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by Jeff Bond
Action-packed and thought-provoking, second season Trek’s “A Private Little War” represents a fascinating collision of the sensibilities of Gene Roddenberry and Trek producer Gene L. Coon, always one of the unsung creative heroes of the series and the mind behind many of the show’s anti-war polemics.
While he became increasingly pacifistic later in life, Gene Roddenberry was a former military man who believed that some problems did indeed have military solutions. Coon had also served in the military but he came out of his experiences far more convinced that war and violence were the worst possible solutions to any problem. “A Private Little War” acts this ideological conflict out using the Vietnam War as a model and spinning the situation of superpowers working out their differences with smaller proxy forces down to a primitive level. Here the Klingons are introducing gunpowder and primitive firearms to a peaceful society of primitive humanoids that Kirk had visited and befriended earlier in his career. When Kirk discovers what’s happening he decides to continue the brinksmanship by arming the tribe led by his friend Tyree with just enough munitions to wage an even-handed war with the tribe the Klingons are supplying.
“Private Little War” spills over with Star Trek’s virtues and vices. It’s filmed on location and opens with a thrilling sequence in which Kirk’s landing party is chased by villagers with flintlocks and Spock is shot in the back—one of the most jarring moments of violence in the series.
The story divides its time in classic A plot/B plot fashion between scenes of Spock’s unconscious struggle to survive onboard the Enterprise after it leaves orbit to avoid the orbiting Klingon vessel, and Kirk and McCoy’s adventures on the planet. Even though Spock is sidelined, his scenes are still some of the most interesting in the story as Booker Bradshaw’s intriguing Dr. M’Benga coolly works to keep the Vulcan alive. The scenes on the planet take great advantage of DeForest Kelley, whose Dr. McCoy is uncomfortable in any situation outside of sickbay. McCoy’s suspicions of the motivations of Tyree’s Lady Macbeth-like wife Nona are right on the money and his dramatic showdown with Kirk over the military situation on the planet is one of the most fiery in the entire series.
Nancy Kovak’s Nona is certainly one of the most pneumatic and sensuous guest females in the series—a topless-from-the-back “shower scene” in a waterfall was shot with her and probably cut under request from network Standards and Practices, although it resurfaces briefly in Star Trek’s legendary blooper reel. Ironically Kovak, who was married to conductor Zubin Mehta, came off as prudish and conservative in later interviews and particularly dismissive of her sexy turn as Nona. Nona’s deceit and hunger for power is compelling and she drives the story’s tragedy in almost painful fashion, ultimately paying for her greed with her life. (Take a close look at the close-up of the hand phaser in her final scene as she prepares to offer it to the enemy villager’s leader—this is one of the only moments in the series where you can see a hint of the functionality of the moveable “targeting scanner” hood that was designed to flip up to aim this little weapon.).
For all its strengths, this episode has its detractors. The ridiculous wigs and hippy costumes of the villagers and the outrageous spine-backed Mugato ape (admittedly one of the show’s most recognizable alien monsters) provide plenty of unintended laughs if you’re looking for that, the “maka root” mysticism can be considered risible as well, and the story’s overt endorsement of the U.S. strategy in Vietnam has grated on many a viewer of the past few decades. But it’s one of the show’s strongest downbeat endings as Kirk’s painful decision bears the fruit of open warfare immediately—this has always been one of the original show’s great strengths to me: it’s ability to show Kirk making mistakes or decisions that aren’t conventionally heroic, decisions that force him to confront the awful burden of command and the toll in human lives that burden can often carry.
“A Private Little War” does receive a bonus shot from CBS-Digital in the form of brief footage of the Klingon vessel in orbit around Neural (which itself gets the usual “earth-like planet” treatment from the digital artists). It’s a nice touch in an episode that always forced us to imagine the Klingon ship involved and continues the Remastered project’s retrofitting of the Klingon warship design into its first and second seasons. And while the final shot is the same “planet receding behind the warp engines” shot first introduced in “All Our Yesterdays,” it does work quite effectively with the episode’s moody Alexander Courage music cue as the story comes to its downbeat, reflective close.
Remastered vs. Original
Seasons One and Two discounted at Amazon
The Season Two box set is now available at Amazon for pre-order, discounted to $63.99 (Amazon has a low price guarantee that if they drop the price before ship date of August 5th you will get that lower price). Amazon has also discounted the Season One DVD / HD DVD combo disk is to $96.95 (retail is $194.99).