Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Return of the Archons" (February 9, 1967)

Stardate: 3156.2

In “The Return of the Archons,” 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. Thoughtful review of this important Star Trek episode. I agree with your statement that is is about organized religion because of Gene Roddenberry's disbelief. Albeit, I do see the point of it being about '60s communism and the Soviet Union being the all powerful state for it's citizens.

    Advancements in a society being thwarted and reversed can also to apply to totalitarian rulers in the long history of China. The fall of an society itself, e.g., the fall of the Roman Empire led to advancements in a society being thwarted and reversed. From running water and indoor plumbing in the Roman era to nothing for hundreds of years. The best current exhibit of what you stated:"...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" is that of today's global radical Islamic terrorism.

    "The Return of the Archons" still feels worthy of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.


  2. John,
    This was never one of my favorite episodes, but once again your interpretation of it makes me want to see it with new eyes. Interestingly enough, this episode was originally pitched at the same time as "The Cage." The title of the story was "The Perfect World," alternately known as "Landru's World." NBC selected "The Cage." I appreciated the quotes from Roddenberry. They lend credence to your assertion that there's more to this episode than meets the eye. That it can be seen as both an allegory deconstructing both Communism and Religion is what makes Star Trek so powerful. The truth is in one's own perspective.

  3. I went back and watched the Archons as well. I don't think Roddenberry meant to make this a critique of socialistic societies or non-religious communes, because he never met a commune or socialistic society he didn't like. The 24th century Federation was supposed to be a post-scarcity intellectual socialistic utopia of the Enlightened Man, free of cash and the worries of want. TNG's Justice shows just how much of a advocate Gene wanted to be for "free love" in the ST universe.

    No matter how intentional, Archons is less of an attack on all religions as a shot across the bow of the 60s religious and/or Marxist communes. I have always associated Landru with Jim Jones, ever since the first time I saw it. It was the cult leaders of the 60s communes who rejected modern conveniences and demanded the complete sacrifice of the person to the group. Yes, I'm sure that Roddenberry was trying to get some digs at Christianity too, but they are IMHO drowned out by the overwhelming resemblance to the cults of Jim Jones, David Berg, Sri Chinmov, etc.

    In the end, all group communes require a strong man to set the rules and survive, and in Archons, Landru's computer made a religion for his rules. IMHO, this says much more about the commune (it had to resort to the very technology Landru said he was fighting) and the person than the tools used (religion).