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The Trek Nation - The Savage Curtain

The Savage Curtain

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 26, 2007 - 9:49 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Savage Curtain' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While taking readings on a planet that appears to be made entirely of solid rock, the Enterprise is scanned and then addressed by an entity that appears to be President Abraham Lincoln. When a skeptical crew beams the being aboard, he reads as human and behaves as Kirk expects Lincoln to behave, though his transporter readings register momentarily as a kind of molten mineral. Lincoln invites Kirk and Spock to the planet's surface, and when they accept, lured by the mystery of an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere suddenly appearing on a previously uninhabitable planet, they are greeted by the great Vulcan philosopher Surak. They also meet the rock entity Yarnek, who cuts off their communication with the Enterprise and announces that he requires Kirk and Spock along with Surak and Lincoln to represent Good in a classic battle of Good vs. Evil, with Evil represented by Genghis Khan, the tyrant Colonel Green, the murderous scientist Zora and legendary Klingon Kahless. If they refuse to play, the Enterprise will be destroyed. Though Surak and Lincoln are killed in the fighting, Kirk and Spock win and are allowed to return to the Enterprise.


Analysis: Somewhere buried deep in the insanity that is "The Savage Curtain" lies the germ of an interesting idea: What if you could meet your childhood hero, the person who most represented "good" to you, but when the two of you together faced a deadly situation, your hero's instincts and actions went counter to everything you believed was necessary to triumph? Unfortunately, that's not the episode we're given here.

It's never really explained whether Lincoln and Surak are Kirk and Spock's ideal representations of "good", nor whether we are seeing their own particular expectations for how those characters would act as opposed to some magical projection of the "real" Lincoln and Surak. In the end Spock concludes that Lincoln and Surak behaved as Kirk and Spock would have expected them to behave, which adds a kind of interest to the fact that Kirk and Spock argue with Surak and Lincoln about the impossibility of making peace with their adversaries. But if we're seeing Kirk and Spock's expectations for "good", then I'd think we'd be seeing their expectations for "evil" as well, and while Spock might have put human tyrant Colonel Green on his personal list for ruthless misuse of logic, and Kirk might have perceived Kahless as a bloodthirsty savage because he founded the Klingon Empire, who picked Zora over Hitler or Stalin...or, if they wanted a woman of mythologically evil proportions, Elizabeth Bathory or one of the Borgias?

Nor is it ever clear why Yarnek cares about good and evil as defined by humans, for although Surak and Kahless are not in any part human, Yarnek announces that the people of his world, Excalbia, are watching for their first understanding of "Earthlings" as represented by these teams. Kirk rightly announces in the end of that of course good and evil look similar when given this sort of playing field, though it seems unfair of Yarnek, who has already observed that evil runs away, to put Surak's sacrifice and Lincoln's efforts to save him in the same category as Kahless and Green's joint perfidy. There's an "Arena"-like quality to the challenge, with the combatants forced to use locally available materials while the crew watches helplessly on a monitor, with an alien judge sympathetic to no one's cause waiting to see whether anyone represents any sort of real threat to his ideology. But in "Arena", there was a reason for the combat: the Gorn had destroyed a Federation outpost, which the Federation had unwittingly placed on a planet they didn't realize had already been colonized. In "The Savage Curtain", the alien simply seems to get his kicks watching aliens representing absolutes try to kill each other.

Does Yarnek do this often? What has he learned? Does his "go in peace" to Kirk at the end mean that he will rethink this tactic of slapping labels on people and then forcing them to fight? Everything about the episode is half-baked, which is most frustrating because it adds some really interesting elements to Star Trek's mythology, most notably Surak, the father of Vulcan logic and peace. It's also interesting that Lincoln, who was never a military man, is chosen as Kirk's idealized figure for good; as before in history, he is assassinated, and one must wonder whether Kirk's fantasy of Lincoln as a pacifist makes him believe that will always happen. Kirk very much wants to believe that this Lincoln is real even while Scotty is ridiculing him, wondering whether Robert the Bruce is next, yet he lacks faith in Lincoln's methods, while Spock appears to feel that he has no business challenging Surak.

An unforgettable scene in this episode is set on the Enterprise, when the dead president addresses Uhura as a "charming Negress", then apologizes for the statement, saying, "In my time, some used that term as a description of property." Uhura assures him that no offense is taken - "In our century, we've learned not to fear words" - before Kirk introduces her as his communications officer and sends her to give Lincoln a tour of the ship. While Lincoln surely does not mean the racial term in a derogatory way, he is still defining Uhura by her skin color; he doesn't say, "What a charming woman in the shortest skirt I have ever seen," which it surely is, by the standards of his own century, and he becomes aware a moment later that his apology is as telling about his inherent prejudices as his initial exclamation. Presumably Yarnek doesn't witness this exchange, but he could learn a lot more about human biases and the way they are overcome through communication than anything in the scenario he constructs down on the planet.


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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.