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Stop the War Now: The Day of the Dove

The third season of TOS is often reckoned the weakest, but it includes a number of good episodes. "The Day of the Dove" (TOS) is one. The thing that strikes me, though, is that its point seems to be lost on many viewers now.

The Enterprise responds to what it thinks is a distress call from a Federation colony, but there's nothing there. They encounter a Klingon ship, which claims to have been attacked, and they take its survivors aboard, including Kang (the Captain) and his wife and science officer Mara.[1] They also, however, take onboard an energy life-form, which appears as a spinning light.

To cut a long story short, the life-form arranges for most of the crew to be cut off so that there is a struggle between evenly matched Star Fleet and Klingon groups. It also replaces their phasers with swords. They become increasingly enraged. Eventually we learn that the being feeds off negative emotion, and has arranged all this to feed itself. The being is able to reverse injuries so it will make the fight eternal. Kirk manages to persuade the Klingon captain (Kang) of the truth, and the two crews first deprive it of power by ceasing conflict and then drive it out by laughing at it.

As a science fiction idea, it's quite interesting. It's well done, with the Enterprise crew losing their inhibitions and becoming increasingly ferocious. Chekhov is driven by overpowering hatred of the Klingons, who had killed his brother. The only thing is, he never had a brother. Dr McCoy is emotional as ever but his emotion is now rage, and he lambastes the Captain and Spock for not taking a hard enough line. Even Spock is briefly overcome with racial feeling: "May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans. I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant."

When I looked up reviews, I found a lot of comment in terms of the SF, of whether there were problems in the story, etc. But most commentators seemed to miss the point. The episode was made during the Vietnam War. At one point, Kirk says "We must find a way to defeat the alien force of hate that has taken over the Enterprise. Stop the war now, or spend eternity in futile bloody violence", and emphasises the phrase so that "STOP THE WAR NOW" is heard as a declaration. You couldn't get much clearer than that and still get on air.

In the climactic scene, Kirk and Kang battle with swords while Kirk tries to persuade the Klingon captain. Eventually Kirk throws down the sword and invites Kang to strike. The entity is in the room high above them. Kirk's words are delivered like free verse:

All right. All right.
In the heart. In the head.
I won't stay dead!
Next time I'll do the same to you.
I'll kill you!
And it goes on, the good old game of war, pawn against pawn!
Stopping the bad guys.
While somewhere, something sits back, and laughs, and starts it all over again.

(Kang looks up at the spinning light of the entity, and a high tingling note is heard...)

Be a pawn!
Be a toy!
Be a good soldier that never questions orders!

It is, among other things, an allegory of the manipulation of common people by elite interests who benefit from conflict. What is the entity, the thing that, somewhere, "sits back and laughs and starts it all over again"? The military-industrial complex, perhaps? The security establishment and the Realpolitik politicians? Also, when Kirk says "I won't stay dead", this is not just about the energy being's ability to revive them for more conflict, but also about the futility of trying to solve problems with violence. They won't stay dead. It isn't an exact allegory, of course: Kang is still quite ready to fight humans, just not for someone else's benefit.

Apart from conventional war, the theme of powerful interests deliberately stirring up hatreds, in order to benefit, is disturbingly familiar in the present-day world. Kirk addresses the entity: "We know about you, and we don't want to play. Maybe there are others like you around. Maybe you've caused a lot of suffering, a lot of history, but that's all over. We'll be on guard now, ready for you." Alas, that has not yet happened yet, but it's good advice.

These themes, however, are hardly mentioned by much recent comment. Many viewers seem to have understood the episode as just another alien-messes-with-minds story.[2]

The episode is by the SF writer Jerome Bixby, who also wrote "Mirror, Mirror" (TOS). Like some other TOS episodes it's very theatrical, with less concern about being naturalistic than later versions such as TNG. ("Let That Be Your Last Battleground" (TOS) also has a theatrical, even stagey, character.) As in "Mirror, Mirror", Bixby shows the value of restraint. Why are some people more affected than others? It seems to involve a provocation of their existing qualities: Chekhov, who is young and easily excited, is overwhelmed by a delusion; McCoy is prone to strong emotion; Scotty's tension and anxiety come to the fore, and so on. Spock is rational until his Vulcan control slips; a pattern we've seen before. On the other hand, Sulu remains pretty level-headed, as you might expect. Sulu is always level-headed. But Bixby doesn't waste time having the characters muse on these questions and give you explanations.

Kang also provides a good quotation for our times: "But for the present, only a fool fights in a burning house."


Footnotes

[1] Kang was superbly played by Michael Ansara, who understood the role not as a villain but as a dynamic leader doing what he believed was right—from a different ethical and social background. Ansara reprised the role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. [Return]

[2] "Bliss" (VOY) is also an episode about a creature which alters minds so as to feed itself, in its case by eating spaceships. It is however more focussed on the actual story, and on the character aspect, than on the symbolism, though there is some. [Return]


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