Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Errand of Mercy

(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: March 23, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0 (but a Klingon vessel with an unknown crew complement is destroyed)

Bellybuttons: 0

Nearing the end of the first season of TOS, numerous episodes have demonstrated one of the series’ fundamental themes: power corrupts. In “Errand of Mercy,” we find the one exception to that principle in the Organians. This week, in unseen background action, the Federation and the Klingon Empire declare war on each other after failed negotiations over disputed territory. The Enterprise is sent to Organia, strategically located in the aforementioned region, to prevent the Klingons from taking control of the planet. Sort of a tale of two empires. Because the Klingons are known to enslave the inhabitants of planets they’ve conquered, Kirk considers himself to be on an errand of mercy. Arriving just before the Klingons, Kirk pleads with the Organians to side with the Federation. The Organians, represented primarily by Ayelborne (John Abbott) and Trefayne (David Hillary Hughes), remain neutral, insisting the Klingons are no threat to them. The Klingons arrive and declare what amounts to martial law, turning the Organians’ council chambers into an awfully bleak house.

Even on Organia old white men call the shots

“Errand of Mercy” is Trekdom’s first encounter with the Klingons, and it’s a worthy introduction to these iconic villains. We immediately learn that Klingons shoot first and ask questions later: approaching Organia, the Enterprise is fired on by a Klingon vessel without warning. On the planet, the Klingons are led by Kor (John Colicos, who reprised the role in three episodes of DS9), and if Kor reminds us of Genghis Khan, that’s deliberate: Colicos and makeup artist Fred Phillips developed the look with that in mind. Kor is the ultimate assumptive leader, introducing himself as the “Military Governor of Organia.” Kor gladly lives up to Kirk’s warnings about Klingon nature: “We Klingons have a reputation for ruthlessness. You will find that it is deserved.” Kor prefers his subjects unhappy: “I don’t trust men who smile too much.” He’s also a thorough strategist; while he doesn’t know his enemy’s face, he knows Kirk’s reputation as captain of the Enterprise. Soon, Kor issues edicts limiting the Organians’ freedom and threatens to execute two hundred civilians every hour until they surrender Kirk and Spock.

Later, we get real insight into why the Klingons carry out their duties so aggressively: Kor tells us Klingons are “always under surveillance.” In other words, the Klingon Empire is a spy-versus-spy network, where every movement and word is monitored, families and neighbors turn against each other, and no one can be trusted. This is presumably inspired by various surveillance states of the era, whether Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, or China’s Cultural Revolution, although we would be naive to think the United States was above such treachery. This is a fine way to achieve totalitarian efficiency, and not much else. The Klingon code of honor would come later, but “Errand of Mercy” gives us a clear sense of the importance to Klingons of living, and dying, in conquest for the Empire. At the end, contemplating the war that could have been, Kor says, “It would have been glorious.”

Genghis, not Noonien Singh

Despite their own claims to the contrary, the Federation’s conduct isn’t much better. When the Klingon vessel fires on the Enterprise during the prologue, the Enterprise destroys the enemy vessel in short order. Yes, the Klingons are the aggressors, but no one on the Enterprise even blinks at the instant loss of hundreds of lives. Later, Klingons and the Federation are united in a complete failure to understand their hosts. In his first meeting with the Organians, Kirk makes the bizarre statement, “I’m a soldier, not a diplomat.” That’s completely inconsistent with most of the rest of the series (and absent from their “Space, the final frontier…” mission statement), but it is sadly in keeping with Kirk’s designs on policing the galaxy in “Balance of Terror.”

Kirk’s behavior is certainly not diplomatic, as he attempts to sway the Organians with a bullying speech that amounts to the offer of a protection racket: give us what we want, and we’ll protect you from the Klingons. Kirk has arrived with great expectations, assuming the simple-living Organians want what the Federation has; “We can help you remake your world,” he tells them, not even considering that their world may be fine the way it is. Even Spock displays a militant attitude, suggesting Kirk up the ante instead of accepting Klingon domination, leading to the fiery destruction of a munitions depot. Kirk goes so far as to suggest a scorched-earth policy, saying, “We can…make Organia useless to them.” Kirk’s ultimate threat – to inflict violence on the Organians unless they assist him in their own defense – would be comical if it weren’t so frightening. When Kor tells Kirk, “We are similar as a species…predators…hunters…,” we have no argument.

“By golly, Spock, you’re right! My shins have never been warmer!”

The Organians are the real heroes here, a civilized version of the Metrons from “Arena.” Initially, the Organians remind us of indigenous Americans, engaged in subsistence living with no real technology and no incentive to disrupt their peaceful lifestyle. That includes not bothering with an org chart: when Kirk asks who’s in charge, Ayelborne responds, “We don’t have anybody in authority.” (Libertarians, don’t get your hopes up: this works for the Organians not because individuals live according to their own wants, but because they have evolved beyond material interests.) Kirk tells the Organians, “Your public facilities are almost nonexistent,” ignoring the lovely public square where healthy Organians frolic in tranquility. Even Spock fails to understand the Organians’ contentment with what they have, saying, “They are totally stagnant.” Yet the Organians’ primary concern is not their own safety, but that of Kirk and Spock. Kirk and Kor, both colonizers, ready to turn the home of a neutral third party into a war zone, display similar contempt for this agenda-free existence: Kirk recklessly tells his hosts, “I am used to the idea of dying, but I have no desire to die for the likes of you.” The Organians come across as the ultimate hippies, dressed in the J.C. Penney Renaissance Collection and parading around goats and cattle; the Federation and Klingons see only poverty and squalor. Like something out of Oliver Twist.

Wearing the most comfortable clothing is the first sign of real intelligence

Soon, however, the Organians demonstrate the non-violent resistance practiced by Ghandi and Dr. King, a philosophy that is, sadly, as appropriate today as it was in the 1960s. As both Kirk and Kor escalate their conflict, the Organians simply refuse to participate. When Kirk offers protection, the council insists it’s not needed. When Kor declares himself in charge, they ignore him. When Kirk and Spock are imprisoned by the Klingons, Ayelborne frees them but goes no further. Even when the Organians’ finally reveal the extent of their powers, with a reach beyond that of the Talosians, they practice the ultimate in non-interference: “We find interference in other people’s affairs most disgusting, but you gentlemen have given us no choice.” This is the only aspect of Organian behavior that is difficult to explain. Why did they allow the Klingon/Federation stalemate to continue so long before explaining themselves? (In fairness, during the council’s first meeting with Kirk, Ayelborne says, “You do not understand us. Perhaps-”, before Kirk rudely interrupts by taking a call from the Enterprise.) Why didn’t they prevent the destruction of the Klingon ship during the prologue?

That power represents the third act of the Organians’ lesson to their war-mongering trespassers. They are “pure energy,” as Spock describes it, and appear and disappear like the ghosts from A Christmas Carol. Despite the series’ implied inferiority of both a noncorporeal state (“The Squire of Gothos”) and highly advanced telekinetic powers (“The Menagerie”) the Organians demonstrate no interest in conquest and only use their powers when given no choice. When an armed showdown becomes inevitable, the Organians simply prevent both sides from using their weapons, not just locally, but on the Enterprise, earth, and the Klingon home world. These super-beings even have the ability to loosely predict the future, making the half-accurate declaration to Kirk, “It is true that in the future, you and the Klingons will become fast friends. You will work together.” While “fast friends” is an exaggeration, enough of an alliance will develop to give us at least one Klingon serving in Starfleet by the time of TNG. It all explains why the Organians never lose their calm: they aren’t naive, they’re the smartest people in the room.

“You have never seen the like of us before.”

Quick-witted readers may have noted references to Charles Dickens throughout this essay, and not only because Dickens may well be one of Kirk’s favorite authors. The episode’s title comes from Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby. In the novel, young Nicholas ventures into the world full of vim and vigor but lacking the wisdom of age and experience. Losing faith in a humanity that fails to live up to his own great expectations, Nicholas is given hope (and a job) by the Cheeryble brothers, German merchants who share their good fortune with the world through charity work, leading brother Charles Cheeryble to say:

“I am no angel, Heaven knows, but an erring and imperfect man; nevertheless, there is one quality which all men have, in common with the angels, blessed opportunities of exercising, if they will; mercy. It is an errand of mercy that brings me here. Pray, let me discharge it.”

Dickens himself described his protagonist Nicholas the way we might describe Kirk in “Errand of Mercy”: “He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience…” We understand, in the end, that it’s not Kirk who’s on an errand of mercy, but the Organians, and in doing so they teach our young(ish) captain a valuable lesson. Kirk arrives with the classic attitude of the imperialist, believing the course of history inevitable and those who fail to share his vision mere interruptions: “The weak innocents, they always seem to be located along the natural invasion routes.” As if invasion were a natural occurrence! He actually compares Organia to Armenia, no doubt referencing the murder of over 600,000 Armenians when the region fell into dispute between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1915-1916. But Kirk is confronted by his own hypocrisy; when he blusters, “We have the right-” Ayelborne finishes the statement for him: “To wage war, Captain? To kill millions of innocent people?” Kirk’s expression says sit all; he understands now that his mercy was insincere. This adaptability is the one quality that sets the Federation apart from the Klingons. He has learned genuine mercy from the Organians, a quality Kor disdains. And while Kor reflects on the glorious spectacle of the war he missed, Kirk confesses, “I’m embarrassed.”

Kirk demonstrates real leadership by admitting he was wrong

One of wisdom’s most essential traits is an alignment between purpose and actions. Kirk claims early on, “War. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it.” He charges forward with the fervor of a man who does, in fact, want war. Even Spock observes, “Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” By the final act, Kirk is furious that the Organians are preventing the very war he claimed no one wanted. The Organians’ errand of mercy reminds him that his initial mission was not one of war, but of peace: establishing diplomatic relations with Organia. It’s astonishing how quickly we turn against our own best interests. This is the moral for Kirk, and for us. The mythical boogeyman of socialism distracts us from the proven benefits of universal, single-payer healthcare. The horror of September 11 – and it was horrific – led America to get bogged down in a shapeless war without end, creating a national disunity that grows more severe every year. We demand the freedom to dismantle the legal and social framework that allows a free society to exist in the first place. Unlike the Federation, we can’t wait for an omnipotent third party like the Organians to intervene. Here in the real world, our only hope is to reconsider what we truly value and turn every day into a blessed opportunity of exercising mercy.

Next: The Alternative Factor