The Instinct Can Be Fought: TOS #24: “A Taste of Armageddon”

The Enterprise attempts to initiate diplomatic relations with a planet conducting a computer war with its neighbor planet, a war in which theoretical causalities voluntarily go to die in disintegration chambers.

  • This is one of Trek’s best ethical conundrums, a contact with an alien civilization whose warrior ethical practices are not only problematic, but which threaten the Enterprise and its crew.
  • The Enterprise is on its way to star cluster NGC 321, with a Federation ambassador on board, Robert Fox, whose mission is to establish diplomatic relations with the civilizations “known to be there”. Fox wears a tight suit and comes across as stuffy.
    • We have here another example of Trek’s rather haphazard approach to using astronomical names and designations. “NGC” is short for New General Catalogue (, compiled in 1888 to list thousands of objects in the sky that included pretty much everything not obviously an ordinary star. Thus its contents include things we now know to be star clusters, galaxies, and planetary nebulae, all very different types of objects. Its designations are still used, as are Messier’s (, from a century earlier, when those designations are convenient to use.
    • NGC 321 is, in fact, a spiral galaxy (, which means it’s completely outside our own galaxy, likely tens of millions of light years away (considering that the nearest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy, is 2.5 million light years away), and so completely implausible as a target for the Enterprise’s visit. Presumably the script writers chose it at random, as an astronomically plausible name.
  • It’s unclear what “known to be there” implies; Kirk, in his opening log, mentions that the principle planet of the cluster is Eminiar Seven, and moments later Uhura receives a signal from that planet: Code 710. Meaning under no circumstances is the Enterprise to approach the planet.
  • So, how does Eminiar Seven, whose culture the Federation has no contact with, know what Code 710 means? Perhaps they’ve been vaguely aware of one another, but without that formal contact? Yet, to the extent that Eminiar knows Federations codes..?
  • The ambassador insists the ship proceed, on the grounds that “thousands of lives have been lost” in the quadrant that might have been saved with a treaty port here.
    • The ambassador/commissioner type character recurred several times in Trek (earlier in “The Galileo Seven,” later in “Metamorphosis”), a convenient plot device to force the plot into an area Kirk’s own judgement might not go.
  • In Act I, Spock provides some background: the planet was contacted 50 years before, by an “Earth expedition,” the USS Valiant – a ship that failed to return. But it reported that Eminiar Seven was at war with its nearest neighbor, a planet later mentioned as Vendikar.
    • The recurrent reference to historical space missions as being from *Earth* begs the question of how the Federation came into existence – implying it was Earth’s idea, that Earth gathered in other civilizations, like Vulcan’s, to form the Federation. (All the Federation Commodores the Enterprise occasionally consults or takes orders from are human.) This might be an echo of the 1950s supposition, in SF in general but particularly in John W. Campbell’s Astounding magazine of that era, that humans were by nature smarter and cleverer than any other aliens they might meet. It’s insupportable; logically, it’s far more likely that if similar species evolved on other planets and developed interstellar flight, there would have been many others that made that leap *before* humans did, and had a Federation already set up. Or, maybe the presumption was just a lack of imagination on Trek’s part.
    • There’s another nomenclature issue. The name Eminiar Seven presumably means the 7th planet of the star Eminiar. What’s Vendikar then? Another planet in the same system? Or a planet in some other system? Either way, why not a parallel name?
  • Kirk and his party – leaving Ambassador Fox back on the ship, with Scotty in charge – beam down to the surface. There’s a lovely scene combining a small soundstage set with a large matte background painting of an impressive futuristic city (see screen capture above), where the landing party appears, and is met by the locals.
  • Naturally, the aliens speak English. With cultured British accents, even.
  • Cushman’s book notes that the sets look dated, like something from a Buck Rogers serial – and I agree, though not from seeing Buck Rogers, but from seeing some cheesy Sci-Fi movies from the ‘50s that had similar sets, especially those weirdly angled, impractical, doorways.
  • The landing party is met by a lovely woman (played by Barbara Babcock, who had several other roles in Trek’s first series) who calls herself Mea 3. She takes them to the Division of Control, an interior room where the leader, Anan 7 (played by the exotic and intense David Opatoshu), announces that his planet has been at war with Vendikar for *500 years* (!) and that they, and the Enterprise, are in imminent danger.
  • The situation quickly unfolds. The discussion with Anan 7 is interrupted by an apparent attack on the city, by fusion bomb; Anan 7 steps into an adjoining war room. A map displays a hit, in the city. (A crude blob of light on a crude map.) Kirk and party hear nothing, detect no radiation. Spock observes and deduces the situation: the war is simulated, fought by computers. Anan insists the war is real: half a million people have just been killed – and will report to disintegration machines within 24 hours.
  • This way people die, but their civilization goes on.
  • Kirk is aghast. “Do you mean to tell me… your people just walk into a disintegration machine when they’re told to??”
  • But Spock sees a certain logic to it; yet he says “I do not approve. I understand.”
  • But Anan has been advised by his assistant Sar – “Just as it happened 50 years ago” – that the Enterprise, in orbit, has been registered has the target of a cobalt-bomb, and classified as destroyed. Its passengers and crew, Anan tells Kirk, are to report to disintegration chambers. They are already dead.
  • The situation and premise established early on, by the end of Act I, the middle of the episode consists of routine action scenes and ploys. An attack from the surface cuts off the Enterprise from rescuing the landing party (and simply leaving); Kirk and the landing party break out of their confinement quarters, and destroy a disintegration machine or two.
    • One of these scenes includes Spock’s priceless line, as he walks up to a guard by a disintegration machine, “Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.” – a brief distraction than enables Spock to nerve-pinch the guard.
    • The Enterprise is subject to “sonic vibrations” and navigator DePaul describes them as “Decibels eighteen to the twelfth power.” Another little bit of Trek’s mathematical illiteracy.
    • But this development is another way Trek episodes forced the plot: Kirk, standing in for the Federation, is nominally for the non-interference of other civilizations, yet again and again, the plot forces Kirk into interfering anyway, just to save his ship.
  • A recurring here theme is the credulousness of Ambassador Fox. Anan 7, who somehow can mimic Kirk’s voice, contacts the Enterprise and assures them all is well. Moreover, that the crew is all invited down for shore leave! Fox, believing this voice, tells Scott to lower the shields. Scott refuses. Fox gets angry. Scott still refuses.
  • Meanwhile, on the planet, the situation culminates with a confrontation between Kirk and Anan, about the ethics of fighting a war with no long-term consequences – only the immediate formalistic consequences of citizens committing to voluntary suicide, for the good of the state. This is one of Trek’s best ethical debates. The stakes are raised as Kirk gets a brief communication to the Enterprise to order General Order 24 – meaning that, unless the Enterprise hears back from Kirk, the ship will destroy the surface of the planet in 2 hours.
  • Kirk expounds. “Death… destruction… disease, horror… That’s what war is all about. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat and painless… so neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it. And you’ve had it for five hundred years! Since it seems to be the only way I can save my crew, and my ship, I’m going to end it for you.”
  • And so Kirk and Spock destroy, with their phasers, the war room computers.
  • This explicitly breaks the contact and agreement between Eminiar and Vendikar, and Kirk advises Anan 7 that a *real* war might likely ensue, with real weapons that would actually destroy their planet – unless they try to make peace.
  • And here’s a key thought. Anan insists “There can be no peace! Don’t you see, we’ve admitted it to ourselves! We’re a killer species; it’s instinctive—it’s the same with you, your General Order 24!”
  • And Kirk gets the best lines: “All right, it’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it! We can admit that we’re killers – but we’re not going to kill, today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we’re not going to kill – today!
  • And Kirk urges them to contact Vendikar and enter negotiations for peace. Ambassador Fox is there to volunteer his help.
  • The tag scene, on the bridge, underscores Kirk’s ploy. “It was a calculated risk… I had a feeling that they [the Eminians] would do anything to avoid [actual war] – even talk peace.”
  • Ending with a relatively mild Gene L. Coon quip about believing in luck, or miracles.

Memory Alpha summary:

The crucial theme here is relevant to our times. We understand, much more deeply than anyone understood in 1967, that human nature has certain instincts, that might be lived with, and understood, yet which should be overcome, for the health of a multicultural, global society, which is inevitable, as the human race expands to fill up the planet. This theme applies to the recent violence in Charlottesville. Do we presume that all our base instincts are true and must be acted upon? Or do we try to understand them and rise above them?


Blish’s adaptation, in ST2:

  • Blish’s version follows the script closely, though again he collapses initial scenes into a prose introduction, cutting to the introduction to Anan 7 before introducing any dialogue.
  • Minor bit: the female Yeoman in the landing party is Manning, not Tamura.
  • Presumably the script has some specific directions for how particular scenes or actors would play; in any case Blish’s own adjectives seem preternaturally precise, compared to how they came across on screen: Mea Three’s (Blish spells out all the numbers in the Eminiar names) manner is “cool, but correct”; Anan speaks about causalities “evenly.”
  • When Kirk confronts Anan Seven in the latter’s quarters, Blish omits the transparent ploy by Anan and the subsequent fist-fight between Kirk and an Eminian guard in the corridor. Blish tended to omit or gloss over action scenes, which aren’t nearly exciting in prose as perhaps they were on screen (even as they look a bit anachronistic, by TNG standards).
  • Mention is made, near the end, of the name of the head of the Vendikar High Council: Ripoma.
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