Star Trek Re-watch: “The Savage Curtain”


The Savage Curtain
Teleplay by Arthur Heinemann
and Gene Roddenberry
Story by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Herschel Daugherty

Season 3, Episode 22
Production episode 3×22
Original air date: March 7, 1969
Stardate 5906.4—5906.5

Recap: Dayton Ward

In orbit above a nasty-looking red planet, the Enterprise conducts surveys and sensor scans. Kirk and the gang are puzzled by the apparent presence of life-forms despite an environment that seems completely inhospitable, with the surface covered by molten lava and all. Despite its reportedly poisonous atmosphere, there’s some kind of power generation happening down below, indicating an advanced civilization.

There’s no way a landing party can beam down and check things out, so Kirk orders a report sent to Starfleet detailing his plans to blow this popsicle stand and head someplace a bit more exciting. Somebody somewhere takes exception to that, because alarms start ringing and Spock says the ship is being swept by a powerful scanning beam.

Then, just as you might expect from a science-fiction show set in the far future and not featuring Will Robinson, the Robot and Dr. Smith talking to giant mutated vegetables, Abraham Lincoln shows up.

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainThat’s right: Seemingly sailing through space in his ReclinerTron2000™, an apparition claiming to be Abraham Lincoln appears on the screen. He greets Kirk by name and lets the good captain know that he is, in fact, Abraham Lincoln. No, really.

(Trivia: In the original broadcast version of this episode, McCoy can be seen standing behind Kirk, holding his hand to his mouth and pretending to cough while mumbling “Bullsh##!”)

While Kirk and his people try to figure out what the real deal is with what they’re seeing, the “illusion” of Lincoln asks to come aboard the ship. He tells Kirk that the Enterprise will be over his position on the planet in twelve and a half minutes, which sort of makes me wonder why he went to all that trouble to make it look like he was floating in space. When Lincoln disappears, Spock scans the planet surface again and reports that there is now a 1,000-square-kilometer area which has transformed into a region that boasts an Earthlike environment. Wow, that’s odd.

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainKirk orders dress uniforms for the senior staff as they prepare to greet Lincoln, and when Scotty tries locking onto him both he and Spock report that there’s an odd sensor reading, as though the life form purporting to be Lincoln was almost mineral in composition or, as Spock puts it, “Living rock with heavy foreclaws.” Holy crap! They’re beaming up Ben Grimm!

The readings change to that of a human, and Lincoln materializes to the accompaniment of “ruffles and flourishes” befitting an alien life form impersonating a head of state from Earth who’s been dead for 400 years. There’s some kind of odd, FUBAR’d ceremonial protocol that makes my former military heart wince as Kirk greets Honest Abe. McCoy and Scotty loiter in the transporter room after everybody else clears out, and Scotty wonders if what he saw on the scanner was what became Lincoln, or perhaps another life form standing nearby. Hey, you don’t suppose that means anything, do you?

After getting a tour of the ship, during which I have no doubt Kirk shows the president how to take over auxiliary control in the event he wishes to hijack the ship, Lincoln is brought to the bridge to have a look around. There, he gets to meet Uhura, and we’re treated to a quick Roddenberrian lesson in how humanity is way better now than it was back in Lincoln’s time. Kirk tells him that humans have grown up, a lesson they learned from the Vulcans. Spock utters some New Age mumbo-jumbo that Lincoln immediately recognizes as “the philosophy of Nome, meaning all.” This, of course, confuses everyone, as there’s no way a human from 19th-century Earth should know about an ancient Vulcan philosophy, right?

DETECTIVE COLUMBO: Um, excuse me, sir.
LINCOLN: How did I know that?
DETECTIVE COLUMBO: Right. I just have a few more questions….

Realizing he just screwed up, Lincoln tries to change the subject by telling Spock that he’ll be meeting one of the greatest of all Vulcans down on the planet. Do you think they bought it?

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainKirk leaves Uhura to continue Lincoln’s tour while he and Spock meet with McCoy and Scotty to rehash the whole “You don’t really think he’s Lincoln?” bit one more time. Kirk tells McCoy and Scotty that he and Spock have been invited down to the planet’s surface. When he solicits comments, McCoy asks what Kirk’s been smoking. As Spock puts it, whatever is living on the planet, it wants Kirk and Spock for some as-yet-unknown purpose. Well…you know…duh, Spock. Way to see through the haze of deception and diversion there, dude. As for why “Lincoln” has been presented, that, too, is obvious: Kirk has always admired Lincoln, so the aliens must think that by presenting him as a living being, Kirk will throw caution and reason to the winds and just beam right on down. Well, they screwed up, if you ask me. I mean, if they’d sent up an illusion of Ruth or Edith Keeler, Kirk would’ve beamed down before the opening credits, right?

Well, we’re sixteen minutes into the episode at this point, so you know Kirk has to decide he’s beaming down to see what’s the happs, and all that. In short order he, along with Spock and Lincoln, prepare to transport to the surface. As they dematerialize, their phasers and Spock’s tricorder are left behind on the transporter pad. Meanwhile, down on the planet, Kirk and Spock are having a look around at their pristine, very lava-free surroundings. (Psst. Ignore all the footprints in the dirt that makes it look as though a rugby match just wrapped up here.) Spock is the first to note that their gear didn’t make the trip with them. They still have their communicators, but when Kirk tries to contact the Enterprise he gets no bars. Damn you, AT&T.

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainKirk presses Lincoln for answers, but the president remains adamant that all is as it should be and that he really is—no foolin’—Abe Lincoln. That’s when they’re met with a new arrival, a Vulcan who proclaims that he also is who he appears to be. Spock does a double take, recognizing the newcomer as Surak, the greatest Vulcan and the “father of all we became.” Put another way, he’s The Most Interesting Vulcan in the Universe. I mean, this cat is so cool that the dude from the Dos Equis beer commercials has a tattoo of this guy’s face on the inside of his thigh. THAT’S how awesome Surak is. Spock, understandably, squees at this turn of events, and begs Surak to forgive his display of emotion. Surak lets him off the hook because, after all, he’s awesome and he gets these sorts of reactions all the time, albeit from teenage girls who’ve just watched his music videos on YouTube.

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainKirk, meanwhile, still wants answers as to who or what’s behind this elaborate game. The answer kinda sorta shows up as one of the nearby boulders transforms into…well…the nearest thing to which I can compare it is the Golgothan from the Kevin Smith film Dogma, though without that creature’s screen presence and conversational skills.


Anyway, the thing identifies the planet as Excalbia. Yarnek (he’s never named in dialogue, but his name’s in the script) makes mention of a “drama about to unfold.” The stage has been set, that being the habitable area on the otherwise inhospitable world. Yarnek agrees to let Kirk call up to the Enterprise, so that they may enjoy “the play.”

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainThen he snaps his fingers clicks his foreclaws, and a Rogue’s Gallery of evil-looking folks stroll into view. They are, as Yarnek explains, some of history’s more questionable characters: Genghis Khan; a 21st-century military dictator named Colonel Green; an alien scientist named Zora, who conducted diabolical experiments on living subjects; and—last but not least—Kahless the Unforgettable, the first ruler of the Klingon Empire.

Talk about Kirk and Spock being between a rock and a hard place. (Hah!)

Up on the Enterprise, which has been having all sorts of power problems, Scotty and McCoy, along with the rest of the bridge crew, watch the scene unfold on the planet below. Yarnek orchestrates a conflict that will take place on the stage he’s created, pitting against each other the philosophies he’s come to know as “good” and “evil.” He and his people are unfamiliar with these concepts, and want to know which one is stronger and can help him land lucrative endorsement deals, hot women, and maybe even a stint on Dancing with the Stars once his career goes in the crapper. The Excalbians will observe the contest and see who survives. The losers will go to tribal council and vo… whoops, sorry about that. My kid changed the channel while I was writing this.

While Kirk and Spock ponder their situation, Colonel Green wanders over from the Evil Side and engages the captain in conversation. He’s not the bad guy history’s made him out to be, you see. “Let’s get together,” he says. “We’ll have a few laughs, and figure a way out of this pickle.”

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainMeanwhile, in full view of anyone who’s not blind, deaf, and/or dead, the Legion of Doom Green’s associates move away, setting up for an oh-so subtle sneak attack.

ME: Two hundred quatloos on the newcomers!
MY WIFE: Oh, shut up.

In short order a good old-fashioned street fight breaks out, giving us another exhibition of fight choreography that is so ridiculous it makes the tussle at the start of “The Cloud Minders” look like something from a John Woo flick. Over to the side, Yarnek is watching the festivities and fidgeting a lot. No, that’s not weird. At all.

Spock suggests they prepare for another attack, but Kirk wants no part of it. This disappoints Yarnek, who basically calls Kirk and his group a bunch of pansies. Kirk, apparently deciding it’s been too long since the script called for him to act like a moron, tries to hit the Excalbian and gets his hand burned for his trouble. Dude. Lava planet, remember?

Yarnek reasons that the “Good Guys” won’t fight unless they have something for which fighting is worth the effort and possible sacrifice. He ups his ante with the Enterprise. He also puts a timetable on things: four hours for the “drama to play out,” and Kirk has to win if the ship’s to be saved. If Kirk and Spock won’t fight, the ship will be destroyed.

I hate when that happens.

Forced to do Yarnek’s bidding, Kirk begins strategizing and quickly confronts his first obstacle: Surak. The Vulcan refuses to fight, and insists on pursuing a peaceful solution by volunteering to speak with Green and the others. He puts forth the not-unreasonable hypothesis that it could be their belief in peace that’s being tested. Meanwhile, Yarnek is nearby, watching the proceedings with all the zeal of a 13-year-old boy who’s just figured out the parental lock on the Pay-Per-View channels.

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainSurak makes his way to the Bad Guys’ base camp to offer his peace proposal. As you might imagine, this goes over about as well as flatulence in a crowded elevator. While this is going on, Kirk, Spock and Lincoln continue readying their defenses—sharpening spears and on—when they hear a bloodcurdling cry of pain, followed by what sounds like Surak calling to Spock for help, along with Colonel Green taunting Spock to come and help his friend. Spock sees the ploy for what it is: an attempt to provoke Kirk and the others into attacking. Lincoln proposes a diversionary frontal assault to cover his movements into the enemy camp so that he can free Surak. The president proposes that the group fight on the same level as Green and his people: “with trickery, brutality and finality. We match their evil.” This seems to tickle Yarnek’s funny bone as the Excalbian watches the discussion.

Kirk and Spock make their approach to the Bad Guys’ camp. I hope they’re deliberately trying to be seen, because if this is a sneak attack then I’ve seen better small unit tactics from Gomer Pyle. Green and the others see them coming and a brief skirmish ensues, with both sides chucking rocks and spears at each other. Think of the snowball battles you waged in your neighborhood as a kid, and realize these guys aren’t even fighting that well. While this is going on, Lincoln worms his way through the back door and finds Surak, but he’s too late; the Vulcan is dead. Lincoln realizes he’s walked right into the trap set by Green and Kahless, who opt to send the former president back to Kirk and Spock with something of a message: a spear in his back.

 (A less tasteful blogger would’ve inserted a wholly inappropriate joke here about Lincoln not being able to see the end of yet another play. For what it’s worth, I wrote four such jokes. Moving on….)

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainThis ignites yet another so-called melee, only now Kirk and Spock are outnumbered two to one, with Yarnek on the sidelines getting his rocks off (Hah!) as he watches the whole sad affair. Despite their advantage in numbers, the Bad Guys don’t really seem to put up much of a fight. They retreat after Kirk and Spock throw them around a couple of times. Green makes a run for it and Kirk makes what I have to say is one of the better open-field tackles of the entire series, if not the whole Star Trek saga. A couple of Kirk-Fu moves later and Green’s down for the count. Yarnek declares Kirk and Spock the winners, and in turn gets hit with some of that groovy Star Trek message action:

YARNEK: It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted. However, you have failed to demonstrate to me any other difference between your philosophies. Your good and your evil use the same methods; achieve the same results. Do you have an explanation?
KIRK: You established the methods and the goals.
YARNEK: For you to use as you chose.
KIRK: What did you offer the others if they won?
YARNEK: What they wanted most: power.
KIRK: You offered me the lives of my crew.
YARNEK: Oh, right. Duh.

After paying lip service to the notion that he brought Kirk and Spock here out of a desire to learn and the “need to know new things,” Yarnek allows them to go as they came—in peace—before declaring it nap time and returning to his rock-like state.

Kirk and Spock return to the Enterprise to find that all is well; no sign of the problems that plagued the ship. Kirk realizes their encounters with “Lincoln” and “Surak” have offered him insight into the true effort and commitment needed to achieve peace, and that the goals pursued by both men still require much work if they are to be achieved. We’re left to ponder that final thought as we… FADE OUT.

Star Trek episode The Savage Curtain“The Savage Curtain” was one of those episodes that always seemed to be on whenever I caught a rerun of the original series on my local television station back in the 1970s. As I grew older and started to become aware of the “messages” underlying many original series episodes, I came to realize that this story does indeed contain such a message. Unfortunately, it’s buried deep within a pretty mediocre script.

The idea of Kirk coming face to face with an historical figure he knows and respects, and then partnering with that “hero” in a battle of good vs. evil? Sounds like fun, right? Throw in Spock and a revered figure from his own planet’s history, and you have the seeds for what should grow into “EPIC WIN” for all involved, right?

Um, no.

The episode’s overall execution is rather blasé, from the talky shipboard scenes to the confrontation with Yarnek and even the “fights” with Green and the rest of the Evil League of Evil. We’re left with no real understanding of Yarnek’s motivations, other than his “need to know new things.” How many times has he pulled this stunt? Has he really learned anything from what has just transpired? Unlike the Metron from “Arena,” who genuinely seemed to have gained an appreciation for humanity from his observations of Kirk battling the Gorn, there’s nothing here to indicate Yarnek won’t pull a whole new stunt the next chance he gets, and he comes across as somebody looking for something to help kill a few hours because there’s nothing good on TV.

Funny. I found myself feeling the same way when I was finished here.

Dayton’s Rating: Warp 2.5 (on a scale of 1 to 6)


Star Trek episode The Savage Curtain

Analysis: David Mack

Upon first glance, this episode might look a bit silly. Abraham Lincoln floating in space and teaming up with our heroes to fight villains incarnated from their imaginations. All right, it is a bit surreal. But beneath this pulpy, cheesy conceit, there is an interesting philosophical point being made: though the methods used by Kirk and Spock, who naturally think of themselves as “good,” are functionally identical to the methods employed by those whom they consider “evil,” the fundamental difference lies in their motivations. As Kirk points out to their Excalbian taskmaster, good acts in the interest of others, while evil acts in self-interest only.

I think it’s to Kirk’s credit that he isn’t for a moment fooled into believing that the entity he encounters is the real Abraham Lincoln, but he has the presence of mind to humor the entity with “presidential honors,” rather than waste time debating the being’s reality or identity. It’s also refreshing to hear McCoy and Scott as the voices of reason and caution, casting doubt on whether the earthlike environment on the planet’s surface is real, or a trap intended to lure Spock and Kirk to their deaths. (Though Kirk’s counterpoint is also quite reasonable: Why would a foe of such obviously advanced means go to that much effort just to kill him and Spock?)

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainConsidering that the Excalbians not only manifested important figures from the histories of Earth and Vulcan, but reincarnated two individuals—Lincoln and Surak—of particular personal importance to Kirk and Spock, one wonder whether the Excalbians, in addition to possessing sophisticated technology are also imbued with telepathic gifts. It’s never expressly stated in the episode that such is the case, but it is strongly implied.

This was, of course, the last of the original series’ many “crew tested by alien” stories, which include “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Arena,” “Spectre of the Gun,” “The Empath,” and its original pilot, “The Cage.” This one seems particularly simplistic and sadistic. Though the Excalbian presents his “play” to Spock and Kirk as a litmus test for the philosophical differences between good and evil (as understood by humans and Vulcans), it comes off as more of an ultimate fighting match. Also, just as in “Arena,” the Enterprise crew is permitted to watch the struggle on the main viewscreen.

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainThe character of Surak generated great fan response; in the weeks after this episode aired, Star Trek was deluged with fan mail wanting to see and know more about Surak. His actions in this episode exemplified the pacifistic and logical aspects of Vulcan culture, and it was good to see Kirk respect Surak’s choice to sue for peace, despite Kirk’s own fervent belief that the prudent course was to engage and destroy the enemy.

Special-effects limitations aside, the transformation of the boulder into the Excalbian (and vice-versa) was quite cool, especially considering its simplicity. Another nice touch was the steam and/or smoke rising from the Excalbian’s body later in the episode when he argues with Kirk. Fun trivia fact: this marks the second time a rock-based life-form appeared on Star Trek. The first was the Horta from “The Devil in the Dark.” Both were played by Janos Prohaska, who also wore the suit of the mugato in “A Private Little War.”

Star Trek episode The Savage CurtainThe difference in the appearance of Kahless between this episode and his cloned reincarnation in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Rightful Heir” can be explained by the fact that the villains of “Savage Curtain” were drawn from Kirk’s and Spock’s minds, rather than from objective fact.

With regard to the episode’s production merits, the dimmed and shifting lighting on the Enterprise sets was remarkably effective at conveying the weakened state of the ship. However, one has to wonder whether the imposition of primitive combat methods upon our hereoes and their foes was necessitated by the series’ sharply curtailed budgets during the third season. As for the lameness of the fight choreography, it remains as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.

In the final analysis, the most damning thing I can say about this episode is that it’s boring. That’s partly because of its poor pacing, but also because the fights were uninspired, there were no cool effects, and I never really believed the stakes involved would amount to anything. So, on the one hand, we have a cool philosophical idea struggling to get out from under all this absurdity, and we get our first glimpses of two vital figures of Star Trek’s prehistory, Surak of Vulcan and Kahless the Unforgettable. On the other hand, we have a slog of an episode that often sounds as silly as it looks.

As with last week, it could’ve been a lot worse—but it’s still a long way from good.

David’s Rating: Warp 2.5 (on a scale of 1 to 6)

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 23 — “All Our Yesterdays.” U.S. residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.

Dayton Ward is a hero in his own way; in his own not-that-heroic way.

David Mack was just wondering, “Aside from the spear in your back, Mister President, how did you like the play?”


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