Fan Collective Unimatrix 47 Examines Star Trek: TOS “A Taste of Armageddon” Episode

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Yesterday was a bit of an oddity in that, for some, it was both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, which are two very, very different celebrations. Valentine’s Day is, in the US at least, a day spent celebrating romantic love with a certain sort of excess—chocolate, gifts, and perhaps fancy dinners. Lent, however, is a season of self-denial, reflection, and meditation, according to practitioners. It’s a peculiar dichotomy created by an arbitrary calendar, but it does spark some thought.

The litany of “to dust you shall return” serves as a reminder of our mortality, prompting us to reflect on how we choose to spend the limited amount of time allotted to us. Valentine’s Day’s unreserved embrace of romantic love represents a distinct choice as to what our priorities are as we choose how to spend that time, and all of this has me thinking about Star Trek: The Original Series. “A Taste of Armageddon” is one of those episodes that gets short shrift, but I find it interesting. It’s a story about trying to sanitize war, but underneath that is a real question about the needs of the state versus the needs of the people. The episode asks and answers the question of whether it is reasonable to ask every citizen of a society to be willing to die in order to ensure the survival of the whole, even where that sacrifice is taken to an extreme. Given that the episode first aired on February 23, 1967, its answer may surprise you.

Plot Ahoy!

The Enterprise is on a mission to befriend a new civilization, Eminiar VII. As it happens, however, Eminiar has been at war with a nearby planet, Vendikar, for some five centuries. There’s a literal warning that sets Captain Kirk’s spidey senses tingling, but the Enterprise currently plays host to one Ambassador Robert Fox, diplomat extraordinaire, and the ambassador insists that he has the full backing of the Federation behind him when he orders Kirk to engage with the Eminiarans.

Kirk begrudgingly beams down to discover a peaceful, prosperous world and their leader, Anan 7 informing him that they’ve been locked in a bitter, bloody war. Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the landing party are incredibly confused, and that confusion only intensifies when an attack begins because the Federation crew can find zero evidence of an actual attack. Mr. Spock deduces that the war is waged via computer. A simulation determines who lives and who dies, and that simulated death turns literal. Per ancient treaty between the Eminiarans and the Vendikarans, any individual deemed a casualty has 24 hours to report to a disintegration chamber to die for the cause. Anan 7 sadly informs Kirk that the Enterprise due to its position in orbit has become a viable target. Vendikar has attacked the Enterprise, and the simulation has marked it destroyed. The entire crew has 24 hours to report to the disintegration chambers. Kirk, predictably, refuses, and Anan 7 orders Kirk and the landing party taken prisoner.

Kirk and his cohort begin to plot their escape, and they manage, after taking Mea 3 hostage in order to prevent her from reporting to a disintegration chamber. They destroy said chamber and then continue to cause mischief, causing no end of headaches for poor Anan 7 who is faced with breaching the treaty given that the destruction of the disintegration chamber puts him behind schedule in terms of being able to report back to Vendikar that the casualties have actually become casualties. He attempts to lure the crew down to the planet using a voice simulator, but Scotty is suspicious. A quick computer analysis reveals the ruse, so Scotty refuses to lower the shields. Ambassador Fox tries to force the issue and ultimately communicates with Anan 7, but Scotty remains firm.

Meanwhile, Kirk sneaks into Anan 7’s quarters, and though they share a drink—alcohol being universal—Anan 7 calls the cavalry on Kirk. They take him prisoner and drag him back to the council chamber. Ambassador Fox and an attache beam down, and Anan 7 tries to force them into a disintegration chamber. Kirk, Spock, and their landing party rescue them. The ambassador offers to learn to become a soldier, and he can inform Spock that Kirk has been taken prisoner.

Back in the council chamber, Anan 7 forces Kirk to contact the Enterprise, and Kirk orders Scotty to prepare for General Order 24, which will require Scotty to destroy everything on Eminiar. Anan 7 panics, and Kirk takes advantage of it in order to seize the upper hand. Spock storms in to rescue the captain only to find that the captain has rescued himself. They destroy the automated war machines, and Anan 7’s blood pressure skyrockets. They inform Anan 7 that he’ll have to face the real horrors of war, and Ambassador Fox offers his services as mediator. Anan 7 offers to put him in touch with Vendikar, and the Enterprise warps away.


Let’s get something out of the way—the main point of this episode is that the arrangement between Eminiar and Vendikar is wrong because it renders the cost of war comparatively minimal. The reason that cost is minimal is that the cost is paid in lives not in infrastructure, famine, or anything that harms a state that no longer happens to be dependent on its citizenry to produce that which is necessary to sustain the state. I make this observation because Eminiar seems to operate on the same post-scarcity basis the Federation does. Otherwise, the loss of life would cut into Eminiar’s economic prosperity, which Spock has already informed us hasn’t happened. Ergo, we’ll set the questions of class disparity and economic impacts aside.

In point of fact, the episode does a great job of framing the dilemma, which is whether it’s better to wage a computerized war to the benefit of the state or to wage a war that forces the state to grapple with the global effects of a war, including loss of infrastructure and resources as well as loss of life.  Anan 7 and Mea 3 make it very clear that over the last 500 years the citizens of Eminiar have decided that their individual lives are less important than the survival of their culture. Furthermore, without the potential loss of that culture, Eminiar and Vendikar have absolutely no incentive to cease aggression. When Fox suggests contacting Vendikar, Anan 7 references a veritable red phone that hadn’t been used in centuries.  There’s been no effort to negotiate beyond setting up the wargames computer.  Let’s also not discuss the IT requirements of establishing the servers for this death simulation that spans a solar system because apparently, these two societies can work through those issues but not negotiate a ceasefire.

This situation is madness, and at first, Kirk’s insistence that Eminiar and Vendikar experience real violence cuts against the very Trek value of the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Yes, I do realize that “A Taste of Armageddon” is a season one episode from Star Trek: The Original Series, and they haven’t quite nailed down that concept yet. However, Mea 3 explains that she’s willing to sacrifice herself to protect her culture from eradication via ugly war, and that explanation sets up the episode’s conflict. Is the culture more important than the lives of its citizens?

Kirk very much concludes that it isn’t, and he’s willing to destabilize a 500-year-old treaty in order to protect both the Eminiarans and the Vendikarans from their idiocy. He’s willing to gamble that neither society really wants to deal with the horror of war, and he’s ultimately proven right. They’re willing to ask their citizens to sacrifice themselves but not to risk the destruction of the idea of their culture.  In terms of Kirk’s Federation, which operates as an idealized version of the United States, that idea makes zero sense.

So, Kirk rejects it, and the story continues as we expect it will. However, my interest in “A Taste of Armageddon” centers around Mea 3’s decision to enter into the disintegration chamber.  She’s perfectly willing to sacrifice her existence to spare others, to minimize the damage. She does so without really examining the system. She accepts the state’s narrative that her death is necessary. She never asks the simple question, “Does this make sense beyond the arguments fed to me by society?” That’s admittedly a difficult question to ask because society and culture shape so much of what we believe to be good and right, and Kirk, as an outsider, has a valuable perspective here. Excluding that perspective, however, Mea 3 is making the choice between what is good for herself against what is good for Eminiar, and hers is a frighteningly unexamined choice. Yes, there’s a logic to it, but she never questions whether other options are available.

I wish the episode had explored the implications of that a bit further. Mea 3 and Anan 7 clearly believe that death in those chambers is ultimately a worthwhile way to end their existence. They believe that their first, best duty is to return to dust in service of the state. It seems to me that they need to reflect a bit more on their own worth and whether or not the state they’re serving actually has their best interests at heart. That’s a hard question, but I think it’s an important one. If we have only one life before mortality catches up with us, I think it behooves us to question how the state and our culture ask us how to spend that time. “At Taste of Armageddon” flirts with that idea but never quite addresses it.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if I’d walk into that chamber. Do you?


Four bottles of Romulan ale

Stray Thoughts From the Couch

1. Mea 3 is played by the amazing Barbara Babcock who manages to exude an air of competence while still making her submission to Kirk somewhat believable. I mean, it was the sixties.
2. David Opatoshu’s performance elevates Anan 7 from being a caricature of a mindless bureaucrat to give us a deeply flawed man trying to do his best by his society in the best way he knows how. Without Opathoshu’s nuanced performance, this episode would be rendered ridiculous.
3. The set design for this episode is the best kind of bananas. The overall impression is of order, with neat lines and geometric forms, but the light fixtures and sculptures are twisted, melted organic shapes that hint at the insanity underlying the Eminiaran’s way of life. The costumes also adopt a weird balance between asymmetry and almost Greco-Roman poise to create the same impression.
4. Scotty is just the best here.

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