“The Great Balance is a lie”: A Taste of Armageddon (Original Series) vs. The Sound of Thunder (Discovery)

*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and for Star Trek: Discovery up to Season 2, episode 6.

Star Trek: The Original Series – “A Taste of Armageddon” (season 1, episode 23)

taste 7Teleplay by Robert Hammer and Gene L. Coon; story by Robert Hammer; directed by Joseph Pevney; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise is sent to make formal first contact with the people of Eminiar VII, but their attempts are rejected by the Eminians, who warn the Enterprise to stay away. Captain Kirk can take a hint, but Federation Ambassador Robert Fox can’t, and he orders Kirk to proceed with first contact anyway. This is obviously a terrible idea, but Kirk has his orders, and takes an away team to the planet, where things seem fine at first: the planet appears to be prosperous and peaceful, and its people friendly enough, if strangely anxious about the away team’s presence. Kirk is told that it’s not safe for him and his crew in Eminian space, because the planet is at war with nearby Vendikar, a war which has lasted 500 years and cost billions of lives … and of which the away team can see no evidence whatsoever. Eventually, though, Spock realizes that the war is fought through computer simulation: when one side “attacks,” the simulation decides which areas were hit and calculates the casualties, who are ordered to report to a “disintegration station” – which the Eminians do, willingly, for fear that breaking this arrangement with Vendikar would lead to an escalation of real-world hostilities which might destroy both civilizations. And now Kirk’s crew is ordered by the Eminian authorities to do the same, after the Enterprise is “destroyed” in one such simulated attack. Kirk isn’t as willing to volunteer himself or his crew for disintegration, though, and after destroying a few disintegration stations and threatening to turn the Enterprise’s weapons on the planet’s surface, he instead turns his own weapon on the war simulation computers. This leaves the Eminians unable to continue their simulated war with Vendikar, and Ambassador Fox volunteers to remain on the planet and help the Eminians negotiate for peace with Vendikar.  


Star Trek: Discovery – “The Sound of Thunder” (season 2, episode 6)

sound 8Written by Bo Yeon Kim & Erika Lippoldt; directed by Douglas Aarniokoski; first aired in 2019

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

As both Saru and Dr. Culber recover from recent life-changing experiences (quite literally, in Culber’s case), the Discovery detects a new signal, seemingly from the Red Angel, above Saru’s home planet of Kaminar. Attempts to communicate with the Ba’ul – the space-faring but isolationist species from Kaminar who have long subjugated Saru’s fellow Kelpiens in what they call the “Great Balance” – go nowhere. Saru and Michael Burnham beam down to gather information, but not before Saru, now free from his fear-inducing threat-ganglia and furious at the Ba’ul for their treatment of his people, nearly comes to fisticuffs with Captain Pike. On the planet, Saru is reunited with his sister, Siranna, but is detected by the Ba’ul, who demand that he be handed over to them. An increasingly impatient and uncharacteristically aggressive Saru defies orders and surrenders himself to the Ba’ul to keep them from hurting his fellow Kelpiens, only to be told by the Ba’ul that the Kelpiens are, in fact, the dominant predators on Kaminar; the “Great Balance” was established to stop them from hunting the Ba’ul to extinction, by preventing any Kelpiens from reaching the predatory stage of their life cycle, as Saru has. Saru escapes and techno-babbles a way to trigger “vahar’ai” in all Kelpiens simultaneously, causing them all to lose their threat-ganglia. The Ba’ul respond by triggering a failsafe meant to exterminate all Kelpiens across the planet, but the Red Angel intervenes, destroying the Ba’ul’s weapons and leaving both species to work toward a better “balance.”

taste 4When fans talk, write, or angrily Tweet about Star Trek, a lot of what gets said tends to be about the franchise’s world-building – about how, exactly, its technology, alien civilizations, and utopian Federation might actually work. The Prime Directive, or General Order 1, serves as a source of much debate, partly because it’s one of the very, very few mechanics of that utopian Federation which are ever made explicit. We know precious little about how the Federation’s economy works, or its political structure, or its news and entertainment media, but we do know that it has a strict policy against interfering in the development of alien civilizations. And so, fans hash out the ethics of General Order 1, or the logistics of it, or the way it’s interpreted and/or ignored by various Starfleet officers across the various incarnations of Star Trek. But the franchise itself often seems less interested in such details of how its universe works, and a lot more interested in using that universe as a source of metaphors, analogies, and classic sci-fi high concepts. The contrived holodeck malfunction of “Our Man Bashir” is ludicrous, but it allows Deep Space Nine to explore the way fictional narratives impact our view of the real world; in “Darmok,” the idea of a language based entirely on allusion and cultural reference doesn’t necessarily hold up to close scrutiny, but it does allow The Next Generation to explore the relationship between language and culture. As fascinated as a nerd like me might be by the implications and inner workings of General Order 1, it mostly works the way it needs to work – and is enforced or ignored by our characters as much as it needs to be – in order to play out the sci-fi dilemma of the week. The Original Series’ “A Taste of Armageddon” and Discovery’s “The Sound of Thunder” both serve as … questionable examples of how General Order 1 would influence the Federation’s treatment of other cultures. But they both do so in order to tell classic high-concept morality tales, which comment on contemporary current events and the human condition – and which showcase both the strengths and the weaknesses of this kind of storytelling.

taste 2“A Taste of Armageddon” isn’t exactly a high point in first contact history for the Federation. The Original Series’ first mention of a “Prime Directive of non-interference” can be found in the episode that first aired immediately before this one, “Return of the Archons,” in which an alien society is controlled by a computer. That Directive isn’t mentioned in “Armageddon” though, despite the striking similarities between the two episodes. This isn’t so strange, in and of itself; I’d argue that The Original Series was more an anthology series than an ongoing drama, in the way we’d use those terms today, and that we can’t expect it to conform to our contemporary obsession with strict continuity, or canon. But not only is there no mention of the Prime Directive here, the spirit behind it is almost entirely absent, as well. Ambassador Fox’s insistence on visiting the Eminians, in defiance of their explicit warning that the Enterprise stay away, is both disturbingly colonial and obviously foolish – a good way to get people killed, if not start an all-out war. And despite Captain Kirk’s sensible objections to this, he ends up going even farther than Fox, first threatening to literally destroy Eminian society, and then single-handedly changing that society forever by destroying their war simulation. As disturbing as it is that the Eminians sacrifice real people to a simulated war (more on that later), ending that simulation is a huge decision for Kirk to make on their behalf, with no guarantee that it won’t cause the un-simulated war with Vendikar that the Eminians are afraid of. (It’s kind of fun to imagine Captain Picard on The Next Generation, a Prime Directive absolutist, nearly having an aneurysm while reading about this in the history books.) And this is to say nothing of “General Order 24,” Kirk’s threat to use the Enterprise’s weapons to wipe all Eminians off the face of their own planet. That Starfleet would allow such a thing, let alone have a General Order devoted to it, is so out of line with my understanding of their guiding principles that I think I’d always assumed it to be a bluff … but it doesn’t appear to be, as far as I can tell after re-watching the episode.

sound 2Discovery’s “The Sound of Thunder” doesn’t disregard Starfleet’s policy of non-interference, but it doesn’t really do the idea justice, either. Which is a shame, since the episode picks up on a really interesting Prime Directive dilemma, introduced in the Short Trek “The Brightest Star”: the subjugation of a pre-spaceflight civilization by a spaceflight-capable civilization who have refused contact with the Federation. “An Obol for Charon,” early in season 2 of Discovery, adds the detail that the Ba’ul have long been lying to Saru’s fellow Kelpiens about their “vahar’ai,” which, as Saru finds out for himself, isn’t fatal after all … though whatever the Ba’ul do to Kelpiens when they enter vahar’ai certainly seems to be. And “The Sound of Thunder,” coming two episodes later, adds yet another bit of backstory, revealing that the Federation made first contact with the Ba’ul because of Saru, in response to the first transmission we saw him send in “The Brightest Star.” Not only does this make for a neat little trilogy of episodes, it invites us to ask some difficult questions about a General Order – the first General Order, a guiding principle of both Starfleet and the Federation as a whole – which would prioritize the Ba’ul’s sovereignty over the freedom and safety of the Kelpiens; like Ambassador Fox’s orders in “A Taste of Armageddon,” there’s a disturbing whiff of colonialism to this. But after inviting those questions, “The Sound of Thunder” doesn’t do much with them. Michael Burnham tells us that Captain Pike is in the position to make a judgement call here, just as she did, and just as he was, in “New Eden.” But where “New Eden” turned this judgement call into one of Trek’s most interesting explorations of the ethics of non-interference, “The Sound of Thunder” has Pike basically just give up on trying to rein in Saru’s plan to induce vahar’ai in all Kelpiens simultaneously. Saru literally tampers with the biology of an entire species, and after ratcheting up the tension between him and Pike through much of the episode, “Thunder” ends without any mention of career consequences for Saru, or of how Federation authorities might feel about such drastic interference in another culture, after previously being content to let the Ba’ul’s domination of Kaminar continue.

sound 3But in both “The Sound of Thunder” and “A Taste of Armageddon,” the ethical issues around interfering in alien cultures take a back seat to each episode’s classic, Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi conceit. And both episodes showcase the potential, and the limitations, of this approach to storytelling – an approach which somehow feels both old-fashioned and fresh in our post-Lost pop-cultural landscape of heavily-serialized TV series that encourage us to focus more on solving puzzles than on parsing meanings. Watching “A Taste of Armageddon” today, some of those weaknesses are pretty obvious: the old Trek trope of a perfectly uniform, monolithic alien culture is on full display in the Eminians, with no indication given that any of them ever resist being sacrificed. This also seems to be mostly true of the Kelpiens in “The Sound of Thunder,” though Saru’s sister does imply that Kelpiens who ask too many questions about the Great Balance might sometimes be taken by the Ba’ul whether they’re going through vahar’ai or not, meaning that Saru probably wasn’t the first Kelpien to question the Balance – just the first lucky enough to make contact with Starfleet before being disappeared by the Ba’ul.

sound 4And “Thunder” at least gives the Ba’ul a plausible motivation for engineering the Great Balance, given that they themselves were once the oppressed people of Kaminar. This is an interesting twist on what Short Treks and Discovery had previously implied about the relationship between the Kelpiens and the Ba’ul, and it helps to humanize the Ba’ul, so to speak. While I obviously can’t condone their treatment of the Kelpiens, I can at least appreciate that the Ba’ul think they’re treating the Kelpiens humanely; after all, as we learn near the episode’s end, the Ba’ul could easily wipe out all Kelpiens, and save themselves the trouble of maintaining the Balance at all. The fact that the oppressed Kelpiens turn out to be the former oppressors of the current oppressors makes the Kelpien-Ba’ul relationship more complex, a story-telling device we’ve seen from Trek before, as in the Enterprise episode “North Star.”  But I worry a bit about the implications of these stories in which the oppressed are revealed to be just as dangerous as their oppressors, since real-world oppression is often supported with claims that we should be more afraid of the vulnerable than we are of the powerful. To this episode’s credit, though, it never seems to suggest that Saru’s anger, or his use of words like “oppression,” aren’t justified, regardless of the Ba’ul’s motivations. And while I was critical, above, of the lack of career repercussions for Saru’s massive interference in the Kelpiens’ development as a species, I do appreciate that “The Sound of Thunder” never seriously argues against the idea that the Kelpiens should not only be liberated from their oppressors, but should also be restored, immediately, to the full power that so scares those oppressors.

taste 9In “A Taste of Armageddon,” as well, we see some tension between story-telling devices and the real-world issues they reference. The Eminians’ computer-simulated war is only plausible if you can buy the idea that wars result from a primal irrational need for it (a criticism of human nature The Original Series would make frequently, in episodes like “Arena” and “Spectre of the Gun”). And yes, some real-world violence is done purely for violence’s sake … but the vast majority of the time, people do violence because it gets them something, and nations fight wars for the same reason. We understand that a simulated war benefits the Eminians and Vendikarians by letting their war continue without their worlds being destroyed, but we have no idea why they’re at war. And yes, I get that this is supposed to be the point; the war that’s gone on so long no one even remembers how it started is a pithy, clever-sounding concept, and undoubtedly a poignant one when “Armageddon” first aired, in 1967, during the Vietnam War. But the reality is that real-world wars – even wars as protracted as the Vietnam War – are fought for tangible reasons: to claim territory or resources, or to expand the influence of an ideology. I agree, of course, with the episode’s central message: that we should never become comfortable with being at war … that we should never get used to it. But that message is weakened, I think, by not acknowledging that there are very real reasons why a nation might want its people to get used to war – very bad reasons, yes, but very real ones.

taste 3But while “A Taste of Armageddon” doesn’t address the reasons a war might seem to stretch on forever, like the Vietnam War or the so-called War on Terror, it provides a surprisingly effective allegory for the way war was waged at the time, and for the way wars are fought today. In 1967, the duty of all Eminians to report to their “disintegration station” if the computer declares them a casualty might have been evocative, for viewers, of the draft of American soldiers during the Vietnam War; anyone, in theory, could have their name drawn, and their fate determined for them, in a cold, but supposedly fair, lottery of sorts. The lack of a draft is one crucial way in which more recent American war efforts have differed from the Vietnam War, but even so, this allegory has aged well, and feels remarkably relevant today. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq certainly aren’t simulations, but they are arguably just as removed from the daily experience of many Americans as the Eminian-Vendikarian war is for the Eminians, who get to go about their business in communities untouched by the horrors of war … until they’re told to report to a disintegration station, that is. But aside from that one real consequence, war has taken on an almost purely symbolic role in the lives of the Eminians, and I think the same could be argued for war in the United States today (and for “peacekeeping,” as it’s called, in my native Canada). Those contemporary real-world wars really are fought, with real weapons and real bloodshed, but that bloodshed takes place on foreign soil, and those weapons are increasingly controlled long distance, not wielded by hand on the field of battle. And if the remoteness of these wars reduces the likelihood of the sort of large-scale public opposition to them which was seen during the Vietnam War, the rise of “Support the Troops” rhetoric has taken that process a step farther, by popularizing the frankly dystopian idea that opposing a war does a disservice to those who might actually die in it (popularizing it so effectively, in fact, that I’m honestly a bit nervous to be writing about it here, for fear of any angry backlash, despite the fact that I’m all for supporting the troops, specifically by asking them to do as little fighting as possible). If Captain Kirk is concerned that the Eminians have gotten too used to being at war, I wonder how he’d feel about the ubiquity of “Support the Troops” bumper stickers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d be as willing to blow up the computers used to control military drones as he is to blow up the Eminians’ wargame computer.

best 1Next time on Trek vs. Trek, we engage the Borg, and compare the milestone Next Generation two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds” with Voyager’s own two-part turning point, “Scorpion”!

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