I tend to do a little vague research when I write these up, meaning I read Wikipedia. As it is, I was a little surprised to learn this episode may have been an allegory for the Vietnam War. I didn’t really see it at first glance. It makes a little sense if you think about it a bit. The thing is, I know there is a much more blatant pro-Vietnam War episode coming up. Still, the Klingons are back, and they tend to represent Cold War era politics. The warrior culture of later series hasn’t quite developed yet. Instead, we have guys who seem to mostly foment trouble wherever they go.
But on second thought, I think I can somewhat see where the Vietnam thing comes from.
The Enterprise is visiting the neutral planet of Neural, a name that suggests the writers aren’t even trying anymore. The population is still in the bow-and-arrow stage of development. Kirk, who did a survey there as a young lieutenant, has fond memories of the place. He even made a friend there named Tyree. So, you can imagine Kirk’s surprise when he and Spock spot some people from the nearby village armed with flintlock long rifles. Oh, and the Hill People hunting nearby, including Tyree, are in the villagers’ sights.
First off, Kirk has some excellent vision to recognize a man he knew over a decade earlier from that distance.
Second, the flintlock is far too advanced for these people.
Thirdly, Kirk can’t use a phaser to protect his friend.
He can toss a rock.
The resulting chase ends with villagers shooting Spock. Only the odd placement of the Vulcan heart keeps him alive. He, Kirk, and McCoy beam back to the Enterprise, and Spock goes immediately to Sickbay. Fortunately, another doctor I’ve never seen before happens to be there, and that guy knows Vulcan physiology. Kirk, as a result, can get some native attire and head back down to investigate with McCoy. The Klingons seem to be in the area. Direct interference with Neural’s culture could be an act of war. Kirk needs to know for certain.
Now, there’s a lot going on here. Spock spends most of the episode recovering from his injury. That means Chapel mooning over him in embarrassing ways and eventually he gets better. Kirk and McCoy have other problems. True, they dress like the locals, but there’s an hair issue. The Hill People, Tyree’s tribe, all have a big head of blonde hair. The villagers all have a big head of dark hair. There’s one noteworthy exception, but Kirk and McCoy don’t have any hair like that at all.
The other issue comes from the native predator, the Mugato. These animals are gorilla-like things with a lot of spikes, a rhino horn, and a venomous bite. One bites Kirk early on, and fortunately Tyree’s people find him. But there’s some stuff going on here that doesn’t work as well as it could. The Klingon thing turns out to be true. They are gifting the villagers with flintlocks. While Tyree, leader of the Hill People, isn’t really interested in violent reprisal, others are. Among those others is Tyree’s wife, a dark haired woman who may or may not have magical healing powers. She might just be really good with herbs. She does manage to cure Kirk, and local legends says Kirk will be unable to refuse her anything after that.
Tyree knows this, and somehow doesn’t get too upset when he spots Kirk almost making out with his wife later. He gets more upset when some of the villagers kill her. By this point, she tried to sell out the Hill People by offering some villagers a phaser she stole from Kirk. She was likewise blatantly using her physical appearance to get Kirk to give the Hill People weapons.
Point is, I think Tyree can do much better.
But Klingon support is probably where the Vietnam analogies come from. True, the end result for this episode makes it look more like a proxy war than anything else. Neither the Federation nor the Klingon Empire will fight each other directly on Neural. Kirk also explains how the Cold War of the 60s (AKA the time this show was still new) worked because both world powers kept each other in check by maintaining equal strength. I somehow doubt historians today would agree with that assessment so much as it was about the two powers keeping each other in check with perceived as opposed to actual strength.
Still, such an explanation makes sense for the episode. No one resolves the issue of the war brewing on Neural. If anything, it’s about to get worse now that Kirk asks Scotty to produce some flintlocks for Tyree’s people. Or, as Kirk puts it, serpents for the Garden of Eden. Mental note: no planet nicknamed the “Garden of Eden” on Star Trek ever turns out well.
But did Kirk start teaching the Hill People how to shoot because of the Klingons or because of Tyree’s wife? The episode is a bit vague. Yes, Kirk does seem to be under her spell when she does certain things with and to him. But it isn’t too far out of the question for Kirk to truly believe that Cold War containment stuff. He has never trusted the Klingons, and generally for good reason. It’s one of the reasons Kirk’s character arc in the last original cast movie works the way it does. So, really, was it already in Kirk to do what he ultimately does? I would think it could go either way.
Then again, Tyree’s wife was little better than a stock seductress character. She switches sides and just wants power. Heck, the only reason she knew about phasers was McCoy was using one to heat rocks to keep a sick Kirk warm. But then I am once again left to wonder whether or not this show ever got women right. Even a show trying to be different could only get so much done in 1968.