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A Private Little War

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 5, 2006 - 6:50 PM GMT

See Also: 'A Private Little War' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When Captain Kirk returns to a peaceful planet he visited as a lieutenant, he is shocked to discover that the villagers have apparently developed flintlock guns and is convinced that their development must have been influenced from outside. After Spock is shot in an altercation, Uhura notifies Kirk that a Klingon ship has been spotted in orbit and Kirk becomes even more certain that those villagers were armed by the Klingons. He returns to the surface with McCoy, but is attacked by a creature called a mugato and saved by Nona, the wife of his old friend Tyree. Nona learns from Tyree that Kirk is not from their world and demands that he provide better weapons to the hill people than those the village people have received from the Klingons; though McCoy resists this idea, Kirk believes it is necessary to arm the hill people exactly as the Klingons have armed the villagers to maintain a balance of power. When Tyree sees Nona trying to seduce Kirk, he very nearly uses the gun he has only just learned to shoot, but he refuses to kill and walks away just as the mugato's mate attacks Kirk and Nona. Kirk saves her, but she steals his phaser and offers it to the villagers, wanting to be allied with the stronger side. Believing that she was sent to trap them, the villagers kill her, and Tyree tells Kirk that he wants weapons now to fight them.

Analysis: Considering that Star Trek in general and the original series in particular are known for their optimism and hope for humankind, this is a very cynical little piece, whose flaws actually come as something of a comfort. The entire episode is about violence - some completely justified (the slaps Spock requires to snap out of his healing trance), some signifying the worst in human behavior (Tyree's desire to kill Kirk and/or Nona the moment he sees them kissing). Is Kirk's desire to arm the hill people a crucial sort of inoculation, as he rationalizes it, or exactly the sort of interference that Starfleet officers are supposed to avoid, even if there are already Klingons meddling on the planet? Even McCoy ultimately comes around to agreeing with Kirk that a balance of power is the best solution, even though that likely means a swift progression from guns to grenades to bombs, maybe even nuclear power. If Kirk felt reciprocal interference was necessary, why didn't he try something like what he did in "A Piece of the Action" and beam the head of the villagers up to his ship to try to reason with him? It isn't accidental that his most logical officer, who also tends to be a passionate pacifist, is unconscious or absent while the important decisions are being made.

The Klingons here cannot behave like the ones on Organia, marching in and shooting everyone who doesn't immediately accept their dominion; they require stealth to take over this world, and it's not even immediately clear whether they want it for the natural wealth McCoy finds in the episode's early moments or only to stop the Federation from getting it first. There is only a single contact that we see, as in "Friday's Child," arming his allies with primitive guns though he could surely beam down a thousand laser weapons as easily as a thousand flintlocks. Uhura and Chekov both believe that Tyree's society might have developed the guns naturally, while Kirk is clinging to a peaceful fantasy pre-industrialized fantasy of the world. It is hard to believe that a planet with people like Nona doesn't have occasional bloody skirmishes over women, witchcraft and power. In a way the story wants to have it both ways, to claim that guns don't kill people, people do, and at the same time to pretend that people without the means to kill never think about doing it. Nona's pretty dangerous with just a big rock.

"A Private Little War" is often cited as an allegory of the Vietnam War - Kirk explicitly mentions "the 20th century brush wars on the Asian continent, two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves...neither side could pull out." This episode certainly does not seem as if it is advocating pulling out, despite McCoy's serving as the voice of protest. Kirk is tired and depressed in the end, but he refuses to consider the possibility that this is not his war or Starfleet's war with or without the Klingon interference. The sense of pointlessness is pervasive: we have no idea whether or why this planet is of strategic importance, we never hear precisely what organic compounds McCoy is seeking, and most astonishingly, there is no real sense to understand medically or culturally the ritual Nona performs to cure Kirk of a deadly poison. Is it the root that has value while the dance is all mumbo-jumbo? Does Kirk respond on an animal level to the aphrodisiac she waves in his face, or is there a deeper connection from their blood having flowed together through the mahko root? Instead of showing us Nona's sex appeal, couldn't the episode have spent a little more time on the way of life Kirk claims he is trying to save? Or would that just reemphasize the fact that the hill people's traditions will likely be lost once they are armed just as quickly as if they were conquered?

It's an interesting and gutsy episode, quite dark, so that Spock's near-death and violent recovery are actually played for laughs by contrast. Poor Christine Chapel tries to reach him, fearing that he is suffering in his coma, only to be told by M'Benga that Spock is fine and probably even knows she was holding his hand. When Spock then demands to be struck, she refuses, then accedes, only to stopped forcefully by Scotty while M'Benga rushes in to deliver the big punches. If there is meant to be a direct parallel about the necessities of violence, it's not terribly apparent.

At least the ending does not insist that Kirk was right. There's no climactic speech, no triumphant struggle; rather, there is a pointless death followed by escalation and the person Kirk wanted most to protect turns into the very thing he despised not long before. Regrettably we never see the long-term consequences, neither whether Tyree comes to despise Kirk for his involvement nor what Starfleet has to say about the position Kirk has established. The Klingons make it clear that they will return with bigger, better weapons in return for loyalty from the villagers and acceptance of what might broadly be termed Klingon values, a might-makes-right approach to governing and an emphasis on militaristic hierarchy. Will a Starfleet vessel return every six months to determine what new weapons are needed to keep the hill people strong enough to fight back? Who's responsible for the deaths of the people caught in the crossfire?

In retrospect these very questions make the episode seem poignantly anti-war, but that isn't the message Kirk is spouting and he doesn't suffer personally the way Tyree, Nona and Spock do. It may be poisonous but a mugato bite seems a cleaner way to fall than the various other serpents that take life in this Garden of Eden.

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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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