In 2019, I took the penultimate class needed to finish a long-overdue degree. That class was simply called Pop Culture. We had to look at a series, movie, book, music… something that could be examined under “four lenses.” Within the first hour of the class, I knew I wanted to look at Star Trek and there was one episode of classic Trek more deserving of that analysis than Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. It’s not that it’s a good episode; in fact it’s a bit like being beaten over the head to make a point. But considering when this was made and what the message is, it’s possibly one of the most significant episodes of Star Trek ever made.
That doesn’t mean it’s not full of the standard array of Trek-quirks. Riddle me this: why is it that when Bele (Another Batman alum, Frank Gorshin) sends his invisible ship on a crash course, Spock says it “disintegrated” to which Kirk asks “where is it now?” I wanted Spock to look up the definition of disintegrates for Jim (maybe in that blue-light google he has!) “Jim, ‘disintegrate’ means it’s nowhere… unless you count the molecules floating past the ship!” Jim also plays the bully, as he does from time to time, and even threatens to blow his ship up if he doesn’t have his way. A desperately bad situation for the crew, who diligently sit there as the computer counts down the 30 second destruct sequence. And when Bele damages the ship, “like this”, no one so much as flinches – they all just watch. Cinematically, there’s also the red alert which made me laugh by the second time it happened. The camera does this rapid zoom in/zoom out to show us that the alert is blasting! But that takes very little away from what is ultimately a very dark episode.
To understand my fascination with this one, it’s important to understand the four lenses. They are natural science, social science, history and the humanities. Natural science focuses on the physical world, the real life science. Bele and Lokai are examples of this with Spock and McCoy debating the dual coloring of the two aliens. They discuss that such coloring must be the result of conflict and speculate about the ranges from “black, to brown, to yellow, to white” as the spectrum of human coloring. The social sciences focuses on the relationship between people, which is painfully evident in our two warring alien visitors. The psychology of their hate is based on a very human trait: the need to find and repress the inferior. In this case, the message is blatantly one of historical significance with racial conflict. Black versus white or, in the case of Bele and Lokai, “half white” and “half black”, are representative of the historical conflicts we have experienced in our own history. (A history, we overhear Sulu explaining, from our “primitive” 20th century!) And the humanities focuses on the cultural impact, identifying similarities and differences in culture. As we find out here, Bele is black on the left side, but the “inferior” Lokai is white on the right side. Bele accuses Spock of being blind for not seeing it, yet Spock and Kirk see beyond the color; they realize how insane it is to evaluate people on the color of the skin!
While this episode is evidently a fantastical story about two aliens, the message is highly practical. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that taught us to evaluate people on the nature of their character; my sister and I didn’t identify skin color as a thing. We had, and have, friends of every color and religion. (I’m still waiting to add green people to that mix!) But the message here is one that should be heeded because, as we see with Bele and Lokai, hate can destroy us. To illustrate that, we are hit with an incredible series of superimposed images of burning buildings as the two enemies run through the ship, on their way home, to their own graves. Kirk doesn’t even try to stop them; they are of no threat to anyone but each other and they are filled with nothing but hate. It’s a bleak story with a depressing outcome. In the end, hate leads to death and a barren world. Let’s hope humanity is better than the inhabitants of Cheron! ML
The view from across the pond:
Could it be true? Could a series as casually racist as Star Trek, which gave us actors in blackface makeup as its most popular villain, have made an episode that is all about the dangers of racism, and where it can lead? No, of course not.
Look, I wouldn’t have minded the clumsiness of this, one little bit, if its heart was in the right place. I wouldn’t have minded the silliness of the half-black, half-white makeup to represent the aliens. I wouldn’t have minded clumsy lines like, “you monotone humans are all alike”, when he means “monochrome”, and that’s actually the opposite of what he’s trying to say anyway (“monochrome” is another term for “black and white”, i.e. a photo or a television – Kirk is… polychrome).
But no, this is all really very simple. Lokai represents black people in America. Bele (which is very sadly not pronounced “belly”) represents white people. Lokai’s people are ex-slaves, who want change and want equality. Bele accuses him of wanting change too quickly and wanting to destroy things. Lokai accuses Bele of wanting genocide. It’s a straightforward allegory. And what do the writers do, having established that? Well, let’s start here:
“You’re two of a kind.”
Hmm… awkward. Even leaving colour aside, as soon as you identify an alien with an oppressed minority, it’s clearly going to be a problem when Kirk starts insulting him or saying he’s the same as his oppressor. And then it gets worse. The writers have a very clear message for us, and that message is that both sides are equally culpable. They are just as bad and just as misguided as each other. The oppressed minority is no better than the oppressors, and shown to be equally foolish. So yeah, that’s the message being sold here. Stop whinging, minorities, and move on!
“Disgusting is what I call them.”
I’ll give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and just assume they were bad at their job rather than being deliberately and nastily racist here, because I think what happened is that they lost the message they were looking for during the writing process. Instead the episode meanders towards a different conclusion to a different issue: war is futile. Both sides end up wiping each other out. So we start with a story about racism and end with a lesson in the dangers of war… which is all well and good, but instead of a message that might have made some people stop and think at the time, we end up with one where they are preaching to the converted. War is hell. Yes, we know.
This was one of those times where I was delighted that Trek is just so silly, because a lot of unintentional humour made this a lot less miserable to watch. The zooming in and out on a light for red alert was hilarious. Maybe next time I’ve got a problem I should try moving my head back and forth like a chicken. Might that help? Then we had all of the drama undercut at the end by Spock giving a running report on Bele and Lokai chasing around the Enterprise, like some kind of a marathon commentator. It was a bit like watching a race, but with added stock footage of burning buildings. Finally, if you’re a fan of Red Dwarf, this will probably have had you in fits of laughter:
“You mean, all the people are dead?”
“All dead Captain. They have annihilated each other, totally.”
“My people, all dead?”
“Yes, commissioner, all of them.”
“No one alive?”
“None at all, sir.”
They’re all dead, Dave.
I think the one bit of the episode I really enjoyed (and not because I was laughing at the show), was the self-destruct sequence. It was all a bit extreme and silly, and I don’t believe a captain would risk getting within one second of his ship blowing up in order to make a stubborn point and avoid a delay, but it was all shot so well that it grabbed my attention. The tension is built very effectively, with extreme close-ups of the three people required to activate the self-destruct. But think about this: when the Enterprise arrives they find a planet that has just been destroyed, littered with bodies and still in flames. If Kirk had allowed Bele to go straight there, could he have saved the planet? Perhaps not, but it’s a depressing ending anyway. Somehow, for a story that seeks to apportion blame equally to oppressor and oppressed, a miserable ending seems just about right. RP