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Monday, May 1, 2017

Static Thoughts - Star Trek 'Patterns of Force'

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So, the current mega-event that’s set to dominate comic book stores from Marvel this summer is one Secret Empire.  I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details because the discussion surrounding this event is more toxic than a nuclear spill, largely because the core of the series is all about Nazis and Nazi collaborators.  There’s been a lot of back and forth about this from the top minds on the Internet, but the whole thing got me thinking about one of the stranger corners of the Star Trek universe. 

I’m speaking of course about ‘Patterns of Force,’ a season 2 episode of the original series that famously featured a planet of alien Nazis and when I say “alien Nazis” I mean that quite literally.  The episode set Spock and Kirk against a mysterious humanoid species out in space that sported a direct copy of the Nazi regime from Earth.  It’s a weird mystery episode that’s always held an odd place in Trek canon, with particular scenes coming to be definitive of the TOS era in our collective memory while the rest has become banished to obscurity. 

Before we dive into ‘Patterns of Force’ we need to talk about the context that surrounds it.  This one episode is like a perfect intersection for our cultural conceptions of Star Trek and Nazis as the villains in popular fiction.  Despite their more cultural ubiquity now the Nazis didn’t fully enter the realm of popular entertainment as the catch-all bad guys till the mid-'60s.  I generally point to the creation of the Daleks in 1963 as their point of genesis as pop bogeymen, primarily because it coincides with the year historians point to as the cut-off point for the baby boomer generation. 

Simply put, this was the point where you had an entirely new generation of media consumers who only knew the Nazis as through the war stories of their elders.  As such, the ‘60s is when a glossy, proto-blockbuster depiction of World War 2 moved into the cinemas as part of the gradual replacement of the Western.  Stuff like The Great Escape, Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Day populated the movies while TV went so far as to give us WW2 set sitcoms like Hogan’s Heroes and Dad’s Army.  Basically, this was the first time since World War 2 you could get away with giving a Nazi character a funny accent or a lovable musical number like ’16 going on 17’ from Sound of Music. 

‘Patterns of Force’ came out at the tail end of this era in 1968 and was already set apart from it by the fact Star Trek was never really a pop creation.  I use the word “pop” a lot as a kind of shorthand for popular, but in this context, I’m specifically talking about media designed to appeal to the widest array of audience members, which usually means skewing young.  That was never what Star Trek was, in fact, it was considered decidedly risqué and adult for its time, it’s just that the things 1966 found scandalous are pretty passé by modern standards.  This is part of what I was alluding to earlier about ‘Patterns of Force’s weird connection to how the original series is viewed by the public at large. 

The thing about Star Trek’s original series is that after the initial 3 year run there was no way for it to exist outside of sporadic syndication and the collective public memory.  As such, the broad conception of what TOS was tends to diverge a lot from what it actually was, especially as you get further away from the era that spawned it.  Mostly, people remember the rubber monster, karate, and Kirk making out with alien women, all of which is certainly there and I’d be lying if I said you couldn’t find it in ‘Patterns of Force.’ 

The thing is, that stuff was very much the sizzle not the steak of Star Trek, the original series.  For instance, the episode ‘Private Little War’ was conceived of as a commentary against proxy wars and Vietnam in particular.  However, to convince the network the show was adult enough to have those elements they had to throw in a local witch doctor who cures Kirk with cheesy alien sex magic, so everyone knew this wasn’t for kids. 

In the case of ‘Patterns of Force,’ there actually is a deeper and more engaging commentary made with all the Nazi stuff going on, but the episode still features lasers and one of the goofiest escapes in all of Star Trek history.  Our story revolves around one John Gill, a Star Fleet historian sent as a cultural observer of the two inhabited planets Ekos, which is warlike, and Zeon, which is peaceful.  

However, when the Enterprise comes looking for Gill he’s gone missing, and the warlike Ekos has transformed into an exact replica of Nazi Germany.  Spock and Kirk end up trapped on the planets service and must navigate their way to the truth even as the Ekosian Nazis prepare to launch their “Final Solution”- an invasion fleet set to wipe out their neighbors the Zeons. 

Most of the episode is pretty much an excuse for our heroes to go on a walking tour of Nazi Ekos, which was probably very cheap for the producers as they could just reuse old Earth and Nazis sets they had on hand.  They definitely don’t skimp on the brutality of these space Nazis, especially during a sequence where Kirk and Spock are captured and tortured by their Gestapo.  

This also leads to that ridiculous moment I mentioned earlier when Kirk and Spock use a hunk of crystal and metal piece of bed to make a laser and shoot their way out of the cell.  It’s absolutely ridiculous and is right up there with Kirk making a diamond shotgun to kill the Gorn in ‘Arena’ regarding popular notoriety.  The moment even got summarized in Voltaire’s Star Trek parody song ‘USS Make Shit Up.’ 

That’s the doofy side of things but, as I said, there’s a lot of seriousness on hand and a core moral that’s pretty prescient these days.  It ultimately turns out that John Gill had abandoned the Prime Directive and started guiding the Ekosian people.  His plan was to try and mimic the efficiency and trappings of the Nazi state without the sadism and genocide.  

Naturally, this dream fell to pieces when Gill’s second-in-command Melakon took over and kept Gill in a drug induced stupor as a powerless figurehead.  Eventually, Kirk and the gang manage to free Gill, and he stops the invasion before it can happen though it ultimately costs him his life. 

What I really love about this and why I’d considered it the version of the Nazi collaborator story everyone has been hungry for is that it’s got a greater idea than just “Nazis are evil.”  The Nazis are basically just the quickest shorthand for fascism in this case, which is the real thing Star Trek is trying to confront here.  It’s about how you can’t adopt fascism for some kind of honorable end and really make it there because it’s a system built on a foundation of inequality and absolute power.  

John Gill didn’t go evil, but all it took was one evil man to seize control and throw the entire system into chaos.  Basically, it’s about how you can’t separate fascism and prejudice, no matter how good your intentions the Nazis are always going to commit genocide.  There’s also a healthy anti-colonialism message involved too given that Gill’s actions only serve to reinforce the non-interference directive.    

I definitely recommend ‘Patterns of Force,’ but then again I’m a big Star Trek fan anyway, so that was to be expected.  However, I would at least point out that the episode has a bit more to offer than a lot of TOS installments.  I’ve already done a full guide to the original series’ mythos episodes but suffice it to say there’s a lot of dull mediocrity sprinkled among the more compelling episodes.  It’s not necessarily one of the show’s best but it’s thoroughly worth checking out, especially as part of the anachronistic planet trilogy alongside the 1920s gangster episode ‘Piece of the Action’ and the modern day Rome/space Jesus installment ‘Bread and Circuses,’ but those are stories for another article.   

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