Some Star Trek episodes are hard to watch. I’m looking at you, Space Hitler. Patterns of Force had the decency to explain that the Nazi regime was wrong but hey, they were controlled by bad men and they didn’t intend to be bad. It’s an enlightened view but it just doesn’t come off well on screen and Kirk is almost too forgiving of his former teacher when everyone knows you DON’T FOLLOW THE WAYS OF THE NAZI. Like, that’s a universal truth, right there! The regime was bad and that’s all I need to know. I realize this may have been an early attempt at the whole “villains don’t see themselves as villains” trope, but these people modeled themselves on a society that everyone knows was bad. It comes down to basic human decency and I’ll jump forward in time to quote John Sheridan, “Any crew that executes an order like that is guilty of war crimes.” We know that because of the Nazis! I have some strong opinions and this is one area that I’m not going to be able to sway much. You can’t expect me to believe that by the enlightened time of the Federation, that has been forgotten, can you?
So the plot: Kirk goes to find out what happened to his old mentor, John Gill. As it happens, Gill is so doped up that the actor barely utters a sound and I couldn’t help but wonder if they hired this guy and he chickened out before ever going to screen. Were the writers like “hey, just say a few words. We’ll make it that your character is so stoned, no one will notice.” Somehow, Johnny Boy muttered out the idea to follow Hitler and the Nazi party which lead to this episode. And boy do I dislike this one. But it is Trek and that means we might have an important message in here. What did we learn? A lot of rubbish, really…
First, again my son’s words echo in my mind: knocking people out is a breeze. Why more people aren’t being knocked out daily is anyone’s guess. Grocery line? Karate chop the guy in front of you! Out cold! Annoyed that your boss is asking you to work extra hours? Hi-ya! Out cold. If my son drinks the last of the chocolate milk… you know what’s coming! Once again in standard orbit, we discover that because this is a humanoid society, there are bound to be similarities in architecture. Um… really? I don’t think that’s how it works. In this episode we also get to see both Nimoy and Shatner making their directorial debut. They seem to hold the camera so close to their targets that the movie they produce could be called Nose Hairs of the 3rd Reich. Thankfully, practice does improve things and by the Trek movies, we get a quality product. We also get the reminder that McCoy is a fantastic doctor. On the way to find Gill, he knows just the words to take the edge off Kirk’s concern for his former instructor: “Must be dead!” In other news, it’s good to have a guide. When Kirk and Spock escape their cells, Isak offers to come because without him, they’ll never find the laboratory. They walk out the door and they are in a hallway with 3-4 doors; one of which is the lab. Phew! Thank Apollo they had a guide! What would they do without him? How about when Gill finally comes out of his stupor, the curtain can’t decide if it should stay open or closed. Must be alien curtains. During his stupor, we are told he can’t initiate speech but he can answer questions. Clearly answering questions uses a different part of the brain than initiating speech. Right? And when you need a Batman moment, inject something under the skin that was never used before and will never be used again! Lastly, was it cleaver writing or just being in the mood to beat us over the heads by making the names so evidently Jewish: Isaac (Isak) and Abraham (Abrom) are both from Zion (Zeon). There was no mistaking who were the bad guys and who the victims; not sure we needed it spelled out so much. (I felt pretty confident I knew what culture was being targeted in A Piece of the Action and their names were not Corleone, Lombardi, and Gotti on the planet Etaly!)
Look, I know this episode annoyed me, so I’m being harsh. There are some fun bits like Spock on Kirk’s back. I also love how Kirk will tell Spock to take broken things to try to manufacture one working item. “Here’s Spock, takes this rubbish bin and make a working transporter… if you don’t think you can…” There is a great line when Kirk says they’ll make a human of Spock yet, he says quickly: “I hope not!” The episode can be summed up with two lines: “If we adopt the ways of the Nazis, we’re as bad as the Nazis.” You bet! Kirk understood that; why didn’t Gill? Because of the second most important line in the episode, “Even historians fail to learn from history.” In some ways we are living that now. The episode is designed to teach us the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely and that, at least, is timely. If Trek gets anything right, it’s having good messages and these are important ones. But a good message does not have to be beaten into us. What Science Fiction succeeds at so well is telling stories allegorically. There’s no room for allegory here – it’s too blatant and that gets tiresome quickly. While next season’s race episode is not well thought of, I think it is a far better illustration of the folly of racism and is far more enjoyable to (jack)boot! ML
The view from across the pond:
This episode is often described as “Nazis in Space”, but the action is almost entirely confined to the planet Ekos. There’s not much “in space” going on. That makes this more accurately “alien Nazis”, but the problem with that is the Ekosians and their enemy Zeons look entirely human. Star Trek is getting lazy about its alien races, and some little green men dressed as Nazis might have had a bit more impact than what we get here. Having said that, it does work reasonably well as a condemnation of the xenophobia inherent in Nazism. Both sides of the conflict look the same. They’re all just humans. There are positives and negatives to this. On the one hand it makes the xenophobia look ridiculous, which of course it is, but on the other hand the writer struggles to make sense of the prejudices shown here. The Ekosians recognise Zeons only by their lack of a uniform, which makes infliltration laughably easy. The major asking Spock to remove his helmet comes out of the blue, as there is nothing to indicate there will be anything unusual concealed there. Having identified them as non-Ekosians, the major treats Spock and Kirk as subhuman, although there is certainly nothing in Kirk or indeed any of the Zeons to provoke the “phobia” aspect of “xenophobia”. So it’s all a bit of a stretch.
The situation on Ekos came about because Federation visitor John Gill decided that modelling a civilisation on Nazi Germany would be efficient. The study of history must have become a lost art in the future, because no genuine historian today would hold up Nazi Germany as a model of efficiency. Quite the opposite in fact. The clue to what has gone wrong can perhaps be found in Spock being impressed by Gill’s history text treating his subject as “causes and motivations rather than dates and events”. If this marks him out as something unusual, then the study of history in the future fails to reach even a basic GCSE level of sophistication. And to be honest, it’s hard to understand this episode as the product of a writer who had even that basic understanding himself, because John Meredyth Lucas fails to get across the reason Nazi Germany functioned at all, despite actually not being the efficient model he suggests: the personality cult of Hitler. Instead, John Gill is a drugged and sedentary figurehead, delivering emotionless speeches with his mouth hidden behind a microphone. That makes him about as far from a nationalism-inspiring fuhrer as you could possibly get.
This is my first time watching Classic Trek, so I’ve never read or seen any interviews with the cast. I would be interested to know if Shatner and Nimoy have ever been asked their thoughts about this episode. They are both Jews, and this episode seems highly disrespectful, from the twisting of traditional Jewish names (Abrom, Isak, Davod, Zeon), to the flippant approach to the topic in general. At no point is there any serious attempt to reflect the horror of Nazi Germany. Instead it’s just the usual Trek captures, fights and escapes. Nimoy presumably refused to do anything approaching a Nazi salute, because the script calls for him to do so and then fails to acknowledge his half-hearted attempt. He’s not Spock in that moment, because Spock would absolutely have observed and delivered the correct arm action. But that’s the only indication that anyone had an issue with what they were doing here, because the Kirk/Spock double act is a strong as ever. You can only wonder at the professionalism of these actors, doing their best with trash like this. The funniest moment of the episode was Spock deciding to have a casual chat with Kirk while standing on his whipped back, but my laughter was uneasy because this didn’t feel like the kind of story where we should be laughing at all, as it basically took a version of Nazi Germany and put it on the screen, played straight. It’s of course perfectly possible to make a comedy from the topic (Allo Allo), but if you’re going to do that then you have to really go big with the absurdity of the Nazis and their beliefs. Playing it straight but flippantly just feels horribly disrespectful to those who had survived the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, bearing in mind this episode was made not much more than two decades after the War. Would the US take such a flippant approach to 911 in an episode of Star Trek today? I don’t think so. So let’s get real here. Leonard Nimoy’s parents escaped from pre-War anti-Semitism in Ukraine to come to America. Nimoy was roughly 10 years old when around a million Ukrainian Jews were being murdered by the Einzatzgruppen. The outcome for him if his parents had stayed doesn’t bear thinking about. And yet, the people making Trek saw fit to dress him up in Nazi uniform and ask him to do a Nazi salute, for the sake of a silly, cheap piece of television like this, with nothing to say about the horror of the War. I’ll leave you with a video of Nimoy talking about his wartime childhood. RP