“The Savage Curtain”
(Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 3, Episode 22)
The nature of Good and Evil is a fundamental and deeply complex subject that crosses many academic topics – philosophy, psychology, history, etc. It’s especially relevant to anyone (like me) who has closely followed U.S. politics in recent years. Seeing many of the nakedly cruel figures that have achieved notoriety in the GOP has been disheartening to say the least. Although it sheds light on how evil can take root and exist in a supposedly civilized society, it doesn’t make it any easier to understand or parse. Why does evil exist? Why has it not yet been conquered by good? Can it?
These are no doubt the questions swirling in the rocky head of the alien Excalbian of this episode, who captures the Enterprise and creates living facsimiles of history’s greatest monsters (Jimmy Carter is nowhere to be found, strangely). Questioning whether good or evil is stronger simplifies the issue(s) to a point reaching nonsense, and the episode similarly approaches total absurdism, but it’s at least an interesting, if zany hour of Trek.
“The Savage Curtain” is quintessential TOS, not because it’s one of the best episodes, but because it contains a pretty comprehensive checklist of a lot of the show’s tropes and themes (minus a no-name crewmember dying). A God-Like Being (GLB) ensnares the Enterprise and uses its great power to threaten the ship, force Kirk to do its bidding to act out a heady philosophical debate through fisticuffs. Anachronistic Earth history elements are used, an uncomfortable dusting of some racism, and voila! You got yerself a bonafide Original Series Recipe!
Ah, I don’t mean to be a jerk. But the episode doesn’t seem that invested in its own concept, so it’s a little hard to take seriously. The central question of whether good or evil is stronger and the inherent qualities of each is an interesting concept to build an episode around, but it’s acted out in a fairly dumbed-down story.
As the episode begins, Kirk and crew are about to leave orbit of a seemingly lifeless planet, when they’re contacted by… Abraham Lincoln. The sight of Honest Abe floating in space on the ship’s vieswcreen is certainly a bizarrely memorable sight. If only the episode had maintained that level of bonkers nuttiness throughout.
Anywho, Lincoln beams aboard and Kirk humors him/it with the crew’s full dress regalia. I appreciate that no one in their right mind believes that this is somehow the actual President Lincoln. Kirk rightfully assumes that it’s an illusion, but is curious as to its purpose, even going so far as to accept the invitation to beam down to the planet, where a habitable patch of land has just materialized. This is obviously a bad idea and on paper, Kirk sounds like an idiot for doing it, but the episode does go to proper lengths to demonstrate why he does it (over the vocal objections of McCoy and Scott). Their job as Starfleet officers is to explore and make contact with new peoples, and he would be remiss to not take a new civilization up on that offer, as strange a form as it’s taking in this case.
On the surface of the planet, a strange creature appears from a pile of rocks and introduces itself to Kirk, Spock, and Abe. The idea of an alien made of rock is an inspired one (more than a little reminiscent of the Horta, however), and although the costume is… not great (why is the rock furry…?), I appreciate the effort of doing something otherworldly.
Our heroes then meet Surak, the long-dead father of Vulcan logical philosophy, as well as a murderer’s row of… murderers and ne’er-do-wells throughout time and space. The Excalbian explains that (of course) it has created these visages of Good and Evil and is curious as to who is stronger, which they will prove by duking it out physically with whatever weapons and implements they can find. Because that will prove… something.
It’s honestly a good setup for an interesting story (although it recycles the premise of Kirk stuck on a planet to battle a foe from “Arena.”), but the episode doesn’t much know what to do with it. Colonel Green (an Earth war criminal from our future – probably the next GOP presidential candidate, look for him in 2024) gets the lion’s share of the lines and screen time. We also see the legendary Klingon Kahless in his first but definitely not last appearance/mention. Oh, and he’s in brown face, which is… yeah. Genghis Khan and the other one don’t even get any lines, and they’re all pretty one-dimensionally evil.
There are some implicit ideas that are decent and speak to the truth of Good and Evil. For one, Green is initially friendly and diplomatic with Kirk. The danger of Evil is that it often appears in civilized guises, using sophisticated language and a charming disposition. It all proves to be a double-cross, an attempt to lull his opponents into a false sense of security before springing a trap on them.
Furthermore, Surak refuses to fight and sees the only logical course of action to try and broker peace. It belies the tragic reality that those on the side of Good are often hamstrung by their desire to end the fighting and prevent damage to society and harm to innocents. As we’ve seen play out often in superhero stories, villains are often able to exploit the hero’s weakness of caring about others. Giving a shit can be a vulnerability when you’re facing off against an enemy that values nothing or no one.
Any interesting insights into Good vs. Evil end there, and the rest of the episode plays out pretty predictably. Surak’s noble endeavor of course fails and he is captured (and killed). The Evils use the supposed torture of Surak to draw the Goods out to attack them (with Kahless’ ability to mimic voices? OK…). Lincoln comes up with a plan to free Surak and overcome their adversaries, and I have to give credit to the actor and character for being the most charming and interesting aspect of the episode. Kirk and Spock are uncomfortable with the prospect of killing their enemies, but Lincoln frames it thusly: “There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending.” It’s actually some good stuff. As Spock says, Kirk idolizes Lincoln, and as the images of all the persons are drawn from their minds, it could be interpreted as Kirk speaking to himself.
Unfortunately, things don’t go Abe’s way; he is cornered by the Evils and gets a spear in the back for his effort. Kirk and Spock engage their foes in fisticuffs once again, presumably kill a couple of them, the others run off, and… that’s literally it. The Excalbian reappears and declares Kirk the winner I guess, but it seems pretty unimpressed with the results (not that I can blame it). It states that it can’t really see any difference between the two sides in how they acted. Which is a prescient and dully aggravating notion, given the galaxy-brained “both sides” hot takes of the centrist crowd. Let’s review notes, my Ferrous Friend: one side indiscriminately acted murderedously and treacherously for their own personal gain, while the other attempted diplomacy for the sake of others. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE! Kirk attempts to point out the farce of the contrived situation, but to no avail. Seriously, fuck these guys.
The Excalbian goes to great lengths to understand the difference between Good and Evil, but still ends up with a pretty poor understanding of both and no definitive answer. Not figuring it out in an hour is to be expected given how multifaceted a topic it is. But the alien doesn’t seem that invested in the gravity of the issue, and doesn’t appreciate the stakes at play. And like all GLB’s, it doesn’t value the lives involved in its little constructed drama. Evil perists because of its ally Apathy. Like the outnumbered Kirk and Spock in this episode, it’s difficult for Good to succeed when it has to face both of these enemies at the same time. Ill deeds will persist as long as that savage curtain continues to block our view.
- When encountering Uhura, Lincoln refers to her as a “negress”. It’s uncomfortable, but he immediately catches himself and acknowledges how that’s probably an offensive term at this point because of how much of a dinosaur he is. For the time the episode was filmed in, it’s impressive.
- Speaking of Uhura, this was her last episode, and the third to last episode of the entire series.