I will forever claim that “The Twilight Zone” is the single most influential television show of all time. The mix of surreal weirdness, Rod Serling’s moral posturing and an obsession with creating startling imagery that managed to fit perfectly in an self-contained mythology. Every genre pushing series that has created owes a debt to “The Twilight Zone” but none owe more than Star Trek.
“The Return of the Archons” shows this debt more prevalently than many others. We once again open not on the Enterprise, but rather with Sulu and one of the crewmembers fleeing through a turn of the century Old West city. Sulu is cornered and before he can beam to safety, he is sparked by a cloak wearing figure and when he makes it to the transporter room, the crewmen starts babbling about “The Body,” and a mysterious “Landru.”
That means it’s go time for Kirk and a really large landing party beam down to Beta III (looking suspiciously/exactly like the town from “Miri”) to take a look around on the planet, and it’s naturally all really weird. People are wondering around tipping their hats to each other and one of them believes they are “from the valley” before inviting them to the festival. It’s all suitably weird, particularly when people start talking about “the Red Hour” and as the clock strikes six, all hell breaks loose. There’s people lighting fires, running around with planks as well as dancing and kissing in the streets. Did you hear that? Just wait until John Lithgow hears about this.
Kirk and company flee into one building and are confronted with Reger, a resistance fighter, as well as a group of people who alternatively worship and fear Landru. After a night of sleep, Landru’s monks attack one member of the safehouse, try to take Kirk away, and eventually leave, but now we have a plot hook.
There’s a lot to love about “The Return of the Archons” but it’s an episode that has the same problems that similar ambitious episodes (“Shore Leave,” “The Man Trap,” “Dagger of the Mind”) where not enough explanation is given to really drive home the threat. Sure, Landru’s holgram shows up and makes the crew pass out, and yes, the scene with all the villagers picking up weapons to come after the convoy is well done, but the information that we need to know is missing. It’s never addressed why a completely controlled society would have twelve hours of chaos every once in a while. It’s not really revealed how things have gotten this bad. It’s not really revealed why Starfleet wants the Enterprise to investigate a crash that happened a fucking century ago. Without any sort of explanation to the really odd shenanigans, it is much harder to buy into the idea that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are in any real danger.
Things do pick up when the guards turn McCoy into a member of the Body. DeForest Kelley really sells the idea of being brainwashed into the kindly old man, and it is creepy enough to give the story a sense of urgency that the B-story about heat rays doesn’t really manage. It’s even effective enough to make the guard’s attempt to brainwash Kirk and Spock into a suitably tense few minutes. Also, any time people yell at a computer until it starts smoking is going to be pretty awesome.
My big selling point on this episode also ends up turning into one of my biggest problems with the episode. At one point, Kirk and Spock bring up the idea of the Prime Directive. I had heard long ago about the Prime Directive by way of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and I had a vague understanding of its’ idea of noninterference in the affairs of a developing planet’s culture. Kirk and Spock argue whether they can rightfully affect a planet that has been ruled by a faux-god-like-benefactor-computer for what appears to be at least a century. It presents interesting questions that are certainly relevant to our culture as a whole, and Kirk agrees with Spock’s initial statement of noninterference, but when it comes time to go kick in the door on Landru, the good captain is willing to sacrifice all of that in what he personally believes is right for the planet as a whole. It is a pretty odd moment, mainly because they start blowing up computers and installing Enterprise crew members as leaders like 15 fucking minutes after they mention the Prime Directive.
It ends up all just being a problem of editing and rewrites. I feel like there was probably a point when “the Red Hour” was explained and there was probably more thought put into putting one random guy on a planet and hoping that he can straighten a century long mess out, but that just isn’t the way it turned out. Instead, “The Return of the Archons” all turns into a visually striking and intrinsically interesting episode of Star Trek, that has unbelievably deep plot holes riddling the whole thing.
More than all the other characters, Spock has the worst costume. Apparently, he’s the Alien-Nun or something. He also sleeps with his eyes open.
One of the crewmen gets hit in the head with a prop rock while running away from the Body. He keeps going. Way to go, crewmember of the week.
Sulu. That is all.
Next Up: “Space Seed which I assum…”KHAAAAN!”