"Errand of Mercy" was episode #26 of the famous original "Star Trek." Lest there be any doubt, the series steadily plants itself as an American artistic classic, not just a pop culture classic. It takes time to appreciate these things. We didn't adequately appreciate the series in its early days of syndication. It seemed passe, little better than the rest of the swamp of TV programming at the time. And syndication meant it might be seen in the afternoon which we all remember was a "dead zone" for TV. You'd see Flintstones cartoons or the Mike Douglas talk show (with guest Totie fields, perhaps). Nothing against any of the professionals who gave us afternoon TV in the '70s and '80s - they just had to create a homogeneous product.
Today the Star Trek episodes appear often on cable channels like BBC America. It comes across now as having significant artistic merit. Something about the TV landscape - more "niche" programming - accentuates that now. We're not so quick to sniff at TV shows, not like in the days when we'd hear the term "boob tube." Remember that?
A statement about conflict
A scene jumps out at me in "Errand of Mercy." The episode was significant because it introduced the Klingons with John Colicos playing "Kor," their leader. I was almost charmed by the original Klingons who seemed basically human, i.e. like us. It seemed their bark was worse than their bite. We heard about bad things they might do, but saw little if anything of it.
What about that gripping scene (in my mind) in "Errand of Mercy?" Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Kor are cornered by aliens who they are having a hard time understanding. Suddenly they are aware that the apparently passive, innocent and vulnerable "Organians" aren't so weak after all. Suddenly with a threat upon them, Kirk and Kor seem kin. They seem bonded. I'm intrigued how they communicate like they have shared interests, like they're almost brethren! The talk of conflict between them does not disappear. But again I'll say that the violent trait of the Klingons seemed mostly that: talk. We get the feeling that the Federation can be just as confrontational with their impulses.
I am going to make the bold suggestion here that a subtle anti-war statement was being made. The year 1967 was a little early for overt anti-war statements to be made, right? People had to step lightly, and people in the arts know how to do that. Here we see Kirk and Kor stand side by side as if they suddenly feel a need to react together. The message: The Federation and the Klingons were not as dissimilar as we might be led to believe. The two sides are quick to cite the tired old reasons for war - "you cut off our trading routes" etc. - that lead to so much needless bloodshed.
The heroic aliens of Organia were pacifists. They proclaimed that the Federation and Klingons would someday find peace but that in the meantime, too many people would die. Prophetic? Today the U.S. has normalized relations with Vietnam, the nation created after the North Vietnamese finally overran the South, going city by city in the mid-1970s and leaving the U.S. virtually humiliated, seeking to escape with those depressing scenes of helicopters leaving rooftops so frantically. What did our warlike tendencies do for us in the 1960s? It created hell and caused cynicism for a generation of America's youth.
So here was Star Trek in 1967 spinning a story in a prophetic and symbolic way, subtly suggesting that us humans can be total fools with our warlike tendencies. The gentle Organians possessed the wisdom.
Background of the plot
The planet Organia is presented as non-aligned (for the purposes of conflict) near the Klingon border. The Enterprise crew believes the population of the planet to be primitive. The Enterprise attacks and destroys an approaching Klingon vessel. The script is careful to have the Klingon vessel opening fire first! Hey, we cited the Gulf of Tonkin, right? The Gulf of Tonkin was a prevarication.
Kirk and Spock beam down. Sulu is left in command of the Enterprise. Ruins are seen in the distance. The environment is an illusion created by the Organians to provide familiar points of reference for visitors. The Organians are unconcerned about the Klingon threat. They don't seem to view the Federation people any different than the Klingons. We're all just barbaric to them. Kirk and Spock try to conceal their identities.
I loved Colicos as Kor. He comes upon the scene with an air of authority, almost triumph. Kirk and Spock attempt some guerrilla action. Finally the Organians allow Kirk and Spock to be arrested. Spock of course has the ability to resist the Klingons' "mind probe." The Organians free Kirk and Spock from confinement. Kor orders the execution of 2000 Organians. We don't really see this of course. ("Bark is worse than their bite.") The Organians act undisturbed. The Federation people and the Klingons are left baffled and here we see the start of the apparent bonding of the two sides.
The Federation and Klingon fleets are getting into the position for war. Kirk and Spock try to rouse the Organians into resistance. They are able to capture Kor. Finally we see the truth about the passive Organians. They are not humanoid at all. They are advanced incorporeal beings. They incapacitate both sides in the burgeoning conflict. They impose a peace treaty which of course both sides find objectionable!
Kirk says to Kor that the impending war is going to have to be called off, whereupon Kor delivers the most memorable line of the episode: "A shame, Captain. It would have been glorious!"
This is the episode where Leonard Nimoy as Spock says "pure energy," a line later pasted into the song "What's on Your Mind? (Pure Energy)," from the group Information Society. The song got to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Nimoy got a "special thanks" in the song's credits.
Would that the gentle Organians could prevail over Earth's hostile forces in the 1960s. Would that they could disarm everyone. (Would that they could help the Twins win one more game, LOL.)
The year 1967 was a hellhole for America's young men who were susceptible to the draft. We can too easily forget.
Kudos to Gene L. Coon for writing "Errand of Mercy" which sought to point out how warring sides are really both a reflection of the worst in us.
A footnote: John Colicos played "Judge Flood" in the series "Gunsmoke" and became the last character to be shot and killed in that series.
Star Trek gave us lessons on a lot of fronts. Another example is from the episode "Miri" which I write about on my companion website, "Morris of Course." I invite you to click on this permalink to read my post inspired by "Miri." Thanks for reading. - B.W.