Friday, September 11, 2020

Star Trek Week: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

Stardate 5730.2

The Enterprise proceeds to a critical decontamination mission on the heavily-populated world of Ariannus, but en route the sensors detect a shuttlecraft in distress. The ship was recently reported stolen from Starbase 4, and there is one inhabitant aboard: Lokai (Lou Antonio).

Lokai is a strange individual, at least in terms of physical or biological characteristics. He is white colored on half of his body, and black colored on the other side. Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) believes he may be a one-of-a-kind, a mutation.

This theory is proven wrong, however, when another being from Lokai’s planet, Cheron, arrives aboard an invisible spaceship in pursuit. 

At first blush, Commissioner Bele (Frank Gorshin) seems to resemble Lokai, possessing white skin and black skin, in opposition. 

But all of Bele’s people are black on the right side, whereas Lokai’s people are white on the right side. 

This (apparently minor) color difference seems to be the source of huge distress and anger between the two individuals. Bele claims to have been hunting Lokai for 50,000 years, and wants to return him to Cheron to pay for his crimes of insurrection. Lokai, by contrast, wants disciples to follow him, arguing that Bele and his people are violent, tyrants, and that his people are enslaved.

When Captain Kirk (William Shatner) refuses to hand over Lokai, determining that he should stand trial for the theft of the shuttle, Bele takes control of the Enterprise, forcing the ship to alter course for Cheron.  

With no choice, Kirk demonstrates that his authority over the Enterprise is final by activating the self-destruct sequence. He aborts the one minute countdown only after Bele relents, and returns control of the ship.

After the decontamination mission at Ariannus, Bele again takes over directional controls. This time, he burns out the self-destruct mechanism, so Kirk cannot stop him.

On arrival, the Enterprise crew finds that Cheron is a dead world, one that has been engulfed in the flames of hatred and division for too long. Lokai and Bele’s people are all dead, having been unable to overcome their race hatred.

This knowledge, however, does not prevent them from continuing to fight and chase one another.

Originally titled “A Portrait in Black and White,” this episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) from Gene Coon (writing as Lee Cronin) is often described by critics and fans as being heavy-handed or preachy.  

I reply to those criticisms (perhaps as an “idealistic dreamer,” as Bele terms Kirk) in the following manner:

Preach on, Star Trek. 

In 2020, too many of us -- too many of our leaders -- have still not learned the (obvious) message of this episode.  Race hatred -- tribalism, for lack of a better word -- is foolish, ignorant, and, finally, will get us all killed if we can't get past it. 

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is a brilliant episode, I would argue, for the way it addresses the utter stupidity and subjective nature of racism, or race hatred. 

The message is heavy-handed or preachy? Really? If that’s the case, how come in fifty four years man still suffers from this brand of stupidity? 

If the message of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is so friggin' obvious, it seems that this is a lesson would have taken hold. 

And for so many people, it has not done so.

I term the episode brilliant specifically for the manner in which it explains racism, or rather reduces the concept of racism to its most basic (and therefore ridiculous) tenets. In a remarkable scene between Kirk, Spock, and Bele, the Starfleet officers attempt to talk reason to the commissioner from Cheron. They note that Bele and Lokai seem to be of the same race. 

Bele responds, offended: “I am black on the right side. Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side.” 

The inference in Bele’s response is that being white on the right side (rather than on the left side) is inherently, obviously, inferior to being white on the left side. 

But no supporting evidence for this belief is offered. It’s just an assumed fact; something unquestioned by Bele’s people. It's a self-reinforcing, comforting myth, or bias, with no grounding in science.

Naturally, they are superior! They’re black on the right side!

And if you gaze at racism here on Earth, in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, racism makes no more sense than Bele’s statement does. 

Why are black, brown, yellow, or red considered, often, inferior to white by some? Are these skin colors encoded with quality ratings, a hierarchy? 

Or are they the product, instead, of self-righteous, comforting beliefs?  

The definition of racism is “a system of belief that all members of one race possess characteristics specific to that race in order to distinguish it from other races.” So if you are black on the right side, you are good, smart, and hard-working. If you are black on the left side, you are violent, uneducated, and lazy.

See how that works? Your skin color is your destiny; never mind your individuality. Never mind your experience. Never mind your achievements.

Spock responds to Bele’s statement by offering up the example of Vulcan. The Vulcan people would have destroyed themselves over such irrational, unfounded beliefs, had they not found the discipline of logic. He recommends that Cheron should adopt the same policy, lest its people be destroyed.

Kirk also attempts to talk reason to Bele, noting that a dialogue could be started between Lokai’s people and Bele’s people. 

Bele refuses to believe that Lokai’s people are capable of change (another trope familiar to racists), and Spock then speaks one of the core tenets of Star Trek; one paraphrased again just this weekend in the new Star Trek: Discovery (2017) trailer: 

Change is the essential process of all existence.”

Racism can’t exist with new input, with new facts, with new experiences. It thrives on ignorance, and stereotyping (the failure to note a person as an individual). 

If Bele lets himself believe that Lokai can change, or grow, then he can no longer cling to the myths around his own superiority.  He would have to re-examine the world, and find, perhaps, that he is not better than all others. Instead of being God's chosen, or biology's chosen, he might learn he is  just one star in a constellation of worthy beings. Clearly, at least from Bele's example, racism stems from the desire to be viewed as superior, while all others are inferior.

That idea of racial superiority based on skin color, as this episode points out, is antithetical to Star Trek and its messages. 

We may all be different. 

We may possess different strengths, and different weaknesses. 

But we are all worthwhile, and we all possess individual gifts that are separate from skin color, gender, orientation, and so forth. 

That is the heart of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), a concept introduced to the series earlier in the third season.

When I was a child, I did not fully understand the episode, I admit. I thought that one Cheron-ian was evil (Bele), and that one was good (Lokai). 

As I matured and re-watched the episode, I saw that the episode is not heavy-handed and obvious, because it recreates the complexity of the social unrest of the 1960’s in an even-handed way. 

Bele represents bigoted, unreasonable, privileged authority and racism, it’s true. But Lokai represents the counter-culture, and its willingness to overturn everything, in a day, without considering what could be lost by throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

Another way to put this: Bele wants to preserve the status quo, at all costs, because he strides atop it. There can be no change, especially from inferiors, that would lessen his seat of power, privilege, and prestige on Cheron. 

Oppositely -- like a cracked mirror reflection -- Lokai is against the status quo, at all costs, and sees nothing worth preserving there. He would overturn all laws, cause violence, and undertake sweeping change to the social order without recognizing the good things in the status quo.

They are diametrically opposed, and neither character is angel. They are both devils in their own way. Remember, "fundamentalism" isn't about what you believe, it's how you believe that thing. Bele and Lokai share their extreme brand of fundamentalism, even if they believe different things.

But the episode’s ultimate message is that it doesn’t matter who is right, or more right in this, or any conflict. 

Irrational hatred, for or against the status quo is destructive, divisive, and has no positive end. The episode’s final imagery, of cities in flame, is a potent warning to the riot-struck America of the 1960’s that unremitting hatred from any corner, is unproductive, and worse than that, self-destructive.

Looking around at the world today, I don’t see why this episode is considered preachy or heavy-handed.  On the contrary, I would say that Star Trek found a way to fully expose how stupid and destructive racism and hatred can be. 

Sure, it’s all about the color(s) of skin, but that, of course, is the tether that racism is often bound to. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is not stupid or obvious. Contrarily, it is about how stupid and obvious racism is, as a belief system.  

As Kirk compassionately notes to the survivors of Cheron, “You must both end up dead if you don’t stop hating.”

As America grows more divided, more ill-informed, more enraged about “the other” in our midst (liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, gay, straight, atheist, Christian, white, black, male, female, trans, etc), this is a message worth repeating. 

Hate, finally, is not a governing strategy. 

Hate, in the final analysis, is not a way forward. 

It is a path, ultimately, to a burned-out cinder of a planet, where no partisans survive, and where no one can claim victory, moral or otherwise.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore hate when we see it, or fail to call it out.  Only that, we must always remember Spock’s axiom that “change is the essential process of all existence.” Those whom we think can’t change….can change. 

We can’t give up hope that they will.  “Idealistic dreamers” must not give up on those dreams of a better future. 

This message is the essence of Star Trek. Think about Kirk’s journey in The Undiscovered Country (1991), or the relationship of the Federation and the Klingon Empire over the whole franchise. Hate cannot be allowed to carry the day. Racism falls when we have to see our perceived enemies as people capable of compromise.

I love that “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” exists in the episode canon, and I hope that those who call it obvious or heavy-handed go back and actually experience its messages, again. 

In terms of continuity, the episode is vital to the franchise because it sets up, precisely, the parameters of starship self-destruct sequences in the 23rd century. The codes, the multi-officer input, and the countdown are all featured again in The Search for Spock (1984), and the connection is a wonderful touch of continuity with the series. Even the auto-destruct in The Next Generation (“11001001” and “Where Silence Has Lease”) is based on the process we see explored in this particular episode.

Also, as I have noted above, it looks like Spock’s line about “change” in this episode has been re-parsed (and spoken by a young Sarek) in Discovery (2017), an indication that it will continue to carry importance across the Trek-verse.

What is the end-game for an episode such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield?” 

Where do such idealistic dreams lead us? 

Sulu and Chekov share a conversation in this episode, wherein it is clear they have no first-hand experience with bigotry or racism. “There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class,” they say.

That is the world worth building. 

This is the world we can build. And episodes such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” light the way, as Star Trek often does. We can either end up like Bele and Lokai, dining on the ashes of hatred, or like Sulu and Chekov, looking back and wondering how people could have ever been so damned hateful.

1 comment:

  1. I think the "heavy-handed" complaint comes from the fact that their faces are so starkly black and white. It doesn't seem plausible that their skin tones would be so precise, although I guess animals with feathers or fur do have some pretty precise patterns. If the distinction had been less stark, perhaps the criticism would've been less harsh. I do agree, however, that the message is strong and still relevant. I think it would've been even more dramatic had the racial difference been more subtle, like the situation in Hotel Rwanda where the differences were completely imperceptible to those outside the culture.


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