The Good of the Body: TOS #22: “The Return of the Archons”

The Enterprise visits a planet run by a computer in the guise of religious belief to the all-seeing “Landru”; a computer Kirk defeats through a battle of logic.

  • This is a fascinating episode because it encapsulates, as well as any episode does, the tension between the supposed ideals of the Federation, and Kirk’s mission, with the ideals of the writers and producers of 1960s TV.
  • It begins in media res: Sulu and another crewman, O’Neil, dressed in, what, 19th century?, period clothes, are on the run from some threat, in some town on an alien planet. (These scenes were filmed on the same Desilu backlot as “Miri” was.) Sulu calls the ship for an immediate beam-up, but it doesn’t come quickly enough: sinister men in robes, carrying long metal rods, steadily approach him, and touch him with a rod. Sulu experiences some kind of transition – a relaxation of all his worries – just as he is beamed up.
  • (Why is Sulu in a landing party? He’s the ship’s helmsman. Well, just to give Sulu, i.e. George Takei, something interesting to do, most likely. In the context of the show’s premise, it doesn’t make much sense.)
  • Sulu appears in the transporter room, now rather spacey. He sees Kirk and the others, and observes “You’re not of the Body!” Kirk asks what he means. Sulu replies, “They’re wonderful. They’re the sweetest… friendliest people in the universe… It’s paradise, my friend… paradise.”
  • Watching these episodes slightly out of order, I’m struck now by the similarity of the theme in this episode with that in “This Side of Paradise.” Both episodes feature some kind of ideal world, in which everyone is happy and content. But at what expense? And in both cases, the suggested philosophical explanation is arguable.
  • The Act I captain’s log reveals the backstory: this planet, “Beta III” (pronounced Beta Three), was where the starship Archon disappeared 100 years ago; that’s why the Enterprise is here to investigate.
    • A starship named Archon? A peculiar name.
    • 100 years ago? Were there starships like the Enterprise 100 years before the era of the series we’re watching? Or does ‘starship’ refer to some earlier kind of craft?
    • A captain’s log at the end of the episode mentions that Beta III is in the star system C-111 (pronounced See One Eleven). Trek never settled on a consistent scheme of naming planets, and designations like these were especially uninformative. Note comments about Bayer designations in previous post.
  • And so, two of his crewmen having been lost or somehow converted, *Kirk* himself, along with Spock, McCoy, and others, beam down to the planet. The notion that Kirk, the captain of the ship!, and senior staff would continually put themselves in danger was a flaw in the premise of Trek TOS, one which David Gerrold examined in his book The World of Star Trek, and one which Trek TNG tried to address.
  • Like many other episodes, this one assumes that locals on an alien planet speak English. This was another grievous flaw that I’m not sure even later Trek series fully addressed. (At some point in Trek TOS it was alluded that landing parties carried some kind of translator devices.)
  • Kirk and party beam down and observe all the locals walking through the town in zombie-like slow motion. Spock notes they exhibit “mindlessness” and “a vague contentment.”
  • But then the clock strikes 6, and suddenly a ‘Festival’ ensues – in which all the slow motion zombies burst out into exuberance and violence, smashing windows, assaulting each other.
  • Kirk and company take refuge in a local house, and watch the violence outside throughout the night. At 6am it abruptly stops – all the rioting locals suddenly revert to their previous slow, zombielike, states.
  • Interesting aside: Spock apparently sleeps with his eyes open. If you can draw that conclusion form the brief shot we see of Kirk, in the morning, waking up the others.
  • The most interesting thing about these opening scenes is that, as Kirk and his crew pursue the identity of “Landru” and the fate of the starship Archon, the idea and purpose of the “Festival” is never referred to again.
    • In a tightly controlled society, it’s easy to understand that citizens might need some kind of relief valve, a way of releasing their pent up emotions, periodically. It’s a reasonable premise. Yet it’s odd that this idea is never addressed later in the episode, with this or any other explanation.
  • This episode has as provocative a theme as any in the series in that it challenges passive religious dogma (by revealing that that dogma is based on delusion and trickery). When Kirk and the landing party take refuge, and ask about the violence outside, they are told “It’s the will of Landru”; when one of the men in that house, Hacom, is suspicious about these newcomers, he asks “Do you say that Landru is not everywhere??” Another, timid, man, Tamar tries to assuage Hacom’s suspicions. “Surely the Lawgivers already know. Are they not infallible?” Hacom spits back, “You mock them! You mock the Lawgivers!” A more potent mocking of puritanical religious fundamentalism could hardly be imagined; it’s one of many examples of how Trek dealt with political and philosophical issues by placing them in the context of science fiction, where they seemed nonthreatening compared to analogous stories set in the present of 1960s TV.
  • Reger, head of the safehouse where Kirk and party have spent the night, is alert to their strange appearance. He asks, “Are you… are you..?” but can’t quite say it. But Hacom realizes, “You are *not* of the Body!” And runs off to alert the Lawgivers. We quickly gather that the society here, all these zombie-like people, are part of some group-mind, ‘the Body’, that is overseen by someone or thing named Landru. And later Reger has the courage to ask, “Are you…Archons?” That starship’s visit a century ago has attained legendary, prophetic status.
  • The Lawgivers – two men in robes, carrying long metal staffs – show up to challenge the meek Tamar, and kill him. The Lawgivers then tell Kirk and his party that “You will be absorbed. The good is all. Landru is gentle. You will come.” We gather that this metaphor of ‘the body’ treats any threat, outsiders, as infections to be absorbed, or destroyed.
  • Kirk refuses. The Lawgivers don’t know how to respond. Kirk and his party leave the house, walking slowly outside through the town to try to fit in, until they see all the townspeople freeze — Reger explains that Landru is “summoning the Body” – and these townspeople slowly pick up weapons and then converge on Kirk and his party. It’s a very creepy scene. Kirk and party use a couple phaser blasts to escape.
  • Reger takes them to an underground room, built of large stone blocks, where he takes out a flat square panel that exudes light – obviously an example of high tech. “From a time before Landru.” Further dialogue explains that the earlier starship Archon was “pulled out the sky”; later dialogue that Landru was a savior, some 6000 years ago, who rescued a war-torn world by returning it to a simpler way of life.
  • Kirk checks in with the Enterprise and learns from Scott that the Enterprise is under attack from some kind of heat rays, that could pull the ship down from its orbit in 12 hours. Is this plot development a reasonable consequence of the Landru theme – or an excuse for Kirk to take extreme measures to bring down the local society in order the save his ship? (The latter.)
  • And then, the image of Landru appears – a truly striking image, a calmly voiced man with hugely swept back hair, preternatural. “I… am Landru,” he says, calmly and confidently. “You have come to a world without hate, without fear, without conflict. No war, no disease, no crime. None of the ancient evils. Landru seeks…tranquility. Peace for all. The universal good.”
  • But Landru treats Kirk and party as infections, and knocks them out with hypersonics. When the party awakes, their phasers and communicators have been taken, and McCoy and two others are gone. McCoy soon returns, spaced out like the locals. “Can I help you, friend? We all know one another in Landru. He knows. He watches.”
  • Kirk is taken next, and then Spock. But they meet Marplon, a dissident aligned with Reger, who only pretends to ‘absorb’ them. Kirk and party manage to overcome a couple Lawgivers, don their robs, and have Marplon lead them to the “Hall of Audiences” where they might speak with Landru. Except that Spock has already deduced that Landru is not an actual person.
  • Marplon and Reger, despite their dissidence, are afraid in their cores; somehow they still ‘believe’. Marplon is obsessed by prophecy. Kirk brushes his concerns aside.
  • Spock mentions the prime directive, the Federation’s non-interference directive; and Kirk replies that that only applies to a “living, growing culture.” This is the core of the problematic thesis of this episode. (What’s wrong with a living, stagnant culture, that might be stable forever?)
  • Kirk and Spock are led the “Hall of Audiences” and use phases to blast out the wall to see that – Landru is a computer. Of course. One created by the original Landru, 6000 years ago; but a computer that regulates a human society as a computer would.
  • Then we get the climactic scene, in which Kirk argues into destruction a computer – a theme that recurs three or four times in the series.
  • Landru argues that “the good of the Body is the prime directive”. “The harmonious continuation of the Body. The good is peace, tranquility.”
  • Kirk challenges Landru: “The body is dying. *You* are destroying it. … Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life. The Body dies. The fault is yours.”
  • –There’s a huge philosophical issue presumed here. Landru is sustaining a calm, orderly society – without freedom of choice or creativity. Is that bad? The culture sustains, perhaps indefinitely. There’s a parallel here to the calm colonists in “This Side of Paradise”; the presumption, here and there, is that such societies are ‘stagnant’ and thus somehow inhuman. Kirk presumes that individual creativity, self-determination, is key to a healthy society. I think this is a luxury of 20th and 21st century western cultures; many Asian cultures might disagree, those that stress social conformity, as well as religious communities in the US that try to be insular and resist outside secular influences.
  • The interaction between Kirk and the computer Landru derails logically when Kirk states “You must create the good. That is the will of Landru. Nothing else.” And then Landru replies, “But there is evil!”.
  • Non sequitur. Evil? At what point did Landru think there was some ‘evil’ present? Landru might otherwise have reasonably argued that its strategy for maintaining social order was more important than individual creativity and self-determination. Certainly some actual societies have determined that.
  • Nevertheless, Kirk’s battle with the machine plays out dramatically. The computer Landru, confronted with an apparent paradox, self-destructs, dramatically – not by simply freezing up, as our PCs do occasionally, but by bursting into flames and emitting smoke.
  • And in the final scene, back on the Enterprise bridge, Kirk repeats the central theme about computers having no ‘wisdom’, or ‘soul’. Spock replies, “Predictably metaphysical. I prefer the concrete, the graspable, the provable.” And then Kirk responds with a Gene Coon joke: “You’d make a splendid computer, Mr. Spock.”
  • And we hear from the crewman left behind on the planet: “Already this morning we’ve had half a dozen domestic quarrels and two genuine knock-down drag outs. It may not be paradise, but it’s certainly human.”
  • Spock: “How often mankind has wished for a world as peaceful, and secure, as the one Landru provided.”
  • Kirk: “Yes. And we never got it. Just lucky, I guess.”
  • Music notes:
  • As Sulu appears in the transporter room in the teaser, we hear Vina’s theme. Same them when the townspeople are ‘summoned’ to attack Kirk and his party.
  • As Kirk and company watch the ‘Festival’ violence outside, we here the “Corbomite Maneuver” cube theme.
  • When the light panel appears, we hear the Corbomite child theme.
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