Star Trek: A Private Little War

Star Trek Opening TitlesThere have been countless articles and comments over the years about Star Trek’s season 2 pro-Vietnam episode, A Private Little War.  This isn’t going to be about that.  As readers, we’ve been there, done that.   This is my experience with what is little more than a remake of Friday’s Child without the comedy.  Actually, Friday’s Child was little more than a remake of Errand of Mercy for me.  What do all of these have in common?  Well, as a kid watching, these three episodes share the commonality that they have no cool monster.  I remembered the Mugatu, of course, but he barely counts.  As an adult, I have a different take.  What we really learn is that Kirk’s racism is against one of the lamest races in Science Fiction history.  We’ve encountered the Klingons four times now.  One featured them trying to poison grain during a comedy episode about furballs.  The other three had to do with them attacking primitive cultures because this “warrior race” didn’t have the might for outright conquest.  How did this race become so popular and more incredibly, how did they ever become such the warrior race???   The Organians ended up being gods, but at first sight, they are old men in robes.  Next, one singular rogue Klingon interferes with a group who still used bows and very curved arrows to fight and yet even then, he manages to take an arrow to the knee.  (If he didn’t die, he might have retired to Skyrim…)  Now we get another singular rogue Klingon who decides to give arms to “the villagers” because why not?  They had to go to one side or the other.  Just because Kirk sided with the Thal leader Tyree, doesn’t make them the good guys!   Oh, did I say Thal?  Sorry, another Doctor Who reference.  The Thals are a race of blonde pacifists who won’t fight back.  Ian tries to take a Thal woman from “her man”, and he gets clobbered, making the Thal’s realize, oh yeah they will fight.  Lo and behold, Tyree needs the same incentive.  The only difference is that these Thal’s have stickers they put on their faces.

Speaking of Tyree’s woman, I’m glad I wasn’t watching on a laptop; she heats up the screen to dangerous levels.  And even though she is the strongest character in the camp, even Klingon-hater Kirk gives her these dismissive looks like “what’s a woman doing using her brain?”  She’s a clever woman who uses a form of catnip to entice her husband and “that one”, Kirk.  No wonder Tyree gets jealous.  (I think the herb is called Cap’Nip).  She is another character who could have added so much if they made her a regular, or even a semiregular.  She actually wants to learn; she’s prime “companion” material, as Doctor Who dubs those stragglers who end up tagging along.  And I would have been happy with that because Nona is lovely, smart and just a bit dangerous… sort of like Doctor Who’s Leela.  Now, I’m not the only one to fall for this Witchy Woman, but what really bothered me is the near gang-rape that gets depicted on screen.  Thinking she’s going to negotiate with the enemy, 4 men attack her and start groping  her and forcing themselves on her, kissing her against her will and who knows what else before Kirk and Tyree arrive.  In a word, what the hell?!?!?   Not only did I not remember this, but I was mortified by it.  What was going on with these weird Klingon stories?  Julie Newmar took a right hook to the face in Friday’s Child, but Nona is literally sexually assaulted.  Trek is supposed to be ahead of its time!  Um… really???

If this isn’t enough, the McCoy Syndrome has now taken full effect with me.  Roger was right: McCoy is a dolt. His prognosis about Spock’s recovery (from being shot through, mind you): “he’ll either live or die now.”  Well, boy howdy!  I could walk into any hospital and become a doctor with those credentials.  Point into a room, look at a hot witch… I mean a nurse… and knowingly say “he’ll either live or die now”.  I can get the whole staff to fall for me if I play the McCoy card!  “Look, I’m a doctor, not a random guy who walks into hospitals and says I’m a doctor!”  McCoy also decides rather than use fire, he should use his phasers to heat up rocks to keep Jim warm.  Who witnesses it?  Nona.  Good job with keeping it secret, Doctor Doofus.  Oh, that’s not all.  Who gives Kirk and McCoy away during the episode?  You guessed it: Doctor Detected.  They do get the drop on the absolutely weakest Klingon of them all, who is never seen again in the episode after being kicked in the back once, but what a foolish mistake!  And when McCoy gets shot in the arm, he seems more confused by it and reacts like anyone shot by a … paper clip?  Did the director fail to explain to Deforest what was happening?  He should have been acting like he was shot by a bullet.  My view of McCoy has definitely suffered.

Kirk’s past continues to get explored.  13 years ago, we learn he was hanging out doing a survey of these Thals and now he’s back to see how things have gone.  When he wrote his report to Starfleet, I bet he left out the bit about Tyree’s ability to pull a drum out of his hair.  See, while Nona is working her root magic, Tyree suddenly has a drum in his hands; he bangs out about 2 beats and he was done.  But… where did it come from??  This is also a strange episode in that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are all injured, even if McCoy doesn’t know it.  Christine falls for Spock again; she’s an on-again, off-again kind of lover, and Spock needs a good smacking to appreciate life.   I’m so bewildered.

While I found this episode appallingly bad, I did like the discussion on the bridge about the rate of development by different races.  It tied in with Nona’s comment that some men never grow.  Races and individuals have one thing in common: people.  And people develop at different rates.  The point of the episode seems to be that weapons advance faster than wisdom and “killing is stupid and useless” which sounds obvious, until you turn on the news.  When the guns entered society, Kirk equates it to the serpent in the garden of Eden.  But it’s not the weapon that is the serpent, it’s what people will do.  When the four men attack Nona, they throw down their guns.  When Tyree almost shoots Kirk, his friend, it’s over jealousy about Nona.  I’m not blaming Nona, merely pointing out that evil comes from people’s motivations.  People let the serpent enter the garden; no tools are required for the job.   ML

The view from across the pond:

This episode was so obviously written as an allegory for the Vietnam War that I found it absolutely fascinating, and was inspired to do some research on the making of the episode, after I watched it. So it appears that the original script was written by Don Ingalls as a critique of American involvement in Vietnam. Gene Roddenberry was not happy about that, and in a production memo he wrote: “What is he saying here – don’t screw up simpler societies? If he is aiming for a Viet Nam theme that certainly can’t be it. The things at stake in Viet Nam are much more important and powerful than a charitable attitude toward simpler people in the world.” Nasty stuff, isn’t it. The episode was then rewritten by Roddenberry and Don Ingalls’s involvement was acknowledged under the pseudonym of Jud Crucis. This was clearly not Roddenberry’s finest hour, and the broadcast schedule could not have been worse, placing this just before the tide of public opinion in the US turned against the war. Never has a television episode offered a viewpoint that was so immediately and thoroughly redundant.

The problem that Kirk faces here is an interesting one, and the seriousness is thoroughly established by first Spock and then Kirk getting near-fatally wounded. This feels like a far more dangerous situation than most episodes. That removes Spock from Kirk’s side, and he instead has only McCoy as a sounding board. Good luck with that. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt throughout the series it’s that McCoy is a complete imbecile. Sorry, but that’s clearly the truth of the matter, and he’s every bit as useless as usual here. Both Spock and Kirk have to be cured by somebody else, so he’s a terrible doctor as always, and by now we are quite used to McCoy’s unconstructive criticism:

“What is your sobre, sensible solution to all this?”
“I don’t have a solution.”

So in terms of somebody with whom to discuss their predicament, McCoy is worse than useless, and Kirk is really on his own. McCoy just makes matters worse, allowing Nona to see him using the phaser, which she ends up stealing and then inexplicably failing to use to save her life, in favour of a knife. At times this is a pretty grim episode, and the mood is only momentarily lightened by the utterly ridiculous hairy, horned white bear thing.

But Kirk is awful here too, in the hands of his creator, Roddenberry. The focus is entirely on his angst at having no choice but to screw up a whole civilisation and maintain the balance of power. It’s sold as the lesser of two evils, instead of allowing one faction to destroy another. And yet Kirk finds out about the Klingons arming the villagers and does nothing about that. He doesn’t complain about it to anyone. He doesn’t fight the Klingons. That’s because he’s afraid to start a war. It’s OK if the natives die, but it’s not OK to protect their right to a peaceful existence, if that results in some Federation deaths. At the end he walks away from his responsibilities, going back to the safety of the Enterprise, while the people on the planet are left to fight a war that has been forced upon them, and Kirk fully intends to maintain the arms race with the Klingons. This episode badly needed a coda with Kirk returning to find all life wiped out on the planet. There needed to be some acknowledgement of the damage done to the “Garden of Eden”, beyond Kirk’s hand-wringing at being the one to supply the weapons. There needed to be a strong criticism of Kirk’s decision, rather than the suggestion that he had no choice. There’s always a choice. Basically, the episode needed Spock to not be asleep for most of it, as he would have actually provided Kirk with the moral compass he needed.

I can’t condemn this episode because it does exactly what I always say that I want from sci-fi. It makes the viewer think. It reflects contemporary issues. It stands as an interesting reflection of public opinion, mere days before the tide would turn, but ultimately it’s morally bankrupt. It fascinates and repels in equal measure. Like City on the Edge of Forever, it fails to find a blatantly obvious third way. But more than that, even without the third way, Kirk doesn’t even pick the lesser of two evils. The arms race is the greater evil, serving only to maintain the balance of power between two interstellar factions that are nothing to do with anyone on the planet, while a formerly peaceful civilisation is destroyed. I’ve never liked the crew of the Enterprise less.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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6 Responses to Star Trek: A Private Little War

  1. scifimike70 says:

    There’s nothing sadder than a Star Trek episode that’s set up for a depressing ending. Speaking as someone who acknowledges all the evils and tragic aftermaths of the Vietnam war, this was a bad episode on Roddenberry’s part. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just remove all the flintlocks from Neural and force the Klingons out? Clearly Star Trek is not as optimistic as it was meant to be and Babylon 5 was the better series for allowing such delicate issues of war more reasonably.

    Nancy Kovack as Nona is among Trek’s bast casting. Her credits include Jason And The Argonauts and Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold. Michael Whitney is also good casting as Tyree. The scene for Nona’s death and Tyree forsaking his desire for peace to avenge her death, thus setting the war in motion, served as a reminder for how vulnerable we can be when it comes to hate and revenge. I can give A Private Little War points for that. But it’s an even more severe reminder for being that most obvious occasion where the Prime Directive should have been honoured by Kirk.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ShiraDest says:

    Thank you, Gentlemen, for this review: I had no idea that such an episode of Trek existed.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Okay, here’s the thing… the Klingons were NOT a proud warrior race in the original series, and in the first few movies. They were a bunch of sneaky, treacherous, manipulative bastards who invaded primitive civilizations, poisoned food supplies, tortured prisoners, and executed innocent civilians. It was the Romulans who were the honorable, noble warriors in the original series, as seen in “Balance of Power” and “The Enterprise Incident.”

    So what changed? Well, Gene Roddenberry introduced Worf in The Next Generation. Roddenberry was commenting on detene and the easing of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, on how former enemies were becoming allies. And since the Klingons were stand-ins for the Soviets, why not have a Klingon serving in Starfleet? The problem is, based on how the Klingons were depicted in the original series, the animated episodes, and the movies that had been made up to that point, there is no way in hell one of them would ever be fit for duty on the Enterprise. So suddenly with Worf the Klingons become proud, honorable, noble warriors. And when the Romulans finally did return in Next Gen, now THEY are the ones who are sneaky & treacherous.

    Of course, there were a number of episodes that then explored the idea that Klingon honor is mostly a facade, that behind the scenes a lot of them were still scheming, treacherous bullies. But since Worf is the most widely-known Klingon to the general public, that’s how most people perceive Klingons, as these noble warriors.

    Liked by 3 people

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