The Good: Great idea, Wonderful moral, Fine plot
The Bad: Shaky character/cultural elements, Shaky performances by guest stars
The Basics: When Kirk and McCoy find themselves on a planet where the Klingons are arming half the populace to wipe out or enslave the other, they work to stay neutral.
The adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek were frequently thinly veiled social messages set in a science fiction setting. That works out just fine, though some of the stories then become dated as the decades pass. With “A Private Little War,” Star Trek was able to create an episode that allowed them to slip by the censors and make commentary on the Vietnam War and make something that would endure long after that bloodbath was over. Indeed, this episode of Star Trek holds up with its pacifist message even today, decades later, despite the original intent of the work.
The U.S.S. Enterprise journeys to a planet Captain Kirk had visited many years ago, which the Federation has some concerns about. Kirk, who became a blood brother to one of the natives, Tyree, beams down with Spock and McCoy to find medicinal herbs that McCoy is pretty thrilled about and in the process save Tyree from an ambush. Kirk is alarmed by this because the people leading the ambush are carrying flintlock rifles, which is far more advanced than where the people of Neural were when Kirk last visited. Spock, out of the picture from being shot, leaves Kirk and McCoy to their own devices, leading Kirk to get attacked by a Mugato, whose bite is quite poisonous.
Kirk is healed using tribal medicine by Tyree’s wife, Nona. Nona, it seems, is something of a witch doctor and the herbs she used to heal Kirk are rumored to possess great power over men. Kirk finds her less able to resist her advances, which is problematic because it seem the Klingons are the ones supplying half the people of Neural with the rifles to subjugate the other half. McCoy and Kirk, then, find themselves in the middle of a conflict where Kirk’s blood brother is on the losing side and the Prime Directive dictates that the Federation cannot intervene to save him. Unfortunately for Kirk, Nona wants guns and now that she has power over him, she might just get them!
“A Private Little War” is a wonderful idea, it is a morality play railing against the pervading “wisdom” of escalation. The episode takes a strong moral stance that war is wrong and more powerful bodies (in this case the Federation and the Klingons) have no place influencing less developed places, in this case Neural. The Vietnam allegory is pretty clear as Kirk is allied with the rural Hill People while the Klingons have built the technological center for producing flintlock rifles with the more urban villagers. Through the people of Neural, the Federation and Klingons look ready to duke it out without ever directly confronting one another.
But it has also got a wonderful timeless quality to it. McCoy rails against war in general, while Kirk reluctantly makes the argument that the ethical thing to do is create a balance of power by supplying the Hill People with weapons as well. Kirk is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of blood on his hands, but he is even more troubled by what it makes the Federation if they sit back and let the Hill People be slaughtered. It’s a troubling situation, but Kirk and McCoy present a classic argument or maintaining a balance of power through mutually assured destruction. It might be even more troubling to watch now, following the collapse of the Soviet Union as it does tend to make the viewer think about how close the world was to that very destruction that brinkmanship evokes.
The message is good, the execution of it leaves a little to be desired. The subplot with the Mugato (there are two over the course of the episode) undermines the purpose and potency of the strong moral argument by introducing the somewhat ridiculous mysticism into the episode. The whole Kirk/Nona thread with its supernatural elements guts the stark realism of the episode. Instead of being brutal and direct, “A Private Little War” becomes mired in its own metaphor. It’s not enough that Nona is vindictive and conniving, the viewer is asked to believe that the only real influence she can wield is through something resembling magic.
Now, I understand that the Hill People are supposed to be primitive, that the whole point of “A Private Little War” is that those who have power must not exert it over those who have none, but the dialect for the Hill People just seems ridiculous and vaguely offensive. They speak in a broken English and Tyree speaks slowly and in a way that connotes that he’s not quite all functioning on the mental front with any real skill or mental dexterity. Conversely, Nona and the villagers all seem far, far less dense. The unfortunate implication of this ends up being that pure pacifists (which Tyree is) are all morons. That’s a troubling message to send in an antiwar piece.
The only thing worse than the dialect is some of the acting. Nancy Kovack, who plays Nona, stands out as particularly stiff. She plays Nona with an unnatural quality and many of her lines are delivered with the actress keeping on a face of confusion, as if she were not quite sure what it was she was saying. She and actor Michael Whitney, who plays Tyree, have absolutely no onscreen chemistry, making it easier for the audience to believe that the Klingons could make such an incursion without the Federation noticing over the idea that their two characters actually had any backstory! They have an incredible stiffness to them - possibly due to the dialect they are asked to employ - that makes them seem like an absolutely improbable couple.
Conversely, DeForest Kelley gives one of the performances of his career. He might not have a lot of scenes, but the ones he does are absolutely wonderful. Kelley sits quietly watching for several scenes, then bursts out with one of the most memorable monologues he presents as Dr. McCoy on Star Trek. Erased is his character's cynicism in a wave of love that makes him demand the viewer concede his point. He truly is electric and one suspects he knew he was "on" in this episode because when called upon, he delivers and there is a hint of real energy and purpose in his eyes!
"A Private Little War" is accessible to any audience, not just science fiction fans. Indeed, this is another episode that works wonderfully for a general audience and is likely to be appreciated by anyone who likes a decent drama. Anyone who fights for peace will find something to take from this episode and those who do not might well be swayed by some of the points in it. But it's not a perfect episode, far from it. The mixing of the supernatural into it does weaken the reality of the piece and makes it seem somewhat dated.
Fortunately, the idea of taking a stand for peace never does.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.