Star Trek: The Savage Curtain

Star Trek Blue LogoI find myself frequently asking a very important question when watching Star Trek: did the writers intend for that to be funny?  This episode has one of my top 5 funniest moments when Kirk, determined to show that good is better than evil, attempts to strangle a rock monster.  He barely gets to touch the creature before pulling back with an “ooo!”  I had to pause again even though I knew it was coming.  I know Jim isn’t the science officer but presumable he’s learned that steam indicates heat.  Red does too, and the thing is molten rock that goes red before becoming a strange but wonderful looking alien.  I mean, the clues were there.  Presumably the man has taken the odd shower in his life and saw red on the hot side and blue for the cool, right?   And the thing is, this episode is ridiculous.  Oh, don’t misunderstand me; when it ended, I was stunned that a full hour had gone by, but it’s a premise that fails on a lot of levels.  Weirdly, it’s not even that Abraham Lincoln comes aboard because they wrote him so well that I actually bought into that idea and loved the character!  So let’s explain why this episode is ridiculous.

Rocky (the rock monster, not the Philadelphia figher), is a fan of Star Trek so he calls his mates and says, “I’ll show you why this show is good.  Tune in to channel 90866 and watch.”  Then he sets the stage.  Since Rocky was also a fan of The Outer Limits, he watched Fun and Games and throws the idea out for Kirk and Spock.  “We want to understand good and evil.  Fight to the death with your “evil” enemies to show us and you can save your crew.  … What?  It worked in The Outer Limits!  You try it…!”  So Kirk and Spock are paired up with Abe Lincoln and Surak, father of Vulcan philosophy.  They are up against Colonel Green and Genghis Khan from Earth, Zora of the Swept Eyebrow planet, and Kahless of the Klingon empire.  (Yes, this is where we first meet the great Kahless… the one we spend time with in The Next Generataion… the one who had a ridged head in that series but not this one…!)  Now first of all, “evil people” rarely think they are evil, so Green and Genghis at least are probably feeling a bit put upon.  (Green is probably considering a lawsuit for defamation of character!)  But these guys probably just wanted to do right by their own people.  Still, accepting that they are who they are, they plan to fight in the game show.  Kirk demonstrates how good they are by trying to strangle their host.  Lincoln suggests “we match their evil”, again proving that good is… well, dumb.  The good guys lose Surak because he didn’t get the message that his enemies were planning on killing him – father of logic, my pointed ears!  Not to mention, haven’t we established that Vulcans are stronger than humans?  Two of them and they can’t take out at least Green, Genghis, or maybe even the Swept Eyebrow?  The mind boggles!  Anyway… Lincoln belly crawls to Surak because he can’t tell what dead looks like and gets a spear in the back as a result.  (Didn’t he notice the lack of movement, speaking or a pulse?)  Kirk kills Green by making him stab himself in the back!  And yet, Rocky says the good guys won because “evil retreats when forcibly confronted”.

Now wait just a damned minute!  I’m not suggesting you kill Kirk and Spock, but let’s do the math: 50% of the good guys lie dead and only (out of revenge) does Kirk kill 25% of the bad guys.  Killing is evil, ergo, the act of Jim killing Green was evil, thus… good won?  Huh?  Wait wait wait!  Evil retreated, Rocky says.  But during their first fist fight, evil retreated then too!  Two retreats is a loss?  Was that in the rule book?  Or did Rocky get bored with how long it was taking for the fighting to start.  (Remember, before the commercial break, they say they only have 4 hours to battle.  Immediately after the commercial break, we’re down to 2 hours… and no one had moved!)    “You know what, Excalbian mates, I think T.J. Hooker is on in a few minutes… we can watch that instead!  Kirk, Spock… you won, so um… go home and… you know… do good guy stuff!”  I mean, for goodness sake, Rocky tells Kirk he offered the bad guys power if they won.  Doesn’t that tell him something?  Good fights for others, bad fights for itself.  And why did they have to offer anything to the imaginary people???  Why didn’t Rocky just tell Kirk, “Jim, I didn’t have to offer them anything.  They were made up!  This was all about you.  Remember two weeks ago… you can make their feelings come alive.  I thought you’d do that for my mates back home on Excalbia…”

McCoy may have summed it up at the start of the episode, “There’s no intelligent life here.”  But there were some great ideas presented anyway.  Lincoln’s quote that “there is nothing good in war except its ending” was a great one.  Perhaps better was about brave men: “Men of peace usually are!”  Yes, peace is a braver option than war, no question about it.  Notice how the bad guys constantly hide behind rocks while Surak and the others walk out into the open.  (Sure, good may be dumb, but it is brave!)  And speaking of Surak, I did like his quote, “may we together become greater than the sum of both of us.”  Yes, together we can achieve more!  (But the bad guys do tend to work well together since they did take out 50% of the opposing forces before the good guys took anyone out!  I’m just sayin’…)

This episode sets up a fun mystery, shows camaraderie between the crew and does a great job recreating an Abe Lincoln that is incredibly likable.  I was taken aback by his Negress comment to Uhura, having no memory of that line, but she handles it with grace saying the people of Trek’s time have learned “not to fear words”.  Sure it would have been far more enjoyable for her to say “Oh, that’s right, I forgot that in your time, you were still defining people by their color” but that would not have illustrated Uhura’s superb communication skills.  The downside is that it bears a striking resemblance to victim-shaming as is, implying the recipient should not be afraid of words rather than the speaker should be aware of the folly of thinking it in the first place, but I imagine that was an unconscious bias on the part of the writer and a limitation of the time Trek was made  Still, Nichelle is often an unsung hero in Trek but I loved her moment with Lincoln and applaud the way she handled it!

There are good Trek episodes and bad Trek episodes.  There are meaningful ones and meaningless ones.  Considering how fast this episode moved for me, I’d call this a fun one, but perhaps a trivial one.  The idea of good vs evil is as interesting as extroverts and introverts, but it has to be done well.  Jettisoning logic out the airlock is not a great idea, especially when you have two Vulcans on you team!   ML

The view from across the pond:

Very early in this episode, McCoy says something that sums up this whole story for me pretty well: “There’s no intelligent life here.” I don’t know when I’ve seen a worse start to an episode, with Abraham Lincoln floating towards the Enterprise in an armchair. Even before the opening credits rolled, I already intensely disliked what I was watching.

Next up, the senior officers get themselves into some of the least flattering clothes I’ve ever seen. Just look at the state of Kirk:

Star Trek The Savage Curtain Dress Uniforms

Why they felt the need to roll out the red carpet for somebody who is clearly not going to be who he says he is makes little sense to me, but at this point you just have to go with it or switch off. Lincoln takes a tour of the Enterprise, and engages in a bit of clumsy racism when he sees Uhura. To be fair he backtracks, and I don’t have a problem with a sci-fi show acknowledging that attitudes and the use of language have changed, but the really troubling bit was Uhura’s reply, which is so 1960s:

“In our century we’ve learnt not to fear words.”

This states reasonably clearly that in the view of the writer the fear of words was the cause of the problem of racial tension rather than the people weaponising those words and the only thing I can bring myself to say about that is to repeat some words I used when writing about The Omega Glory: screw you, Gene Roddenberry.

After some debate about whether to beam down to the planet, with rather an astute observation from Kirk (“The very reason for the existence of our starships is contact with other lifeforms.”), he accepts Lincoln’s invitation to visit the power behind this week’s weird little trick. There he and Spock find the same set of polystyrene rocks as last week, and what appears to be an alien made of poop. It even steams a little bit, so it’s quite fresh.

Star Trek The Savage Curtain Poop Monster

The poop monster has brought some more friends to the party: Kahless, who turns out to be some kind of a famous impressionist, Genghis Khan, who doesn’t have much to say for himself, some sort of tribal alien woman, who has even less to say because she’s female and those are of little interest to Trek writers unless they are being kissed by Kirk, a military leader from a future war, who is the most interesting of the bunch because he’s so sneaky, and the founder of the Vulcan way of life, Surak. Spock says everything we need to know about Surak’s beliefs when he thinks he has failed to live up to the man’s standards: “I displayed emotion. I beg forgiveness.” Oh shut up, Spock. Take that stick out of your arse. Although he inevitably comes a cropper, and is the perpetrator of the weird illogical logic crap that infects the thinking of every Vulcan, Surak’s insistence on having a go at negotiating peace is a powerful moment. For a while it looked like the episode was selling an anti-war message (“There is nothing good in war except its ending.”), but I should have known better than to assume that after what Roddenberry did with The Omega Glory. The big conclusion the poop monster draws from what happens here?

“It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted.”

Yeah, sometimes. As soon as the poop monster recycles the story from Arena, we know where we are heading here. Kirk and Spock defeat the bad guys and end up as the “survivors”, and yet another omnipotent jerk is allowed to continue being an omnipotent jerk, while the Enterprise flies away to go and find next week’s omnipotent jerk.

“I am disappointed”.

You and me both, Mr Poop.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Star Trek, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Star Trek: The Savage Curtain

  1. scifimike70 says:

    When sci-fi, especially Star Trek, introduces an alien species that’s clearly advanced, and yet with no real understanding of good and evil and just choosing to go with whichever might be stronger, it’s all the more interesting that Kirk and Spock fail to give them the best demonstration that they wanted. While we could easily enough still enjoy this episode for how its guest stars, Lee Bergere (Lincoln), Barry Atwater (Surak), Phillip Pine (Green) and Robert Herron (Kahless), recreate their figures from history, it’s easy to see how the villains, certainly Genghis Khan, might just be copies for how they either give up or get beaten so easily in the end. Yet Lincoln and Surak can feel real enough, thanks to the better qualities of Kirk and Spock that brought them to life, and it proves a great deal how meeting famously real heroes from the past can be a good sci-fi trademark. Even though it was clear that the classic Trek was running out of steam as its end was quite near, it’s a worthy effort (quoting Lincoln in this episode) to still give Trekkers a fitting message on how our hopes to achieve final peace have meant learning many harsh lessons. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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