Warp Factor Trek

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I didn’t start it, councilman. But I’m liable to finish it.” — Kirk

The Hollywood Reporter ranked this episode fifty-third best of all Star Trek franchise television prior to Discovery. Business Insider ranked it the eleventh best episode of The Original Series. What makes “A Taste of Armageddon” so tasty?

Conflict

Great writers understand one basic necessity in driving a story forward: conflict. Every great film, TV show, stage production, opera — you name it. Without conflict, there is no story. “A Taste of Armageddon” is loaded with it.

The episode’s teleplay, by Robert Hamner and Gene Coon, skillfully reveals layers of conflict, each one more intense and dire than the last. The opening scene has the Enterprise on course to Eminiar VII, with Special Federation Ambassador Robert Fox on a mission to establish diplomatic relations.

Kirk being pestered by Fox in the opening scene

Conflict 1: Eminiar denies the Enterprise’s request for orbit. 

Conflict 2: Ambassador Fox orders Kirk to disregard the non-approach signal, to “achieve orbit status and just leave the rest to me.”

Conflict 3: Spock advises Kirk that the first contact, fifty years earlier, reported Eminiar was at war with its nearest neighbor. The reporting vessel, USS Valiant, failed to return. (Hmm…)

Conflict 4: As Kirk and a landing party leave the bridge, Scotty — now in command — turns to look at Fox. Not a word is spoken, but you know these two will tangle.

The Eminian High Council, led by Anan 7, welcomes Kirk and his landing party… albeit with a caveat

Conflict 5: In the High Council, Anan 7 dismisses Kirk’s diplomatic overture, due to an ongoing war with the planet Vendikar.

Conflict 6: Anan explains that the Enterprise, in orbit, is a potential target of the war (and why the ship was warned to stay away).

Conflict 7: Vendikar launches an “attack” that appears more like a simulation, with images on screens and complex computer sounds, but the Eminians insist it is real despite a lack of explosions, radiation, etc. Spock deduces that this war is fought entirely with computers, doing away with weapons and destruction. The only cost is the population. (Kirk’s incredulous line is perfect: “You mean to tell me… your people just walk into a disintegration machine, when they’re told to?”) But oh, back to Conflict 6 — about the ship in orbit…

Kirk’s landing party learns more about the interstellar war

Conflict 8: The Enterprise is “hit” during the attack. All its crew and passengers are now casualties, expected to report for disintegration. (This explains what happened to the USS Valiant fifty years earlier.)

All the drama is set into motion. It’s now personal for Kirk, there are tremendous obstacles to overcome, and the stakes are impossibly high. Truly, an armageddon scenario is inevitable.

Cast

Gene Lyons totally embraces his character, Ambassador Robert Fox. His motivations and mannerisms set him at odds with everyone. You get the sense that Fox thrives on conflict, and Lyons’ portrayal is on point. It’s an outstanding performance — we really hate this guy.

Anan 7 and Robert Fox

Equally outstanding is David Opatoshu as Anan 7. He is everything the role requires, committed to their world’s paradigm to the point of obsession. No objections will get in his way, but at every turn he is out-maneuvered and finally backed into a corner. His glare at Kirk when told that “the target has moved out of range” says everything of impending doom.

Barbara Babcock makes her first Star Trek screen appearance as Mea 3, who proves to be Kirk’s “gateway” to resolving his dilemma. Babcock returned for the Season 3 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” and had voice-only appearances in “The Squire of Gothos” (Trelane’s mother), “Assignment: Earth”, “The Tholian Web”, and “The Lights of Zetar”.

Mea 3 with Kirk

Analysis

The idea of two worlds trapped in a never-ending conflict by computer, in order to avoid “the horrors of war,” is sobering. (It is ironic indeed that they worked together on this “solution” but seemingly never considered its end.)

The Eminians exude a prideful smugness in speaking of their 500-year war. Both worlds have accepted it as normal, with a “high consciousness of duty” that demands a twisted submission to a higher good; to them, their culture, cities, and infrastructure are more important than life itself.

There are some Prime Directive issues. Right off the bat, Fox disregards it by forcing his way to the planet despite the warning. There’s also Kirk’s “General Order 24” — aren’t we a bit shocked to learn that this really was an option in the first place? It wasn’t a bluff, like corbomite.

Uhura, McCoy, and, in command, Scotty

This episode is the first to have Mr. Scott in command of the Enterprise. His defiant refusal of Fox’s order to lower the shields is one of Trek’s greatest moments.

The rapid escalation and brinkmanship are exhilarating, once Kirk realizes his only option is to massively interfere and bring their armageddon scenario down on them. Though Anan urges Kirk that he can stop it, Kirk remarks that he’s counting on it.

Accompanied by Spock, Kirk fires his phaser… destroying the Eminiar VII war computers

After Kirk phasers their computer complex, he tells Anan, “You now have a real war on your hands,” and suggests he start making real weapons, or consider an alternative — “Put an end to it. Make peace.” It’s in this moment that the best surprise occurs. After the pushy and arrogant ambassador has been humbled (being led to a disintegration chamber will do that!), he is able to see an opportunity to shine. Submissively offering to be negotiator, he completely redeems himself. This is a job he’s uniquely suited for, and we leave Eminiar VII with high confidence in his success.

Relevancy

One thing has always intrigued me. The writers chose to use Earth-based time measurements readily understandable to their Earth-bound television audience of 1967: declared casualties have “twenty-four hours to report” for disintegration; Mea 3 says she must report “by noon tomorrow,” etc.

One of the Eminian disintegration chambers

It is stated over and over that the Eminiar-Vendikar conflict has been going for some 500 years. Assuming twenty-four hours to Eminians is like twenty-four hours to us, then 500 years would be the same as well, right? The understood timeline of TOS Season 1 is the years 2266-2267 — about 300 years from actual Earth date. Well, do a little math: 2266 minus 500 would be the year 1766 on Earth. I don’t know much about 1766 (Mozart was ten years old), but I would venture that only a few humans had dreamed of flying, and the thought of space travel was the realm of the insane.

Additionally, Anan 7 states that Vendikar was originally colonized by their people but had become “a ruthless enemy.” So, this would push the years even further back — perhaps another couple of hundred? — to what would have been Earth’s Renaissance era. Not to say that this couldn’t be — just that it’s… well, fascinating to ponder.

The episode benefits from some of the best music tracked from other Season 1 scores. We hear portions from Sol Kaplan’s “The Enemy Within”, and Fred Steiner’s “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Mudd’s Women”, and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Particularly, the tympani-driven “Ruk Attacks” cue works perfectly for the sense of imminent destruction.

Delta4
Rating: 4/5

I think most would agree that “A Taste of Armageddon” is a favorite despite the issues, and the crux of the story holds up: war is “a thing to be avoided,” even when it’s tidy; work to end war; make peace. Aired to an audience that was hearing daily of the conflict in Vietnam, Star Trek was establishing itself as a relevant voice.

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