Saturday, November 10, 2018

Star Trek -- Season 1 Episode 21 (The Return of the Archons)

Major cast changes aren’t that common in American television.  When two main characters are put in danger, there’s a pretty good chance a solution will be found.  This is especially true with Star Trek, which had no shortage of disposable security officers.  In fact, the episode even starts with Sulu being brainwashed by an alien race.

Sulu is part of a landing party on Beta III.  The Enterprise was sent to find out what happened to the USS Archon.  The inhabitants are strangely peaceful and friendly.  Those that aren’t local are absorbed into their hive mind.  Sulu is with another member of the landing party, who manages to run away before being absorbed.  When Sulu is beamed up, he’s very peaceful until he realizes that those around him are not of the body.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a few others beam down to figure out what happened to the rest of the first landing party.  They discover that The Red Hour is about to begin.  This is a time when the peaceful population goes wild.  People think nothing of looting stores, forcing themselves on other people and having an all-around great time.  The second landing party seeks shelter in a hotel.  Those already in the building soon realize that Kirk and Co. aren’t local.  The fact that they’re not participating is against the will of Landru.

Who is Landru?  Well, he’s the one that managed to subdue the local population.  The story goes that 6,000 years ago, Landru absorbed everyone and founded the society that Beta III has today.  Kirk realizes that he has to undo what Landru did all those years ago.  He finds the computer that controls everyone and puts an end to its rule of the population.

In case you’re wondering, yes, Kirk does mention the Prime Directive.  In fact, this is the first mention of the Prime Directive.  Kirk dismisses it, saying that it applies only to a living culture.  As the culture of Beta III has stagnated, Kirk can and should interfere.

This is one of those episodes that’s changed with time for me.  When I watched it as a child, I didn’t get a lot of the overtones.  It was just a case of Kirk having to save Sulu, even if it means altering the trajectory of a society.  When I watched it recently, I started to think it was a story about communism, with everyone thinking of the good of the whole.

Then, it occurred to me that it was more about religion.  Everyone is indoctrinated.  Those who aren’t part of the religion are considered dangerous.  They even have a founder who lived thousands of years ago and now exists only as an image to be worshipped.  I suppose it could be any mind-controlling agency, whether it be government or religion.  However, there is a very religious tone to the episode.

Landru is held in high regard because he stopped the fighting among the people, although there are other ways to do that.  The Vulcans had the same problem until they adopted logic.  The difference is that Beta III’s population stagnated.  In fact, the regressed.  They had technology.  Now they don’t.

There are a few issues with the episode.  First, I wonder why it took a hundred years for anyone to come and investigate the disappearance of a ship.  That’s several generations.  It would place it around the time of Star Trek: Enterprise, which might mean that no other ships were available.  (Still…)

Another thing I noticed was that Beta III had Earth-style clocks including actual numbers.  It seems odd that a planet so far away would have a 12-hour clock.  Even if we were to assume that the crew of the Archon had some influence, why would the planet adopt a type of clock that I don’t think the Federation even uses any more?  (I suppose having that kind of clock is no different than having human-looking aliens.)

Little is given as to the history of the planet.  It would be interesting for some sort of book or fan-produced movie.  Maybe have something on who Landru was and how the society was founded.  I think that we’re supposed to assume that the entire planet was under Landru’s control.  (On that note, would a few teams of sociologists be enough to help everyone?)

I also wondered how the computers lasted for 6,000 years without anyone fixing them.  It’s possible that there was some pope-like figure who was in on it.  The society had lawgivers.  It’s possible that there was some sort of class designated for tech support.

The big thing for me is that there’s no talk of what happened to Sulu and the rest of the affected crewmembers.  Sulu shrugs it off and we don’t hear anything from anyone else.  Ok.  So Sulu didn’t really do anything wrong, but others did.  I think a few apologies might have been offered.

It’s still an enjoyable episode.  There is a sense of danger, as Landru (or, rather, the computer) can pull a ship down from orbit.  You know this isn’t going to be the end of them, but the same thing happened to another ship.  I don’t think Kirk and Spock want to wait another hundred years for backup.

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