Star Trek Re-Watch: “Errand of Mercy”

“Errand of Mercy”
Written by Gene L. Coon
Directed by John Newland

Season 1, Episode 26
Production episode: 1x 27
Original air date: March 23, 1967
Star date: 3198.4

Mission summary
Peace talks between the Federation and the Klingon Empire are breaking down, so the Enterprise is ordered to Organia, which isn’t a sex resort like it sounds, but a planet of “peaceful, friendly people living on a primitive level.” Actually, that still sounds like a sex resort, doesn’t it? Organia’s only value is its strategic military location; Kirk compares it to Armenia and Belgium in Earth’s history, “the weak innocents who always seem to be located on the natural invasion routes.” They must reach the planet before the Klingons and prevent them from establishing a base there. Starfleet Command’s communique also mentions the possibility of a surprise Klingon attack. Not long after decoding this message, the Enterprise is indeed attacked, but they quickly destroy the enemy ship. The debris hasn’t even cleared before they receive a code one alert from Starfleet. “Well, there it is,” Kirk says. “War. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it.” And without a store receipt, they can’t even exchange it for something they do want. Committed to their duty, they set course for Organia at warp seven.

They reach Organia and learn that a Klingon fleet is already in the area. Kirk puts Sulu in command of the Bridge, with orders not to engage the enemy. If attacked, he is to escape and warn Starfleet, leaving Kirk and Spock behind on Organia. (He must still be hoping for a sex resort.) The captain and first officer beam down into a Renaissance Faire. The rustic villagers fail to react to their sudden appearance. The ruins of a vast fortress loom in the distance, like a big sore thumb in the otherwise backwater locale. An elderly man welcomes the visitors and introduces himself as Ayelborne, chairman of the Council of Elders, the only position of authority on the planet. Kirk follows him to the council chambers for a chat while Spock goes sightseeing.

Kirk tells the Organians that the Klingons are coming to take over the defenseless planet, but his impassioned warnings fall on deaf ears. Kirk persists: “The Klingons are a military dictatorship. War is their way of life. Life under the Klingon rule would be very unpleasant. We offer you protection.” But the council members seem convinced they are in no danger at all. Increasingly frustrated, Kirk feeds them more propaganda on the countless horrors the Klingons will inflict on their people, then apologizes, “I’m a soldier, not a diplomat. I can only tell you the truth.“

While they deliberate the Federation’s offer of protection, Spock returns from his tour and tells Kirk that Organian society is stagnant: “For tens of thousands of years, there has been absolutely no advancement, no significant change in their physical environment. This is a laboratory specimen of an arrested culture.” This gives Kirk another bargaining chip. When the Organians refuse their help, he sweetens the deal with the promise of technological advancements to improve their lives. They still aren’t interested and advise Kirk and Spock to leave before they’re put in danger. Too late—Sulu interrupts to inform them that the Klingons have arrived and are attacking the Enterprise.

Kirk tells Sulu to save the ship and alert the fleet. One of the council, Trefayne, says that the Klingons are beaming down to the planet and keeps up a play-by-play commentary as armed Klingons approach the citadel. When Kirk asks how he knows what’s happening, Ayelborne says, “Oh, our friend Trefayne is really quite intuitive. You can rest assured that what he says is absolutely correct.”

Kirk and Spock are trapped on the planet with the Klingon occupation army. To hide them, Ayelborne disguises Kirk as an Organian named Baroner, swapping his Starfleet uniform for peasant garb (still in command yellow), and tries to pass Spock off as a D&D elf trading “kevas and trillium.” He also confiscates their phasers, to prevent them from taking any violent action against the Klingons. Then a Klingon bursts into the council chambers and introduces himself as Kor, “military governor of Organia.”

Kirk, as Baroner, draws Kor’s attention because he isn’t smiling like the rest of the Organians. When Kor orders his men to take Spock to the “examination room” for questioning as a spy, Kirk protests—which is also un-Organian behavior. For showing a little backbone, Kor appoints “Baroner” as the liaison between the Klingons and the Organian civilians, responsible for keeping order.

Kor takes Kirk to his office in the castle and gives him a lengthy list of Klingon Proclamations to enforce. Klingon soldiers bring Spock into the office and announce that he passed his examination, which consisted of a “truth finder” at force four:

It’s a mind-sifter or mind-ripper, depending on how much force is used. We can record every thought, every bit of knowledge in a man’s mind. Of course, when that much force is used, the mind is emptied. Permanently, I’m afraid. What’s left is more vegetable than human.

Kirk’s pretty disgusted with the device, but Spock seems all right. Though the Klingons believe his cover story, he’s designated as an “enemy alien” under constant watch. Kirk and Spock leave the castle and walk about the village. When a Klingon bodychecks Kirk, Spock restrains the captain and apologizes for getting in the Klingon’s way.

KIRK: You didn’t really think I was going to beat his head in, did you?
SPOCK: I thought you might.
KIRK: You’re right.

They have more important things to do anyway. They hope that if they can strike back against the Klingons, they can stir the passive Organians to action. They decide on some “simple and plain communicating,” in the form of a night raid in which they blow up the Klingon munitions dump with a sonic grenade. The Organians question them afterwards in the council chamber and Ayelborne begs them not to enact such violence again. Kirk tries to convince them:

History is full of examples of civil populations fighting back successfully against a military dictatorship. We may not be able to destroy the Klingons, but we can tie them up. Blow up their installations, disrupt their communications, make Organia useless to them.

Kor, who has bugged the office, realizes he’s picked the wrong man to serve as his liaison to the Organians. He bursts into the office again and says he’s going to use his “mind scanner” on Kirk before killing him. Ayelborn blurts out Kirk’s true identity to protect him from the scanner (forgetting the “killing” part of Kor’s threat). Kirk’s reputation precedes him, and Kor seems thrilled to have the captain of the Enterprise. Kirk is rather pissed at the Organians: “I’m used to the idea of dying, but I have no desire to die for the likes of you.” But he’s given a momentary reprieve, as Kor follows the villain’s handbook and decides to talk to the captain before killing him.

Kor offers Kirk a drink and says that the Klingons and the Federation are alike, but Kirk will have none of it: “We’re nothing like you. We’re a democratic body.” Kirk continues to give his trademark glib responses; when Kor questions him about the positions of the Starfleet ships, he answers, “Go climb a tree.” Kor threatens to dissect Spock and run the scanner on Kirk in twelve hours if he doesn’t cooperate, then sends Kirk to join the Vulcan in the dungeon.

After nearly six hours in their cell, Kirk and Spock are still conspiring to stop the Klingons if they ever get out of there. Ayelborne arrives and lets them out, explaining that “(y)our captors plan to do violence to you. That we cannot permit.” He leads them to the only other set built for this episode, the council chambers, where Kirk ask him about his wishy-washy behavior and mysterious abilities.

KIRK: First you turn us in, then get us out. What are you doing now, waiting for the Klingons to post a reward so you can turn us in again and collect it?
AYELBORNE: How little you understand us, Captain.
SPOCK: Nor do we understand what happened to the guard at the citadel.
AYELBORNE: Please do not concern yourself about them.
KIRK: What happened to them?
AYELBORNE: Why, nothing happened to them, Captain. Nothing at all.

Ominous, much? Kirk continues to berate the Organian for his “idiotic placidity,” but Ayelborne repeats, “To us, violence is unthinkable.” Not so for the Klingons, who implement “Special Occupation Order Number Four”: the murder of 200 Organians, with the intent of killing another 200 every two hours until Kirk and Spock are turned in. One wonders what occupation orders one through three are like.

Kirk is adamant that no more will die on his watch. They force Ayelborne to return their phasers: “Gentlemen, I have no great love for you, your planet, your culture. Despite that, Mr. Spock and I are going to go out there and quite probably die, in an attempt to show you that there are some things worth dying for.“

Yup, definitely not a diplomat. While he and Spock storm the castle, Ayelborne and the other council members decide they will have to stop the violence themselves. Kirk and Spock easily dispatch the Klingon guards in the castle and locate Kor’s office. They burst in on him for a change and immediately disarm the commander. Kor helpfully mentions that the Federation fleet is on its way. Kirk can’t avoid making a gratuitous chess reference.

KIRK: Checkmate, Commander.
KOR: Shall we wait and see the results before you kill me?
KIRK: I don’t intend to kill you unless I have to.
KOR: Sentimentality, mercy. The emotions of peace. Your weakness, Captain Kirk. The Klingon Empire shall win. Think of it, as we sit here, in space above us the destiny of the galaxy will be decided for the next ten thousand years.

But Kor has another trick up his sleeve. He tells them that Klingons are stronger than humans because they don’t trust each other—they’re always under surveillance. The Klingons who have been watching Kor’s office arrive to save him and Kirk scrambles for a firefight, but then everyone in the room drops their weapons. They can’t even bear to fight hand-to-hand, and on the Enterprise the Bridge crewmembers jump away from their stations.

Ayelborne and Claymare stride in and explain that they’ve stopped the violence by heating all of the Klingon and Federation weapons to 350 degrees—and they don’t mean to bake cookies. As if that isn’t enough, they drain power from their ships, too. Ayelborne says, “As I stand here, I also stand upon the home planet of the Klingon Empire, and the home planet of your Federation, Captain. I’m putting a stop to this insane war.” Claymore adds, “We find interference in other people’s affairs most disgusting, but you gentlemen have given us no choice.” Kirk and Kor insist that they have a right to settle their differences on their own terms, but end up proving the Organians’ point by arguing with each other over whether the Klingons or the Federation started the war in the first place.

Kirk tries one last time to convince the Organians to side with the Federation, since the Klingons killed 200 of their people, but Ayelborne tells him no one has died—everything on their planet is a sham, including the buildings, which Spock surmises were created so visitors can “have conventional points of reference.” They are beings of pure energy, the product of millions of years of evolution. And by the way, it’s time for Kirk and Kor to go. The singleminded Klingon actually proposes joining forces to defeat them, but Kirk stops him from attacking Ayelborne and Claymare. The Organians transform into lights too bright to look at, then slowly fade out.

KIRK: Well, Commander, I guess that takes care of the war. Obviously, the Organians aren’t going to let us fight.
KOR: A shame, Captain. It would have been glorious.

On the Bridge of the Enterprise, Kirk reveals a rare moment of chagrin. Spock asks him what’s wrong.

KIRK: I’m embarrassed. I was furious with the Organians for stopping a war I didn’t want. We think of ourselves as the most powerful beings in the universe. It’s unsettling to discover that we’re wrong.
SPOCK: Captain, it took millions of years for the Organians to evolve into what they are. Even the gods did not spring into being overnight. You and I have no reason to be embarrassed. We did, after all, beat the odds.
KIRK: Oh, no, no, no, Mr. Spock, We didn’t beat the odds. We didn’t have a chance. The Organians raided the game.

This episode is very important to Star Trek continuity because it introduces the Klingons to the series and establishes what is later called the “Organian Peace Treaty” between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. This enforced ceasefire kept them from warring until the Khitomer Accords in 2293 (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) instituted a voluntary—and lasting—peace, fulfilling the Organians’ prophecy to Kirk: “It is true that in the future, you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together.” This uneasy alliance was best illustrated by the presence of a Klingon on the Bridge of the Enterprise-D, Lt. Commander Worf.

For all their power and influence, the Organians just kind of faded into the backstory of the series, rarely referenced outside of TOS, which is probably for the best considering how much their presence would have limited the intergalactic conflicts in the series. According to the internet, Organians appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise titled “The Observer Effect,” but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Despite the deep ramifications of the events of “Errand of Mercy,” there isn’t that much to say about the episode because it deals in such absolutes. The Organians are on the order of gods to the humans and Klingons, too bright even to look upon in their noncorporeal form; as Spock says, they’re “as far above us on the evolutionary scale as we are above the amoeba.” War is clearly undesirable, except to the military-minded Klingons intent on interstellar conquest. But does the episode actually support outside interference in a private conflict? Though Kirk and Kor object to the Organians’ involvement, in the end they accept it, not that they have much of a choice. Is this meant to parallel U.S. participation in foreign conflicts? I don’t think this is necessarily a natural comparison, as Americans have traditionally supported one side or another when barging in on other countries’ wars, arguably seeking to further our own agenda, and the Organians simply abhor violence and are completely impartial.

There’s also the matter of the portrayal of the Klingons as stereotypically villainous (swarthy and mustached, with obvious Asian influence), while Kirk, representing the Federation’s interests, is much more sympathetic. Even though he tries to get the Organians’ assistance through friendship instead of force, his motives are no less transparent. He doesn’t always come off well in this episode, which is why it’s so satisfying to see him admit his mistake at the end. But I don’t really blame him for being angry at the meddling aliens. Far worse than testing the humans, they were playing with Kirk and Kor, unable to contain their amusement during the Klingon occupation (“Smile and smile. I don’t trust men who smile too much.”), all while Kirk was doing his best to protect them. It’s not as if they were trying to hide their identities or abilities behind that primitive facade either. They may have had the best intentions in stopping the war from happening, but I think we need to group them with the other advanced races that practice their own brand of superdickery with their powers.

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

Torie Atkinson: John Colicos’ Kor is ruthless, cruel, and brilliant—he delivers an excellent performance as the commander of this occupation. In fact, he’s so effectively villainous, it’s hard to sympathize with him at all. The one-sidedness of this episode, which Eugene discussed above, is the only thing that really bugged me about it. Kirk’s frustration with the Organians and his commitment to independence and freedom are admirable and sincere, while the Klingons seem to revel in violence and cruelty. It some ways, it made me yearn for the even-handedness of “Balance of Terror,” in which enemy soldiers are seen simply as individuals caught up in something far beyond their own control or desire.

The real world parallels are hard to ignore. Kirk refers to Organia as a kind of Belgium, caught between warring powers. The Klingons themselves are constantly referred to as tyrants, military dictators who conquer and destroy, carrying out mass executions for minor disobediences. Their Asian appearances and the reference to slave labor camps conjure images of World War II-era Japan and its occupation of Korea. I was also struck by Kirk’s vehement belief in civil disobedience as a way to fight military dictatorships—he refers to historical successes, but all I could think about were that even the successes were mixed with failures (to use WWII as an example again, the Korean Liberation Army and the efforts in Norway under German occupation).

Kirk is deeply distasteful (and in my opinion, off-puttingly so) of the Organians’ commitment to non-violence. He equates non-violence with weakness, as child-like and primitive. He promises to “remake their world” and his arrogance about the superiority of his own culture and way of life is just as astonishing as Kor’s arrogance, later, that the Klingons are better than the peoples of the Federation and thus deserving of the galaxy. Kirk misinterprets the Organians’ refusal to rise up as complicity, and he (perhaps foolishly) understands their peacefulness as cowardice. They tell him again and again, “How little you understand us.” It isn’t until the end that he becomes embarrassed by his own actions. He concedes that the Organians are more powerful than humans—and yet their power and strength do not come from violence, or influence, or cultural imperialism or superiority. Something to think on, Kirk.

I was particularly interested in the way in which Kirk talked himself into defending a war that he claims he never wanted to be a part of. Ayelborne calls him on it, and Kirk looks positively frightened at his own behavior. All in all, it’s a sobering look at the way in which making war becomes so easy and comfortable, it can be difficult to step back, re-examine the reasons, and find a common ground on which to make peace. Or, you know, have some space douches come in and make the choice for you.

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

Best Line: Spock, when asked about the odds of their escape: “Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to 1.”

Syndication Edits: Several moments from Kirk’s initial discussion with the council; the Organians confiscating Kirk and Spock’s phasers, and giving them their fake identities; the great line by Kor that he hates the Organians because they “smile and smile”; a big chunk of Kirk’s speech about staging a resistance after they blow up the munitions; Kor insulting the Organians; some transitions, including Kirk being carried to the dungeon; the discussion with Kirk, Spock, and Ayelborne as Kirk and Spock try and decide whether or not to trust them; the other great Kor line, when Ayelborne says he’s going to put a total stop to this “insane war”—Kor says, “You’re what??”

Trivia: This is the last episode in which the term “Vulcanian” is used to refer to Vulcans. Both “Vulcanian” and “Vulcan” are used at different points in the episode: Kor uses “Vulcanian” and the Klingon lieutenant uses “Vulcan.” The episode title comes from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens: “It is an errand of mercy which brings me here. Pray, let me discharge it.” In the script, the Klingons were described simply as “Oriental, hard-faced.” John Colicos said he was going for the “Genghis Khan” look.

Other notes: John Colicos reprises his role as the Klingon Kor twenty-seven years later in three Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes: “Blood Oath,” “The Sword of Kahless,” and “Once More Unto the Breach.” He has a little more weight and the familiar Klingon forehead ridges (but we won’t talk about those). The baldric that Kor wore was reused for Worf during TNG’s first season, and it’s merely a burlap sack painted gold.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 25 – “The Devil in the Dark.”


Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 27 – “The Alternative Factor.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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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 blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.