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The Trek Nation - The Return of the Archons

The Return of the Archons

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 14, 2005 - 9:11 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Return of the Archons' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While visiting Beta III, where the starship Archon disappeared a century ago, the crew discovers a rigid and regimented society that becomes completely lawless and uncontrollable during a periodic Festival, which Kirk and a landing party witness. As soon as Festival ends, the people become passive once again. The society is governed by robed Lawgivers who enforce the will of Landru, a godlike being who can control the people and make himself appear anywhere. Landru sends energy beams to try to destroy the Enterprise, as he destroyed the Archon before, and tries to assimilate Kirk's crew into "The Body" (as the unified populace is called). Kirk and Spock are spared by an underground network and confront Landru directly, discovering that "he" is a computer storing the memories of the original Landru and controlling the people of Beta III. When Kirk insists that in doing so, the computer has harmed the population it has been charged to protect, the machine self-destructs and the people recover free will.


Analysis: Another episode depicting Kirk's long struggle against godlike beings, "The Return of the Archons" has a great many plot holes but manages to put ideas ahead of story specifics. I imagine it's intended as an allegory about the evils of Communism and a mechanized bureaucracy - Landru has much in common with 1984's Big Brother, though the society he oversees is much more of a throwback by Earth standards. Yet the 19th century clothing and storefronts disguise a world controlled mechanically, by a computer which can project images and even weapons over great distances. I found myself wondering whether most of the planet was uninhabitable, because otherwise I cannot imagine how the energy projections to carry out Landru's will halfway around the globe could have escaped the Enterprise sensors from orbit. Presumably the city where the computer is stored is the largest and that is what led the Enterprise crew to the spot. Are the remains of the Archon in the sea somewhere, disguising the elements? Are there people specially trained to perform upkeep on the ill-guarded computer? We catch only frustrating glimpses of the underlying society, with no real sense of how the underground resistance operates or how it could have started.

Though the lawless Festival, which smashes up a Paramount back lot as rocks are hurled, windows shattered and clothing tossed everywhere, is fun to watch, it's very unclear how such damage is repaired, for we never see anyone engaged in any work besides enforcing the will of Landru - there must be farmers, carpenters, glassmakers, doctors, etc., but the primary image of the city where Kirk and crew beam down is of people walking aimlessly through the streets, not stopping to clean up the chaos. We never see a single child; does Festival exist so that they can be conceived, or is Festival merely a valve to release the pressure of regimented lives, and sex is among the things the people of Beta III do in an orderly, rather bored manner? The only familial relationship we witness is paternal, yet Reger dares not try to protect his daughter from the will of Landru, though Festival leaves her so hysterical that McCoy decides to sedate her. The terror of being found out by friends and family, too, is very Orwellian, and Reger is quite indoctrinated in the very ideas he claims to resist; when Landru appears as a projection, he is terrified and willing to submit. So potent is the legend of the "Archons" that Reger and Tamar accept immediately that Kirk and his crew must be the prophesied strangers, yet they are unable to follow them until Kirk trumps the mechanized Landru.

Just as the children in 1984 turn their own parents over to the state for thought-crimes, Kirk is betrayed by his own "family" when McCoy is assimilated into the Body and calls out for the Lawgivers to put an end to the captain and first officer's conspiracies. The scene is played for comedy, yet it is notable that Kirk and Spock don't attack him at once; Spock seems reluctant to use the Vulcan neck pinch on him as he does on Reger. The fact that the family structure and friendships have been retained in the society is curious, for one would expect those in the Body not to differentiate and those outside of it to fear a Hacom around every corner informing on them. There seem to be an awful lot of Lawgivers for a society that should have almost no open rebellion: do they help clean up after Festival and perform other tasks as well? Or does Kirk's quick encounter with Reger demonstrate that in fact there are many people not of the Body, seeking a means of rebellion?

The question is important in light of the debate about the Prime Directive that Kirk quickly dismisses, telling Spock that the law only applies to living, growing societies. He can get around questions of manipulating primitive cultures because this isn't one really, with a computer governing its citizens and shooting beams into orbit powerful enough to bring down a starship; they must have been close to warp capacity when Landru built his machine. Yet most of the people on the planet are more backward than humans of the Middle Ages. And they have their own underground already, though Kirk makes little effort to find out how it works in his haste to get the deadly beams off his ship. By Kirk's standards of interference, this one is pretty mild: he confuses Landru into self-destructing, using circular logic that isn't even as impressive as Spock will later use against Mudd's androids. It isn't like when he blows up the Eminiar and Vendikar war machines or blasts Vaal.

But the result is the same: a previously orderly if tyrannical society left in chaos with naught but a couple of crewmembers left to keep the peace. If there were fistfights while the Enterprise was still in orbit of Beta III, how many people died before Starfleet advisers could arrive? Kirk expresses pleasure at the news of the domestic quarrels, laughing Spock off when Spock points out that humans often dreamed of a society like the one Landru provided. He isn't going to be there to see if the children begin to starve or the folk with one skin tone start oppressing the folk with a different skin tone. It is presumed, here as with "Miri" and "A Taste of Armageddon" and "The Apple" and "Friday's Child" and others, that all societies will smooth themselves out into something like the Earth of Kirk's 23rd century, rather than destroying themselves like the one in "Return To Tomorrow." Yet we rarely see much of the world-building, and in this case we barely even see the world whose need to be remade is apparent in the ease with which its computer-leader is destroyed. And although we find out what happened to the Archon in broad strokes, we don't learn whether any attempt has been made to find the descendants of the crew.

When Lindstrom complains that the mind control from which Spock cannot free McCoy after a meld is simply ridiculous, Spock notes that ii is neither simple nor ridiculous, but very dangerous. This is not one of Spock's stronger episodes; it is Kirk who stays upright the longest when Landru knocks the crew out with painful sonics, Kirk who guesses that Landru must be a machine and Kirk who debates with it. Despite holes in both the plot and philosophy, though, "The Return of the Archons" is entertaining and reasonably engrossing. It's the newly familiar pattern of Kirk, Spock and McCoy all on an away team while Scotty tries to fight off an alien menace on the ship. The sets range from a sepia-toned old street to a much older looking, dungeon-like prison complex which contains advanced computer equipment, and the costumes show off the crew's flair for the dramatic, particularly Spock in his ominous hooded cloak. Many elements of this episode will be borrowed in future outings of the Enterprise crew.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.