“This is a soulless society, Captain. It has no spirit, no spark. All is indeed peace and tranquility – the peace of the factory, the tranquility of the machine, all parts working in unison..”
Written by Boris Sobelman and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Transmitted February 9, 1967
The Enterprise has visited Beta III, a planet previously visited by another Federation craft, the Archon, six thousand years ago. An away team is spotted as outsiders and attacked by strange robed figures. The attack changes Sulu, placing him in a blissful yet almost zombified state. Kirk takes a small party down to assess the situation. The planet has a decidedly ancient Earth-like look and feel to it, that of a turn of the century midwestern village. They have arrived right before the ‘festival of the red hour’ which sounds exciting until it occurs and the streets are full of crazed citizens, abandoning any inhibitions in a wild abandon of violence. This is the world of Beta III, the world looked after and protected by an omni-present being called Landru. And Kirk must stop it.
As Kirk, Spock, Bones and a random crew member further investigate the village it becomes apparent that something has gone horribly wrong. The townsfolk live in fear of their invisible protector and are concerned only with preserving ‘the body’ of their society. The body is something that is presented as necessarily serene and free from any disturbance. Kirk decides almost immediately to find the source of the problem and obliterate it, which a crew member sites as being against the prime directive. Kirk adds that it only applies to societies that are alive and growing, not this festering one that they have found themselves in.
In my memories of Star Trek as a kid (I was never really a fan back in the day, but it was regularly on in my household) involve the creepy music, the phaser pistols and of course the voices of the main cast. This particular story stands out to me because of its obvious personal meaning to Gene Roddenberry. The fearsome ‘red hour’ is one of the most terrifying notions I have seen in all of Star Trek. A single hour that sees a usually passive townsfolk cut loose like wild animals is far more disturbing to me than any alien or threat from beyond. The revelation that Landru is in fact a massive computer is a bit of a let down or at least a rushed resolution, but given that the computer can easily be a stand-in deity to the modern day sophisticated viewer.
This episode clearly has a lot to say about social structures, be it a statement on organized religion or on politics. In either case, it’s a statement on cults and their power to hold a group of people in check under the illusion that it is protecting them from harm. Roddenberry himself was a very intelligent man and had a dislike of organized religion that showed in many of his episodes, however it was more of a statement on how they could hold people back rather than an outright dig at them. I respect Roddenberry for that as he could have used his program as a weapon against anything he didn’t think was right in the world but instead was more concerned with presenting a blueprint toward a more healthy future in which humanity can grow (and zap any aliens that get in the way).
A visceral and stunning tale of repression and cultural regression, Return of the Archons is perfect Star Trek to me, a story that uses science fiction trappings to make a statement. Kirk’s sledgehammer-like approach to the problem is a stand-in for Roddenberry’s view that anything holding back our progress into a more perfect society must be abolished, destroyed, obliterated. Of course, Kirk does get to fly off to other adventures in the end rather than build a new world in the ashes of what he has left… but that’s Kirk’s style, isn’t it?