Thursday, September 30, 2010

At Least The Machines Deserve To Be Raged Against In "The Return Of The Archons!"

The Good: Decent story, Moments of character, Generally the acting
The Bad: Some acting, Moments of ridiculous, Predictable plot
The Basics: The Enterprise investigates the disappearance of the U.S.S. Archon and finds a planet enslaved by the collective mind of Landru, who is able to control the will of all absorbed!

There are times when I find myself wishing that Gene Roddenberry was still alive because then I could pick his brain to find out just how much of Star Trek truly was his. For sure, his assistants and people who knew him are still alive, but any stories we get from them are passed through their lens; only Roddenberry himself could answer some of the questions I'd like to ask him. Fortunately, some of the works of Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek exist in rather unadulterated forms. One of the few episodes of Star Trek that was written by Gene Roddenberry, "The Return Of The Archons" is loaded with philosophy and one assumes it is the type of message Gene Roddenberry was trying to transmit to the world. After all, he put his name on this one!

Investigating the disappearance of the U.S.S. Archon near Beta III after a hundred years, the U.S.S. Enterprise sends down a landing party and Sulu is attacked and put into what appears to be a hypnotic trance. To try to understand what happened to him and the Archon crew, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to investigate. Taken in by two older citizens, they are protected during the Red Hour, a twelve hour orgy that all who are part of the "Body" of Landru participate in. Outed by their lack of participation in the violent ritual, the landing party becomes targeted by the entire citizenry of Beta III! Kirk and his crew must outwit their enemies and find a way to reason with Landru and break his hold over the people he has enslaved.

"The Return Of The Archons" is one of the ideas in Star Trek that is a good idea with a rather uncertain execution to it. The idea is wonderful, so good that the concept presented with the Body of Landru would later be recycled into one of the most successful Star Trek franchise ideas ever: The Borg! Indeed, outside the cybernetic aspect, the Borg introduced in "Q-Who?” bear a striking resemblance to the Body of Landru. Sure, the writers changed "absorbed" to "assimilated," but we know!

"The Return Of The Archons" is characterized by some of the most ridiculous acting in Star Trek history. The festival that commences at the Red Hour is more ridiculous than realistic and it seems rather staged. It is a disturbing combination of horrifying (women are being raped in the street) and not terrifying enough; all the violence happens outdoors, so Kirk and Spock end up being perfectly safe by no other virtue than they are inside a house! It's a sloppy chaotic mess outside, yet no one so much as knocks on the door to the dwelling Kirk's team is in. That's where the ridiculous comes in.

It is the guest acting that is particularly unimpressive in this episode. Some of the performances truly do seem like the characters are brainwashed, but - for example - there is a creepy cunning quality to the performance of Ralph Mauer as Bilar that sets the hairs on the back of one's neck standing that is not consistent with a brainwashed individual. He seems more predatory than sedate and that's troubling. But virtually all of the performances during the Red Hour festival seemed choreographed, which is ironic because when Kirk and company are being hunted, the scenes actually are choreographed, but they do not feel so forced!

Moreover, there is a moment of performance later on in the episode which I cannot discuss without ruining the plot, wherein William Shatner fails to act in a convincing manner and it is the look in his eyes that is not nearly dead enough that gives him away.

Conversely, George Takei and DeForest Kelley give great performances as Sulu and McCoy. Both actors play characters who are so vital and passionate that when they must alter that, it seems like it would be a real effort and exercise for the performers. Takei especially makes it seem effortless to play Sulu as brainwashed and subdued and he is fabulous with characterizing the Body as a creepy part of a bigger whole.

Largely, "The Return Of The Archons" is (another!) exhortation from Star Trek on the importance of not relying too much on technology. Through the Body, the viewer has a clear illustration of Roddenberry's fears about what happens when Man serves technology instead of the other way around. It is clever and a worthwhile thesis.

The message is noble, it's just the execution of it that is problematic. The plot in particular becomes predictable for anyone who has seen any mind-control science fiction movies or television shows. On the rhetorical level, Roddenberry's script opts for a complete lack of subtlety with the resolution to the episode and that lack of middle ground may seem overbearing to some.

For the most part, even with its faults, "The Return Of The Archons" largely succeeds at making its point and it will be enjoyable to virtually anyone who likes science fiction. Technophobes will rally to it as well, though fans of straightforward drama may be bothered by the level of metaphor employed.

As someone who enjoys television that takes risks like that, it's just fine by me and I suspect most fans of science fiction and Star Trek will find its value as well.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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