Captain's Blog pt. 69: A Private Little War

On February 2nd, 1968, while Gomer Pyle tried to resist the charms of Fay Spain ("Gomer and the Queen of Burlesque") Captain Kirk tried to resist the charms of Nancy Kovack in:

Title: 2.25 pts
Interesting parallel. Gomer Pyle operated, of course, in the universe of the United States Marine Corps, and Captain Kirk in the universe of Starfleet and the Federation. Both beguiled by exotic natives, so to speak, against a backdrop of their respective indoctrination.

Script/ Story: (7.5 / 8) In last Friday's blog for "A Taste of Armageddon," I quoted the recent i09 article that mentioned this episode specifically as one where they amped up the sexual elements as covering fire for a Vietnam metaphor. I agree and disagree on this. 

On one hand, covering fire or not - and personally I think it's a mistake to think the Genes/ whomever only added sexual elements as covering fire -  the sexuality here is definitely a huge part of the proceedings. Not only do Kahn-ut-tu Women, the female members of the Hill People of Planet Neural (make of these names what you wish; I certainly find them suggestive) possess the ability to make men fall in love with them by manipulation of root-spells, the healing ritual Nona performs on Kirk is not very subtle.


(That picture of Bones looking on with Tyree beating his drum really cracks me up.) 

Here it is again.
On the other, it strikes me as unrealistic that the censors were so bewitched by open-mouthed kisses and Nancy Kovack's gyrations they did not catch the Vietnam allegory. It's not only blatant; Kirk's speech about supplying the same level of weapons tech to both sides is pretty establishment-friendly. It is never suggested that it is immoral or insane for two great powers to fight a proxy war via "hill people" whose allegiance is up for grabs.

"Are you Hill People?!?"
It's briefly considered, sure, and Kirk's angst about it is very above-board. But the message is very clear if this episode is meant to be taken completely literally: this is just the price that superior civilizations have to pay for doing business. My point is: this may be pretty controversial to learn about the Trekverse - the Enterprise is running guns to border outposts? Are they bribing local officials and propping up friendly dictators who don't "go Klingon?" Is there a Section 31 who comes in and targets local splinter cells? - but it's hardly antagonistic to American foreign policy, then or now. (The censors would likelier go after the sexual content.) 

And anyone who thinks Kirk's heavy heart about the whole thing justifies it is kidding themselves; in context of everything else, he's essentially channeling Kipling's "White Man's Burden."

"Snakes... snakes for the Garden of Eden," Kirk says. Another for the I-wish-they'd-invent-a-Bones-smacks-him-upside the head button wishlist.
If I sound like this episode angers me, it's quite the opposite; I find it all very fascinating. First of all, we are not only under no obligation to just read it literally, we are short-changing it if we do so. Like "Archons," "This Side of Paradise," or "A Taste of Armageddon," we should probably assume the writers are not speaking through Kirk but using him/ his dialogue with Bones about the wisdom of the balance of power/ prime directive as purposefully evocative dramatic tools. Kirk-as-unreliable-protagonist, so to speak, not in the sense that we shouldn't believe him, or are meant to read Kirk as deceiving himself, but in the sense of the main character in Blow-Up: someone in the traditional "hero's" role in the micro who is actually a cypher for unheroic actions in the macro.

However you read the theme, though, the script has several layers to it and weaves them together quite effectively.

1) The exchange / supply of firearms:

2) the relationship between Tyree and Kirk:


3) Spock's injury and recovery (featuring the first appearance of Dr. M'Benga, who later appears in the non-canon The Vulcan Academy Murders, not to mention last Wednesday's "That Which Survives:")

4) and how the introduction of superior firearms unravels the fabric of the Hill People's lives:


Interior Logistics: (1) Of course, the Federation supplying arms to border-zone planets is ridiculous, not only because of everything we've learned about the Federation and the 23rd century but also because of the damn logistics involved, for eff's sake.

Let me amend that: it's not necessarily ridiculous of itself, but it renders ridiculous so many other utterances about the Federation, the Prime Directive, and the 23rd century made elsewhere.

Hardly an offense singular to this episode, but you know, while we're here. 

Memorability: Here's how this one breaks down. For the world at large as represented by my old customers at the VFW who didn't know Jack B. Diddledy about any aspects of post-1980 pop culture (including Trek's various revivals) "Kanutu Woman" was one they all remembered. And a few of them (the ones who remembered Trek on more than a superficial level and with whom I had more than a few conversations about it) understood and remembered the Vietnam allegory quite clearly.

On a personal level, this was an episode I only ever saw on my friend's black and white TV for awhile - I'm sure I mentioned this back in the blogs somewhere, my apologies for not having an editor - so when I finally saw it in color, the fiery-furry breasts of Nona's outfit and the crazy wigs and all else really felt like a jump to lightspeed. (5)

Guest: (4.5)


Like Bond Girls, the most memorable ones have more going for them than just looking good while writhing around to dance-of-the-seven-veils-type music. And Nona is no exception to that rule. Top 5 "Ladies of Trek," to be sure. I've thought about maybe doing a "Ladies of Trek" post somewhere down the line, not a cheesecake gallery or anything, but a sincere attempt to evaluate and rank who had the most impact, how and why. 

Anyway, Nona. Not a "trailblazing role for women" or anything but she's a passionate and strong character that serves a purpose in the story beyond "hot chick in danger" or what not. That said, if you take note of such things, Nona is yet another example of the sexually forthright / powerful woman in media who is ultimately punished by story's end.

Kovack was already well-known for a variety of cheesecake/ dance-to-seven-veils-type parts, most notably a film a film that's been a favorite of mine since I was six or seven years old: Jason and the Argonauts, in which she plays Medea.

She also played Queenie on Batman. Follow-up question: who is Queenie? Answer:
The Joker's ladyyfriend. A creation only of the TV series, not of the comic.
Overshadowed:He does a good job in the role, though. It'd have been easy to go too broad with such a part and he doesn't.

He went on to marry 60s It Girl Twiggy.
And Ned Romero plays Krell, a "deep-track" Klingon of TOS. Heck, I've seen this episode a million times, and I always forget the guy's name between re-watches. Not through any fault of his performance or of the script. Simply that he's not one of the more memorable Klingons of TOS, and he's third fiddle guest-star for this episode. (Romero returns to play different characters in TNG and VOY.)

Kirk and the Gang: (25)

Bones' "HAA!" to get the Mugatu's attention never fails to crack me up.
Nor Kirk's staccato line delivery once poisoned. "Took... full poison..."

Visual Design: (3) This is a visually sumptuous episode. Let's get the Mugatu out of the way first. Kirk and Bones decrease their numbers on Neural by two.

from Zoolander.
The frontier vibe is communicated effectively via a mix of outdoor locations, sets and costumes:

Aboard the Enterprise we get our usual blend of purples, greens and oranges:


And Bill Theiss creates another iconic get-up for Nancy Kovack while either phoning in or adhering to the template of (take your pick) the blonde wig frontiersman ensemble we've seen elsewhere.

Total Points Awarded: 56.25

Here are some screencaps I had left over. Because why stop at 12,000...


  1. The way I read this episode, it is a sort of allegorical/metaphorical reinforcement of the show's core philosophy -- that being to show that in the future, humanity will have moved beyond problems of the sort that were plaguing people in 1968. But that doesn't mean humans couldn't still find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, courtesy of becoming embroiled in some other culture's problems.

    So the episode ends up being a Vietnam allegory, but it makes you feel kind of icky about the whole thing, and that ickiness -- to me, at least -- ends up being a metaphor for how much farther 1968-era humanity has to go before it can actually be anything like that "Star Trek" ideal.

    Hmm. Makes sense in my brain; not sure my brain is successfully communicating it though.

    In any case, yes, Nona is hot, and Tyree's wig is silly.

    1. Nope, makes sense outside-of-your-brain, too. Agreed. (Especially on the last points, there.)

  2. A Private Little War was quite sympathetic to American politicians who reluctantly went along for the ride in Vietnam -- seeing that small south eastern country as all important to American interests in 1968.

    It's easy to look back now and see how unimportant Indo-China was in the scheme of things. But to JFK and LBJ, defeating the communists was everything. To Nixon, who inherited the war, peace with honor was all important.

    This episode, more than any episode of any television series of the day, served as an allegory for the quandary that was Vietnam. We got ourselves in with the best of intentions, made a horrible mess of things, got a lot of people killed, and couldn't find any way to avoid it.

    This was a brilliant piece of television that stands as testimony as to how important Star Trek was as a a defining force in the cultural zeitgeist of the day.

  3. Michael Whitney as Tyree looks like Adam Warlock