Mark Watches ‘Star Trek’: S01E21 – The Return of the Archons

In the twenty-first episode of the first season of Star Trek, Kirk and his team find a bizarre, repressive society run by a mysterious religious figure. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek. 

Good lord, THIS EPISODE.

Watching Star Trek has been a fun journey up to this point because without any sort of knowledge of what actually happens on it, I get experiences like this one. I know that there are lots of scenes or episodes that are probably more iconic than others. I’ve gotten to see “The Naked Time” and “The Corbomite Maneuver.” I’ve met Trelane and watched Spock dominate in the two-parter, “The Menagerie.” Without knowing the fan reaction to these episodes, I got a sense that “The Return of the Archons” was one of the more memorable episodes of the Original Series. This story is relentlessly creepy and bewildering. It’s designed to confuse us and overwhelm us right from the start. The cold open features Lt. Sulu in 19th century garb running the streets of a town that looks like an old Western flick, shot by some monk-like being holding a staff, and reduced to an overly optimistic shell of a man. THIS IS IN THE FIRST THREE MINUTES.

And it only gets weirder from here on. This surreal, regressive society behaves like Sulu does all the time, offering one another a standard greeting of joy and peace. That is, until the Red Hour, which is a “festival” of sorts where all the rules of Beta III and Landru don’t exist, and EVERYTHING IS CHAOS. Oh my god, I love everything about how those sequences were filmed. They’re so absurd to look at that they become funny. I couldn’t help it! But shit is being thrown everyone, people are making out in the midst of a riot, there’s fire, lots of punching, and nothing I’ve ever seen on this show has been this destructive. The sound of the crowd alone was creepy, you know? Somehow, the crew (except Kirk) napped during it, and I don’t know that I could have done it.

As if this wasn’t enough, the three men who aren’t participating in the festival speak in absolute fucking nonsense. They keep talking of being part of “the body” or making references to Landru, and they’re clearly terrified of this person, and NOT ONE BIT OF THIS MADE ANY SENSE AT ALL. Who are the Lawgivers? Where did they come from? WHY ARE THEY KILLING TAMAR? WHAT IS THE WILL OF LANDRU? 

I liked this episode, and it was a hell of a journey, but I was ultimately left confused and a little deflated by how all of these details were resolved. The set up here – of the Enterprise crew discovering a society that’s essentially a flawed utopia – gave me the first use of the Prime Directive in the show. (I think? I don’t remember them mentioning it before!) And lord, it’s such a great idea! At no point should the crew of these starships interfere with a culture in a way that negatively impacts it. It’s a subtle commentary on imperialism, no? If the Enterprise encounters a culture less developed than their own, there is a huge chance that any attempt to change their culture would end in disaster.

That felt like one of the conflicts explored in “The Return of the Archons,” but it’s ultimately abandoned. Initially, I understood why this was such a challenge. The Enterprise was searching for the Archon ship near Beta III, and then they discover that Landru was the one who pulled the ship down to Beta III. And then….. I don’t get it? There’s references to the fact that Landru had been around for 6,000 years, but… how is that possible? Why did the people of Beta III constantly refer to the Enterprise folk as Archons? My understanding of that was that it was a reference to the original Federation folks who were pulled down 100 years earlier, and that they may have interfered accidentally with the Betan people. I assume that they were all assimilated into the body by Landru, right?

That lack of clearness is what bothered me about the execution of the premise. I’m perfectly fine with ambiguous stories that force me to imagine the details, but I don’t understand how Landru ever got installed on Beta III. Where did it come from? How did it come to control these people? Did someone initially program it to behave as it did? How did the Lawgivers become the Lawgivers if they’d never actually seen Landru? This episode also introduces the Prime Directive and then features Captain Kirk immediately contradicting it. That’s weird to me! I get why he decided to interfere. After witnessing the oppressive regime enacted by Landru, he felt compelled to dismantle it. It was just weird to me to introduce this new bit of worldbuilding, only to go against it so quickly.

But the one thing that perplexed me the most was the festival. What the fuck was that? Why did it happen? Why was it called the Red Hour? Was it meant as a temporary moment so that people could let go all of all their violent tendencies once a… month? Week? Day? Year? I HAVE NO IDEA.

Still, I’m glad that Captain Kirk left some people behind to help the Betans transition into a different society. That’s good! I think? I mean, it has the unfortunate implication of saying that violating the Prime Directive is perfectly fine as long as you alter a culture into a better one. Did all the brainwashing immediately disappear once Landru was destroyed by logic? Did Spock later tell Kirk that he’d never been proud of his friend than he was in that moment? That’s my own personal headcanon. Kirk killed something WITH LOGIC. That’s Spock’s dream, y’all.

The video for “The Return of the Archons” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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