Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Spectre of the Gun

(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: October 25, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0

Once you get past a preposterous setup, “Spectre of the Gun” is an intriguing, if slightly muddled, TOS episode. This week, the Federation has sent the Enterprise to make contact with the inhabitants of the planet Melkot. This is so important, Kirk says, “We’re to establish contact with the Melkotians at all costs.” Good heavens, that sounds dire, but we’re never told why the Federation considers Melkot so important. The Enterprise encounters a space buoy that warns the crew to stay away. Kirk believes his orders give him no leeway, however, and the crew charges forward. A landing party of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, and Chekov is intercepted by a Melkot who tells them they must die for their impertinence. The landing party finds themselves transformed into members of the Cowboys gang defeated by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

“We have guns. Why don’t we just rob the bank and bribe the Earps?”

We have to overlook two bizarre decisions before we can enjoy “Spectre of the Gun.” The first is Kirk’s decision to ignore the Melkotian warning buoy. It’s hard to imagine a justification for risking the Enterprise and her entire crew just to make contact with a species that wants to be left alone. The Melkotians are clearly technologically advanced. We gather this not just from the buoy’s presence, but also its ability to communicate telepathically with crew members in their ancestral languages – Uhura hears Swahili, Chekov hears Russian, etc. There’s no logical purpose for this, as we’ve already established that English is the crew’s standard language, but it does demonstrate the Melkotians’ technical superiority.

“Also, all Amway and Avon solicitors will be shot on sight.”

More importantly, the buoy amounts to a “Do Not Disturb” sign and should be respected. Many years ago, I met a friend at the house where she rented a room; the homeowners had a welcome mat at the front door with an image of Yosemite Sam and the phrase “Back Off.” I wasn’t surprised a few weeks later when the homeowners became hostile and the friend had to move on short notice. The message was simple: if the welcome mat says “Back Off,” you should definitely do that. The Federation should respect a society’s wish for privacy and allow Kirk the authority to avoid contact under these circumstances. Instead, the Federation’s imperialist ways are implied to be as inevitable as a force of nature. “I prefer being a welcome guest, Captain,” Spock says, “but there seems to be little choice.” Of course, there is a choice, and both Kirk and the Federation should accept that. The Melkotians aren’t specific in their reasons for rejecting outsiders, but the single Melkotian who greets the landing party indicates a fear of infection, whether literal or metaphorical: “You are outside. You are disease. Disease must be destroyed.”

“You have never seen a papier-mache dragon head like me before!”

The second inexplicable decision: The Melkotians put their telepathy skills to use designing the setting for the landing party’s planned execution, but like Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos,” they are centuries out of date. They have borrowed from Kirk’s family history and put the landing party in the American west of the 1800s, because, as Kirk explains, “My ancestors pioneered the American frontier.” Of course they did! The Melkotians are at least savvy enough to understand humanity’s barbaric nature. “The violence of your own heritage is to be the pattern for our execution,” Spock determines. Still, it’s hard to believe death by six-shooter is this prominent in Kirk’s subconscious, so why do the Melkotians select not only the American west, but a specific event in western history in which Kirk’s ancestors, as far as we know, played no part? Surely death by Klingon or Romulan occupies more space in Kirk’s mind. Instead, “Spectre of the Gun” feels like an attempt to appeal to fans of westerns. Westerns weren’t big box office in movie theaters in 1968 – although Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West was released that year – but they clearly mattered to TV audiences. In reviewing the broadcast schedule, I count at least eleven westerns on network prime-time television during the 1968-69 season, including Bonanza (1959-1973), Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and The Big Valley (1965-1969). “Spectre of the Gun” plays strongly to the myth of “frontier justice,” replacing right and wrong with win or lose based on who is the fastest draw (or who rounds up the biggest lynch mob). Kirk, accustomed to living in a relatively fair society, pleads with Sheriff Johnny Behan (Bill Zuckert) to stop the gunfight. In the spirit of the wild west, the sheriff refuses, telling Kirk – who everyone in town sees as Ike Clanton – he and a lot of the townspeople hope to see Kirk and company defeat the Earps.

“No, Spock, we’re not taking the horse back to the ship with us.”

In fact, the real Behan was sympathetic to the Cowboys and was no fan of the Earps. And although the timing is different, Ike Clanton really did tell Wyatt Earp he didn’t want to fight, as Kirk/Clanton does here. But “Spectre of the Gun” has a lot of historical inaccuracy regarding details of the gunfight, most notably the fact that the real gunfight didn’t even take place at the O.K. Corral. We’re never certain how much of this inaccuracy is dramatic license on the part of the writers. Spock concludes that the Melkotians are working with incomplete information, resulting in the eerie, studio-lot appearance of the Melkotians’ version of Tombstone, Arizona. The entire plot depends on this partial knowledge, because when Chekov – as Billy Claiborne – is killed by Morgan Earp (Rex Holman) hours before the scheduled shootout, this event violates history. In real life, Claiborne fled the scene as soon as the gunfight began. This is part of the evidence that leads Spock to believe the guns and bullets are not real, but only part of a simulated reality created by the telepathic Melkotians.

Tombstone, Arizona, approximately 1881, photo by C.S. Fly – the real “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” took place outside Fly’s photographic studio

As always, our crew, particularly Spock, has highly detailed knowledge of earth events from hundreds of years in their past. The place and time, Tombstone, Arizona, in October, 1881, is nearly all they need to recognize what is about to occur. Kirk quickly recalls the names of all the participants. Spock is familiar with the “fast draw” tradition. Spock and McCoy easily fashion a tranquilizer out of locally common ingredients, just as Kirk assembled gunpowder with local materials in “Arena.” Kirk understands the firepower of the six-shooters that replace their phasers. Chekov makes, by my count, his third reference to the Cossacks: “All those western Cossacks had were poisonous snakes and cactus plants.” His geography is accurate: the Cossacks primarily inhabited western Russia and Ukraine.

Anticipating the death of reliable journalism

Everyone in the landing party has a contribution to make, even if it’s serving as a guinea pig for the tranquilizer, as Scott does. Chekov’s comment about the Cossacks gets Spock and McCoy thinking about the prospect of a tranquilizer. On the other hand, Chekov’s unprofessional behavior – goofing around with Sylvia (Bonnie Beecher) when he should be conferring with his colleagues – is what gets him killed, when Morgan Earp tries to separate him from the young lady. Chekov’s death is reminiscent of McCoy’s experience in “Shore Leave,” an imaginary demise in a simulated reality created by a more advanced species. The event does, however, raise awkward questions. Chekov dies before Spock convinces the others – with the help of an all-purpose mind-meld – that the bullets aren’t real. But Chekov is magically alive at the end of the episode. Does that mean the Melkotians revived him? Or perhaps he never really died? Is it possible the landing party was never in mortal danger at all, that the Melkotians planned to inflict some mental torture before sending the crew on their way?

Chekov is a faster draw during the Russian winter

When to use violence, proactively or in self-defense, is a main theme of the episode. The Melkotians could argue they’re acting in self-defense when they threaten to execute the landing party: they did offer a clear warning, after all, making the Enterprise crew the aggressors. However, such determination is inconsistent with the Melkotians’ abrupt change of heart at the end. When the gunfight finally occurs – with a dramatic shot of the Earps’ bullets passing through the landing party and shattering the fence behind them – the conflict seems resolved. Yet Kirk charges forward and starts a fistfight with Wyatt Earp (Ron Soble). It seems a bizarre choice considering Kirk has begged for non-violence throughout the episode. Kirk handily knocks Wyatt to the ground and pulls a gun on him. Just as with the Gorn in “Arena,” Kirk comes to his senses and spares his opponent’s life. Though Wyatt is presumably as imaginary as the bullets, the gesture persuades the Melkotians to give up their whole “Go away” stance and welcome the crew to a visit.

In the real gunfight, the opposing groups were only six feet apart and fired thirty shots in thirty seconds.

Kirk explains his outburst in the final scene, when he acknowledges that, at some level, he did feel a primal instinct to take vengeance for Chekov’s death. We get a hint of this earlier, when Kirk/Clanton confronts the sheriff: “Yes, I want revenge…but I can’t just kill them.” Impulse control is one of the distinguishing traits of our 23rd century descendants. It should be simple to consider the possible outcomes of one’s actions and take the high road, but it’s a life skill too few of us possess in the 21st century. When Spock says, “I wonder how humanity managed to survive,” Kirk explains, “We overcame our instinct for violence.” It’s a nice callback to Kirk’s message in “A Taste of Armageddon,” when he tells lazy warmonger Anan 7: “We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today.“

Spock makes his final plea for keeping the horse

The most important message in “Spectre of the Gun” is the importance of custom and location in determining our perceived reality. The landing party is never entirely certain they’re on Melkot, given the foggy, featureless surface, inconsistent with sensor readings, where tricorders and communicators don’t function. They’re equally unsure of what’s true or not in the fantasy version of Tombstone. The buildings are only facades from outside but become substantial enough when entered. “That’s one thing we can be sure of here,” Kirk says when an apparently dead cowpoke is tossed out of the saloon. “Death is real.” Yet their ability to survive the gunfight, not to mention Chekov’s miraculous recovery, proves otherwise. Spock says, “History cannot be changed,” but the landing party is only experiencing a facsimile of history. Only the failure of the tranquilizer – a chemical mixture that should have been fool-proof – confirms the unreality they now inhabit. “Physical reality is consistent with universal laws,” Spock says. “Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality.”

“He’s Western dead, Jim.”

Just a different reality, one that contradicts the landing party’s preconceptions. The significance of acknowledging present reality goes deeper than just the false facades of Tombstone. When McCoy and Scott criticize Spock at his apparent lack of grief over Chekov’s death, he reminds them, “I am half human.” He feels grief, but his Vulcan nature requires him to experience it differently than his fully human shipmates. Spock’s statement seems enough for McCoy and Scott to accept that they’re wrong to apply their own standards to everyone else. “We judge reality by the response of our senses,” Spock says. “Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules.” This explains the destabilizing effects of lies put forth by conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and the similarly wrong-headed. Relentless exposure to false news has too many people living in a false reality, just like the landing party, abiding by the rules of a world that doesn’t exist.

Kirk begs Spock to share a delicious can of pork and beans

“Spectre of the Gun” is then an unintentional endorsement of the scientific method, evaluating the validity of a hypothesis via reproducible experimentation. McCoy and Spock demonstrate this when they initially fail to test the makeshift tranquilizer. McCoy claims, “It’s not necessary, Captain. It’s very simple. Nothing can go wrong.” But Kirk has recent evidence proving otherwise: “Up to now, everything has gone wrong.” And he’s right, because confirming the tranquilizer’s ineffectiveness is what saves them. Kirk also draws from centuries of history – experimentation and outcome on an epic scale – when he tells the Melkotian, “We fight only when there’s no choice. We prefer the ways of peaceful contact.” He knows nonviolence is far more likely to result in a productive outcome. It would be easy to interpret the crew’s resistance to bullets in Tombstone as metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, an implication that we can choose our own reality, but in fact the opposite is true. As Spock told us earlier, we can’t function effectively until we understand the lay of the land. Conspiracy theorists have made fiction reality and turned the world upside down, the inevitable outcome of the “I’m entitled to my opinion” fallacy, escalating threats of violence and turning every day into a potential shootout. Only by reclaiming the truth and setting the historic record right can we rise above the specter of violence and live peacefully in the real world.

Next: Day of the Dove