FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
Usually I've tried to review the TREK episodes in order of their air-dates, but in this case I've lumped together three stories that did not run concurrently. By luck or chance, they form something of a triptych that illustrates the sociological myth that most characterizes the original Roddenberry TREK: the myth of an American-led union of "the best and the brightest" forging a new and greater civilization out of the chaos of both primitive societies and superannuated, decadent cultures.
As much as anyone who critiques TREK, I've resorted to David Gerrold's catch-phrase, "Johnson's Great Society," to describe Roddenberry's conception of the Federation and its Manifest Destiny. I do so purely because this was the sociological myth with which Roddenberry lives at the time he worked on TREK, but the myth-- defined here as any ordering principle of culture/society-- preceded both Johnson and Roddenberry. Hypothetically it extends back to America's sense of its destiny back in the 19th century. It's a chauvinistic myth, as are most if not all culture-myths, but it provoked an immense fund of creative energy among the writers who sold to Roddenberry-- far more, I would argue, than one ever sees in the more tolerant, rather spiritless stories produced for later iterations of the TREK franchise.
In terms of air-dates, these three episodes ran in the order I'm listing them, except that "Immunity Syndrome" ran between "Piece" and "War." However, they had a very different production order: where the order was "War," "Gamesters," and "Piece." Their re-arrangement for airing-purposes probably depended on many practical contingencies, but said arrangement also had some intriguing aesthetic results.
"Gamesters" hearkens back to the original myth of "The Cage," before it was incorporated into the two-part sequence of "The Menagerie." Christopher Pike's dilemma in "The Cage" is that he finds the allure of a sybartic life superior to the responsibilities of military duty:
...Pike begins his story by confessing to ship's doctor Boyce that he's considering resigning from the service. Pike seems to desire a life free from his onerous responsibilities. One moment he envisions returning to the bucolic country life of his youth, and the next he fantasizes about setting up shop in the Orion system. For some reason this confession prompts the doctor to mention the infamous "Orion slave girls," though Pike does not expressly claim that he dreams about dealing in slaves.
"Gamesters" is even more thoroughly drenched in the delirium of space-opera tropes than "The Cage." The episode is very much in tune in which the Trek-crew must reform some alien society in order to save not the natives but their own lives. Yet "Gamesters" doesn't even have the Federation encroach on some decadent society's territory, as was seen in "Miri," "Return of the Archons," or "The Apple." This time, a coterie of godlike aliens choose to pluck Kirk, Chekhov and Uhura away from their customary duties, leaving Spock and the rest of the crew behind to figure out who and what abducted their crewmates.
One never knows why the alien gods, "the Providers," chose this particular threesome. It seems like a bit of a whim, for the Providers of Triskelion have but one passion: abducting assorted aliens to serve in their gladiatorial games. According to Wikipedia an earlier script had the aliens select Uhura and Sulu, but given the structure of the script-- in which Kirk gets all the action and all the romance-- I tend to think that any companions would have been given equally short shrift. The effect is that I found myself wondering why the Providers had bothered with Chekhov and Uhura at all, since only Kirk has enough moxie to make a good gladiator.
The episode is as rich in weird alien visuals as "Journey to Babel," with the crowning glory being blond gladiatrix "Shana" (Angelique Pettyjohn). Shana scores as one of the few women in the Rodden-verse shown to be at least moderately skillful in dealing out violence. But she may have more relevance as yet another of Don James Kirk's romantic conquests. As in "Mirror, Mirror," Kirk must romance a hot babe For Crew and Quadrant, and again his seduction is intimately tied to the program of edifying a primitive woman who doesn't question her invisible masters as she ought to. The fact that Kirk manages to restructure her society for her eventual betterment, but leaves her down on her planet, can't help but carry a certain "Madame Butterfly" imperialist vibe. Still, space opera tropes are the main focus. Uhura, as the resident female from the "normal world." is nearly raped by one of the gladiators chosen to cohabit with her, and the script doesn't bother to show how she manages to fend the guy off. (Nichelle Nichols claimed that such a scene was filmed but dropped for time considerations.) Kirk wins independence for the motley crew of transplanted aliens by fighting three foes at once, which puts him right in the bailiwick of Flash Gordon. There's no doubt in this narrative that the way of the Federation is the way of the future.
"A Piece of the Action" puts a comic twist on such certainties. The Trek-crew learns that the once backward planet of Iotia suffered contamination from a visiting starship many generations ago, with the result that the highly imitative natives have modeled their entire culture on Chicago's gang-wars of the 1930s. I'm sure this episode helped the producers conserve on costumes, since they only had to raid costume departments for the appropriate garb. Additionally, the silly concept is played for laughs, as Kirk and his buddies fruitlessly try to convince the Iotians that they've chosen a bad model for their culture, and that the Federation has a better way. Despite all the jokes, James Komack's script may be rather more realistic than "Gamesters." "Piece" suggests that, in contrast to the ease with which Kirk converts Triskelion, it can be damn hard to change a given culture's collective mind about the right way to do things. In the end, Kirk is forced to talk to the Iotians in the only language they respect: brute force-- although the advanced technology of a starship allows Kirk to replace "gunboat diplomacy" with "stun-gun diplomacy." In a brilliant capper, Komack exposes the chink in the Federation (and American) myth: that any time you use advanced weapons to reform a society, the members of that society may turn the tables and demand their own "piece of the action."
"A Private Little War" has often misinterpreted as an anti-Vietnam screed. According to this Wiki article, the original author Don Ingalls had intended such a screed, but the script was heavily rewritten by Roddenberry, who was the only credited writer after Ingalls refused to have his name on it.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy descend to a world with the odd name of "Neural." Kirk has visited the planet before: on that occasion, he befriended a native named Tyree, who learned of Kirk's alien status but swore to keep Kirk's true nature secret if he ever visited again. Kirk tells his companions that all of the natives exist in a pre-technological tribal state.
The trio then observe one band of natives laying in ambush for another group, and the spacemen are astonished to see that the ambushers are armed with flintlock rifles, which ought to be beyond their current technology, Further, one of the prospective victims of the ambush is Kirk's friend Tyree. Spock warns Kirk not to use his phaser to stop the ambush and so violate the Prime Directive, but though Kirk agrees, he invokes a quasi-loophole and chucks a rock at one of the ambushers. The ambush is thwarted but the attackers then come after the threesome. Spock is shot before the three of them can beam up to the ship.
In sickbay Spock goes into a Vulcan healing trance. At the same time the Enterprise detects the presence of a Klingon ship in orbit. Kirk decides that he and McCoy, clothed as natives, must descend to Neural again in order to find out if the Klingons have provided the natives with weapons beyond their normal development-cycles.
Back on Neural, the duo are on their way to the domain of the Hill People, where Tyree lives, when they are attacked by an ape-like beast, the Mugato. The beast bites Kirk, poisoning him, and then runs away. McCoy manages to get the wounded captain to the Hill People, and Tyree takes both of them into his home. McCoy lacks any resources to heal Kirk's wound, but Tyree's wife Nona is a herbal healer. However, she's also an unscrupulous woman who suspects the otherworldly nature of Kirk and McCoy. She does heal Kirk with a special herb, but it's a quasi-sexual rite designed to bond Kirk to her (foreshadowing a similar devious feminine scheme in "Elaan of Troyas"). Nona opposes Tyree's pacifistic attitude toward the villagers, counseling him, without success, to acquire "fire-sticks" and conquer the enemy.
Kirk won't directly accede to Nona's wishes, but in the course of his investigation, he does learn that Klingon agents have supplied the guns to the villagers. Kirk even steals one of the flintlocks and tries to encourage the Hill People to imitate it in self-defense. McCoy is horrified by Kirk's advocacy of an "arms race," but Kirk maintains that once the Klingons have intervened, the Federation must keep pace:
Bones, do you remember the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt that they could pull out?
But what would you have suggested? That one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No, the only solution is what happened back then: balance of power.
This outlook is a tacit defense of the official U.S. position on its involvement in Vietnam. Roddenberry's script attempts to take the long view, to claim that all of these internecine sufferings are necessary to maintain the balance of power, though there is at the conclusion an attempt to invoke a collective guilt. Though Kirk's justification of the arms race is basically validated, this time his metaphorical identification with the Serpent who spoiled Eden is not nearly as sanguine as it is at the end of "The Apple."
I don't know if Ingalls' script included a character like Nona, but she seems to me part and parcel of Gene Roddenberry's view of women. She's a sensual, immoral animal who represents the worst aspects of primitive society. She's not a real witch, but her use of herbs has implicitly helped her sexually enslave Tyree to marry her, even if she can't control him in all things. Thus Nona carries more of the genuine witch's resonance than a phony sorceress like Sylvia from "Catspaw." (Interestingly, "Nona" also a more resonant name, since the most famous use of the name is the Roman name for the spinner of the cloth of fate.)
Nona is also apparently Roddenberry's version of Lady Macbeth. But in this story her "Macbeth" has no real desire for power, and so she seeks to seduce Kirk to serve as her pawn. This gives Kirk some minor romance-action, even though he forswears the temptress. On top of that even gentle Tyree, witnessing the seduction from a distance, almost breaks with his pacifism and shoots Nona dead. Instead, Nona brings about her own doom. Kirk, attacked by a Mugato, disintegrates it with his phaser. Nona clubs Kirk, steals the phaser and runs to the villagers, hoping that she can use the weapon to become a Big Cheese in another tribe. Her second betrayal works even worse than the first one; she comes across some villagers who recognize her as an enemy and want to ravage her. She can't work the phaser, either to impress the natives or to defend herself, and she dies at an ignominious death at their hands. However, her death galvanizes Tyree-- who still loves her, despite her drug-sorcery-- to make full war upon the villagers, so that Kirk can finally facilitate his "balance of power" program.
One wonders on what level Roddenberry thought that the conflict of warring tribes, be they in archaic Scotland or modern Vietnam, could be fairly laid at the door of a manipulative witch-woman. Even Shakespeare doesn't blame Macbeth's ambition entirely upon his wife. The only solution seems to be that Roddenberry sought to avoid laying the blame could be displaced from the avatars of progress to one representing primitive power-seeking-- which, in his world, was apparently best symbolized by a woman who didn't know her place.
On a humorous note, there's also a moment in the Spock-subplot when a physician tells Nurse Chapel that if Spock comes out of his trance, she should do whatever he demands. Wonder what she thought when she heard that...