Star Trek 1.21: The Return of the Archons

The Return of the ArchonsThe Return of the Archons” is a strange episode. It begins in medias res again – they seem to have liked doing that in Star Trek – with Sulu and Lieutenant O’Neill attempting to evade what looks like a group of roughly 1850s-era Americans. O’Neill runs off while Sulu beams up, but not before being accosted by what look like cowled monks wielding blowguns. Sulu appears back on the Enterprise, and his mind has been snapped, leaving him in a blissful and non-responsive state.

Following the credits, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and various expendables beam down to investigate and recover O’Neill. We learn that this is the planet Beta III, and is apparently inhabited by aliens who resemble 1850s Americans and inhabit what looks like the Universal Studios wild west backlot. Apparently a hundred years ago another Earth ship, the USS Archon, was lost on this planet, and Kirk’s mission is to find out what happened to the crew.

Eerie music plays to underline the fact that all the natives seems blissed out in an obviously unnatural way. The landing party is dressed in appropriate costume, so are taken for visitors from another town, and a guy tells them to find a room before the “Red Hour” Festival. We soon learn what this is when the clock strikes six and everyone goes crazy, getting into fights, smashing windows, and sharing passionate embraces. Naturally a woman races up to Kirk and leaps into his arms, kissing him passionately, while Kirk does his best to not fend her off.

The story develops into the discovery that this bizarre society is run by a mysterious “Landru” who “absorbs” people into some sort of telepathically induced state of constant happiness, known as “the Body“. The only time they can let their hair down, so to speak, is during the “Red Hour” Festival. Kirk figures out that Landru is actually a computer and destroys it by arguing logic with it, pointing out that the people are suffering because they have no creativity, thus Landru is evil and must destroy itself. Somewhat surprisingly, this argument works.

Behind the actual plot, there are several nagging questions left completely unanswered. The first expectation is that perhaps one of the Archon crew was the original Landru, and left behind a computer to take care of the natives when he died. But it turns out that the original Landru was a native some 6000 years ago – so the planet was like this when the Archon arrived 100 years ago. Perhaps we’ll get some other interesting story about what happened to the original Archons and how they coped on this strange world. Nope. Apparently they just arrived and got absorbed and that was the end of it. So much potential wasted there.

Then there’s no real explanation of the Festival either. Kirk and Spock surmise that it’s to let off steam that can’t be done when everyone is dosed up on happiness. That sounds sensible at first glance, but then the planet is hardly the Utopia Landru wants, is it? The people go completely bonkers during the Festival – why doesn’t Landru do anything to try to stop it? And with the amount of destruction wrought every night – windows smashed, things burnt down – how do they manage to rebuild it all during the day each time?

Kirk and company are helped by a sort of underground resistance against Landru – people who haven’t been absorbed into “the Body”. The big question here is how do such people exist at all? And what do they actually do when there aren’t strange unabsorbed aliens running around to protect? And then there are the cowled enforcer monks, who wander around ordering people to be happy, and killing anyone who doesn’t obey by pointing their hollow tubes at them. As Spock points out, the tubes have “no mechanism”, ad he can’t figure out how they actually have any physical effect at all. You’d think we might get some hint of an explanation for this – but no, it’s never mentioned again.

And why the heck doesn’t Kirk contact the Enterprise sooner to appraise them of the situation, and learn from Scotty that the ship is under attack? Why doesn’t Scotty call Kirk to let him know?? Why doesn’t the Enterprise continuously monitor everything the landing party says as routine procedure?

And I think this is the first episode where the Prime Directive is mentioned. This Starfleet standing order says that Starfleet personnel are not allowed to interfere with the social development of a world that has not made interstellar contact. It’s the single most important and inviolable rule in Starfleet. Naturally, it’s mentioned and then immediately dismissed by Kirk as not applying in this case, because he regards the current state of affairs on Beta III as stagnant, and not developing.

Some other points of note: McCoy is absorbed at one point. I was thinking that Spock should try a mind meld on him – and he actually does so! Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work, in another example of having to render an introduced plot device non-working in order to avoid it short circuiting the plot of another episode. And Spock and Kirk actually share a literal “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” moment when they both realise Landru must be a computer.

Tropes: Planetville, Uncanny Village, World Of Silence, A Fete Worse Than Death, Utopia Justifies The Means, Of The People, Path of Inspiration, Master Computer, Deus Est Machina, Individuality Is Illegal, Prime Directive, Screw The Rules, I’m Doing What’s Right, Logic Bomb, Heel Realisation, What Happened To The Mouse?
Body Count: One insane computer.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

5 Responses to “Star Trek 1.21: The Return of the Archons”

  1. Monica says:

    I saw a bit of this episode when I was channel-surfing (one of the local stations in my area runs “Trek” reruns) and was intrigued by the period costumes. I love whenever the crew of the Enterprise needs to change their outfits to blend in. Anyway, I tracked the episode down to watch the whole thing, and I was disappointed by the plot. My favorite episode with costume change is probably the one on the gangster planet. Now that I think about it, my favorite Trek movie is IV, when they all need to dress like people in San Francisco in the 1980s.

  2. The Ridger says:

    I didn’t get the impression that the Red Hour happened every day, but rather much more infrequently.

  3. Megan says:

    I always liked this episode, plotholes notwithstanding, but the thing that bothered me most about it was the time-period jump in the costuming. (I’m a bit of a historical fashion geek.) When Sulu explains that ‘these are the clothes they wear’, he’s dressed in approximately 1770s-80s clothing, with a cravat and a tricorn hat. Then, when the rest of the crew beams down, they’re dressed in clothing from about a century later (Wyatt Earp times?), and so are the other inhabitants of Beta III. It’s quite puzzling, and rather annoying when one has gotten one’s hopes up for seeing Captain Kirk in a cravat.

  4. Zehaas says:

    The body count needs updating. A Lawgiver kills Tamar with his staff shortly after the landing party arrival at Reger’s house.

  5. Oh, I must have missed that…

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