Star Trek Re-Watch: “A Private Little War”

“A Private Little War”
Teleplay by Gene Roddenberry
Story by Jud Crucis
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 2, Episode 19
Production episode: 2×16
Original air date: February 2, 1968
Star date: 4211.4

Mission Summary

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are conducting a scientific survey on the planet Neural, home to peaceful, pre-industrial natives. Kirk lived with them thirteen years ago on his first planetary survey, and describes the planet and its people as a veritable Garden of Eden (aside from the “ape-like carnivores” that are mentioned off-hand). As McCoy and the others collect interesting plant life, they see a group of dark-haired natives approaching on a nearby outcrop—but these men have flintlock rifles, not bows and arrows. That’s not right! They’re setting up an ambush for a group of white-haired natives (with bows and arrows), one of whom Kirk recognizes as his friend Tyree. Kirk draws his phaser but Spock reminds him that the Prime Directive forbids them from displaying such technology, so he throws a rock at the aggressors, successfully revealing his own position. Whoopsie.

They chase the three men, and Spock is shot by one of them, bleeding green blood. McCoy is able to signal to the Enterprise and Kirk orders Scotty to beam them out of there. Just as they arrive, Uhura tells the captain that a Klingon vessel has entered orbit around the planet. They can remain out of sight, but it might mean eventually breaking orbit around Neural. Spock is led away to Sickbay, and McCoy doesn’t know if he’ll make it.

Kirk thinks the Klingons are responsible for the rifles, but the rest of the bridge crew seem skeptical—they could have developed the technology on their own (albeit very quickly), and there’s no evidence that the Klingons were involved. If they had been, why not give them lasers, or phasers, or more advanced technology? Kirk snaps at them before quickly apologizing, and admits he’s worried about Spock.

Doctor M’Benga is assigned to watch over Spock, and Kirk and McCoy beam back down to the planet (this time in native costume) to suss out whether or not the Klingons are responsible for the flintlock rifles. If they are, they’ve broken the peace treaty, and that might begin an interstellar war.

They make their way to Tyree’s encampment, but suddenly a terrible costume emerges from the brush! What looks like an ill-conceived white ape children’s party costume (who would want one? EXACTLY) has been modded with a tail, a top horn, and spines all down the back. The “ape-like carnivore” pounces on Kirk, biting him. After a brief scuffle McCoy is able to vaporize it with his phaser, but it’s too late—Kirk has absorbed the poison, and the Enterprise has broken orbit and cannot be contacted. Without an antidote Kirk will die, and before Kirk passes out he tells McCoy: “Tyree. Some of his men. Cure.”

Luckily, some of Tyree’s men show up, and agree to take Kirk back to the village. McCoy wraps the feverish Kirk in animal furs and awaits Tyree’s arrival.

Tyree is delayed thanks to his wife, Nona, a “kahn-ut-tu” witch-woman in leather bellbottoms and a feathered bra top. He explains that she put a spell on him, and Nona seems pleased he’s realized this—she details the numerous other spells she has put on him in order to entrap him as a husband. Lady Macbeth here then tries to persuade him to get the “fire sticks” and rule the world, but Tyree just wants peace. She rubs some kind of plant over him, and in an agonizingly long scene we watch Tyree, her “huge, angry man,” become aroused and go nuts over her. Ughhhh. Their little Skinemax show is interrupted by a tribesman who tells Tyree that Kirk is there, and that he’s been bitten by the mogatu. Tyree is too dazed and confused by the “stimulant” to react, but Nona returns with the tribesman to the village.

She finds the cave and spots McCoy using his phaser to heat up rocks. Intrigued by this powerful weapon, she doesn’t go in, and waits for her husband to return. Tyree eventually makes it back to the village and begs Nona to save his old friend, but she refuses unless Tyree tells her the truth about Kirk. Not wishing for his friend to die, he tells her the truth off-screen, and she goes in to save Kirk.

Back on the Enterprise, Spock is fighting for his life, and Nurse Chapel is by his side, holding his hand. M’Benga enters and tells her that when Spock awakes, she should do whatever he tells her to do, no matter how odd. File that away for now.

Nona, meanwhile, puts a “mahko root,” which looks more like a piece of fossilized poo, on Kirk’s wound. She then slices open her hand and bleeds into the root, before writhing sexually and chanting over Kirk. When this scene is THANK THE GODS over, Kirk comes to, and Nona smiles mischievously. She says that Kirk is “hers” and that he can refuse her nothing now. Because you know what Star Trek needed more of? Slut-witches.

But it’s not even close to being over! When Kirk recovers, he speaks to Tyree about the weapons situation. Tyree says the rifles appeared about a year ago, but he’s sure they make them themselves because he’s seen it in their village. Kirk asks to be taken to the village and Tyree agrees, but Nona bursts into the meeting and demands the phaser technology. Tyree is embarrassed to have revealed Kirk’s secret origin but Nona says it was “the price for saving your life.” She wants the weapons to make Tyree the most powerful man on the planet, but Tyree says again that he will not kill. In any case, Kirk refuses:

KIRK: We once were as you are, Spears, arrows. There came a time when our weapons grew faster than our wisdom, and we almost destroyed ourselves. We learned from this to make a rule during all our travels, Never to cause the same to happen to other worlds. Just as a man must grow in his own way and in his own time.
NONA: Some men never grow.

Ouch! Later that night, Kirk, McCoy, and Tyree sneak into the dark-haired people’s encampment. They take out a guard and find the forge area where the weapons are made. They easily spot technology too advanced to be native to Neural. The Klingons have obviously interfered, and as Kirk and McCoy catalog the various violations present in the room they hear voices approaching. They both hide as a Klingon and a dark-haired native named Apella enter. The Klingon is telling Apella that one day he will be a governor of the Klingon empire. Unfortunately, because you can’t take McCoy anywhere, his tricorder beeps and alerts the Klingon. A scuffle ensues and Apella and the Klingon are quickly dispatched by our heroes. Two more men enter but Kirk and McCoy take care of them, too, before grabbing Tyree and fleeing into the woods.

On Enterprise Spock has awoken, and tells Nurse Chapel to hit him. What? And you thought Star Trek wasn’t kinky enough! She does as she’s told, because he needs the pain to focus (or something…). Mr. Scott enters and drags her away. M’Benga breaks it up, though, and takes over her role slapping Spock around until he comes to, completely healed. If you thought this interlude was weird and unnecessary, well, you’re going to miss it in the next few scenes.

Kirk has taken it upon himself to show Tyree’s people how to make their own firearms, something McCoy is none too happy about:

MCCOY: Do I have to say it? It’s not bad enough there’s one serpent in Eden teaching one side about gun powder. You want to make sure they all know about it!
KIRK: Exactly. Each side receives the same knowledge and the same type of firearm.

McCoy again expresses his opposition to this, but Kirk explains that there’s nothing else they can do. They refuse to give them superior weapons, but it would be wrong of them to leave Tyree’s people defenseless against this technology. He then invokes the “20th-century brush wars on the Asian continent” (Vietnam) and uses that as a model, saying that a balance of power must be achieved, no matter the cost.

MCCOY: And if the Klingons give their side even more?
KIRK: Then we arm our side with exactly that much more. A balance of power. The trickiest, most difficult, dirtiest game of them all, but the only one that preserves both sides.

McCoy points out another uncomfortable truth: Tyree’s pacifism means he will be one of the first to die. Kirk decides to appeal to Nona, and try and persuade him to a life of violence, to save him.

And you know where this is going…

Kirk goes to Nona’s bathing pool and finds her changing.

KIRK: Nona. Pardon me.
NONA: You are here because I wished you here.
KIRK: Oh? I thought it was my idea.
NONA: Yes. They always believe they come of free will. Tyree thought the same when I cast my first spell on him.

She then uses the same plant she used on Tyree to seduce Kirk. Unaware, Tyree is hiding in the background, watching all of his. He aims his new rifle at Kirk. The captain resists Nona at first, but his mind becomes muddled by the drug and eventually he succumbs, kissing her. Tyree presses his finger against the trigger, but cannot bring himself to commit an act of violence. He throws the gun down in disgust and runs away, just in time for a mogatu to emerge from the woods. It attacks Nona, but Kirk is still drugged by the plant. It takes an awkwardly-choreographed mogatu fight before he’s able to draw his phaser and kill the mogatu.

Nona then hits Kirk on the head and steals his phaser. She runs away, and eventually comes upon a group of four dark-haired people. She shows them the phaser and promises that this device is more powerful than anything they’ve ever dreamed, and it is a gift to Apella, a man strong enough to actually use it (and not a peacenik like her loser husband). The men don’t believer her and instead all grab her, sexually assaulting her. The scene goes on for many uncomfortable seconds before Kirk and the others show up. The dark-haired men believe it was a trap, and they stab Nona.

A fight ensues between the two sides, and after some man-wrestling Tyree’s people are victorious. But Tyree has changed. Kirk has to stop him from smashing one man’s head with a rock, and he turns angrily to Kirk:

TYREE: I want more of these, Kirk. Many more! Yutan, two of those who killed my wife have escaped. Track them down. I will kill them.

McCoy tells Kirk that he finally got what he wanted, and Kirk responds that it’s not what he wanted—it’s “what had to be.”

He hails the ship and tells Scotty to replicate a hundred flintlock rifles.

SCOTT: I didn’t get that exactly, Captain. A hundred what?
KIRK: A hundred serpents. Serpents for the Garden of Eden. We’re very tired, Mister Spock. Beam us up home.


This episode is an atrocity. What on earth was Gene Roddenberry thinking? Forget the mogatu, this was by far the most sexist and obscenely offensive episode we’ve seen so far. Nona the slut-witch uses sex for power over men, a violent, aggressive wolf in the fold of peaceful sheep. She embodies every awful stereotype imaginable about women’s sexuality and spirituality. In the end, she is subdued by an attempted gang-bang and murdered. Star Trek and I are not speaking right now. It needs to sit in the corner and think about what it’s done.

But let’s put the slut-witches aside for a moment and talk about the heart of the episode. “A Private Little War” is obviously intended as a Vietnam war allegory. Like in “City on the Edge of Forever,” pacifism is indicted as naïve and dangerous idea, one that will, in the end, get Tyree and all his people killed. His desire for peace is considered juvenile, and Nona constantly emasculates him to demonstrate how ill-fitted he is to be a true leader. Kirk implicitly agrees and explicitly evokes the Vietnam war as the model he’s trying to replicate here, emphasizing that what he’s doing is just because it assures a balance of power.

History, of course, has taught us a different lesson about Vietnam. Saigon didn’t fall until 1975, over seven years later, and I suppose there’s no way that Gene Roddenberry could have known. By then four to six million people (or more) had died, Vietnam was devastated by defoliants and a staggering loss of life, and any illusions about stopping the spread of communism were shattered as Cambodia and Laos fell under the red banner. I couldn’t possibly expound here in a few paragraphs (or books) why the war was lost, but it should be fair to say that one reason was because the USA’s tactics and strategies failed. Knowing this now, it’s interesting to see Kirk believe that his own strategy will be successful. To watch this episode unfold with the knowledge of how this hypothetical eventually played out is an uncomfortable and heartbreaking experience.

But it doesn’t make any sense here. Kirk is starting a civil war. He dooms the entire planet to centuries of warfare, rape, and bloodshed, for what? Why doesn’t he sit the two tribes down and have them come to some kind of agreement? Tyree’s people don’t want war, and it’s possible the other tribe might not want it if they knew what kind of people the Klingons were, and what they did to their conquered worlds. That kind of solution may seem naïve in the real world, but a show as optimistic as Star Trek should have taken the plunge. Some would say Star Trek was bold to discuss the topic at all; I wish it had been so bold as to dare to imagine that peace was possible.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 1

Eugene Myers: Ugh. I had a bad feeling when they found the tracks for yet another “ape-like” creature in the teaser. Just about the only thing I remembered about this episode was the mugato, memorable only because it’s possibly the most ridiculous costume ever seen on the series. That sort of sets the tone though, because the rest of the episode is alternately ridiculous and offensive.

I’m hard pressed to find anything redeeming about “A Private Little War.” Once again the Garden of Eden motif is trotted out and the metaphor is strained and beaten to death from the teaser to the last lines of dialogue. I think that today most show runners would say “We’ve already done the Garden of Eden, what else have you got?” But on Star Trek it must have been more like “Hey, we haven’t had a Garden of Eden episode in a while.” Comparisons to paradise and Eden are just too easy to draw, and it’s disappointing that writers weren’t more imaginative when they had centuries of literature and culture to at their disposal. At least they didn’t blame it all on the actions of a woman this time.

Similarly, the growing conflict between the hill people and the villagers is drawn just as simplistically—the enemies all have silly black hair, while the “good guys,” Kirk’s friends who don’t have guns, all have silly white hair. No surprise then when Nona, Tyree’s dark-haired kahn-ut-tu wife turns out to be unabashedly evil. The question of whether Klingons are interfering in the development of these people could have been interesting, but it almost seems incidental. They barely turn up at the end, and then they’re all but forgotten. Wouldn’t the Klingon ship try to stop Enterprise from leaving, or otherwise attempt to prevent them from helping Tyree’s people? Are there any consequences to their clear violation of the Organian Peace Treaty? Why do Kirk and McCoy call the evidence against them “People’s Exhibits” when they’re in the 23rd Century, and anyway this would be a case of the Federation vs. the Klingon Empire? How can Enterprise’s sensors pick up the Klingon ship from the other side of Neural, but the Klingons don’t know they’re there?

Kirk seems less concerned in the end with proving that the Klingons are involved and more interested in resolving the small-scale arms race by evening the playing field. This is a bad plan. For one, the Klingons seem to be teaching the black-haired villagers how to manufacture flintlocks, so just giving Tyree’s people a hundred guns isn’t going to help anything. There’s also the glaring fact that the weapons aren’t the problem. Before the Klingons turned up, both the hill people and the villagers had bows and arrows but lived together peacefully; it was only when the Klingons convinced one group of people that they could rule the planet that the fighting began. The unequal balance of power worsened the situation, but giving them the same weapons won’t end the arms race—each side will continue to improve the technology and gain the upper hand, all the way up to the atom bomb. The better solution would be to expose the Klingons’ motives and bring the two warring groups to peace talks. Has Kirk really forgotten how he resolved the power struggle in “A Piece of the Action”? He was adamant against giving away phasers then, but now he’s fine with handing over guns?

One interesting thing about this episode is the introduction of Dr. M’Benga, a specialist in Vulcan physiology. Unfortunately, he only makes McCoy look less competent, and the insights we have into Spock’s biology are kind of goofy. Spock ordering Chapel to hit him (“Blast you! Strike me!”) is not his finest moment. I did like the green bloodstains on Spock’s tunic after he gets shot though. I was surprised that McCoy didn’t investigate the curative properties of Nona’s novelty poo, since it’s unclear if it was the mahko root alone that healed Kirk from the mugato wound or whether her witch doctor gyrations had anything to do with it. Her black magic may have helped Kirk, but it made me feel a little sick.

In the end, this episode only serves as a reminder that we’re creeping ever closer to the third season…

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 1

Best Line: M’BENGA (To Nurse Chapel, re: Spock): He knows we’re here and what we’re saying, but he can’t afford to take his mind from the tissue he’s fighting to heal. I suppose he even knows you were holding his hand.

Syndication Edits: None, it seems.

Trivia: The creature was actually called a “gumato,” but DeForest Kelley couldn’t say it right so they changed it.

TNG’s “Too Short A Season” was apparently supposed to be a sequel to this episode, with Kirk returning to the planet and attempting to heal the wounds of civil war.

Other Notes: Jud Crucis is a pseudonym for Don Ingalls, the original writer of the episode. (This is the man who brought you “The Alternative Factor.”) The original draft of the script had many more overt references to the Vietnam war, calling Apella “a Ho-Chi-Minh type” and he had all the natives dressed like “Mongolians.” He did not like Roddenberry’s re-write and Jud Crucis is a play on “Jesus Crucified.”

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 18 – “The Immunity Syndrome.”

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