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Star Trek: "The Return Of The Archons" / "A Taste Of Armageddon"

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It's a curious fact that science fiction movies and TV shows often spend as much time decrying technology as they spend creating it. Computers will become coldly logical sociopaths who need to be taught the value of lurve and other squishy feeling-type things; robots will turn on their masters; and electronically controlled homes will develop conscious initiative and attempt to impregnate a human woman so they can spread their evil to the world at large. (Seriously. Like fucking clockwork.) I think it's got something to do with our obsession for putting the heart over the head at all costs, a philosophical imperative that's as screwed up morally as it is physically impossible. But whatever the reason, it can create a certain cognitive dissonance—here's this fancy shiny gadget! But don't like it, because, y'know, it's all messed up inside and stuff.

This week I'm cheating on the schedule; in order to set up for the long promised "Space Seed"/Wrath of Khan double feature (for those keeping score, I believe this is the first time I've managed to spell "Khan" correctly in this blog), we had to jump an ep. So for our recapping pleasure, we've got "The Return Of The Archons" and "A Taste Of Armageddon." As we've established, continuity isn't exactly an issue here, and pairing these two actually works out nicely, since both deal with people using emotionless machines to try and create a utopia free of human failings. Shockingly, it doesn't go so well. But hey, that's what Kirk and his two fists are for!

The first half of "Archons" is a deep bizarre trip, similar in tone to one of those socially concious cheapies Roger Corman put out in the sixties. It starts with Sulu and a crewman, O'Neil, running down a town street in colonial garb. They're being chased by some dudes dressed like monks; O'Neil makes a break for it, while Sulu manages to get beamed back to the Enterprise just after getting a face full of sparklers from one of the monk's magic sticks. If that wasn't freaky enough, on ship Sulu is seriously blissing out, accusing Kirk and anyone who comes near him of being "not of the Body." It's the sort of opening that stands right between intriguing and bafflingly absurd, and that's a balance the episode will hold to for quite some time.

In order to find O'Neil, Kirk beams down to the planet (Beta III) with a landing party made up of Spock, McCoy, and the usual assortment of red shirts. They're on their guard, for understandable reasons; in addition to O'Neil's disappearance and Sulu's mindmelt, the Enterprise records list that a ship called the Archon disappeared around Beta III some years ago. (Roughly the same thing happens in "Armageddon," which begs the question, is Starfleet really that cavalier over missing starships? You'd think they would've sent somebody to check up.) Planet-side, everything seems okay—the group fits right in with their Wild Wild West style outfits, enough that they can start up a conversation with a disturbingly over-enunciated man on the street. "It's almost the Red Hour," he tells them, as if that should mean something; it doesn't, but whatever it is, it definitely doesn't sound good. A nice lady named Tula sends Kirk and the others to her father's house for lodging. Just in time, too, as the town hall clock strikes six, and everybody on the street but the Enterprise guys freaks right the fuck out.

Throughout, "Archon" has a loose, unpolished feeling, which means that it starts off interesting but loses steam as various subplots fail to add together properly. Which isn't to say that the episode doesn't make enough sense by the end; more that you walk away feeling vaguely unsatisfied, like leaving home and knowing you've forgotten something but being unable to remember exactly what. Still, as first acts go (and by first act here I mean the introduction of the problem), this is nifty. It doesn't really feel like a Star Trek episode, not at first, and that makes for an interesting change of pace.

Kirk and the rest head to Tula's father's place while the people outside proceed to riot, scream, and embrace laciviously. (PDAs are just so gauche, y'know?) The father, named Reger, is having a chat with a couple of older gentlemen when Kirk busts in, and there's some suspicion as to where our heroes came from. They pawn themselves off as outsiders, which works for a while, but begs the question what the rest of the planet looks like.


One of the biggest justifiable criticisms you can throw at Trek of any era is that it rarely takes into account that civilized planets usually have more than one civilization on them. (Since all we have is Earth to go by here, I guess you can replace "usually" with "always.") The presumption in this series is that if you see one city, you've seen every other city, and town, and village; and if the one city you see has some sort of metaphorical struggle going on, every city does. It's possible that Landru (the computerized dead guy who ends up as the ep's villain) isn't in control of the whole world, but why wouldn't the Enterprise have tried contacting them? Why would they manage to find the one place where Landru's efforts stem from?

Of course, this is sort of an accepted quirk of a lot of sci-fi; I only mention it here because the people of the town are confused at the idea of outsiders but not so confused that they don't believe it's possible. There's a lot of talk about a "festival," which ties in with the public mayhem, and Reger and friends operate off a basic assumption that anybody who's everybody knows what the Festival is and what it means. We never really get much of an explanation; the exposition that's delivered in the second half is generic enough that it could cover a wide variety of scenarios. There's never a logical reason provided for the twelve hour freak-out. You can come up with a reason (most likely it's a chance for everybody in town to vent their baser impulses; the brain-washing we see probably tamps down those impulses but is unable to complete extinguish them. What's weird is that not everybody is brainwashed—were there people on the street who hadn't had their mind's adjusted?), but the whole thing lacks the force of the series' best storylines. That's why questions as to the nature of the planet's population get raised, whereas in something like "Armageddon," it's easier to let those questions slide. (Mainly because there's a whole book's worth of other questions that need answering.)

One of Reger's friends rats out Kirk and the team, so the Lawgivers show up the next morning (tragically, Pearl Forrester is not among them) with their hollow, sparking tubes. The resulting confrontation proves that the monks aren't exactly used to getting questioned, which sets the wheels in Kirk and Spock's respective heads a'turning. After the monks leave, Reger takes the group to his secret, castle-playset hideaway; he's working with the resistance, so he's willing to help Kirk, even if he doesn't really know why. Before they arrive at the hideaway, though, our heroes have to face off against the entire mind control town. It's a creepy sequence, as everyone stops what they're doing and slowly picks up the closest thing they can use as a weapon; only, Kirk and crew are armed with phasers, so it's not really much of a fight.

Really, the only time the threat seems serious here is after everybody gets captured and McCoy is taken away for, ahem, "perspective alteration." Mind-muckery always freaked me out as a kid—something about losing control over yourself in the worst possible way—and seeing the impulsive, reactionary McCoy reduced to three lines and a smile is unsettling, to say the least. The Enterprise gets attacked with heat rays, just to give us a reason as to why Kirk and the others aren't immediately beamed out once they find O'Neil, but the danger seems more an obligation than anything to get worried about. Kirk is taken away by the guards, and there's a brief indication that he's just as dotty as McCoy; but it's all a con, because one of Reger's resistance buddies was actually running the machine when Kirk arrived.

To skip to the end—we keep hearing about Landru, and the guy even pops up as a projection a couple of times to give some goofy ass speech about goodness, but he's actually dead and it's his computer that's screwing everything up. Landru programmed the computer to run things, and it's been doing so in all the wrong ways; but that's why we have Kirk, who's got a knack for busting logic circuits with the power of his mind. (I guess this is why he's always able to beat Spock at chess?) In a scene that goes on for far too long, Kirk basically talks Landru's machine into suiciding. It's something he does a lot, we'll see—deciding that a society isn't working the way it should, and doing his level best to wreck the place.

Lord only knows what the repercussions will be for Beta III now that Landru is gone. One of Kirk's men stays behind to help the process along, which seems to be the standard Starfleet response after freeing a planet from its dark overlords. (Actually, the standard Starfleet response is the Prime Directive of non-interference that Spock mentions to Kirk; but since Kirk says, basically, "Nuts to that," I don't that it's a directive that gets enforced very often.) Given that it took the Enterprise however long to show up after the Archon went missing, I'm not sure I'd want to be the man left behind; I have pretty good idea if something happened to me, nobody would ever know.

"Armageddon" shares some of the same set-up as "Archons," as well as the same resolution; once again we have the Enterprise visiting a strange planet where a starship (this time the U.S.S. Valiant) disappeared fifty years ago, and once again Kirk has to bust up some plywood and flashing lights to save the day. (Although this time he uses phasers and not quips.) More importantly, once again we have a society that's using tech-based shortcuts to circumvent complex moral problems. In "Archons," the problem was something as nebulous and ill-defined as the battle between good and evil, but in "Armageddon," the trouble is more concrete—war, and the various things that it is not good for.

Oh, and there's something else here familiar as well—the return of the asshole bureaucrat, in the form of Ambassador Robert Fox, aboard the Enterprise to help establish a diplomatic relationship with the citizens of Eminiar VII. When the Enterprise goes into orbit around Eminiar, the planet issues a Code 710, which warns away any attempts to beam down to the surface.  Which is odd, because the whole ep rests on the fact that, much like Beta III, nobody in Starfleet has had any contact with the citizens on Eminiar. How would they know the code? I guess the crew of the Valiant could've told them before they got killed, but why nobody came asking question after the Valient vanished is beyond me; no one on the Enterprise even seems all that concerned that the ship disappeared.

Despite the warning, Fox demands that they still visit the planet. (As an ambassador, he's not really got a handle on the concept of "diplomacy"; although that may be more true to real life that I'd care to admit.) Kirk has no choice but to agree; his only caveat is that Fox stay behind on the ship while he, Spock, Yeoman Tamula, and a couple of red-shirts make the trip. Again we see Kirk's complete inability to an observe a situation without getting directly involved in it. But since beaming down to Eminiar means getting away from the funwrecking Mr. Fox, he probably made the right call.

Upon arrival, the landing party is greeted by a hottie who calls herself "Mea 3." ("I congratulate you on your instrumentation," if you know what I mean, and I think you do.) While Kirk does his usual subtle "Hello nurse" routine, and we marvel at the assinine costumes of Mea's associates—were those hats ever considered a good idea?—Mea takes the team to meet with Anan 7, head of the city (and, presumably, the planet) government council. Anan criticizes Kirk for ignoring the Code 710, and informs our increasingly astonished heroes that they are currently at war with the neighboring planet, Vendikar, with year casualties running into the millions. Even while they're talking, the nefarious enemy launches an attack at the very heart of Eminiar, landing fusion bombs in the city in which Kirk and company stand. But that doesn't make any sense, because nobody in the crew heard any explosions or sees any destruction.

Here's where we get our hook: sure, the Eminiar/Vendikar war is ongoing, but it's being fought by computers. Attacks are launched in concept, casualties established through statistical adjustment, and anyone who's been labeled as "dead" is required to show up at a disintegrator chamber within 24 hours to report for, you guessed it, disintegration.

It's one of Trek's classic allegorically powerful, common sense implausible scenarios. The alien races (who, like the people of Beta III, are basically human; Kirk says they share a common heritage, whatever that means) have figured out the perfect way to keep a conflict perpetually unresolved, while preventing their respective cultures from crumbling in the face of endless destruction and chaos. Just the idea of "reporting to be killed" is chilling enough to make praticial considerations secondary—it's a strong observation on the idiocy of war that people could go to such ends without actually trying to reach some sort of agreement.

Stil, one has to wonder, why haven't they tried to reach an agreement? Anan does an awful lot of talking about the horrors of war, and in the course of the episode we find out that he lost his wife in the last "attack." So what's stopping him from giving Vendikar a ring up, just to see how things stand? The biggest problem with "Armageddon" is that the timeline is stretched to absurdity. The war that Kirk and Spock discover has been going on for five hundred years. Most of those years, the two planets have been engaged in their murderous version of Battleship, and the idea that in all that time, nobody's bothered to question what's going on, or taken steps to make it stop, is absurd. Of course we don't know the Eminiar's entire history, so there's no way to be sure that people haven't objected from time to time (I'd like to imagine that the rest of the planet doesn't bother with all the foolishness, and Anan's city is just where all the rules lawyers and talk radio hosts are sent); but the thing is, this is an Emperor's-New-Clothes kind of idea. It only works if everyone believes in it absolutely. Once anybody starts raising doubts, the whole thing crumbles.

Whether or not Kirk and his team's questions would've had such an effect in the long term is rendered moot after Anan tells Kirk that the Enterprise was "destroyed"; the aboard ship personnel are required to beam down and take their medicine like good walking dead, and to facillitate this, Anan holds Kirk et al hostage. Which is pretty much the end of everything, if only he knew it. I doubt Kirk would've let the Eminiar/Vendikar relationship continue regardless, but once his ship and his men are in danger, all bets are off. Our heroes find a way to break out of their captivity (apparently, Spock's "mind meld" abilities aren't his only telepathic gifts; funny that they'd give the most clinical member of the cast the most nebulous and ill-defined of powers), and the rest of the episode is largely a matter of them bopping from place to place, blowing up disintegration chambers, and getting in philosophical debates with Mea and Anan.

We do get some much deserved commueppance for the absurdly rigid Fox. Anan tries to trick the Enterprise into beaming down its crew by faking Kirk's voice through a communicator, but Scott and McCoy ain't buying; when the fake voice doesn't work, Anan has the ship bombarded from the planet's surface. This makes standing captain Scotty a wee bit paranoid, but Fox isn't having it. As soon as contact is re-established with Anan, he agrees to beam down himself, despite McCoy and Scott's misgivings. And wouldn't you know it, minutes after beaming down, Fox finds himself and his assistant being marched to a disintegrator. Irony! Or something.

Luckily, Mr. Spock arrives just in time to save the day. Kirk gets re-captured by Anan, but manages to give Scotty "General Order 24" when Anan gives the Enterprise a ring to tell them their captain is a captive. Kirk promised earlier that he could destroy the planet if he wanted to, and it looks like he's ready to make good on his promise; in one of the more bad-ass lines he's gotten this season, he tells Anan, "I didn't start it, Councilman… but I'm liable to finish it." It's been a while since I last watched this, and I kept waiting to find out that the whole "Order 24" thing was a bluff, but the reveal never came. Which means that maybe Starfleet is more concerned about their starships that I'd thought; they don't do aggressive searches when one goes missing, but at least they give the ships Death Star powers.

As mentioned, it all winds up with Kirk destroying the machines that let the Eminiars and Vendikars fight without fighting; Kirk then gives a speech about human nature and violence that sits on the right side of the line between compelling and preachy, but just barely. (I really liked the "We can admit we're killers, but that we won't kill today" argument. It sounds like the sort of thing you'd hear at an AA meeting.) Fox, having learned his lesson about never, ever disagreeing with Kirk, decides to stay behind and help Anan establish peaceful relations with Vendikar; given what we've seen of Fox's tact so far, I wouldn't be surprised if things get worse before they get better, but hey, we never come back here again, so not our problem.

I don't think "Archons" or "Armageddon" are classics; "Armageddon" comes closest, but the premise just has a few too many holes to sustain its attempts at profundity. "Archons" is too slipshod, really—it starts strong, and peaks about the point where the townspeople attack en masse. Too bad there were a good twenty minutes to go after that. But one thing both eps have that's worth praising is ambition; where something like "Court Martial" was content to tell a familiar story, both of this week's entries were going for something new, and I respect that. I'd rather have ambitious failures than a middling success, any day of the week.

"The Return Of The Archons": B
"A Taste Of Armageddon": B+

Stray Observations:

  • All the "of the Body" talk in "Archons" made me think of Clive Barker's short story, "In The Hills, The Cities." How cool would that have been? (Okay, given the special effects limitations of the time, not cool at all, but the episode in my mind is unbelievably cool.)
  • Too bad the Landru-bot didn't have "paradox-absorbing crumple zones," eh?
  • Spock also gets a good line in "Armageddon": "Practicing a peculiar variety of diplomacy, sir." (More Spock: "Sir, there's a multilegged creatured crawling on your shoulder.")
  • When Scotty's idioms go Too Far: "The haggis is in the fire for sure."
  • Coming next week: Khan Fever. Catch it!