Mark Watches ‘Star Trek’: S03E22 – The Savage Curtain

In the twenty-second episode of the third season of Star Trek, ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN SPACE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism, war.


There are elements of this script that actually felt like classic Star Trek to me, particularly in how the show managed to maintain a sense of social commentary within the action unfolding on the screen. While there is a fascinating exploration of war and peace within “The Savage Curtain,” it’s also not something entirely new. This is not the first time we’ve seen crewmembers pitted against opponents solely for the amusement of an alien race, nor is it all that refreshing to see the main characters used as an experiment for someone else. I didn’t expect Star Trek to become so repetitive in its third season, but I do appreciate that I’m getting to see the show in this manner. I’m beginning to truly understand how Star Trek defined a genre and influenced television for years to come.

But more on that in a bit. Let’s just talk about the absolutely unreal opening to “The Savage Curtain” because ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN SPACE. Will I ever get over this? Will I ever recover? No. (I’m now convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s appearance in the beginning of Adventure Time has to be a reference to this because… WHAT.) It is a deliberately bizarre scene that sets the tone for how fucking weirdthe remainder of this episode will end up being. I mean… it’s impossible! It can’t be happening because ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS DEAD. He can’t float in space! For the most part, I think the writers handle this absurdity quite well, especially when it comes to the pacing of this mystery. They don’t waste time having nearly every character openly question the presence of Lincoln, which helps avoid making this feel like some sort of unsatisfying mystery. We know that this can’t actually be Lincoln, and everything that Spock, Scotty, and Bones observe suggests highly that there’s some rock-like species down on the planet that’s actually behind the illusion.

Because of this format, the audience more or less just waits for the other shoe to drop. We know this isn’t the real Lincoln, we know that there’s some other life form on Excalbia, and we know that Kirk is walking right into a trap. Which… that was a strange to me. All of the signs pointed towards this being a trap, but apparently, Kirk loves Lincoln so much that he’d be willing to put the entire Enterprise at risk just so he can hang out with him? All right, I can let that go because it’s not like Kirk hasn’t been shown to be a flawed captain. I was a little disappointed when the show revealed that this was a fight-to-the-death style twist again because we’ve seen it so many times.

But that didn’t make this episode a disaster. I did have issue with the sanitization and simplification of history present here, since that’s doesn’t do anyone a service. For example, when Lincoln called Uhura a “negress” and then kindly apologized for it, I wanted to punch every writer who looked at this script. Look, I’m a little tired of the nature of science fiction to solve racism by simply saying it’s just over because it is, above all else, lazy as hell. Plus, THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY CALLED BLACK WOMEN BACK IN LINCOLN’S TIME OH MY GOD. I understand that this show wasn’t going to drop an anti-black slur on the network, so why include a mistruth so openly in the show? Because it serves to portray Lincoln as some sort of progressive figure of history. (Newsflash, friends! Lincoln was a massive racist, and the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about because Lincoln was some sort of ahead-of-his-time abolitionist; that’s ahistorical and ridiculous.) This same issue pops up when the characters themselves – even the “illusions” – begin to talk about war and its role in the world. It’s not bad, so much as it felt unfortunately simplistic, particularly Lincoln’s justifications for war and Kirk’s view of it.

At the same time, SPOCK AND SURAK. YES. First of all, it was a real treat to get to see another Vulcan on screen, and it made me wish that this show had more episodes about Spock’s species. From the very first time the two met to Surak’s death, I found Surak’s presence to be the best part of “The Savage Curtain.” His cold chiding of Spock for showing emotion – shock – at seeing him WAS SO GREAT, Y’ALL. In that moment, the clear difference between Spock and Surak is established, and it’s the first time we ever see Spock come close to cowering in someone else’s presence. Of course, Nimoy plays Spock with a beautiful subtlety during these scenes, but you could absolutely tell that Spock was in awe of one of the Vulcans’ greatest heroes. I found this so much more compelling than the dynamic between Lincoln and Kirk. It was so satisfying to get scenes where Spock had someone just as committed to logic on his side (and vice versa), and it gave this moral fight nuance.

Ultimately, that’s what most of “The Savage Curtain” lacks. It’s kind of blunt and silly in the second half because there’s no real commitment to anything, and the narrative peters out nonsensically. We don’t find out if Yarnek ever learned of anything from forcing Kirk and Spock to fight historical tyrants. I think the writers were trying to say that war taints everything, that any commitment to violence sullies those involved, but the best I can do at this point is to provide conjecture. I’m not exactly sure because the end of this episode has such an abrupt conclusion. The Excalbian illusions run away, and apparently, that’s all Kirk and Spock had to have them do? And then they win? What was learned here? If evil “retreats” when met with force, why has history repeatedly shown this to be untrue? If the ends justify the means, how can you justify what happened here when Lincoln and Surak were both killed for literally nothing?

It’s messy, but somehow much better than most of this third season, so that’s something.

The video for “The Savage Curtain” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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