Star Trek Re-Watch: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
Written by Oliver Crawford (Story by Lee Cronin)
Directed by Jud Taylor

Season 3, Episode 15
Production episode: 3×15
Original air date: January 10, 1969
Star date: 5730.2

Mission summary

Enterprise is on an important humanitarian mission to decontaminate Ariannus, which has succumbed to bacterial invasion that will kill billions of people without their timely intervention. But a funny thing happens on the way to the planet: they encounter a damaged Starfleet shuttlecraft which was jacked from Starbase 4. The lone pilot is injured and unable to respond to their hails, so they bring the shuttle onboard. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock meet it at the hangar deck with a security team and a man in blackface stumbles into the corridor. But wait! He collapses and rolls over to dramatically reveal that the left side of his face is white!

Dr. McCoy, Spock, and Kirk are baffled by their guest’s strange appearance. They’ve never heard of an alien race with this kind of pigmentation, and conclude he must be a mutant, “one of a kind.” Kirk states that, “judging by looking at him, we know at the very least he is the result of a very dramatic conflict.” (Wink, wink.) The doctor’s merely guessing at treating his unknown biology, but his ministrations do the trick and the patient soon wakes up. They’ve never heard of him, but he’s heard of Enterprise. The man identifies himself as Lokai from Cheron, a planet in an uncharted area of space. All Kirk knows is that Lokai stole a shuttle.

LOKAI: You’re being very loose with your accusations and drawing conclusions without any facts.
KIRK: Well, I do know you made off with a ship that didn’t belong to you.
LOKAI: I do not make off with things. My need gave me the right to use the ship. Mark the word, sir, the use of it.
KIRK: You can try those technical evasions on Starfleet Command. That’s where you’ll be facing your charges.

Lokai insists that he was going to return the shuttle when he was done with it, and tosses in, “You monotone humans are all alike.” Clearly he knows how to win friends and influence people. McCoy tries to smooth things over by complimenting him as “the most incredible physical specimen of all time,” but he probably says that to all the half-black, half-white aliens he encounters.

Kirk is summoned back to the Bridge when an alien ship is detected on a collision course with Enterprise. At least, that’s what their sensors say, even though the viewscreen shows absolutely nothing but empty space. Sometimes Chekov imagines things. Nonetheless, they all peer at the screen worriedly as the invisible ship gets closer, they think. They brace for impact just in case, but the other ship just seems to disintegrate, leaving its passenger standing on the Bridge. Holy Half-Moon cookie, Batman! It’s another duotone alien! Kirk blames Spock for this development–he promised this sort of mutation was one of a kind. What kind of science officer is he, anyway?

The man’s name is Bele, also from Cheron. Kirk and Spock are more curious about his method transport. Apparently the warranty just ran out, and you know how things fall apart right as soon as the warranty expires. He further claims that it was “sheathed in special materials that rendered it invisible.” Uh-huh. This plausible explanation, so convincingly delivered, satisfies Spock’s curiosity, so it’s on to real business. As the chief officer of the Commission on Political Traitors, Bele wants to collect Lokai for trial on their planet. Kirk says he’ll have to take a number because Starfleet already has dibs, but agrees to show him to their prisoner in Sickbay. As soon as Bele and Lokai meet, they get into a heated political debate, rehashing an old argument between them.

BELE: And you see how this killer repays you, as he repays all his benefactors.
LOKAI: Benefactors? He’s a liar. He raided our homes, tore us from our families, herded us together like cattle and then sold us as slaves!
BELE: They were savages, Captain. We took them into our hearts, our homes. We educated them.
LOKAI: Yes, just education enough to serve the master race.
BELE: You were the product of our love! And you repaid us with murder.
LOKAI: Why should a slave show mercy to the enslaver?
BELE: Slaves? That was changed thousands of years ago. You were freed.
LOKAI: Freed? Were we free to be men? Free to be husbands and fathers? Free to live our lives in equality and dignity?
BELE: Yes, you were free, if you knew how to use your freedom. You were free enough to slaughter and to burn all the things that had been built!
LOKAI: I tried to break the chains of a hundred million people. My only crime is that I failed. To that I do plead guilty.

Kirk breaks up their verbal onslaught and refuses to grant Lokai political asylum or return him to Cheron in Bele’s custody. Not only does he have to hold Lokai accountable for stealing that shuttle, but they’re kind of under a deadline. Bele isn’t happy and says as much, but he allows a security guard to show him to his temporary quarters. A moment later, Chekov calls with an important update.

CHEKOV: Captain, we’re off course.
KIRK: Well, get back on course.

You just can’t get good help these days! It turns out that Chekov has an actual emergency–the ship has changed its heading spontaneously and they’ve lost control of the helm. Not good. They try all the troubleshooting tricks listed in the help manual, but nothing works. Even the cameras have gone all wonky, zooming in and out on the flashing Red Alert lights. It seems Enterprise is going to Cheron whether they like it or not. Cheron? Wait a minute, didn’t–

Bele appears on the Bridge again, via the turbolift this time, to state the obvious:

We’re on the way to Cheron. Captain, this ship is now under my direction. For 50,000 of your terrestrial years, I have been pursuing Lokai through the galaxy. I have not travelled this far, this long, only to give him up. This ship goes where my will drives it.

This guy is very dedicated to his job. Lokai joins the party and begs the crew to help him by killing Bele. “You’re two of a kind,” Kirk argues. He’s had enough of this. He orders security to arrest their visitors, but they have personal energy fields that prevent anyone from touching them and even blocks phaser fire. Cheron it is, then. Hope the weather’s nice this time of year.

But Kirk has one other alternative. If he can’t have his ship, no one can. He threatens to blow it up but Bele thinks he’s only bluffing. Obviously he doesn’t know Kirk. The captain orders the computer to initiate a self-destruct sequence, Spock and Engineer Scott authorize the order with the correct command codes, and the thirty-second countdown begins. Kirk warns Bele that nothing can stop it “from five to zero.” It’s a game of chicken to see who will break first. Bele tries to use his will to stop the computer while the Bridge crew look around nervously, but he ultimately agrees to release his hold with only six seconds remaining. Phew! Kirk cancels the destruct sequence in the nick of time.

Bele doesn’t immediately comply, requesting the captain take them to Cheron after they fulfill their mission on Ariannus, but Kirk refuses to negotiate. Seemingly defeated, Bele returns helm control and they’re back on course. Now that the crisis is over, Kirk feeds them the company line (peace…individual rights…yadda yadda yadda) and gives them both free run of the ship. Huh? Spock then summarizes: “Fascinating. Two irrevocably hostile humanoids.” Thank you, Spock.

Since Kirk is letting them hang out wherever they want, Lokai preaches to the choir in the crew lounge. Spock eavesdrops outside the lounge while Lokai  pushes his propaganda, as Bele warned he would.

LOKAI: There is no persecution on your planet. How can you understand my fear, my apprehension, my degradation, my suffering?
CHEKOV: There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class.
SULU: Yes, but it happened way back in the twentieth century. There’s no such primitive thinking today.

(Nudge, nudge.)

Meanwhile, Bele is sharing drinks with Kirk and Spock when a communique from Starfleet Command informs him that his request for Lokai’s extradition has been denied. The frustrated Commissioner finally reveals the source of their conflict.

BELE: It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed.
SPOCK: The obvious visual evidence, Commissioner, is that he is of the same breed as yourself.
BELE: Are you blind, Commander Spock? Well, look at me. Look at me!
KIRK: You’re black on one side and white on the other.
BELE: I am black on the right side.
KIRK: I fail to see the significant difference.
BELE: Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side.

OH… Oh boy. What? He fails to convince Kirk and Spock that this makes any sense, but Kirk suggests maybe they can, you know, talk about their problems. Bele refuses to believe that Lokai can ever change, even when Spock relates the uplifting story of how the Vulcans embraced logic and got back their groove, though he doesn’t mention the whole Romulan thing. That would only weaken the point he’s making, which is that they should all just get along.

They’re about to have an interesting discussion about evolution, when the ship finally arrives at Ariannus. From the Bridge, Scotty coordinates the fumigation of the entire planet’s atmosphere, which is completed within minutes. Then they set course for Starbase 4.

Or do they? Some of the computer’s memory circuits are toast. Bele takes credit for burning out helm control and the self-destruct, demonstrating his newfound ability by literally hand waving. Lokai returns to the Bridge, ranting about justice, and he and Bele struggle with their hands around each other’s throats and their energy fields blazing. Kirk tries once more to get them to chill. “Bele, you keep this up, and you’ll never get to Cheron with your prisoner,” he says. “This will be your final battlefield.” Inexplicably, he gets through to them this time, and Kirk seems more willing to negotiate for control of his ship when blowing it up isn’t an option.

Bele releases the helm, and must repair its damaged circuits with his mind too, since Sulu confirms it’s working again. “Captain, it’s beautiful,” he says. Okay, Sulu, calm yourself. As it happens, they’re also at Cheron already.

Their long-range scanners reveal that all intelligent life is gone, with “vast numbers of unburied corpses in all cities.” Now Bele and Lokai start fighting over who killed everyone.

KIRK: Stop it! What’s the matter with you two? Didn’t you hear Spock? Your planet is dead! There’s nobody alive on Cheron because of hate. The cause you fought about no longer exists. Give yourselves time to breathe. Give up your hate. You’re welcome to live with us. Listen to me. You both must end up dead if you don’t stop hating.

But they love hating! Lokai runs off the Bridge, closely followed by Bele. Kirk is unconcerned–after all, where can they go? Well, Spock tells him, narrating their action-packed chase throughout the ship in excruciating detail.

Bele is chasing Lokai on deck three. Bele is passing recreation room three, approaching the crewmen’s lounge. Lokai is running past the crewmen’s lounge. Lokai has just arrived on deck five. Passing recreation room three.

These guys are really out of shape, panting their way through the corridors like 50,000-year-old men, all while imagining Cheron’s fiery doom. Lokai eventually finds the transporter room and beams himself down to Cheron, followed shortly by Bele. But what does it all mean?

UHURA: It doesn’t make any sense.
SPOCK: To expect sense from two mentalities of such extreme viewpoints is not logical.
SULU: But their planet’s dead. Does it matter now which one’s right?
SPOCK: Not to Lokai and Bele. All that matters to them is their hate.
UHURA: Do you suppose that’s all they ever had, sir?
KIRK: No, but that’s all they have left.

NUDGE NUDGE, WINK WINK. Sigh.

Analysis

So, that’s a downer. This is one of the most sobering and depressing endings of the series, and the rest of it isn’t exactly cheerful either. This is also one of the preachiest and least subtle scripts, kind of ever. It couldn’t be more obvious that they were trying to expose the folly of racism based on the color of someone’s skin, but unfortunately their approach is to simply turn Bele and Lokai into mouthpieces for every stereotypical defense of prejudice and subjugation. But what are we to make of the fact that despite all Lokai has suffered, he is just as quick to judge and mistrust “monotones” as a group instead of individuals?

And yet the ridiculous conflict between the differently-duotoned men is meant to be absurd, pointing out how insignificant skin color is by greatly exaggerating the issue. Though their tirades feel more like bad, didactic exposition instead of dialogue you’d actually want to hear, there are some effective moments. Whenever Bele and Lokai look at each other, usually while arguing, they present the same skin color to the screen–on opposite side of their faces–to highlight the fact that really, they’re the same. Lokai and Bele are both masterful orators, but where Lokai relies on his words to save him, Bele resorts to violence and force. They even wear the same outfits, gray jumpsuits that meet black and white in the middle. The style is reminiscent of actor Frank Gorshin’s much more colorful Riddler costume on Batman, right down to the gloves.

The director also composes some interesting shots: the extreme close-ups on eyes and mouths during the self-destruct sequence are unusual but striking, and my favorite composition of the episode is of Lokai’s shadow on the wall of the crew lounge–a faceless voice spewing divisive propaganda. (Also note the tri-dimensional chess set with its black and white pieces in the same scene.) There’s also a slow pan over the Bridge crew after Bele disables the computer, highlighting the racial diversity of Spock, Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov.

One of the biggest flaws in this episode is the focus on its strong message to the exclusion of all else, barely making even a token attempt at explaining things like Bele’s advanced ship or strange mental control over the ship’s helm (a power Lokai doesn’t seem to share, so maybe he is inferior). It doesn’t make any sense that he could redirect the ship but not halt the computer self-destruct, and if he knew he could short-circuit things with his mind, why didn’t he try that sooner? The makeup and effects are also rather half-hearted–the shiny grease paint used to blacken one side of their faces doesn’t look remotely like real skin, the recycled effects shot of the shuttlecraft from Starbase 4 is clearly the Galileo that we know and love, and the invisible ship was probably prompted more by budget than the demands of the story.

As eyerolling as the episode’s heavy moralizing may seem, we should still keep in mind that it was filmed in 1968 and broadcast in 1969, during the civil rights movement. At the time, there was too much at stake to risk people not getting the message, and the issues weren’t so obvious to a lot of people. With the hindsight of the twenty-first century, it seems a lighter touch would have been more persuasive, but this wasn’t meant to entertain, it was meant to instruct. However hamhanded, it was a noble attempt to change people, or at least open minds to different possibilities. Contrast this with the equally overdone Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two-parter, “Past Tense,” which tackles both homelessness and race relations even more ineptly twenty-six years later.

Aside from the transparent theme and weak script, the show also had terrible pacing, with several scenes stretched out much longer than necessary: the encounter with Bele’s ship, the self-destruct sequence, the chase through the corridors. Of these, I still enjoyed the self-destruct sequence, which was recreated word for word in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, all except the counterorder, of course. Did anyone else find Kirk’s great faith in the computer ironic, considering how little he usually trusts them? I was also annoyed with their simplistic grasp of genetics and evolution, particularly their automatic assumption that Lokai and Bele are mutants, and the idea that at one time the people of Cheron were monotones too. Where did they get that idea?

What is with Starfleet’s policy on only extraditing to other planets in the Federation? It’s also bizarre that Cheron turns out to be so close to Arrianus, when it’s supposedly in uncharted space–maybe they weren’t going to get there until Tuesday. Speaking of Cheron, Bele believes their information that the planet is dead without seeing any evidence. It might have been funny–well, not funny, but a good ploy perhaps–to pretend it was dead to prove their point, then tell him the truth later. Then again, given their extreme reactions, possibly nothing would have worked.

I also have one really important question that has been bugging me for a few episodes. Why does Scotty always run to the Bridge whenever there’s a problem? Shouldn’t the Chief Engineer actually stay in Engineering, where he can do something?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: Sometimes I couldn’t resist rolling my eyes at this one: the blatant references to the 20th century, allusions to a “dramatic conflict” and “primitive thinking,” and plenty of whacks from the allegory bat. But in the end I didn’t really mind because “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is a parable. The message is clear: hate is destructive. Tolerance helps you build empires, like the Federation, and hatred and oppression destroys them, like on Cheron.

I was impressed by the nuances (I won’t say subtleties…) of how racism was expressed here. Lokai’s first experience with the crew is one many people of color are familiar with even today: immediate suspicion. When he awakes in sickbay Kirk is hostile to him for no apparent reason. Kirk doesn’t even give Lokai a chance to relax or explain before accusing him of theft, purely on assumption and, more importantly, on appearances. As Lokai says, “You monotone humans are all alike. First you condemn and then attack.” All we know is that Lokai was in the shuttlecraft, dying, and yet Kirk assumes that he stole it. I don’t know that we’ve seen him be so confrontational and harsh before. To make matters worse, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all assume–based on no evidence–that he’s one of a kind. They distance themselves and marginalize him as mutation and as an other.

Given that, though, there’s just not that much else to say here–it really just works on one level. Each thematic choice and every parallel is spelled out already. Everything in the episode is in service to that moral story, and as such we get a pretty flimsy plot. If Cheron is in some distant part of the galaxy that’s totally unexplored, how did it take 50,000 years to get so far away and yet only an hour or so to get home? Why doesn’t Kirk just listen to their grievances and do a preliminary hearing on the ship, “The Menagerie” style? I was also irritated that the characters speak in hyperbolic talking points, making them all kind of unsympathetic. It’s impossible to know, based on their two accounts, what the real situation on Cheron was.

But the most implausible scenario of it all was the ending: that they mutually destroyed one another. I just don’t believe it. No one’s left? Not a single person? First of all, it sets up a false moral equivalency between the slavers and the oppressed, that they were both “just as bad” as each other, and that the hatred was mutual. To the extent than it’s trying to make any kind of meaningful point about slavery and/or the civil rights movement, that false equivalency is exactly the kind of rhetoric used to keep American blacks disempowered. There wasn’t moral parity–there was, in fact, an objective standard of equality and fairness that was not being met, and even the race riots were responses to that and not merely attempts to express violent hatred. To boil those legitimate grievances down to some kind of petty and inexplicable hatred, well, I think that diminishes both the scale of the injustice that was practiced and the significance of the real movement that sought to correct it.  I was disappointed that the episode fed that kind of rhetoric.

I feel like this episode was done much better as the movie The Brother From Another Planet.

Final notes: Kirk’s self-destruct sequence is the stupidest combination I’ve ever heard in my life. 1-1-1-1? Then 0-0-0-0? And finally, 1-2-3? The kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage!

And was it just me, or do you think those last filler bits of running through the hallway while Europe is bombed around them seem a little Valjean/Javert to you? I should set that clip to some Les Mis

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4

Best Line: LOKAI: I’m grateful for your rescue.
KIRK: Don’t mention it. We’re pleased to have caught you.

Syndication Edits: Kirk orders magnification on the viewscreen to try to spot Bele’s ship and Chekov says they still can’t see it; Kirk stands to look at the blank viewscreen some more; lots of reaction shots of people not seeing anything and some background noise about emergency conditions; after a commercial, some reactions before Bele gives his name; more reactions and Kirk, Spock, and Bele taking the turbolift to Sickbay; Kirk’s comment that Lokai and Bele’s problem is settled “At least for the present”; McCoy checks on Lokai as Kirk leaves; the second half of Scott’s attempts to restore control by switching to Auxiliary; Kirk’s lines “Computer, destruct sequence. Are you ready to copy? Prepare to verify destruct sequence code one.”; a precious four seconds from the countdown, 25-21; exterior of Enterprise arriving at Ariannus; two segments of Enterprise fumigating the planet.

Trivia: According to producer Fred Freiberger, Gene Coon (aka Lee Cronin) originally envisioned Bele and Lokai as a devil chasing an angel. Coincidentally, this episode ended Coon’s involvement with Star Trek. Freiberger named “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” as one of the episodes he was proudest of working on.

Director Jud Taylor came up with the idea of bicolored aliens with opposite color schemes–bisected horizontally at the waist–only a week before filming began in October 1968.

This is the last use of the Enterprise hangar deck footage on the series.

This is one of only a few episodes to feature zoomed in “beauty shots” of the Enterprise model, in this case, a close-up of the underside of the saucer section just before cutting to Sickbay.

The self-destruct sequence is repeated verbatim in Star Trek III, with Scotty providing the second command instead of Spock and Chekov supplying the third. In the film, the computer gives them a sixty-second countdown instead of thirty.

The stock footage Lokai and Bele imagine while running is of cities burning after aerial bombings in World War II. Freiberger excuses that interminable chase sequence as a “creative solution” to pad the episode’s runtime. Sigh.

The first story outline in March 1968 was titled “A Portrait in Black and White.”

Other notes: The wacky zoom effect on the Red Alert was likely acknowledgment of Frank Gorshin’s (Bele) famous turn as the Riddler on Batman from 1966-67.

Gorshin, who was a famous impressionist, hams it up as James Cagney in the third season blooper reel, and also hilariously collides with actor Lou Antonio (Lokai) while they run in the corridor. Gorshin received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal as Commissioner Bele.

Mego peddled a Cheron action figure in the 1970s with a half-black and half-white costume and no hair.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode #14 – “Whom Gods Destroy.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode #16 – “The Mark of Gideon.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr.

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.