Star Trek: The Original Series Rewatch

Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: “The Savage Curtain”

“The Savage Curtain”
Written by Gene Roddenberry and Arthur Heinemann
Directed by Herschel Daughtery
Season 3, Episode 22
Production episode 60043-77
Original air date: March 7, 1969
Stardate: 5906.4

Captain’s log. The Enterprise is in orbit of a planet that is covered in molten lava and cannot support life—yet sensor readings are giving indications of life and a high level of civilization, which matches some legends about the world. But they can’t beam down to investigate further due to the conditions on the planet, so Kirk says that they’re moving on to their next assignment. (Why it never occurs to anyone to go down in a shuttlecraft to investigate is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Just as they’re about to break orbit, the Enterprise is scanned so thoroughly it makes the lights dim, and then Abraham Lincoln appears on the viewer.

For obvious reasons, the crew is skeptical. Lincoln offers to beam aboard, and he says the Enterprise will be over his position in twelve-and-a-half minutes. Sure enough, there’s a thousand-square-kilometer patch of Earthlike area twelve and a half minutes away.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Kirk orders dress uniforms and a full honor guard for the transporter room. He doesn’t believe it’s really Lincoln, but he’s going to play along until he knows what’s going on. Scotty beams him aboard. Spock read the life form below as mineral at first, but then as fully human.

Lincoln has to have both recorded music and the transporter explained to him. Lincoln is very cordial and polite and gentlemanly before Kirk and Spock give him a tour of the ship. They hand him off to Uhura while Kirk and Spock meet with McCoy and Scotty in the briefing room—where they’ve been waiting for two hours, since Kirk apparently didn’t warn them that they’d be showing the president every inch of the vessel…

Lincoln has invited Kirk and Spock to the surface—among other things, to meet a historical figure from Vulcan’s past, though Lincoln is not sure who it is.

Spock speculates that whoever’s responsible for all this chose Lincoln as the image to present because that historical figure is one of Kirk’s heroes. McCoy and Scotty both think beaming down is a terrible idea, but Kirk reminds them about the whole seek-out-new-life-and-new-civilizations thing and beams down anyhow.

After they dematerialize, their phasers and tricorder are left behind, which does nothing to ease McCoy and Scotty’s considerable apprehension. They still have their communicators, but they can’t reach the ship, nor can the ship reach them. Then all power goes out on the Enterprise, leaving them stuck with emergency power only.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

On the surface, Surak appears before Spock, who describes him as the father of all that we are. Spock then apologizes to Surak for displaying emotion at the sight of him, which Surak graciously forgives.

Kirk, however, has had enough—at which point one of the rocks transforms into a living being named Yarnek, who identifies his world as Excalbia. Yarnek refers to this earthlike area as a stage in which they will perform a play. Yarnek introduces four more historical figures, these a bit nastier than Lincoln and Surak: Genghis Khan, Colonel Green (who led a genocidal war in the 21st century), Zora (who performed experiments on sentient beings on Tiburon), and Kahless the Unforgettable (who set the pattern for Klingon tyrannies).

The Excalbians are not familiar with the concepts of “good” and “evil,” so they pit Kirk, Spock, Lincoln, and Surak against Khan, Zora, Green, and Kahless. If Kirk and Spock survive, they can return to their ship. If they don’t, they all die.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Kirk and Spock refuse to participate in this game, but Yarnek says that he will decide otherwise and turns back into a rock. The eight of them just sort of stand around for a bit, until Green steps forward to speak for his team. He doesn’t want to be there, either, and he suggests they talk truce. Yarnek is their common enemy, and they should work toward denying him his prize and getting home—though Green is having trouble recalling where and what home is for him. However, Kirk is reluctant to go along with this entirely, as Green had a reputation for attacking while in the midst of negotiations.

Sure enough, Team Green ambushes Team Kirk while Green is talking. They’re driven off, but Kirk still refuses to engage if at all possible. Spock, Surak, and Lincoln all agree—so Yarnek gives Kirk a cause to fight for. Scotty reports that the ship’s engines are going critical and will explode in four hours. Kirk must fight or the ship will go boom.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Both sides fashion rudimentary weapons and a defensive position—but Surak refuses to fight. He will, however, act as an emissary to sue for peace, just as he and his followers did on Vulcan in his time.

Surak approaches Team Green with a message of peace, but Green is too cynical to believe that he has no ulterior motive.

Back at Team Kirk’s base, they hear Surak’s cries of pain as he begs Spock for help. Kirk wants to go rescue him, but Spock stops him—a Vulcan wouldn’t cry out like that. Lincoln suggests that Kirk and Spock engage in a frontal assault while Lincoln (who grew up in the backwoods of Illinois) sneaks around behind them and frees Surak.

The plan doesn’t quite work, mostly because Surak is already dead. Kahless was impersonating Surak. Lincoln himself is killed a minute later, leaving Kirk and Spock to fight Team Green alone. They drive Team Green off, but while Yarnek sees this as a victory for “good,” he’s not sure what the difference is between the two when they use the same methods. Kirk points out that he was fighting for other people’s lives—Team Green was fighting for power. That’s the difference.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Yarnek lets the Enterprise go in peace.

Fascinating. Spock gets to meet one of his heroes and be impressed by his bravery.

I’m a doctor not an escalator. McCoy’s curmudgeon-o-meter is on eleven in this episode, as he views Kirk’s respect given to what’s obviously a fake Lincoln and his desire to beam down to the surface with overwhelmingly crotchety disdain.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu is in charge of the bridge while Kirk and Spock give Lincoln his tour. Interestingly enough, Sulu remains in the command chair when they reach the bridge, as Kirk intended to continue the tour and therefore did not relieve Sulu of bridge duty. It’s a nice touch.

Hailing frequencies open. When Lincoln calls Uhura a “charming Negress,” and apologizes, she takes no offense, as she isn’t bothered by words.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

It’s a Russian invention. Chekov has very little to do in this episode, though he does get to confirm for McCoy that all the members of Team Green read as humanoid.

I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty’s dress uniform includes a kilt and sporran, which is awesome. He’s also the most vociferously skeptical about Lincoln, grumbling that it’ll be King Louis of France (he doesn’t specify which of the sixteen he means) and Robert the Bruce next.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Go put on a red shirt. Mr. Dickerson appears to be the security chief and he leads presidential honors for Lincoln when he beams aboard. And also doesn’t die, but probably only because he didn’t go down with Kirk and Spock to the planet… 

Channel open. “Jim, I would be the last to advise you on your command image—”

“I doubt that, Bones, but continue.”

McCoy and Kirk summing up their friendship.

Welcome aboard. Robert Herron, last seen as Sam in “Charlie X,” plays Kahless, while stuntwoman Carol Daniels Dement plays Zora. Lee Bergere plays Lincoln, Barry Atwater plays Surak, Phillip Pine plays Green, and Nathan Jung plays Khan, in his first-ever TV role. Meanwhile Arell Blanton and recurring regulars James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig all play Enterprise crew.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Yarnek’s physical form is played by propmaster Janos Prohaska while his voice is provided by Bart LaRue. Prohaska previously played several aliens in “The Cage,” the Horta in “The Devil in the Dark,” and the mugato in “A Private Little War.” LaRue previously provided voices for Trelane’s father (“The Squire of Gothos“), the Guardian of Forever (“The City on the Edge of Forever“), and a disembodied brain (“The Gamesters of Triskelion“), as well as the announcer in “Bread and Circuses” and the newscaster in “Patterns of Force.”

Trivial matters: Three major figures from Trek‘s fictional history are established here, and all three will appear again—played by different actors—on the spinoffs. Surak will appear in “Awakening” and “Kir’Shara” on Enterprise, played by Bruce Gray. Kahless (or, rather, a clone of him) will appear in “Rightful Heir” on TNG, played by Kevin Conway (and with forehead ridges, though that can be explained away by this episode’s version of Kahless coming from Kirk’s and Spock’s minds, and them not really knowing much about the man beyond his name). Green will appear in “Demons” on Enterprise, played by Steve Rankin.

Green played a major role in the novel Federation by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens, and also appeared in Federation: The First 150 Years by David A. Goodman and the short story “The Immortality Blues” by Marc Carlson in Strange New Worlds 9.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Surak was featured in the novels Spock’s World by Diane Duane, The Romulan Way by Duane & Peter Morwood, The Devil’s Heart by Carmen Carter, and the Vulcan’s Soul trilogy by Josepha Sherman & Susan Shwartz, as well as the Last Unicorn RPG module The Way of Kolinahr.

Kahless has appeared in several works of tie-in fiction, but those mostly use the interpretation of Kahless in TNG‘s “Rightful Heir” as a guide (among them Michael Jan Friedman’s Kahless and your humble rewatcher’s The Klingon Art of War). Having said that, John M. Ford only had this episode to use as reference when he wrote The Final Reflection

The Excalbians appear again in the four-issue opening arc of DC’s first monthly Star Trek comic by Mike W. Barr, Tom Sutton, and Ricardo Villagran, and in Tony Daniel’s novel Savage Trade.

Kirk’s admiration for Lincoln will come into play again when he encounters an android version of Lincoln in issue #9 of Gold Key’s Star Trek comic by Len Wein and Alberto Giolitti.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Originally Mark Lenard was to play Lincoln, giving him a different role in each of Trek‘s three seasons (the Romulan commander in “Balance of Terror,” Sarek in “Journey to Babel“), but his shooting schedule for Here Come the Brides didn’t allow for him to take the time off.

To boldly go. “Help me, Spock!” There are a lot of good things that came out of this episode. Surak and Kahless are major parts of Vulcan and Klingon history, and they inspired lots of nifty fiction, both of the tie-in variety and the on-screen variety in the spinoffs.

But man, this is a dumb episode. It’s a weak-tea rehash of “Arena,” with none of the ingenuity, none of the compassion, and none of the interest.

Part of the problem is that it’s a product of its time: portraying Genghis Khan as uncategorically evil—and on top of that, making him a sidekick who doesn’t even get dialogue—is an appalling misread of the historical figure of Temujin. But it was one that was endemic to the era, one that simply viewed the Great Khan through a yellow-peril lens and didn’t appreciate his tactical brilliance. The only differences between Alexander, called “the great,” and Genghis Khan, called “evil” in this episode and elsewhere, is the shape of their eyes and the color of their skin. Hilarious that an episode that has Uhura all but declare racism a thing of the past then proceeds to assign Khan to the side of evil solely based on the most appalling racist stereotyping.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

Not that Kahless fares much better, though at least he’s fictional. Thank goodness that “Rightful Heir” made better use of him—just based on this episode, Kahless inspired generations of Klingons through, um, his ability to flawlessly impersonate other people, apparently?

In particular it makes no sense that the person who set the tone for Klingon imperialism and one of the most successful generals in human history both are perfectly willing to take their cues from some random human white guy. I might be more willing to accept it if Green came across as anything other than a painfully generic bad guy, but there’s no there there. Green is just some random nasty dude, whose betrayal of Kirk is so predictable that Kirk went ahead and predicted it. And then we have Zora, who creates no impression whatsoever, and is pretty much just there to keep the numbers even.

Speaking of things that make no sense, there’s the entire setup. The Excalbians’ staged performance of “good” versus “evil” is sufficiently ham-handed that there’s no indication as to what, exactly, they’re getting out of it. Especially since it culminates in the most unconvincing, and most anticlimactic climax ever. Somehow Kirk and Spock manage to fight off four people and somehow that convinces Yarnek that Kirk and Spock deserve to go free. Somehow. Yeah.

It’s not all bad. Barry Atwater gives us a Surak who has the strength of his convictions. Unlike Kahless—who does nothing to indicate why he’s any kind of important figure in Klingon culture—Surak fits perfectly with what we’ve learned of Vulcan history in episodes from “Balance of Terror” to “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” He’s a pacifist who is willing to do what is necessary to achieve peace and end war. Lee Bergere’s Lincoln is quite entertaining, having the down-home nobility one would expect from arguably our greatest president. McCoy and Scotty’s exasperation with Kirk humoring Lincoln is delightful, and the messages of peace expressed by both Lincoln and Surak are strong ones.

Star Trek the original series, season 3, The Savage Curtain

But these things are not nearly enough to save this doofy-ass episode…


Warp factor rating: 2

Next week:All Our Yesterdays

Keith R.A. DeCandido managed to get this rewatch done while on jury duty.


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