I saw this episode once, years ago, and I wasn’t looking forward to it again. As it stands, I misjudged or misunderstood the episode the first time around. I actually thought this episode was Star Trek coming out in favor of the Vietnam War. And it sort of does if you twist your head and squint a bit. That struck me then and now as really weird. Given the show’s generally progressive politics, and how it showed a Utopian future with no war, why would it be pro-Vietnam? Sure, the network and the producers probably didn’t want to rock the boat, but it still seems weird. And while there is a very pro-American message to the episode, it’s not really pro-any-war.
You know, unless it’s the Klingons. Those guys got it coming.
Of course, so does Captain Tracey, but let’s address the elephant in the room. At least, my personal elephant. I’m referring to the ending where Kirk recites the Pledge of Allegiance and some of America’s founding documents. Kirk all but salutes the flag when he exits the episode. Considering William Shatner is Canadian, I do wonder a bit how he felt about that.
Why does that happen? I mean, I think I know why. It’s an American TV show with an American audience. Why wouldn’t it? Where I am thrown for a loop is Star Trek doesn’t really get much into the political state of the planet Earth. Is it still divided into different countries? Sure, we see both Scotty and Chekov and arguably Uhura showing pride in their ethnic heritage, but that’s generally played for laughs. McCoy may sometimes refer to himself as an old time country doctor, but his accent only comes out thick on rare occasions. And even then, there’s usually some sort of brainwashing or something involved. The show does tell us at some point Kirk is from Iowa, but that’s about all it says. Does Kirk feel like he’s an American?
I honestly don’t know.
The episode does suggest Kirk’s patriotism is some sort of ancestral thing. Like an old custom he learned growing up and never lost, he knows the Declaration of Independence. And he does believe in the words involving freedom and equality, such that the thing he teaches the seemingly savage Yangs is the “sacred words” are for everybody. And unless my tinnitus fooled me (and that can happen), I think he said the words even applied to the Kohms.
For those not in the know, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy found a planet where the people almost followed the same history as Earth, but there the Cold War went hot. The Caucasian-looking Yangs were fighting a guerrilla war with the Asian-looking Kohms. Kirk even refers to them as “white” and “yellow” respectively. Given the racial divide, I can’t help but wonder what Sulu made of all that when he beamed down at the end of the episode. Or, better yet, what the Yangs thought of Sulu.
All that said, the American patriotism stuff is something of a distraction from the main issue. See, the Enterprise is looking into the USS Exeter. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt beam over and find a lot of uniforms. No crew. Just uniforms filled with dry crystals. McCoy quickly figures out that the crystals are the remains of the crew. Apparently, there was a biological weapon from the Eugenics War that could do that sort of thing.
But there is one missing crewman: the ship’s captain. There’s a planet nearby, and Captain Tracey apparently went there.
And, it turns out, Tracey has been violating the Prime Directive down there, openly using his phaser to defend the Kohms from the Yangs. The Kohms do appear more civilized, but he’s interfering with the planet’s natural evolution. And while Kirk himself only follows the Prime Directive as he feels like it, this episode he think it’s important.
Besides, Kirk usually breaks it by accident.
Why does Tracey do it? First, he says something about the planet infected his crew, but as long as he stays there, he’ll be fine. The planet keeps him alive, and now that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the redshirt are infected, they’re stuck there too.
Besides, the Kohms live for centuries. Surely the planet is a source for potential immortality!
Yeah, McCoy shoots all that stuff down. Simply staying on the planet a few hours works the germs out of your system. Tracey (and the Enterprise crewmen) can leave at any time. And while the Kohms do live long lives, that comes down from natural evolution. There’s no supercure on this planet.
Instead, Tracey just spirals down more and more. He’s a desperate man. All his plans for heroism go up in smoke as he uses up all the power in his phaser to kill Yangs. He smacks Kirk around and kills the redshirt because that’s what redshirts are there for. And when it all falls apart, he tries to manipulate the victorious Yangs into believing Kirk is the real enemy. After all, doesn’t Spock look like the devil?
Tracey is a particularly loathsome figure. Even if Kirk has only a casual relationship with the Prime Directive, you never get the sense he’s doing it for himself. Tracey? He wants glory for himself, or he wants to save his own neck by siding with whoever is on his side. Even holding Kirk at phaserpoint doesn’t get Kirk to play along.
So, maybe the whole problem isn’t that Kirk breaks the Prime Directive from time to time. The issue is he always leaves a place better than he found it. He does what he does for generally selfless reasons. Tracey is the opposite.
So, maybe the key is the spirit of the Directive as opposed to the letter. That’s why Kirk gets the “sacred words” and why they’re for everybody. Tracey just brought death and destruction. Kirk leaves the planet as a better place.
And that may be why Kirk can remind the Yangs that all men are created equal. He actually believes all that.
I still want to know what the status of Earth political borders is in this time period…