Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (January 10, 1969)

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.

“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 years man still suffers from this brand of stupidity? 

If the message of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is so blooming 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), 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.

In two weeks, another episode laced with social commentary: “Mark of Gideon.”


  1. As much as I enjoy the message of this episode, it always felt padded to me partially because it's a bottle episode set aboard this ship, it's a dialogue-driven episode and finally the moments where Bele and Lokai are chasing each other through the Enterprise feel like they are out for a morning jog other rather than running with urgency. I understand that the director would have had a terrible time filming two individuals running full-tilt through the decks of the ship but the end result lessens the tragic circumstances these two characters find themselves in.

    Having said this, there's a lot to like. The concept is fantastic, the dilemma is challenging and I really like the makeup! It's yet another strong episode from the 3rd season.

  2. I used to feel like many that this episode was pretty heavy handed, mainly because the makeup was not realistic. Then I saw the movie Hotel Rwanda and I realized how true to reality the story was. To an outsider, the differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis are undetectable, but to the people of Rwanda, it's clear and pronounced. All one needs is a struggle for power and the whole situation blows up. There are numerous reasons why one group chooses to deem another group inferior, and I suppose I was looking for a more complex exploration of that subject, so I initially dismissed this episode. But skin color is certainly an easy way to differentiate one group from another, so racist people use it as a crutch. The story may seem overly simplistic, but then again, so are many of the people who practice racist behaviors.

  3. Sheri3:48 PM

    John, I absolutely agree wholeheartedly with you: LTBYLB is NOT simplistic, heavyhanded, or obvious. It's one of those reactions that's become a bromide, a cliche--somebody wrote that, other people picked it up, it became popular to say it. Like "Shatner overacts hammily" became a thing, whereas the merest examination of the series reveals it to be the case only in certain episodes with stupid or weak scripts. Truthfully, for young people especially, at the time of original broadcast (and obviously, for at least 15 years of syndication), the reaction to this episode proves it is anything BUT unnecessarily heavy handed.

    This inaccurate assessment might be related to the episode's flaws beingg magnified with repeated viewing. The script was considerably revised and came in short, necessitating too much filler: two guys running against an optical montage backdrop of planetary devastation. Those sequences seem dorky and silly now, out of proportion to the material itself, which people now apparently find too easy to dismiss along with the goofiness. Had Gene Coon still been around he would have been able to come up with better solutions.

    In a way, the fact that Bela and Lokai are both black and white advances the central point of the material better than if they were completely different, and that is why this episode was so memorable on first view: their differences are so miniscule, and Kirk is so baffled, that it cannot help but make one reflect. This is much subtler racial division than the white vs nonwhite dichotomy: various Asian populations absolutely vilify and detest one another, and severely exclude mixed-race subgroups (and skin lightening is increasingly popular in China, Singapore and Korea); Black and Arab tribal animosities persist; various hispanic populations look down their on darker skinned mixed-race populations in Central and South America. No matter how "overdone" people claim "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" to be, it is demonstrably untrue.

  4. John,

    As a kid, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" resonated with me. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, which could be described as homogeneous, and many wore their intolerance like a badge of honor. However, I spent summers with my grandparents, who lived in the city, and as such was exposed to great diversity and different cultures. I experienced such kindness and generosity from people of all races, and then I'd return to the burbs and have to tolerate the other extreme from people who, to me, spoke out of complete ignorance. Had they even met the people they were so dismissive of?

    This episode offers a wonderful parable and commentary on racism, but I'm not certain that those who need to hear it the most are getting the message. Indeed, when there are Star Trek fans professing to appreciate the many and varying series, making complaints about diversity re: Discovery casting, you have to wonder why they're Star Trek fans at all.

    What I found in life, LTBYLB elucidates via subtext: Racism is self-hatred mixed with pride. The bigot hates himself, yet is too stubborn to admit this; therefore, a person with differing physical characteristics is deemed lesser and somehow inferior, allowing the bigot to feel better about themselves. And yet they don't - their hatred and spite breed more of the same.

    I truly hope, as you stated in your review, that we as a people can change, and as this episode illustrates, come to a time when we judge each other equally, with empathy and compassion.

    Meanwhile, I grew up to realize that not being a bigot increases your chances of a date on a Saturday night. You can go to more parties, dance with anyone, eat the best food, have more fun, have more friends. That's a much better world than what Bela and Lokai end up with.

    I have my doubts, but also my hopes, that we can one day be more like the Federation, and less like Cheron.


    1. Sheri6:17 PM

      Whereabouts in the burbs and Chitown, Steve? I'm in Edgewater just south of Rogers Park and earlier lived in Andersonville and Ravenswood.

      I have to say, although in many ways Chicago seems a melting pot, there are ways in which that's true only on the surface. Scratch a little, and it can be pretty surprising. I never quite expected to encounter as much willing self-segregation as I have in some places here, where the attitude is "what are you doing in my neighborhood?"--only in reverse! Some of my Korean, Cambodian and Vietnamese friends encounter the worst attitudes of all, so their families keep moving out to the burbs. We have come full circle and are going around again in strange ways!

  5. It's with great pleasure that I read your spirited defense of this unfairly slighted third season episode, in part because it so closely echoes the high regard I have for it.

    What the episode does most effectively is to bring into plain view
    the fundamental irrationality of racial bigotry by way of dramatizing
    the should-be-obvious fact that it must inescapably lead to a
    reduction to absurdity.

    So, far from being a fault this episode's blunt heavy handed approach
    to its subject matter is precisely on point: if there are those who
    persistently refuse to see what should be obvious to any rational
    being then hitting them over the head may perhaps be what it take
    to open their eyes.

    On another point I can recall, seeing this episode for the first time as
    a youngster, how haunted I was be the scenes toward the end, of the
    two antagonists fleeing through the empty corridors of the Enterprise
    against an overlay of images of the flaming ruins of their world.

    I still today could not think of a more fitting way to visually represent
    the terrible fate to which these two unyielding antagonists had
    condemned themselves.

  6. I feel compelled to add some context, because I think lack of context is one reason for the disdain some have for "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield". The episode aired just a few months after the August 1968 Chicago Democratic convention riots, which in turn followed the April riots that burned through swaths of the city, destroying many black-owned businesses and homes, when Martin Luther King was murdered. Suburban flight followed well into the mid 1970s. The burned-out, vacant areas went unremediated until recovery began to happen around 2000.

    Star Trek was approaching its end just as it had begun--with racial tensions, riots, smoldering cities and prominent Black leaders' assassinations serving as bookends to the show: Malcolm X and the 1965 Watts riots; King and the 1968 Chicago riots. In between, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and riots ignited Detroit in 1967. Throughout 1968 Alabama governor George Wallace's presidential candidacy advocated racial segregation. The world seemed endlessly ablaze and mired in utter despair, live on our television screens, the entire time Star Trek was on the air!

    Late into the 1980s, these events were a living memory for the audience viewing Star Trek in syndication. There is no way to adequately describe the intersection between Star Trek and its cultural milieu for people viewing it in a vacuum now. And as the political assassination attempts continued--Wallace was shot in 1972, two attempts were made on President Gerald Ford in 1975, and President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981--the sense of Star Trek still being "of the moment" continued for a considerable time after its cancellation. If "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" strikes some as clunky and preachy now, it was assuredly needed, desperately needed, when it was written and when it was broadcast.


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