Sunday, October 3, 2010

Before There Ever Could Be War With The Klingons There Was An "Errand Of Mercy!"

The Good: Great concept, Decent acting, Generally good plot
The Bad: Repetitive, Problems in the big picture
The Basics: When the Klingons invade Organia, Kirk and Spock are stuck on the planet trying to organize the pacifistic population into a resistance.

Star Trek as a franchise evolved pretty dramatically over the course of its first thirty-five years (yes, it's forty-five years old, but with five of the last ten, with Star Trek: Enterprise, it degenerated or disintegrated more than evolved) and nowhere is that more clear than with its villains. The adversaries for the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise that were most frequently encountered (largely by virtue that they each showed up more than twice) were the Romulans and the Klingons.

The first misconception about these villains was that the Klingons came first. In fact, the Romulans are introduced first in "Balance Of Terror" (click here for my review of that episode!), almost twenty episodes prior to the Klingon's arrival in "Errand Of Mercy." The second misconception about these two villainous races is that the Klingons are honorable and the Romulans were conniving. Not so in the original Star Trek; it wasn't until the films and Star Trek: The Next Generation that Klingons became motivated by honor, as opposed to conquest. And the Romulans were presented as highly principled beings. Along the way, the cultural traits were simply reversed. Finally, there is the misconception that the Federation and Klingons had a big, bloody war at one point. Not so, again, and that is because of the events of "Errand Of Mercy!"

The U.S.S. Enterprise is on the frontier when hostilities break out between the Federation and StarFleet. Its exploratory mission rescinded, the Enterprise diverts to Organia, a nearby planet disputed by both the Federation and the Klingons. Strategically important, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock beam down to attempt to warn the Organians about an impending Klingon invasion but are met with indifference and disbelief by the ancient Organian Council. When the Klingons do invade and Kirk and Spock are stranded on Organia, they meet Kor, the Klingon who declares himself military governor of Organia and he seems to have the Organians going along with him. Utterly indifferent to his declarations of ownership, they allow Kor to declare dominance over them. Finding this untenable, Kirk destroys a Klingon munitions depot, hoping that will show the Organians resistance is possible, but instead they turn him and Spock over to the Klingons. . .

War comes, but it's a short one by any standard. "Errand Of Mercy" represents the final episode of the first season where Captain Kirk is outmatched and bailed out by a stronger force, something that the objective viewer of the series might note makes him seem somewhat less heroic and a bit more human. I tend to enjoy the idea that Kirk is not infallible, it makes for better television. In truth, I enjoy when the odds are more even and on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there are episodes where the heroes flat-out lose. But for a series that was frequently exploring moral issues and attempting to make bigger statements, a draw and a bailout is sometimes the best we can hope for.

The introduction of the Klingons is an auspicious one. . . sort of. The Klingons burst on the scene in the form of Kor, who is ruthless enough to have hundreds of Organians rounded up and killed following Kirk's sabotage of the munitions station. He's pretty bad, no arguing that. But it's hard to argue that the Klingons instantly appear tough when they receive absolutely no resistance. The Organians are the epitome of pacifism and the role works well to create a moral message, but it doesn't work well at establishing the Klingons are truly ruthless. Fans of science fiction are able to effectively argue that we get more action from the Visitors in V than we do out of the first Klingons.

On the matter of the Organians, they work and they do not work. On the level that they work, they are a brilliant concept for the extreme nature of true pacifism. The Organians offer no resistance and allow hundreds of their people to be exterminated in order to make the Klingons understand that they value peace over control. The Organians achieve in their brief time in Star Trek what the protagonists in Wizards completely gutted in the last frames of that film, which was released around the same time. In other words, the Organians illustrate that there is power in pacifism, in the willingness to die for principles, while never killing. That level of devotion is hard to capture in television or movies and maintain interest from the audience.

The way the Organians do not work is in the larger context of the series. The resolution to "Errand Of Mercy" is rather solid and fitting, but it also dictates that the Klingons and Federation will be unable to continue their war. This becomes a problem in the series in that it prevents any warlike hostilities between the two major powers, a fact few episodes manage to actually address. Indeed, only "The Trouble With Tribbles" accepts the premise of the resolution to "Errand Of Mercy." In that way, this episode makes it difficult - when looking at the franchise - for the Klingons and Federation to have any sort of war. This is couched as a problem with the Organians, but it is truly a problem with the writing or production of the series.

And yet, "Errand Of Mercy" is thoroughly engaging. The episode begins as a reluctant StarFleet vessel being transformed from its exploration of the galaxy into the military arm of the Federation and from the moment war is declared, Kirk becomes on edge, his tones are generally more clipped and his patience is worn away pretty much instantly. The level of character that is considered when hostilities erupt adds a level of realism that impresses viewers and makes us believe that this could be the beginning to a much longer series of events.

The scenes between Kirk and the Organians are an example of the annoying quality of watching principles being executed. Kirk arrives at Organia passionate and articulate and angry and he is met with utter indifference. It takes an audience that is completely asleep to not realize that the Organians have things under control when they acknowledge with a look between them that Klingons have indeed invaded their planet. And for every bit of stated indifference to Kirk and the Kor, they back it up with actual indifference; they do not get involved in the struggle between the Federation and the Klingons. And it is repetitive and tiring to watch. The audience wants to empathize with the Organians, but instead we find ourselves empathizing with Kirk and hoping the Organians will fight back. The resolution, then, defies our expectations, but is ultimately more satisfying.

Kor makes for a decent, if monolithic, villain. His brief tenure is designed to introduce the Klingons and establish them as brutal, unprincipled warlords and John Colicos, who plays Kor, does that impressively. But more than that, Colicos has a strong and natural screen presence that makes him seem like a natural leader. He walks with the swagger of authority and he is a decent match for Captain Kirk. Colicos plays off William Shatner with a practiced chemistry that seems to anticipate Shatner's next action. This make Kor seem cagey and it's a fair bet this is why Kor, still played by Colicos, would return in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Blood Oath." Despite a few truly over-the-top moments of villainy and presentation, Colicos rules as Kor.

Leonard Nimoy is excellent as Spock, playing Spock playing an Organian when Kor establishes martial law. Nimoy adds a sense of deliberation and difficulty to his performance of Spock which adequately sells the viewer on the idea that his character is acting. In other words, Nimoy plays so convincingly that when Spock is portraying an Organian, it is Spock acting as an Organian, not Nimoy acting as an Organian. That takes genuine talent and Nimoy has it completely.

As with many episodes of Star Trek, it falls to William Shatner to sell much of the episode. Shatner plays Kirk edgy well beyond the simple dictates of the script. When hostilities break out, Shatner alters Kirk's whole temper and that level of devotion to the character fits him and his range well. Yet, despite the somewhat on-edge Kirk, Shatner keeps his performance reigned in enough to keep the viewer convinced that he is still Captain Kirk (Shatner is not so successful in some later episodes when he tries the same thing). But, it is a solid performance by William Shatner in this episode.

"Errand Of Mercy" is not very much a science fiction story, save the resolution, so it is remarkably accessible to a wider audience. Indeed, fans of drama may like the character conflict of the pacifistic Organians vs. the aggressive Klingons and StarFleet officers. Fans of war stories will inevitably be drawn to the story of the early moments of a potentially bloody war illustrated here. It's a pretty solid dramatic hour.

"Errand Of Mercy" may be a jumble when looked at in context of the larger Star Trek pantheon, but on its own, it is a strong story with engaging moments that will entertain and frustrate viewers. At least no one leaves without it making an impression!

[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" reviews, please check out my index page!

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