Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: A Private Little War

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: February 2, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 1 (Nona, the seductress of the week)

“A Private Little War” was written by Donald G. Ingalls, who also write “The Alternative Factor,” which is all the foreshadowing we need to know that things are going to get ugly. This episode combines the Cold War analogies of “Errand of Mercy” and “Friday’s Child” with the indigenous American stereotypes of “The Apple” and, well, “Friday’s Child.” Then imagine Sylvia from “Catspaw” wandered onto the set. This week, the Enterprise travels to the planet Neural to investigate the local flora. “These roots and soil cultures can be a medical treasure house,” McCoy says. Kirk visited Neural thirteen years previously, when he befriended a local named Tyree (Michael Witney) and observed the planet to be a garden of Eden because we don’t encounter that cliché often enough in Star Trek. This time, however, Klingons have taken an interest in Neural and have given rifles to the villagers, who are now making war on Tyree’s group, the hill people. The scenario has a lot of potential, raising interesting questions about the Prime Directive and the inevitable dismal consequences of an arms race, but the episode gets too bogged down in silliness to be effective.

“Beam us up, Spock raided the natives’ firewater supply again.”

The Neuralites (Neuralians?) are portrayed as easily manipulated bumpkins who have conveniently divided themselves into two groups: villagers and hill people. We know the hill people, including Kirk’s friend Tyree, are the good guys because they all have white hair, and they clearly frequent the same stylist as the People of Vaal from “The Apple.” The villagers, the ones being armed by the Klingons, are the bad guys because they all have black hair. Tyree’s wife Nona (Nancy Kovack), a kind of sorceress called a “kahn-ut-tu” and the only female Neuralite we see (except for a couple of white-haired background extras), clearly has evil intentions because she also has black hair. According to Kirk, the hill people (who refer to the rifles as “firesticks”) and villagers historically coexisted peacefully, hunting with bows and arrows and enjoying their paradise of a planet. “Inhabitants superior in many ways to humans,” McCoy quotes from Kirk’s original report. “Left alone, they undoubtedly someday will develop a remarkably advanced and peaceful culture.” It’s astonishing and delightful that Kirk would have acknowledged the Neuralites as superior to humans, contradicting his assessment of other similar cultures, such as the laid-back farmers in “This Side of Paradise.” No one seems to connect the planet’s quality of life with the lack of technological development until more advanced weapons are introduced. Later, after Spock is shot (more on that shortly), Kirk and McCoy return to the planet in the same animal-skin vests the natives wear. When Kirk is attacked by the Mugato, a slow-moving unicorn-bear that isn’t remotely frightening, McCoy risks taking Kirk to the hill people for help. He finds them to be “compassionate and gentle,” as promised.

Spock is shot early on by one of the villagers and lingers in a critical state for much of the episode. Spock is put in the care of Dr. M’Benga (Booker Bradshaw), who has shown up at just the right time because he “interned in a Vulcan ward” (Do Federation hospitals segregate Vulcan patients?!?) and knows what to do. This plotline gives us a couple of nice scenes of Chapel monitoring Spock’s condition, reminding us of her affection for the first officer. M’Benga is a great addition to the medical crew and it’s a shame he wasn’t made a recurring character, although he will return once, in the season three episode “That Which Survives.” We can only speculate as to why the Enterprise hasn’t been receiving M’Benga’s knowledge all along, considering McCoy’s self-confessed ignorance of Vulcan healthcare.

Spock gets cranky when he misses nap-time

“A Private Little War” refers indirectly to the Organian Peace Treaty, established after “Errand of Mercy” and previously challenged by the Klingons in “Friday’s Child.” Neural is described as a “hands-off planet,” which presumably means both the Federation and Klingons have agreed to non-interference. As soon as a Klingon presence is confirmed, Kirk declares that the Empire has “broken the treaty,” resulting in a wise reminder from Scott: “They have as much right to scientific missions here as we have.” The funniest scene in the episode, other than the ridiculous-looking Mugato, is when Uhura, Scott, and Chekov, all debate Kirk’s interpretation of the Klingons’ intentions. (“…why didn’t they give them breech-loaders…or machine guns…or old-style hand lasers…?”) What this really reveals, however, is the nonsensical nature of the Klingon strategy. We never even learn what the Klingons hope to accomplish on Neural. If they want the same medicinal plants as the Federation – which seems unlikely, given their attitudes expressed in “Friday’s Child” – why not just sneak in the way the Enterprise did? And how did they choose the villagers over the hill people, other than the prerequisite black hair for evil-doers? Only one Klingon (Ned Romero) is on the planet, dispensing legal decisions like a maharaja and promising a governorship to the village chief Apella (Arthur Bernard). The Klingon introduces an improved rifle and promises future upgrades, without explaining why he doesn’t just give the villagers overwhelming force right away and be done with it. Not to mention the astonishing coincidence that Klingon history includes the exact same early firearms as humans, right down to the animal-horn gunpowder holder. Most of the plot elements seem contrived to deliver a few action scenes with a mild attempt to introduce deep thoughts.

Apella demos an early version of the Greg Brady Perm

The Mugato and Nona story-lines seem equally forced. The Mugato looks like something out of a Sid & Marty Krofft show, an indigenous creature with poisonous fangs that does nothing more than wander the countryside attacking anyone it encounters. It’s here primarily to injure Kirk, subjecting him to Nona’s witchcraft. Nona heals Kirk with something called the mahko root: Nona applies the plant to Kirk’s skin, Tyree plays a drum, Nona moans and swoons, Kirk is healed. No one thinks to investigate whether the drumming and swooning are even necessary; maybe the makho root by itself does all the healing. Nona’s presence is really about giving us a scantily clad femme fatale who comes between Kirk and Tyree – and the villagers and hill people – like Yoko breaking up the Beatles. Nona uses locally grown aphrodisiacs to manipulate men, yet she also claims, “Men seek us [kahn-ut-tus] because through us they become great leaders.” Like the Klingons, her objective is never clear, unless it’s just to be attached to a powerful man, like Lieutenant Moreau in “Mirror, Mirror,” because isn’t that what women of questionable virtue want in the Star Trek universe? When McCoy uses his phaser to heat rocks without bothering to make sure no one is watching, it’s Nona who observes and tries to blackmail the landing party for their technology. Nona badgers Tyree to take up arms against the villagers, then steals Kirk’s phaser and offers it to those same villagers. We’re never certain if Nona has true spell-casting abilities, or if the men-folk just can’t resist a bare midriff.

Who needs LSD when you have Star Trek?

Ironically, Tyree is the real hero through most of the episode, resisting the low road of violence. The first time he fires a rifle at a stationary object, while being trained by Kirk in the captain’s version of the School of the Americas, he is truly horrified. Only when Nona is killed by a group of villagers does he request weapons with which to seek vengeance. The villagers, being black-haired people, are not so restrained. “I thought my people would grow tired of killing,” Apella tells the Klingon, “but you were right. They see that it is easier than trading and it has pleasures.” Tyree, as leader of the hill people, expresses hope that the villagers will come to their senses, but he is in a terrible position: it’s hard to remain a pacifist when your own people are being killed. This dynamic of aggression, pacifism, and isolationism should have been explored further, and could have been, if not for the time-wasting scenes with the Mugato and Nona.

Kirk and McCoy fume when Tyree refuses to share his hair-styling secrets

Clearly, we’re meant to see a parallel with the war in Vietnam at a time when many Americans still thought our involvement there was a necessary evil to halt the spread of communism. Only a few days before “A Private Little War” aired, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces conducted the Tet Offensive, a major assault on one hundred South Vietnamese towns. Over 100,000 people had taken part in an antiwar march in Washington, DC, the previous October. While U.S. public support for the war was already in the minority, a Gallup poll indicated that support for President Johnson’s handling of the war dropped from 39% to 26% as a result of the Tet Offensive. In case the Vietnam analogy isn’t clear, Kirk spells it out for us, reminding McCoy of the “twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent.” Brush wars! I wonder if the Vietnamese would have described it that way.

Thankfully, NBC passed on the Star Trek – Daniel Boone crossover series

The episode raises important questions about balancing the Prime Directive’s non-interference mandate with offering support to a struggling society. Initially reluctant to provide guns to the hill people, Kirk defends the Prime Directive, telling Nona that cultures must progress according to their own schedule, “just as a man [and woman!] must grow in his own way and in his own time.” Yet the Klingons have already interfered with Neural’s development and the innocent (white-haired!) hill people are suffering as a result. Rather than confront the Klingons directly, or work through formal channels to have the Klingons kicked out for treaty violation (Kirk and McCoy gather evidence but never pursue the matter), or even try to negotiate with the villagers, Kirk foolishly relies on the Vietnam comparison: “The only solution is what happened back then. Balance of power.” He decides that the hill people should have the same weapons as the villagers, and if the Klingons escalate, then he will do the same. He should already know after “A Piece of the Action,” where he took a much wiser path, that more weapons is never the answer. He seems to believe an arms race is inevitable, a matter completely beyond his control. McCoy knows better, describing Vietnam, and Neural’s future, more honestly when he says, “That means you’re condemning this whole planet to a war that may never end. It could go on for year after year, massacre after massacre.” Kirk’s response is so pathetic, even he doesn’t seem convinced: “War isn’t a good life, but it’s life.” In fact, war is a good life for the lucky few who profit financially while remaining outside the line of fire. As U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney helped award “the mother of all service contracts” to the KBR unit of Halliburton. After several years of receiving six-figure salaries as a Halliburton executive, Cheney returned to politics to become Vice President, where he helped devise a war on terror that further rewarded Halliburton’s services while he continued enjoying deferred six-figure salaries from his former employer. The Klingons and Federation may not seek financial incentives, but they both want something from Neural, and it’s not friendship.

“I tell you, Bones, chicks dig the animal-skin vest look.”

The Prime Directive’s one fundamental flaw may be its implication that the Federation is the only outsider likely to approach planets like Neural. Considering how often the Klingons have arrived first, the Federation should have incorporated this into their planning by now. Once interference has occurred – either by a third party, in this episode, or the Federation itself, in “A Piece of the Action” – does the Prime Directive still apply? More importantly, in a galaxy inhabited by multiple warp-capable societies, “interference” from an exchange of knowledge and technology seems as inevitable as exchanges between nations on our real-life earth. Knowing we can’t prevent it, the real question becomes, how can we best respond? Like Tyree, we would be wise to resist the siren song of bloodshed. Yes, escalation is tempting. “Is dying better?” Nona demands, asking Kirk, “You would let him die when you have weapons to make him powerful and safe?” We might be tempted to praise Kirk’s solution as a parallel to the Reagan-era arms race that accelerated the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union and ended, or at least dramatically changed the conditions of, the Cold War. That ignores the fact that Reagan’s rhetoric drove the USSR into a state of paranoia that took us much closer to nuclear war than most people realize. (See Ben Macintyre’s 2018 book The Spy and the Traitor for the full story.) It also ignores suffering in the U.S. caused by slashing domestic spending to sustain the massive military buildup, an economic imbalance that continues to this day. “A Private Little War” ends on an appropriately sad note, but we desperately want the creativity that Kirk has demonstrated in past episodes. We want him to build on Tyree’s willingness to put life first. “Let us never negotiate out of fear,” John F. Kennedy said, “but let us never fear to negotiate.” Like America in the 1960s, the 1980s, and after 9/11, aggression wasn’t the only option, and we all should have known better.

Next: Return to Tomorrow