The Return of the Archons
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"The Return of the Archons" is a first season episode of the original American science fiction television series Star Trek. It is episode #21 and was first aired February 9, 1967. It was repeated by NBC on July 27, 1967. The screenplay was written by Boris Sobelman, based on a story by Gene Roddenberry, and directed by Joseph Pevney. The episode contains Star Trek's first reference to the Prime Directive (albeit not the Federation's Prime Directive).
|"The Return of the Archons"|
|Star Trek: The Original Series episode|
|Directed by||Joseph Pevney|
|Story by||Gene Roddenberry|
|Teleplay by||Boris Sobelman|
|Featured music||Alexander Courage|
|Cinematography by||Jerry Finnerman|
|Original air date||February 9, 1967|
|Running time||50 minutes (runtime)|
On stardate 3156.2, the Federation starship USS Enterprise, under the command of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), arrives at the planet Beta III in the C-111 system where the USS Archon was reported lost nearly 100 years earlier. Lt. Sulu (George Takei) is the only member of the landing party who beams up from the planet's surface, and exhibits strange behavior. Kirk beams down with another party to investigate. They find the inhabitants living in a static, 19th-century Earth-style culture, with little or no individual expression or creativity. The entire culture is ruled over by cloaked and cowled "Lawgivers", controlled by a reclusive dictator known as Landru (Charles Macaulay). The landing party has arrived at the start of "Festival", a period of violence, destruction, and sexual aggressiveness which apparently is the only time Landru does not exercise control over the Betan populace.
Kirk's landing party seeks shelter from the mob at a boarding house owned by Reger (Harry Townes). A friend of Reger's suspects that the visitors are "not of the Body" (the whole of Betan society), and summons Lawgivers. The Lawgivers kill Reger's friend, Tamar (Jon Lormer), for resisting the "will of Landru". When the landing party refuses to do as the Lawgivers say, the Lawgivers become immobile and Reger leads the Enterprise landing team to a hiding place. Reger reveals that Landru "pulled the Archons down from the skies". Contacting the ship, Kirk learns that heat beams from the planet are attacking the Enterprise, which must use all its power for its shields. Its orbit is deteriorating and it will crash in 12 hours unless the beams are turned off.
A projection of Landru appears in the hiding place, and Kirk and his team are rendered unconscious by ultrasonic waves and captured. The landing party is imprisoned in a dungeon, and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is "absorbed into the Body" and placed under Landru's mental control. Kirk is taken to a chamber full of high technology, where he is to be "absorbed". But Marplon (Torin Thatcher), one of the priests of Landru who is immune to Landru's control, rescues him and Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Returning to the dungeon, Reger and Marplon tell how Landru saved their society from war and anarchy 6,000 years ago and reduced the planet's technology to a simpler level.
McCoy summons the Lawgivers to "absorb" Kirk and Spock, who subdue them and don their robes. Marplon takes Kirk and Spock to the Hall of Audiences, where priests commune with Landru. A projection of Landru appears and threatens Kirk, Spock, and all Betans who saw the landing party with death. Kirk and Spock use their phasers to blast through the wall and expose the truth: the reclusive Landru is actually a computer and Landru who built the machine had died 6,000 years ago. The computer neutralizes their phasers. Kirk argues with the machine, telling it that it has destroyed the creativity of the people—killing "the Body". Concluding that the computer's prime directive is to destroy evil, Kirk forces the computer to self-destruct, freeing the people of Beta III.
The heat beams stop, and the Enterprise is saved. Kirk agrees to leave Federation advisors and educators on the planet to help the civilization advance, free of Landru's dominance.
The name of the Earth ship which crashed a century earlier was named Archon after a student group Roddenberry belonged to ("the Archons"). Star Trek: The Next Generation graphic designer Michael Okuda et al. speculate that the Archon is most likely a Daedalus class starship, given its existence at the same in-universe timeframe of other Daedalus class ships mentioned in the series.
"The Return of the Archons" was the first appearance in Star Trek for actor Charles Macaulay. He later appeared as Jaris, ruler of Argelius II, in the second-season episode "Wolf in the Fold". This was actor Jon Lormer's second appearance on Star Trek. He had previously appeared as Dr. Theodore Haskins in the episode "The Menagerie" and would make a third appearance as an unnamed old man in the third-season episode "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky". David L. Ross made his third appearance on Star Trek in this episode, after having appeared as a security guard in the first-season episodes "Miri" and as a transporter chief in "The Galileo Seven". He received his first speaking role as Lieutenant Johnson in the second-season episode "The Trouble with Tribbles", and appeared in another speaking role as Lt. Galloway in the second-season episode "The Omega Glory". Character actor Sid Haig has an uncredited role as one of the hooded Lawgivers who first confront the landing party in Reger's boarding house.
"The Return of the Archons" introduces for the first time the Federation's Prime Directive. However, an important modification is made to the absolutist non-interference rule almost immediately. Kirk argues that the Prime Directive does not bar interference with other cultures, but rather bars interference only with a "living and growing" culture (Kirk's words in the episode). Scholar Eric Greene argues this is reflective of the "frontier myth" of Star Trek and American foreign policy in the late 20th century, in which a superior culture expands to impose its understanding of freedom and progress on others. M. Keith Booker, interpreting the politics of Star Trek, agrees, noting that in leaving behind a sociological team to "help restore the planet's culture to a more human form" (Kirk's words) means restoring it to one that "suits the values of the Federation and twenty-third century Earth." Indeed, the Prime Directive would only truly be honored during the series in the episode "Bread and Circuses".
The episode is unique in several ways. It is the only time an episode's cold open fades out on a close-up of actor George Takei, and it is the first time that Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott (played by actor James Doohan) is seen in command of the ship. It is also the first Star Trek episode in which Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and their landing party are deliberately "disguised" in the dress of the native population.
Location shooting for "Return of the Archons" occurred on the 40 Acres backlot in Culver City, California. The street scenes were part of the "Town of Atlanta", a set which consists of a mid-1800s city street, a town square, and a residential area (originally constructed for the motion picture King Kong in 1933 and expanded for Gone with the Wind in 1939). The dungeon set was first constructed for this episode, and reused in the first-season episode "Errand of Mercy" and the second-season episode "Catspaw". Marplon's absorption booth console was also reused several times in the series. It reappeared (with modifications) as a relay station in the second-season episode "I, Mudd", as a Federation outpost control panel in the third-season episode "The Lights of Zetar", the Romulan cloaking device housing in the third-season episode "The Enterprise Incident", and as the force field control station at the penal colony Elba II in the third-season episode "Whom Gods Destroy". The computer that ruled Beta III would be seen again (slightly modified) in the first-season episode "A Taste of Armageddon". The doors to the Hall of Audiences were a reuse of doors previously seen in the episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" and would be reused yet again in "A Taste of Armageddon".
The episode contains two obvious errors. When the "Festival" breaks out, the mob begins hurling stones at the landing party. A large "rock" made of papier-mâché hits one of the Enterprise security personnel in the head. The actor stayed in character and kept running to ensure that the take was not ruined, even though a stone of that size would have normally killed a human being. When the landing party rests in a bedroom at Reger's boarding house, the windows are blacked out in all wide shots, but clearly transparent and showing the street outside in all close-ups.
The episode contains a continuity error. In the cold open, the Lawgivers "absorb" Mr. Sulu by zapping him with their tubes. Yet, later in the episode, the absorption chamber is used and Lawgivers seem unable to "absorb" with their tubes.
The episode is also the foundation for a continuity error that appears 24 years later in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mr. Scott clearly states in "The Return of the Archons" that he has diverted power from the Enterprise warp engines to the shields. Scotty does so again in the second-season episode "The Changeling". Yet, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Nth Degree", the Enterprise crew is amazed that Lt. Reginald Barclay can do this.
Eric Greene observes that "Return of the Archons" is the first time Star Trek attempted to deal with issues of war and peace raised by the Vietnam War, and established a template that would be used in a number of subsequent episodes such as "A Taste of Armageddon", "This Side of Paradise", and "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky". The Federation's moral superiority is exhibited through its emphasis on individual freedom, progress, and resort to violence only in self-defense, while the Betan society is criticized for its state control, stagnation, and reliance on aggression. Greene argues that these episodes prefigure the Borg collective, a far more overt totalitarian (even Soviet) metaphor in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Scholar M. Keith Booker notes that the episode presents Kirk "at his most American", valuing struggle against obstacles as the highest virtue and denouncing utopia (equated with communism) as dehumanizing.
Scholars Michael A. Burstein and John Kenneth Muir note that the plot of "The Return of the Archons" (in which Kirk and company discover a stagnant society worshipping a god-like being whom Kirk destroys with human illogic) became something of a cliché among fans in the decades after the series ended for being a rather common plot device. Burstein criticizes the episode for attacking organized religion, which it presented as suppressing freedom and creativity. But religious scholar Michael Anthony Corey praises the episode for realizing that the elimination of a huge number of moral evils can occur only by causing a single, massive moral evil (the loss of free will). Corey points out that the episode seems to draw heavily on German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz's "Principle of Radical Optimism", which concludes that ours is the best of all possible worlds because it contains the conditions for human existence (and not because it has a greater or lesser number of moral evils).
Zack Handlen of The A.V. Club gave the episode a "B" rating, describing the episode as having a "loose, unpolished feeling" and lacking "the force of the series' best storylines", but praised the story's ambition.
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