Thursday, September 08, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "A Taste of Armageddon"

Stardate 3192.1

The Enterprise transports Ambassador Robert Fox (Gene Lyons) to a star-cluster where an inhabited world, Eminiar VII, has rebuffed all efforts by the Federation to make contact.

Although Kirk (William Shatner) is weary of forging ahead, Ambassador Fox demands it.

Captain Kirk beams down to the planet and learns from its leader, Anan 7 (David Opatoshu) that the planet is has been locked in a war with a neighboring world, Vendikar, for five hundred years. 

Unusually, the war is fought via computerized simulation. Computers select targets, and living people must then report to disintegration chambers as “casualties.”  In this way, neither civilization days, even as conflict continues.

The same computers have now designated the Enterprise a casualty in the war too, and so Anan 7 holds Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the landing party in an attempt to coerce the Enterprise crew into beaming down and offering themselves as sacrifices.

Believing that the people of Eminiar have only succeeded in sanitizing war, Kirk takes action to end the status quo between the planets.

Critics of Star Trek (1966-1969) who term the series’ political philosophy imperialism, or “gunboat” diplomacy are likely referring to this episode, “A Taste of Armageddon.”

In this installment, Kirk disobeys the Prime Directive, and veritably bullies a planet (with threats of world-wide destruction...) into changing its culture to satisfy his sense of what is morally right, and what is “human” or not.  He substitutes his own wisdom for the wisdom of the people of a different and alien culture.

One can debate semantics, of course, but that’s pretty much the core of this (admittedly) entertaining show. We can prosecute Kirk’s actions here, based on Starfleet’s rules. He rather clearly disobeys them.

Before getting there, certainly, it should be acknowledged that “A Taste of Armageddon” is  powerful  anti-war story.

The episode strongly suggests that advanced technology makes war antiseptic, and therefore entirely more likely.  The people who die in the Eminiar-Vendikar conflict are (to the leaders of both worlds...) merely numbers on a spread-sheet, not people with families, careers, dreams and aspirations.  They aren't seen or heard; and they don't suffer in the historical sense of that word.  They merely...die.

Since the U.S. was locked in a conflict in Vietnam at the time this episode aired, these are not small or irrelevant points of interest.  The value of the episode -- and it does possess clear value -- rests in its commentary on the futility of war, and the fact that greater technology lessens the very things that make us recoil in horror.  War is a thing to be avoided because it is so damn terrible.

If war is no longer bloody, and no longer physically destructive, why do everything possible to avoid it?

If we can keep our gleaming cities, and our culture intact, why avoid war?

That's Kirk argument, and his strategy reminds Anan 7 and his people why war is so awful.

Alas, “A Taste of Armageddon” also paints a very unfortunate picture of Starfleet, the Federation, and even Kirk. 

Why it does so is an open question. My point would be, simply, that the series was still developing at this point, and so the Prime Directive was not a key issue of the story…as it should have been. 

The background context of Starfleet, the UFP and so forth were still only half-formed when this story was conjured, and yet this is a story in which those rules clearly call for a debate. In stories such as "The Apple" or "Return of the Archons," there is discussion about violating the Prime Directive, and also, importantly, what exactly constitutes a violation.

There is none of that here. 

But let’s talk about General Order One, or the Prime Directive. 

Sometimes it is also referred to as the non-interference directive. Basically, it prohibits Starfleet officers from interfering in the affairs of other planets, other cultures.

This is how Kirk describes it in “Bread and Circuses,” a second season show: “No interference with the social development of [said] planet.”

And this is how Kirk describes it in “The Omega Glory:” “A starship captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.”

Put the two remarks together and what you have is a law prohibiting interference in a world’s social structure or culture, even if a ship is endangered, even if a crew dies.

Pretty clearly, Kirk’s actions in “A Taste of Armageddon” are aimed at saving both his starship and crew, both of which have been declared casualties of war. He does so at the expense of an alien culture's natural development.

In this case, he has, therefore, violated his most solemn oath. He has failed to give his life and his crew;s lives to avoid interference with the social development of Eminiar VII. He has put himself and his ship ahead of an alien world.

Worse, Kirk doubles down -- with the help of Starfleet regulations -- on his interference.  If Anan 7 and the ruling council of Eminiar VII fails to conform to his agenda, he threatens to initiate General Order 24, which permits a starship to completely destroy a planet.

So, quite simply, this scenario is horrifying. 

A starship captain can visit -- without permission or request -- an alien world, judge it against human standards, and if he doesn’t like it, threaten to destroy that planet to enforce compliance with a pre-existing agenda.  

This is, without a doubt, gunboat diplomacy. How horrifying is it that Starfleet actually possesses an order which permits the devastation of a planet?

Now, I absolutely agree with Kirk that the people of Eminiar VII have made war antiseptic (and eternal) by taking the blood and guts out of it.  I share his distaste for the suicide booths, and the failure of the leaders to end their conflict by talking about it; by forging an agreement.

However, Kirk is clearly in violation of his oath, and worse, a bully. To threaten a planet’s entire population because you disagree with its politics is abhorrent. Kirk knows virtually nothing of the planet's history, society, culture, or even the context for the war, and in that ignorance decides how that planet should conduct its affairs.

So what we have in "A Taste of Armageddon" is an entertaining Star Trek episode that nonetheless has much trouble existing “in universe,” with the knowledge we glean of the Prime Directive in later episodes.

“A Taste of Armageddon” seems to occur in a universe wherein there is no Prime Directive at all.  Instead, a Starfleet Captain -- if his or her ship is threatened -- can simply re-organize a planet’s society to his or her liking by using superior technology and firepower.

The episode also provides another example of Star Trek’s vehement dislike for diplomacy, even though diplomacy is precisely what Kirk demands of Anan 7 and the leaders of Vendikar.  

Robert Fox is an insufferable, imperious jerk, who makes one wrong-headed decision after another.  Then, once his neck is on the line, he drops all pretenses of having a coherent point-of-view, and meekly follows Kirk around with a disruptor in hand.  It is a negative portrayal of a diplomat, but Fox is a straw man.  He is so abundantly weak so that Kirk can look strong and decisive by comparison.

All this established, I do love the episode’s final summation of Kirkian philosophy (or more aptly, humanist philosophy).  Our good captain doesn’t deny that man often kills, or that violence isn’t instinctual.  Instead, he says the following:

All right. It's instinctive. The instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we are not going to kill today. That's all it takes - knowing that we won't kill today.”

Ironically, this wonderful philosophy applies to Kirk too, who plays a very dangerous game of brinkmanship in “A Taste of Armageddon.”  

Would he (or Scotty?) have followed through with their threats of General Order 24 if Anan 7 had not complied with their strategy?  Would they have destroyed a world?

It is food for thought, certainly, and “A Taste of Armageddon” is one atypical episode of Star Trek. It suggests we can go to the stars and dictate our desires to the aliens we meet there.  That we know better.

Most episodes, contrarily, suggest that we reach out with respect and tolerance, and not with the might and the will to level planets that don’t conform to our belief systems.  

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