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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.23 "...And I Feel Fine"

A Taste Of Armageddon

Kirk is flanked by two guards sporting Eminarian millinery.
Planet of hats.

Another handful of footfalls into a wider and more interesting galaxy.

First Impressions

It’s one of those delightful little factlets that “A Taste Of Armageddon” was filmed directly after “Return Of The Archons”. There are so many ways in which this episode takes aspects of its predecessor and improves them. The question of how people devolve responsibility to machines is more interestingly posed, for one thing, even if the question once again gets side-lined by other concerns. More fundamentally, though, “A Taste Of Armageddon” takes the previous story’s innovation of giving the show entire alien cultures to explore, and runs with it like a cheetah down an escalator.

Eminiar Seven is a home run first time at bat, if only for how completely it sets the tone for the future alien cultures we’ll be visiting. There’s a sense of scale here that makes it almost unbelievable that, just seven episodes earlier (in production order), Trek was so cash-strapped they had to give us a two-part clip-show. The corridors of the capital city are immediately recognisable as TOS-chic, and while I’ve kicked this post off poking fun of Eminiarian millinery, the unapologetic glittery nonsense of this world is still parsecs ahead of Beta III’s “monks, but also frontiersmen” approach to populating an alien planet. Meanwhile, little touches like the Eminiarian dignitaries all following their names with numbers, for reasons unexplored, add subtle spice. This is a culture we can’t hope to fully digest in a single visit.

Continuing in the plus column, we’re graced with a solid guest cast this week. David Opatoshu is particularly good as Amar 7, hitting just the right notes of prickly, self-pitying arrogance to play a politician who insists they have total power, but zero control. Gene Lyons manages an impressive trick of switching from pompous antagonist to repentant ally in a single episode – just watch how well he plays being torn between not wanting to be left behind in a gunfight with not wanting to abandon his aide’s body, all in silence. Meanwhile, while Barbara Babcock suffers under the show’s SOP of not giving female co-stars much to do, by that low bar Mea 3 comes off fairly well – the moment where she tells Kirk not to confuse her willingness to die for her world with her not valuing her life is a particularly nice moment. All that, and we get our first woman of colour since “Court Martial”, in Yeoman Tamura.

In short, pretty much every part of the episode that doesn’t deal directly with the episode’s central crisis, and Kirk’s response to it, shows the show at its healthiest to date.

Regular readers will recognise what I’m doing here – forcing myself to accept that an episode so determined to deliver an interesting political message is doing other things as well. Circling the edge of the pit we all knew I was going to find myself at the bottom of eventually.

So, having performed due diligence in at least nodding at the episode as a whole, let’s take the plunge, What does “A Taste Of Armageddon” have to say on the subject of war?

War! Huh! What If There’s No Gore?

The fact that the episode was a comment on the Vietnam War would be unmissable even had David Gerrold not confirmed it. If nothing else, “Eminiar” is just two letters from being an anagram of “America”, with “Vendikar” not that much further than “Vietnam”. “Amar 7” also fits in here, being first four letters from “America”, and then the number of letters in that word.

What’s rather more up for debate is what comment is actually being made. Again, Gerrold gives us an answer – the reports of death tolls in battles never experienced by those in the city is meant to parallel the clinical, contextless way in which American casualty numbers were read out on the nightly news.

The problem is, this doesn’t actually tally up. Not when the people hearing those numbers know that any day now, they themselves could be among them. It’s tough to see this as a lambasting of how divorced a civilisation can come from the cost of armed conflict, given the first character our heroes meet ends up having twenty-four hours to sacrifice her life for the war effort. We might try instead to think of this as some comment on the draft – people suddenly find they’re going to disappear, and often not come back. Even this doesn’t particularly work, though, given the multiple ways in which the draft process operated so that the rich were functionally exempt. We learn in this episode that the guy who apparently runs the entire planet has lost his wife to the selection process. If you’re trying to criticise the draft, suggesting it might have posed a threat to Ladybird Johnson is a strange way to go about it.

In fact, the death of Aman’s wife makes it very hard to put together any reading of this episode based on the idea that Eminiar has divorced itself from the consequences of war. What seems to be being asked instead is something different. To wit: once you’ve removed the pain and the disease and the destruction, once you can be sure no-one will be crippled or made homeless, does war, in fact, remain hell?

As a kind of philosophical thought experiment, this isn’t perhaps terribly interesting. Not that I actually am a philosopher, of course, but I can’t imagine there being an awful lot to fruitfully discuss around the question “is compelling a neighbouring civilisation to euthanise millions of their own people OK, if it’s done painlessly?”.

Where the idea becomes valuable is in setting it beside the opposite position. More specifically, it lies in recognising how frequently the US government (among others) pushes the idea that that war is just fine, so long as only the “right” people die, without anyone or anything else being affected.

History Corner

We should note here that this episode aired just four years after the conclusion of a years-long debate in the US Congress on the subject of the neutron bomb. In brief – because I’m not a physicist either – neutron bombs are a form of tactical nuclear weapon designed for minimum explosive damage and maximum radiological spread. Apparently this would be particularly useful against tanks – a major concern during the Cold War – but generally it just seemed to be a weapon designed to kill as many people as possible while damaging as little of their property as possible. Which isn’t quite the case (it’s a nuke, there will still be a blast radius), but it certainly was how the weapon was presented to the public.

Despite controversy at the time as to both the morality and the actual strategic advantages of such a weapon, the US eventually created 120 neutron bombs. They even got as far as preparing to deploy some to Europe inside artillery shells during the mid ‘70s, before the plan was made public, and President Carter was forced to back down. In part, the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction was in response to the same inaccurate descriptions of the weapon that had been used to sell them in the first place – as Asimov put it, the bomb “seems desirable to those who worry about property and hold life cheap”.

As in the 60s, though, it wasn’t just the morality of the neutron bomb that was at issue. Probably the greater concern was the portability of tactical nuclear weapons, and the attendant risk that they were more likely to be deployed than, say, an ICBM. They were one more way in which a conventional military engagement could ramp up towards nuclear armageddon.

(Retiring the neutron bomb didn’t mean retiring the idea that new weapons could render wars less destructive. The First Gulf War began the day after my eleventh birthday, and the media at the time was filled with reports on how advances in targeting technology meant the Coalition could drop bombs with such precision that civilian casualties would be a thing of the past. No buildings would be destroyed other than those with a military purpose. No lives would be lost other than those holding a military rank.

More than three thousand Iraqi civilians were killed during the war.)

The Atomic Rage

“A Taste For Armageddon” predates Carter’s crisis, obviously. But it knows which way the winds of nuclear winter are blowing. Neutron bombs work through fusing hydrogen isotopes together to form helium alongside a spread of rogue neutrons – they’re a form of fusion bomb, the very weapons Vendikar simulate when they launch their attack on Eminiar.

The episode performs a fusion of its own, slamming together the two principal concerns over the neutron bomb – that its lack of destructive force would make it a more attractive proposition than other atomic weapons, and that it would be a stepping-stone into a worldwide conflict – and combines them with the sense of distance that Gerrold mentions about the Vietnam War. The result is a nightmare scenario of technophilia and remoteness combining to allow people to trap themselves in an endless, murderous conflict on a global scale. No appetite for peace exists, because the only negative experience the Eminiarians have of war (until they’re selected for disintegration, that is) is bereavement, which is just used as fuel to keep their hatred of Vendikar burning.

So sterilised has the system’s approach to warfare become that even their guns fire without sound or light. They destroy silently and invisibly, unlike the harsh blue light and buzzing hiss of Kirk’s hand phaser.

Appropriately, this is all as brilliant as that phaser beam. Irrespective of the writers’ specific intentions, the fears of the last generation to reach adulthood in a pre-atomic world mix here with exhausted disgust at the fallout of the Cold War to create a truly fascinating idea for the franchise. Combined with the casting and design work, it’s not remotely difficult to understand why the episode has a pretty strong reputation in general.

There’s just one problem, then. Having set up a situation in which war is the enemy, irrespective of how its fought, we have to deal with the fact that the people sent in to explain all of this are Captain James “Shirt-tearer” Kirk and the Velour Space-Navy.

Military Intelligence

Once again, I’ll pass the reader over to Vaka Rangi to provide the case for the prosecution. I disagree with Marsfelder regarding the implications of Fox’s desperate need to establish diplomatic relations – I think it’s very much to the Federation’s credit that they believe a presence in this area of space could save “thousands of lives”, but aren’t willing to even consider setting up a port without the explicit agreement of a race who they’ve never even spoken to before.

Otherwise, though, Marsfelder’s critique bites deep. I might be more inspired by the intentions of Fox’s mission, but he still screws up colossally at every available opportunity, repeatedly valuing the hypothetical lives that might be saved if he completes his mission (and let’s not forget that opening a dialogue with the Eminiarians is the very first step there, there’s absolutely no reason to think they’re going to even agree to talks, let alone that those talks might go well) over the actual lives being put in danger by his refusal to take “no answer” for an answer. At every turn, the militaristic viewpoint of first Kirk and then Scott is shown to be the correct one. The most wretched example of this is when Scotty refuses to obey a legal order from Fox, because he believes it will endanger the ship. This is actually a situation Doohan himself faced during his military service, when he refused a general’s order to start an artillery bombardment during a training exercise, as he knew friendly troops were in the target area. It’s an amazing story that does great credit to Doohan, but you can’t help noticing how it’s been rewritten to make a diplomat the incompetent superior, rather than someone in the military.

Marsfelder’s argument on this is that it doesn’t matter all that much that Fox is shown to be a naive idiot, because Kirk comes across as being just as bad. Worse, perhaps, given he’s apparently willing to obliterate an entire planet if he doesn’t get his way. Which is clearly straight-up horrifying, implying as it does not just that he will commit genocide before letting his crew be killed, but that Starfleet has a general order that allows him the opportunity to do that.

Most tellingly of all, if Marsfelder is right in saying both that this is clearly a criticism of war, and a criticism of humanity, then we have to recognise how the latter actually undercuts the former. Simply put, you can’t be delivering an anti-war message if part of that message is that human beings are genetically disposed towards warfare. It frames peace as an aberration, some strange and unnatural state we can only keep going by conscious action. “We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today”, as Kirk puts it, in one of the most cynical and dangerous lines the show has given us to date. This is as completely self-defeating as trying to bring down sexual assault statistics while arguing men are genetically programmed to ignore consent. You can’t fight something at the same time as you’re excusing it.

Were this the only reading of the episode, I’d be inclined to give into despair at it myself. Fortunately, we might have another way out. A lot here hinges on how much we’re supposed to take Kirk at face value here. We already know from “The Corbomite Maneuver that he’ll bluff outrageously if he believes it’s his only option. It’s possible General Order 24 doesn’t exist at all, any more than did the corbomite device. Scott would have to be in on the bluff for it to work, but maybe this isn’t the first time the Enterprise crew has run this particular con. An alternative – and this is probably more likely given Kirk takes pains to cancel GO24 – is that it exists, but doesn’t do quite what Kirk claims. Perhaps it involves the total destruction of military outposts on a planet invaded during an actual war, and Kirk trusts Scotty both to understand how to adapt the order to a native civilian population, and that he doesn’t actually expect Scott to carry out the order. Remember, we’re shown in this very episode that Scott will refuse a direct legal order if it violates his principles and/or endangers Enterprise crew. It’s pretty difficult to believe he’d pull the trigger on vaporising an entire planet including his own captain and four other crewmates. And that’s if what Kirk and Scott are threatening is even possible. Speaking of corbomite, there’s more than a whiff of it to this whole situation. Can the Enterprise really take out an entire planet? They couldn’t even give Kirk ground support when fighting the Gorn.

Whether it’s ultimately a bluff or not, it’s certainly doesn’t seem to be Kirk’s real solution. It’s just a distraction to buy him the chance to put into place his actual plan, which is to destroy the Eminiarian war computer and render their bloodless war impossible. Whatever questions we might have about the text or even existence of GO24, then, Kirk is clearly not playing things straight. Who knows how much of what he tells Amar Seven is what he really believes, as oppose to what he thinks Amar needs to hear. Something that ties together Amar’s opinion of him as a bloodthirsty barbarian with a proposed route to peace – a reminder that preferring a bloodless war both to a real war and to peace is an incomplete preference ordering. There's still one more pair of options you need to weigh up.

It’s actually a very savvy approach, in that it allows Kirk to present himself as a harbinger of the real enemy, casting the Vendikarans as another set of victims of the colossal devastation Kirk seems to have set in motion. It’s maybe not a brilliant idea as regards the long-term prospects of achieving the original plan of a diplomatic agreement between Eminiar and the Federation, but – and I love this – Fox immediately backs him up, recognising that securing a friendly port in the sector is now less important than ending a war that has killed around 1.5 billion people on Eminiar alone.

Things Unspoken

I rather like this as a reading. Usually with an approach like this one, there would be an obvious roadblock. I’ve argued in the past that, with a show like this one, it can be hard to construct persuasive readings which require the audience recognise the main characters are either not saying what they mean, or aren’t echoing what the writers think, without either of these being pointed out in the text itself. There just isn’t enough complexity here to believe a script where Kirk makes sweeping pronouncements unchallenged wants us to question whether he is speaking with authorial authority. To once again take “The Corbomite Maneuver” as a point of comparison, while technically no-one actually states that Kirk has invented corbomite, the dialogue and visual cues make the fact it’s a bluff unmistakeable.

In contrast, there’s nothing in the final scene of “A Taste Of Armageddon” that supports the idea that Kirk is bluffing or misrepresenting anything here. Ordinarily, that would pour cold water on my argument. Fortunately, though, the final scene of the episode is such an incoherent mess it doesn’t manage to pour water onto anything but its own shoes. While still on Eminiar, Kirk’s plan seems perfectly straightforward – make Amar Seven think he has to choose between the Enterprise devastating his planet and Vendikar doing the same, in order to distract him while the actual choice of devastation from Vendikar or engaging in peace talks is being set up. The threat is engaging war in its true form, and Amar panics because he sees that as the outcome no matter what he does.

Once back aboard ship, however, Kirk gives a very different explanation of his plan. GO24 wouldn’t have killed any more people than a full-on attack from Vendikar, he argues, but it would have left the planet unable to respond to such an attack when the Venikarans took action over the treaty violation.

This doesn’t make any sense. I mean, it works as a bluff – if Amar Seven lets the Enterprise go the war returns to its previous form, and if he doesn’t that still happens, only with Eminiar unable to defend itself. But it doesn’t line up with Kirk then saying he was sure his plan would lead to the two planets talking peace. That only became the case after Kirk destroys the computer, a part of his plan the final scene ignores entirely. Somehow, the implication becomes that it was the threat of GO24 which brought about the peace talks, which clearly isn’t the case at all.

I’m guessing version control is the issue here, some last-minute rewrite to stop Kirk committing to mass murder if he doesn’t get his way that didn’t quite ripple out to all corners of the script. For my purposes though, it doesn’t matter. A commitment to seeking confirmation for certain theories within the text need not – can not – be maintained if the text itself is incoherent. If a rewrite was clearly necessary anyway, we are offered the opportunity to do it ourselves.

And like Eminiar Seven, I will choose to embrace the opportunity offered. We can celebrate this episode’s views of warfare while waving away its views on humanity. Yes, this approach brings us back to the problems with Ambassador Fox, and the episode’s dim view of diplomats. Having spent some time in my post on “Space Seed” furrowing my brow at the show’s tendency to have all outside authority be automatically in the wrong, though, I’m content here to just shrug here, and point out Fox ultimately becomes an important part of Kirk’s solution. His issues stemmed from overstepping his authority and giving orders when he should have been taking advice. Once in his comfort zone, he’s clearly very good at what he does.

So let’s chalk this one up as another win. Gene Coon continues to reforge Roddenberry’s incoherent space Western into a true view to the future – one in which we not only can take advantage of miraculous developments of engineering and science, but one in which we might just prove ourselves worthy of doing so.

Perhaps in the end this was all Kirk – and Coon – meant to say. The advancement of technology only does us any good if we commit to being better ourselves. With all due respect to Vaka Rangi, I’d argue that that’s about as Star Trek as things can get.

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