How 60’s Sci-Fi TV show explained role of fear in totalitarian regime better than anything.

I always had a soft spot deep in my heart for science fiction classics, mostly due to my dad who left me literally hundreds of sci-fi books when he passed away. I like how it’s possible to combine modern problems with elements of academic theories and (hopefully) a good plot. And nobody did it better than Star Trek.

Let’s start with making one thing clear for the needs of this text – as there were numerous continuations, full-length movie, spin-offs etc. I need to make it clear – every time I use the phrase “Star Trek” in this essay I refer to Star Trek – The Original Series, aired between 1966 and 1969. Yes, the one that aged horribly and for (at least) last twenty years looks like a funny relic of the past – with wooden acting, horrible special effects, pajamas-inspired space uniforms and fighting scene so bad, that it makes it impossible to take them seriously. But there’s one thing that did not age at all – the story. Of course, not all Star Trek episodes are remarkable (when it comes to final season we cannot even say that all were good), but a lot of them chose the brave path of not being viewer-friendly and asking some difficult (mostly) moral dilemmas. Just to name few more interesting: what is the purpose of good and evil in man (“The Enemy Within”), what racism can lead to (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”), will construction of super weapon be able to stop the armory race (“Doomsday Machine”), the classic individual happiness vs. common good dilemma (“The City On The Edge Of Forever”, also considered to be the best Star Trek episode) or even questioning will that be possible to create a society as efficient as Third Reich, but without the element of hate (“Patterns Of Force”). But nothing made me think as hard, as 23rd episode entitled “A Taste Of Armageddon”.

I’ll do my best to explain plot of this episode as briefly as possible, being fully aware of the fact that not many people have reached my level of being nerd. The story begins, when the crew of spaceship USS Enterprise have arrived with a diplomatic mission to one of the further planets. After their landing the astronauts were welcomed by a big, highly developed, clean and beautiful city, and shortly after they were approached by one of the officials who informed them that they should leave the planet, as they’re at war with their neighbors. It was a bit shocking, as the planet looked well maintained and did not bear any reminiscent of military conflict.  As the story continued the mystery of war was revealed – leaders of two planets have agreed to be in the state of war (according to the story it lasted for more than 500 years), however as the leader wanted to be safe and valued architecture and culture, they agreed to use computer simulation for war actions. With no real battles, but with real deaths – when simulation showed i.e. a bomb that killed 50 people, the same amount of people were forced to go to special chamber to commit suicide within 24 hours. And each casualty according to computer simulation had to end with a real person giving life.

No matter how horrifying and absurd this scenario is, Star Trek really did its best to show multiple conclusions here. The entire society showed a great vision of totalitarian society in which under nice architecture, high level of culture and development, there is still one person ruling, with no respect to human life. The mutual “war” was just a factor to create ongoing fear and common enemy (just like in most of the totalitarian countries), and a fact that real people were forced to sacrifice when computer simulation told them to make an overall impression stronger – fear and hatred towards the enemy was stronger, as in almost each family there were people killed in the war, while at the same time propaganda and manipulation of information made people thankful for the fact, that they’re fighting this way instead of destroying buildings in the city. Especially, that clear death was preferred over bleeding out from wounds from the real fight. Nobody was going to end the ongoing conflict – people in power had a great tool to reign without opposition, and normal people were glad that they don’t have to die a violent death, so common for the real military conflicts.

And now think how universal and accurate (even in modern times) this metaphor is. How many totalitarian regimes are creating “fake wars” with others just to keep people in control? How many times a country declared a new enemy, so people will be focused on that, instead of getting better life standard or freedom. Is the situation from 60’s Star Trek really that different, than the one in North Korea? Or even USA running “the war versus terrorism”, isn’t it that different? The most shocking reflection I had after seeing “A Taste Of Armageddon” for the first time was the fact, that it does not seem that unlikely. Sure, people going willingly to sacrificial chamber to fulfill computer calculation about their death sounds absurd, but history has showed multiple times what a solid, life-lasting brainwash can do with a people. Especially that they have received some explanation on why they should do that (we’re a highly civilized society, it’s better to die, than to die and have building destroyed, right?). It created a great, simple explanation on how all regimes remain in power for all those years. Simple plan – create fear big enough to paralyze and control people. Some casualties are calculated, so on their base there could be even more hatred towards enemy (and dedication to our rulers at the same time). 

Does it still sound that absurd?

And now let’s go into the most interesting part. However, if you’re willing to watch “A Taste Of Armageddon”, I have to warn you – the rest of this paragraph will be one major spoiler, revealing the ending. Ready? Here we go. The story ended, when Captain Kirk contacted his starship (USS Enterprise) and ordered them to prepare a real bombing attack on one of those planets. A threat of true bombs and death instantly forced leaders of both planets to contact and end war once for all. It shows a true face of authority – they were fine with others dying, but couldn’t stand even for a second the probability of them bring in a real danger. Later on it’s explained that Kirk has planned everything, as the only reason the war has gone on so long is because the simulation insulated both societies from the horrors of war and gave them little reason to end it. That’s it – no fear towards regime and no blind faith into propaganda is the best beginning of the end to each totalitarian system.

And as I said in the beginning – I know what it is like to watch Star Trek almost 60 years after this TV show was made. But most of the stories have survived the test of time brilliantly. Trust me, if I’m not even thirty and an episode of sci-fi series twice older than me made me think and write this article, it means that there must be something deeper in that.