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Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at November 17, 2006 - 7:24 PM GMT

See Also: 'Let That Be Your Last Battlefield' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise picks up a stolen shuttlecraft carrying a humanoid who is white on the right half of his body and black on the left. Lokai explains that he is fleeing his home planet and asks Kirk for protection. Soon after, the ship is attacked by a vessel on a collision course that beams aboard its only passenger - Bele, who is black on the right half of his body and white on the left. Bele claims to be an official from Cheron in pursuit of the insurgent Lokai, but Lokai insists that Bele and his people have oppressed Lokai's people, and the entire basis of Bele's prejudice is based on Lokai's skin color. Initially Kirk has more important matters to deal with - he must decontaminate the planet Ariannus before a bacterial infection kills billions - but when Bele takes control of the Enterprise, Kirk threatens to blow it up rather than allow this interference. Once the mission has been completed, however, Bele seizes control again and takes the ship to Cheron, where he and Lokai discover that the entire population has been annihilated in a war. The two beam down to the planet to continue their struggle.

Analysis: Intellectually, I think of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" as one of the better offerings of Star Trek's third season. It has a culturally relevant plot, reflecting the conflicts of its era, touching upon such diverse social issues as racism, the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Plus it has Batman's Riddler, a.k.a. Frank Gorshin, in a lead role.

Yet rewatching the third season of the original series has held some revelations for me, one of which is that the episodes which are high-minded aren't necessarily the ones I enjoy most. "Spock's Brain" is a nightmare of characterization, plot and values but it's undeniably hilarious, whereas "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" plods. It urgently lacks humor. It requires Kirk to be stiff and uncomfortable, and other characters to recite extremely obvious, didactic-sounding messages that sound like they're targeted at children. Maybe audiences needed things stated so obviously in the 1960s, but I find it hard to believe that the average Star Trek viewer was so dense.

Thus, while the episode is mildly engaging as a historical curiosity, it doesn't grab the emotions, even when nightmarish things are occurring like men learning of the deaths of everyone on their planet. It all feels more like an allegory than something happening to real people; the men of Cheron might as well be Doctor Seuss's Sneetches, half of whom have bellies with stars and half of whom have no stars upon thars. It's almost embarrassing to be subjected to a story that portrays racism in such black-and-white terms, which Kirk and Spock earnestly try to apply to human history in ways that require vagueness and generalizations instead of specifics of the sort that make episodes like "A Private Little War" more effective.

It also doesn't help that these are supposed to be super-aliens, engaged in a game of cat and mouse over millennia and able to reduce the Enterprise's controls to a malfunctioning child's toy. Presumably aliens who can electrify the ship's panels and each other would have more sophisticated strategies for fighting one another and for persuading the crew to do their bidding; the self-destruct sequence seems endless and pointless, since we all know it's not really going to happen and we don't really need to see Chekov sweat. Kirk is reduced to spouting platitudes which aren't nearly as interesting as those he used against much more powerful and intractable aliens like Apollo. Meanwhile freedom fighter Lokai is kept largely in the background; we get a glimpse of Sulu listening to one of his impassioned speeches for freedom, but he doesn't have enough of a platform to sound like a Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is something comical about the moment when Bele realizes that Kirk and the others genuinely don't understand the reason he believes himself to be superior: "It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed!" When Spock replies that the obvious visual evidence indicates that Lokai is of the same breed as Bele, the latter asks whether Spock is blind and points out that he is black on the right side; Lokai is white on the right side. "All of his people are white on the right side." Spock tries to explain that Vulcans once had such irrational prejudices, but Bele insists that people like Lokai are incapable of logic.

Meanwhile Lokai tries to make Kirk's crew understand what it is to suffer from irrational prejudice. "There is no persecution on your planet. How can you understand my fear, my apprehension, my degradation, my suffering?" When Chekov explains that he read about human persecution in his history class, Sulu points out that that was way back in the 20th century, a sort of primitive thinking that just doesn't happen on Earth of their era. "How can I make your flesh know how it feels to see all those who are like you, and only because they are like you, despised, slaughtered, and even worse, denied the simplest bit of decency that is a living being's right?" Lokai asks passionately.

By the end of the episode, it's very obvious that prejudice based on skin color is inane, but we know too little about the very long history of the conflict on Cheron. Spock and Kirk hypothesize that Bele and Lokai must have common ancestors - something McCoy presumably could prove with a DNA test, though no one suggests that - yet it is unclear whether the racial distinction on Cheron falls along geographic lines or whether Bele's people were indeed breeding Lokai's as slaves, as Lokai suggests. Is there a lesson here for intelligent humans? Sadly, I suspect it's that when any theory of racial conflict is reduced to absolute black and white with no shades of gray, it inevitably seems nave, moralistic and a little dull.

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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.

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