Entertainment shorthand tells us something that we should all already know: Nazis are bad. As a result, they make for very convenient villains in any number of stories. Plus, since they didn’t really require a fantastic set, it isn’t that surprising that Star Trek had a Nazi planet. Why not? They had a gangster planet.
This episode largely works for me, though today I think about how William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both Jewish, wore Nazi uniforms over the course of the episode.
How does a Nazi planet happen? That we can blame on Federation history professor John Gill. A former professor of Kirk’s and an acquaintance of Spock’s, Gill was acting as a cultural observer on the planet Ekos. Ekos was having problems, so Gill opted to try Nazi culture without the warmongering. It didn’t work, of course. The Enterprise arrives in the middle of an extermination plan against neighboring planet Zeon.
By the by, there’s a lot of crazy in this episode. Spock refers to Gil’s methods as fascinating because they focus on motives and causes instead of dates and places. You know, like anyone who studies history past elementary school. The episode also posits the disputed idea that Nazi Germany had the most efficient system in human history. Most historians dispute that idea. To be fair, the writers of Star Trek aren’t historians. They have to write for a general audience, and probably hold similar levels of knowledge of history as the audience itself. I don’t expect better from Star Trek, but I do feel like I should say something about it here.
However, in the episode itself, the Enterprise comes in to check on Gill only for Ekos to shoot a nuke at them. Knowing neither Ekos nor Zeon should have nukes, Kirk and Spock opt to beam down and look around. They soon find Nazis goosestepping all over the place. Kirk’s initial idea to “borrow” some uniforms doesn’t quite work out when an officer orders Spock to remove his helmet.
And then, after a whipping that failed to get an confession from either Kirk or Spock, the comedy begins.
True, there isn’t much. And, obviously, it all comes from Spock. Locked in a cell with their hands bound, Kirk and Spock figure out how to blast through the lock using subcutaneous transmitters the two had McCoy implant before they left the ship. Spock then takes his old sweet time standing on Kirk’s raw and bleeding back to do the work. True, it was TV so Kirk’s back didn’t look that bad, but Spock never saw a need to rush.
And then later, when Kirk, Spock, and a couple resistance types break into party headquarters, Spock admits to finally getting the idea of gambling and why humans do it. Kirk thinks they might make a human out of him yet. Spock’s reply? “I hope not.”
Small touches like this make the episode a bit lighter than one might expect from Nazi Planet. And that’s before Kirk finally gets through to the Enterprise to get McCoy down in his own uniform, a situation the good doctor finds tough since he can’t quite get the boots on too easily.
The message, one the historian missed, is that authoritarian power is too strong a temptation for any system. Gill himself does try to use the Nazi system towards benevolent goals. It’s only when his assistant Melekon drugs Gill and puts the more militaristic words in the professor’s mouth that things go bad.
Should this be surprising? Fascism is one of the hardest political philosophies to define. Based heavily on the symbols of each individual nation, about the only thing that it has in common to every culture that has tried it out is fear of the outsider. Though ironically the Zeons appear as human as the people of Ekos, they were a bit ahead of the game technologically prior to Gill’s violation of the Prime Directive. How does anyone tell a Zeon from an Ekosian? I don’t know and that is probably the point.
Of course, that just means as soon as Kirk needs to delay Melekon for time, he “surrenders” Spock to the Nazis. Unlike the Zeons, Spock is an obvious alien. Fortunately, he also seems to understand what’s going on, so he play along. More or less. He mostly stands there as Melekon judges Spock as inferior and stupid just on the Vulcan’s appearance. If anything, he seems mildly miffed. And since Vulcans don’t really go for emotions, a mildly miffed Spock would be the same as a furious McCoy.
Ultimately, “Patterns of Force,” is a good adventure in the Star Trek mold. It does askew most of the philosophizing that makes up many good Trek episodes, confining most of to the episode’s end. Then again, the episode also ends with Kirk making a crack at the expense of the bickering Spock and McCoy. Maybe we don’t need to get too deep into the woods on Nazis because, well, we just know they’re entertainment shorthand for evil. That does tend to make it a little easier to point out who the bad guys are.