top of page
  • Ric Crossman

1.1.21 "...They Do Things Differently There"

Return Of The Archons

Landau appears on a wall.
"It looks like you're starting up a new civilisation. Would you like help?"

“Return Of The Archons” was an episode with an unusually long gestation period. Originally, it was in the running to be the Trek pilot. Seeing it resurrected by Roddenberry so late into the season rings alarm bells, then, particularly since this was a year beset by production issues. It’s not hard to read the script’s appearance here as an act of at least mild desperation – the same sense of “That’ll have to do!” that dogged “The Menagerie”.

The generally low opinion this episode suffers (IMDB puts “Return Of The Archons at around the lower tertile of TOS episodes) would seem to support this reading. As with the first half of “The Menagerie”, though, the storm of chaos that blew across the Desilu lot has at least washed some interesting things to shore. Yes, “Return Of The Archons” is far from being a misunderstood masterpiece, and its introduction of the Prime Directive has caused all sorts of problems for the franchise. It also clearly needs at least one additional script edit.

All that said, I think it deserves credit for being determined to do its own thing.

Lonely Planet

That’s the tuppence summary of the defence, really. It’s not really like anything else the show has done since it began. This is clear right from the start, given we open on Sulu, in media res. Before this episode, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” was the only time the show didn’t open on either the Enterprise or with Kirk. When I wrote that story up, I argued that choice was intended to highlight the fact that, even by the standards of a show in which the protagonists explore the depths of interstellar space, they’re entering a world which is not their own. A similar approach is being taken here, hinting at the idea that Beta Three has an existence outside of our heroes’ experiences of it.

This idea of Beta Three being more than just a backdrop for our protagonists to pose in front of is reinforced by the importance of the locals to the episode’s resolution. Kirk isn’t able to fully rely on his way with an impassioned monologue or bout of fisticuffs here. The only reason he and Spock aren’t brainwashed, and the entire Enterprise crew assimilated or burned up in orbit, is because they’re saved by the planet’s resistance network. The locals save Kirk before he can save them. The result is to move Beta Three away from what is currently the show’s standard model for space exploration, in which the crew meet a single antagonist (sometimes with flunkies) who Kirk must then outwit. Almost every episode so far can be mapped onto that template, at least broadly, even the ones that aren’t about aliens. I’d count all but five as doing so, in fact, cumulating in “Arena” explicitly collapsing a battle between cultures into two captains beating the crap out of each other. Of the five that don’t fit, three don’t involve alien life at all [1], “Shore Leave” keeps its only extra-terrestrial off-stage until the final couple of minutes, and the grunting Neanderthals of “The Galileo Seven” only really exist to demonstrate anthropology and psychology aren’t the same discipline. (I’ll let you guess what other three episodes I consider deviations from the template.)

In short, “Return Of The Archons” is the first episode in the show’s history to actually try to present an alien society. Others have been mentioned, of course, most obviously Spock’s comments about Vulcan. But that’s just one person’s viewpoint, and the fact “Court Martial” was the fifteenth episode filmed and the show still hadn’t decided on the precise nomenclature for his species rather demonstrates how little effort has actually gone into coherent worldbuilding up to now. [2]

Beta Three is different. There’s a deliberate effort made to sketch out a culture here, complete with a counter-cultural movement, and – from the references to “The Valley”, and the assumption that they wouldn’t necessarily do things in quite the same way there – a sense of a wider world beyond both. The promise of the show’s title narration finally seems to be coming true.

This commitment to strange-new-worldbuilding is an obvious good in itself. Alina Marsfelder has pointed out that the first season of the first Trek show is far more concerned with the Enterprise operating as an interstellar police service than doing any of the exploration it was ostensibly based on. Not so here. The episode might be hung on the slender peg of searching for the wreckage of the Archon, but aside from denying Kirk the ability to transport off-world midway through the action, it never rises more than an inch above the level of MacGuffin. This story is firmly about encountering a new culture. It’s perhaps not the best example of such a plot, in fairness. Certainly, it’s worth asking whether a world in which not only the people but the fashions are defiantly human is actually a good place to start riffing on what interstellar societies might look like. Even so, it’s a start. Failure is at least a demonstration that something has been tried.

More than that, though, this new approach dovetails with something else the episode is unusual in doing. “Return Of The Archons” parcels out its mystery in a way the show has almost never done before. In “Miri”, the closest we have to an antecedent, our heroes have learned by the end of the first act that they’re on a world where the adults are dead and childhood last centuries. In contrast, we’re at the end of act two here before Landru even appears. It’s not until the final act that we learn what the mysterious ruler of Beta Three truly is. [3]

Beta Three, in other words, is a world with not just breadth, but depth. You can’t just figure out the state of play in your first ten minutes there. Yes, I’m not sure it’s particularly wise to be presenting a new culture as some kind of mystery to be solved. By the standards of the show, though, this is a genuine leap forward – a society of sufficient complexity that you can’t just work out what style is in fashion for this week’s Planet of Hats, and act accordingly.

Purge The Purge

As is so often the case with attempting a new way of doing things, there are teething issues. I think it’s fair to say the tooth-marks left on “Return Of The Archons” are rather deeper than most, too. The glaring problem with talking up this episode’s mystery is that it almost completely resets itself in the third act. The question of how Lawgivers can rewrite people’s personalities using hollow wooden tubes is completely tossed aside, with the process suddenly requiring victims be strapped into a huge machine instead. Even more oddly, the unsettling idea of The Festival – a proto-Purge combined with a kind of anti-curfew to guarantee maximum damage – is completely dropped. It’s somewhat hard to buy into the episode’s conclusion that even a perfectly peaceful world is abhorrent if its citizens lack free will, given that coordinated outbreaks of mass violence happen frequently enough that our heroes happen to stumble into one within minutes of arrival.

I said in my piece on “Oasis” that if you’re going to hang an entire episode on a central mystery, you need to make sure it’s actually a good one. A corollary to this is that the mystery needs to play fair with you, rather than just dropping aspects of it halfway through because they complicate or even contradict the conclusion you want to reach.

In the episode’s defence, I don’t think its central mystery is all it’s offering, certainly not so much as was the case with “Oasis”. It’s still sloppy writing, though. More than that, it strikes me as a non-trivial issue that the first Trek story to truly concern itself with the workings of an alien culture has no interest in keeping those mechanics consistent.

Even that isn’t the real problem, though. The real problem is that “Return Of The Archons” is built on three planks. Two of these, the mystery and the world-building, are both undermined in an attempt to shore up the third.

Unfortunately, that third plank is the episode’s moral. And it absolutely stinks.

“Third Rate Propaganda”

I wrote the first draft for this post in the dying days of 2020. At the time, there was a lot of talk online about the benefits and limitations of bad reviews. To restate my position, then: it is incumbent upon a reviewer to try and figure out why something hasn’t worked for them, rather than simply feed it through a wood-chipper because snark sells. This rule extends to even the most incompetently put-together pieces – what matters is how any why something has failed, not the extent to which that failure personally bothered you.

There’s multiple reasons why this is good and necessary practice, but one of the most important is that if you make a show of hating things which (you think) are badly-made, you leave yourself no gear to change up to when you take a run at something actively vile. There needs to be some way to distinguish between “this colossally didn’t work for me” and “This could actively contribute to making people’s lives worse”.

It’s time for us to hit top gear, because there’s a strong argument that the message “Return Of The Archons” pushes is actively evil.

This is not, I should stress, the only takeaway one can have from the episode. In the Vaka Rangi post I link to above, Marsfelder puts together a very nice argument about how the episode is contrasting the utopianism of Landru with the idealism of the Federation, because the fact a perfect world is impossible makes idealism all the more important. It’s a very well-considered argument, and to the extent Roddenberry regularly injects Christian philosophy into his episodes [4], and that said religion is explicit about the fact our inability to be perfect shouldn’t stopping us trying to be as good as possible, there’s certainly reason to believe it may have influenced Roddenberry’s thinking here, even if only subconsciously.

My issue with this argument, though, is that no-one in the episode comes even close to making it. Absolutely nothing done or said by our Starfleet heroes here suggests an idealism about the future. The commitment to showing non-white actors is still there, of course, but even here it’s muted. I’ve praised the episode for starting off on Takei, but it also pushes him off-screen before we reach the opening credits. After that, both he and Nichols receive precisely one line of dialogue apiece. And as I’ve pointed out before, the US Navy had been included both men and women of colour for decades before Trek was filmed. The inclusion of Sulu and Uhura does not in itself constitute idealism.

What’s being compared here isn’t utopianism and idealism, then. It’s collectivism versus individualism, i.e. an actual ongoing war of political philosophies (however poorly understood/represented) that was taking place at the time, rather than a more or less literally academic dispute over the nature of utopia. Here, the show is beating up a straw man, and justifying it by the fact the grain stalks it’s stuffed with was felled by Soviet sickles. I actually think some work would need to be done in constructing an argument that individual creativity is clearly more important than peace and plenty, if only because nothing cuts your creative career short like being killed in a war or starving to death. The much bigger issue though is in the insistence that the two concepts exist in conflict to begin with. “Do you want peace, or do you want the freedom to express yourself?”. I want both, Gene, and how dare you try to push the idea that they’re mutually exclusive.

If the big idea here were just to argue mind-controlling a society in order to bring peace is horrific, then that would be one thing. As a point, it’s both obvious and an irrelevant, but fine. But Kirk’s final comments in the episode make it clear that his problem lies not with how Landru achieved a collectivist society, but that he was able to do so at all. Never mind the execution, what matters is that the concept is flawed. This is like using Harold Shipman as evidence that the NHS is a bad idea. The only reason it seems any more reasonable at the societal level is that most people don’t generally have the same direct experience with collectivism as they do modern medicine.

Not that the extremity of the Shipman example stops it from being broadly similar to actual arguments which have been deployed against socialised medicine – look up “Sarah Palin and death panels”, and then despair for humanity. Roddenberry’s argument seems less directly dangerous, but the peril is still there. I think it's inarguable collectivism is a prerequisite not letting capitalism destroy the planet. Even if you disagree, though, it should be clear pushing the line that a collectivism/free will dichotomy exists plays into the hands of an immensely destructive political ideology. The consequences for those people that such an ideology exists in opposition to can be very real indeed.

This is an episode which argues alternatives to American individualism are not just unpalatable, but unworkable. A story that insists that if everyone could just be as enlightened as the west, they’d all realise ours is the right way. The only way. There’s a streak of self-congratulation here, as smug as it is unwarranted, that raises my hackles so high I’m no longer allowed near airports.

Even the name comes into play here. “Archon” loosely translates from the Greek as “ruler”. “Return Of The Archons” fairly unambiguously refers to the authorities returning to sort out the mess that’s been made in their absence. I’ve talked a little about how much more successful an episode this is than was “Miri”, but in this one sense the two are distressingly familiar: they’re both framed as being about the adults returning to the room. “Start acting like men!” Kirk sneers at the resistance cell that saved him, because they’re terrified of the immensely powerful immortal being that dominates their world. As though that isn’t completely understandable. As though Kirk is allowed the final say on how men are supposed to act.

This superior attitude extends to what the episode is arguably most famous for, the introduction of the Prime Directive. When Spock points out they are committed to a policy of non-interference, Kirk waves this away as only applying to “a living, growing culture”, which he does not consider Beta Three to be. The dodge here is obvious – Starfleet will only interfere when it’s necessary, but they’ll decide for themselves when it is necessary. In an episode that’s already at least flirting with an anti-Soviet propaganda (Spock’s summary of this society as a perfectly functioning but soulless machine has plenty of parallels to pre- and mid-Cold War conceptions of the USSR), watching Kirk liken Starfleet’s role to a kind of interstellar CIA is more than a little concerning.

Even here, though, there is the spark of hope. It strikes me as rather important that there are two Prime Directives mentioned in this episode, one belonging to The Federation, and one belonging to Landru himself. It’s this latter Prime Directive that ultimately allows Landru to be defeated, in fact, when they are presented with the argument that the steps they have taken to tend to the public good has in fact destroyed it. And Kirk doesn’t beat his opponent by demonstrating his Prime Directive is the best, he does it having already cast his own directive aside.

The message here might be that the enemy is less any particular doctrine, so much as a refusal to countenance flexibility. This is a misdiagnosis of the problem and a misunderstanding of the supposed cure, sure. Given Roddenberry’s own reputation for digging in like a lead-legged tick, it might also count as an almost painful irony. But ultimately, what could be more quintessentially Trek than is creator succeeding something valuable despite himself? The Prime Directive, as introduced to us here, can be read not as an overriding philosophy which proves the Federation’s enlightenment, but as a rejection of the idea that such a philosophy, independent of context, can exist at all. Not as an axiom, but as an aspiration. While Kirk’s contention that Beta Three must swap peace for individuality bothers me greatly, then, at least it comes along with a reminder that you can’t just keep stating what’s most important to you, and assume that in itself guarantees everything you do will reflect that commitment. This might be where the Prime Directive is introduced, but it certainly isn’t where it becomes a real problem (we’ll get to that on Thursday). Let’s make the choice to end this on a positive note, then. For all its multiple and occasionally abyssal dips in quality, “Return of The Archons” represents a genuine new direction for the show, given to us by the man who started it all off in the first place. The Archon has returned. Not every move he makes improves the situation, and the show is rapidly outgrowing its need for him. All that said, Roddenberry is still capable, on occasion, of showing us the way forward.

[1] Neither does “Return Of The Archons”, I guess, if you take seriously the scripts multiple references to the people on Beta Three as “human”. I’m just going to put this down to another issue with an oddly unfinished script. though, and move on.

[2] In fact, you can argue this episode actually leads directly to “Amok Time”, the show’s second-season attempt to redress the issue of Vulcan culture’s nebulous nature. The Festival might make no sense in the wider context of this story, but the roots of Pon Farr have clearly been laid.

[3] There are clues, of course, and Kirk and Spock figure out the truth some time before the beig reveal. No-one quite states it out loud for the viewer, though. We’re expected to make the (admittedly small) leap for ourselves. Compare this to the agonisingly long time it takes them to catch up with what the audience already knows in, say, “The Enemy Within”.

[4] Including here: note the resistance cells on the planet operate in threes, and that they're seeking to save "the body" from those who would corrupt it while claiming to be keeping it safe. You can draw a straight, if rather long, line between this and next season's "Bread And Circuses".

14 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page