be Your Last Battlefield would rather that Lokai gracefully endure the prejudice and suffer heaped upon him by Bele than force the matter, treating Lokai’s anger (rather than the source of Lokai’s anger) as the problem that needs to be addressed. The insistence that both sides are to equally culpable seems somewhat disingenuous.

To be fair to Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the episode at least acknowledges these concerns, even if it never quite engages with them. When Bele insists that everything is better now because slavery was abolished on Cheron thousands of years ago, Lokai responds by pointing to more lingering prejudices. “Freed? Were we free to be men? Free to be husbands and fathers? Free to live our lives in equality and dignity?” Lokai avoids going into detail, but the implication is clear; Cheron had not confronted the legacy of past injustices.

Eternal war.

Eternal war.

Indeed, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is very clearly rooted in the particulars of sixties culture and strife. “Do you know what it would be like to be dragged out of your hovel into a war on another planet?” Lokai asks the crew at one point. “A battle that will serve your oppressor and bring death to you and your brothers?” It is very clearly coloured by the racial disparities of the Vietnam War:

Wallace Terry, the Vietnam correspondent for Time magazine between 1967 and 1969, taped black soldiers airing their anger in the summer of 1969. Throughout the recording, their rage is tangible. Speaking about his team-mates, one black soldier declares, “What they been through in the bush, plus what they have to go through back in the world [America], they can’t face it. They’re ready to just get down and start another civil war.” Another adds, “Why should I fight for prejudice?” When Terry inquires, “Tell me what you think the white man should be called?” a chorus of “devil… beast” erupts from the group.

Although President Johnson predicted that the Vietnam war would create a political nightmare, he neglected to foresee the racial one. The ongoing domestic conflicts between black and white Americans were reflected and exacerbated over in Vietnam, principally because the very apex of this increasingly unpopular war, between 1968 and 1969, coincided explosively with the rise of the Black Power era in America. In these years, there was a surge of inter-racial violence within the US forces in Vietnam. Discrimination thrived and, as in America, a racial polarisation arose out of this tension. Black soldiers embraced their culture as well as the emerging Black Power politics and its external symbols.

The Vietnam War was inevitably tied up into the racial strife of the late sixties, contributing to that sense of apocalyptic dread at home and abroad. Prominent African Americans critiqued the conflict, calling out the United States government for insisting that African American citizens contribute to the war while ignoring their basic human rights, refusing to acknowledge exploitation and abuse past and present.

Afflicted by racism.

Afflicted by racism.

Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most memorable example, refusing the draft on political grounds:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said at the time. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n!gger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

In 1967, Ali was convicted of refusing the draft. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $100,000. That conviction would be overturned in 1971.

Guess who's coming to dinner.

Guess who’s coming to dinner.

From the context of 2016, it is hard to properly comprehend how all of these factors associated with the sixties were intertwined with one another. However, none of this happened in a vacuum. The Vietnam War could not be divorced from counterculture, which could not be divorced from the civil rights movement. Some of those connections were literal and material, whereas some of the areas of overlap were less tangible reflecting broader anxieties and common root causes.

The Vietnam War was a transformative experience for the American psyche, both creating new wounds and deepening existing divides. There was very pointedly a class divide in terms of those called to service, with members of wealthy and influential families (or even those in college) granted deferments. Existing tensions over issues of race came to a head when African Americans were called to serve disproportionately and were killed in action in numbers proportionately much higher than whites.

Purple haze.

Purple haze.

The way in which the socio-political realities of the Vietnam War cut to the heart of American identity. Martin Luther King acknowledged these connections in a speech made in New York in April 1967:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

It could legitimately be argued that the distance of history obscures these overlaps and contours, these points of intersection. Martin Luther King’s place as a non-violent civil rights campaigner is enshrined in history; his anti-war and socialist beliefs tend to be obscured, ignoring the connection that exists.

Ringing a Bele.

Ringing a Bele.

To a certain extent, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield deserves some credit for acknowledging these complexities and connections that exist between racial discrimination and wider social concerns. Unfortunately, the episode does nothing with those powerful observations, refusing to acknowledge that Lokai probably has more of a point than Bele. Worse than that, it seems to paint Lokai as unreasonable for giving voice to them. While Bele is given time with Kirk and Spock, Lokai gives voice to that metaphorical criticism of Vietnam in an ominous.

The audience eavesdrops on Lokai’s arguments with Spock; the ship’s science officer happens to catches the discussion while passing by an open door, which is a rather strange sight on the show. Spock does not walk into the room. Instead, he waits outside the door and listens to the discussion. The camera angle is low, and the door is only slightly ajar. The whole sequence suggests that Lokai is up to something, attempting to sew dissent among the crew of the Enterprise and ultimately validating Bele’s insistence that Lokai is seditious.

Spock is all ears.

Spock is all ears.

To be fair, this stubborn refusal to explore the legitimacy of Lokai’s accusations is reflective of a larger facet of the episode. This assurance that both Bele and Lokai are equally culpable is a reminder of how shallow the metaphor at the heart of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield actually is. As clumsy as it might be, it is powerful. And there is something quite endearing about the earnestness of the moral, the argument that people really should learn to get along; even if that moral seems disingenuous to those who live with the legacy of centuries of systemic abuse.

Still, that is not the biggest issue with Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. The biggest issue with Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is that it is not very good. It is not very good at all. In fact, it is quite terrible as an hour of dramatic television. To be fair, this is something of a recurring problem with the more iconic and memorable episodes of the third season. Plato’s Stepchildren is something of a television legend, but it is also a terrible piece of scripted drama. Even Day of the Dove is somewhat clumsier and less elegant than the collective memory would suggest.

Both sides of the story.

Both sides of the story.

There is a cheapness to the third season of Star Trek as a whole, but it is particularly noticeable in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Indeed, the casting of iconic Batman! guest star Frank Gorshin in the role of Bele probably took a substantive amount out of the episode’s budget. Indeed, it seems likely that the episode’s willingness to entertain Bele and afford him a higher profile than Lokai is likely down to the need to justify that expense. Of course Frank Gorshin gets an extended dinner-table conversation with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

To be fair, it is possible for the Star Trek production team to do excellent work on a tiny budget. Both Spectre of the Gun and The Empath are great examples of the production team doing more with less. However, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield lacks that rich imagination of creativity. More than that, the budget restrictions are particularly transparent. There are several scenes in which the show seems to draw attention to its shortcomings in rather unnecessary ways.

"I just missed Lee Meriwether? When is Yvonne Craig showing up?"

“I just missed Lee Meriwether? When is Yvonne Craig showing up?”

As Fred Freiberger acknowledged, the episode came short and padding was desperately needed. As a result, there is an extended sequence of the two aliens running around standing sets, overlaid with stock footage of war and destruction, while Spock commentates. “Captain, I have located them on ship’s sensors. Bele is chasing Lokai on deck three. Bele is passing recreation room three, approaching the crewmen’s lounge. Lokai is running past the crewmen’s lounge. Lokai has just arrived on deck five. Passing recreation room three.”

However, these constraints are also obvious earlier in the episode, during the sequence in while Bele boards the Enterprise. The sequence is very clearly written as a tense space battle, with Bele outmanoeuvring the Enterprise as it tries to evade him. However, there was clearly not enough money left in the budget to produce the necessary special effects. Other episodes would acknowledge the limitation and move on, extending some dialogue-drive scenes or add a physical altercation. However, like Lokai, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield refuses to let go.

Darkening the mood.

Darkening the mood.

The result is a space action sequence in which one of the ships is invisible. The characters draw attention to this. “What is it?” Kirk asks. “Could it be a Romulan ship using their cloaking device?” When Bele arrives, Spock muses, “A most unique craft. Pity it couldn’t be salvaged for our study.” Bele acknowledges as much, using the sort of cheap handwave that five-year-olds would employ while playing make believe. “Yes. It was sheathed in special materials that rendered it invisible.”

There is a little zero-budget b-movie charm to all of this. It is hokey, but hokey in a way that is strangely endearing. The big issue is in how director Jud Taylor chooses to compensate for these limitations. Taylor is not a subtle director. His Dutch Angles on Wink of an Eye were a delightfully camp way of conveying Kirk’s transition to the domain of the Scalosians, but they were not understated in the slightest. Similarly, Taylor’s suggestion to paint Bele and Lokai half-white and half-black was ingenious, but it was not nuanced. Taylor’s bluntness could be a strength.

Somebody has to stand up to him.

Somebody has to stand up to him.

However, Taylor’s direction is just too heavy-handed. In an attempt to add drama to these shipbound sequences, Taylor opts for a dynamic approach. When the ship goes to red alert, Taylor emphasises the shift by having the camera zoom in and out and in and out from the red flashing lights repeatedly, as if worried the audience might not grasp that the red light at the centre of the frame means that the ship is at red alert. Taylor’s Dutch Angles in Wink of an Eye were overstated, but charming. These touches run the risk of inducing motion sickness.

The script for the episode is similarly clunky, leaning heavily on repetition to pad out the hour. Characters repeat information to one another. Arriving at Cheron to discover a dead world, Bele observes, “My people, all dead?” Kirk answers, “Yes, Commissioner, all of them.” Lokai does not seem to grasp this, and inquires, “No one alive?” Spock responds, “None at all, sir.” Similarly, there are a lot of scenes that never really go anywhere. The rather ominous sequence of Spock eavesdropping on Lokai never pays off. Kirk’s interactions with Bele never convince him to offer Lokai amnesty.

Charon's gone.

Charon’s gone.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield might be iconic and hugely influential piece of Star Trek, but it is not necessarily a good one. Then again, that appears to be a recurring theme this season.

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14 Responses

  1. >the ship’s science officer happens to catches the discussion while passing by an open door, which is a rather strange sight on the show.

    There was something in Stark Trek Memories (quoting Justman?) which I loved: “Spock notices a door is ajar. When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar! Doors on the Enterprise are never ajar – they are either open or closed.”

    You’ve noted previously how utopian Trek was gradually becoming at this point and I could see the bluntness of Bele’s racism as something which works in that light – for his racism to be wholly alien to a post-racial Federation. Certainly if this were season 1 Next Gen, Picard and Riker would have taken half a minute to tut-tut “the same self-destructive impulses which nearly wiped out our ancient 20th century ancestors!”

    (but given the racist shade in many of McCoy’s remarks to Spock, that one set of people could hate another based on appearance/genes shouldn’t be that hard for Kirk’s crew to grasp)

    Those 15 seconds where Bele explains the racism of his society are pretty good and sharp. Pity this episode is otherwise so padded.

    I only recently realized the Gene L. Coon of Star Trek is the same Gene L. Coon of Combat! who wrote that series’ two-parter “Hills Are for Heroes,” probably the best story in the entire series and which had a definite anti-war sentiment. Now that I know more about Coon (largely thanks to you), I can see similarities in his season 1 anti-war Trek episodes.

    • I was actually thinking of that Justman quote while watching the episode. It’s a very strange storytelling choice.

      There is a lot of clever stuff in here. Whenever Lokai makes a sound philosophical argument that abolishing slavery doesn’t mean a society is equal, for example. But there’s a weird refusal to commit to that idea in favour of a more “even-handed” and simplistic metaphor about how hatred destroys society. (And yes, the early TNG version of this episode that you suggest is easy to imagine. And it induces shudders.)

  2. Well, this episode might be dated now, but my Dad saw it when it first aired, and he said it was quite shocking. Apparently, his parents were utterly befuddled by the concept that white people could have anything to do with racial problems beyond slavery, which had happened so many years ago it surely was no longer relevant.

    • (Swap out “mom and dad” for “alt-right news blog”)

      There’s been a lot of talk recently about the Turks’ inability to face up to the Kurdish massacre. Intelligent, rational people go aggro if it is mentioned.

      Or how about closer to home: the British Conservative party is using the Scottish National Party as a cudgel to batter Labour to death.

      Is it the way with all subjugated cultures? We’ll let you join, but don’t get any funny ideas about raising your heads?

      • Well, to be fair, there’s also issues like slavery and the genocide of Native Americans in the United States.

        If Ireland had been an imperial power, we’d probably have our fair share to own up to.

    • That’s a fair point, and it’s easy enough to lose sight of, I think.

      And I do like that aspect of the episode, but there’s also this irritating desire to pull back from what was (at the time) a bold proposition. It seems disingenuous to say, “You have a point about systemic inequality, but please stop complaining about it because you’re contributing to the destruction of society.”

  3. “Satrana, a creature rescued by the Enterprise, does indeed resemble a stereotypical devil, complete with red skin, pointed ears, arched eyebrows, two horns growing out of its head, and a forked tail.”
    Oddly enough, I seen racism against my character from Star Wars The Old Republic. I played as an honorable Sith Warrior, with red skin and yellow eyes, and yet a Youtuber on one of my videos dismissed all Sith as evil for having red skin, as if having that skin color made them the automatic bad guys. But then again, I liked the dichotomy of having red skin and yellow eyes, and having none of the preconceptions effect my character’s personality.

    “Taylor’s suggestion to paint Bele and Lokai half-white and half-black was ingenious, but it was not nuanced.”
    While I agree that the episode severally missteps by siding with oppression and its favor to the privileged, there’s something about the screenshots you posted. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the still pictures of the half-black half-white character seem to speak a million words. Maybe that’s why this episode was so iconic, just the image of the episode and the concept of the idea was enough to carry the message, that watching the episode was unnecessary.

    “Taylor’s Dutch Angels in Wink of an Eye were overstated, but charming. These touches run the risk of inducing motion sickness.”
    Hey, the Dutch aren’t that nauseating. And I don’t remember any Dutch Angels from God spreading Calvinism and tulips in that episode!

    • Yep, I’d certainly agree with the point about the iconic quality of the episode. I’d go further and say that applies to the third season as a whole. The kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren. The Klingon cruiser. Kang as the iconic Klingon. Kahless the Unforgettable. The Tholians. There are so many great images here to which the franchise returns time and time again, even when those images are rooted in stories that are not great. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is just the exemplar of that trend. A bunch of striking images that can’t quite be sequenced into a good episode of television.

      And fair point about the angels! Correcting!

  4. A couple of things jump out at me about your analysis, which is, as usual, quite prescient.

    First, the cultural reach of this rather mediocre episode. In the late 70s/early 80s, this was one of the few third season episodes featured on RCA’s “SelectaVision” CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) anthology of the Star Trek series. It was regarded as important enough to occupy one side of a videodisc, itself in a collection of about 4 or 5 discs meant to be representative of the Star Trek series as a whole. Furthermore, when the MECO Company made dolls of the Star Trek phenomenon–this was about 1976, ’77, not long before the first film–as foils to the main characters they created a limited run of iconic villains from the series, and one of the figures they included was a half black/half white alien from this episode. I don’t recall if it was specifically identified as Bele or Lokai, but it didn’t matter. The visual was the whole point.

    Second, as you were talking about the apocalyptic themes of season three, plus racism and the cultural shocks of 1968-69, I couldn’t help thinking of another depiction of these same themes from a decade later: Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Set in Vietnam, but based on a source text from the classic age of imperialism–and dealing explicitly with genocide based upon racism–it’s an interesting counterpoint, deep and courageous, to this episode’s rather shallow and timid engagement with themes of racism, apocalypse and the Vietnam War. You’re certainly correct to assert that racial issues in America in the late 1960s, and especially after 1968, couldn’t be separated from Vietnam, which itself was linked with a Cold War context (and hence carried the potential, however nascent, of a world-destroying apocalypse). Vietnam was a racial war. The simplistic race war portrayed in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” dodges most of the nuance issues of race, violence and imperialism, but I don’t think they were lost on the audience. If I recall correctly this episode aired in the late fall of 1968 which was pretty much the low point of the various disasters that occurred in the ’60s. Interestingly, “Apocalypse Now,” though filmed in 1976-78, takes place at this exact same time. It might be a stretch to assert them as companion pieces, but there are commonalities.

    I absolutely *love* your analyses of these episodes and the cultural and historical literacy you bring to them. I can’t wait to read more.

    • Thanks again Sean.

      I’d forgotten that Apocalypse Now tracks exactly to this period in time, but you’re right. There definitely was something hanging in the air, to the point that Coppola could point to it even ten years later as an apocalyptic period.

      I never knew that about the home media releases of the episode, or the dolls. All I know is modern pop culture references and those that friends and family slip casually into conversation. They couldn’t identify Kang as a Klingon because he lacks forehead ridges, for example, but they’d recognise Bele and Lokai. Which is really strange, as a fan.

  5. They will never do a cheron woman
    only Paramount and CBS
    the only one they own of
    is the cheron man
    like lokia and bele
    ain’t that the truth
    I guess the fans get the other one

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