Sci-Fi can be deeply meaningful, or just all so much bullshit. It all depends on how you consume it.
During lunch for the last week I’ve been having a Trek-for-lunch workout session. Just old Star Trek shows (remastered) and the elliptical machine. Yesterday’s show was “Return of the Archons” If you’re not a trek fan, here’s a synopsis of the show from wiki
Lieutenants Sulu and O’Neil are dispatched to the surface of the planet Beta III to learn what became of the Archon, which disappeared there one hundred years earlier. Recognized as outsiders, they draw the attention of the lawgivers. Pursued, the officers call for beam-out, but only Sulu is retrieved, and he is in a strange mental state.
Captain Kirk beams down with a larger landing party to investigate. Spock, Dr. McCoy, sociologist Lindstrom, and two guards, Leslie and Galloway, form the balance of the landing party. Immediately, Spock notices a strangeness in the people they encounter; a kind of contented mindlessness. Then the Red hour strikes – the beginning of the Festival, a period of debauchery and lawlessness. Fleeing, the landing party bursts in on Reger, Hacom, and Tamar. They had been told by Bilar and Tula, two passersby, that Reger could rent them rooms for after Festival. Their questions seem to terrify Reger. They are given rooms and retreat from the mayhem outside, trying their best to get a few hours’ sleep.
Festival ends the next morning. Reger, learning the landing party did not attend Festival, concludes they are not of the Body, and asks an astonishing question: “Are you Archons?” The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of lawgivers, the robed servants of the mysterious Landru. The lawgivers command the landing party to accompany them, to be absorbed.
Kirk, acting on a hunch, defies them – and causes confusion. He’d correctly concluded this society is built around obedience, and might not be ready for disobedience. Taking advantage of their confusion, Reger guides the crew to a place he knows, where they will be safe. But on the way, Landru employs a form of mass telepathy to command an attack. Among the attackers is… Lieutenant O’Neil. Reger warns against bringing him along, but Kirk cannot abandon a crew member.
Spock discovers a source of immense power, radiating from a point near the landing party’s location. Reger tells Kirk about the arrival of the first Archons: many were killed, many more were absorbed. And then he drops the bombshell, mentioning casually that Landru pulled the Archons from the sky… Kirk contacts the Enterprise, and learns that heat beams are focused on the ship. Her shields are able to deflect them, but nearly all ship’s power is diverted to this purpose. Communications are poor, escape is impossible, and the orbit is decaying. If Kirk can’t put a stop to the beams, the ship will be destroyed. Worse, contacting the ship enables Landru to discover and stun the landing party.
They awaken in a cave-like cell, but McCoy, Galloway and O’Neil are missing. Then McCoy returns – and he has been absorbed. Evidently, this is the fate that awaits the entire landing party. Lawgivers appear, demanding Kirk accompany them, and this time, Kirk’s refusal results in an immediate death threat. The orderly society has corrected a flaw.
Kirk is taken to a futuristic room: the absorption chamber. There, a priest named Marplon will oversee Kirk’s forcible induction into the Body. Lawgivers summon Spock, who is taken to the same place, and there encounters Kirk, now mindlessly happy.
Spock learns that Marplon is part of the same underground to which Reger belongs. Marplon intervened to prevent both Kirk and Spock from being absorbed, and returned their weapons. Spock, acting as instructed, makes his way back to the cell.
Discussing Landru and his society, Kirk and Spock reach the same conclusion: the society has no spirit, no spark; Landru’s orders are being issued by a computer. Kirk decides the plug must be pulled. Spock is concerned this would violate the Prime Directive, but Kirk opines that the directive applies to living, growing cultures. When Reger and Marplon join them, Kirk demands more information: the location of Landru. Reger reveals that Beta III was at war, and was in danger of destroying itself. Landru, one of the leaders, took the people back to a simpler time. And, Marplon claims, Landru is still alive.
Marplon takes Kirk and Spock to a chamber, the Hall of Audiences, where Landru appears to his acolytes – or, at least, a projection of him does. There, Landru regretfully informs them that their interference is causing great harm, and that they, and all who knew of them, must be killed, to cleanse the memory of the Body. Blasting through the wall, Kirk reveals the truth: an ancient machine, built and programmed by the real Landru 6,000 years earlier. This machine, now calling itself Landru, was entrusted with the care of the Body, the society of Beta III. To that end, it has enslaved all members of that society, and those who visit, in a thralldom of happiness that is stagnant and without creativity.
Kirk and Spock discuss this with Landru, asking it difficult questions it has evidently never had to answer, questions about whether its approach to creating the good is really creating evil. Ultimately, they convince it that it is the evil, and that it must destroy the evil – and it does, exploding in a burst of pyrotechnics.
Kirk leaves a team of specialists, including Lindstrom, to help restore the planet’s culture “to a Human form”.
It’s not a great episode, and I kept noticing that one of the red-shirt guys kept asking stupid questions. The plot would inch along towards us realizing that it’s a computer controlling things, and the character would say something like “Don’t these people have a soul!”
It seemed kind of stupid, but then I realized that the writers were using all the dumb comments as a way of continuing to explain the plot. Perhaps folks in the 1960s couldn’t understand computer mind control. I don’t know. it seemed heavy-handed to me. It had lots of problems. If I was going to start picking apart problems, I wasn’t going to enjoy the story much. How about making up a game?
So with nothing better to do than exercise and think, I started asking myself the old editors and writer’s question: “what could you take away from this show and it would still work?”