Stardate: 4211.4 (2268)
Original Air Date: Feb 2, 1968
Writer: Donald G. Ingalls (pseudonym of “Jud Crucis”) and Gene Roddenberry
Director: Marc Daniels
“A balance of power. The trickiest, most difficult, dirtiest game of them all,
but the only one that preserves both sides.”
Several crew members are admiring the “interesting organic compounds” on a planet informally known as Neural (the name is never actually mentioned in the episode, only in the script). Spock notes it is a Class-M planet in every respect. Thirteen years earlier, Kirk was part of a surveying mission on Neural which allowed him to better understand the planet’s Edenic qualities –it is filled with fascinating flora, as well as apelike carnivorous horned creatures known as Mugatos. There are also two groups of primitive people living on Neural –villagers and hill people. Both are peace-loving compassionate people. Any use of phasers here is expressly forbidden (per the Prime Directive), however, the Enterprise landing party soon witnesses a battle as the villagers have somehow acquired flintlocks.
Spock is shot in the back and promptly beamed back aboard the Enterprise for medical attention (he is dutifully watched over by Nurse Chapel). Then a Klingon vessel approaches (likely in violation of the Organian Peace Treaty) while Kirk and Bones return to the surface in search of the hill people, in particular a close friend Kirk made on his last mission, a hunter named Tyree (Michael Whitney). However, in yet another twist, Kirk is attacked and poisoned by a Mugato creature –in truth, it is quite a silly looking 1960s television monster. The only antidote comes from Tyree’s wife Nona (Nancy Kovack), a scantily clad spiritualist medicine woman who is a member of the witch people, or Kahn-ut-tus, who study roots and herbs. She secretly spots Bones firing a phaser to heat a pile of rocks inside a cave and she begins scheming. She is persuaded to cure Kirk of his poison with a Mahko root along with a strange ritual during which she slyly fuses their souls. According to legend, Kirk must now oblige any request from her.
At any rate, from Tyree we learn that the the villagers’s “fire sticks” appeared nearly a year ago, and so Tyree leads Kirk and Spock to the village where they uncover a Klingon plot to arm the planet.The Klingons promise the power of planetary governorship to the villagers and seize the opportunity to arm the planet. A fight ensues and the flintlock firearms are now given to the hill people. Now, the Prime Directive is thrown out the window and an arms race ensues.
Conflicted, Kirk later spots Nona bathing in a stream and chooses this moment to speak with her about the arms race, but instead she uses the scent of a plant to seduce Kirk while Tyree watches angrily from afar, then suddenly a Mugato attacks but Kirk kills it with a phaser, only for Nona to steal his phaser in the scuffle. She is then promptly killed by the villagers and Tyree demands to have more “fire sticks” to kill the villagers in vengeance. Kirk ominously remarks they will need more “serpents” for their garden of Eden. He and the others solemnly beam back aboard the Enterprise as Neural has devolved into a powder keg.
This episode offers an interesting examination of The Prime Directive. What happens when primitive natives acquire advanced technology in a kill or be killed situation? Like Prometheus bearing fire, should the Enterprise share its superior technology with the hill people? Or instead leave them to die at the hands of the villagers and the Klingons? Kirk decides to pursue an arms race –he references the 20th century brush wars which apparently involved two great powers in Asia. In an allegory of Vietnam or any number of international affairs, the only solution to this crisis is a balance of power. Otherwise one group will utterly decimate the other.
I think an ambiguous ending was the right decision for this episode. Kirk realizes that despite the seemingly moral mission of Starfleet, it is still little more than a pawn on a chessboard. From the eyes of Neural, both the Federation and the Klingons seem to be towering imperial powers. Once an arms race begins, even simple compassionate people like those on Neural fall prey to the escalation of violence.
With that being said, this is a haphazardly constructed episode which takes the kitchen sink approach –there are so many loose plot threads happening all at once, it almost seems as if several prior episodes were mashed together into one: “The Apple,” “Errand of Mercy,” and “Friday’s Child” to name a few. Also, the inclusion of Edenic Biblical allusion was another unfortunate well-trod cliché. In the end, the silliness and campiness of “A Private Little War” overwhelms some of the intriguing ideas it intends to explore.
Writer Don Ingalls (1918-2014) was a lifelong friend of Gene Roddenberry, they both worked together for the Los Angeles Police Department. Mr. Ingalls also wrote a handful of television movies such as the 1979 Captain America film. This episode was the second of two scripts he wrote for Star Trek (the first being Season 1’s “The Alternative Factor”). He died at his home in Olympia, Washington in 2014.
Director Marc Daniels (1912-1989) was a World War II veteran and notable television director for a number of different shows. During his career he was nominated for several Emmys, two Directors Guild of America awards, and four Hugo Awards. He is tied with Joseph Pevney for most TOS episodes directed. Despite having filmed ten prior episodes, this was the first episode he got to shoot on location at the Bell Ranch.
Star Trek Trivia:
- Despite being written by Don Ingalls, this episode apparently had significant re-writes by Gene Roddenberry. Ingalls originally intended for it to be a commentary on the Vietnam War. Disappointed with the edits, he requested to have his name removed from the credits (instead he used a pseudonym: Jud Crucis, or a simplified version of his martyrdom as “Jesus Crucified”).
- During the first half of Season 2, Gene Roddenberry was often away on other business, but when he returned he was dismayed to find Gene L. Coon’s lighter, comedic direction to the show. Coon and Roddenberry’s rift ultimately led to Coon’s departure from Star Trek.
- In this episode, Dr. McCoy claims that Spock’s heart is located where a human liver would be (this saved Spock’s life).
- The character Dr. M’Benga was played by Booker Bradshaw, a television actor and Motown executive who once managed the Supremes and the Temptations.
- This episode revisits Nurse Chapel’s infatuation with Spock. For some reason, Nurse Chapel is instructed by Dr. M’Benga to do whatever Spock says when he awakens. Spock tells her to hit him as hard as she can (smacking a Vulcan is apparently a form of self-healing).
- The original creature name in the script was “Gumato” which can be seen in the episode credits. This is later revisited in a Star Trek Lower Decks episode “Mugato, Gumato.”
- Eddie Paskey returns again as Lt. Leslie in this episode.
- The guns used in this episode were actually not flintlocks.
- Both Mugato creatures were created and played by Janos Prohaska. Prohaska was often an alien fixture in TOS. He also played a humanoid bird and an anthropoid ape in “The Cage,” he played the Horta in “The Devil in the Dark” and Yarnek in “The Savage Curtain.”