In the fifteenth episode of the third season of Star Trek, the Enterprise becomes host to a war when two politically opposed beings use their ship to act out their grievances with one another. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism, racial stereotypes, genocide.
Because this is a dichotomous sort of episode, I’m splitting this up!
I admit that the premise here is an intriguing one, and there are story choices along the way that I found compelling. It wasn’t enough to save the episode for me, but I think they’re worth discussing. This episode’s pacing is all over the place, and I actually believe that largely works in favor of the story. So much of the power of that final scene relies on the fact that the anger and hatred Bele and Lokai have for one has been brimming on the surface all along. We think that they’ve truly gotten furious with one another, but NOPE. WE HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH THEY DESPISE ONE ANOTHER. In any other situation, I would have pegged the self-destruct countdown as the quintessential climax for a story like this, but I found it brilliant that this happened just barely halfway through “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” It’s not the focal point of the episode, though it was a damn fine display of willpower on Captain Kirk’s part. He’s been forced into this awful battle of wills and hatred, and he’s just trying to protect his crew. It was a calculated bluff on his part (I HOPE, HOLY SHIT), and it worked.
For the moment, that is. As messy as the racial metaphor was (I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY), I did appreciate that there was no easy solution to this conflict. Initially, this was so fascinating because the crew of the Enterprise had no idea what was the truth and what wasn’t. Everything here was hearsay, and it was impossible to determine what was fact or fiction. What came from a place of confirmation bias? What was a perception of the situation versus the actual reality? And how often does actuality blur the line between these things? Is Lokai seeking political asylum for legitimate reasons or is he merely trying to dodge a murder charge? Is Commissioner Bele seeking order and justice, or is he eager to quash the leader of the very people he is actively oppressing? (I mean, I know the answer, but I’ll get to that.)
But the boldest part of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” comes in its ending. For a show that so routinely features Captain Kirk swooping in to save another species, this episode shows us Captain Kirk washing his hands of the whole affair. There’s no sign of hope; there’s no glimpse of a possible solution. Bele forces the Enterprise back to Cheron, only to discover that EVERYONE THERE ALREADY KILLED ONE ANOTHER. The whole planet is dead, and all that’s left are Bele and Lokai. And yet, this does not deter them from fighting one another; instead, they transport down to Cheron to continue their pursuit and their war. I mean… I get what this is trying to say, but I’ll hold my complete thoughts for the next section. Regardless, this is not the usual ending for this show, and in some sense, it was refreshing to see Star Trek willing to go against its own storytelling patterns.
The makeup is terrible, made only worse by the clumsy and simplistic metaphor that’s dragged out over this episode. This is a classic case of the use of a metaphor to discuss racism that ends up supporting the very thing the writers are trying to criticize. Make no mistake: this episode is horrifically racist because it utterly fails in nuance. It fails to properly represent the side of the oppressed and the oppressor, trading in any sort of power dynamic for a foolish and erroneous “equality.” We are meant to believe that both Bele and Lokai are responsible for the hatred and violence of the Cheron people, and none of this bothers to acknowledge that it’s Bele’s fault. Despite that the episode demonstrates Bele’s monstrous racism, which shows us that Lokai’s perception of events is correct, we still get a story that paints a false equivalency onto the narrative.
Of course, the visual aspect of the metaphor is meant to call to mind black and white race relations in the United States, and that seriously makes this episode even more offensive and misguided. First of all, you’ve got white actors in half blackface (I can’t believe I just had to type that sentence) talking about being enslaved, and it’s a goddamn mess. Why are white people so eager to paint themselves as being oppressed along a racial divide??? Do you really want to experience systemic racism? BECAUSE SPOILER ALERT: IT’S NOT A FUN THING, I’D RATHER NOT HAVE IT IN MY LIFE. On top of that, the show once again asserts that within this universe, Earth got rid of all its bigotry, but then we have to sit through this? Look, if there’s no bigotry left in this world, where are all the captains who are women? People of color? Why haven’t we gotten episodes centered around Sulu or Uhura or Nurse Chapel? You can’t claim a world is free of oppression while still upholding all the tells of oppression.
There’s a deliberate attempt here to portray Lokai negatively that I found upsetting and distracting, especially given that he invoked asylum and Kirk ultimately doesn’t care about respecting that. I understand that with Bele’s exertion of his will, things were complicated, but certainly after that conversation about racial superiority with Bele, you’d realize that Lokai might be telling the truth, right? It’s not like his bigotry was subtle; he openly criticized the difference in Lokai’s skin and then listed a number of absurdly racist stereotypes associated with him. Meanwhile, Lokai is off trying to reason with the crew (instead of forcing his will onto them) to gain allies, AND I DON’T SEE HOW ANY RATIONAL CAPTAIN COULD LOOK UPON HIM WITH SUSPICION. But this episode lost me completely by the time it blamed Lokai for the destruction of Cheron. I’ll spell it out: if you think that oppressed people reacting violently to their oppression (HUNDREDS OF DECADES OF IT) is the same thing as the violent oppression that caused it in the first place, you are sorely mistaken and you are supporting the oppressive side. You’re defaulting to their narrative because the narrative is already heavily weighted in their favor. In this episode, that’s demonstrated through the use of the word “hate,” as if there’s just a general hatred working throughout “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” There is no generalized hatred here at all; there is the hatred that Bele feels towards Lokai’s kind. It has the validation of an entire society behind it. It is socially acceptable for Bele to hate Lokai because the law supports it, his power supports it, and his society grossly favors him over anyone like Lokai. Lokai’s hatred is ENTIRELY A REACTION TO WHAT BELE AND HIS PEOPLE HAVE DONE TO HIM. If I hit you, is it fair for me to tell you not to be angry? If I hit you a thousand times in a row, and you finally strike me back, is it fair to say that your violence is the same as mine?
This is an ahistorical nightmare, one that ignores Lokai’s suffering because it’s a lot easier to blame his as much as Bele in the destruction of his home planet. But the truth is that Bele is the real monster here. It’s just unfortunate that the writers are more comfortable creating an even playing field instead of actually addressing racial oppression. This is what results from it.
The video for “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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