Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Savage Curtain”

The Savage Curtain
Teleplay by Arthur Heinemann and Gene Roddenberry
Story by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Herschel Daugherty

Season 3, Episode 22
Production episode: 3×22
Original air date: March 7, 1969
Star date: 5906.4

Mission summary

The Enterprise is in orbit around a molten lava-coated and poisonous planet that nonetheless reads carbon-based life. Seems like a classic mission for our bunch, but unfortunately the mysteries of Excalbia will have to go unexplored because the molten planetary surface isn’t suitable for a landing party. Just as Kirk turns that starship right around so no one can go to Mordor, the Enterprise jumps to red alert: they’re being scanned. “A deep probe, incredibly swift,” Spock says (miraculously without giggling).

On the viewscreen, a man in a black suit, seated in a leather chair, and wearing a stovepipe hat appears to float.

ALIEN THING: No need to check your voice telegraph device. Do I gather that you recognize me?
KIRK: I recognize what you appear to be.
ALIEN THING: And appearances can be most deceiving, but not in this case, James Kirk. I am Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln offers to come aboard and allow them to use “devices which can check my reality.” This sounds exciting, so Kirk agrees. Just as Lincoln disappears from the viewscreen, an Earthlike, one-thousand-square-kilometer area appears on Excalbia’s surface. It’s got a breathable atmosphere. How did that get there?

Kirk tells his officers to get in dress uniform and greet Lincoln with a full presidential welcome. McCoy thinks this is “poppycock,” and Scotty tends to agree:

SCOTT: President Lincoln, indeed. No doubt to be followed by Louis of France and Robert the Bruce!
KIRK: If so, we’ll execute appropriate honors to each, Mister Scott.
SCOTT: Aye, sir.
KIRK: Gentlemen, I don’t for a moment believe that President Lincoln is actually coming aboard, but we’re dealing with an unknown and apparently highly advanced life-form. Until we know, when in Rome, we’ll do as the Romans do.

Man, I would love to see a Lupercalia episode.

Anyway, Mr. Spock prepares to beam this Lincoln fellow aboard but locks on briefly to something that seemed like a “living rock” creature, with foreclaws. But it disappears, so they try not to think much of it and beam aboard Lincoln. He seems real enough for someone who’s been dead three centuries, even if he has some atrocious tanning make-up and is entirely too short to be the man himself. The ex-president is surprised by the taped music that greets him and seems in awe of the ship and its newfangled technologies, but takes it in good humor and allows himself to be escorted to the bridge.

Kirk wonders in a captain’s log who this man is: an alien who can change shape? A reincarnation of the real thing? But it seems so real to Kirk: “his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humor.” Lincoln meets everyone with a genteel civility that seems at home, in its own way, with the ship and its crew. He compliments Uhura as a “charming negress,” and then immediately apologizes for possibly offending her.

UHURA: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words.

Kirk goes on to say that here, in the future, “We’ve each learned to be delighted with what we are.” Lincoln approves of this, but he seems to know all these things already. He also seems to think that when they beam down to the planet, they will find a great Vulcan leader, though he doesn’t know who (or why). This is all well and good but Kirk is late to his 3 o’clock meeting, so Uhura picks up as tour guide. Kirk and Spock retreat to the briefing room where McCoy and Scotty have been not-so-patiently awaiting them.

Scotty and McCoy think that beaming down to the planet is a terrible idea. Who’s to say how safe this little patch of habitability is? Who is this Lincoln impostor anyway? It all reeks of something foul in the works, but Kirk doesn’t want to hear it:

KIRK: The very reason for the existence of our starships is contact with other life. Although the method is beyond our comprehension, we have been offered contact. Therefore, I shall beam down.

And that’s why he’s the captain.

They make their way to the transporter room and Scotty beams them down, but their phasers and tricorders mysteriously remain behind on the transporter pad. On the planet’s surface, Spock can’t reach the Enterprise with his communicator. They turn against Lincoln, demanding he divulge his secret Union plans, but he swears he’s the real deal and he doesn’t know what’s going on. In any case, they’re not alone. A Vulcan emerges from the bushes and identifies himself as Surak–the founder of Vulcan thought as we know it and a great hero to Spock.

SPOCK: It is not logical that you are Surak. There is no fact, extrapolation of fact or theory, which would make possible…
SURAK: Whatever I am, would it harm you to give response?
SPOCK: Live long and prosper, image of Surak, father of all we now hold true.
SURAK: The image of Surak read in your face what is in your mind, Spock.
SPOCK: As I turned and my eyes beheld you, I displayed emotion. I beg forgiveness.
SURAK: The cause was more than sufficient. Let us speak no further of it. In my time, we knew not of Earth men. I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.

Because the sum of both of you… is somehow different than the parts combined? What? Kirk loses patience with this logic puzzle and demands to know what’s really going on. Why would a great hero pop out of the bushes?

Suddenly a huge rock comes alive. No, this is not a Sid and Marty Krofft production, though you wouldn’t know that by looking at it. It explains that Kirk and Spock are welcome on their planet, as stars of a “great drama.” And then some more folks emerge from the bushes: a Mongolian-looking fellow, a Caucasian guy, an alien woman, and a Klingon. They are the rogues gallery of the universe: Genghis Khan (as you know, Bob); Colonel Green (who I assumed was the bastard child of Colonel Mustard and Mr. Green, but is actually just a genocidal sociopath from the 21st century); Zora (the futuristic equivalent of the scientists behind Tuskegee); and Kahless the Unforgettable, founder of the Klingon empire. The rock man invites the Enterprise crew orbiting above to watch the “play,” too–which is great for them since the whole ship lost power and they haven’t got anything else to do.

The rock man explains that he wants to learn a little bit about humans, by pitting good against evil: to see who would survive, and which one is strongest. Also his satellite is down and there’s nothing else on. Kirk and Spock refuse to participate, but the rock man thinks they’ll change their tune as soon as they’re attacked. He turns back into a rock and lets the drama commence.

Colonel Green tells Kirk that he doesn’t want to be there either, and suggests that they team up against their mutual foe: the rock monster. Unfortunately he shows his hand when his comrades circle around and throw rocks at the good guys. Real mature, dudes. It turns out more than four score and seven years ago Lincoln, too, must have attended the Academy of Man-Fighting because some truly ridiculously choreography ensues. Eventually the rogues run off, but Surak thinks there’s a grain of a good idea even in that scheme. They should work together for peace.

The rock man appears again, pissed that his toys are trying to be diplomats instead of cowboys. He wonders aloud if what the men need is a cause to fight for–and puts Kirk back in touch with his ship. Scotty can’t explain how, but the matter and antimatter are approaching “zone red proximity” (translation: oh noes!) and they have four hours before the ship will inexplicably explode. There we go, artificial tension will make this better, right?

Kirk tries to tell Scotty to jettison the nacelles and get the hell out of there, but communications are cut off again. Lincoln has resigned himself to fate:

LINCOLN: James, the war is forced upon us. History repeats itself.

Because this? Just like the War Between the States.

Kirk launches into war mode. He instructs Lincoln to make slings and Spock to make a boomerang, because that makes sense. Surak thinks this is a load of bullshit, though: sticks?! He’s going to try and offer peace instead. (This is, I promise, a less ridiculous offer than the prospect of fighting history’s villains.) He cites Vulcan foreign policy examples of how the first diplomats were always killed, but eventually a long-lasting peace was established. (I guess he didn’t really appreciate the gravity of his own story, though, about the first diplomats…)

He heads off to the rogue camp. They don’t trust him, of course, and though he swears he’s just a nonviolent guy, they think it’s some sort of trick.

GREEN: How can I believe that? No one talks peace unless he’s ready to back it up with war.

But he seems to go along with it, and promises to talk to “his associates.” Yes, we’ve just met the Bad Guy Mafia.

Meanwhile, back at Kirk’s stick-sharpening party, they begin to hear screams for help from Surak. Spock doesn’t think that a Vulcan would whine like that even if he were being tortured, but Kirk insists on doing something. It’s actually Lincoln that comes up with a plan: he’ll go in and free Surak while Kirk and Spock create a distraction.

LINCOLN: One matter further, gentlemen. We fight on their level. With trickery, brutality, finality. We match their evil. I know, James. I was reputed to be a gentle man. But I was commander in chief during the four bloodiest years of my country’s history. I gave orders that sent a hundred thousand men to their death at the hands of their brothers. There is no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending. And you are fighting for the lives of your crew.

It’s on.

Unfortunately, the rogues aren’t that stupid. As Lincoln unties Surak he finds that the Vulcan is already dead. Lincoln whips around to see behind his back Green and Kahless–and Kahless’s perfect imitation of Surak’s voice.

KAHLESS: Help me, Spock. Help me, Spock.
GREEN: Now can you cry like Lincoln?
KAHLESS: Help me, Kirk. Help me, Kirk!

A short time later, Lincoln approaches Kirk and Spock, but warns Kirk to stay back–just as he collapses on his face with a spear sticking out his back. Those bastards! They killed Lincoln!

Zora runs away, but Khan and Kahless fight our heroes. Green tries to run away once the others are dispatched but Kirk catches up with him and he falls on his own dagger, like a pro.

The rock man returns, and he seems a little disappointed with the show.

ROCK: You are the survivors. The others have run off. It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted. However, you have failed to demonstrate to me any other difference between your philosophies. Your good and your evil use the same methods, achieve the same results. Do you have an explanation?

Kirk suggests that because the rock man set up the game and made the rules and made the victory conditions dependent on violence, well, it’s just HIS fault that they had to turn all evil to win.

KIRK: How many others have you done this to? What gives you the right to hand out life and death?
ROCK: The same right that brought you here. The need to know new things.
KIRK: We came in peace.
ROCK: And you may go in peace.

Kirk and Spock are finally able to beam back up to the Enterprise, where everything is miraculously running smoothly again. Spock suggests that the aliens must have scanned their minds to create, from their memories, the physical embodiments of their heroes.

KIRK: They seemed so real. And to me, especially Mr. Lincoln. I feel I actually met Lincoln.
SPOCK: Yes, and Surak. Perhaps in a sense they were real, Captain. Since they were created out of our own thoughts, how could they be anything but what we expected them to be?
KIRK: It was so hard for me to see him die again.

Because he was there the first time?? And it’s President Lincoln to you.

KIRK: There’s still so much of their work to be done in the galaxy, Spock. Mister Sulu, break us out of orbit and continue to our next assignment.


Did Gene Roddenberry just play “Who Would Win?” Seriously?

This week’s fandom deathmatch regurgitated at least five different episodes, few of them any good in the first place, to create something less than the sum of its parts. So we have these rock aliens who want to learn about people by torturing them. Seen it! They do it specifically by pitting creatures against one another in hand-to-hand combat. Seen it! And put them on a planet where they have to make their own weapons. Seen it! And Kirk’s essential goodness trumps the baddies in some ill-defined, generally fuzzy-feeling way. Seen that one, too! Did this come from a Star Trek plot generator or something?

I like Lincoln. Everyone likes Lincoln. Weirdly, he doesn’t even seem that out of place on the Enterprise. What better symbol of passionate activism than Lincoln? Than a man who felt deeply and earnestly in equality and progress as the hallmarks of America? And he wasn’t some loathsome peacenik, either–he went to war when he had to go to war to defend those values he so held dear. I appreciate that he’s Kirk’s greatest hero, but the kind of whiny approval-seeking that Kirk displays as he goes around explaining things to Lincoln (like the line that “We’ve each learned to be delighted with what we are.” What is that even supposed to mean?) was just sad. Lincoln only seems to be here to validate Roddenberry’s vision–and while I think he would, spelling it out should be beneath the show.

What really bothers me, though, is that by the end I still felt like I had no idea what had just happened. Were the people on the surface illusions? What happened when they “died”? Were they some kind of lifeforms created expressly for this game, like puppets? And by what definition of survival does running away from battle not count as surviving?? The bad guys are still alive… so how did our guys win? What did the rock people learn? That peace gets you killed and war helps you survive?

Kirk’s adulation of Lincoln, Spock’s reverence for Surak–each could have been explored more interestingly as a sideplot to some main story. But to have them literally come to life and talk to our heroes and have a fireside, stick-sharpening chat? Who writes this crap?

Oh right. I remember. Now I just made myself sad.

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

Eugene Myers: I’m starting to feel like we’re just watching the same episodes over and over again, only they’re getting worse. This is the third episode in a row to start with the same “dramatic” music in the teaser as something exciting is supposedly happening. But in this case, the ship is in orbit around a molten planet running some routine scans, so that musical cue hardly seems appropriate. Like everything else about this episode, it’s just an artificial way of engaging us.

Admittedly, when Abraham Lincoln literally floats onscreen, things get more…let’s call it “interesting.” I’ve never seen anything like that before. (Except of course, for the last time I saw this episode.) The crew is stunned at his appearance, and so were many viewers, I dare say. But that wasn’t the most ridiculous image we’re presented with. No, that would have to be the sight of Abraham Lincoln wrestling with Genghis Khan. You don’t see that every day, do you? Thank goodness. (The rock monster was also somewhat ridiculous, though he reminded me of a similar creature in The Neverending Story.)

The other big surprise was Roddenberry’s story credit for this one, mostly because of his lack of involvement for most of the season. I expected more from him, perhaps naively, but instead “The Savage Curtain” ends up being a simplistic story about a battle between Good and Evil, which had to have been old even in 1969. I mean, it’s an actual battle. On top of that, we have more space douches who decide to subject humans to a faulty experiment to determine their quality of goodness. Taking a page from the Metrons, they drop Kirk and Spock on a planet and tell them to make weapons out of whatever they find there. With no sign of the ingredients for gunpowder, Kirk resorts to sticks and stones–somehow having forgotten how to make rudimentary bows and arrows as they did in “Friday’s Child.” And to add insult to injury, he asks Spock to make some Vulcan boomerangs, assuming he would know how because his ancestors could do it. Good one, Kirk. We never see these boomerangs in action though, so maybe he was hoping Surak would lead the boomerang workshop.

Let’s examine the rock man’s experiment for a moment. He already knows pretty much everything about Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, and Starfleet–so what’s the whole point? The results are already skewed because he puts the Starfleet officers on the “good” team to start with, instead of waiting to see which side they choose. Then he’s disappointed because they end up using the same methods as the evil guys? Doesn’t intent matter? How about the fact that the captain compassionately wants to rescue Surak even when it puts them in more danger? This is not a fair test–far more of a no-win scenario than the Kobayashi Maru ever was. Offering one group power for participating while threatening to kill the Enterprise crew is also not exactly good sportsmanship–not to mention the fact that everyone but Kirk and Spock are plants. Er, rocks. You know what I mean.

And who are these rock guys to be judging other people anyway? They have power, but they’re cold and stone-hearted. Why not just admit that they aren’t doing this from a “need to know new things,” but as a form of entertainment? I’m guessing things aren’t too thrilling on a lava planet; they don’t get a lot of tourists, especially if they keep forcing them to fight each other. If they were just a little more friendly, their hot springs could have made them into a vacation getaway for the Federation.

But hey, I did enjoy much of this one, particularly Lincoln’s reception on Enterprise. I was impressed with how Kirk handled one of the oddest situations he’s ever encountered, and honored the image of Lincoln; he’s had quite a year, hobnobbing with famous artists and musicians, and now a distinguished U.S. President and the father of Vulcan philosophy. Lee Bergere’s performance was also wonderful. I don’t know if he acted anything like Lincoln, but his dialogue was well written and delivered. He pretty much looked the part too, except for one scene where he looked like a zombie, appropriately enough. But Lincoln also bothered me, because there were strange holes in his memory–he knows everyone on the ship, even that it’s a starship, but nothing about transporters or dilithium crystals? Why? Actually, why any of the charade in the first place?

But the crew performs fairly well throughout. By now they know not to take what’s in front of them at face value. McCoy and Scotty’s objections to Kirk’s plan are just as valid as his reasons for ignoring them. They make a lot of sense, but I love that Kirk reminds them that part of their mission is to “seek out new life.” The rock man argues that this is a trait they share–justifying his actions as a means of gaining knowledge. In fact, it all reminds me of the TNG episode “Where Silence Has Lease,” where Nagilum explores the galaxy by bringing other races to him. Lazy!

My favorite moment in this episode is this exchange between Scotty and Spock:

SCOTT: Lincoln died three centuries ago on a planet hundreds of light years away. (Waves his hand in one direction.)
SPOCK: More that direction, Engineer. (Pointing the opposite way.)

And I also liked Kirk’s offhand recommendation to “disengage the nacelles and jettison,” the second time it’s implied that the ship can separate its saucer section as Enterprise-D does several times. It would be great to see that happen, and I wonder if anyone has tried it in one of the fan-produced web series yet. Perhaps I could write that episode… (Nudge nudge, wink wink.)

The episode also shamed me at one point: When Lincoln refers to Uhura as a “charming negress” I winced, but then Uhura’s response, that people have “learned not to fear words,” left me feeling properly chastised.

Unfortunately, “The Savage Curtain” is too silly, simple, and derivative of other, better episodes to be worth recommending. The ending suggests that Kirk has learned something–that perhaps he isn’t as good as he thought and they have more work to do to bring peace to the rest of the galaxy. That would be a sobering lesson, if he weren’t smiling and swaggering on the Bridge like he’d just saved the universe. This story tries to be provocative, but it all comes to nothing. And because I always have at least one troubling question that may not have an answer, why the hell can Kahless do such good voice impressions? That doesn’t seem very Klingon.

Eugene Rating: Warp 2

Best Line: KIRK: Your Surak is a brave man.
SPOCK: Men of peace usually are, Captain.

Syndication Edits: None. You have to watch the whole thing.

Trivia: The introduction of Surak prompted a flood of fan mail from viewers interested in seeing more of him.

Janos Prohaska, who played the rock monster here, appeared previously as another silicon-based lifeform: the Horta in “Devil in the Dark.” He was also the mugato in “A Private Little War.”

During one of the man-fighting scenes, if you look closely, you can supposedly see Kirk’s pants split open. I didn’t notice it myself and I can’t imagine re-watching this, but if you’re so inclined…

Other notes: Several characters introduced here were explored in depth by later Star Trek incarnations: Colonel Green and Surak both popped up in Enterprise, and Kahless the Unforgettable became quite significant in the TNG/DS9 mythology.

Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 21 – “The Cloud Minders.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 23 – “All Our Yesterdays.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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.