‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Errand of Mercy”

Last week I argued that “Devil in the Dark” was the most anti-colonial episode of the original Star Trek. I stand by that!

“Errand of Mercy,” the first episode featuring Klingon antagonists, is close though. And it’s arguably a more pointed repudiation of the United States’ role in Vietnam.

Written by Star Trek stalwart Gene L. Coons and directed by John Newland, this episode just about argues that both sides in the Cold War were morally equivalent. Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) was presented as a parallel to the evil Khan in “Space Seed.” But he’s even more akin to bloodthirsty Klingon leader Kor (John Colicos), as both are driven to paroxysms of rage by the fact that people whose territory they’ve invaded don’t want to fight in their wars.

Lily-Livered Sheep

Kirk learns that a fragile peace between the Klingon Empire and the Federation has broken down. Moments later, the Enterprise is attacked by a Klingon ship, which it manages to destroy. Kirk then heads to the world Organia, a strategic planet near the Klingon border, in order to prevent a Klingon occupation. He and Spock beam down to tell the Organians how rotten the Klingons are and how happy they’ll be if they ally with the Federation.

Alas, the Organians, led by Ayelborne (John Abbott) are unimpressed. They are an apparently simple low-tech people living in a more or less medieval village, with some cute goats wandering around. (Aw. Goats!) There are some odd signs, though. They don’t seem to be surprised when Kirk and first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) beam in. What’s with that?

Kirk presses on with the mission; he wants to establish a Federation beachhead on Organia to defend against Klingon incursion. He warns the Organians that the Klingons will enslave them and murder them. The Federation on the other hand will help them develop and advance. (So much for the Prime Directive.)

The Organians are oddly passive and uninterested, though. They insist that they aren’t in danger from the Klingons, even as Kirk gets more agitated—and even as the Klingons land.

A Klingon fleet drives off the Enterprise and the occupation force, led by Kor, seizes control of Organia. The Organians are worried about the safety of Kirk and Spock, and they disguise both of them as Organians.

Kor, like Kirk, is disgusted by the Organian’s smiling acquiescence. He puts Kirk in charge of making sure the Organians follow all the military rules. Kirk and Spock inevitably refuse to surrender! And they blow up a military depot.

Kor figures out the culprits must be the only two people on the planet who show any spine at all. He threatens to use scary mind ripper tech to learn who Kirk really is. But the Organians just tell him, hey, those are Starfleet officers. Kirk is very irritated that his supposed allies blew his cover.

Kor demands Kirk reveal fleet movements. He refuses, and Kor throws him in prison with Spock to think about it before he tortures him. The Organians somehow unlock the door and free them. Before Kirk and Spock can figure out how they did it, though, Kor murders 200 Organians, and demands the return of the prisoners. He threatens to kill 200 more in 2 hours.

Kirk and Spock try to get the Organians to care one last time, without success. They then rush off to try to destroy the Klingons before they kill more people. They manage to break into Kor’ office and corner him just as a Federation fleet arrives to fight the Klingon forces in the sky. This is war!

But then it isn’t. The Organians reveal themselves to be (yet another!) race of godlike energy beings. They superheat all the phasers and weapons on the planet and render ships’ weapons systems unusable as well.

Kirk and Kor protest in unison that the Organians have no right to interfere in the affairs of other people, but the Organians are unimpressed and tell them they can’t have their war, so there. They also say the Klingons and humans will be friends at some point in the future, which really irritates Kor (and also Kirk.)

There’s nothing for it though; the Organians are the bosses, and the two empires go back to a sulky peace rather than to the “glorious” war Kor was looking forward to (he’s got a really winning evil smile when he says, “glorious”.)

Kirk admits he is embarrassed that he ended up arguing for a war he didn’t even want. Spock tells him it’s okay because he’s just not evolutionarily advanced enough. Kirk doesn’t find this as comforting as Spock expects, somehow.

The Federation’s Burden

The episode is rather (ahem) glorious in its utter disrespect for the Federation’s self-important civilizing mission. Like the US, the Federation, in the person of Kirk, is certain that it can help protect the misguided colonials from the evil empire on their border.

And like the US (and every other colonial empire) the offer of aid and protection soon turns into churlish contempt when the colonizers realize that the colonized have their own priorities which don’t necessarily include fighting Communism—er, Klingons—on demand. “I’m used to the idea of dying,” Kirk fumes following yet another demonstration of what he sees as Organian cowardice, “but I have no desire to die for the likes of you.”

Kor is supposedly the bad guy here; he wants to subjugate the Organians. But he instantly perceives Kirk as a kindred spirit. The Organians who all wear the same “stupid idiotic smile” irritate him. Kirk’s “good honest hatred,” in contrast, is something Kor recognizes, understands, and embraces.

Image Credit: Paramount Television.

The warring sides are united in their contempt for pacifism. Kirk speaks for Kor as much as for himself when he declares, “I’m a soldier, not a diplomat. I can only tell you the truth.”

That truth, by Kirk’s lights,  is that the Organians must fight for the Federation in order to fight for themselves. Imperialism is the occupation of territory. But it’s also an occupation of imagination and motivation.  Kirk believes he understands what’s best for the Organians, even though he just met them and knows almost nothing about their culture.

In a way, the Federation is even more presumptuous than the Klingons, who at least make no pretense of wanting to be the Organian’s friends. The Organians don’t go in for sarcasm, but there seems to be at least a touch of irony when one of them, Claymare (Peter Brocco) tells Kirk, “We thank you for your altruistic offer, Captain, but we really do not need your protection.”

The Organian’s Burden

Claymare is (maybe) being snarky because he doesn’t think Kirk’s offer is actually altruistic. He’s also just being truthful though. The Organians don’t need Kirk’s help. Kirk thinks he’s the colonizer. But actually, he’s the colonized.

The Organians are much more powerful than the Federation or the Klingons. Ayelborne says at the conclusion of the episode that he is standing simultaneously on the home planets of the Klingon Empire and the Federation. He has invaded the invaders.

John Abbott and Peter Brocco in Star Trek (1966)
Image Credit: Paramount Television.

Kor and Kirk understandably don’t like being colonized anymore than the Oragnians did, and they together and vociferously protest. “You can’t stop the fleet!” Kirk exclaims. “What gives you the right?” Kor adds, “You can’t interfere. What happens in space is not your business.”

That’s a crudely but emphatically stated anti-colonial argument. The Organians even agree with it to some extent: “We find interference in other people’s affairs most disgusting,” Claymare admits. “But,” he adds, “you gentlemen have given us no choice.”

The Organians have a point, as Kirk eventually has to acknowledge. They can end the war with no bloodshed, instantaneously. Should they hold off on the basis of some abstract principle of non-interference? If you can end World War II, or the equivalent, shouldn’t you try to do that?

The episode, which for most of its runtime has been a sharp critique of intervention and violence, ends by justifying benevolent interference as a sometimes regrettable necessity.

Remember the Gorn

The conclusion here is similar to “Arena,” also written by Gene L. Coon. In that episode, another all-powerful race (the Metrons) break up a battle between humans and aliens (the Gorn). The Metrons, like the Organians, are supposed to be evolutionarily advanced, and therefore fit to guide others, just as America saw itself as further along in history than supposedly less developed nations like Vietnam.

“Arena,” makes much of assuring Kirk he will eventually be like the Metrons; he shows mercy to the Gorn, proving his evolutionary potential and awesomeness. “Errand of Mercy” is more skeptical of Kirk’s claims to specialness. The human doesn’t distinguish himself from Kor, after all. He joins him in calling for war.

Sometimes, perhaps, an errand of mercy is necessary. But Kirk is left unusually at the end of this episode wondering whether he—as a representative of human beings and of the United States—is smart enough, or moral enough, to undertake it.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.