Here’s another classic Trek episode that needs no defense—in fact it’s one of the all time greats, and probably ranks among my top handful of Star Trek episodes ever made. Kirk and Spock meet the franchise’s first Klingons and wind up coming up against a far more powerful—but ultimately benevolent—force when the Federation and Klingon Empire begin a rush to war.
The anti-war sentiments are served up early when Kirk, after hearing a description of the Organians, whose planet lies at a crucial strategic point between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, calls them “the weak innocents” who so often pay the price when larger forces go to war.
Gene Coon’s teleplay is ingenious in the way it seduces us and Kirk into forgetting all about those high-flown words as we face down the antagonistic, war-like Klingons and their brutal occupation of this peaceful world—and then find that the planet’s passive inhabitants have no interest in helping Kirk resist the threat. Kirk is at first confused by the Organians, then frustrated as he and Spock come under the auspices of Military Governeor Kor (John Colicos in one of the great, iconic performances in all of Star Trek), and finally downright resentful and contemptuous of the peace-loving citizens of Organia. By the climax of the episode our virtuous Captain has all but sided with his Klingon enemy—to paraphrase Kor, they’re ‘two rams among the sheep’—and find they have more in common with each other than with the Organians.
John Colicos the first (and quintessential) Klingon
It’s only at the climax, as Kirk’s early words come back to haunt him in one of the greatest denouements the series ever achieved, that we see that Kirk is utterly wrong, and that the excitement we’ve experienced as viewers rooting for him to overcome a villain on the scale of Ming the Merciless is entirely misguided as well. For Kirk is arguing for a right that is ultimately despicable: “to wage war, Captain? To kill millions of innocent people? Is that what you’re arguing for?” Organian leader Ayelborne (John Abbott) asks. Hell yes, we want to see the Enterprise versus the Klingon Fleet! “Errand of Mercy” underscores the price in innocent lives paid by the engagement of these massive forces and shows us that military bluster, however exciting as drama (whether on a television program or the evening news), has shattering and deadly consequences.
The revelation that the Organians have evolved far beyond these kinds of petty grievances, just as they’ve evolved beyond the need for physical bodies, reveals militarism for the primitive impulse that it is—at least as depicted in the Star Trek universe. Measure this against Gene Roddenberry’s story for the later “A Private Little War” and you’ll see the two diametric poles of classic Trek philosophy, with Roddenberry’s Cold War vision arguing that war—however dirty and destructive—was sometimes necessary.
Visions of the two Genes: Roddenberry v Coon
“Errand of Mercy” was one of Trek’s most ambitious stories—yet it had to be told on a shoestring, with stock footage of the environs around the Organians’ central village, unimpressive pyrotechnics when Kirk and Spock sabotage a Klingon munitions dump, and key sequences—the execution of hundreds of innocent Organians and the confrontation between the Enterprise and the Klingon fleet—that had to be taken on faith rather than shown. In this arena it’s the writing and performances that shine—John Colicos is a grand figure as Kor, and it’s apparent immediately that he respects Kirk and sees an equal even when the human is in reluctant disguise as the Organian Baroner. Shatner’s growing irritation with the Organians is beautifully played (“I have no love for you…your culture, or your planet…”), and his expression at that final moment when Ayelborne questions his right to wage war is priceless, as is Nimoy’s knowing glance in his direction. John Abbott and the other largely British actors playing Organians bring a quiet, dignified, but effectively strange presence to their roles. You can even see the late film composer Basil Poledouris (who did Conan the Barbarian and Starship Troopers among other scores) playing a Klingon extra right after a commercial break in a shot that shows Klingons marching in the Organian village courtyard.
The episode’s special visual effects bookend the story—first in an exchange of fire with a Klingon ship in the teaser, and then at the end as the Organians reveal themselves as brilliant, shapeless masses of pure energy. The first sequence actually features what I’ve long considered to be one of the original series best effects: the bolts of energy striking the underside of the Enterprise saucer, opticals that displayed lens flares and interactive lighting on the Enterprise hull as they struck, along with the “proximity phaser” shot effects later used to show photon torpedoes on the show.
Original was pretty good
I’ve been a fan of CBS/Digital’s work on the series—between their work and the dazzling new transfers it’s a treat to rewatch Star Trek after viewing the original episodes countless times over the years. I’m more than open to the dabbling with “canon” issues when it makes sense to do so, such as the practice of putting the Klingon warships that the series couldn’t afford to build into early episodes like this, “The Trouble With Tribbles” and “Friday’s Child.” Last week’s “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” while not 100% successful, did an amazing job at constructing sequences out of whole cloth for scenes that had only the most primitive, vague approaches in their original versions (you’d have little idea that the Enterprise was slingshotting around the sun in that episode’s climax if you didn’t take Kirk’s word for it).
In “Errand of Mercy,” the results are less satisfying, although it looks like at least some shots fell victim to the usual horrendous syndication cuts. The first encounter with the Klingon scoutship hearkens back to the look of “Balance of Terror,” which makes sense given that the stock shots taken from that episode originally formed the Enterprise firing sequence in “Errand.” The Klingon ship’s blue bolts impacting the Enterprise shields don’t have the impact—no pun intended—of the original effects. The chief flaw of the original shots was the extremely grainy footage of the Enterprise miniature, but the interactive lighting, and the visual interest of the lens-flared energy bolts themselves, still gave this shot great impact despite the clumsy editing to achieve a rapid-fire exchange of shots between the two ships. The new footage has the advantage of giving us a Klingon ship to look at—but the first shot of the adversary ship is not impressive, with a glossy finish on the Klingon that makes it look like something out of Tron. A second shot of the Klingon ship turning and firing has a better sense of scale but in this case I think slavishly following the closeup firing shots of the Enterprise is a mistake since the new effects aren’t radically better than the old look.
Later on we do get a nice shot of the Klingon fleet facing off against the Enterprise (although it’s that over-the-shoulder shot of the primary hull that Mark Altman doesn’t like), and there may be additional shots eliminated by the syndication edit. Otherwise (except for a very minor tweak of Kirk and Spock’s phasers stunning some guards midway through) there’s nothing until the Organian transformation sequence at the end. CBS/D has done a very good job of augmenting the original series animation effects, using some ingenious techniques to add layers of detail and luminosity to the sometimes cartoonish work from the Sixties. But the Organian effect is another that’s really not that bad to begin with, and the CBS/D addition of a few more sparkles to the energy fade-out at the end doesn’t really add that much to the shot.
If it sounds like I’m slamming CBS/Digital, I’m not—they’ve proven that they can do superb work and most of what they’ve produced has been a blast to watch. But they are a victim of their schedule, which requires them to not only crank out an episode a week, but also to finish all the first season shows for inclusion in the upcoming Remastered DVD set due at the end of the year. And given extremely effects-heavy episodes like “The Immunity Syndrome” and “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” it seems like we’re seeing fewer of the subtle little “extras” built into each of the Remastered episodes beyond the obvious ship and optical shots. In a perfect world “Errand of Mercy” would have benefited from replacement of the hoary stock footage of a distant castle and the cheap pyrotechnics of Kirk and Spock’s sabotage of the Klingon’s munitions dump, but generating new matte paintings and convincing explosions would have been far too time- and budget-consuming at this stage. The omissions hardly harm this classic episode—“Errand of Mercy” kicked ass with the primitive visual effects it’s sported for decades and the addition of the Klingon fleet is a worthy one. At any rate the real fireworks in this episode come from the story and performances, and they’ll always make this episode worth watching in any incarnation.
Klingon munitions…not that impressive