‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “A Taste of Armageddon”

“A Taste of Armageddon” is a delightfully ridiculous Cold War riff which loves diplomacy, but hates diplomats and thinks peace comes out of the barrel of a genocide. It’s gleefully incoherent, and one of the best examples of Star Trek’s conflicted dual vision of a future peace and a future of blowing things up.

A Tidy War

The Enterprise is transporting Ambassador Robert Fox (Gene Lyons) to the mysterious Eminiar VII. Fox is determined to establish diplomatic relations, and he wears an outfit with a ludicrously wide collar to show just how officious he is.

The ship receives a signal from Eminiar VII warning them not to approach, but Fox and his collar are having none of it and orders them to orbit the planet.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is a poor choice. After Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and a landing crew beam down, they learn from planetary leader Anan 7 (David Opatoshu) that the planet is at war with its neighbor, Vendikar. The Enterprise is almost immediately caught in an attack from Vendikar, and destroyed.

But wait! This isn’t a normal attack. Eminiar and Vendikar have been at war for 500 years. Normally no civilization could survive such protracted hostilities. But these combatants have figured out how to make war more civilized. They don’t launch actual bombs. Instead, all attacks and defenses are virtual computer simulations. No buildings or equipment are destroyed. Death tolls are tabulated, and those declared dead report to disintegration chambers for disposal.

To fulfill their agreement and quota with Vendikar, the Eminiarians now need to convince everyone on the Enterprise to beam down for disintegration. Alternately, they can shoot down the ship. In either case, the Eminiarians kidnap Kirk and the landing party for leverage. Then they use voice-altering software to try to convince Scott (James Doohan), who has been left in command, to beam the crew down for shore leave.

Scott is too canny though. He sees through the ruse, keeping his powder dry and his shields up even when the naïve Ambassador Fox tries to get him to lower them.

Death Before Disintegration!

Meanwhile, on the planet, Spock uses his telepathic Vulcan abilities to trick their guard, and the landing party escapes. They stop the sultry and dutiful Mea 3 (Barbara Babcock) from disintegrating herself. They destroy a number of disintegration chambers, making it hard for the Eminiarians to meet their death quota.

Stubborn Ambassador Fox beams down to set up diplomatic relations; he’s immediately captured and marched to the disintegration chamber, much to his horror (his collar quivers!) Luckily Spock and company rescue him.

Kirk has gone alone to threaten Anan 7. But Anan 7 recaptures him and plans to kill him. Before he can, though, Kirk manages to tell The Enterprise to completely destroy the planet in two hours if he is not released.

Luckily Kirk doesn’t need to commit a massive genocide because the Eminarians are really bad at holding people captive. He escapes again, just in time to be rejoined by Spock and Fox and the landing party. Together they destroy the computers that tabulate casualties. This violates the treaty and means that Vendikar and Eminiar are going to be plunged into all out messy war.

Unless! Kirk suggests that maybe instead of war, the warring planets try peace. Anan 7 agrees, and with the help of Ambassador Fox, the two nations open diplomatic relations. The Cold War ends. Huzzah!

Was the Cold War Really That Tidy Though?

The neat, no-mess computer battle between Eminiar and Vendikar is an obvious metaphor for the Cold War. But as a metaphor, it’s also obviously confused.

The Cold War was relatively clean for people in the United States. But that was only because the property damage and most of the killing happened somewhere else.

The Cold War was cold if you were an American, for the most part. But if you were a Korean, or Vietnamese, or Indonesian, or Afghani, it looked a lot like a regular old hot war, with horrific civilian casualties, cities destroyed, children burnt, and genocides unleashed.

In presenting the Cold War without the full horror of war—and perhaps even more importantly, without imperialism—writers Robert Hammer (The Waltons) and Gene L. Coon are working with the Eminiarians. They’re cleaning up warfare and making it more palatable.

“A Taste of Armageddon” is a critique of propaganda. Kirk and Spock are horrified that Mea 3 is so brain-washed that she’ll just walk into a disintegration chamber because she thinks it’s the patriotic thing to do. But the episode is also an example of propaganda since it carefully removes colonial violence from the Cold War.

“Mr. Fox, It Is Their Planet”

Or, it might be more accurate to say that it displaces colonial violence, or even apologizes for it. The Eminiarians don’t use proxies for their war. But the Federation itself, which swoops in despite being warned away, acts as a colonial power. “Mister Fox, it is their planet,” Kirk protests when the Ambassador orders them to defy Eminiar’s warning and orbit the planet. But in the end, it’s only their planet if the Federation wants it to be.

When the Eminiarians try to force the Federation to live and die by their (admittedly cruel) rules, the Federation responds by threatening to wipe them out completely, Kirk, in fact, reveals that the Federation is so accustomed to destroying whole planets they have a code name for it: General Order 24.

There’s no extensive protocol for General Order 24. The Enterprise doesn’t have to check back with Federation authorities for permission to wipe out billions of people. All it takes is Kirk shouting a single command, once, and Scott starts targeting major population centers, making ready for a massive, horrific war crime on a scale that dwarfs the Holocaust.

The peaceful, utopian Federation future is unimaginably, casually bloodthirsty. Anan 7 calls Kirk a “barbarian,” but no barbarian could inflict, or even imagine inflicting, such horrors.

“We Can Admit That We’re Killers.”

“A Taste of Armageddon” claims that understanding the full horrors of war can help us imagine a future of peace. But, in fact, it covers up the worst aspects of Cold War violence and imagines a future ruled by a supposedly benevolent regime of genocidal monsters.

The one character who pushes for peace over war consistently, Ambassador Fox, is presented as a stuffed shirt and a fool who needs a quick lesson in realpolitik. His failure to understand the need for a strong defense almost gets everyone killed. “The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank,” Scott insists, and the episode backs him up.

The great thing about “A Taste of Armageddon”, though, is that it acknowledges that it’s not a very good advocate for peace—but argues that peace is possible anyway.

When Kirk says that Eminiar should try to negotiate with Vendikar, Anan 7 is incredulous. The war has gone on for 500 years; they’ve long ago accepted that they are a warlike people. Everyone, he insists, is “A killer first, a builder second.”

Kirk doesn’t dispute the half-baked biological essentialism. But he argues that it doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t matter.

“All right. It's instinctive,” he says. “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 won't kill today.”

“A Taste of Armageddon” isn’t willing to really examine the dynamics of the Cold War it is trying to condemn. Its message is hopelessly muddled; it uses genocide as a plot gimmick; it hates diplomats. But, Kirk argues, you don’t need to be perfect to choose peace. And maybe, if you choose peace today, you’ll get better at choosing it tomorrow.

And then at some point, you can choose to get rid of General Order 24, too.

Rating 9.1/10 SPECS

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Image Courtesy of Desilu Productions.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.