When it comes to the original Star Trek series, fandom’s popular consensus is that its third season had the weakest appeal. Notwithstanding, I consider this view to be mistaken. The first season had many excellent episodes, such as “Balance of Terror”, “The Squire of Gothos”, “Space Seed”, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, and “A Taste of Armageddon” (reviewed here on this site for its pro-life theme) – all of them well-remembered tales. But the first season also included “Shore Leave”, “Court Martial” and “The Conscience of the King” that either presented tinny dramas or engendered plot holes the size of Dyson spheres.
For my money though, the second season had the highest number of outstanding episodes: “Mirror, Mirror”, “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, “The Doomsday Machine”, “The Ultimate Computer” and “Bread and Circuses” among many others. However, despite the third season having some of the least watched portions of the series with “Spock’s Brain” being universally panned, there remain some poignant presentations. “Specter of the Gun”, “The Empath” and “All Our Yesterdays” haunt our consciences regarding perception and sacrifice. Even the romantic tragedy “Requiem for Methuselah” reveals a vulnerable side of Captain Kirk who becomes atypically distracted by a sophisticated feminine android. After resolving the ship’s medical crisis, Dr McCoy casually explains to Commander Spock about how men can become so inherently obsessed by amorous attraction.
Nonetheless, when it comes to moral tutorials, one of the best comes from an episode from the third season that few recall with fondness “The Savage Curtain” – yes the one with Abraham Lincoln. The episode aired fifty-three years ago and its message remains as true today as it was in 1969 or twenty-third century for that matter.
An Experiment Pitting Good vs. Evil
The show opens on Stardate 5906.4 with the Enterprise approaching the planet of Excalbia – a lifeless volcanic planet devoid of vegetation or breathable atmosphere for aerobic creatures such as humans- in order to do a geological survey. A blurred apparition appears on the bridge’s viewscreen, gradually sharpening to reveal what appears to be President Abraham Lincoln, who addresses the bridge crew and requests a visit. Despite reservations, Kirk agrees to discern the intent of this world’s aliens. Kirk order the ship’s transporters to beam Lincoln aboard the Enterprise with full ceremonial honors.
While touring the ship dressed in his mid-nineteenth century black frock coat, Lincoln proceeds to charm and beguile the ship’s complement, and after exchanging pleasantries, Lincoln invites Kirk and Spock to an artificially prepared oasis on Excalbia’s surface to meet another distinguished person – this time someone from Vulcan. The trio beam down to the isolated region where they encounter Yarnek – a lava-derived entity with claw-pincers and glowing knobs on his head. Yarnek explains that Excalbians do not recognize the human distinctions of good and evil, and seek a dramatic demonstration from these Starfleet representatives in the stellar vicinity.
Indignant, Kirk refuses to cooperate with these designs. So, Yarnek raises the stakes – failure to engage in this staged altercation will result in the destruction of the Enterprise and all her crew. Resigned to this extortion, Kirk and Spock together with Lincoln meet with Surak – the legendary Vulcan philosopher and pacifist from nineteen centuries prior, who persuaded the Vulcans to adopt logic. Kirk and Spock, together with Excalbian doppelgangers of their respective heroes, must now confront their foes.
In opposition to those three, stand three notorious warlords and a diabolical villainess: Colonel Green from twenty-first century earth, Kahless the Unforgettable who forged the Klingon empire in the ninth century, and thirteenth century Mongolian chieftain Genghis Khan. These military strategists are joined together with a sadistic experimenter named Zora who tortured her Tiburon victims. These four Excalbrian recreations represent ignoble antagonists opposite Starfleet ideals.
Now some critics have quibbled with presumptive aspersions of whether these adversaries as truly wicked, or that Surak and Lincoln were unmitigatedly virtuous. However, from Excalbian standpoint, their contrivances present a stage act based on the perception of spacefaring humanity plying the galaxy with shared models of proper behavior in armed starships. It doesn’t matter in “The Savage Curtain” whether the fictional Kahless had shown excessive aggression in his world’s administrative consolidation.
Nor should one care about the uncharitable verdict rendered to the historical Genghis Khan who grew up without a teddy bear (or much else) and wreaked havoc across Asia. We acclaim Lincoln despite (or perhaps due to) his devious (and at times ruthless) penchant in pursuit of preserving the union and ending slavery as worthy causes. These personas formed caricatures exhibited by inorganic aliens – who were puzzled by our sense of morality. The roles they presented were concocted from either the mental images envisioned by these Starfleet personnel or perhaps analyzing their archival data banks, independent of any nuanced judgment from history.
Also, while some critics might interpret “The Savage Curtain” as superficially reminiscent of “Arena” from the first season, their respective story arcs and themes are quite dissimilar. The earlier episode focused on mercy and empathy encouraged by ephemeral beings – the latter epic confronts the recognition of good and evil promulgated by curious but callous mineral organisms.
Good and Evil are Embedded Deep Within
The two sides grapple against each other, with neither initially gaining the decisive advantage. The antagonists strategize to lure Lincoln and Surak into a trap, expecting to subsequently dispatch by attrition Kirk and Spock piecemeal. Evil succeeds by capturing and killing both Surak and Lincoln. From their defensive redoubt, Kirk and Spock aggressively counterattack, dispatching Green and scattering the rest.
After the mêlée concludes, Yarnek reemerges, offering congratulations. Kirk is not amused and berates Yarnek for threatening their lives for Excalbian entertainment. Yarnek seems taken aback at Kirk’s ingratitude to offer a vivid lesson in humanity’s ethics, observing that to prevail promoters of either side resort to physical violence by asserting “… It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted. However, you have failed to demonstrate to me any other differences between your philosophies. Your good and your evil use the same methods, achieve the same results. Do you have an explanation?” Eventually Kirk replies, “What did you offer the others if they won?” Yarnek answers “What they wanted most – Power!” Kirk remarks, “You offered me the lives of my crew.”
With that revelatory exchange, both then understand that virtue fulfills its responsibility to others while evil aspires to command others – and that such self-awareness isn’t inherent in ourselves – it must be taught and nurtured. Those with the ability to apply physicality against others can either serve petty tyrants and themselves, or reserve their capacity on behalf of those under their responsibility.
The craving for domination exists in all of us to different degrees. The late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn articulated this point in The Gulag Archipelago (part I chapter 4) “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” That poignant lesson isn’t unique to “The Savage Curtain” but elucidated most clearly in that episode. Hopefully, we will not forget the limits of our nature as we reach for the stars.