Star Trek TOS, S01E26 “Errand of Mercy”
As I wrote in the previous Star Trek DS9 post, the Klingons of DS9 are “a bunch of buffoons who, in a real universe, could never organize into an economy capable of producing space ships.”
To get a better perspective, I decided to go back in time and watch the original Star Trek episode that introduced the Klingons, “Errand of Mercy,” which is the 26th episode of the first season. This episode first aired in March, 1967. Wow, has it really been fifty years?
This turned out to be a much deeper episode than I had realized. That’s what’s so great about the original series. Underneath the surface of the bad acting (especially by William Shatner), the laughable special effects and background music, and sometimes really awful plots, there is often a thought-provoking philosophical element to be found.
The show begins with the Enterprise being fired upon by “Klingons.” Kirk orders the Enterprise crew to return fire, and the enemy ship is destroyed. Uhura then receives a communication from Starfleet that they are now at war with the Klingon Empire. Kirk is to proceed to Organia, the only life-supporting planet in a strategic sector that both sides want as a base for military operations. (Plot hole: if the planet is so strategic, why have both sides completely ignored it until now?)
Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet, leaving Sulu in command with orders to flee if a Klingon fleet arrives. Down on the planet, Kirk and Spock encounter what looks like a pre-industrial-revolution village. The natives look exactly like humans. At the end of the episode, we learn that the Organians are actually energy beings who have evolved beyond the need for bodies, so the reason they look like humans is that they have taken a form that humans would be comfortable interacting with.
Kirk goes to speak with the council of elders, while Spock leaves him take some “tricorder” readings.
(Reality check: Planets are huge. What’s the chance that Kirk, randomly beaming down somewhere on a huge planet would be within a short walk of the council of elders representing the entire planet? Furthermore, a pre-industrial-revolution planet wouldn’t have a central planet-wide government. The lack of advanced communications and travel technology makes such a thing impossible. Even in the 21st century, planet Earth still doesn’t have a central planet-wide government representing all of humanity that could negotiate with aliens. This is something that is ignored in just about every Star Trek episode. But we can assume that Gene Roddenberry was very much in favor of one government for all of Earth, a situation that would put an end to wars between nations. It should be noted that, in the future, the humans didn’t have to deal with crazy religions like Islam. All of the humans in Starfleet seem to be agnostic or atheist. The absence of crazy religions makes it a lot easier for everyone to get along.)
Kirk tries to explain to the council the dangers the Klingons pose to Organia. The Klingons are a “military dictatorship” and “war is their way of life.” They would put all of the Organians into “slave labor camps” and the Organians would have “no freedoms whatsoever.” The Organians just smile and have absolutely no concern for any of the things that Kirk says about the Klingons. Kirk gets extremely frustrated with the Organians, whom to Kirk just seem too stupid to understand their situation.
Spock comes back from doing his tricorder reading and informs Kirk that the Organian culture is completely stagnant and they have made no technological or cultural progress in thousands of years. This causes Spock, who is a man of science, to have a negative opinion of the Organians. How dare they have a lack of any scientific curiosity! (Spock’s tricorder is, apparently, not sophisticated enough to pick up on the fact that the Organians are pure energy beings and that the buildings, artifacts and people are creations designed to trick lesser species.)
One of the men from the council of elders informs the room that “eight space vehicles have assumed orbit around our planet. They are activating their material transmission units.” The Klingons have arrived. But how does an old guy from a technologically backwards civilization possibly know such a thing? This is the first hint that the Organians are not what they seem, but Kirk and Spock ignore it (as well as other hints dropped later in the episode).
The Organians give Kirk and Spock native clothing so that the Klingons won’t know they’re from Starfleet. Because Spock doesn’t look like a human or an Organian, they give him a cover story that he’s a Vulcan trader dealing in “kevas and trillium” (meaningless names never explained).
And then finally, the Klingons enter! The first time in the history of Star Trek that we see Klingons. And they look just like humans! In fact, they look just like white American humans wearing makeup to make their skin darker. The leader of the Klingons, Kor, is played by John Colicos who later played Baltar in the Battlestar Galactica series.
The most obvious difference between Klingons in the newer series and in the original series is their changed appearance. I always assumed that the thinking behind the change was that in the 1960s they were too cheap or too unsophisticated in the use of makeup to make the Klingons look the way they were always intended to look. However, after re-watching “Errand of Mercy,” I realize now that is not the case. The Klingons were intentionally made to look like humans in order to demonstrate the important point that humans and Klingons are very much alike.
The similarity of humans and Klingons is first demonstrated in this scene as Kor takes a liking to Kirk who is doing a bad job of pretending to be Baroner, a “leading citizen.” While all the other Organians smile placidly at the Klingons without the slightest trace of anger at the sudden incursion of aliens, Kirk is unable to hide his disdain of the situation, and Kor likes that about Kirk because he’s the only person on the planet that Kor can relate to. “Good honest hatred,” says Kor. “Very refreshing.” Kor appoints Kirk as liaison between the Klingons and the Organians because Kor doesn’t trust people who smile too much. Kor also lets everyone know that if one Klingon soldier is killed, then a thousand Organians will die in retaliation.
Kor however, doesn’t trust Spock, so he orders his men to take Spock and subject him to the Klingon “mind scanner.” Kor explains the mind scanner to Kirk. “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.” The mind scanner sounds like something that would be banned by the Geneva Convention if it existed on Earth, only to be used by evil dictators like Hitler. It’s interesting how easily we are led to see the Klingons as evil based only on Kirk’s say-so plus Kor’s description of the mind scanner and his threat of disproportionate response if a Klingon soldier is killed.
Luckily for Spock, his Vulcan mind is able to evade the mind scanner and the Klingons believe his cover story, that he’s just a dealer in kivas and trillium.
In the next scene, Kirk and Spock are walking outside and an arrogant Klingon soldier bumps into Kirk and tells him to get out of the way. Kirk, who is too much of an alpha male to deal with this sort of slight, turns around to beat the crap out of the Klingon, but Spock stops him from doing so. Kirk was unable to hold back his temper and turn the other cheek, even though if Spock hadn’t stopped him, Kirk would surely have been arrested and executed as an example to other Organians. And by doing so, he wouldn’t only have sacrificed his own life for the brief pleasure of retaliation, he would have also compromised his mission to secure the planet as a base for the Federation. The purpose of this scene is to show us that, underneath the Starfleet uniform, Kirk still has savage chimpanzee emotions, and that Kirk is more like the Klingons than the Organians.
In the next scene, Kirk and Spock commit an act of terrorism by blowing up some crates that contain chemical explosives. This was before “terrorism” was a commonly used word, so it was never called “terrorism” in the episode. It should be noted that Spock, who is supposed to be more logical than humans, approved of the plan. Conveniently, no Klingons are killed, so Kirk can still maintain the moral high ground. But what’s the value of terrorism that doesn’t kill anyone, that just destroys a few crates? Where’s the terror in that? (Plot hole: Why did the Klingons need crates of chemical explosives? Didn’t they have phasers? And why leave crates like that in the village?)
In the next scene, Kirk is trying to explain his action to the council of elders, who are aghast that Kirk committed violence. Kirk is pissed at the Organians because they “don’t have the backbone to fight and protect their loved ones.”
Unbeknownst to Kirk, the Klingons installed a security camera in the council chamber, so they come and arrest him and Spock. The council of elders tell the Klingons that “Baroner” is actually Captain James T. Kirk. Kor, while delighted to have captured a Starfleet captain and his first officer, expresses his contempt for the Organian council of elders for betraying their friend who was trying to help them. Kirk and Kor have their first bonding moment because they both feel the same way about the Organians.
Then Kor has a talk with Kirk in his office. This is the most important scene in the episode. Kor offers Kirk a drink (we assume it’s alcohol) but Kirk refuses because of his hatred of Kor. The difference between Kirk and Kor is the Kirk needs to believe that his enemies are evil and that he must hate them. Kor, on the other hand, is motivated by his nationalistic feelings for the Klingon Empire. His duty is to do whatever it takes to make the Klingon Empire more powerful. Kirk is just someone who stands in the way of the Empire’s expansion, but not someone whom Kor needs to hate.
KOR: You of the Federation, you are much like us.
KIRK [with anger in his voice]: We’re nothing like you. We’re a democratic body.
KOR: Come now. I’m not referring to minor ideological differences. I mean that we are similar as a species. Here we are on a planet of sheep. Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great. And there is a universe to be taken.
Kor has more wisdom than Kirk. Indeed, the Klingons aren’t that much more different from humans than the United States was different from Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. We were all humans with the same genes, we were just raised with different ideologies. I genuinely believe Kor when he says that he wishes that Kirk would tell him what he needs to know so that he doesn’t have to use the mind scanner on him and turn him into a vegetable.
Kor has Kirk and Spock put into a medieval cell and gives Kirk twelve hours before he uses the mind scanner on him. Kirk and Spock talk about other terrorist options they could use if they escape. Then the leader of the Organian council opens the door of the cell to rescue them. (But what happened to the Klingon guards? Another hint that the Organians are not what they seem.) Back in the council chamber, Kirk threatens violence against the Organians unless they return their phasers. (Kirk behaves much like the Klingons.) The Organians return the phasers. Then Kirk gives a short speech in which he says how much he despises the Organians, but nevertheless he’s going to go out with his phasers and go down fighting in order to show the Organians that “there are things worth dying for.”
Kirk and Spock break into the Klingon headquarters. Their phasers are set to “stun” so that they can continue to maintain the moral high ground that the two guards they shot on the way in weren’t killed. A third guard is rendered unconscious using the Vulcan nerve pinch. Then they reach Kor’s office. The two sides once again express their different philosophies towards war. Kor sees war as a game, and not as a struggle of good against evil the way that Kirk does. Kor predicts victory for the Klingons because the Federation has soft emotions like mercy. (Indeed, Kirk couldn’t even bring himself to kill any of the Klingon guards on the way in).
Klingon guards burst into the room. It’s game over for Kirk and Spock! But wait, it’s not! Everyone’s phasers become too hot to hold and they have to drop them. Then they try to have a fist fight, but when fists contact the body of the enemy, they feel the same intense heat. Then two guys from the Organian council enter and explain that they made things so that all instruments of war are 350 degrees (presumably Fahrenheit), and that even includes their fleets. Kirk and Kor are encouraged to call up to their ships, and Sulu confirms that all of the bridge controls are too hot to touch. The Organians explain that they are putting a stop to the war.
Both Kirk and Kor are angry at the Organians. “What gives you the right” demands Kirk. “You can’t interfere. What happens in space is not your business” says Kor. One of the Organians says, “We find interference in other people’s affairs, most disgusting, but you gentlemen have given us no choice. ”
KIRK: Even if you have some power that we don’t understand, you have no right to dictate to our Federation
KOR: Or our Empire!
KIRK: How to handle their interstellar relations! We have the right
You see, war with the Klingons makes Kirk feel nationalistic, and that causes Kirk to feel the same way about things as Kor.
AYELBORNE [one of the Organians]: To wage war, Captain? To kill millions of innocent people? To destroy life on a planetary scale? Is that what you’re defending?
After Ayelborne says that, there is dramatic music played (in the Star Trek fashion) and the focus is on Kirk’s face. Kirk realizes finally that he has been acting like a savage Klingon and not like the supposedly more enlightened Federation.
The Organian predicts that eventually the humans and Klingons will become friends. And that prediction is based not on any foreknowledge of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but rather an observation by Gene Roddenberry or whomever wrote the script of how the United States became friends with Japan and Germany after World War II.
The Organians then explain how they have evolved beyond the needs of physical bodies, and are now disgusted by violent lower life forms such as humans and Klingons. This is ironic, because throughout the episode, both Kor and Kirk were disgusted by the Organians whom they viewed as less technologically advanced and unable to understand the noble values of fighting against an enemy.
After the Organians turn into pure energy and disappear, Spock observes that the Organians are “not life as we know it at all” and then that “the Organians are as far above us on the evolutionary scale as we are above the amoeba.” (Dramatic music plays in the background.)
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.
Unlike Kirk, Kor is not embarrassed about anything because he never pretended to be an anti-war do-gooder. He is only disappointed that he was unable to fight a “glorious” war.
* * *
Using the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, one could say that the original series Klingons are Lawful Evil, while the Deep Space Nine Klingons are chaotic neutral.
* * *
So, is there some message here that’s pro-Trump or pro-Black Lives Matter or pro-something else that’s relevant to current political controversies?
I really prefer not to think of it that way. Gene Roddenberry had an honest utopian vision of a future in which mankind, instead of killing each other in war, would instead focus on self-actualizing pursuits.
At least, unlike a modern TV show, there were no women involved in the manly pursuits of war or diplomacy.