(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: January 10, 1969
Crew Death Count: 0 (but the people of Cheron have all killed themselves in a very uncivil war)
There are those who call “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” slow or heavy-handed. I ignore these misguided detractors because “Battlefield” remains one of TOS’ finest episodes and a brilliant commentary on the futility of discrimination – there is so much going on that it’s hard to know where to start. The story was developed by Gene L. Coon, who had a hand in some of TOS’ most memorable episodes, including “Errand of Mercy,” “Space Seed,” and “The Devil in the Dark.” The teleplay was by Oliver Crawford, who knew a thing or two about discrimination, having been blacklisted in the 1950s by that famous witch hunt known as the House Un-American Activities Committee. With such strong DNA, it’s no surprise the story is so rich.
This week, the Enterprise travels to the planet Ariannus, which Kirk says “is vital as a transfer point on regular space commercial lanes.” The planet is experiencing a widespread bacterial infection that threatens to kill its one billion inhabitants unless the Enterprise distributes what amounts to a planet-wide antibiotic. En route, they encounter a recently stolen Starfleet shuttlecraft occupied by Lokai (Lou Antonio), who is solid black on one side of his body and solid white on the other. Lokai claims to be fleeing persecution, and sure enough, Bele (Frank Gorshin) soon shows up in hot pursuit. Like, Lokai, Bele is black on one side and white on the other. Bele introduces himself as the Chief Commissioner of the Office of Political Traitors. He seeks to return Lokai to their home planet of Cheron to be tried for vaguely specified crimes. In response, Lokai requests political asylum with the Federation. What follows is a struggle for control of the Enterprise and an exploration of the civil rights movement, classism, evolution, and the obligations of a rational justice system.
Cheron’s role in the broader galactic power-struggle is never specified. We know they are not part of the Federation – the lack of an extradition treaty with Cheron is why Kirk insists on taking Bele and Lokai to a starbase for judgment – but Lokai claims to have heard of the Enterprise. And he is familiar with fickle human nature. “You monotone humans are all alike,” he says. “First you condemn and then attack.” Both men have highly developed mental powers; for example, they are able to generate force fields to protect themselves from phaser fire. Yet Bele seems more advanced in this regard, charging at the Enterprise in an invisible ship (just like Wonder Woman!), then magically transporting himself on board when his ship disintegrates against the Enterprise hull. Bele is also able to manipulate the Enterprise navigation controls and burn up circuits with only his mind. (One of the episode’s few shortcomings is a failure to address this power imbalance – more on that later.)
When Lokai arrives, the first of his kind encountered by the Federation, he is assumed to be an anomaly based on his stark skin coloration. McCoy and, oddly enough, Spock, both try to explain Lokai’s appearance in terms of human genetics. Kirk, for once, remembers that he’s an explorer, telling Lokai, “We’ve never encountered a being like you. I’d like to know more about you and your planet.” Soon, however, Bele shows up, proving that Lokai is not an aberration. Later, Spock more wisely refers to evolutionary principles, indicating that if Lokai and Bele are from the same planet, they must share ancient ancestors, ancestors who were probably monotone before genetic variations caused the black/white separation. Except for the belt and collar signifying Bele’s legislative authority, their uniforms are identical, symbolic of their common heritage. Bele, like all right-wing science-deniers, scoffs at the idea of evolution. None of this mitigates the in-your-face ignorance of Bele’s justification for all this hatred, the detail astute observers will have noticed by now: he is black on the right side, while Lokai is black on the left side, and that definitely makes Lokai inferior, as any color-biased supremacist can plainly see. The blank looks from Kirk and Spock say more than words about the toxic absurdity of discrimination on the basis of skin color, a lesson that has been perfectly positioned by Spock’s prior observations on skin color as determined by evolutionary adaptability. Just as Dr. Suess’ Sneetches changed stars frequently enough to forget their original identity, so our earliest ancestors probably all looked about the same, until time and geographic variations in sun exposure gave us humans a rainbow of pigmentations.
The episode parallels so many aspects of the civil rights movement that it’s nearly a history lesson in itself. Kirk even describes Cheron as located “in the southernmost part of the galaxy,” which makes little sense in terms of cosmic navigation, but clearly links the situation with the most egregious segregationists in the southeastern U.S. The formal movement for equality in voting and public and social services began in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s ruling against public school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, and ended in 1968 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. No one really believed the struggle was over in 1968, however, given events like the Orangeburg Massacre in February and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, only nine months before “Battlefield” aired. A further warning sign was the February, 1968, report from the Kerner Commission, established to investigate widespread urban demonstrations and riots in 1967, involving looting, rock throwing, and other similar acts and often instigated by police violence. The Commission’s report summarized that Black Americans wanted “fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.”
Is “fuller participation” what Lokai wants from Cheron? He is introduced to us as a looter, having claimed use of the Federation’s shuttle to escape persecution. “My need gave me the right to use the ship,” he says, and assures Kirk that he intended to return the appropriated vehicle. Looting is a complex topic and an activity that had been broadcast into American living rooms repeatedly by the time “Battlefield” aired: notable examples included the 1965 Watts Uprising, the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, and in numerous cities after the 1968 assassination of MLK. As an essay from The New Inquiry describes, “Looting is extremely dangerous to the rich (and most white people) because it reveals, with an immediacy that has to be moralized away, that the idea of private property is just that: an idea, a tenuous and contingent structure of consent, backed up by the lethal force of the state. When rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without cops, property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.” Even if you’re fully opposed to looting, Lokai’s use of the shuttle still raises issues about public vs. private resources and the concept of shared ownership. Most public facilities already operate on this first come-first serve premise – parks, restrooms, street parking, and so on. Various models of car-sharing manage motor vehicles the same way. Why not offer a Federation refugee shuttle-share program?
Lokai takes on more dimension as the episode progresses, however. Based on the available evidence, Lokai is clearly a member of an oppressed class, and as mentioned earlier, the episode’s primary failure is implying that Bele and Lokai share equal responsibility for their conflict. Just as Bele has the preponderance of mental powers, so he and other black-on-right Cherons’ appear to have had majority social and political control. Lokai says Bele “raided our homes, tore us from our families, herded us together like cattle, and then sold us as slaves.” While Bele calls Lokai a liar, he doesn’t refute these charges, instead raising new complaints about Lokai. Bele claims to have educated Lokai’s people; Lokai says this was “just education enough to serve the master race,” much the way capitalism has reduced our public education system to little more than job training designed to maintain a steady workforce. Bele tells us slavery was a thing of the past (thereby acknowledging a history of slavery!) and that Lokai’s people had been freed; yet Lokai says they were still oppressed to such an extent that it made little difference. More than one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Americans still faced widespread segregation, not to mention the nearly insurmountable imbalances left behind by hundreds of years of slavery. In any class-structured society, there is at least one oppressor class and at least one oppressed class, determined not only by sheer numbers but by each class’ ability to consolidate power through control of capital, legislators, law enforcement, and other resources. So when Kirk, Spock, and company imply that Bele and Lokai are equally responsible for their conflict, they are acting as, among other things, the “impartial” media that put segregationists and the civil rights movement on equal footing. “I cannot take sides,” Kirk says. This is the same false equivalence that gives white supremacists, flat-earthers, and climate change deniers an equal voice that they don’t deserve.
Lokai is also characterized as somewhere between the two best known civil rights leaders of the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Striking the more militant tone of Malcolm X, he threatens to turn the tides on Cheron by returning with “armies of followers,” never specifying where he hopes to find those armies. Yet Lokai also practices the proselytizing oratory of King when he gathers with crew members in the recreation room, reminding them how removed they are from the struggle, much as the majority of white America was far removed from the civil rights struggle: “You have read about it in history books. How can I make your flesh know how it feels to see all those who are like me, and only because they are, despised, slaughtered, and even worse, denied the simplest bit of decency that is a living being’s right?” Lokai even references the Vietnam War, where Black soldiers faced the same discrimination they did at home. Of the 246,000 soldiers drafted between 1965 and 1967, 40% were Black, even though only 11% of the U.S. population was Black at the time. “Do you know what it would be like to be dragged out of your hovel into a war on another planet?” Lokai asks. “A battle that will serve your oppressor and bring death to you and your brothers?”
Bele, on the other hand, has the classic traits of the oppressor. He claims he has pursued Lokai for 50,000 earth years, mirroring segregationists’ tireless commitment to their cause. He objectifies Lokai as “the product of our love.” Bele’s invisible spaceship and advanced telekinetic abilities, allowing him to force the Enterprise to Cheron despite the crew’s best efforts, represent the superior resources available to segregationists, who not only had greater numbers, but often had the sympathy of law enforcement, courts, and business owners. Bele also benefits from the Federation’s neutrality and distance from events, making claims about Lokai that can never be verified – a parallel to Department of Justice investigators in the 1950s and 1960s, who investigated crimes that appeared to be racially motivated but, at times, had little direct evidence beyond conflicting testimonies from white and Black eyewitnesses. Bele first intends to extradite Lokai for treason, then later makes the claim about Lokai murdering “thousands” – an accusation which, as Spock points out, the Federation has no ability to confirm. Bele relies on accusations to change the perceived nature of the struggle and discredit Lokai; in a similar way, with evidence that was flimsy at best, U.S. segregationists convinced many in the public and the federal government – including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, President John F. Kennedy, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy – that the civil rights movement had become so overrun with communists it was essentially a front operation for the Kremlin. While active participation by self-proclaimed communists in the civil rights movement was minimal, at most, such claims convinced many in the general public otherwise.
As circumstances vary, the Federation, represented by the Enterprise crew, is a stand-in for both the federal government and the many white supporters who directly or indirectly encouraged the civil rights movement. Kirk strives to control the Enterprise and maintain fairness, just as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act, and other legislation was intended to level the playing field regardless of skin color. And Bele ultimately circumvents Kirk’s authority, as segregationists went to great lengths to sidestep the law, by privatizing schools and other public facilities, generating endless legal challenges, or simply ignoring the law altogether. Bele accuses the crew of being brainwashed, he says Lokai is twisting their minds, the same way local governments described civil rights leaders and white supporters as outside agitators manipulating local residents. Finally, Bele demonizes the crew as being complicit with Lokai, as whites in civil rights demonstrations were sometimes singled out for the worst physical assaults, labeled as traitors to white America. Lokai makes simultaneous appeals to the crew, the same way civil rights workers begged for protection from the Justice Department when they were assaulted for simply trying to register to vote: “Will you continue to let this mockery of justice go on?” Yet Kirk and Spock contend that Lokai has encouraged others to fight and die while he survived safely on the sidelines; in a similar way, many members of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) – young people who had faced police brutality and harsh treatment in prison – criticized MLK for grandstanding and speechmaking, without immersing himself often enough in hands-on action.
Kirk’s efforts to remain neutral lead to mixed results. He wisely reminds Bele that Federation laws apply on the Enterprise: “No one claims anyone without due process.” Yet at no point does he attempt to restrain either Bele or Lokai! After Bele’s first attempt to take the Enterprise to Cheron, Kirk says, “You are free to move about the ship.” While his intention is noble – he hopes Bele and Lokai both will find inspiration among the crew – even we can see that Bele is not to be reasoned with. Maybe confinement wouldn’t make a difference, we never get a clear sense of how far Bele’s telekinesis can reach. Still, Kirk should have tried. One of the episode’s highlights, of course, is the self-destruct sequence, when Kirk insists he will destroy the Enterprise rather than let Bele force them to Cheron. The scene plays out like the climactic quick-draw shootout in a western, with a series of extreme closeups as Kirk, Spock, and Scott enter their respective codes and the self-destruct countdown commences. Thankfully, Bele relents in time, but for that reason we’re never entirely certain if the self-destruct system is legitimate or an elaborate bluff along the lines of the Corbomite Maneuver. This will remain a mystery until the heart-breaking confirmation in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1986).
Critics generally have two complaints with “Battlefield”: the anti-racist message is heavy-handed and the pacing – primarily in the long scene of Bele chasing Lokai through the Enterprise – is slow. I imagine those critics have never been assaulted with attack dogs, nightsticks, and tear gas. What could be more drastic than police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, or denial of the right to vote based on skin color, or whining protestations of innocence by white supremacists after they have burned down a Black family’s home? Of course the message in “Battlefield” is heavy-handed, it’s supposed to be, because the reality throughout America in the late 1960s was even more heavy-handed.
I’m also guessing critics of the show’s pacing haven’t lived with the burden of a lifetime of discrimination. Bigotry isn’t something that gets turned on or off in the timeframe of a movie or TV show – it’s something millions of U.S. citizens live with every day. Imagine the reality of Driving While Black every time you leave your home, or worrying day after day if you might be assaulted for your gender or skin color. Research has shown that “when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly, or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.” Look at the weary expressions on Bele and Lokai as they run through the Enterprise – barely running, really, overwhelmed by sheer exhaustion – images of cities burning from World War II aerial raids superimposed over them. Regardless of who is the oppressor, both are worn down by the self-created conflict without end. This scene is drawn out for a reason: to give viewers a sense of the soul-crushing fatigue that destroyed an entire world.
The destruction of Cheron is the episode’s ultimate lesson. While Bele and Lokai bicker on the Enterprise, their people have self-destructed, leaving a planetary wasteland and these last two representatives, who remain locked in battle for all eternity rather than let go of their hatred. “Change is the essential process of all existence,” Spock tells them, but Bele and Lokai refuse to change, rejecting Kirk’s offer of refuge among the Federation. The situation seemed equally hopeless in the late 1960s. “The nation is sick,” MLK said in his final speech, in Memphis, the day before his death. “Trouble is in the land.” The Kerner Commission’s 1968 report predicted, “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” And here we are, in 2021 (at the time I write this), with voter suppression laws being enacted across the country and little visible improvement in civil rights since the launching of Black Lives Matter in 2013. We may be inclined to feel as desperate as Lokai, pleading with the Enterprise crew to join the struggle, or as helpless as Kirk, trying and failing to broker peace. We can still take inspiration from Spock’s words, however. Change is inevitable, and we can find evidence of this in the lives and careers of Barack and Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and Stacey Abrams, the widespread removal of statues honoring the southern insurrectionists of the U.S. Civil War, and the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. One of the Enterprise crew’s most important missions is to learn from the history of others, as we must learn from our own history. “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness,” MLK said in his final speech. “Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”
Next: The Mark of Gideon