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Star Trek – The Savage Curtain (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.

Gene Roddenberry returns to Star Trek, to put the show to rest.

Two of the final three episodes of this third season originated with Roddenberry, putting paid to the idea that the veteran executive producer was entirely absent from the year. Roddenberry had departed the show at the start of the season, after issuing NBC with an ultimatum regarding the scheduling of his series. He had moved out of the Star Trek production offices and across the lot to develop his own projects. The standard narrative of the third season suggests that Roddenberry was no longer around to keep the show on the rails.

Holy space!Lincoln...!

Holy space!Lincoln…!

This is untrue, in a number of respects. Roddenberry was involved in the production of the third season, just not as actively as he had been. He was responsible for commissioning and championing a number of early third season episodes inherited by Fred Freiberger, including Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome. He had even used his remaining leverage to shamelessly try to shoehorn merchandise into Spock’s Brain and Is There in Truth No Beauty? He was also drawing an executive producer salary and nabbed two late-season production slots.

Of course, this argument also relies on the assumption that Roddenberry understood Star Trek better than anybody else. Roddenberry had created Star Trek, but he was not the singular vision behind it. Writers like Dorothy Fontana and producers like Gene L. Coon were as responsible for shaping the show as Roddenberry in many respects. Roddenberry might have talked a good game, but he was also a producer who believed that The Omega Glory would have made a good pilot for the show.

Legion of Doom!

Legion of Doom!

If anything, there is something faintly damning about Gene Roddenberry’s triumphant return to the series at the end of its third year. Neither The Savage Curtain nor Turnabout Intruder are good episodes. In fact, the best thing that can be said about Roddenberry’s two final contributions is that The Savage Curtain probably isn’t quite as bad as And the Children Shall Lead or The Way to Eden. Still, both episodes feel regressive and awkward. Roddenberry’s writing is a reminder of just how far the show had come in the care of other producers.

However, at least The Savage Curtain is memorable.

Topping it all off.

Topping it all off.

Watched in quick succession, the third season of Star Trek can often feel like a fevered dream. It is a collection of iconic and memorable images, many of which lodged in the collection subconscious and which provide a frame of reference for both casual viewers and long-time fans. The third season often feels like a set of trivia rather than a sequence of stories, a mass of back story and iconography that fleshed out the Star Trek universe while providing very little in terms of classic episodes or memorable instalments.

The half-black/half-white aliens from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. The kiss from Plato’s Stepchildren. The D-7 battlecruiser from Elaan of Troyius. The Romulan Commander from The Enterprise Incident. The space!hippies from The Way to Eden. The IDIC from Is There in Truth No Beauty? Kang as the prototypical Klingon in Day of the Dove. Memory Alpha from The Lights of Zetar. Kirk making out with an Orion Slave Girl in Whom Gods Destroy. The title of For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.

Sulu perfectly captures the sensation of watching the third season.

Sulu perfectly captures the sensation of watching the third season.

The third season is packed with concepts and ideas that are often far more memorable than the episodes themselves. Three episodes from the end of the season, The Savage Curtain doubles down. This is an episode packed with ideas and concepts that would endure for the next fifty years of the franchise, fueling fandom’s imagination and stoking decades of conjecture. There are enough ideas suggested in this episode to inspire thousands upon thousands of pages of fan fiction, not to mention official Star Trek.

Three of the characters featured as minor players in this episode go on to make appearances in later spin-offs; Kahless the Unforgettable returns in Star Trek: The Next Generation while Green and Surak appear in Star Trek: Enterprise. The Savage Curtain has a phenomenally large footprint, especially for an episode that revolves around a plot as basic as “Kirk and Spock get involved in a Star Trek version of celebrity death match.” Its influence is keenly felt on the rest of the franchise, providing a lot of what modern audiences would call “world-building.”

"Doctor McCoy, make sure that the messhall hasn't been serving any more of those space!hippie brownies again."

“Doctor McCoy, make sure that the messhall hasn’t been serving any more of those space!hippie brownies again.”

“World-building” is a particular fascination for science-fiction, largely owing to the fact that many science-fiction stories unfold on planets or in times imaginary (or conjectural) to readers. It is not so much that other genres neglect the art of building a world, simply that they approach it in a different manner. As Brian McHale argues in En Abyme:

What science-fiction is particularly self-conscious about, moreover, is world-building. All fictions, of all genres, build worlds, of course – it is a minimal condition for their being considered fictions at all – but many types of fiction are obliged by genre convention to dissimulate their world-building, to pretend that their worlds are found, not made. Science fiction, by contrast, flaunts its world-building operations. It does so sometimes by conducting these operations in plain sight of the reader, through explicit exposition, and at other times by calling on the reader to undertake more or less complex inferential work – world-building by implication.

Star Trek built a world quite skilfully, laying out a blueprint in this original three-season run that would support hundreds of hours of spin-offs and a feature film franchise, to say nothing of licensed tie-in material. In short, Star Trek managed to build quite a world, one that is surprisingly robust and enduring. At times, it occasionally even seems like the writers might get lost inside that world.

Spearheads from space.

Spearheads from space.

Jeff Prucher’s Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction traces the modern use of the term back to the publication of Richard A. Lupoff’s Master of Adventure in 1965, but the concept predates that example by quite some margin. Lupoff was applying the phrase to the fiction of pulp writer Edgar Rice Borroughs, who wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. Other great examples include fantasy authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. However, the term’s cultural cache has increased significantly in the twenty-first century, as “franchises” and “universe” have become standard.

To be fair, Roddenberry was not the first writer to insist on world-building in Star Trek. Indeed, the early episodes of the show overseen by Roddenberry are notable for their relative lack of coherence; the crew never seems to know for whom they are working from week to week, while Vulcan is described as subjugated world at one point. It was only really with Gene L. Coon as producer and Dorothy Fontana that there came to be some measure of continuity between episodes and stories. (The Enterprise Incident is a great example of organic world-building.)

Rocking their world.

Rocking their world.

Roddenberry’s approach to world-building was remarkably heavy-handed, in that The Savage Curtain literally dumps out a set of “defining” figures from three major Star Trek cultures through the plot device of a fight to the death between the forces of good-and-evil. It is not an approach that feels especially natural, not one that flows smoothly in the way that D.C. Fontana’s characterisation of the Romulans in The Enterprise Incident does or the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fleshes out its Cardassian characters.

There is something inelegant in the way that The Savage Curtain just dumps out a whole host of key figures into the narrative, as if acting like a collection of footnotes to the franchise. The Klingons seem to be a pretty iconic part of Star Trek, so here is Kahless the Unforgettable resurrected without any context. The Vulcans had to have learned logic from somebody, so here is Surak. Star Trek has repeatedly and heavily implied that mankind had a pretty rough time of it in the later twentieth century, so here is Colonel Green.

Mean Green Machine.

Mean Green Machine.

In some ways, Roddenberry’s approach to world-building (in contrast with that of Coon or Fontana) speaks to his interests as a writer. Roddenberry’s interest in science-fiction is very old-school, as reflected in his writing. After all, Roddenberry had been very insistent that Star Trek feel like classic science-fiction, to the point of courting established and veteran science-fiction writers like Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison to write for the show. His influence would have been classic literary science-fiction, devoting pages to exposition and world-building.

This hints at one of the more interesting facets of Roddenberry, particularly in terms of the contrast between the mythology and the reality. The mythology of Roddenberry casts the writer as a progressive and liberal, somebody genuinely interested in new ideas and a better future. There is certainly ample evidence to support this reading, particularly in his later years. Indeed, Roddenberry’s novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture comes close to being a utopian manifesto. However, there is also something very conservative in Roddenberry’s writing style.

"Captain, I certainly hope we can dedicate at least the first two acts to your protocol for visting heads of state from countries that no longer exist."

“Captain, I certainly hope we can dedicate at least the first two acts to your protocol for visiting heads of state from countries that no longer exist.”

This conservatism is sometimes political in nature, as demonstrated by his scripts for A Private Little War or The Omega Glory. However, this conservatism was also reflected in his writing style and how he approached concepts like world-building. Roddenberry is particularly interested in detail and procedure as a way of making the world seem more tangible, perhaps reflecting his own military and law enforcement background. As Josh Marsfelder observes:

This is maybe Roddenberry’s fatal flaw as both a writer and a person: His positionality granted him a reverence for both the nuts-and-bolts of military procedure and of pulp science fiction, and he was frequently too self-absorbed and arrogant to realise that simply would not gel with the utopian idealism he rightly came to respect and value in Star Trek, and would not let anyone tell him otherwise. His further conflation of Star Trek’s idealism (really, the idealism of the Enterprise and her crew) with the idealism of the Federation and its world-building minutiae, a fallacy shared by the overwhelming majority of his fans, reveals the problem with science fiction and larger genre fiction writ large: Roddenberry thought the details and trappings were more important than the ideas (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he thought they were one and the same), and that’s what blinded him to how much he hamstrung and held back Star Trek in spite of his noble intentions.

The Savage Curtain is a great example of this. The episode takes a surprising amount of time to get to the pulpy “Star Trek celebrity death match” premise, spending a significant amount of time on the processes and procedures that the Federation has in place for greeting an artificial construct of the sixteenth president of the United States. The episode revels in the dress uniforms and salutes, the diplomatic greeting and the guided tour.

"You know, we'd solve this a lot quicker if we hadn't all had to go and get changed into our dress uniforms."

“You know, we’d solve this a lot quicker if we hadn’t all had to go and get changed into our dress uniforms.”

Then again, the opening premise of “Captain Kirk meets Abraham Lincoln” is perhaps interesting enough to merit a few minutes of airtime by itself. Indeed, the most striking image of The Savage Curtain has nothing to do with Colonel Green or Kahless the Unforgettable. It is the teaser, which finds the Enterprise hailed by none other than President Abraham Lincoln. More than that, it gets hailed by President Abraham Lincoln positioned exactly like the Lincoln Memorial and seemingly floating in space.

It is an absurd image, one of the most ridiculous images in the fifty-year history of the Star Trek franchise. It is a moment that is easily mocked, to the point that it is almost impossible to do the image justice through description. The very concept of “Kirk meets Lincoln” is silly enough on its own terms, but nothing can prepare the viewer for the experience of sitting down, staring at the television set and watching an apparition of Lincoln who appears to fly through space on a rocket-propelled chair in his most iconic of poses.

Lincoln... IN SPAAAACE!

Lincoln… IN SPAAAACE!

However, for all the absurdity, there is a lot to like about that image. Again, it is a reminder of just how iconic the third season of Star Trek can be, even when the show was hardly firing on all the thrusters. “Space rocket chair Abraham Lincoln!” has not latched on to the public consciousness in quite the same way that Bele and Lokai from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, but it is an unforgettable image. No modern television show hoping to be taken seriously would attempt such a thing. However, there is an earnestness to the scene that is strangely appealing.

In many ways, this is both the strongest and the weakest aspect of Roddenberry’s writing. There is a sense that Roddenberry genuinely believes in what he is writing, and there is a complete lack of cynicism or irony to his work. In real life, many of Roddenberry’s decisions were highly questionable, from casting his mistress in a leading role in The Cage through to trying to shoehorn a piece of merchandise into Spock’s Brain and Is There in Truth No Beauty? through to drawing down an executive producer’s salary from a show that he knew to be in financial trouble while remaining distant.

The Green team.

The Green team.

However, there is very little irony or self-awareness in Roddenberry’s writing. The Savage Curtain is a great example of this. The first act effectively amounts to Roddenberry gushing over Lincoln through the character of James Tiberius Kirk. Roddenberry’s affection for the sixteenth president feels entirely genuine; after all, his mail-order company was called “Lincoln Enterprises” and Roddenberry’s interest in concepts like equality and utopian thinking suggest that Lincoln was always going to be a subject of fascination.

As strange as these early sequences are, there is something endearing about them. Kirk seems genuinely chuffed to have the opportunity to shake the hand of Lincoln, even though he is well aware that it cannot be the real Lincoln. Kirk pulls out all the stops, has his crew change into dress uniforms, and extends every courtesy to the being claiming to be Lincoln. Although the dialogue is suitably clunky and Lincoln seems like he wandered in from a postcard version of the nineteenth century, there is a certain hokey charm to the episode’s Lincoln worship.

All President and accounted for.

All President and accounted for.

Interestingly, actor Mark Lenard was reportedly considered for the role of Lincoln. That would have been some interesting casting, if only because Lenard would have the played a different (and very distinctive) character in each of the show’s three seasons. Sadly, as Lenard told Starlog, it was not to be:

“I was doing a series at the time called Here Come The Brides in which I played 80-year-old Aaron Stemple, the resident bad guy/rich man. The Lincoln  segment came up about Christmas time when we had a slight hiatus, and I thought I could work it in. I had already played two roles on Star Trek and they were well received. But it turned out we just couldn’t work it in. I think we went back to work on the other series too soon, and instead of having the six or seven  days I would have needed to do the role, I only had three or four days.”

It is a shame, because it would have fueled years of fans (and pundits) tying Spock’s father together with one of the most beloved presidents of the United States; the juxtaposition would have been fascinating. Sadly, it was not to be.

All the President's men... and Vulcans.

All the President’s men… and Vulcans.

The veneration of Lincoln in The Savage Curtain serves to demonstrate Roddenberry’s limitations as a writer. Everything in the episode is drawn broadly, as one might expect in an episode about how an incredibly powerful alien has decided to explore the concepts of good and evil by staging an elaborate brawl using exemplars of each. This is an episode that assumes there is such a thing as absolute good and absolute evil, and that those two forces can be thrown together into a fist fight that will decide once and for all which idea is stronger.

The obvious inference from all of this is that the Excalbians (and Gene Roddenberry) have determined that Abraham Lincoln is an absolute good, that the sixteenth president stands as the very embodiment of virtue. The truth is naturally more complex than that. Lincoln is one of the most important Presidents of the United States. He is one of the nation’s most beloved leaders, whether among historians or political scientists or the public at large. However, he was not absolutely and unquestionably good.

"Captain, why did you suggest I put on a red shirt before beaming down?" "No reason, Mister President."

“Captain, why did you suggest I put on a red shirt before beaming down?”
“No reason, Mister President.”

Lincoln was a leader who was arguably more pragmatic than principled. Lincoln was responsible for suspending habeas corpus, the foundation of any democratic legal system. Lincoln deported his political opponents without due process. Lincoln arranged for the arrest of “irresponsible” journalists and the shuttering of newspapers critical of his administration. During the Civil War, the Union was responsible for any number of highly questionable acts. The conditions at Camp Douglas in Chicago were barbaric.

Lincoln becomes even more problematic in terms of race. Lincoln genuinely believed that white and black Americans were incapable of living together peacefully. Lincoln supported an original draft of the Thirteenth Amendment that would have prevented the North from outlawing slavery in the South. Lincoln wanted to deport freed slaves to British colonies. Lincoln was responsible to dislocating the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from New Mexico, forcing them on an almost five-hundred mile march to their reservation in Bosque Redondo.

Whether or not he really is Lincoln is ultimately immaterial.

Whether or not he really is Lincoln is ultimately immaterial.

It is possible to qualify these criticisms. Lincoln did preserve the Union. Lincoln was a product of a different time. The Civil War truly was a singular moment in the history of the United States, and it is a minor miracle that the country survived the experience. Lincoln was a very important figure, who was responsible for a lot of great things and who defined his country. However, it is up to the given individual to weigh these various facets of Lincoln against one another; to decide how the scales balance in this case, if they can be balanced at all.

The Savage Curtain buys completely into this idea of Abraham Lincoln as the Platonic ideal of leadership. “I cannot conceive it possible that Abraham Lincoln could have actually been reincarnated,” Kirk confesses in his log at the start of the episode. “And yet his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humour, everything about him is so right.” Lincoln’s biggest flaw in the episode is his use of the term “negress.” While clumsy and awkward, it is certainly not the worst word that Lincoln ever used to describe an African American.

"Quick, reverse course before Nixon shows up."

“Quick, reverse course before Nixon shows up.”

The portrayal of Lincoln in The Savage Curtain in some ways distills the character down to his most iconic attributes. Lincoln is funny, rugged, dynamic, charming. He even arrives with a top hat. If the audience at home were asked to conjure up a version of Lincoln from their imagination, it would likely resemble the version of the character who befriended Kirk in The Savage Curtain. To borrow a reference from another iconic part of the American popular mythology, Roddenberry has very much decided to “print the legend.”

In fact, the version of Lincoln introduced in The Savage Curtain is so very close to the popular conception of Lincoln that some people have trouble distinguishing this iteration from the real deal. space!Lincoln’s observation that “there is nothing good in war except its ending” has been repeatedly attributed to the real Abraham Lincoln. Governor George Ryan famously cited it in his address to Northwest University College of Law in January 2003. Israeli television host Bar Refaeli made the same error in July 2014.

Peak performance.

Peak performance.

The truth is that the real Lincoln was not absolutely perfect. The truth is that “absolute good” does not actually exist, and the belief that it can take human form is potentially dangerous. A willingness to critically engage with the past is necessary if a society is to move forward. The only way to improve is to interrogate the past, and accept that things were never (and still are not) perfect. The notion of “absolute good” cannot be treated as something tangible, but instead must be seen as an aspiration; it is a journey, and not a destination.

If Lincoln is the episode’s conception of absolute and unquestioning good, it is worth reflecting on the depiction of absolute evil. With the notable exception of Colonel Green, there is an uncomfortably racial subtext to the foes assembled to oppose our heroes. Genghis Khan is treated as the worst human ruler in history, ahead of other obvious candidates like Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. The episode’s most underdeveloped antagonist is Zora, who is presented as an Asian caricature with yellow skin and arched eyebrows.

Yes we Khan.

Yes we Khan.

And then there is Kahless the Unforgettable. Day of the Dove worked very hard to suggest that the Klingons were a fully-formed culture, that they were a society with their own moral values and social codes. Kang was the first Klingon who seemed like a truly decent person, a fleshed-out character who existed as more than just an opponent for Kirk. Day of the Dove would inform the development of Klingon culture in later stories like Heart of Glory or Sins of the Father. However, Gene Roddenberry seems to have missed that particular memo.

The Savage Curtain seems to operate upon the assumption that the Klingons are incontrovertibly and undeniably evil. Kahless the Unforgettable is simply the blueprint model for Klingon treachery and violence. He is introduced as “the Klingon who set the pattern for his planet’s tyrannies.” There is no room for nuance here. Kahless is completely evil, and the Klingons are completely evil. By that logic, if Lincoln is completely good, does that mean that the United States is completely good? After all, Colonel Green’s origin is left decidedly ambiguous.

"The Kahless said, the better."

“The Kahless said, the better.”

All of this leads to a gloriously ridiculous and corny battle royale between the forces of good and the forces of evil. To be entirely fair to Roddenberry, he was not entirely responsible for the episode’s climax. As Arthur Heinemann explained to Starlog:

“Gene Roddenberry wrote half a script,” recalled Heinemann, “and I don’t know if he couldn’t figure out how to end it or got tired and had other things to do. He was in and out of the show at the time. His script was handed to me and I wrote the last two acts, and rewrote some of the first two.

“I thought it was interesting, because the four greatest heroes in the history of the  universe were put up against the four worst. How could you end that thing except by having them fight? I tried to inject some sort of moral underpinnings to it by saying that  the good guys were fighting for the safety of  other people, whereas the bad guys were just fighting for the sake of fighting, for the  game. It was written toward the season’s end, and the final fight was supposed to take  place in a huge canyon, but they figured the daylight hours at the time weren’t long enough to shoot on location. So, they had to build rocks out of canvas and paint, and nobody could climb on them because you  would fall through. Maybe it was the only way to do it. Who knows?”

Still, it is not very hard to reconcile the climax of The Savage Curtain with Roddenberry’s other work. Episodes like A Private Little War and The Omega Glory had made it clear that Roddenberry believed that sometimes it was necessary for good to fight evil on its own terms.

... and carry a big stick.

… and carry a big stick.

After all, Roddenberry had repeatedly condemned outright pacifism through his work on Star Trek. Although nominally about the necessity of the Second World War, Roddenberry’s rewrite of The City on the Edge of Forever was also a defense of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. As far as Roddenberry was concerned, there were cases where the ends justified the means, when violence and aggression had to be met in kind by those with the power to act. Roddenberry seemed skeptical of pacifism.

The Savage Curtain shares this view. The forces of good are represented by Surak and Lincoln. Lincoln is presented as a pragmatic hero, a man willing to lead a war in pursuit of what he believes to be right. In contrast, Surak is presented as a true pacifist. He is a man who abhors violence and believes that peaceful resolution can be found. Surak would have the members of his team line up like lambs to the slaughter, marching into the enemy’s den in the hope that they might broker a meaningful peace.

"Peace in our time."

“Peace in our time.”

Naturally, Kirk sees that this approach cannot work. When Surak explains how his methods brought peace to Vulcan, Kirk simply responds, “Circumstances were different then, Surak.” Surak offers a principled objection, stating, “The face of war has never changed, Captain. Surely it is more logical to heal than kill.” Kirk is insistent, “I’m afraid that kind of logic doesn’t apply here.” However, Surak steadfastly refuses to compromise. “I will not harm others,” he states simply. It is a laudable idea.

However, Surak’s brand of pacifism is no match for true evil. Surak leaves to negotiate with the enemy, but is brutally murdered for his efforts. More than that, his attempt to negotiate is cleverly manipulated by Colonel Green. Kahless imitates Surak to call for help. Begging for help from Kirk and Spock in the voice of Surak, Kahless is able to lure Abraham Lincoln into a trap. The logic in all this is quite clear. Surak’s pacifism is a danger to everybody, not just to himself. It is a rather bleak and cynical message for a future Roddenberry would describe as utopian.

"I take my hat off to you, sir."

“I take my hat off to you, sir.”

To be fair, The Savage Curtain does temper its criticisms of Surak. It is clear that Roddenberry has some measure of sympathy for pacifism as a political doctrine. “Your Surak is a brave man,” Kirk confesses to Spock. Spock agrees, “Men of peace usually are, Captain. On Vulcan, he is revered as the father of our civilisation.” When Kahless imitates Surak so that he might lead the three remaining heroes into a trap, Spock at least credits Surak with more integrity. “A Vulcan would not cry out so.” Surak would not betray them as such.

Still, there is something uncomfortably absolutist in the way that The Savage Curtain embraces the idea of pure good and pure evil, arguing that anything that absolute good has to do in order to triumph over absolute evil can be justified as a necessary evil. This is the logic that underpins many of the show’s deeply uncomfortable Cold War episodes like Friday’s Child or A Private Little War or The Omega Glory, stripped back to its purest philosophical essence and expanded across forty-odd minutes of television. It is unsettling.

Spock ad-dresses the issue.

Spock ad-dresses the issue.

It is another example of how Roddenberry seemed to view the Star Trek universe in black-and-white, in contrast to many of the other better writers who had fleshed it out and developed it. As Eric Greene argues in The Prime Question, it is interesting to compare the version of Kirk written by Roddenberry to that written by Coon:

Roddenberry’s version of Kirk here was consistent with his Kirk in A Private Little War, who saw no solution but escalation. And yet this Kirk was a stark departure from the more resourceful and courageous Kirk who, in Gene Coon’s hands, found a way not to kill the Gorn in Arena, the Horta in The Devil in the Dark and Earp in Spectre of the Gun, who declared in A Taste of Armageddon that “We can admit that we’re killers, but we won’t kill – today.” It was Coon’s Kirk who so often ingeniously managed to “trick his way out of death” – who, fifteen years later, would so famously reject that “no-win scenario” and change the conditions of the test. By contrast, the Kirk in The Savage Curtain passively accepted the rules that had been made for him. When told he must kill or be killed, he killed. Put bluntly, Gene Roddenberry’s Kirk lacked the moral imagination of Gene Coon’s Kirk.

It is a reminder of the nuance that Gene L. Coon brought to the character of James Tiberius Kirk; a man who struggled with his own darker impulses in episodes like Errand of Mercy. In contrast, Gene Roddenberry’s script afford Kirk little opportunity for introspection or reflection; Kirk does what needs to be done, and never doubts.

Ready and Abe-l.

Ready and Abe-l.

That said, there are some interesting elements to The Savage Curtain. One of the episode’s more underdeveloped ideas is a criticism of contemporary lowest common denominator television. Television was a subject of great interest to Roddenberry, who was frequently involved in very high-profile struggles with NBC and had already incorporated those struggles into his script for Bread and Circuses. Some of those same ideas play through into The Savage Curtain, with the suggestion that the Excalbians are effectively staging their own entertainment.

The theme is never properly explored, but it is definitely there. “Before this drama unfolds, we give welcome to the ones named Kirk and Spock,” the Excalbian boasts, putting an emphasis on the performative aspect of the conflict. Kirk responds by repeating the descriptor “drama”, inquiring, “What do you mean drama about to unfold?” The Excalbian treats the entire world like set, asking,  “You’re intelligent life form, but I’m surprised you do not perceive the honour we do you. Have we not created in this place on our planet a stage identical to your own world?”

Rocking their world...

Rocking their world…

There is something decidedly postmodern in all of this. When the Excalbian refers to the “planet” as a “stage”, he is entirely correct; the whole show is filmed on a set. When the Enterprise watch the drama through the viewscreen, they are cast in the role of the audience at home. As the villains sneak up behind Kirk, Sulu jumps right out of his chair as if the characters on screen might hear him. “Captain!” Sulu gasps. “How can we warn him?” There is an emphasis on the crew as observers, and on Kirk as an actor.

In many respects, this is a recurring theme bubbling through the third season as a whole. The third season is fascinated with the idea of performance and theatricality. Kirk is cast as Ike Clanton on what looks like a half-built set in Spectre of the Gun. The Dohlman must learn to act like a lady in Elaan of Troyius. The abstract sets in The Empath are theatrical. Kirk and Spock are treated as actors or props in Plato’s Stepchildren. Garth of Izar plays various roles and stages his own coronation in Whom Gods Destroy. The audience staring in The Mark of Gideon.

"He's behind you!"

“He’s behind you!”

This metaphor and social commentary was more pointed in Roddenberry’s original outline for the episode, as quoted in These Are the Voyages:

The “Thing” has faceted insect eyes, strange fur, talons, etc. It speaks and introduces itself as “THE PLAYWRIGHT.” And from it, Kirk and Spock learn that they are here as part of a strange but very real drama which is now ready to begin. More than simply amusement, this alien form of theatre is the way in which the inhabitants of this planet get their knowledge, study other forms of life, educate their young, and decide what is usable and what is false in “alien” philosophies such as represented by the group of “actors” now on stage.

In the original outline, the idea that the Excalbians are staging their own version of network television is much more pronounced than in the broadcast version of the episode.

Planet terror.

Planet terror.

Of course, there is something quite muddled in the metaphor at the heart of The Savage Curtain. The episode never entirely condemns the Excalbians for staging such a brutal and sadistic form of theatre. After all, Kirk does not subvert or undermine their expectations like he did in Arena or Spectre of the Gun. Instead, Kirk plays along and everything works out for the best. Good is proven to be stronger than evil through brute force, which almost serves to justify staging the conflict in this manner.

Indeed, if The Savage Curtain is to be considered a criticism of network television, then it is also a criticism of Star Trek itself. After all, the Excalbians bring Kirk to the planet so that he might impart a valuable moral lesson to them through a theatrical display. “We offer you an opportunity to become our teachers by demonstrating whether good or evil is more powerful,” states the Excalbian. Isn’t this exactly what Star Trek does at its most philosophical? Josh Marsfelder very effectively summarises the franchise’s approach to social issues as “children’s television for adults.”

Sticking it out.

Sticking it out.

This sense of confusion is perhaps reflected in the rather sterile nature of the violence on display. The Excalbians never seem like monsters because they never actually kill anybody. They threaten to kill Kirk and Spock, not to mention the Enterprise. However, the characters who actually die are all artificial constructs. It is suggested that the “actors” like Lincoln and Green are actually fashioned from rock, little more than puppets in some crooked entertainment. The Excalbians never hurt anybody and they learn a lesson? Where’s the harm in that?

This is reinforced by the rather tame nature of the violence on display in The Savage Curtain. The episode seems to revel in the action as much as the Excalbians, which makes any attempt at criticism seem shallow and hypocritical. More than that, the actual violence on display is fairly tame; even by the standards of the original Star Trek. There is nothing in The Savage Curtain quite as visceral as the fight between Kirk and Khan in Space Seed or Kirk and Spock in Amok Time. It all feels very tame, almost like playing.

"Spock, when you record this in your log, please don't mention that I got Lincoln killed. Again."

“Spock, when you record this in your log, please don’t mention that I got Lincoln killed.”

To be entirely fair to Roddenberry, the writer actually vocally advocated for more powerful portrayals of violence on television as part of his larger objections to violence in real life. He told Penthouse:

I’m not against violence. I think violence is a part of our life and our world. I’m against its being used for violence’s sake, improperly motivated and improperly depicted. I am not against depicting a fight between two men in which one man gets hit in the mouth by the other man because that is part of the life we lead and that is a dramatic subject and can be part of a statement you’re making. What I am against is the fact that in a typical Western a guy gets hit in the mouth and he reels back and he hits the other guy in the mouth and they go at it. I know from my own life, when a large man hits another man full in the mouth with his fist, teeth are going to break, lips are going to be cut open, and I think if this happened the ugliness of it would tend to eliminate violence.

Of course, The Savage Curtain is nowhere near as violent as all that, owing to network censorship and contemporary sensibilities. But the point stands; Roddenberry was not himself opposed to violence as a tool of commentary.

Klingon to power.

Klingon to power.

To be fair to Roddenberry, he has a legitimate point. Television and film frequently sanitise violence so as not to upset audiences at home. Violence is considered quite acceptable in family entertainment, much moreso than sexuality. However, the violence favoured for these sorts of films is inevitably clean and death is quick. Gunshot wounds are not messy in these films and television shows, there is no lingering upon the consequences of these acts. Audience members are encouraged to accept violence as something with which they might be comfortable.

To pick an example, The Hunger Games features a young girl is impaled with a spear, but who dies in a clean and respectable manner. The scene is shot and edited so as to ensure minimum discomfort for the audience watching the film, ignoring the fact that such a death should be visceral and shocking and nightmare-inducing. It should be harrowing and unsettling, rather than something that is normalised. It is interesting to wonder, for example, if the place of the gun in American popular mythology has some correlation to the country’s high levels of gun crime.

Putting the "man" in Emancipation Proclamation.

Putting the “man” in Emancipation Proclamation.

If The Savage Curtain is to play as a criticism of violence in media, it needs to be willing to commit to the idea. Instead, The Savage Curtain occasionally feels like a very strange live-action role-play in which a variety of players have decided to show up as classic Star Trek characters and figures from world history. There is a certain goofy charm to the idea, but certainly not enough to exist the weight that is hung on the idea either as statement on the eternal battle between good and evil or as a criticism of contemporary television.

The Savage Curtain is also notable for Roddenberry’s decision to firmly embrace the utopian themes bubbling through the third season as a whole. The first two seasons of Star Trek were not necessarily utopian in outlook; mankind had survived into the twenty-third century, but there were still problems to solve and challenged to face. In contrast, the third season adopted a much more optimistic outlook, repeatedly suggesting in episodes like The Empath and Day of the Dove that mankind had evolved to a point where every problem had been resolved.

"Spock, I couldn't help noticing that you didn't wish that I live long and prosper?" "Well, the odds seem to be against it."

“Spock, I couldn’t help noticing that you didn’t wish that I live long and prosper?”
“Well, the odds seem to be against it.”

When Lincoln accidentally refers to Uhura as a “negress”, she is very cool with that. “But why should I object to that term, sir?” she asks. “You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words.” Mankind has fulfilled its potential. Human beings are truly unique and special. In fact, the Excalbians are hoping to learn from human example. The Savage Curtain seems to imply that concepts like “absolute good” and “absolute evil” are exclusively human and that Kirk and Spock can be comfortably slotted in the “absolute good” column.

It is very much a short hop from this perspective to the approach that Gene Roddenberry would take in his novelisation of The Motion Picture. It is also a short hop from there to the suffocating preachiness of The Next Generation episodes like The Last Outpost, Lonely Among Us and The Neutral Zone. With all of that in mind, The Savage Curtain is notable for being the first Gene Roddenberry script to really embrace that aspect of the franchise that has been bubbling through the third year as a whole.

"Well, at least Gene Roddenberry's next script has to be better. Right?"

“Well, at least Gene Roddenberry’s next script has to be better. Right?”

The Savage Curtain is a memorable and distinctive episode of Star Trek, like many of the episodes around it. However, it is also not very good, also like many of the episodes around it.

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

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18 Responses

  1. The person who interviewed Leonard Nimoy for the Archive of American Television talked excitedly about “the episode where you got to meet Lincoln,” and Mr. Nimoy gently replied, “Er, yes, but that wasn’t one of our better episodes.” Too true. 🙂

    I really wish that Surak had been handled better. Here he is, the founder of Vulcan as we now know it, and he’s portrayed as someone too stupid to know that bad guys are bad. We’ve had people on Earth who used non-violent resistance to effect change; show us a Surak who resembles Martin Luther King or Gandhi, not one who doesn’t seem to truly understand the situation.

    I see so much veneration of Roddenberry that your reviews are quite refreshing. Yes, we wouldn’t have had Star Trek without him, and we are quite grateful to him for that. But the episodes that he, himself, wrote were mostly awful; it took Coon and Fontana to enable Star Trek to live up to its promise. Thanks for giving us a more nuanced version of Star Trek history than the Roddenberry worshipers do.

    • Ah Nimoy. Harsh, but entirely fair.

      Every once in a while, I do worry that I might be too harsh on Roddenberry. After all, Star Trek is his show. However, I think think about The Omega Glory and Assignment: Earth, or The Savage Curtain and Turnabout Intruder, and I don’t feel so bad.

      I do think that he had some genuine epiphanies in later life. I do believe that he created something that means a lot to a lot of people. I do believe that his vision of a future in which mankind has not blown itself up is inherently worthwhile. However, all of that is weighed against his reactionary tendencies, his constant screwing over of the people around him actually doing the hard and good work, his weak storytelling instincts, and the cult of personality that he built around himself.

      I do hope that I don’t seem overly malicious towards him, but I do think that there needs to be some readjustment of the public perception of Roddenberry.

      • No, I don’t think you’re too harsh on Roddenberry; your reviews usually have that “more in sorrow than in anger” tone. 🙂

        And public perception wouldn’t need so much adjustment if Roddenberry himself hadn’t propagated the “lone visionary” view of Star Trek, rather than the “it takes a village” view of Star Trek. People wouldn’t HAVE to set the record straight if he hadn’t been shading the truth so much to begin with!

        I guess Roddenberry’s portrait of himself is consistent with his portrait of Kirk — a great hero — whereas our view of him is more like Coon’s portrait of Kirk — a man who truly was great in some ways but who was deeply flawed in other ways. I figure this is totally consistent of us. 😉

      • Ha! I think there’s more than some measure of truth to that.

  2. I always found it amusing how Kirk and Spock’s idols are killed so easily. I can’t help but wonder if this is Gene Roddenbery’s way of telling fans that the show will be over soon, and thus their heroes will also soon be gone. It would fit with the season’s focus on mortality that you have observed.
    “This conservatism is sometimes political in nature, as demonstrated by his scripts for A Private Little War.” This might be a conservative episode now, but my dad said that at the time to see on mainstream television a depiction of the Vietnam War as not the clear cut right thing to do was startling. The episode aired just three days after the beginning of the Tet offensive, and up until that point the vast majority of Americans supported Vietnam unquestionably. I believe the number was around 70%.

    • Yep. In a way, Lincoln and Surak are ersatz Kirk and Spock; all-American hero and cold logical Vulcan. So there’s probably some truth to that.

      A Private Little War doesn’t necessarily say that Vietnam is the right thing to do, but certainly says it’s the necessary thing to do. It makes Kirk’s compromises seem noble, sacrifices of his own conscience for the greater good. It’s like In the Pale Moonlight, in a way, but without the layered irony of that brilliant closing scene in which Sisko lies to himself and the audience.

  3. Very interesting review Darren.

    I was going to complain that ‘Turnabout Intruder’ is very memorable too, but on reflection that might be more because it took a popular and still much used sci-fi and fantasy comedy subgenre (the ‘body/gender swap’) and played it bizarrely straight. ‘The Savage Curtain’ is probably much more tied into ‘Star Trek’.

    The depiction of Lincoln chimes very much with some of the Silver Age comics I’ve read where historical American heroes are essentially saints. I’m thinking espcially one Superboy story from 1960 where young Clark Kent travels back in time to save Lincoln and bumps into Lex Luthor who is hiding out in the past. Lex paralyses Superboy with a gizmo, unintentionally dooming Lincoln. Once he realises what he has done Lex is stunned and horrified, mumbling about how sorry he is to have Lincoln’s blood on his hands – in other words Abraham Lincoln is so saintly even the diabolical supervillain/cake thief Lex Luthor would never dream of hurting him.

    • I like the “comic book Lincoln” comparison. Indeed, you could argue that the entire episode is basically “Secret Wars” for the Star Trek universe.

  4. All that matters is whether you believe the legend of Abraham Lincoln. If you believe the legend, then there can be no doubt Scotty welcomed him aboard the Enterprise while wearing a kilt. If you do not believe the legend then he was just a man and it does not matter what Scotty wore.

    A curious way this episode has lived on is via MST3K, where they frequently quote “Help me, Spock” in a flat monotone.

    Considering all that Next Gen and DS9 revealed about Kahless, wherein he is the depicted as the epitome of Klingon honor, it’s very tempting to consider his appearance here a manifestation of Kirk’s prejudices against Klingons – that to him the greatest Klingon must be one of the most evil men who ever lived. Similarly, Kirk’s hero worship of Lincoln removes all blemishes from his character; how would the Excalbians know any better? I think this is something you were alluding to.

    • … and people say that the racism Kirk demonstrates towards the Klingons in The Undiscovered Country is out of character!

      (Also, those people have clearly not watched Kirk interact with Klingons in episodes like Errand of Mercy or Friday’s Child. And that’s BEFORE his son was brutally murdered by a Klingon.)

  5. Someone else previously made a comment along the lines of “Season Three seems almost geared towards young viewers, and some episodes probably left such a positive impression because they were first seen by most people when they were young.” Or something like that. Sorry, I’m paraphrasing.

    I definitely identify with that sentiment. I remember watching “The Savage Curtain” in the early 1980s when I was around six or seven years old, and I thought it was great. Kirk and Spock team up with Abraham Lincoln to fight against the greatest villains in existence! How could you possibly get any more awesome than that?

    And then, of course, I re-watched this episode a decade or so ago, and I realized that it was NOT actually all that good. The Excalbians come across as, I don’t know, naïve or simple-minded or unimaginative to believe that A) good and evil exist as absolutes and B) you can figure out which one is “stronger” by staging a massive fist fight.

    It’s very clear, as Michael Hoskin comments above, that Lincoln, Surak, and the various “bad guys” are all conjured up by the Excalibans solely based on the information, and subjective opinions, in Kirk and Spock’s memories. How do the Excalbians expect to create accurate simulations of figures who have been dead or hundreds of years based solely on what Kirk and Spock happened to have read in some history books? As we would later find out when we meet his clone in TNG, Kahless is absolutely nothing like the figure manifested here. It’s obvious that the “Kahless” created by the Excalibans is based solely on the fact that Kirk has heard that this guy founded the Klingon Empire, and since regards the Klingons as a bunch of savage conquerors Kahless must have been a treacherous monster.

    Likewise, as you observe, Lincoln was not a figure of pure good. Many of his actions are still hotly debated by historians today.

    It’s such a ridiculous idea, thinking you can prove what’s stronger, good or evil, by conjuring up simulations of historic figures from flawed, biased memories, and having them slug it out. I mean, just imagine if the Excalbians had kidnapped a member of the Tea Party for their little experiment. The result probably would have been “good” represented by Ronald Reagan in full cowboy regalia heroically riding around on a while horse, and standing in for “evil” would probably be a cackling Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of newborn babies while gleefully deleting top secret e-mails.

    • I think I made a similar point about TOS S3 having a very “children’s television” quality to it and that perhaps explaining how it became iconic while not always being very good, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my regular commenters beat me to the punch.

      And you’re right about about the goofy childish appeal of the premise. As much as I dislike The Savage Curtain – and I really dislike it – it gave us the image of Abraham Lincoln travelling through space in his rocket chair. Okay, that’s not what the image was supposed to literally represent, but it’s how I remember it.

  6. Hi, I recently discovered your blog, and I appreciate your detailed commentary on the Trek episodes, and I agree with many of your opinions. Personally, though, I’m quite fond of The Savage Curtain.

    I disagree that it promotes the idea of absolute, universal good and evil, or that it claims Lincoln was perfect or Kahless wholly evil. The whole premise is that the Excalabians do *not* share humanity’s (or Vulcans’) notions of morality, and are curious about them — and of course the characters they conjure up are not historically accurate, because they are culled from Kirk and Spock’s imaginations. If memory serves, Kirk even lampshades the question of how such characters could be anything but exactly what Kirk and Spock expect. Naturally, Kirk and Spock consider themselves to be on the side of the angels. And even if they are not bigoted against all Klingons (that would come after Star Trek III for Kirk), it’s not surprising that they hold the violence- and vengeance-ridden Klingon philosophy in contempt (especially in the politically tense days of the original series), and would literally embody that philosophy in a caricature of Kahless. It’s similarly not very shocking that Kirk and Spock hold Genghis Khan in contempt

    For the producers to have dressed up actors as Hitler or Stalin would have seemed unthinkably awkward or tasteless so soon after those real world events. Personally, I’ve always considered it a cop-out that Genghis is the only real world figure on the baddies’ side, but this was no doubt done to keep offensiveness to a minimum. Rightly or wrongly, to an American audience at that time, the name Genghis Khan, like Attila the Hun, would have been synonymous with “ruthless conqueror.” And it’s notable that he is really given nothing to do in the episode, except be prent as the token real world figure that Kirk and Spock both deeply dislike.

    I agree that the moral of the episode, that in time of war, good and evil use much the same tactics, and their respective goals are the chief distinction between them, is both troubling and highly debatable. And yet, the way the Excalabians have set this up, I think Kirk is right that there isn’t much alternative. His opponents were created specifically to be evil — you can’t appeal to the better nature of an artificial being specifically designed not to have a better nature, as Surak discovered. And even that part is logical — Surak and the other phantasms act on the assumption that they and their opponents are real, while Kirk and Spock are the only ones who know better.

    • Oh, and as for Zora, it really didn’t strike me that she was supposed to be Asian. I always thought she was supposed to be look like a stock Halloween witch (hence, of course, “obviously evil”).

    • I don’t know, though. I think there’s a marked difference in the way that Arena approaches the same concept as The Savage Curtain. And I do think that Arena does it a lot better. I just don’t see a lot in Roddenberry’s work (before the novelisation of The Motion Picture) that is willing to call Kirk out or challenge him, or to present him as anything other than an absolute good. Which I think pushes the episode towards that discomforting absolutism; yes, the historical characters are exactly as Kirk imagines them, but Kirk is a good and reliable guy, so why not go with that?

      On a minor point, I do think there’s a debate to be had about whether Kirk is/was bigotted towards Klingons before/after Star Trek III. As with a lot of TOS (and television in general), it varies from episode to episode. However, there is certainly some suggestion of it in episodes like Errand of Mercy or Friday’s Child; particularly in the way that Errand of Mercy makes it clear that Kirk is as guilty of perpetuating the hate as the Klingons. (On the other hand, I freely admit that episodes like The Trouble With Tribbles or Day of the Dove suggest that Kirk may have something closer to a “live and let live” approach.)

      At the same time, I don’t want to sound too harsh on The Savage Curtain. I do genuinely and unironically love space!Lincoln.

  7. As for calling the Excalabians out for their actions, it’s hard to condemn someone for wrong behavior when they admit up front that they don’t understand the concepts of right and wrong, and want to learn.

    • That’s fair, but “I want to learn” only goes so far as an excuse. “… so I thought we’d talk about it,” seems a reasonable response. Albeit one that makes for much less satisfying television. “… so I resurrected a bunch of historical figures, threw you into a fight to the death, and threatened your entire ship,” seems a bit… less so. I like to imagine a version of the episode where Kirk casually responds, “So… you were asking about evil, then?”

      • 🙂 Yeah, that would have been a good response to them. “Well, you’ve provided yourselves with a nice example of evil.”

        At risk of reading too much into it (heaven forfend), the fact that the crew keep getting sensor readings off the historical figures that look like the native rock creatures, while the figures appear to believe they’re the real articles, makes me wonder if the Excalabians have quite the same concepts of individuality and identity that we do. If they do not, that would go a long way toward explaining why our morality seems strange to them.

        For what it’s worth, even as I defend Kirk’s actions in these particular circumstances (after all, as in Specter of the Gun, is the well-being of illusions even worth considering?), I’m not comfortable with the story’s claim at the end that our ends define our moral rightness more than our means do — but I give the story credit for making me think about the matter.

        Yeah, I’d agree that Kirk had some level of prejudice against Klingons in the original series, but the death of his son made it much worse.

        Oh, and one totally unrelated thing that I like about this episode is that, unlike the Horta, the Excalabians are temperature extremophiles, something a silicon-based biology would probably require.

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