Sunday, November 3, 2013

“Between good sense and good taste...”: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

"It's the end. But the moment has been prepared for."
Personally, I've never been drawn to the idea of casually “marathoning” a television show. The idea of spending days locked inside watching every single episode of some TV show sounds to me like some heretofore unknown circle of Dante's Hell. I've never felt the need to be completionist about television because I've always understood the realities of day-to-day, 'round the clock production inevitably mean not every episode is going to be a classic, and I see no need to force myself to sit through obvious misfires in what's supposed to be my downtime.

Now for a project like this I do, of course, have to watch every episode, or at least almost every episode, because the point here is to get a relatively comprehensive understanding of the history and evolution of Star Trek. But if I were to just watch this show casually, I'd have no hesitation to skip over huge swaths of it because frankly the idea of watching “The Paradise Syndrome”, “Elaan of Troyius” or “Space Seed” again is the antithesis of entertaining to me. My point being I was long under the perhaps mistaken assumption that other people might have a similar viewpoint to mine here, so whenever I've been asked by someone to introduce them to a show, I almost always give them a truncated episode list of recommendations instead of flopping a twelve-disc DVD box set on their table. I figure if a friend, who presumably shares at least some of my taste and habits, is asking my advice on Star Trek they're not likely to find “A Private Little War” any more enjoyable or engaging than I did. So, when a few years back my sister wanted to get into the Original Series, of which she had no prior familiarity, I gave her a crash course on the show, and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was the place I suggested she stop.

I hadn't seen the Original Series in quite awhile when I made that list, and were I to do it again today I would have done a number of things differently: I'd have taken one or two episodes out and put a great deal more in (mostly from this season, interestingly enough), so apologies for that if you happen to be reading. I'm not sure if I would still have put the cutoff at this episode, because I have not, as of this writing, seen the last few episodes of the third season, though I at least feel I'd be justified in calling it quits here if I were so inclined (and yes, don't worry, we'll see the old lady all the way through “Turnabout Intruder” to port, no matter how painful it might be). “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” marks a number of endings and lasts of its own: It's the last really iconic episode of the Original Series, mostly due to Bele and Lokai, though there's something to be said about the art design on “The Cloud Minders”, I suppose. It's also the final episode Bob Justman worked on, walking away from the producer position he'd held since “The Cage”, and Gene Coon's final story contribution to not just this show, but to all of Star Trek.

I'm going to have a lot more to say about Justman and Coon later on, in particular Coon, as Justman at least gets to come back (along with D.C. Fontana and Dave Gerrold) for the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the meantime, let's talk a bit about the episode at hand. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” concerns the interception of a stolen shuttlecraft by the Enterprise, in the middle of a mission to deliver a much needed cure for a devastating plague. The shuttlecraft was stolen by an alien named Lokai, who is on the run and seeking political asylum. Moments later, his pursuer, Bele, appears (through an invisible one-way starship that disintegrates as soon as it transports its crew to another location, in one of the most stunningly and painfully cheap sequences in the entire franchise), demanding Kirk turn Lokai over, alleging him to be a mass-murderer who he's been pursuing for fifty thousand years. Both claim to be from Cheron, a planet unknown to the Federation at the opposite end of the galaxy, and are products of a centuries-long programme of institutionalized segregation and oppression of Lokai's people (who are white on the right side) by Bele's people (who are black on the right side).

So a parable about racism then. This seems like a logical and straightforward thing for Star Trek to be doing in 1969, although the fans astonishingly seem to disagree with me: Both The A.V. Club and the normally reliable and respectable Mark A. Altman pan this episode for being “too heavy-handed” and “obvious”, which just about makes me want to abandon this whole ridiculous endeavour right now and throw myself out of a third-story window. I do concede “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” has serious problems, however: It's nowhere near as good as I remember it being, but the reasons it falls apart has nothing to do with how “heavy handed” it is. For one, the statement “apartheid and the reconstruction-era Southern United States were very, very bad” (because that's pretty much the society Bele's people built on Cheron) is not a claim one should be subtle and restrained about. Certainly doing straight allegories of anything, not just institutionalized racism, is almost always a bad idea, because inevitably fiction writers aren't familiar enough with the historical and cultural factors that lead to such deplorable states to make an intelligent observation about them (especially if they're working on a television timetable), but the larger problem here is that “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” becomes just about the worst possible story about racism you can think of.

The fundamental problem is that there is simply no way to argue Lokai is in any way in the wrong. This is the most shining and perfect example of false equivalence and the Golden Mean fallacy this side of FOX News. Kirk spends the entire episode making bombastic speeches about how he's in charge of what happens on the Enterprise, how the Federation is the authority in this part of the galaxy and how pointless and self destructive hatred is, making him sound the most gratingly macho he has since the first season. In “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, the Enterprise crew goes out of its way to try and stay apolitical and above things, stunned at how much hatred Bele and Lokai have for one another over irrelevant details, as if racial hatred simply springs out of a vacuum. Racism developed on Cheron the exact same way it does on Earth: By one group of people attaining power and lording it over others they personally deem inferior and easy to control. Then, the oppressed developed an altogether rational and predictable loathing of their oppressors, and, determined to take their destiny and dignity into their own hands, strike back. Despite literally everything Spock says in this episode, every single action Lokai takes is perfectly logical, but the episode doesn't want us to side with him. Instead, he's portrayed as a charismatic, populist manipulator who sends people to die in his name for a pointless cause, which is wrong on just about every level I can conceive of, and probably some others I haven't yet.

The one criticism it is possible to level at Lokai is a problematization of his violent tactics. He is a very firm believer in vigilante justice and actively calls for the death of Bele and anyone who sides with him. I, like many radical leftist anarchists, am a bit ambivalent about the concept of violent revolution. I tend to be of the belief systems of oppression come about due to structures of power and how power tempts people to make choices that privilege themselves over others. Likewise however power structures are only sustained by people choosing, ether consciously or unconsciously, to submit to them. Some might feel that this is indeed the proper natural order of things, but I'd wager the vast majority simply are brought up to believe this type of unequal arrangement is simply “the way things are”. In the words of several of my estimable colleagues, this is “the banality of evil”, as it were. Though there are many willfully evil people, there are also people who do evil not aware that what they're doing is evil, or without the agency to do anything else. Killing these sort of people accomplishes nothing as the underlying system remains unchanged, and Kirk is right to point this out, but “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” doesn't go anywhere near as far as it needs to in this area: What it needed was a scene encouraging revolutionary voluntary noncompliance as a possible solution to Lokai's problem. Instead, the episode depicts the Enterprise crew preferring to remain disconnected and above things and to paper everything over with smug platitudes about “senseless violence”.

In an effort to spare Gene Coon, not just because I want to fawn over him at the end of this post but because his actual involvement in this episode was minimal at best, this really wasn't his idea. Coon pitched the story that would eventually become this episode back in the first season and while Gene Roddenberry liked it, the network didn't. Fast forward two years, however, and Star Trek was nearing the end of its lifespan and out of scripts. Knowing the show was at this point just looking for anything they could dig up and throw out to fill out the last bit of the episode quota, writer Oliver Crawford found Coon's original pitch and built this script around it. Certainly the finished product simply doesn't sound like Coon: Even as recently as “Wink of an Eye” he was demonstrating a far more nuanced conception of utopia and sense of sociopolitical patterns than anything we get here. Even Crawford wasn't responsible for the half-moon cookie aliens, though: Director Jud Taylor suggested that look, and Gene Coon's original pitch mentioned a literal devil pursuing and tormenting a literal angel, which would perhaps have driven home Coon's intended political subtext a wee bit stronger.

And that's as good a segue as any into my farewell to two of Star Trek's greatest foundational figures. Bob Justman was involved with the franchise from literally the very beginning. He and Herb Solow were as important in launching Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry. While Roddenberry came up with ideas and put his name on everything and D.C. Fontana handled the parts of the production to do with scripts and story pitches (getting to a point where she would have to singlehandedly rewrite every submission that crossed her desk) it was Justman who had to bear the brunt of the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts television-making stuff. He was the one who had an eye on the budget and oversaw every single production cast change, being the guy who had to do the dirty work of hiring and firing people. And, of course, he was the only original creative figure to carry through to this season, for which took on the additional duty of co-producer from “Spectre of the Gun” to now, essentially becoming Star Trek's showrunner for the majority of the third season. As I mentioned above, we're not saying goodbye to Justman forever quite yet, but it is a somber feeling knowing the show has devolved to a point where even he has to walk away from it.

We are, however, saying goodbye forever to Gene Coon, who soured on Star Trek so bitterly after “Bread and Circuses” he didn't even want to come back for Star Trek: The Animated Series despite D.C. Fontana personally requesting he join her writing staff, thus becoming one of the extremely few creative figures from the Original Series not to make the transition to the sequel show. Coon died not long afterward of lung cancer, which tragically meant he was unable to return for either Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That this, a mediocre and not especially effective pantomime of his most personal themes and ideas (the episode even has Kirk come right out and say he and his crew are the Federation's “best representatives”, which couldn't misread Coon any more completely if it tried), is the note on which he has to bow out of the franchise for good has got to be one of the cruelest jokes in the history of television.

What else is there to say about Gene Coon than what I've already said? This is the man who created Starfleet, the Federation, the Klingons and the Prime Directive and problematized each and every one of them. This is the man who was consistently arguably the best writer in the entire Original Series, regularly turning out some of the show's most imaginative, creative, challenging and thought provoking stories. This is the man who wrote “Arena”, “The Devil in the Dark”, “Bread and Circuses” and “A Piece of the Action”. It was Coon's tenure as producer that saw scripts from Robert Bloch, Paul Schneider, Harlan Ellison and Dave Gerrold. Coon was the one who encouraged Dave Gerrold to submit “The Trouble With Tribbles” and walked with him step-by-step in transforming his original submission into a story that became an instant classic. It was under his tenure that D.C. Fontana became story editor and got “Journey to Babel” made. Gene Coon was the one who got John Meredyth Lucas the job as Coon's own successor, and Lucas' tenure boasts probably the greatest run of classics and mini-classics in the entire series.

Gene Coon is the man William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy emphatically refer to as an unsung hero. Gene Coon was the man who helped make Star Trek Star Trek.

Gene Coon gave Star Trek its heart and soul.


  1. "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" was one of my favourite episodes of TOS, and not just because of the epic title, which is my major draw to "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (and because the 14 year old that lives in my left ventricle just enjoyed that Dr McCoy got a girl-of-the-week instead of Kirk). But I took a different message from the Lokai-Bele relationship than you did.

    I could see where Kirk and the crew were coming from because of a key difference between Lokai's rage and the rage of anti-racism/apartheid/Jim Crow. Lokai didn't just want an end to the discrimination of his people. I got the sense from his dialogue that he wanted to keep the oppressive structures of Charon society, and just switch positions. Instead of wanting reparations and an end to apartheid, he wanted revenge. Lokai treated Bele with a contempt that mirrors Bele's for himself. They always talked about the other's animalistic tendencies. The final fate of Charon likewise suggests that no one on either side of the conflict actually wanted peace, and preferred to use their psychokinetic powers to destroy each other rather than dismantle their racist institutions.

    I remember Kirk and the crew being irritated by Lokai, but also sympathetic to his concerns until he just became so enraged at Bele that he would actually have torn the ship apart to destroy him. I got the sense that Charon's society consisted of cycles of oppression as right-blacks and right-whites gained superiority. That's where Kirk's (admittedly oversimplified) language about throwing away mutual hatred came from.

    1. I dunno. I mean I do see where you're coming from and it does definitely redeem the episode significantly, I'm just not sure even that is enough to salvage it for me. Oh, so we're going to do a story about racism and race hatred but we're going to cast the oppressed character as a vengeful manipulator. That still sounds like sidestepping the issue to me, and now it seems kinda ahistorical and unrealistic to boot: I'm having a very hard time coming up with examples of oppressed people who were as vindictive and spiteful as their oppressors. Typically the oppressed have a reason to be loud and angry. They might not always channel their anger in the right directions, but more often than not they should probably be forgiven for that. Lack of voice, respect and education are all side effects of oppression after all.

    2. I completely agree with your point that oppressed peoples (especially those that have suffered several generations of oppression) in real life have the nuances you describe. I find this episode works more like the morality plays that you suggested Roddenberry conceived the show to do in the early days. Yes, it's much too pat and simple to declare that an oppressed people who seeks only to turn the tables on their oppressors commits an equal or worse evil. Like Flex mentions below, this is a sci-fi story for Kennedy Liberals, which isn't quite what Star Trek can achieve at its best, but can still be remarkable, given the political and cultural context of 1968/9.

      But I think that idea still has value as a warning sign not to let reparations become resentment. I see the 'Oppressed Become Oppressor' narrative play out fairly frequently in some partisan discussions of the Israeli Occupation, for example. It's a concept with usefulness and power, despite it not having the nuance and complexity of the absolute best Star Trek.

    3. OK, I can see that. And certainly as a Roddenberry-esque morality play this works, far, far better than, well, anything in the actual Roddenberry era did, I'm not especially fond of that model of the show, especially when we've been through two and a half showrunners who have demonstrated the show can do more than that, but as an execution of Star Trek's original brief one could certainly do worse than "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield".

      And you make a good point about Israel: That probably is one of the few cases where the sort of thing you describe has happened in the real world.

    4. And of course, the Israeli situation is itself far more complicated and nuanced than the simple story of Oppressed Become Oppressors can handle, given the continual domestic opposition to their occupation that has occurred in Israel since 1967, and the tangled relationships of the state military, the settlement movement, and the ultra-orthodox communities.

      Compared even to the real-world situations it can illuminate, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield still reads more like a fable than insight. I just happen to think it's an extremely good fable.

  2. Like so much of this show, this is anti-racism for Kennedy Liberals (which I actually mean in a fairly affectionate way), which is fine for what it is but doesn't hold up well if you actually want a sophisticated treatment on racism. This is another episode where a lot of the remembered strength is from the visual aesthetics. The make-up work is pretty striking and the sort of thing you remember even when you haven't seen the episode in years.

    As a side note, the "heavy handed" complaint is a pet peeve of mine that drives me up the wall (as in, folks who complain about stuff being heavy handed). As you say, some things are worth being heavy handed about. I think this is partly an effect of the ascendancy of South Park Nihilism in progressive pop culture, where actually taking positions on moral issues is considered anathema among the hip young things who write insipid think pieces on the economics of meth production in Breaking Bad over at Slate or whatever.

    Finally, your entire project has made me appreciate Gene Coon and his contributions to the show in a way I certainly never did before. So thanks for that.

    1. And I suppose I can't complain *too* much about that: Kennedy Liberalism is *slightly* better than just straight-up confrontationally retrograde. I guess my issue is that I expect Star Trek to do better because I know it *can* do better, though I should know more often than not this is probably wishful thinking on my part.

      And you're quite welcome: If drawing attention to Gene Coon is the biggest thing I accomplish here, well, that's fine with me.

  3. Oh, and where would you like your membership card for the "left anarchists who are ambivalent about violent revolution club" shipped to? :-)

    1. The noösphere, c.o. the secret Tower-Within-The-Tower.

  4. I'll admit my affection for this episode hinges 100% on Frank Gorshin's magnetic performance. The way he can spontaneously go from calm to spewing hatred and rage is uncanny, and this was the height of Gorshin pop culture relevance as he's bringing the same fervor to Batman's Riddler. A rare case of a guest actor stealing the show so completely.

    I haven't the slightest notion how to tackle the plot problems. I'm certainly an Anarchist, so far left of Left it irks me when men in suits who have government jobs and things like insurance call themselves "liberal", and I believe any non-defensive (a loaded caveat, to be sure) form of violence is an act of cowardice, so neither Bele nor Lokai come across as sympathetic, despite Lokai's righteous offense and all its historical precedent.

    But I've often struggled to reconcile my own fairly complete nonviolence with my ambivalence toward it in banal daily life, or with a more global eye toward pragmatic results. Just because I abhor it near my person doesn't seem to negate its efficacy, or how it sometimes (particularly in the mundane, an old fashioned supervised bout of mouths then fists at a bar) seems to be just the required thing to humble egos.

    But certainly nonviolent noncompliance should have been offered as alternative - and could have been particularly effective even as a futile gesture, naturally from Spock.

    1. Certainly agreed IRT Frank Gorshin: He's marvelous. There must have been some sort of sense of natural evolution and contiguousness between Batman and Star Trek: Yvonne Craig shows up next week.

  5. And of course that half-moon cookie reference went over pretty well here in Utica.