This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
By Michael Vraa
I have followed Joe Praska’s excellent website, The Continuing Voyage, since it’s inception in 2013. Joe is a friend and he and I share a passion for classic Star Trek. I encourage you to look at any of his other episode reviews and/or his reviews of other interesting sci-fi related topics. In his episodic analyses, he looks at each episode through a modern lens, trying to glean the social/anthropological comment each episode tried to offer.
I asked Joe specifically if I could put together a guest post about one of my favorite Star Trek episodes; Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (LTBYLB). It has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in the mid-70’s.
Here’s the brief plot summary: The Enterprise comes across a shuttlecraft that was stolen from a starbase. Kirk orders the shuttlecraft tractor-beamed into a hangar bay. The crew find the pilot passed out, but he is soon revived by Dr. McCoy.
After a brief interrogation by Kirk, the Captain decides to return the alien, Lokai, back to the starbase for criminal charges. Notably, Lokai’s appearance is very unusual – his skin is half black and half white with an obvious line right down the center of his face separating the colors.
Soon after that, a new ship appears on sensors, eventually depositing another alien, Bele, onto the Enterprise’s bridge. He is obviously the same race as Lokai. Bele identifies himself as a kind of intergalactic law-enforcement agent who has been chasing Lokai.
We next learn that Lokai’s crimes stem from the fact that his skin tone is the reverse of Bele’s. While they are both half white/half black, they are white/black on the opposite sides of their faces. According to Bele, he’s been chasing Lokai for 50,000 years! Being confronted with a delicate yet tense situation, Kirk sends a request to Starfleet Command asking advice on how to proceed with the issue.
In the meantime, Bele takes control of the ship’s navigation, forcing Kirk, Spock and Scotty to activate the Enterprise’s self-destruct sequence. This forces Bele to relent, but not long after, he deactivates the self-destruct sequence and again commandeers the ship and directs it to his home planet of Cheron.
Upon arriving to the planet, it is obvious that Cheron has long since been consumed by a deadly and bloody civil war, effectively destroying the entire race save these two remaining combatants. When confronted with the somber truth they they are the last remaining members of their kind, Bele and Lokai refuse to relent on their lasting prejudices towards each other. They resume their chase and continue their battle, unable to give up on the war that ended both of their races.
To write this review, I re-watched the episode. Next, I looked at a couple of other sites where they also re-review classic Trek. I was fascinated to see the differing views on this episode, which was released in the tumultuous third season of Star Trek. Generally, the first two seasons are seen as the creative (and budgetary) height of the series. The third season, however, is viewed less favorably (SEE Spock’s Brain – one of classic Trek’s most hard to believe plots featuring aliens stealing … Spock’s Brain!). One modern reviewer declared that Let This Be Your Last Battlefield simply “plods.” Another complains about the “sledgehammer of an allegory.”
But it’s important to keep in mind what the show’s writers and creators thought that they were making at the time. This episode was made in the third year of Trek, when most of the creative people involved were all but certain that this was its final season. NBC had been fan-bullied into keeping the show on the air for two years, but cuts to the budget signaled the end was imminent. Budget cuts were so drastic by the time this episode aired that stock news footage of fires were borrowed from World War II, and the ship flown by the alien Bele is conspicuously never shown on screen.
So the writers/creators likely assumed that any episode they were creating would probably be aired twice. Once on the premier date and then again once more as a rerun. Syndication was doubtful as most shows need 100 episodes (5 days a week—20 weeks of new episodes). This means that the key players involved in the production of each episode could not have guessed that these episodes would be watched (and re-reviewed) 50 years into the future. They must have thought they were making a very temporary piece of entertainment. There were, of course, no VCR’s, DVD’s, Blu-Ray’s or other ways for fans to re-watch the episodes once they aired.
Why does it matter how permanent the show creators thought this story would be? The writer’s/producer’s mindset is necessary to try to understand what they were creating. They wanted to entertain and maybe inform people for an hour. For me personally, this episode is the one from the 79 original series episodes that has a really surprising twist, which is why I remember watching it so vividly the first time I saw it.
I concede that this episode’s racial allegory can seem over the top and even contrived. But the first time I saw the episode, I didn’t initially see the difference between the two main guest stars until Frank Gorshin’s (Bele) character explained the difference between him and the man he had been chasing for 50,000 years (again, not kidding…). Bele is black on the right side, while Lokai is white on the right side. This difference – skin color – was the primary source of all the animosity between the two groups of people with black and white skin. One was black on the right side while the other was white.
As much as any other moment in Star Trek: The Original Series, this was a big reveal. And that is, I assume, exactly what the show’s creators were trying to accomplish: a big moment when the audience is supposed to realize that the sad assessment of a person based on skin color is neither intuitive, nor justifiable.
Kirk and Spock share a quick glance at each other right after the skin color statement. I believe this is the best part of the episode. There is no immediate dialogue, but in the quick glance they share, they seem to be agreeing that Bele’s racist statement is understood, but pathetic and almost pitiable (amazing how much Nimoy could convey with just raising his eyebrow).
After the glance, Spock and Kirk attempt to explain how enlightened things are in the Federation and that racism is no longer present, however I think the highlight remains the glance. The obvious moral of the story is that fighting because of racial differences will lead to societal demise.
Back in real life, and on Earth, fifty-ish years later, racism is still alive and thriving (at least in the U.S.) despite the fact that we currently have an African-American president and that some would heartily argue the contrary. I like to think that racism is dying off, but it’s proven resilient. I have hope that, societally, we can move past racism as each generation becomes more integrated. Hopefully, in 50 more years (or less) this episode will be a quaint reminder of what was, instead of a reflection of what still remains in our culture.
Michael Vraa is an attorney who runs a tenant hotline in Minnesota. He also writes frequently. His first novel, Celebrity Bounty, is available now.