Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Star Trek Week: "The Return of the Archons"

In “The Return of the Archons,” it’s Stardate 3156.2, and the U.S.S. Enterprise investigates the culture living on an M-class planet known as Beta III.  One hundred years earlier, another Starfleet vessel -- the Archon -- disappeared while exploring this very world.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beam down to Beta III with a landing party, and find a humanoid culture there that resembles Earth of the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century…though with some unique differences. 

One of these differences is that all the denizens walk about constantly in a beatific state of mindless supplication.  They refer to being part of “The Body,” and worship an apparently benevolent and omnipotent deity called Landru.

Additionally, these repressed, controlled human beings are given opportunity -- during “The Red Hour” or “Festival” -- to shake loose from this shut-down, trance-like state, and act fully human, engaging in wanton sex and violence.

While Landru’s menacing robed lawgivers attempt to “absorb” the members of the landing party (who “infect the Body”), Landru himself tries to yank the Enterprise down from orbit to end the threat it poses to a “perfect” society. 

In the end, Captain Kirk discovers the truth about the God called Landru: he is an advanced computer imposing a machine’s vision of “peace” and “paradise” upon the humans of Beta III.

For several decades at least, the first season Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” has been interpreted by a majority of critics and fans as a coded critique of Communism or technological totalitarianism.  I saw no reason to quibble with that assessment until I recently re-watched the episode.

Quite contrarily “The Return of the Archons” actually plays as a satire of organized religion, and in particular -- and with apologies -- Christianity.  

The episode’s questioning, and occasionally caustic spirit makes abundant sense given Gene 
Roddenberry’s oft-stated dislike of organized religion.

In terms of Roddenberry-ian, beliefs, these are just three prominent quotes from the Great Bird of the Galaxy about religion:

“Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all.” (In His Name, page 39).

“We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing, all-powerful God who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.” (Can a Smart Person Believe in God? page 90).

There will always be the fundamentalism of the religious right, but I think there has been too much of it.  I keep hoping that it is a temporary foolishness.” (Humanist, 1991 interview with David Alexander.)

On other occasions, the late Mr. Roddenberry also termed religion “largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious….”

Certainly Roddenberry’s particular viewpoint is evident in “Who Watches the Watchers” and other episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994).  In the former episode, Captain Picard refers to the “dark ages” that go hand-in-hand with devout religious belief.  I suspect it was a lot easier -- outside of network interference -- to vet critical stories about religion in the 1980s than it had been in the more-traditional, pre-counter-culture1960s. 

Accordingly, much of “The Return of the Archons’” religious criticism or satire is laced in code that requires some deciphering. 

There are contextual clues throughout the episode about the story’s meaning, and the first and perhaps most significant may be that Regehr (Harry Townes), a denizen of Beta III, notes that Landru first came to the world 6,000 years ago and imposed his will. 

Of course, 6,000 years is the span that equates, precisely, to Young Earth Creationism’s belief about the time-frame for Earth’s (and the universe’s) genesis at God’s hand.  It’s so specific a number and date that it can’t be an accident that both God and Landru “created” their kingdoms on the same date.

Secondly, “The Return of the Archons” addresses various principles and dogma familiar from Christianity. 

When a citizen of Beta III for instance, decides to leave the flock or disobey the will of Landru, he or she is “absorbed” back into the body by the Lawgivers, and consequently spiritually reborn as a devoted adherent.  This process of “absorption” conforms to the idea in Christianity that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  If you replace the word God with “Landru,” the idea tracks perfectly. 

Importantly, those who are “born again” into the world of Landru (like McCoy and Sulu in the episode’s narrative) begin to aggressively “profess”  the perfection and beauty of Landru, just as the born-again here on Earth often feel duty-bound “professing Jesus.” 

This particular brand of religious “professing” dominates “The Return of the Archons” in oft-repeated phrases such as “It is the will of Landru.”  Or “Do you say that Landru is not everywhere?”  The notion of “the will of Landru” is historically in keeping with such religious phraseology as “God willing,” “deux vult” or “Masha Allah,” the specific acknowledgment on the part of the faithful that life proceeds as according to an impenetrable divine plan.

“The Return of the Archons” also critiques the Catholic Church’s principle of papal infallibility at one point when of the denizens (who escaped life as a Landru supplicant) suggests -- tongue and cheek --  of the Lawgivers: “Are they not infallible?” 

Again, the word choice -- infallible -- can’t simply be a coincidence. It is utilized here in a religious context.

When Captain Kirk finds a planet of sheep bending their knee to an inhuman shepherd, he makes an interesting comment that boasts two meanings simultaneously.  Kirk confronts the hologram of Landru and notes that he (meaning the God he faces) is “a projection, unreal…” which is both a comment on Landru’s physical presence in the room, and, implicitly (in code) his status as a God.  

Some people might even state that the various versions of God created by man’s religions are also “projection,” but of the universal human desire to believe in something beyond the mortal coil.  These Gods are also “unreal” in the sense that no such deity apparently exists, at least according to the tenets of modern science.

On a global, symbolic level, however, what “Return of the Archons” suggests most plainly (and with the least amount of coding…) is that theocracy stymies human invention and evolution. 

Before Landru’s coming, Beta III was a highly-advanced world with technology surpassing that of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  After Landru’s coming, however, the world fell into a pre-technological, backwards state.  It has stagnated there for 6,000 years, the duration of Landru’s kingdom of peace. 

Again, this notion is not without real world parallel.  Some very faithful people are so obsessed about the next world that little attention is paid to the improvement of this one.  If we concentrate on our pleasurable fantasies of an afterlife and an “eternal” paradise, why end poverty, fix the environment, or otherwise improve our brother’s lot here? 

The Return of the Archons” acknowledges this religious trap by revealing how a theocracy strives on conformity and fear rather than innovation and evolution.  After all, any new technology could be against the will of Landru, right?  It might threaten “The tranquility” of the Body.

In this episode, Kirk finally sets Beta III right by destroying Landru and restoring the civilization to a more human standard.  What he’s really doing -- literally -- is freeing Beta III from an invisible overseer, one who promises peace, but actually offers only stagnation.

Although it is not widely hailed as one of the best Star Trek episodes, “Return of the Archons” features a potent visual imagination.  When Landru calls upon his flock to attack the landing party, the hypnotized followers pick-up weapons on the street and attack like mindless zombies.  Phaser fire puts them down, but then more attackers rise.  And then more rise after that.  It’s quite terrifying to witness men and women turned into a blood-thirsty, relentless mob, all consumed by their belief, all obeying the edicts of a God who demands violence from them.

Also, the “Red Hour” or “Festival” -- a limited span in which all emotional behavior is permitted -- proves a remarkably creative conceit, and one soon to be revisited in a summer release called The Purge starring Ethan Hawke.

But again, there’s a critique of religion underpinning the “Red Hour.”  If you live permanently under a repressive religious regime, the deepest human desires and emotions still require some outlet, some expression.  A theocracy doesn’t permit these desires to be expressed in a healthy, normal fashion, so when they do emerge -- as they do so memorably during “Festival” -- they appear monstrous, savage and out-of-control.

“The Return of the Archons” has been consistently misinterpreted, I believe, because it is easy to fit into the peg of being another Star Trek episode in which Kirk pulls the plug on a highly-advanced computer.  What he’s really doing here however is bringing down a stagnant, theocratic regime, one that uses an unreal God figure to assert morality. The episode thus belongs more in the camp of “Who Mourns for Adonis,” -- an episode which suggests mankind has outgrown its need to “worship” any God -- than it does fare like “A Taste of Armageddon.”


  1. Wow, yet another great summation of a classic Star Trek episode by you, John-until then, I never thought of it this way.

    What I don't get is, a couple of episodes later (Bread & Circuses), Kirk and his crew help out (slightly) another world in it's early embrace of Christianity as a way to counteract a decadent and predatory Roman Empire. The citizens of that planet will be killing each other soon enough over who's more Christian than whom-and in a shorter time than on Earth!

    Looking forward to your review of Star Trek Into Darkness.

    1. Thank you Lionel,

      You are so right, my friend.

      "Bread and Circuses" is a weird episode of Star Trek in that it uncharacteristically praises religion. Good point.

      I wonder if the idea there is that the philosophy of Jesus -- of total love and peace and brotherhood -- can resolve the barbarity or savagery of the corrupt Roman culture. I always say that I don't object to Jesus's teachings, so much as I object to how so many modern Christians twist them and put them to use in ways full of hate and judgment.

      But you raise an excellent point there...


    2. I was thinking the same thing--Bread and Circuses is almost the antithesis of Return of the Archons in that regard.

      Then again, any number of Trek episodes are cautionary tales regarding the mindless following of a seemingly infallible god-like figure, whether Landru, a giant lizard head or whomever.

  2. Anonymous11:17 AM

    The Festival depicted on this planet in this overly controlled society is truly horrific lowering this society to a nightmare existence. This can also be applied to communist and socialist governments smothering their public.


    1. Hi SGB,

      I think you are right, which is certainly why the episode has been interpreted in this fashion. On one level, this episode is about a "body" intelligence, which could be related to communism, and about peace and tranquility imposed from above, which could be seen as a metaphor for socialism, no doubt. Absolutely. That reading while appropriate, doesn't take into account the religious lingo, however...if my reading is correct.

      Thank you for a great comment, my friend.


  3. Great post, John. Religion, including Christianity, is as worthy of critical reflection as everything else in culture. This episode of Star Trek provides examples of this. But as a religious person myself who works in genre, I pass along a few comments in response for additional considerations.

    First, it is worth noting that even though Roddenberry was a skeptic with concerns about religion, his franchise took on religious elements over time, as it evolved along with the changing culture and as the modernity of the original series gave way to late or postmodernity and its interest in the "spiritual but not religious."

    Second, the Star Trek philosophy itself has, in certain quarters, become religious in function. The Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination ethic of the Vulcans has been adopted by many Star Trek fans who pursue it as a way of giving their lives meaning in keep with the ethic as a transcendent reference point. In this way Star Trek fandom mirrors religious devotion, as can attendance at conventions be seen as a form of religious pilgrimage for some.

    Third, you state that deity is unreal, "at least according to the tenets of modern science." Here a correction is in order. Science as understood in connection with metaphysical naturalism makes this assumption, but it is not the case with science in general. Indeed, there are scientists who also hold to various forms of religious belief.

    Finally, as I've noted previously on my blog, "in our age where the transcendent has broken out of more traditional boundaries and concepts of religion, science fiction often functions as the sacred, and as a result, even an atheist television pioneer cannot escape his creation becoming involved with The God-Thing."

    Great reflections in this post and other this week.

    1. John,

      Thank you for such an intelligent and charitable reading of my review. It's funny you mentioned the difference between being spiritual, and religious. That was a line I took out in my review, on rewrite, because I felt that it made me sound defensive about the interpretation of the episode, when in fact there was no need to be defensive. I was just noting what I saw in the episode, whether I agreed with the perspective or not.

      I also can't disagree with you that there is an almost religious fervor around Star Trek and Star Wars. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is yet to be seen. The beauty of spiritualism, in my opinion, is that it helps you interpret and understand life. Dogma, however, proves problematic. That's the work of man, not a divinity, in my opinion.

      I still say science can't prove God. God may not require proving by science. What I find so troubling is the idea that some people are attempting to un-write science to permit for the creationist view of the universe. It's fine to believe, for those people or anyone, but it's wrong to call it science. Jesus didn't ride on dinosaurs, and the Earth wasn't created only 6000 years ago. We know these things are false, which is one reason I have problems with religions (and some branches of Christianity).

      Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful and worthwhile comment.


  4. Perhaps the episode is more broadly a critique of totalitarianism. The absorption refrain seems to foreshadow the assimilation refrain of the Borg: Compare "You will be be absorbed" with "You will be assimilated."


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