TOS Rewind #45: "A Private Little War"
Today, we take on A Private Little War (02/02/1968)
The podcast for this episode, where discuss wigs, St. Patricks Day vocalizations, and even Star Trek: it can be found here.
One of the elements of classic Star Trek that is often recognized is how the show weaved social and political ideas of the 1960s into its narratives. "A Private Little War" puts the Vietnam War front and center. I often appreciate the way Trek does this, but in this episode it comes off as a bit heavy-handed and obvious.
The story begins with Kirk returning to a world he served on years prior on, we assume, some sort of information-gathering mission. It would be interesting to learn whether this was a standard Federation practice: embed Starfleet officers within primitive planetary cultures. Was this some sort of scientific mission? This is the sort of thing that Next Generation handled with much more credibility. The other thought I had was that this could fall under the pre-Prime Directive policies for Kirk's friend Tyree seems to know Kirk is from another word even if he doesn't fully grasp the reality of people from other planets traveling through space. Unfortunately this idea is given very little time before we're plunged into the main Klingon intervention plot. Once we learn how the rival villagers (village people???) are obtaining weapons far too advanced for them to have developed on their own, the story turns on whether or not Kirk will decide to even the odds by arming the hill people, including his old friend. Another wrinkle in the plot is the fact that Tyree is a peaceful man who is very reluctant to fight. What we are not told is the motivation for the Klingons arming the one side. Since they obviously have no qualms about breaking the peace treaty by mucking about in a planet's development, why don't they just simply walk in and take over? In any case, the one representative of the Klingons seems more like a slimy bureaucrat than the much more interesting Kor from "Errand of Mercy." This guy is lame enough that he isn't even referred to by name (he is listed in the credits) in the script. We know instantly that this particular Klingon would have his ass handed to him by Kirk in a fight.
No, the real issues go back to whether or not Kirk arms the other side and whether or not Spock manages to recover from his gunshot wound. Spock being wounded of course keeps him back aboard the Enterprise in the Sickbay. This has the unfortunate result of Spock not being present during the discussions down on the planet where they decide to arm the hill people. Spock would normally be a natural counterpoint to Kirk's, ahem, militaristic tendencies. The naysayer in the debate ends up being McCoy and he just isn't up to the task (I'm a Doctor, not a policy wonk!).
I think one of the more dissatisfying parts of this episode, is the way the story is resolved. Sure, Spock recovers, but the story is wrapped up without much of a nod as to the results of not only the Klingon interference, but Kirk's. Is this another time when Kirk goes against regulations, relying on his instincts? It would have been nice to see at least a small mention of the big picture since they spent time earlier in the episode telling us why it was a big deal that the Klingons were arming the villagers.
As far as the characters go, we don't get a lot of Spock as he is taken out fairly early. However, we do learn some more Vulcan background; the way Vulcans heal themselves with the help of pure mental willpower. Kirk gets his usual share of scenery chewing and McCoy has plenty of choice reaction shots. Come to think of it, McCoy doesn't get much action in this episode. With Noona (Tyree's wife), the local roots/drugs expert taking care of Kirk's poison bite and Dr. M'Benga looking after Spock (supposedly an expert on Vulcans), poor 'ol McCoy just gets to hang around and watch Kirk and Tyree get high on Noona's drug roots. Roots...hahaha. Speaking of Noona, she is quite the stereotypical "native" or "exotic" woman, isn't she? Of course, we can't always blame her for getting tired of the milquetoast Tyree who acts like he'd rather hang out in the cave sniffing Noona's, um, roots. We talked on the podcast about the silly wigs the planet's people wear; another cheap way to make the "aliens" look different.
Growing up, I remember having a somewhat indifferent attitude to this episode. There are no space battles or interesting aliens to recommend the episode. There are some fights, such as one where Kirk wrestles around with a guy in a white furry costume, but they just don't have the punch (sorry) of some other fight-heavy episodes. Plus all the scenes with Noona writhing around in a sexual way wasn't all that impressive to a ten-year old. What is impressive about Noona's writhing is the way it apparently got by the censors of the time. It looks pretty, well erotic. At least it is for 1960s Star Trek. I count it as yet another example of a genre show slipping things under the radar.
As usual, I watched the BD version of the episode with the enhanced effects. The new effects were quite limited with a few orbital flybys, though they threw in a Klingon ship that I am pretty sure wasn't in the original. The outdoor scenes, of which there are many, look fantastic in HD. The detail was so good that I was able to spot spray paint marks on some of the rocks. I guess this area was (is?) a popular hangout near Los Angeles at the time.
And Eric's take:
I really don't have much to say about "A Private Little War." It's an average episode, and as such, my feelings about it are also average. The story, an anti-Vietnam War polemic, is certainly well-intentioned, but it is far too overt to be effective. (At one point, McCoy even refers to the twentieth century wars in Southeast Asia.)
I also object to the obnoxious white wigs they put on the actors playing the inhabitants of the planet (cleverly called Neural). If that's all the makeup effects budget would allow, they should've just let them look like twentieth century humans... as if a wig would distinguish them as aliens.
Still, the dialectic between Kirk and McCoy was fun to watch, although I would've liked to have seen Spock involved in the debate. The violent, warlike history of the Vulcans no doubt would've given him an interesting perspective. And in the end, I don't see how Kirk's solution isn't a blatant violation of the Prime Directive, regardless of whether or not the Klingons had already interfered. But the end of the episode is inconclusive, so there was a twenty-year wait to see the result (albeit indirectly).
The Next Generation episode "Too Short A Season" aired on February 8, 1988 and featured an ailing and aged (but very Kirk-like) Starfleet Admiral sent on one last diplomatic mission to a planet where, forty years ago, he rescued a group of hostages by giving in to their captors' demand for arms, and then arming the opposing side with exactly the same weapons. His rationale was that it would preserve a balance of power. Sound familiar? The problem, as it turns out, was that it plunged the planet into 40 years of bloody civil war. So apparently, in the twenty years between "A Private Little War" and "Too Short A Season," Roddenberry seriously reconsidered his ideas about ways to prevent (or end) violent conflict.
Next time: "Return to Tomorrow"