Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Return of the Archons”

“The Return of the Archons”
Teleplay by Boris Sobelman
Story By Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 1, Episode 21
Production episode: 1×22
Original air date: February 9, 1967
Star date: 3156.2

Mission summary
We begin with Lt. Sulu and Lt. O’Neil, dressed for the spring production of 1776, fleeing for their lives from ominous hooded figures (it was a modern production). Sulu calls the Enterprise for an emergency beam-out but it’s taking too long, so O’Neil abandons Sulu and runs off on his own. Don’t worry, he’s a professional. The hooded figures have some form of boomstick and one points it at Sulu just as the helmsman beams away. In the transporter room Sulu’s suddenly switched gears entirely, and while he’s dressed for 1776 he’s acting like he’s in Hair. Euphoric and calm, he praises “Landru,” and describes the planet they were just on as “paradise.”

We learn that they had beamed to the surface of Beta III to investigate the disappearance of the Archon, a starship that disappeared over a hundred years ago. Since Sulu is now completely whacked out and O’Neil never came back, Kirk organizes a second search party, consisting of himself (natch), Spock (who here looks like a Ringwraith), McCoy, sociologist Lindstrom, and two nobodies: Leslie and Galloway.

They beam down and Spock notices that all the inhabitants of Beta III have an expression of “mindlessness…vacant contentment.” Then they’re greeted by friendly weirdos who wish them joy and speak in broken sentences. It’s like some kind of hell! One of them directs the group to Reger’s house for a place to stay, but warns them: “it’s almost the Red Hour.” As usual they take their sweet time checking out the ladies, missing the deadline. At 6pm the streets erupt in chaos: men and women run around shrieking in uncontrolled violence. They pull at their hair, men grab women, and all throw things at each other.

Kirk’s not in the mood for a party so they flee to Reger’s house. There are three old men there: two who can’t seem to remember their verbs and one, Reger, who seems…almost normal. Kirk and crew assure the men that they’re there for “the Festival,” but Cranky Old Man #1 wants to know why they aren’t out there in the Festival right now—they’re “young men, too old to be excused from the Festival.” Reger takes them to their rooms, and Cranky Old Man #1 rants on to Cranky Old Man #2 about how “the lawgivers must know” about them, because they are “not of the body” (Sulu made the same accusation in the transporter room). Meanwhile, Kirk attempts to get some information about this “Landru” everyone keeps talking about, but Reger won’t volunteer a thing. In fact, he looks utterly terrified of the subject.

The next morning, at 6am sharp, everyone falls back in stride to their ordinary vacant lives. All except Tula, Reger’s daughter, who seems emotionally traumatized by the whole event. Reger wants to know if Kirk and his men are “archons,” but before he can explain, the hooded justice figures storm in, accompanied by Cranky Old Man #1. COM #1 accuses COM #2 of mocking the lawgivers. In classic Salem style, the Lawgivers zap COM #2, killing him for his suspected insolence. Turning to Kirk the Lawgivers say:

You attacked the Body. You have heard the Word and disobeyed. You will be absorbed….The good is all. Landru is gentle. You will come.

Kirk doesn’t like to be told what to do, so he refuses. Stunned by his disobedience, the lawgivers conference privately. Kirk explains that what they’ve seen “seems to indicate some sort of compulsive involuntary stimulus to action” and refusing them threw them off entirely. The Lawgivers restate their demand that Kirk obey, because “it is the will of Landru.” Kirk then takes the man’s boomstick, which is actually just a hollow tube with no mechanism. The Lawgivers are lost without their stick (and busy communing), giving the men long enough to formulate a plan. Reger claims he has a safe place for them to go, and leads them out of the house.

On the streets, the men and women follow them, picking up debris from last night’s festival to use as weapons. It’s like the slowest game of Resident Evil you ever played. Kirk orders them to set their phasers on stun and with that they make their way through the oncoming hordes of mindless zombies. One of the stunned “absorbed” men is Lt. O’Neil, who they take with them. They finally reach the safe haven that Reger told them about, and he reveals a lighting panel—technology far beyond anything readily apparent on the surface of Beta III. Reger explains that it comes “from a time before Landru,” about 6000 years ago, and that there is an underground of those who resist Landru.

Reger goes on to tell Kirk about the archons, men that Landru “pulled down from the skies” (a starship), which reminds the captain that he’s got that ship-thingy up there. He contacts the Enterprise and we see Scotty going apeshit—heat beams have focused on the Enterprise from the planet’s surface. The shields are holding for now, but their orbit is decaying and Scotty guesses they only have twelve hours before burning up.

The connection is interrupted by Landru, whose projected image appears before them. He is having a mighty bad projected hair day, perhaps responsible for his grumpy mood. He accuses Kirk and his men of being “destroyers” who bring “an infection.”

You have come to a world without hate, without fear, without conflict. No war, no disease, no crime. None of the ancient evils. Landru seeks tranquility. Peace for all. The universal good.

Kirk tries to explain that they are on a mission of peace, but Spock notes that Landru cannot hear him. The projection continues:

You will be absorbed. Your individuality will merge into the unity of the good, and in your submergence into the common being of the Body, you will find contentment and fulfillment. You will experience the absolute good.

Suddenly they all become overwhelmed by mind radio waves and collapse to the ground.

When they awake they find that their weapons have been taken and they are locked in some kind of prison—sans McCoy and Mr. O’Neil. Shortly after, a much-changed McCoy and O’Neil return. Clearly drunk on the Kool-Aid, McCoy explains that they all know one another—through Landru. It doesn’t seem that any of the old doctor is left. The Lawgivers then call Kirk into the absorption chamber, where, McCoy says, he “goes to joy, peace, and tranquility. He goes to meet Landru.”

Spock tries to mind meld with McCoy but it’s impossible—he’s under much too strong a control by Landru. But before he can try anything else, the Lawgivers arrive—and motion to Spock. Spock passes Kirk on the way out—a much more docile version of him, anyway. Marplon, the control room guy, locks Spock into the chamber, but as soon as the Lawgivers leave he lets Spock go. “I was too late to save your first two friends,” he says. “They have been absorbed. Beware of them.” He did, however, save Kirk. Marplon gives Spock back his weapons and the Lawgivers escort Spock back to the cave.

Reconvening, Spock tells Kirk that he thinks he know the deal:

This is a soulless society, captain. It has no spirit, no spark. All is indeed peace and tranquility. The peace of the factory, the tranquility of the machine. All parts working in unison.

In other words: it’s a computer! Of course! “The plug must be pulled,” Kirk says, but Spock seems shocked by this as it would go against the Prime Directive of non-interference. “That refers to a living, growing culture,” Kirk explains. Nice one, Kirk. Very creative. Carry on, then!

McCoy’s little zen garden doesn’t appreciate the intimate conference the others are having, and calls the Lawgivers to restore peace. As they enter, Kirk and Spock karate chop them and take their robes. Marplon instructs them to go to the Hall of Audiences if they want to find Landru.

They make their way to this Hall of Audiences and meet Landru’s projected image again. But they’re tired of the holographic middlemen and blow a hole in the wall—to find a massive computer. The computer reveals that it is Landru. “I am he. All that he was, I am. His experience, his knowledge.” Kirk tells him: “Not his wisdom. He may have programmed you, but he could not have given you a soul. You are a machine.”

Landru is dubious of this assertion and tells Kirk and Spock that they are a poison, and that he will cleanse them, “for the good of the Body.” Poor thing has no idea that Kirk can outsmart any godlike being, even a machine! Kirk convinces Landru that he is the poison, not Kirk; and that it is he who is poisonous to the body.

LANDRU: Peace, order, and tranquility are maintained. The body lives, but I reserve creativity to me.
SPOCK: Then the body dies. Creativity is necessary for the health of the Body.

Confuzzled by this logic, Landru doubts himself. Kirk tells him that he is “evil,” and, persuaded, Landru destroys himself.
Cut to the bridge. Everyone has returned back to normal, and the sociologist Lindstrom agrees to stay behind and help them rebuild their society—as men, and not the pawns of a machine.

KIRK: How’s it going?
LINDSTROM: Couldn’t be better. Already this morning we’ve had half a dozen domestic quarrels and two genuine knock-down drag-outs. It may not be paradise, but it’s certainly human.

Kirk wishes him luck, and muses to his friend Spock:

SPOCK: How often mankind has wished for a world as peaceful and secure as the one Landru provided.
KIRK: Yes. And we never got it. Just lucky, I guess.

“The Return of the Archons” touches on a theme that comes up a lot throughout all the iterations of Star Trek: the inverted Eden. This world, which should be a paradise—free of hate, cruelty, or war—is really a nightmare created by an automaton. Like great SF, this episode asks one question: what could the peaceful world we’ve always dreamed of look like? And what would the cost be for that kind of tranquility?

It would be easy to make this an allegory for a particular religion, or communism, or fascism, or any number of real world examples. I think it’s more important to appreciate it as a warning about the danger of mindless obedience to anyone or anything. This episode values individuality above all else, and anything, no matter how appealing, is not worth sacrificing one’s personhood. Kirk says that “freedom must be earned,” which I guess is supposed to reflect well on the underground movement that saved them, though I’m not sure the people of Beta III did much to liberate themselves. In any case, there’s no such thing as paradise. The human spirit is volatile and unstable and difficult to control, but those elements are what give us creativity and will. If we lose that we may lose conflict but we lose our humanity, too.

The future is not free of conflict, nor should it be—they merely use conflict as a positive force that drives them to improve themselves and their world. They don’t make any apologies for man’s violent nature, they merely accept them as part of the essential humanness that defines us. As in “The Enemy Within,” Kirk is not himself without his darker, more violent side. We need that inner turmoil as much as we need logic and tranquility of the mind to rein in it. That balance is essential to our species, and valued as such.

The one thing I didn’t quite understand was the Spock angle. What makes this world different from Vulcan? Spock didn’t have a hard time passing as an even-tempered shell of a man, but I think that was problematic. He forcefully tells Landru that creativity is essential to the health of the mind and body, but he doesn’t embody that at all, aside from his interest in chess (which even computers can do). The quip at the end about being just like a machine added to the ambiguity—he believes creativity is essential but is flattered he’d make a perfect machine? I’m not sure what to make of him, really, or how he fits into this scheme of man vs. machine.

A technical note: I want to point out how fantastic the directing in this episode is. These early television dramas were deeply influenced by theater and the stage, and it’s no more obvious than here. There are so many beautiful tableaus, and the blocking was effective and simple. You don’t see this at all in television now that we depend on close-ups to convey just about everything, but Shatner and the rest have great stage presence and movement. In particular I loved the townspeople, who rose up with weapons and then fell against the phasers so elegantly that it was almost like a dance.

Too bad we’ll never get to see Star Trek: The Musical

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

Eugene Myers: This episode is even creepier and freakier than I remembered. Everything on Beta III is unsettling, including the eerie incidental music, the strangely zombified citizens gliding through the streets, the odd dialogue and speech patterns, and the bizarre phrases constantly quoted throughout. When the Red Hour/Festival begins, the setting takes on a truly nightmarish quality. These are some of the darkest images we see in the series, with wanton violence and  passion erupting around the village, peppered by screams and the sound of breaking glass. Rape is heavily implied, judging from Tula’s reaction post-Festival, and one of the most disturbing images is of shadows looming large on the walls of a building in the flickering fire light, showing a man and woman embracing, but not in an exactly loving way.

This episode is evocative of another “utopian” story, Brave New World, with its talk of “The Good is all” and “Landru is gentle” and the strict enforcement of the Lawgivers. It also prefigures The Stepford Wives, where people are replaced by docile automatons, or sometimes merely brainwashed. I also wondered if there were some link between these computers and those of the Borg from The Next Generation and Voyager, since they seem to be using the same playbook: “You will be absorbed. Your individuality will merge into the unity of the good, and in your submergence into the common being of the Body, you will find contentment and fulfillment.“ Naturally, Kirk doesn’t believe that resistance is futile.

It’s hard not to see this society as a criticism of religion, or at least any form of blind worship to a higher power, especially considering the cult-like appearance of Landru’s projection and the people’s complete devotion to his will. Landru is almost a Jesus figure, resurrected long after his death through a computer, and there’s an element of prophecy involved with talk of the return of the Archons, the original crew having been largely sacrificed or absorbed. People who are absorbed become part of “the Body,” utterly dependent on Landru’s guidance, not unlike some religious indoctrination. And Kirk’s chief criticism of this society is essentially the question of free will: “Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life. The body dies.” The Festival is a kind of controlled Rapture, allowing the brainwashed citizens to act out their primal urges, presumably necessary since their base instincts are constantly submerged—a kind of pon farr, to put this in a Vulcan perspective. The Red Hour strikes at 6, which is perhaps tied to the Biblical number of the beast. Kirk ultimately convinces Landru that he is a god turned devil, that the computer is the evil it was designed to destroy.

I may be reading more into this than there is, but by all accounts Gene Roddenberry was an atheist and a secular humanist, though he  was raised in the Southern Baptist faith. This story seems consistent with an anti-religious sentiment and a rejection of faith.

Just as in the previous episode, this also pits Kirk against a computer, albeit a bit more literally. When they peek behind the Wizard’s curtain, they find a machine instead of a man: “The original Landru programmed it with all his knowledge but he couldn’t give it his wisdom, his compassion, his understanding, his soul, Mr. Spock.” Spock questions this as “predictably metaphysical,” but it’s interesting that Kirk uses that word soul, given that in this future there supposedly is no religion. Once again, much importance is placed on distinguishing the human from the machine. Spock says this is a “machine’s concept of perfection,” what Landru claims is “a world without hate, without fear, without conflict. No war, no disease, no crime. None of the ancient evils.” When they eliminate the machine, they lose out on the peace and tranquility it provided, but the show posits they’re better off because the individuals are no longer simply parts of a machine. Lindstrom, who remains behind on the planet to see them through their transition into a vital society, tells them: “Already this morning, we’ve had half a dozen domestic quarrels and two genuine knock-down drag-outs. It may not be paradise, but it’s certainly human.”

It’s this distinction between the soulless society of Landru and that of a group of free, thinking people that allows Kirk to violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive, pretty much as soon as we hear about it (I think this is the first time it is referred to as such). Kirk’s loophole is that the Prime Directive “refers to a living, growing culture.” Landru has his own Prime Directive: “the good of the Body,” and Kirk uses this to confuse him. It’s a little chilling that as the machine dies, it cries out “Landru! Help me! Help me!” like the Wicked Witch of the West melting away. Kirk is a bit cavalier about completely changing the lives of the people on this planet: “Well, Marplon, you’re on your own now. I hope you’re up to it. (to Lawgivers) And you can get rid of those robes. If I were you, I’d start looking for another job.” At least this time he leaves them some people to help.

Weighty issues aside, this is an effective and  riveting episode that works at every twist. I was certainly surprised (again!) when Marplon turns out to be another resistance leader and doesn’t absorb Kirk and Spock into the Body, aiding their escape. That creepy guy Bilar still weirds me out with his crazy head tilt and tone of voice. One of my favorite moments is when Spock punches a lawgiver and Kirk comments, “Isn’t that somewhat old-fashioned?” They make such a great team. We also learn a bit more about Starfleet, with the mention of the Prime Directive, and the revelation that the Enterprise can’t keep its shields up while in warp, which had never occurred to me.

The only questions remaining after the episode are: Does the Red Hour happen every night? And if so, who cleans up after it?

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

Best Line: LINDSTROM: Well, this is simply ridiculous. A bunch of stone age characters running around in robes!

Syndication Edits: O’Neil convincing Sulu that the Lawgivers are everywhere (just before they beam out); some of Sulu’s paradise ranting; Reger objecting to them bringing O’Neil when they find him in the street and his second argument to sedate him in the cave; the Captain’s Log that recaps the condition of both the Enterprise and the landing party (and the subsequent wake-up of Kirk in the dungeon); a repeat of Spock and Kirk’s statements that Landru must be a machine.

Trivia: “The Archons” was a club Gene Roddenberry belonged to in school.

This is the first mention of the Prime Directive.

Other Notes: Lindstrom, in the original draft, falls in love with Reger’s daughter, Tula. This may help explain his desire to stay behind on the planet.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 20 – “Court Martial.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 22 – “Space Seed.” 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.