Thursday, September 08, 2022

Star Trek Week: "The Omega Glory"

Stardate: Unknown

The U.S.S Enterprise discovers the missing starship Exeter in orbit of remote planet Omega IV. A landing party beams over to the vessel and finds that the crew has died as a result of a mysterious illness, ostensibly exposure to contaminants on the planet.

A recorded message from the ship’s chief medical officer reports that anyone boarding the ship will also become infected, and that the only antidote rests on the planet.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party leave the Exeter and beam to the surface, hoping to buy survival time from the infection.  Kirk and the others find that Exeter’s Captain Ron Tracey (Morgan Woodward) is alive, and has, quite possibly, violated the Prime Directive in order to save the planet’s peaceful humanoid villagers, Kohms, from the wild hordes nearby, known as Yangs.

Tracey has taken this action because he believes that the Kohms have discovered the secret of eternal life, or the Fountain of Youth.  As Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) investigates this possibility, Kirk weighs his responsibilities, vis-à-vis Tracey’s violation of General Order One. Meanwhile, Tracey wants the Enterprise to beam down more phasers, and more phaser packs to help him in his quest to defeat the Yangs.

When the Yangs invade the Kohm village, however, retaking lands they held long ago, Kirk realizes that a kind of parallel to Earth’s history is playing out.  

The Kohms were once “communists.”  The Yangs were…Yankees….

“The Omega Glory,” is a strange, strange episode of Star Trek. The narrative begins with a strange disease killing a starship crew, moves into a meditation on the Prime Directive, and ends with Kirk nodding, knowingly and approvingly at a (parallel) version of Old Glory, our American flag.

And yet, despite these wide-ranging subjects, the episode is never less than “fascinating,” to echo Mr. Spock’s famous exclamation.  In part, this is because the scenarios are memorably realized in visual terms, and buttressed by a soundtrack that underscores the weird, and discomforting nature of the tale.

I have long found “The Omega Glory” to be a pleasure to watch because of the imagery. The episode begins with pure eeriness, as Kirk’s landing party discovers Exeter’s dead crew.  There are no traditional corpses, however.  Only uniforms and chunks of white chemical compound are left behind.  This is a remarkable and original visualization, and one that is terrifying.  Basically, the crew decomposed to these chunks of chemical residue.  The uniforms -- and the remnants -- are draped over stations, positioned in chairs, suggesting a truly alien condition, and a terrifying danger in the final frontier.

Later, the episode focuses on intense close-ups of Spock’s magnetic, slightly devilish eyes, and cuts to literary images of a Vulcan-like interpretation of the devil making quite explicit the comparison between Spock’s nature and the Devil’s. If Kirk is “The Evil One,” as the Yangs believe, Spock is his dark minion. The views we get of Spock in this episode -- especially as he hypnotizes Sirrah – support this notion visually.

By the time we get to the image of a ratty, torn relic of American flag -- introduced with a dissonant, creepy, alternate version of The Star Spangled Banner -- the episode has demonstrated a visual and aural ingenuity that sets “The Omega Glory” apart.

Another key strength of the episode is Morgan Woodward’s performance as Ron Tracey. Woodward is a charismatic personality, one who projects physical strength and mental toughness.  Indeed, if you look at the original series “captains” -- Kirk, Decker, and Tracey, specifically -- one detects some commonalities.  These are all men of uncommon will and constitution.  Decker is undone by a tragedy not his fault.  Tracey too deals with tragedy (though in a way we may not approve of) but both men represents lessons, in a way, for Kirk to learn from. 

Of course, however, “The Omega Glory’s” plot of a parallel Earth is often criticized by fans and scholars. When Spock notes that the parallel of Yangs/Yanks and Kohms/Communists is almost “too close” to be believed, there are many who will agree with his assessment. 

And yet, let us remember that the key analogy between Star Trek and our reality of the late 1960s is undoubtedly the Cold War.  In most cases, Klingons sub for the Soviets, and the UFP stands in for the USA.  Here, Kirk and company stumble across a world that fought a World War over the ideologies of these two forces, and destroyed themselves.  

So, at least in a sense, “The Omega Glory” remains true to the underlying conceits of the Roddenberry series, even if in this case, the comparison may be very “on the nose.”  Also, it’s clear, given Kirk’s reverence for the United States flag and the U.S. Constitution that this episode revels in national patriotism.

Kirk’s argument that the worship words of the Constitution are for all the people, Yangs and Kohms is rousing, indeed, and meaningful, in this context.  The words must apply to all people, he says, or they are rendered meaningless.  The underlying idea here is that words, over time, and through crises, can lose their meaning, if not read closely; if not read carefully; if not remembered.  The Yangs want their country back, but have lost the meaning of the words they supposedly revere. Kirk puts meaning back in those ideals with his dramatic reading of the worship words.

Of course, a key problem here is that it takes two to tango, and though the episode advises mercy for the Kohms (the words of worship are for everyone!), no commentary is given to the fact that if two ideological forces go beyond the brink, to nuclear war, both ideologies and both nations bear the responsibility. The “glory” of “Errand of Mercy,” for instance, was Kirk’s realization, forced by the Organians, that he was part of the problem too; hungering for a conflict with the (admittedly aggressive) Klingons.  There’s no such even-handedness here.

As a Prime Directive episode, “The Omega Glory” is also highly intriguing.  Tracey loses his whole crew, and then sees peaceful people being massacred by wild men, and so intervenes to protect them. It is not at all impossible to see Kirk doing the same thing in the same situation. Would you stand by and let the last apparent refuge of civilization fall on Omega IV?

But Tracey goes further, believing that he can somehow redeem himself and his actions by bringing a (mythical) Fountain of Youth to the Federation. He goes from interfering to save lives, for interfering to acquire something for his own people. I would argue that this is his great violation of the Prime Directive, his vainglorious desire to be seen, perhaps, as a savior to his own people; an act which would mitigate the loss of his ship and his crew.

Some fans have judged “The Omega Glory” corny, both for the reverence to the American flag in a 23rd century context, and for Shatner’s impassioned reading of the “worship words.” I understand that, and yet feel the episode remains visually fascinating, and conceptually unusual. One thing is for certain: the episode is never less than entertaining.

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