Original Air Date: February 9, 1967
Writer: Gene Roddenberry/Boris Sobelman
Director: Joseph Pevney
“Joy to you, friends. May peace and contentment fulfill you.”
The Enterprise is orbiting Beta III in the C-111 system in search of any trace of the Starship Archon, a Federation ship which disappeared about a hundred years ago near Beta III.
The episode opens with an amusing scene as Lt. Sulu and another Enterprise crewman named Lt. O’Neill (Sean Morgan) are dressed in 18th century garb, outrunning strange hooded figures (“Lawgivers”) on the streets of a small town on Beta III. Sulu is zapped by one of them shortly before beaming back to the Enterprise where he starts acting strangely, he appears to be in a “highly agitated mental state” –and Lt. O’Neill is nowhere to be found.
Kirk, Spock, McCoy and three other crewmen form a search party and beam down to Beta III’s surface. At first the place seems peaceful. People strut about the streets with an empty, mindless demeanor smiling while declaring “joy to you, friend” and asking if the Enterprise crewmen have come from the “Valley” or if they are “Archons.” Soon, the crew are warned of the start of the “Red Hour” which will begin at 6 O’Clock.
We learn that these people are members of an unusual religious cult, ruled by a mysterious cleric called “Landru” who preaches that people should be “absorbed” and “of the body.” The “Red Hour” is shown to be a strange “Festival” in which all hell breaks loose –to quote John Milton– as the citizens begin wildly shrieking, breaking things, and violating all manner of social and cultural mores. Robbery and property destruction is suddenly widespread, as is rape and sexual assault. The scene is akin to a wild, untamed bacchanalia. Once the “Red Hour” ends, the people return to their formerly pleasant state of peace and tranquility.
Kirk and the landing party seek out a hotel room where the crewmen are asked if they are the “Archons.” Soon enough, the crewmen are brought before Landru, a hologram who accuses them of being hostile actors. He intends to “absorb” them whether they like it or not. Hypersonic sound-waves render them unconscious and the crew are thrown into a dungeon. In time, they escape being absorbed into the utopian cult and donning the robes of the “Lawgivers,” they head for overthrowing Landru. Spock mentions this being a violation of the Federation’s “Prime Directive” (the first such allusion in Star Trek lore) but Kirk notes a technicality: that the non-interference principle of the Prime Directive only applies to a “living, growing culture,” not forcibly stagnant societies as on Beta III. They meet a colorful cast of local denizens: Tula (Xenia Gratsos), Marplon (Torin Thatcher), and other “Lawgivers” (Sid Haig).
As they arrive at Landru’s cave dwelling, the Enterprise enters a decaying orbit as Landru is capable of pulling starships out of space sending them crashing down upon the Betans. With time running out, the projection of Landru appears not to hear the crewmen and so they fire phasers at his projection, and their phasers blast a hole in the wall for the big reveal: Landru is nothing more than a super computer reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode “The Old Man in the Cave.” We learn that a man named Landru died some 6,000 years prior. At that time, Beta III was tearing itself apart in violent warfare and so he built this machine to govern a future peaceful society. The good of the body is the directive of Landru, in order to pursue a harmonious continuation of the body. However, Kirk argues with Landru by noting that this civilization lacks spontaneity, creativity, and humanity. Kirk twists Landru’s logic and persuades him that Landru is in fact a threat to the body. Persuaded of its own evil, Landru then short-circuits and dies. Kirk casually walks away, remarking to Marplon that he will soon need a new job.
With the situation now resolved, the Enterprise leaves Beta III as Sulu is returned to normal and Sociologist Lindstrom (Carl Held) remains behind to help restore the planet’s culture to a normal human state (or as Kirk puts it, “a more human” society). As they depart, Spock remarks on the marvel of engineering that Landru had created on Beta III, to which Kirk amusingly responds, “You’d make a splendid computer, Mr. Spock.”
While this episode contains lots of intriguing premises, it seems to be an incomplete story. There are lots fascinating threads here –a 6,000 year old computer which governs a formerly violent civilization in such a way that it now becomes a peaceful, brain-dead cult with occasional supervised bouts of animalistic lawlessness. Why has the Enterprise only arrived now, a full century later, to search for the Archon? How do Landru’s powers actually work? How is he able to send the Enterprise into decaying orbit so easily? Why is he only capable of brainwashing certain people? What is the point of the “Red Hour?” How has Landru managed to govern a society for 6,000 years without malfunction? And how was Kirk so easily capable of persuading Landru to self-destruct in a matter of minutes? What happened to O’Neill? How did Sulu manage to recover? Many questions linger for me, though I will admit there are glimpses of brilliant science fiction themes explored here.
I should also note there is something strangely imperial about Kirk’s handling of this situation. Is it truly “more human” to destroy Landru, thus upending a 6,000 year old civilization? Were the Betans truly oppressed under Landru’s rule? Perhaps further investigation was warranted by the Enterprise, though with a decaying orbit it appears Landru was indeed a hostile actor. At any rate, Kirk has a point that restricting human freedom, spontaneity, and creativity is an inhuman state of affairs. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Landru’s civilization on Beta III is orderly and safe for the most part, but it is neither honest nor beautiful. Landru’s assimilating rule of the Betans is an obvious prelude to the Borg in The Next Generation. Many reviewers have also made note of parallels to certain religious cults, the thematic dominance of machinery, problems associated with the loss of hope and creativity as found in tyrannical communist regimes (like the Soviet Union), and even parallels to the United States in Vietnam. It would no doubt be interesting if offered the opportunity to read Lindstrom’s future sociological reports about this strange civilization.
One of the endlessly alluring traits of early Star Trek is that we constantly find ourselves stumbling upon ancient civilizations with ghostly relics of centuries past. Along with the ancient computer Landru in “The. Return of the Archons” we have also seen ancient androids in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and centuries-old children in “Miri.” In the next episode –a true classic– we will discover a race of genetically-engineered humans who have been suspended in space for centuries, as well.
1960s television writer Boris Sobelman (1909-1971) drafted this teleplay based on a story by Star Trek founder Gene Roddenberry which was originally in the line-up of stories considered for the pilot episode.
Director Joseph Pevney (1911-2008) is tied with Marc Daniels for most TOS episodes directed. This was his second directed episode in the series after “Arena.”
Star Trek Trivia:
- This episode was originally in the running for the pilot episode but it was replaced by “The Cage” and years later the story was picked up again by Boris Sobelman to draft the teleplay.
- According to internet resources, Gene Roddenberry once belonged to a club in school called “The Archons.” The word “Archon” comes from the ancient Greek word for ruler.
- Apparently, this episode contains one of the first references to the Prime Directive.
- “The Return of the Archons” was shot on a 40-acre backlot in Culver City, California. The street scenes were part of the “Town of Atlanta” set which was originally constructed for Gone with the Wind in 1939.
- The “Festival” in this episode served as the inspiration behind the 2013 film The Purge.
- “The Return of the Archons” is one of actor Ben Stiller’s favorite Star Trek episodes. “Red Hour” was borrowed for the name of his production company.
- Frequent stunt performer Bobby Clark (who previously donned the Gorn suit) has his only speaking role in this episode when he shots: “Festival! Festival!” at the beginning of the episode.
- A subplot involving Sociologist Lindstrom falling in love with a local girl was cut from the episode’s final draft script. Perhaps this would make an interesting bit of fan fiction.
- The exact timeframe in which the “Festival” is typically set to regularly take place is not made explicit, however in James Blish’s episode novelizations (which were based on original screenplays) he describes Reger consoling Tula after the “Festival” that it is “…over for another year.”
- Roddenberry picked this as one of his ten favorite episodes for the franchise’s 25th anniversary.