Star Trek Re-Watch: “A Taste of Armageddon”

“A Taste of Armageddon”
Teleplay by Robert Hamner and Gene L. Coon
Story by Robert Hamner
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 1, Episode 23
Production episode: 1×23
Original air date: February 23, 1967
Star date: 3192.1

Mission summary
The Enterprise is en route to NGC 321, a star cluster hosting a number of inhabited worlds. The Federation (first named here in full as the United Federation of Planets) wants desperately to stop the bloodshed of the past and establish peaceful, diplomatic relations. In pursuit of that goal they’ve sent along Ambassador Robert Fox to make contact with Eminiar VII, the star cluster’s principal planet.

With hailing frequencies open (thanks, Uhura), they finally receive a response from the planet: Code 710. That code means that under no circumstances should the Enterprise approach the planet.

“Disregard that,” says Ambassador Asshat (AA).

Kirk warns him that disregarding that signal could result in interplanetary war, but AA responds that he’s “willing to take that risk.”

The Enterprise reaches orbit and Kirk, Spock, security officers Galloway and Osborne, and Yeoman Tamura all beam down to the surface of this idyllic, peaceful planet. They are greeted by Mea 3, a beautiful blonde woman (surprise!) and her two awesomely hatted guards. She leads them to Anan 7, head of the High Council (and we see that in this society, privilege consists of not having to wear the ridiculous hats). Both Mea 3 and Anan 7 refer to a great war that has continued for over 500 years—yet Spock notes that there is no sign of war at all.

Sir, we have completely scanned your planet. We find it highly advanced, prosperous in a material sense, comfortable for your people, and peaceful in the extreme. Yet you say you are at war. There is no evidence of this.

Anan 7 assures them that the war is very real, and that one to three million lives are lost each year due to “direct enemy attack” from Vendikar, their enemy. He also warns Kirk that by entering their airspace they have themselves become targets, and are in great danger.

Suddenly war breaks out—the men rush to the war room, and see a large area of their map light up as if hit. Mea 3 gulps—the attack was right there in the very city. Kirk and his crew are puzzled—they felt no attack, and Yeoman Tamura can detect no radiation. Scotty, commanding the Enterprise, detects nothing unusual to have happened to the planet. Confronting Anan 7, Kirk demands to know if this is some kind of game, but Spock deduces the truth—the war is fought with computers. Each attack is mathematically calculated, casualties are listed, and the men and women who “died” in the simulated attack must report in twenty-four hours to a “disintegration chamber.”

ANAN 7: I lost my wife in the last attack. Our civilization lives. The people die, but our culture goes on.
KIRK: You mean to tell me your people just walk into a disintegration machine when they’re told to?
ANAN 7: We have a high consciousness of duty, Captain.

Kirk is visibly horrified, but Spock notes that there is “a certain scientific logic” about the whole thing. “I’m glad you approve,” Anan 7 says, but Spock quickly corrects him: “I do not approve. I understand.” Anan 7 goes on to say that as a valid target, the Enterprise had been attacked by Vendikar—and classified as destroyed.

ANAN 7: All persons aboard your ship have twenty-four hours to report to our disintegration machines. In order to ensure their co-operation, I have ordered you, Captain, and your party, held in custody until they surrender. If possible, we shall spare your ship, Captain, but its passengers and crew are already dead.

Kirk and the others are captured and led away to guarded quarters. Mea 3 meets them to see if they require anything, and Kirk demands to see Anan 7. He is busy compiling casualty lists (doesn’t your job sound like fun now, whatever it is?) and refuses to see Kirk. Mea 3 also reveals that she has been declared a casualty, and must report to a disintegration chamber herself by noon the following day. Kirk cannot believe she would simply forfeit her own life, but she assures him:

My life is as dear to me as yours is to you, Captain…[but] if I refuse to report, and others refuse, then Vendikar would have no choice but to launch real weapons. We would have to do the same to defend ourselves. More than people would die then. A whole civilzation would be destroyed. Surely you can see that ours is a better way.

Kirk responds: “No, I don’t see that at all.”

Meanwhile, Scotty and McCoy are worried by the lack of contact. Right on time, they receive a message from the captain, explaining that the Eminians have agreed to full diplomatic relations, and that they’ve extended an invitation for shore leave—for every passenger aboard the Enterprise. Thankfully Scotty is a damn smart man, and knows better—he runs the last recording through a voice analyzer and discovers it’s a voice duplicator.

Back on the ranch, Spock uses his “Vulcanian” telepathic abilities (i.e. magical mind control—he is speshul) to convince the guard on the other side of the wall to open the door for them. They take the guard down and escape through the halls, coming upon one of the disintegration chambers (and Mea making her way towards it). Deciding to “throw a monkey wrench into the machinery” Kirk destroys the chamber, and takes Mea with him in his pursuit of Anan.

When Anan learns of his escape he orders the destruction of the Enterprise. Again, because Scotty is awesome, he’s put defensive “screens” (shields) in place already and they easily survive the attack. As Scotty tries to come up with a solution that will rescue the captain and keep the ship intact, Ambassador Asshat returns and demands that they stand down. He’s confident the attack was a “misunderstanding,” and opens a channel to Anan 7 to discuss a resolution.

Anan 7 puts on his best Ambassador Asshat face and convinces the original AA that it was indeed “a mistake,” encouraging the ambassador to beam down and greet them. Anan 7 says privately to his own lieutenant: “The minute their screens are down, open fire.” Flattered by his own effectiveness, AA orders Scotty to “resume peaceful status” (i.e. take down the shields). Scotty puts his hands on his hips and says “No, I will not lower the screens, not until the captain tells me to.” You go, Scotty! AA threatens to have him sent to a penal colony but Scotty holds his ground. The ambassador vows to report him to “Federation Central” and huffs off the bridge.

On the planet, Kirk accosts Anan in his quarters. Anan calls Kirk a “barbarian,” and gives a nice little speech about how human nature is inherently violent and murderous. The two face off in a delightful exchange—Kirk threatens a “real” war, the old-fashioned way, and implies that he could single-handedly destroy the entire planet, without his ship. Tough words, Kirk, as Anan secretly flips the silent alarm he had the amazing foresight to install in his own room. Kirk demands his communicators, and motions with his index finger at Anan to come with him. He then shoves Anan through the open door right at the guard outside and take down a second guard who arrives! Alas, their pointy hats are too much—the guards bonk Kirk on the head and take him into custody.

In a slightly more amusing parallel, Ambassador Asshat and a toolish assistant beam down to meet with Anan, who greets them smiling. However, once they enter the building, Anan informs him that they have been declared casualties of the war and are to be killed. The look on AA’s face is priceless. +1 for comeuppance! Guards lead him away.

Spock, successfully able to reprogram a local communicator to contact the ship, gets in touch with Scotty and makes it very clear that no one should beam down from the Enterprise. Scotty tells him that the ambassador has already beamed down, and Spock orders the ship to go to maximum phaser range. None too happy about having to save AA, Spock decides to search for him. He leaves Tamura with Mea, to prevent her from killing herself. “Knock her down if necessary. This is a killing situation. Do what you must to protect yourself. Clear? ”

Galloway and Osborne dress up in the pointy-hat brigade’s uniforms and pretend that Spock is their prisoner. They make it to the disintegration chamber where AA is begging for his life and disable the guards, saving him (why?). Spock then destroys the disintegration chamber.

Meanwhile, Anan 7 pleads desperately with Kirk to convince his men to report to the suicide chambers. He explains that if they do not, it will be a violation of the treaty, and more than men will perish—their whole civilization (and that of their enemy) will be destroyed. Kirk refuses, and with his back against the wall, Anan 7 opens a channel to the Enterprise directly. Just as he does Kirk leaps from his seat and gives Scotty the command for “General Order 24, in two hours!” Anan tells Scotty that the ship has thirty minutes to beam everyone to the surface, or the captain, his party, and the ambassador and his party will all be killed. Kirk is unphased. He explains that General Order 24 is the order to destroy the entire planet of Eminiar VII.

Scotty informs them that they have located all cities and are prepared to destroy the planet. Anan, flailing in desperation, asks what he should do. One of the guards moves towards him (to comfort him? Or because the plot needed him to?) and Kirk takes advantage, tripping him, grabbing a disruptor, and herds the entire room into the corner at phaser-point. Just then Spock and his men enter, a bit late to the party: “I assumed you needed help. I see I am in error.”

Monologue time! This is a good one:

Death, destruction, disease, horror. That’s what war is all about, Anan. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it. And you’ve had it for five hundred years. Since it seems to be the only way I can save my crew and my ship, I’m going to end it for you, one way or another.

He retrieves his communicators and weapons, and Spock locates the computers responsible for defense, casualty tallies, and the uninterrupted communication with Vendikar. With cavalier awesomeness, he destroys them. Anan is frightened and furious: “Do you know what you’ve done?” But he does. “I’ve given you back the horrors of war.” Faced with the possibility of an ugly, brutal war, Anan must choose between that life, and peace.

ANAN: There can be no peace. Don’t you see? We’ve admitted it to ourselves. We’re a killer species. It’s instinctive. It’s the same with you. Your General Order 24.
KIRK: All right. It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today. Contact Vendikar. I think you’ll find that they’re just as terrified, appalled, horrified as you are, that they’ll do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you. Peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.

Ambassador Asshat offers his services as a negotiator, should they choose the route of peace. They Eminians decide to use the direct channel to Vendikar’s High Council, though it hasn’t been used in centuries. “Then it’s long overdue,” AA says.

Kirk cancels General Order 24. Back aboard the Enterprise, Spock notes that Kirk took a very big risk in what he did. But Kirk brushes it off: “The Eminians keep a very orderly society, and actual war is a very messy business. A very, very messy business. I had a feeling that they would do anything to avoid it, even talk peace.”

An episode that lets Scotty command the Enterprise is worth watching, if you ask me. His little quibbles with McCoy and his standoff against the dickwad ambassador were choice moments. And that ambassador! Not since “The Galileo Seven” have we seen such an arrogant turdnozzle on the bridge of the Enterprise. The show’s creators clearly had issues with bureaucracy, eh? But really, this had so many great scenes—Spock’s ploy to nerve-pinch the guard; the tension between Kirk and Anan 7, particularly near the end when Anan is pouring drinks; Kirk taking out the entire High Council on his own(!) only to have Spock come in, somewhat disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to save the day—it’s a great assemblage of little moments.

Any claims this show had to moral relativism went right out the window with this one, though. Anan 7 and Mea 3 all make what I felt were pretty strong cases for their way of life, but Kirk and his crew never find the idea anything other than morally repugnant. I’m not saying they’re wrong (I find it abhorrent on a personal level, as I’m sure most viewers did), but the writers didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room here: their world is terrible and awful and wrong, and in good old coyboy style we’re going to destroy it for them and make them rebuild it the way we want to see it. While TNG broke the Prime Directive all the time, I felt they were a little more nuanced and less cavalier about it. Maybe that’s just my perception.

That said, I really enjoyed this episode. Okay, so it’s a glorified game of Battleship. But the irony is that today, forty years later, we do in some sense fight our wars with computers. The bombs are all too real, but defense and the military-industrial complex have become a highly technical industry, and some of our greatest advances in computers and tech are byproducts of the drive to create “better,” more destructive, smarter weapons. Knowing that now gives this episode an uncomfortable aftertaste.

What really fascinated me was watching the men and women of this society fully and completely buy into the idea that their civilization and their culture trump the rights of any individual. This isn’t new, but to see it without an obvious physical threat is disturbing. To give your life to save your society, well, men and women have been doing that for millenia. But with a threat so abstracted, so distant? It’s chilling to watch.

Memory Alpha quoted David Gerrold as saying that the numbers Anan 7 rolls off (one to three million dead a year) were directly taken from Vietnam War reports on the nightly news. If that’s true, it adds a whole new dimension of real terror to it. In both cases we have what feels like a distant, abstract war, which we (here in the episode, we humans; there in history, we the U.S.) inserted ourselves into despite not having a direct stake in it. (And yes, you could argue that Kirk’s ship is on the line, but once he gets his communicators back he could’ve beamed away and left for good, no?) More importantly, the visibility of the Vietnam War—the television coverage, the photos, the journalism, the images of coffins coming home—heavily influenced the anti-war movement. The pure saturation of media attention very much affected the mood of America. On Eminiar VII, we have an invisible war. You can’t see it, but the threat is there, they keep repeating. It could be a Cold War analogy, maybe. But what if we really could wipe away the face of war?

The final monologues about the dirt and mess and just plain ugliness of war are I think the most moving. The Eminians don’t fear their war because it’s clean, and off-screen. But to see the devastation, that is to know the fear of annihilation. We fear war because (in 1968 particularly) we know what it looks like. It is awful. It fills us with fear and hatred and sadness. But if we took the terror out of war and made it merely death—ordinary death, a death we could control, that doesn’t even have the terror of the unexpected—what makes that anything but better than the usual lives we lead? Now I’m not sure I buy it (wouldn’t the deaths themselves, of loved ones, of friends, change people’s hearts?), but it’s an idea worth considering.

And lastly I really like the double-edged sword that the title presents. The Eminians get a taste of Armageddon, thanks to Kirk. They finally get a sense of what true annihilation could be. But at the same time, Kirk and his crew see a soulless society, one that kills millions of its own people each year in the name of peace. That in itself is a taste of Armageddon for the crew of the Enterprise—taking peace too far, if you will.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I was always impressed with this episode, and even now, after having seen a number of episodes about civilizations enslaved by their machines—and many still to go—I still consider it a meaningful, thought-provoking scenario, however implausible. The idea of war waged by computer isn’t that striking, especially today after movies like Wargames and consumer computer games that can do this much and more; but it’s much more compelling with the twist of tallied casualties being carried out in the real world.

There is something tempting about a “civilized” war where culture and society are preserved even while lives are lost. Those marked for death following an attack are even given a day to say their goodbyes, get their affairs in order, and prepare themselves for death—a luxury few of us have, even in peaceful times. And wouldn’t a (hopefully painless) disintegration chamber make a better alternative than dying on a battlefield or being buried alive in the rubble of a destroyed building? It’s no wonder that Eminiar and Vendikar would choose this rather than risk the eradication of one or both of their ways of life. Yet it’s hard to believe that people intelligent enough to derive such a cold and efficient system couldn’t come to some other compromise. We never even find out what they’re fighting over, if they even remember anymore.

Wars are waged in the hope that one of the parties will be victorious, but this war is essentially a stalemate. With no way of outlasting the enemy’s resources and plenty of people to kill, this war will never end. There are also no lines between civilians and soldiers, since the computer does all the work; the war has simply become an unusual form of population control. The real debate is whether Kirk should have tried to save them from themselves, based on his belief that he knows what’s best after spending only five minutes on the planet. The Eminians aren’t victims of a machine intelligence, they’re in control of the computer and their own fates. Shouldn’t he just leave them alone?

Spock and McCoy even call him out on his moral superiority in the end. Luckily, in this case he leaves the warring planets in a hopeful state. As strongly as Kirk feels about the wrongness of their lifestyle, would he have gotten this involved if the Enterprise and his crew hadn’t been in danger? Once he had his communicator, he also could have beamed out and warped away, and there’s nothing they could have done to stop him. The result may have been much the same, albeit with fewer pyrotechnics and minus the grand gesture of destroying their computer.

Incidentally, does it seem fair for the Eminians to try to trick the crew into beaming down and filing into their suicide booths? If they expect the Federation to adhere to their laws, why not tell the truth? And if they’re wrong to apply their beliefs to other people (like Kirk does!), then they’re responsible for the deaths of everyone on the Valiant fifty years before, a serious crime.

This episode is memorable not just for the funny hats on the guards, but because it’s the first time we see Spock practice his telepathic “Vulcanian” mind control, which bothers me more than the crazy war. Somehow, pulling a Jedi mind trick through a closed door feels like cheating, and it seems completely unnecessary to the plot. But there are a lot of other things to appreciate, including Mr. Scott’s impressive command of the Enterprise in a difficult situation.

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

Best Line: SPOCK: “Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.” (The guard looks, and Spock nerve-pinches him.)

Syndication Edits: Spock reporting that the ship fifty years ago that attempted to make contact was the USS Valiant; Kirk and Anan’s initial introductions; Spock’s comment that there is a certain logic to what the Eminians do (which cuts the nice retort that while he understands, he does not approve); some of Scott and McCoy’s conversation before they get the fake Kirk message, and some more of their dialogue after the are fired upon; part of Kirk trying to convince Mea 3 to help him find the war room; Anan 7 pouring himself a relaxing war drink before Kirk sneaks up; Spock’s instructions to Tamura to keep an eye on Mea 3; some hallway skulking.

Trivia: I don’t know the source for this (his autobiography, maybe?), but Memory Alpha lists a fascinating anecdote. As a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery, James Doohan played out a real-life instance of this episode’s military insubordination. He was actually threatened with court martial for refusing an order from a visiting colonel after he realized a training exercise order would entail killing his own men. He was, however, backed by his superiors, and eventually promoted to captain. (And while we’re on the subject, you know that missing finger? That was from the invasion of Normandy, where he commanded 120 men on Juno Beach. That’s right, he lost that finger fighting Nazis. What have you done lately?)

Other Notes: Barbara Babcock, who plays Mea 3, was the voice of the the mother blob in “The Squire of Gothos.”

The sets and costumes should look familiar—they’re repurposed from “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”

The disruptors here were eventually re-tooled as Klingon weapons.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 23 – “Space Seed.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 25 – “This Side of Paradise.” 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.