Star Trek Re-Watch: “Patterns of Force”

“Patterns of Force”
Written by John Meredyth Lucas
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Season 2, Episode 21
Production episode: 2×23
Original air date: February 16, 1968
Star date: Unknown

Mission Summary

The Enterprise is on a mission to the planet Ekos, home to “primitive, warlike people in a state of anarchy” and where Starfleet Academy history instructor John Gill has been on assignment as a cultural observer. Starfleet hasn’t heard from him in six months and worries he might be dead, so Enterprise has been sent to find out what happened. As they approach the inner planet, a rocket with a nuclear warhead targets them from Ekos’ surface. Kirk is confused—the Ekosians never had space travel, and though the Zeons, a neighboring planet, did, they’re a peaceful race. Kirk and Spock decide to beam down to the planet, and the captain instructs McCoy to “prepare a subcutaneous transponder in the event we can’t use our communicators.” Good idea. Too bad they never use it again.

They beam down to the planet in some kind of farmer/peasant get-up and immediately run into a man named Isak, who looks terrified and hurt and tells them to run. Kirk and Spock obey, hiding around a corner. Isak is quickly captured by two men in Nazi uniforms, complete with swastika armbands, who call Isak a “Zeon pig” and kick him. Kirk tries to stop them but Spock warns him about the non-interference directive. The SS officers drag Isak away. Kirk and Spock quietly emerge from their hiding space just in time to catch a propaganda video about the Fuhrer: John Gill!

In the video, the deputy fuhrer, Melakon, presents a prize to a woman named Daras for being a “hero of the Fatherland,” and promises that “preparations go forth for the Final Decision. Death to Zeon.” Then actual stock footage of Nazi marches play, just in case you don’t quite get the message.

KIRK: How could this have happened? The chances of another planet developing a culture like Nazi Germany, using the forms, the symbols, the uniforms of twentieth century Earth are so fantastically slim.

That’s science fiction for you. But surprise, more Nazis show up, and they mistake the captain and his first officer for Zeons. Kirk pretends to rat out his alien friend, distracting the officer long enough to karate-chop him. Very clever, actually. They steal the uniforms and decide to try infiltrating the chancellery, since that appears to be where John Gill is. They make their way to the chancellery but get stopped at the front door with a “Papers, please.” Though Spock finds his papers, the officer notices that his skin color is a little off, and demands Spock take off his helmet. The jig is up, and our heroes are captured and taken to Nazi prison, which is luckily located in the heart of the chancellery they’re trying to infiltrate.

CHEST HAIR ALERT: Kirk and Spock wind up getting whipped, shirtless. This is possibly as disturbing as the Hollywood-ized Nazi references. Though the major who captured them is delighted to whip them, a man named Eneg enters and tells him to stop. They play out a good cop-bad cop routine as Eneg tells the major to ease up or else they’ll die before any information is acquired. The major reluctantly agrees and throws the two of them in a cell, right next to Isak, the man they saw get taken away on the street.

When the Nazis leave, Isak explains that the Zeons are peaceful and came to Ekos to bring technology and civilization. Though the Ekosians weren’t exactly pacifists, they did not take up their current violent brutality until the Nazi movement began just a few years ago. Kirk can’t understand: Gill was the “kindest man I ever knew.” But whatever happened, they have to get their phasers (AND THEIR SHIRTS PLEASE) back. Kirk remembers the subcutaneous transponders, which is funny because I hadn’t. The transponders have rubidnium crystals inside, which can be used to excite light and create a laser.1 Spock uses Kirk’s back as a table to get to the incandescent bulb in their cell, and after a few moments the light is transformed by the crystal into a metal-cutting laser that breaks the lock on their door.

Kirk pretends to be willing to talk but when the Nazi guard comes, Spock nerve-pinches him from behind. They free Isak and make their way to the laboratory to find their weapons. Kirk pretends that Spock and Isak are his prisoners, and then bumps into a passing Nazi guard, swiping his keys. Genius. They break into the lab and find their communicators completely dismantled and a log saying their phasers have been sent to Gestapo headquarters. With no weapons, no communicator, and a building full of Nazis, they decide to escape and re-evaluate their options.

Using an underground escape tunnel network they link up with Isak’s brother, Abrom, and some other Zeons on the lam. Abrom tells Isak that his fiancee is dead. But Spock wastes no time to mourn—he sets out to repair the communicator so that they can contact Enterprise. Once he thinks it’s complete, their entire party is raided by the beautiful blonde Nazi they saw in the propaganda film, Daras. She had been following them. She shoots Abrom and prepares to shoot Isak when Kirk grabs her and uses her as a human shield against the other Nazis.

ISAK: Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot, please.
ABROM: No, wait. No more. You’ve proved they’re on our side.
ISAK: Now, please forgive us, but we had to be absolutely certain.

It was a trick! Daras is a resistance fighter on the side of the Zeons. Kirk explains the situation and insists on seeing John Gill. Tonight he will announce a full-scale war against the Zeons and Kirk must stop him and repair the damage done. His appearance tonight at the chancellery will be attended by all the top-ranking Nazis, and they decide to use Daras to sneak in and get access to Gill.

Later, we see Daras pulling up in her car to attend the event with three documentary filmmakers in tow: Kirk, Spock, and Isak. Now you know where Tarantino got it from! They’re able to find Gill hidden in a curtained-off compartment, but he doesn’t move. Kirk thinks he must be drugged, and needs McCoy’s expertise to get him out of it. They hide in a cloakroom and Spock uses his makeshift communicator to contact Uhura. She beams down McCoy, dressed as a Nazi doctor, and Bones is none too happy about it. But by then the Nazis have picked up the weak communicator signal and are tracking it down. Suddenly Eneg and other men burst in, demanding to know why they’re all hiding in the cloakroom. McCoy plays the part of a drunken colonel brilliantly, and Kirk explains that they’ve hidden him in the closet to avoid embarrassment. Satisfied, Eneg leaves, but Spock is baffled as to how he couldn’t recognize them from their earlier encounter what with the beatings and all. Kirk attributes it to luck and tells them all to move on and get to John Gill.

But it’s too late. Semi-comatose, Gill orders a full-scale attack on Zeon. The entire space fleet is dispatched to murder every last Zeon. Spock neck-pinches the guards in front of Gill’s compartment and they break in to find Gill completely out of it. McCoy doesn’t know what they gave him and doesn’t have an antidote, so he tries a general stimulant. Gill is able to answer questions but that’s it—he’s completely out of it. Kirk asks him why he did this:

GILL: Planet fragmented. Divided. Took lesson from Earth history.
KIRK: But why Nazi Germany? You studied history. You knew what the Nazis were.
GILL: Most efficient state Earth ever knew.
SPOCK: Quite true, Captain. That tiny country, beaten, bankrupt, defeated, rose in a few years to stand only one step away from global domination.
KIRK: But it was brutal, perverted, had to be destroyed at a terrible cost. Why that example?
SPOCK: Perhaps Gill felt that such a state, run benignly, could accomplish its efficiency without sadism.

Unfortunately Melakon, the deputy fuhrer, took control and started drugging Gill. Kirk tries to snap him out of it to call off the attack but Gill collapses again into his comatose state. But Eneg has arrived. He bangs on the door and demands to be let in. Kirk orders Daras to aim the gun at Spock and pretend to have captured an assassin. The ploy works, and Daras takes Spock to Melakon to stall for time. Meanwhile, Kirk orders Bones to give Gill another stimulant. It could kill him but the entire Zeon race is about to wiped out and Kirk thinks it’s a fair risk to take.

McCoy uses the stimulant and Gill comes to just long enough to call off the fleet and expose Melakon as a traitor. Furious, Melakon grabs a machine gun and shoots through the curtained partition that separates them from the fuhrer. Gill falls to the ground, dying, and confesses his mistakes to Kirk. Meanwhile, Isak grabs a gun and shoots Melakon. But Eneg intervenes: “There’s been enough killing. Now we’ll start to live the way the Fuhrer meant us to live.”

Eneg and Daras commit to rebuilding their world, and Kirk and his crew return to Enterprise. On the bridge they think back to how this all happened. Kirk thinks it’s because men can’t resist the urge to play God:

MCCOY: It also proves another Earth saying. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Darn clever, these Earthmen, wouldn’t you say?
SPOCK: Yes. Earthmen like Ramses, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Lee Kuan. Your whole Earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power.
MCCOY: Spock, you obviously don’t understand.
SPOCK: Obviously, Doctor, you fail to accept.
KIRK: Gentlemen. Gentlemen, we’ve just been through one civil war. Let’s not start another. Mister Chekov, take us out of orbit.

1 This is not unlike Tony Stark’s ability to create a particle accelerator in his basement in Iron Man 2.


Star Trek definitely had some cojones to try and tackle Nazis, but its approach is so misguided that I can’t entirely admire its effort. The assumption here that Nazi Germany was just efficiency gone wrong thanks to a few bad seeds is laughable at best and dangerously inaccurate at worst. It wasn’t efficiency but ruthlessness that enabled Hitler’s rise to power. Murdering or imprisoning each and every political enemy and exploiting and validating deep-seated xenophobia tends to consolidate power pretty damn effectively whether or not you have a team of industrial engineers creating a flawlessly organized state. The idea that a history professor didn’t understand or appreciate the complexity of that historical movement is unbelievable.

I think the biggest disappointment for me was the lack of nuance. I felt completely bludgeoned by every one-to-one parallel (though I did like Daras saying, “Are you saying our Fuhrer is an alien??”) and at times just wished they had used clunky metaphors instead. If you’re going to make a statement about Nazis, at least try to approach it with a little more accuracy and sensitivity. If you’re just making a statement about absolute power, why use Nazis at all? I would have loved to see a society built on Ramses, Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon, and none of those are nearly as loaded a topic as Nazism. But putting aside the Nazism for a second—I know, it doesn’t seem like you can—it was a tight and, dare I say it, funny episode.

The comedy here is really top-notch, and I laughed out loud countless times. The scene of Spock using Kirk as a footstool is deadly. Even the little quips about the uniform not fitting (it’s a metaphor, get it?), Spock’s helmet “hiding a multitude of sins,” and Kirk’s performance as the cinematographer were genius. Drunken McCoy was easily the highlight, though. I was also extremely impressed by the cleverness of our heroes. So often the answer just falls into their lap (*coughsubcutaneoustransponderscough*) but Kirk really shined as a brilliant tactician. I liked his “You’re right! He’s not one of us!” that distracted the Nazi guard long enough to incapacitate him, and the key-swiping bit was just genius. Even I hadn’t realized what happened until he jingled them a few moments later in front of the door. I was surprised by the reveal that both Daras and Eneg were sympathetic resistance fighters (this is notable in that so far the plots have not often surprised me). It had a tension and tautness that reminded me of Lucas’ other episode, “The Changeling.” This is a good thing.

The weirdest bit: shirtless Spock. I mean, aside from being totally and completely bizarre, it’s bad Star Trek. That scene made me see a generally fit but approaching-middle-age man, not an alien. I think it humanized him in a way that undermined a lot of Spock’s mystery and uniqueness. Mostly it just felt inappropriate. Two half-naked dudes all sweaty, getting whipped and climbing on one another? I had a moment of looking over my shoulder to make sure no one could see what the hell I was watching!

So while the lackluster execution of the Nazi premise killed any hope of higher than 4 stars, it was still a better-than-average Star Trek episode. Just listen up, students of the Academy: If you don’t observe the Prime Directive YOU GET NAZIS. Now we’ve all learned something.

Food for thought: how come on every away mission to an Earth-like planet they send Spock? Wouldn’t you not send the alien?

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: So… Shirtless Spock. Yeah. Totally didn’t see that coming.

I don’t know why fans don’t refer to this as “that episode where Spock took his shirt off,” but probably it’s because no one wants to remember that. It either made no impression on me previously or I blocked it from my memory, but I’m afraid it’s stuck there now. I mean, Shatner actually looked pretty fit compared to Nimoy, and this was a late-season episode. And the hair! I’d think excess body hair would be a disadvantage on a desert planet, but perhaps he can blame his human heritage for that as well.

Instead, people refer to this as the “Nazi episode,” which is perfectly descriptive. It’s surprising and impressive that Star Trek tackled this topic, especially with such humor. What’s more surprising is that they did it so blatantly. When I was a kid, I obviously didn’t catch most of these references. “Zeon” is a forehead-smacking moment, not to mention the names Isak, Abrom, and Davod. I see what you’re doing there, Mr. Lucas! All the references to the Zeons as pigs were uncomfortable, though used for effect, and this assessment of Spock by Melakon is a disturbing reminder of Nazi racism: “Note the low forehead, denoting stupidity. The dull look of a trapped animal.”

I’m just not sure all this imagery is fully justified, though it is certainly a shortcut to the message “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They could have attained the same effect without directly using Nazis, and surely this was preaching to the choir at the time. If it’s meant to be an indictment of dictators, it falls short of being truly meaningful social commentary. (Perhaps the real message is behind the scenes, as the Paramount offices were used as Nazi headquarters…) And what are we to make of Spock’s statement at the end, “With the union of two cultures, this system would make a fine addition to the Federation.” Is this a reference to post-WWII Germany?

“Patterns of Force” might have been interesting as an exploration of “non-interference,” since that’s really what caused this mess in the first place. The idea that misinterpreting the past can lead to repeating the mistakes of history is also interesting, and with that explanation I finally get the meaning of the episode title. Incidentally, this also gives us a glimpse into the poor condition of the Vulcan educational system; it’s a sad thing if Spock is so easily impressed by Gill’s “treatment of Earth history as causes and motivations rather than dates and events.” Then again, Vulcans are more preoccupied with facts than emotional qualities like ambition.

Even with a superfluous and heavy-handed moral, the script is written and plotted well, with excellent dialogue and subtle comedic performances. It has a clear conflict and an intriguing mystery with a slow reveal and a surprise twist of a sort. Though the overall effect is a bit uneven, the episode strikes me as earnest and genuine, and I admired how it does so many things well when it probably should have fallen apart. In the end, I’d like to think of this episode as “the one with the subcutaneous transponders,” which end up being a handy plot device in Star Trek, even if they’re never used to create a laser again.

Did anyone else want Kirk to have a moment to remember Edith Keeler when he watches all the Nazi propaganda?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: UHURA: Doctor McCoy is having difficulty with that uniform, sir.
KIRK: Send him down naked if you have to!

Syndication Edits: A portion of Kirk and Spock’s beatings; a few moments after the Nazis throw Kirk and Spock into the jail cell; the brilliant scene of Kirk “bumping into” the Nazi and swiping his keys (kind of odd to be missing that, since the guard later searches himself and goes after them!); a line of dialogue after Kirk and Spock meet the underground movement (not sure which one); some of Kirk & the gang “filming” Daras; one of the “Hail Fuhrer!” shouts; Kirk and McCoy arguing over whether to give Gill the second stimulant shot; Kirk slapping Gill and begging him to tell people what really happened.

Trivia: A note on names: The “Zeons” are the “Zions,” “Abrom” is “Abraham,” “Isak” is “Isaac,” “Davod” is “David,” “Daras” is nearly “Sarah” backwards, and “Eneg” is “Gene” spelled backwards.

The Nazi headquarters is actually the Paramount Studios Producers’ Building (awwwkward), while Gill broadcasts in the Directors’ Building. The costumes are (you guessed it!) from Paramount’s standard costume collection. The underground area is recycled from “Devil in the Dark.”

The V-2 rocket footage was real stock footage, and the clips of Hitler in a car surrounded by soldiers is from Triumph of the Will.

David Brian, the actor who played John Gill, was actually the star of his own show: Mr. District Attorney. Skip Homeier, who plays Melakon, returns in “The Way to Eden.”

Other Notes: Because the swastika was banned by the German constitution following World War II, this episode could not air in Germany. An Austrian television station carried it, though, so a few people in the southern areas were able to catch it. It did not appear in translation in Germany until 1999, and even then it was late-night on a pay-TV network.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 20 – “Return to Tomorrow.”

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 22—“By Any Other Name.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. 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 adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.