Star Trek: The Return of the Archons

Star Trek Opening TitlesAs classic Trek episodes go, this one is reasonably awful but it gets redeemed by something as simple as an expression on someone’s face.  Just look at McCoy!  Kirk and Spock conspire against “the body” of Landrau and McCoy is at peace.  Or, if I’m totally honest, he looks like he’s had a particularly satisfying constitutional.  In fact… is that the bathroom?

I’m sorry!  It just made me laugh when I saw it and that was all I could think of.  Terrible, I know!  If only there were stalls…


So what exactly do we know about this travesty of an episode?  100 years ago, a Starship went missing here.  It was called The Archon.  There, that’s why the episode has that terrible name.  We weren’t expected to know them from a previous episode.  Kirk and crew beam down to investigate and arrive just in time for “festival” where everyone celebrates the movie The Purge and for 12 hours, going wild, and littering in the streets.  The shame of it!  They clearly spend the next twelve hours cleaning up before doing it again the next day.  I was reminded of my pal, HP Lovecraft, due to this aspect of the story.  He has a story called The Festival and if that were the inspiration for this one, it might have been really interesting.  Instead, we go into a whole thing about being “of the body” and Laundry… I mean Landru is the all hearing ears that know when you talk about him.  He sends his Lawgivers with their hollow sticks to make the Enterprise crew “of the body” which effectively turns them into ultra-calm members of society, putting their hands to their hearts and calling everyone “my friend”.  Sadly, no HP Lovecraft influence after that exciting evening of debauchery!  It seems Landru is responsible for a society without fear… but then what the hell is The Festival if not something terrifying where people literally rip each other up, rape and pillage?  So, about that fear-free world…

Watching this story, I was not sure if I was seeing something very anti-religion or just anti-machine.  The fact that some of this went back 6000 years was interesting since the Archon was only missing for 100.  Or was there something anti-colonial about the story, with everyone dressed in colonial attire acting like fools?  On the other hand, there are some master strokes, like Kirk explaining that freedom has to be earned.  Whether or not that means beating people up remains to be seen but he does ask Spock if punching someone was a bit “old fashioned”, so maybe there are better ways to earn freedom. Like neck pinching.  I also like the realization that creativity enhances life.  That’s a fact.  That’s the very reason for our site!  (Well, we hope we’re enhancing your lives, but I know I’m enhancing mine by writing these articles!)

In Trek lore, the idea of non-interference is explained rather brilliantly as Kirk destroys the society he visits.  That law, it appears, is only applicable to healthy, growing societies, of which this one is evidently neither healthy nor growing.  In many ways, that’s the one real take-away from this story.  After Kirk literally talks the bad  guy to death, he turns to the one good monk and says, “Well you’re on your own.  I hope you’re up to it.  If I were you I’d start looking for another job.”  And off he goes.  Basically, everything you know was controlled by a computer, so hey, I’ve saved you but now we’re out of here and you have to figure everything out.  Oh, but I’ll give you a consolation prize: Sociologist Bob can stay here with you and he’ll help you rebuild society!  Bye Bob!

I don’t know what to say.  I can’t talk a robot to death.  And I don’t think I’d look good in a cravat.  But at least, here in the Junkyard, I know we are all of the body.  Right, friend?  ML

The view from across the pond:

The computer-gone-wrong story is one of the most basic tools of sci-fi writers, to the point where it has now become a tedious cliché. Perhaps in the 60s it was less of a cliché, but it was still not the most imaginative thing a writer could come up with. It tends to get used at the end of an episode as a twist revelation, something that works well in Doctor Who’s The Green Death, for example, but here it’s a surprise that doesn’t work. The same society has been stuck in a rut for 6000 years. Only a computer could engineer that.

The society it has engineered is fiendishly clever though, and quite scary too. The computer’s idea of perfection is “peace, harmony and no soul”. Order comes first, and that means crime must be eliminated. It’s impossible for people to be kept under complete control like that though; emotions and urges are too strong and will bubble to the surface, and there will always be the criminal element, however severely it is repressed. The computer’s solution is ruthlessly logical: decriminalise all crimes for a set period of time, make that a “festival”, and then people have an outlet for their frustrations and urges, but the computer retains some degree of control. It has parameters, and they are strict parameters. The clock is obeyed to the second. This is of course horrendously cruel when you think about it. Crimes have victims, and there is little the victims can do about that here. Tula’s plight is a stark and shocking example of that. The computer does not think of feelings. People are conforming to its set parameters.

The contrast between the daytime of order and the night of chaos is frightening, and brilliantly done. During the day everyone walks strangely slow, all at the same pace. Nobody has anywhere they have to be in a hurry, or if they do they are not allowed to show it. It’s all very unnatural. Then everyone stops what they are doing, pauses, and picks up a weapon, and the mob rules: chilling.

There is an interesting tonal shift when Kirk and his team get inside the hotel. Outside, everyone seemed like lobotomized criminals, going berserk by night, but inside the hotel there are people showing their real feelings and emotions. Hacom and Tamar reminded me of Waldorf and Statler, until one of them betrayed the other.

Of course, Kirk was always going to swan in and destroy the balance of this society. That’s how sci-fi works when there’s a computer ruling the world. But this being Trek I was hoping that there would be at least some mention of the ethics behind that. The writer threw me some breadcrumbs:

“Captain, our Prime Directive of non-interference.”
“That refers to a living, growing culture. Do you think this one is?”

This is the first time the Prime Directive is mentioned, and already it’s looking like a tool for empire building. Does a culture that is not changing have no value? For anyone who has studied history, that might bring a few things to mind. I’m not disputing that Kirk does the right thing. These people are living in purgatory. But his reasoning and dismissal of Spock’s concerns are hubristic, and worryingly indicative of a philosophy of superiority that remains unchanged since the days of empire.

“Sociologist Lindstrom is remaining behind with a party of experts who will help restore the planet’s culture to a human form.”

But an episode that raises issues like this is a valuable one. It might not have all the answers, but it certainly asks all the right questions. This was the future as seen through 1960s eyes, and sci-fi was starting to grow up.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Space Seed

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Star Trek, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Star Trek: The Return of the Archons

  1. scifimike70 says:

    For being both the first episode to mention the Prime Directive and the first where an exception is made, due to Kirk’s natural desire to not let a computer get away with enslaving a society, this was one of the many Treks to make me understand one thing. Namely that the Prime Directive was an agreeable justification for a world and people that are clearly capable of choosing and achieving a destiny of their own. But it’s when another world clearly needs help from us that we feel ethically and morally obliged to intervene. That still makes enough sense to me.

    This was most questionable in the classic Trek and it was a Next Generation episode, “Pen-Pals”, in which a discussion between the Enterprise ensemble proves that exceptions to the Prime Directive are compassionately just, with Picard’s quote: “We cannot turn our backs”. But only if the ways of intervening are more delicate as opposed to what we often saw in the classic Trek.

    These obvious differences between Kirk and Picard were important for TNG to be more successful than the classic Trek as Roddenberry intended. Because there was many things in the classic Trek that he was not happy about. Does this make Return Of The Archons a failure in retrospect? I can still appreciate its moral message which does mirror real-world issues. But I can look back on this one with a little more wisdom which I appreciate both your Junkyard reviews for. Thanks. 🖖🏻

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      There’s a sense of cosmic fate that when the Enterprise crew happens to be a place and point in time, it’s for a reason that justifies interference or intervention. So I for one found enough comfort from that. There were sadder endings in the later years of the continuing Treks and that really put me off. I don’t think that hubris is necessarily an overwhelming factor for the compulsion to interfere. But we all know that it can be a serious problem. So it comes down to interfering for the right reasons. From the heart. Not the ego.

      Quite realistically every act, even not intervening, is an intervention with consequences that can have a vast scope. The Day The Earth Stood Still had a timely message that if ETs should ever intervene greatly in our Earthly affairs, it’s because of something universally important that we must all take responsibility for. Kirk and Picard were all heart when it came to their courage to intervene, even with Starfleet precautions, and Trek will endure for giving us the best role models in that regard. 🙂🤝👽

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ShiraDest says:

    Interesting, and I love your points about colonialism: a culture that appears not to be growing from the pov of an outsider may well be growing in ways that outsider doesn’t see, and also, who the hell is he to judge, except in the case of clear human rights abuses.

    Liked by 2 people

    • scifimike70 says:

      I think to be fair enough, anyone in reality can find themselves in similar positions and this gets dramatized most often in TV and movies. Sometimes with a realistically happy ending and others with a forced unhappy ending. The latter we may accept, so long as it’s truthful. But for Trek, certainly when they got round to the most depressing examples in Enterprise, we knew the more optimistic outcomes for Kirk and Picard beforehand. So we can keep in mind that even if there are rules that must be in place and can work most of the time, such situations make us ponder how much out of our jurisdiction another world has to be for us humanely driven humans to never intervene.

      There are two sides to every coin. So Kirk has to go with his gut which is openly influenced by the dangers facing his ship and his crew. Other Trek series can go their own routes. But making the Prime Directive most questionable for the classic Trek was wise for the sake of audiences, certainly SF audiences at that time, who would naturally be turned off by seeing humanity in the future do nothing when other civilization clearly need our help.

      Liked by 2 people

      • scifimike70 says:

        We all like to see our heroes to come to the rescue in times of need. Certainly with SF heroes like Superman, Dr. Who and Sapphire & Steel. But a true hero must also know when to trust our capacity to be our own heroes. The only credit a hero truly needs is to show that positive thinking works and that we’re all equally capable. So that works for both Kirk and Picard too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ShiraDest says:

        True. And I agree with the obligation to help when blood is being shed, regardless of the cultural values. At the very least, torture and allowing it is never ok, no matter what a culture says.

        Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      That’s my problem with classic Trek, even if I do love it – it’s human-centric. Oh, this society is wrong… why? Because it’s not doing things the way humans do! Duh?! But that’s the problem – it’s very much a product of its time now. I can’t imagine this same mentality being created today without being called into question. Everything is based on what we think is the right decision. Who died and made us gods? ML

      Liked by 2 people

      • scifimike70 says:

        This is probably another reason why the classic Trek settled for so many worlds with humanoid life and astonishing parallels to our human history. Both the Vulcans and the Klingons clearly had their own ways which humanity could respect. Of course it stands to reason that all life in the universe, in unity with one infinite God, naturally has the same morals and ethics that we do, but just express them in their own ways. That helped soften the blow somewhat in Trek beginning with The Next Generation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ShiraDest says:

        Good point, and I agree. (although torture is always wrong, even if LtCmdr Worf might disagree).

        Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        I think that Babylon 5 is agreeably less human-centric then Star Trek. I must say that I found it more enjoyable for that. The futuristic space-age should naturally open up the scope of cosmic life for our consensus. It just goes to show how the right SF show may come along to properly stimulate the realism that we should all embrace.

        Liked by 2 people

      • ShiraDest says:

        Absolutely! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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