Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Return of the Archons

(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: February 9, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0 (but it’s a good bet some Betans didn’t survive Festival)

Bellybuttons: 0

TOS has touched on non-interference before, but with “The Return of the Archons” we get the first formal declaration of the Prime Directive. Sadly, the episode gets too bogged down in an “escape from the Stepford-Pilgrims” drama to explore the matter with any satisfaction. This week, the Enterprise travels to the planet Beta III in search of the starship Archon, which disappeared here one hundred years ago. An initial two-man landing party is overpowered, with one abducted and the other, Sulu, beamed back to the ship after being turned into a babbling cultist. A larger landing party that includes Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, investigates further and finds a mindless community directed by the mysterious, God-like Landru (Charles Macaulay). Landru turns out to be a 6,000-year-old computer, which Kirk easily outwits, leaving the Betans in more disarray than before. The middle is too long and the resolution too abrupt; I agree with the Mission Log podcasters’ assessment that the episode feels incomplete. Especially problematic is the prophecy that gives the episode its title: the Betans await a return by the Archons, or spacefarers similar to those who arrived on the Archon. It’s hard to understand why Landru’s prophecy would include the seeds of his own destruction, and why so few Betans respond enthusiastically when the “Archons” do arrive.

“Have I got some Amway deals for you!”

Another significant logic gap in “The Return of the Archons” is why the Federation goes looking for the missing starship an entire century after its loss. What would they expect to find? We later learn the Archon was lost when Landru “pulled them down from the skies,” with the crewmembers either killed or absorbed into the Body, the collective name for those who have yielded to Landru’s will.

The second landing party arrives near the Red Hour, which marks the start of Festival (not to be confused with Festivus, though there are some definite Feats of Strength here). The Red Hour is 6 p.m., because somehow the Betans use the same twelve-hour clock we use. During Festival, the Betans stop shuffling aimlessly along the sidewalks and turn into party animals for twelve hours. We see molestations, fistfights, and vandalism; the mayhem ends after precisely twelve hours as if nothing happened. Like a fraternity hazing ritual, citizens are expected to age out of Festival, so older folks don’t participate. By some contradiction of human reasoning, hazing and other rule-breaking rituals are sometimes considered an essential step to entering “civilized” (i.e., privileged) society. This is a tradition almost as old as human history: over three thousand years ago, as described by Dorcas R. Brown and David W. Anthony, participation in “war-bands” marked the passage from boy to man in some Indo-European communities. The war-bands “were associated with sexual promiscuity…came from the wealthier families…centered on fighting and raiding…lived ‘in the wild,’ apart from their families…and they wore animal skins, appeared as if they were wolves or dogs…” The shared violation of social or cultural taboos marks the individual’s transition to a new life and bonds the collective in a shared, if self-created, trauma. By participating in Festival, Betans demonstrate for their fellow citizens that they, too, are of the Body.

Early Star Trek conventions were not well organized.

Alternatively, Festival is sometimes compared to the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s 1984, which was itself inspired by deliberately-timed artillery cannonades against opposing sides during World War I. In 1984, Party members are given two minutes every day to publicly vent their pent-up anxiety and anger in “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness…” The Two Minutes Hate, however, was directed toward non-Party members, whereas the violence of Festival has no particular focus. In reality, Festival could be any American city after a Superbowl, when assault and property damage are common and so tolerated by public officials as to almost seem planned. In either scenario, the underlying issues that create this toxic buildup are never addressed. At episode’s end, Kirk leaves crewmembers behind to help the Betans transition to a “more human” (???) society; their parting message is that the Betans, free of Landru’s control, have quickly begun practicing domestic violence and public altercations: the hostilities of Festival are now disbursed twenty-four/seven, rather than a concentrated twelve-hour period. We’re told this is progress, but it sounds like the seedier side of 1960s suburbia to me.

Outside of Festival, the Betans drift like sheep, the result of Landru’s desire for “no war, no disease, no crime,” in a world of “tranquility, peace for all.” Beta III feels like the fulfillment of Roger Korby’s aspiration to eliminate greed, jealousy, and hate in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” In another similarity to “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” as well as “The Menagerie,” we’re dealing yet again with a society left to puzzle over the technology left behind by an ancient civilization. Here, instead of the Old Ones, we have Landru, our only hint at what that long-ago world may have been like. Kirk credits Landru with wisdom and compassion despite willfully destroying the computer that is Landru’s only legacy.

Landru prepares to go up in smoke

Kirk “liberates” the Betans despite the Prime Directive. Spock reminds the captain of the non-interference mandate; Kirk dismisses him with a flimsy excuse that the Prime Directive applies only to a “living, growing culture,” but what criteria define a civilization as growing? While we sympathize with Kirk’s belief that Beta III needs help – Landru has forced his will on the Betans, they haven’t chosen this path – Kirk has completely disrupted this community and demonstrates only apathy (“Start acting like men,” he tells them). Yes, there is an underground movement that resists Landru; they organize themselves in groups of three to avoid detection. Yet this community is clearly unprepared for the abrupt reset Kirk forces on them. Our own history offers countless similar examples. Ending apartheid in South Africa seemed like an obviously good idea, yet when this really happened in the early 1990s, the ruling African National Congress, burdened by expectations, did little to change the country’s inequalities: twenty-five years later, “Whites still hold much of the wealth and private levers of power, while blacks trim their lawns and clean their homes.” Likewise, Americans cheered the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the post-Soviet states experienced “a severe economic crisis and catastrophic fall in living standards,” with Russian GDP collapsing by half during the 1990s. Even years later, half of Russian citizens regretted the USSR’s breakup. And when Iraq’s ruling regime was forced out of power in 2003, the country was so destabilized, an eight-year military occupation was needed to restore a bare minimum of order, and many Iraqis still find their lives disrupted by religious sectarianism. When Kirk shrugs his shoulders and leaves behind only a token group to assist on Beta III, we can imagine life will get much worse before it gets better. The underground members, led by the timid Reger (Harry Townes), seem to understand this: as much as they resist Landru, they have no short-term ambition to end his rule. This is one of the most compelling arguments in defense of the non-interference directive.

Kirk’s actual dialogue to the Lawgivers: “If I were you I’d start looking for a new job.”

As for Landru and the Body, they can represent any number of real-life examples of repression:

Religion: Gene Roddenberry, who developed the story, was a humanist who didn’t rule out spirituality but rejected organized religion. Landru’s computerized form is 6,000 years old, making him roughly as old as some Old Testament interpreters claim the earth to be. Landru recruits followers to the Body, just as communion is a symbolic joining with the body of Christ.

Authoritarian regimes: The Soviet Union and Communist China, as well as the Nazis (remember that Roddenberry was a World War II veteran), are implied on a recurring basis in TOS. Like those repressive systems, Landru depends on citizens turning against each other, in this case reporting anyone not “of the Body” to an enforcement group called the Lawgivers.

Other Star Trek villains: Landru seeks control of his followers not only by eliminating their freedom of choice, but also by removing the very desire for freedom, much like Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and the Borg in later iterations of Star Trek. Sybok took the charismatic route by creating an empathetic bond over fear (and just as in “The Return of the Archons,” Sulu and McCoy proved easy targets for Sybok, apparently having never toughened up their mental faculties). The Borg simply assimilated others into their Collective, a large-scale version of the Body that Landru creates (“You will be absorbed,” the Lawgivers tell the landing party).

Mass media: Is it possible Landru represents the very medium with which Roddenberry achieved his greatest success? At it’s worst, television encourages slavish devotion to sponsored programming by doing exactly what Landru does: extinguishing the spark of creativity in as wide an audience as possible. Maybe Roddenberry’s message was that we had better support more ambitious fare like Star Trek and Sesame Street, or better yet, get up and do some real-life adventuring, if we want to nurture our creative spirit.

Landru, Sybok, the Borg: Would you buy a used Constitution from these people?

It doesn’t really matter what specific soul-crushing establishment we ascribe to Landru, the bottom line is the same: blind faith is dangerous for those who fall prey to it and the entire society they will subsequently corrupt. Spock describes Betan culture as having “no spirit, no spark…the peace of the factory, the tranquility of the machine…” He and Kirk both specify creativity as the essential missing element: “Creativity is necessary for the health of the body,” Spock says. “Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity,” Kirk tells Landru. “Without creativity there is no life.” This “creativity = life” argument is a powerful one, and it’s the argument Kirk uses to lead Landru into self-destruction: by denying free will to his citizens, Landru is destroying the Body that he has sworn to protect. The problem is, we have no evidence the Body, as manifested by the Beta III community, is really in decline. It appears to be more in a condition of stasis and capable of enduring indefinitely; it has already survived this way for 6,000 years.

Kirk and Spock are not truly advocating the blind lawlessness of a Libertarian fantasyland. What they’re really striving for is what humanity has achieved by the 23rd century, and is in fact the unfulfilled ambition of the American experiment: individual freedoms within a structure of laws to ensure those freedoms are equally shared. Checks and balances need to be in place to prevent too much centralized control (Landru) or an unregulated free-for-all that allows a privileged few to exploit the majority (which leads to another kind of centralized control and is what America in 2020 is experiencing). Beta III, like the USSR and South Africa before it, isn’t ready for this kind of self-government precisely because checks and balances aren’t in place, and no organized body (the Body, get it?!?) exists to enforce them if they were. “Freedom is never a gift, it has to be earned,” Kirks tells the Betans, failing to acknowledge that they’re not ready to earn it.

“We’ll liberate these people even if it kills them!”

“The Return of the Archons” might have addressed all of these concerns if the Enterprise crew had remembered that they are explorers. They learn about Betan society only to the extent necessary to defeat Landru, a rash decision to which Kirk doesn’t give a second thought. The exploration we needed was not a planetary survey but a thoughtful discussion of the stakes involved. This episode cries out for a conference-room scene. Yes, Kirk and Spock have a brief tidying-up conversation at the end to remind us we weren’t meant for paradise, pointing out the irony of good fortune that a wished-for utopia never comes to pass. When Kirk left Bailey with Balok at the end of “The Corbomite Maneuver,” it was for the noble purpose of mutual education. The team left on Beta III at the end of “The Return of the Archons” is there for the wrong reasons, more like Federation missionaries than grass-roots Peace Corps support. The Betans themselves seem irrelevant; Kirk proves his point by deciding their fate just as Landru did. Just as “The Enemy Within” demonstrated that life is not easily reduced to either/or, Kirk’s neglect of the Prime Directive in “The Return of the Archons” accidentally reminds us that success isn’t a simple distinction between two stark extremes, but a balancing act that never ends. In casting the Betans’ fate to the wind, Kirk has forgotten one of Star Trek’s most basic lessons, and the fundamental logic of the Prime Directive: the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

Next: Space Seed

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