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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.26 Firm But Fair

Errand Of Mercy

Spock sports the finest cape this side of Q'onoS.
"If we are going to war, I will do so looking AWESOME."

Well, who do we have here?

"There's Klingons On The Starboard Bow..."

I think it's important we start with the crushingly obvious and yet still crucial observation that the Klingons' appearance in "Errand Of Mercy" is massively racist. It's racist in both concept and execution, from the script describing the Klingons as "Oriental" right through to decision to deploy brownface en masse. It's so bad, I'm legitimately surprised it hasn't been quietly taken down off Netflix yet, or at least flagged as being potentially offensive. And as always, the fact the issues with brownface are more widely known now than they were fifty-five years ago doesn't function as an excuse. No-one involved in the decision that the warmongering, mass-murdering foreigners couldn't look white can claim they didn't know what they were doing.

Nothing I might want to say about this episode can excuse or minimise that central, hideous fact. It's not even that the racism spoils the Klingons in their first appearance. The racism is all there is to them. With all that said, though, racism isn't all their is to the episode as a whole. The question of how this story is problematic can be easily answered, but the question of why it's problematic is, I think, worth considering. What were the decisions made in the early stages of putting together the script that led to Gene Coon - the man almost certainly most responsible for making Trek interesting enough to spawn a franchise which at last count included eleven shows and thirteen movies (with more of both on the way) - deciding he needed an outrageously offensive "other" to get his point across?

One way to tackle that question is to look at how "Errand Of Mercy" fits in with the episodes Gene Coon has given us to date. Three of Coon's four previous contributions have highlighted the idea not just that warfare is a process built on communication, but that the miscommunication is frequently deliberate, at least subconsciously. The assumption that the enemy can't be reasoned with always makes it easier to justify not trying in the first place. The (hypothetical) realities of interstellar conflict might make it easier to discount the arguments and motivations of the enemy, but humanity in general has never really needed the help in that regard.

Further, those three episodes each feature two battling factions, with a third group involving itself as, if not mediators, then at least a force that intends to stop the fighting. Even "Space Seed", the episode which most diverges from Coon's other work both in terms of theme and quality, takes a similar form, with Kirk's human crew placed in the middle of Khan and Spock. [1]

We've already seen variations from Coon within this repeated template. Setting aside the inversion of "Space Seed", to this point Coon has given us two tales in which the Enterprise is cast as the intermediate party, and one where they are clearly the aggressors. "Errand Of Mercy" brings the count to two apiece. As with "Arena", Kirk is firmly in war mode here - whatever he might claim about his feelings on that fact - while an alien race with godlike powers antagonises him by refusing to give him free rein in his antagonism.

"We Come In Peace, Shoot To Kill"

While we're clearly dealing with a recurring theme of Coon's, then, it's "Arena" that provides the most useful comparison to this episode. Indeed, with our focus narrowed to just these two stories, there are still more parallels we can identify. Both involve a space-battle with a supposedly senselessly violent alien race, one that threatens to spark an all-out war, only for aliens to force the battle to end, giving our heroes space to consider the fact the other side's beef is at least arguably legitimate.

But it's the differences that matter here. "Arena" may demonstrate Kirk's ability to think and improvise in a crisis, but fundamentally it's an episode in which he's forced into being reactive. Whatever the validity of the Gorn position on Cestus III, they set an ambush for the Enterprise which leaves violence the only alternative to destruction. Indeed, much of what gives weight to the episode's conclusion is that Kirk is willing to accept there might be a line of reasoning under which even two consecutive surprise attacks might be justifiable (again, this episode came out just twenty-five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). Faced with the cold-blooded murder of thousands of people, including two of his own crew, Kirk is still willing to recognise dialogue is at least possible.

"Errand Of Mercy", in contrast, puts Kirk in a situation where not only does he have the option to keep his fists in his pockets, but the local population are begging him to do just that. Kirk isn't dragged into a conflict here, he deliberate instigates one over the express wishes of the people he claims to have come to help. Kirk has never been presented as a flawless hero, but I'm not sure I've seen him do anything worse than launch a raid he know will result in the executions of hundreds of people who immediately and willingly surrendered to the Klingons, then blame those same people when the executions are carried out. Kirk makes the decision that the Organians should prefer violence and death to living under the Klingons without resistance, despite their very clear statements to the contrary. It's not even as though the sabotage operation he carries out was intended to liberate the Organians. He's aiming for minor upsets to the Klingon war machine on the off-chance it makes a non-trivial difference to the war he assumes has begun between his culture and Kor's. The dozens of Organians his actions have condemned to death are of no importance to him, other than as proof the Organians should be willing to commit to more of the same.

While "Arena" is our primary point of comparison, Kirk's approach here also provides a link with "A Taste Of Armageddon". That episode was inspired by the dry way in which American news sources reported the death toll of a conflict happening on the other side of the world. What that episode didn't comment on was why the US was fighting so far from its own borders in the first place. "A Taste For Armageddon" gets at the strange sensation of sitting comfortably at home and receiving a perfunctory reminder that your country is actually at war, but its "Errand Of Mercy" that gets into how such a situation came about. Kirk is trying to set up a proxy war on Organia, insisting only the beneficent Federation can save the locals against domination by the clearly appalling Klingon Empire. To fight them "over there" before they had to fight them back home, to riff on an admittedly anachronistic framing, and to insist that doing so is somehow in the best interests of those whose home just became a battlefield. "You have to be the enemy of my enemy, if you want to be my friend. And you must want to be my friend, surely? Just look how awful my enemies are!".

Some care must be taken in not drawing too many parallels between the people of Vietnam and those of Organia, in either their pre- or post-reveal forms. The Vietnamese War wasn't fought between puppets of the Americans on one side and the Russians/Chinese on the other (and that's already a reductive list of the external forces/influences involved). The war was first and foremost a struggle between factions of the Vietnamese people themselves. While there were plenty in Vietnam who, like the Organians, wanted nothing more than to be left alone and/or for the fighting to end, plenty more fought gladly for one side or another, and did so entirely independently of the reasons various external powers had decided who controlled Vietnam was a matter of overriding concern.

None of which is to say the episode isn't working as a criticism of proxy wars. We just need to keep in min that, perhaps inevitably, "Errand Of Mercy" does much better at paralleling the Americans during the Vietnam War than it does paralleling the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. And that's before we even get to the native people all being represented by crusty white dudes, with the brownface being reserved exclusively for the episode's remorseless warmongers.

Did I mention this story is colossally racist?

"...But Not As We Know It"

Still, the principle approach here still holds: can we identify the choices that led us into such bleak territory, and could any of them be seen as having made sense at the time?

Let's go back again to "Arena". It's not just the Gorn's hostility that makes communication seem impossible. It's the fact they look like literal lizards, predatory and unpredictable, lacking even the loose bonds of mammalian life that gives us at least some idea of how, say, a wolf or a tiger might react. The episode is structured so that the audience is as surprised as anyone else when we learn the Gorn mistook Starfleet for an invading force that taken one of their planets without warning, and were simply responding in kind.

"Errand Of Mercy" seems to be working along similar lines, at least initially. Kirk builds up the Klingons as cruel, tyrannical butchers, against whom the only option can be violence. Certainly, one cannot reason with them. And yet when they actually turn up, they're just a bunch of dudes in oddly sparkly uniforms. Beyond some unusual choices in eyebrow maintenance, the Klingons look no less human than the Organians do. Had circumstances been different, Kor could easily have pulled the same trick Kirk does. Or at least he could have, had the Organians not been so defiantly, ubiquitously Caucasian.

The make-up on the Klingons should be considered in this context. The audience is not being primed to think violence is the only option, as it was with the mass-murdering disco-crocodiles. We're supposed to recognise much earlier into the story that Kirk's attitude is the problem here just as much as Kor's. Kirk sees someone who doesn't look like him, and assumes everyone who does look like him must find them as alienating as he does.

It doesn't work, no. It can't work. Partially, that's down to the cruel irony that you can't just consider ethnic differences to be merely skin-deep - you can't just colour a white person brown and say they fulfil the same role as someone with Asian heritage. More generally, the very racism that makes this sort of story worth telling precludes telling such stories in this particular way, even were the Klingons written with more complexity and subtlety than they are here.

All that said, given the episode's focus on American attitudes to those beyond its own borders, there's something subversive in our introduction to the Klingons starting with them being unable to tell white people from different cultures apart, and ending with it being clear the Organians see no meaningful difference between the Klingons and the Federation.

And again, the audience is in on this, or at least they should be. The Organian reveal takes a while to appear, but in the mean time, we have Kor to chew over. It's not just that he's much more obvious a mirroring of Kirk than the Gorn Captain was. I mean, that's true, clearly. He has nearly the same name, a roughly equivalent rank, speaks perfect English, and like Kirk is functioning as a personification of one of the two galactic powers currently at loggerheads. More interestingly, John Colicos (one of my absolute favourite 20th century actors, mainly thanks to his turn as the original BSG Baltar) turns in a performance that matches Kirk for refusing to quite play things straight. Kor is supposed to be a callous mass-murderer, an iron-fisted tyrant who will kill at the drop of a hat, especially if it was his hat, dropped by one of his new slaves. And yet Colicos just radiates gleeful, dark camp. More specifically, he acts as though the whole situation is a joke that only he and Kirk are privy to. He goes so far as to tell Kirk (more than once) that he's the only Organian he has any respect for.

Naturally, Kor intends this as a compliment. There's no reason Kirk should take it as such, though. When a war criminal from a culture that delights in violence tells you that you're their favourite, alarm bells should ring loudly enough to be detected in low orbit. Certainly, the Organians don't miss what's happening. In the episode's most important scene, Kirk finds himself completely incapable of persuading his hosts that there's any real distinction between his position and Kor's. It probably doesn't help that for every claim he makes against the Klingons, Kor has an immediate counter. The Klingons might be delighted at the prospect of testing their might against Starfleet, but they also have specific grievances against the Federation which need to be taken into account. Kirk spends the whole episode convinced the problem is that he can't make the Organians see the truth. It's only at the end he belatedly realises the problem is that no-one else is obliged to see his version of the truth as being particularly meaningful.

"It's Worse Than That..."

The very first time I watched this episode (which actually was only six months ago), I thought the one problem with the idea that the Federation and the Klingons were basically equivalent was how loudly and completely the latter were clearly seeking a war. How can you sell a "both sides are just as bad" message, when one side is openly admitting they can't wait for the killing to kick off? Plus, of course, casting of Klingons as revelling in violence as a culture felt like jut as much a dip into the racist well as the makeup choice. As mentioned, Coon's script described the Klingons as looking "Oriental" - the problems with also describing them as tyrannical invaders with no interest in democracy should not be difficult to tease out.

As with the make-up, though, we can study Coon's choices without excusing them. On reflection, it seems fundamental to the episode's point that the Klingons admit they want war while the Federation insist they are appalled by the idea, but have been forced into it. Because it's clear that from the Organians' perspective, that makes no difference at all. When all that separates you from the wanton butchers is that you say you hate the butchery you have set in motion, there's not enough distance between you and them to pass a carving knife through. Especially when you've just got two hundred people killed, and have chosen to blame the people who refused to help you get them killed. The episode's masterstroke comes when the Organians shut down both culture's war machines, and Kirk and Kor immediately join forces to demand the right to massacre each other. They are enemies in the war they plan to fight, but they're firm allies in wanting that war to begin.

The best thing we can say about Kirk here is that he eventually figures out how far wrong he's gone: "I was furious with the Organians for stopping a war I didn't want". And even here, he hasn't fully grasped the truth - the issue is precisely that he was claiming not to want a war, whilst acting in a way that made it very clear that claim was false.

What we have here then is a reworking of "Arena" that chooses to be far more cynical. In that episode, Kirk overcame the differences between himself and an alien aggressor to attempt to find a peaceful resolution. Here, Kirk uses the differences between himself and an alien aggressor as an excuse to insist no peace can be possible. If "Arena" was about how peace is almost always possible despite the circumstances, "Errand Or Mercy" is about how the circumstances of Trek itself makes peace less likely. In his initial audience with the Organian Council, Kirk claims that he is a solider, rather than a diplomat. The truth of that has never been clearer. Nor has it ever been more obvious of how much of a problem that is, or what the solutions needs to be.

A vision of diplomat captains and Klingons we can call friends. More so than any TOS episode we have taken a look at yet, the seeds of what this franchise will become are sown here.


(At this point, all shows other than TOS itself are now represented by their first season's median episode)

1. (The Storyteller)

2. (Ex Post Facto)

3. Errand Of Mercy

4. (Desert Crossing)

5. (The Infinite Vulcan)

6. (11001001)

Series Ordering

1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. Enterprise

[1] Indeed, one of the of the more generous readings of "Space Seed" is that fundamentally, it's a Coon anti-war script that couldn't quite survive being warped into a new shape by the realisation some people genuinely do need to be opposed through force.

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