In the twenty-sixth episode of the first season of Star Trek, I meet Klingons for the first time, AND THEY’RE NOT EVEN THE BEST PART OF THIS AMAZING EPISODE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of Orientalism, war.
Despite that I’m going to start this review with a bit of criticism, I did enjoy this episode more than any other in this first season. I think it’s an astounding work, and the Organians provide a vital commentary on the war between the Klingons and the Federation. I had a blast watching this! That doesn’t change my initial feelings on the Klingons, which made me uncomfortable. This reminded me of my experience of reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. (Oh gods, can we please not replicate the comments from that disaster? That day sucked.) Like the Orcs, I recognized that I was being introduced to a race in a fictional world who would end up being an important and necessary part of canon. It’s huge! And while I had way more context on the Orcs as an antagonist, I did know that the Klingons were… a thing. And a language! But that’s about it. I knew they were “big” in the Star Trek realm, but I lacked any real context on them.
The ending of “Errand of Mercy” leaves the future open for the Klingons and the Federation, and I was so entertained by John Colicos’s portrayal of Commander Kor that I was eager to have another Klingon episode. AND SOON. But I couldn’t ignore that the show does a lot of things – either intentionally or not – that designate the Klingons as the Other, particularly one that relies on Orientalist themes and motifs. (While I do like to educate people and write less from an academic perspective and more of an emotional one, it would take forever to begin to describe the finer points of post-colonial Orientalism, so I suggest some reading be done to understand how these concepts work. Mostly, this is a chance for me to urge folks to read Edward Said’s Orientalism, which was a life-changing work for me.) It’s easy to see how the Klingon force was created with certain concepts in mind. While I wouldn’t suggest that they’re a stand-in for any specific race or culture (they’re clearly a hodgepodge of ideas), I can’t divorce Star Trek from some of the Cold War themes that have been popping up lately. It was this episode that helped that light go off in my head because never before had the idea of a totalitarian regime been represented on the screen so clearly. There are subtle (and some not-so-subtle) ties to the Soviet Union in the culture of the Klingons, which makes sense if you consider the United Federation of Planets the West, specifically the United States and Europe.
Even then, that metaphor isn’t the issue that I have with the portrayal of the Klingons. It’s entirely a physical one. Almost every actor on screen playing a Klingon is white. I think I saw one South Asian man when Spock was being Carted out of the Organian council room. This means that instead of hiring people of color, this show painted white people’s skin to make them look foreign. And really, despite that there’s an alien standing in the room who is Othered in a way that’s not the slightest bit condescending, the people making Star Trek still went in such a disappointing direction. Given how diverse the casting has been for background characters and weekly guests, it’s perplexing that we’d see this happen. (Not to say that Colicos is terrible or anything, because I can’t deny that he’s FANTASTIC here.) It’s just that it’s all done so blatantly. Then Kor has a fu manchu mustache and all the characters are designed to look distinctly Asian without even calling them that, and they’re juxtaposed with the vast majority of white actors on purpose. Add in the race’s inherent love of violence and brutality… yeah. It’s unfortunate. Intentional? No, I don’t think a single person in the production offices sat around going, “Well, I HATE VAGUELY ASIAN PEOPLE,” and then created the Klingons. It was an unconscious thing, indicative of an attitude we are still trying to shake. People of color are often cast in villainous roles because it’s the easiest way to represent moral conflicts. The whole light vs. dark motif is used frequently in Western media, and I imagine that some of you may not have even noticed that it’s so common.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, but the same episode that introduces some pretty egregious use of yellowface (the same thing as blackface, but for portrayals of Asian characters) features a storyline about the futility and immorality of war. So yes, I wanted to criticize the Klingon design, and now I want to say that I LOVE THIS EPISODE SO MUCH. They’re not mutually exclusive ideas. I realize that there’s really nothing I can do about this depiction, you know? Like my reaction to the Orcs and the Orientalism present in their creation/portrayal, I know that there are only so many battles that I can pick. There’s only so much I can do as one dude on the Internet. At best, I might be able to get some folks to see things in a new light, but the Klingons, like the Orcs, exist as they are, they’re pervasive in SF/F genre circles, and I can’t change things. That’s not meant to be a statement of my own futility, though. Stopping the spread of harmful stereotypes and depictions is an important goal of my writing, which is why I write about this sort of stuff! I’m just saying that I’m not trying to inflate my own sense of self-importance here. I realize that there’s a contextual basis for when this show was made and how attitudes those attitudes have prevailed over the years.
Anyway! LET’S DISCUSS THE ORGANIANS BECAUSE THEY’RE MY FAVORITE. This episode is a trip to watch because the writers establish an aspect of this fictional universe, and then they immediately give us something that is impossible. In this case, as we’re introduced to the Klingons as a war-mongering race of brutal dictators, we are then introduced to the Organians. The Enterprise is sent on a mission to help protect Organia out of fear that the Klingons will annex it. Upon arriving on the planet and observing their simple, “primitive” culture, Kirk and Spock are utterly shocked by the passive, peaceful nature of the Organians. As Kirk tries to insist that the Federation needs to protect the planet from the Klingons, Ayelborne, the temporary leader, insists that this won’t be necessary.
Perhaps this is best demonstrated by the absurd reaction to the invasion of the Klingons. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it! Kirk kept providing details of what the Klingons would do to the Organians, and Ayelborne calmly states that the Organians are not in danger. I thought that maybe they had some secret defense that they’d use before the Klingons arrived, but NO. No, the Klingons arrive, conquer the planet in seconds, institute a ton of draconian laws, threaten to kill people constantly, and APPARENTLY EVERYTHING IS PERFECTLY FINE. It’s so frustrating to watch! It’s made even worse when Ayelborne later turns Kirk and Spock over to the Klingons, revealing their real identities in the process. He is so certain that nothing will happen to Kirk and Spock, but THAT’S WHAT THE KLINGONS DO??? WHY DO YOU KEEP SAYING THESE THINGS???
There are elements to the story in “Errand of Mercy” that felt like other episodes. There’s a bit of “The Squire of Gothos” in the reveal at the end; the commentary on human violence has a relative in “Arena”; the utopia feel comes from “This Side of Paradise.” And yet, this episode pulls together all these themes and tones succinctly and brilliantly. The Organians are revealed to be a massively evolved life form WHO DON’T EVEN NEED PHYSICAL BODIES. They prevent the two warring parties from destroying each other by making all contact with people and weapons to be scorching hot, and then they shut down all the ships in both fleets. It’s an act that not only demonstrates their own power, but forces the Klingons and Captian Kirk to realize the absurdity of their own actions. Both groups thought the Organians were simple and foolish for being so passive, when the truth is that they’d evolved enough to not need violence. The best part of this was watching Kirk try to justify why they needed to fight on Organia. He kept saying that people had a right to resolve matters as they wanted, but he was doing this on someone else’s planet. The Klingons and the Federation were using another nation’s land as their playground, essentially.
The Organians force both parties’ hand, and it’s a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. It’s so good, y’all! The Organians absolutely stole the show here, and I love that the focus of “Errand of Mercy” ultimately is on an anti-war message. Look, I’m not expecting perfection from this show. I figured that a show made in America in the late 60s would contain things that, nearly 50 years later, would make me cringe. I’m not surprised by some of the stylistic choices made in creating the Klingons. But I am surprised by a lot of the writing in this show, and thankfully, that’s a good thing. “Errand of Mercy” is a wonderful demonstration of the values of the show, as well as the willingness of the writers to criticize their own heroes. That’s a bold choice, and it made all the difference.
The video for “Errand of Mercy” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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