Star Trek, “The Savage Curtain,” Season 3, Episode 22. Directed by Herschel Daugherty. Written by Gene Roddenberry and Arthur Heinemann.
Release Date: March 7, 1969.
I was originally going to write about this deeply strange Star Trek episode further down the road, but Leonard Nimoy died recently, so I’ll offer this post as my own little tribute. I was a huge “trekkie” growing up and still have a soft-spot for the show, but even at the height of my fandom, I knew this episode was a stinker. Just as “The South Rises Again” aired during the The Beverly Hillbillies‘s nadir, “The Savage Curtain” came near the end of Star Trek‘s run, when the wheels were clearly coming off. It’s a typical third season episode–the premise is weak and absurd, and any interesting questions raised by the script are never satisfactorily answered. However, it prominently features the Civil War’s most popular and significant historical figure, Abraham Lincoln, and is therefore worth this blog’s attention.
What little plot there is involves a contest between “good” and “evil” staged by a race of rock creatures–the Excalbians–so they can better understand the difference. They reincarnate Lincoln (Lee Bergere, who went on to play William H. Herndon in the Hal Holbrook mini-series) to lure Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Nimoy) into to participating in the experiment. Kirk, Spock, and Lincoln represent “good,” along with the reincarnated founder of Vulcan’s pure logic philosophy, Surak (Barry Atwater). Their opponents are reincarnations of the galaxy’s four greatest villains: Genghis Khan (Nathan Jung), founder of Klingon culture Kahless (stuntman Bob Herron), strange witchy eugenics enthusiast Zora (stuntwoman Carol Daniels), and genocidal Adolf Hitler stand-in Colonel Green (Phillip Pine). Although the good guys oppose the contest, a typical Star Trek fistfight quickly breaks out and a stand-off ensues. Surak is a committed pacifist and tries to make peace with the villains, but gets captured. Lincoln goes out to rescue him but finds Surak’s murdered corpse just in time for the bad guys to kill Lincoln too. Kirk and Spock beat everybody up, get mad at the Excalbians for making them fight, and leave. Roll credits.
Throughout, Lincoln behaves more like an icon than an actual person. He first appears seated in a large chair, like in the Lincoln Memorial, and spends the entire episode in a long black coat and stovepipe hat, even when fighting. He is a soft-spoken “philosopher king” and takes all of the story’s fantastical elements in stride. After having his molecules transported through space onto the Enterprise, he merely remarks, “a most interesting vessel,” and when Spock tells him the ship’s exact distance from the planet’s surface, Lincoln deadpans, “bless me.” He becomes a little more like a commander-in-chief at the end of the episode, when he develops the plan that ultimately wins the day and inspires Kirk and Spock to carry it out. This shows a great deal of reverence from the writers, who rarely let anyone but Kirk be the hero.
There are occasionally glimpses of historical or biographical context. When Lincoln encounters the ship’s African American communications officer, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), he blurts out, “what a charming negress!” Interestingly, he immediately apologizes because “in my time, some used that term as a description of property.” Even more interestingly, Uhura tells him no apology is necessary because “in our century, we’ve learned not to fear words.” Lincoln’s sensitivity to Uhura’s feelings–and respectful interaction with a black woman–play into his image as the “Great Emancipator” and Uhura’s answer–speculating that outdated racist language will no longer give offense in the 23rd century–certainly goes against how that particular issue has actually developed over the past 56 years.There is another biographical reference after Lincoln’s initial fight with the villains, when he beams, “how delightful to discover at my age I can still wrestle!”–recalling Lincoln’s wrestling match with Jack Armstrong in New Salem. One more occurs after Kirk and Spock fail to convince the Excalbians to call off the contest and Lincoln summarizes his First Inaugural Address: “The war is forced upon us. History repeats itself.”
While “The Savage Curtain” treats Lincoln as an icon, the way it does so tells us something about Lincoln and American popular culture, especially in the 1960s. Gene Roddenberry is rightly commended for envisioning a multicultural Enterprise but, at its heart, Star Trek is essentially American. The United Federation of Planets that governs a unified Earth and a chunk of the galaxy is really just the United States writ large–or at least a 1960s liberal vision of the United States–and some critics (most recently, Richard B. Bernstein) have argued Kirk is just an idealized version of John F. Kennedy (JTK=JFK). By making Lincoln one of the Excalbians’ historical good guys, the show places him (and by extension, America) on an extremely high pedestal. That it pairs him with the founder of Vulcan’s entire culture positions Lincoln as not just the quintessential American, but the quintessential human. Selecting Lincoln argues that both the United States (democracy, equality, capitalism) and the idealized Lincoln (folksy, wise, passive) are what human beings will consider ideal centuries from now. This is powerful stuff and no one–not even the southern-born Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley)–questions Lincoln’s status as a galactic saint. Heck, Spock is awestruck and he’s from another planet! This is how Cold War America viewed itself, its future, and one of its greatest historical leaders. Star Trek may have oversimplified Lincoln but it was just telling its viewers what they wanted to hear.
- We all love to make fun of Shatner’s acting, but he does a surprisingly good job in this very silly episode. Kirk really seems like he can’t help but admire Lincoln, even though he knows it can’t possibly be the real person. When Lincoln compares Kirk to Ulysses S. Grant, you can practically see little hearts in Kirk’s eyes.
- Scotty (James Doohan) has a great line after Kirk tells him to beam up Lincoln: “President Lincoln, indeed! No doubt to be followed by Louis of France and Robert the Bruce!” He later cautions Kirk against trusting Lincoln because, whatever the president actually is, he’s “looney as an Arcturian dogbird.”
- Of the bad guys, Col. Green gets almost all of the lines and, as mentioned above, is clearly a futuristic stand-in for Hitler. I’m sure the writers originally had Hitler in mind as one of history’s greatest villains (who would disagree?) but considered it insensitive to portray him in such a fantastic setting. I wonder if they’d think differently today?
- Does it mention slavery? Only in the line to Uhura mentioned above. Lincoln may be Kirk’s hero and the ultimate symbol of human goodness, but the script never credits him for emancipation.
Next Entry: Guest blogger Stacy Pratt McDermott on Lincoln.
I never really thought about it when I watched the episode in the past but using Lincoln along side Surak is pretty bold. By all rights the representative for “good” humankind should be a unambiguously righteous figure like Jesus or Buddha, not a politician. Does this show a reverence for Lincoln or were the writers just playing to an American audience?
The script tries to get around this by suggesting that Lincoln is there mainly as Kirk’s hero–all the better to lure him–but the way Lincoln’s characterized suggests more. That being said, I suspect you’re right and we would have seen someone else had Trek been the product of a different country.
Good stuff, again. But I would point out that the Star Trek universe overtly rejects capitalism. No one is paid for their work and there is no cost for goods and services. Everyone simply does what they are passionate about and best at, because it serves the greater good. Admittedly, this emerges more clearly in the Next Generation and in Deep Space Nine—series which overlapped slightly with the end of the Cold War.
I debated whether or not to include capitalism but I decided to keep it because the Original Series never overtly rejects it–at least not that I can remember. And I think there are a few episodes in which “credits” are mentioned. It’s clear, however, that there is no currency or even barter system on the Enterprise, and the ship was really Roddenberry’s utopia before TNG.
Still not as bad as “Spock’s Brain.”
Spock’s Brain: Worst season premiere in television history.