‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Return of the Archons”

“Return of the Archons” is a pleasingly shambolic outer space version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with 19th-century dress and, somehow, even more blatant anticommunism. There’s a touch of horror, a dash of totalitarian dystopia, and more than a bit of farce.

Watching the episode this time, though, I was most struck by how the Vietnam-era plot portrays local resistance forces. The on-the-ground knowledge of resistors is vital, and our heroes would be dead and/or assimilated without them. Nonetheless, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) treats his local helpers with steadily consistent contempt. By doing so, he inadvertently calls into question his own status as a heroic liberator.

The Invaders Are Body Snatched

The episode begins as Lt Sulu (George Takei) and another crew member, both dressed in 19th-century attire, run from ominous robed bad guys on the planet of Beta III. Sulu manages to call the ship to beam him up, but before he does, one of the robed weirdos touches him with the staff. The zap does something to his mind, and he doesn’t remember the Enterprise. Instead, he gets a faraway manic glint in his eye (George Takei always goes mad magnificently). He starts babbling about peace and harmony and how he is part of the “body.”

You’d think a landing party lost and converted would be a signal for the Enterprise to get out of Dodge. But Kirk is there to investigate the disappearance of the USS Archon, lost a century earlier while orbiting the planet. So, in typical Kirk fashion, he doubles down and beams down with an even bigger landing party, including Science Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley).

Once on the planet, the landing party discovers everyone is weirdly peaceful and spaced out, like Sulu.

(Or they mostly are. There’s a Red Hour festival of 12 hours during which everyone goes wild and pillages and fights and engages in ready-for-prime-time sexual acts. This is never really explained, though presumably, it’s a confused nod to Orwell’s two-minute hate.)

Where Were We? Oh Right.

The crew discovers everyone has been “absorbed” into the “body” by a mysterious god/leader named Landru. Despite the apparently primitive technology on Beta-III, Landru has access to great power. He blasts heat rays at the Enterprise, requiring full shields to deflect, and preventing the ship from beaming up the landing crew or leaving orbit.

Meanwhile, the landing party meets up with some members of a resistance. Reger (Harry Townes) attempts to help them escape, but Landru’s Lawgivers capture them all and prepare to assimilate them. They absorb McCoy. But another member of the resistance, Marplon (Torin Thatcher), who is the official assigned to zap their brains, sabotages the machines and leaves them un-zapped.

Marplon then leads the landing party to the chamber of Landru. Kirk and Spock figure out that Landru is a computer programmed 6000 years ago by the original Landru. The computer is determined to create a perfectly peaceful world. But without a soul or creativity, society has stagnated.

Kirk (who has defeated evil robots before) convinces Landru that the computer itself threatens the health of the body. The antagonist promptly and helpfully destroys itself.

Kirk leaves a sociologist behind to teach the Beta-III’s inhabitants the meaning of freedom and how to quarrel amongst themselves. The Enterprise then flies away, leaving behind it a liberated world. Yay!

You Can’t Trust the Resistance

The Cold War dynamics here are fairly obvious. Landru’s Beta-III is a Communist hive-mind, in which individuality and soul are suppressed by fanatic leaders for the good of the collective. “Your individuality will merge into the unity of the good,” Landru intones, “and in your submergence into the common being of the Body, you will find contentment and fulfillment.” To which Kirk, swashbuckling cowboy heir of the USA, responds, “Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life!”

The battle lines are drawn. On one side, a stagnant imposed totalitarian peace. On the other, struggle and freedom.

At first, it seems like Reger and Marplon have chosen freedom. They’ve spent their lives under the thumb of the body, but have fought back at great personal risk. Landru’s control is so terrifying and so absolute that Kirk and company aren’t even sure how resistance is possible. The fact that Reger and Marplon have survived seems like it should count for something!

More, the resistance is absolutely vital to the landing party’s success. Reger explains to the landing party the dangers they face, preventing them from waking an assimilated crew member who would instantly betray them to Landru. Marplon, for his part, saves the crew from final absorption. Without his interference, they would have been brain-zapped wholesale, like the Archons before them.

So is Kirk grateful for this invaluable aid? The answer is, not really. He’s skeptical of Reger’s advice, and seems almost contemptuous of the man’s fear—even after he watches one of Reger’s colleagues murdered in cold blood!

Director Joseph Pevny and writer Boris Sobelman share Kirk’s low estimate of indigenous resistors. They decide to make Reger betray his dead friend and his entire life at the last minute.

When Kirk and Spock decide to go confront and destroy Landru, Reger balks. He says that 6000 years before Landru brought peace to Beta-III. (“There was war. Convulsions. The world was destroying itself. Landru was our leader. He saw the truth. He changed the world.”) Then he loses his nerve completely and starts begging Landru to assimilate him.

Marplon seems ready to turn too. Disgusted, Kirk contemptuously tells these two people who have been courageously fighting a losing battle for freedom for decades, “You said you wanted freedom. It’s time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned.”

Landru, Meet Landru

Kirk marches Marplon to Landru’s chambers, where he and Spock stage the final debate. This human victory over the machine is supposed to be a triumph of freedom over tyranny.

But it’s not a triumph of the people of Beta-III. On the contrary, Kirk has to overrule the resistors and seize control of the resistance from them. Freedom, in “Return of the Archons” isn’t something revolutionaries seize for themselves. It’s something that they have been gifted to them by wiser, more powerful outsiders. You have to learn (from sociologists!) how to be free.

The idea that you need a Kirk to teach a Marplon how to be free is a staple of American Cold War thinking during the Cold War, and for that matter after the Cold War. In Vietnam, in Iraq, and in many other locales, American rule and American goals were called “freedom,” without much reference to the preferences of the people supposedly being freed.

You do wonder if Reger lost his nerve because he was afraid of liberty, or because he had become disillusioned with Kirk’s nagging, reckless arrogance. Maybe he feared he was going from one Landru to an even worse one.

The machine ordered Beta-III’s society, and then the machine blows up, and Federation experts come in to order the society. You can imagine Reger and Marplon together fading back into the shadows, plotting to overthrow this new powerful benefactor, not so different, perhaps, from the old.


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Featured Image Courtesy of Desilu Productions.

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.