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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.17 Bang Bang, You're Dead

Updated: May 14, 2022

The Squire Of Gothos

Squire Trelane points his pistol at Kirk, and looks fabulous doing it.
"Careful, Captain. It wouldn't do to leave me... ruffled?"

Oh, I get it!

Bang Bang, You’re Dead – The Playground Battlefield

“The Squire Of Gothos” didn’t work for me at first. The original version of this post went through rather more rewrites that most, as my opinion of the episode thawed by degrees. In part, it’s a question of competition. The episode is part of a six-story run which features four genuine classics of the Original Series, and also “Shore Leave”, which shares a certain amount of whimsical silliness with this episode but seems to have a better idea of how to best make use of it. A surface reading of “The Squire Of Gothos”, in comparison, suggests the production team had assumed the path to success was simply netting a strong guest star, and then filling the airways with the sound of them chewing the scenery.

I wasn’t totally wrong, of course. The episode certainly is powered in great part by its guest star. And when you’ve somehow managed to trap a hurricane of delighted charm like William Campbell in your Los Angeles lot, what can you do but let him tear through your sound stage? The risk of him tearing away the oxygen from the rest of the episode was very real, but this is science-fiction, and I’m a science-fiction critic. I need to be able to function in a vacuum. To see the lights playing across the visor of my spacesuit.

In this case, the spectacle is not an unfamiliar one. I don’t entirely mean this as a compliment – it would be hard to judge anyone who dismissed the episode as just one more shoe-horning of a trickster god into a sci-fi show. But it’s not really a complaint either. Part of the familiarity here comes from the fact that this is Paul Schneider’s second episode for the franchise, and it plays around with some of the themes of his previous effort.

And given that previous effort was “Balance Of Terror” – itself one of the four classics I mentioned at the top of this post – it’s worth doing our best to just bottle Campbell’s lightning, put it on an ornate fireside mantle, and trying to figure out what else is going on here.

Helpfully, Schneider himself has spelled out his original intent. Just as with “Balance Of Terror”, “The Squire Of Gothos” was intended as an anti-war parable. While the former was born from watching WWII action films, though, the basics of this episode came to him while watching children “playing war”.

It’s certainly no surprise to learn Schneider was thinking about children when writing this. The fact Trelane is a kid gets stated explicitly. Moreover, Campbell is clearly playing him as possessing a child’s mercurial glee, and in response Shatner gives Kirk an usually straight-backed restraint. It’s a savvy choice, as it not only saves the episode from entering a death spiral of escalating histrionics, but it casts Kirk in the role of a disapproving parent at a social function, hoping refusing to engage will help an annoying child take the hint, without the embarrassment of having to publicly scold them.

That said, I’m generally not a fan of stories which have the underlying message “wouldn’t it be awful if children had more power”? They tend to be reactionary (and Trek itself has fallen into this trap more than once), but more importantly, they tend to be dull. Yes, children playing at war demonstrate they don’t fully understand the gravity and horror of the situations they’re imitating. Where does that get us? Kids copy things? Thank you, I had no idea.

We should then pay close attention to the fact that, while both childishness and martial imitation both feature prominently here, Trelane isn’t actually quite aping warfare in the way children might. Kids playing at war tend to spend their time squabbling over who shot whom and how long they should stay “dead”, rather than deliberately missing a shot to make a misguided point about honour.

So no. Trelane isn’t playing at being a warrior. He’s playing at being a war enthusiast.

And that’s a much more interesting idea.

Bang Bang, You’re Dead – Wargaming

So, a minor confession. I war-game. A lot of my friends war-game. A lot of them LARP, too, dressing up in period-authentic armour to smack each other around the head with foam swords. Faking battles for entertainment purposes was and is a staple part of my life and my social circle.

This is all by way of saying that I really don’t want to offend anyone when I say that when it comes to pretend violence, verisimilitude makes me nervous.

It was in 2003 that I went to my first and last war-games convention of any real size. I remember some truly amazing scratch-built scenery (some of which I bought and still have today), and playing a American West game set in a town so crime-ridden it made The Hateful Eight look like The Famous Five. The most popular set-up by far seemed to be a work-in-progress game that ripped off Space Hulk in order to rip off Aliens, which regardless of its actual quality we have to applaud just for the level of its meta-commentary.

Among all the scenery stands and space-murder simulators, there was a medium-sized table set up to represent a WW2 battle. And not just a battle that might have been fought in WW2. A specific, actual battle. Perfectly accurate wee soldiers and perfectly accurate wee tanks facing off across a perfectly accurate wee river. It certainly looked like an awful lot of love and sweat had gone in to making it, but at the time I’d visited play had paused, as the two guys running the game flicked through page after page of rules and argued over the most accurate way to simulate the historical weather conditions. Apparently there had been a thick fog over the river that day, which had allowed one side to gain some minor tactical advantage when it came to murdering the heck out of the other side.

I watched two grown men argue about how best to use dice to simulate exhausted and terrified men hearing their friends and comrades die in agony, in fog so thick they couldn’t even see who they lost with each scream.

And I realised it’s cool to enjoy war-games, and it’s cool to know your history, and it’s cool to strive for perfection, but that there’s an intersection of all three that I want absolutely no part of.

Squire Trelane lies in that intersection. His demands for information about military campaigns make it clear where his interests lie. His decision give himself the title of general demonstrates how he wants to see himself – note that he describes himself as retired, though, so that he doesn’t have to do any work, and can just play marching tunes and fantasise about taking St Petersburg all day long. There’s also the fact that he insists everyone is a military man – it’s not just that he has some problematic obsessions, it’s that he’s convinced everyone else must do too. [1]

In short, Trelane is a very specific kind of person, the type with a wiki-like knowledge of every aspect of war other than the moral horror of its human cost.

The thing about those two squabbling dice-generals I observed in Newcastle, though, is that it didn’t matter much that that was the way they were. Yes, it was impossible to believe I could sit through so much as half a coffee with them without wishing I could throw myself into one of their meticulously-measured fake rivers, and (perhaps unfairly) I struggled to believe they’d share my anti-war politics in any useful sense. Trying to map war onto a framework for competitive recreation as accurately as possible isn’t actually hurting anybody, though.

Until it is, that is.

The thing about competitions is that, by and large, the people involved want to win. Combine this with our culture’s taste for/examples of/stories about participation in athletic endeavours, and trying to mix all of this in with the concept of warfare was always going to result in a smoothie no-one would be able to safely drink. It’s how we ended up with something like Jessie Pope’s “Who's For The Game?“, a slice of pro-war propaganda which compared the middle stages of The Great War to a football game. It was so vilely jingoistic Wilfred Owen wrote “Dulce Et Decorum Est” in part simply so as to slap it down. I guess “Shut Your Damn Mouth, Or We’ll Drop You In Ypres With A Butter Knife For A Bayonet” was rejected as a title during editing.

Pope might not have been on Schneider’s mind specifically when he was putting together “The Squire Of Gothos”, but he wrote it during The Vietnam War. Examples of similar paeans to the glory of warfare and the need to cheer on your “team” were hardly thin on the ground. The fact most creatives tend to be anti-war, combined with the fact history has validated their position completely, means the 21st century airwaves don’t get troubled too much by the kind of unironic “America, **** Yeah!” material being put out at the time, but it was out there.

And it never stops. Ninety-six years after Owen crushed Pope so completely he could have fitted her in his rifle chamber, Michael Gove – then UK Secretary for Education – took to the pages of the Daily Mail (the same paper who published Pope’s piece, naturally) to rage against the perpetration of such “myths” as General Haig not being good at his job, and the Somme not having its upsides. Gove went so far as to argue that criticising the elite who got their people murdered is the same as criticising the people murdered by their elite. Meanwhile, the comments under that Pope poem – put up a little over a decade ago – are packed with people insisting it’s unreasonable to judge Pope for not realising at the time she wrote the poem that war might, in fact, be bad.

I see Gove in Trelane. I see Pope. I see every sabre-rattling military ambulance-chaser incapable of empathising with those who actually have to fight a war, convinced that the mere fact they want someone else to fight a war somehow makes them worthy of respect. Convinced that the sense of excitement they feel at the thought of people they don’t know marching into battle should be the only thing that matters. People that show a frighteningly immature view of the nature and cost of war, no matter how often we’re told that calling for war makes one a “grown-up”.

In short, the issue we’re being asked to consider here isn’t what if the children of our world had power. It’s how to respond to the people who have power in this world acting like children.

Bang Bang, You’re Dead – The Hanging Judge

It’s here that we find the link to Schneider’s previous episode, via the Romulan Commander confessing he’s so scared about the damage the Praetor’s warmongering will cause, he’s actually hoping he’ll be killed before he can further contribute to it. In fact, though, this point of similarity mostly highlights how the two episodes use very different vectors for their anti-war subtexts. “Balance Of Terror” was less focused on the actual motivations of pro-war people than “The Squire Of Gothos”. It did take them into account, though, via Stiles’ inherited vendetta against the Romulans. The warning wasn’t particularly subtle – hating people because their nation (which is to say: their rulers) was the enemy in the last war is a pretty good way to ensure there’s going to be a next war.

“The Squire Of Gothos”, in contrast, isn’t about the dangers of hatred, but the dangers of romance. The image of war a glorious game, all shining pageantry and glittering medals (and note how many of the latter Trelane has awarded himself). The idea that Pope was pushing as hard as she could to persuade the greatest possible number of young men to get themselves killed.

This may well be where the name “Gothos” comes from in the episode. Given how little we see of Trelane’s manse, and my total ignorance on matters architectural, I don’t know whether it would be fair to consider Trelane’s home as Gothic in a design sense. In terms of Gothic literature, though, there’s a clear link, at least in terms of the sub-genre of Gothic romance. The long shadows and off-kilter angles (the production team were certainly on their game that week) of Trelane’s home speak to this. So too does Trelane putting Ross into a ball-gown and spinning her around the room. It’s a combination of 18th/19th century horror and romantic tropes, which puts it squarely in the Gothic romance genre. In fact, insofar as one might see the genre as representing the older, more florid romance stories finding themselves under assault by the supernatural and unsettling, we could even see this as being a twisted image of a Gothic romance in which the self-identified hero is also the ghost.

There’s a certain fun in that as an idea, but I think the better take is that Trelane is trying to run a straightforward romance – the dashing military figure, the pretty blonde in a pretty dress being whisked around the dance-floor – and Kirk functions as the supernatural presence, constantly intruding. [2]

And what does that intrusion mean? The Maquis De Sade – who I certainly wasn’t ever expecting to show up in this series, especially for his literature criticism – argued the Gothic novel was a response to revolutionary fervour in Europe. The subconscious realisation that the old models were dying, and that something horrifying to the status quo was being born. What De Sade saw being interrupted and worn away was the now generally discredited (though not nearly generally enough) idea that a tiny group of people should be in charge of everybody because their ancestors were much better and murdering and theft than everyone else’s ancestors. What Kirk is disrupting is just as obviously something that needs to be disrupted, even if it wasn’t so easy to recognise that fact in the mid-20th Century (or now, for that matter) – hence the need for “The Squire Of Gothos” to begin with.

Kirk directly disrupts this romanticising of war by refusing to humour Trelane despite his power (an approach a few more people could stand to apply to the Goves of this world), and by ultimately exposing him as a terrifyingly powerful child. There’s also an indirect disruption, though. Consider that the light-barrier suggests Trelane is copying the styles and attitudes of nine hundred years earlier, and neither Kirk nor anyone else points out that this doesn’t make any sense at all.

Mere amateurs at the Trek analysis game might be tempted to suggest this is proof the writers hadn’t yet decided the show was taking place in the 23rd century. A much more interesting reading though is that this is the 23rd century [3], and the Enterprise crew just have no idea who Trelane is pretending to be. All of this martial, imperialistic nonsense simply isn’t important enough for anyone in the group to have actually learned about it. They’re no more able to tell the difference between armchair generals of the 14th and 18th centuries than most of us know whether The War of Jenkin’s Ear took place before or after the Battle of Aljubarrota. Because in terms of our daily lives, there’s very few people who would consider that knowledge as particularly important.

I love that idea. I’m completely down with the suggestion that by the 23rd century, Napoleon Bonaparte will have become nothing but an obscure example of a more general phenomenon, long dismissed as dangerous and outdated. That one day, seeing war as glamorous, or treating those that demand it as being the adults in the room, will be considered as self-evidently ridiculous as insisting a benevolent creator chose specific families to hold power over the rest of us, generation after generation. The hope here is that the judgments of the past – here represented by Trelane’s courtroom, in all its illegitimate, vicious, outdated lack of glory – not only have no force in the future, they have no footprint. Nobody feels the need to really remember them at all.

And this isn’t all “The Squire of Gothos” offers us. By casting Kirk and company as outsiders breaking their way into the established order to force it to be better, the episode offers us a vision for the show. Something which crash-lands into other genres, and forces them to measure up. A show that not only can find a place on the cultural landscape, but which can dominate it, to the point it changes how we look at everything else.

In terms of both science-fiction and television, it’s hard to deny that Trek managed that domination, even if only temporarily, and even if this particular episode is perhaps not one of the best examples of the how or why. What we need now, then, is for the episode following this one to really soar. To prove that the show has the reach to grasp what it has laid claim to here. And if that episode could likewise focus on an anti-war message to really bring the point home? Well, that would hardly hurt matters.

You can see where I’m going with this. Next episode, we enter the arena.

[1] Perhaps this is why “Squire Trelane” is so similar a name to “Squire Trelawny”, of Treasure Island fame, who’s misreading of the crew he hires is roughly as severe as Trelane’s misreading of the crew he kidnaps. The reasons and circumstances are very different, of course, but in both cases the flaw lies in the character assuming everyone else must be like themselves – and in particular, mistaking the fundamentally bloodstained and violent nature of the world they’re dabbling with for a realm of romance and honour.

[2] Thereby making Kirk not merely Long John Silver, but Dracula too. Talk about goals.

[3] I'm sure however Trelane's species observed Earth in the years before we began broadcasting, they would have acquired the information pretty fast. This doesn't translate to one of their children getting up-to-the-minute updates, though. Besides, Trelane's probably watching re-runs anyway.

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