The original “Kitumba” was the very best submission made to the unproduced Star Trek Phase II. The episode adapted from it for the fan series that shares its name isn't quite its own pinnacle, but it's definitely the best episode since “To Serve All My Days” and a fitting closure for era of Star Trek.
It's also fitting that this episode be penned by John Meredyth Lucas, one of the great unsung heroes of the franchise. Hand-picked by Gene Coon as his successor following the latter's dispute with Gene Roddenberry over the ending to “Bread and Circuses”, which led Coon to furiously turn his back on Star Trek never to return, Lucas oversaw the one true Golden Age of the Original Series, from “The Immunity Syndrome” to “The Ultimate Computer”. Though he was a frankly bloody amazing producer, as a writer Lucas always seemed a bit more changeable: His first story was “The Changeling” which, well, wasn't brilliant, to be perfectly honest, but it did provide the impetus for “In Thy Image” and by association this whole show and, arguably, the whole rest of Star Trek, so that has to count for something. Lucas also wrote the script for “Patterns of Force”, which I loved despite nobody agreeing with me (but nobody ever agrees with me, so it doesn't matter), but he had help from Paul Schneider there. He also collaborated with D.C. Fontana on “That Which Survives” which was also a miniature classic, no surprises there.
But in spite of all of this, Lucas also has “Elaan of Troyius” to his name, which was a racist and misogynistic trainwreck and cast a bit of a shadow over the rest of his tenure. It was never clear whether the failings of that episode could be safely laid at the feet of Arthur Singer and Fred Freiberger, who between them were responsible for much of what was memorable about the Original Series' third season, or if they were really the fault of Lucas himself. “Kitumba” gives us our answer and thankfully it's a resounding “no”, because this story is properly outstanding and marks the first time Star Trek Phase II hits actual brilliance. Today it wouldn't seem like anything special, it's a two-part epic about cloak-and-dagger political machinations in the Klingon Empire that threaten to plunge the galaxy into a bloody war and the Enterprise has to get involved to keep the peace. Hell, the Dominion War era did this story at least twelve times: Manufactured Civil War in the Klingon Empire was just another Tuesday.
But “Kitumba” would have been the first time Star Trek did this kind of story, at least for the Klingons. D.C. Fontana had of course tried to introduce political intrigue to the Original Series via the Romulan/Federation Cold War in “The Enterprise Incident”, but that didn't go over so well because it was a third season episode. And actually, “Kitumba” is a very different sort of political story anyway: “The Enterprise Incident” was about diplomatic tensions and covert intelligence, or at least used that as a backdrop to examine the characters of Kirk and Spock. It wasn't about the Romulans per se, except in some of the Commander's lines. “Kitumba”, by contrast, is very much about Klingon society, in particular establishing what, in fact, that is and how it differentiates from the Federation, and this is what makes it especially noteworthy because the way Klingon society is depicted here is manifestly and starkly different from the way it's depicted almost anywhere else in Star Trek.
According to “Kitumba”, Klingon society is actually divided into different castes, each of whom pursue the concept of honour in their own ways. What we know as “Klingons” are in truth just the warrior castes, who value prowess in battle above all else and have become the ruling class. Above everyone else is the Warlord and the Kitumba, the divine god-king who rules from the Sacred Planet in the centre of the Klingon system. According to an informant named K'Sia, whom Starfleet Command brings onboard the Enterprise to brief Kirk and the crew on the current situation, the current Kitumba is a fifteen year-old boy and not much more than a figurehead at this point. K'Sia himself was once the Kitumba's teacher, but since his exile from Klingon society, the Kitumba has fallen under the influence of the Warlord, who is manipulating him into authorizing a rash and costly all-out-attack against the Federation that will put both peoples in danger.
A few things strike me here. One, Lucas has singlehandedly managed to redeem just about everything that's ever been problematic about the Klingons: From the two-dimensional, generically nonwhite and sketchy Other status they had in the Original Series to the comedy pseudo-Viking lovable manly proud warrior race status they'd accrued as of the Dominion War, “Kitumba” hedges against absolutely all of that, giving the Klingons (we sadly don't get another name, so I'll keep using that one) a fully fleshed-out society and set of cultural norms to contrast with that of the Federation. Two, that it took until 2013 for any of Lucas' innovations to actually take and that nobody in the ensuing 35 years thought to crack open “Kitumba” to see if there was anything of value there (seriously, “The Child” and “Devil's Due” got made into episodes before this one? For real?) and three, this is remarkably, eerily similar to where Enterprise eventually took the Klingons in “Judgment”, one of that series' very best episodes.
In one of the greatest speeches in the history of Star Trek, Kolos forgives Jonathan Archer for his assumption that all Klingons were soldiers, explaining how much it saddens him to see the warrior caste slowly taking over all of Klingon society. According to Kolos, who is a lawyer, whose father was a teacher and whose mother was a biologist, Klingons used to see honour in all acts of “integrity” and “true courage”, before all young men decided that the needed to take up arms and attain victory in battle at all costs. This is precisely the same ground “Kitumba” is covering in a more prototypical form: While it doesn't concentrate on the different striations of Klingon society as much as “Judgment” does, it is very much about demonstrating that this is a culture with layers and its own customs and set of beliefs that, while they can be contrasted with those of Kirk and the Enterprise, must be acknowledged and respected as their own.
Lucas then finally succeeds in differentiating the Klingons from D.C. Fontana's Romulans: While the Romulans are basically us, or indeed us but better, the Klingons retain their status as being different from the Federation while shedding the lazy xenophobia that's dogged them from their debut. Lucas takes care to point this out on a number of occasions: Early on in part one, Kirk is forced to destroy an unarmed Klingon reconnaissance craft because, as both K'Sia and the science officer (Xon in the original, Spock in the James Cawley version) points out how “its subspace radio is its weapon” and will surely compromise their position if allowed to transmit its information to the Klingon homeworld. McCoy and Kirk are horrified, but K'Sia points out that it's the Klingon way. Several other times throughout the story, Kirk is stunned by the capriciousness with which the Klingons approach death and ritual suicide (another thing that differentiates them from later Klingons) and needs to be continually reminded that this is a different culture with different values and he needs to learn to understand and respect that.
The key scene comes in the final moments of part 2, where the Kitumba, having pulled a mass deception with the help of the Enterprise crew, catches Warlord Malkthorn red-handed in his plot to betray and usurp him to further his ambitions for war. Malkthorn asks the Kitumba for permission to commit ritual suicide and while Kirk vehemently protests (Kirk having served as a surrogate teacher to the Kitumba for the majority of the episode), the ruler agrees, reminding Kirk “Klingon ways are not Federation ways” and denying his request for free trade and diplomacy, pointing out that Kirk's mission was to stop a war, not forge an alliance, and that he should be happy with what he's achieved.
This scene is also, somewhat regrettably, one of the biggest departures the 2013 filmed version makes from the original source material. Because this Star Trek Phase II is beholden to established Star Trek canon, the entire episode needed to be rewritten to accommodate Klingon culture as depicted in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s shows, and “Kitumba” suffers from it. In this version, it turns out the Kitumba and K'Sia were conspiring together to use Kirk to unseat Malkthorn, who is revealed to be a member of the House of Duras, and to use his power to reassert the authority of the Klingon High Council. The message of the story then becomes far less about appreciating cultural differences and more about how little changes when one authoritarian power structure takes the place of another which, while true, somewhat misses the point of the original script in my opinion. It also doesn't help that established Klingon culture is *significantly* less interesting than what Lucas had outlined, and that this “Kitumba” seems deliberately structured to fit neatly in with a bunch of old episodes we've already seen.
(There are a frankly ludicrous amount of continuity references here, probably more so than were in even “Come What May” and “In Harm's Way”: Off the top of my head, I noticed nods to “Sins of the Father”, “Reunion”, “Redemption”, “Borderland”/“Cold Station 12”/“The Augments”, “Broken Bow”, “Encounter at Farpoint”, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek (2009), though puzzlingly, the one story that *isn't* referenced is “Judgment” or any of the strides that episode made with Klingon culture.)
While the basic plot remains the same and the new version keeps all the same beats and twists (albeit condensed down to one episode, which doesn't hurt the story in the slightest), other details were changed in translation and they're of a mixed bag. In the original draft, K'Sia had an ally, the leader of a pacifist movement on the Klingon homeworld, who happened to be the Warlord's second in command, the warrior maiden Kali, who helped out the Enterprise crew to expose Malkthorn's plan. In this version, that character is Kargh, who is naturally not a pacifist, but a patriot who fears the downfall of the empire and who wouldn't mind securing a position in the Kitumba's new cabinet.
It's a fitting culmination of this show's own unique universe and cast of characters, but the issue is there's still a character named Kali and now she's little more than a Starscream-level sidekick who Malkthorn throws around far too worryingly frequently. In fact, without Kali's original role, this means none of the Klingon women are treated especially amazingly here, acting only as background characters or hovering around their male commanders looking equal parts devious and submissive.
(That said the Enterprise crew is rather marvelous, with a lot of quality screentime given to Xon, Peter, Uhura, Chekov and even the requisite redshirt, who miraculously manages to last the whole episode. There's even a delightful scene between Peter and Chekov about assumptions I shan't spoil for you: It's the highlight of the episode for me.)
But in spite of that this remains a solid, enjoyable outing and it seems fitting that John Meredyth Lucas and “Kitumba” see us out of Star Trek Phase II-Both of them. Though slotted to go between “Cassandra” and “Practice in Waking”, it's clear the original Phase II was never going to top this, and the remaining scripts rapidly deteriorate into a series of mediocre-at-best, catastrophic-at-worst runarounds. And while James Cawley's Star Trek Phase II is far from over, with a new episode scheduled to drop imminently as I write this, “Kitumba” marks the end of an era for them too: Not long after its release, Dave Gerrold announced he would be taking the show in-house to hopefully get more episodes out at a faster pace and CBS has given an order that they don't want this show adapting anything they could make a copyright claim on, the idea being to give J.J. Abrams and his team as much material as possible to work with for future movies. But most tellingly of all for me, while his company will continue to fund the show and he'll stay on as executive producer, this is to be James Cawley's final bow as James T. Kirk.
While Star Trek Phase II has cycled through actors in the past (there's been two Scottys and three Spocks alone, not to mention so many Sulus, Uhuras and Chekovs I can't keep track of them all), James Cawley has always been a constant and this show really does feel like a product of his own unique love for Star Trek. To me, Cawley is the only person aside from William Shatner who can make a claim to being the definitive Captain Kirk, and even William Shatner wasn't ever really him, he was just doing a performance art piece. Cawley's love of Star Trek allowed him to step into that Starfleet uniform and give fans the Jim Kirk they always saw in the Original Series, even if he wasn't always there in practice. The bridge simply won't be the same without him.
The argument can easily be made, and has been, that Star Trek Phase II isn't Star Trek. The original version of the show never got made, for one, and exists only in script form. This version, meanwhile, is basically big-budget fanfiction. But as I've often tried to argue, it's frequently fanfiction that is the purest sort of Star Trek: Even now, as this show is slowly being taken over by former Star Trek alumni, thus rendering its purely fan status somewhat dubious, it's worth remembering the only reason people like Doug Drexler, Dave Gerrold and Andy Probert (who guests in this episode, by the way) were staffers in the first place was because they too loved Star Trek and wanted a hand in shaping its future. And anyway, to me at least, the journey of Star Trek Phase II from seeming dead end to passionate fan project to pseudo-official division the Star Trek Brand assimilated into the grinding machines of late capitalism makes it just about the most archetypical Star Trek of all.