When the Enterprise arrives at the planet Beta III to investigate the disappearance of the USS Archon, only Lt. Sulu returned from the original landing party. If this wasn’t enough to concern the crew, Sulu was acting strangely, as if in a dreamy trance. Kirk, Spock, and the extras beam down to the planet for an investigation of their own. What they find is an antiquated society whose citizens are disturbingly content, but unable to think for themselves. They are all a part of ‘the body’, which is controlled by the mysterious leader Landru. Their only respite is a ‘Purge’-style festival of violence taking place at a time when Landru withdraws his control.
On its surface, this episode appears to be a simple criticism of religion. Brimming with religious undertones, it features citizens bound to a cult and led by some unseen dictator. If religion is interpreted as a system of control, which prevents people from questioning arbitrary rules, this episode illustrates the hazards of joining a cult. In contrast, the story can also be interpreted as being intrinsically sacred, by demonstrating that the greatest virtue of all is protecting our free will and choice. At its core, this episode explores the struggle between freedom and peace, or how much individual liberty are we willing to sacrifice to ensure our safety.
Kirk and Spock soon discover that the original Landru was long gone. The computer that Landru built to replace him 6,000 years ago had misinterpreted the founder’s vision. It prioritized the static happiness and safety of its citizens above all, concluding that only when we are completely controlled will we be safe. The abstract concepts of freedom, progress, creativity, and safety are already contentious for the human mind to reconcile; it is interesting to see how a computer can only make sense of them by processing the ideas literally. Kirk’s logical battle with the computer highlights this conundrum by showcasing how suppressing freedom is in itself evil. (If Landru wishes to protect the body, the body must be free).
Should Kirk have disobeyed the Prime Directive of non-interference? He justifies it by claiming that it only applies to living, developing civilizations, and this one was stagnant. One could also make the argument that the landing party already interfered when they were interpreted by the locals as being in fulfilment of prophesy. More importantly, would the deeper moral burden be placed on Kirk to free a society that was obviously trapped by a computer malfunction? The controversy of absolute and relative moralities is a frequent theme in Star Trek, leaving this blogger with opportunity to elaborate further on the subject in future posts. However, this episode explores the concept of a society unknowingly trapped, as opposed to one which deliberately treasures a cultural practice which others may find offensive. The situation on Beta III required an outsider to recognize their dilemma, essentially presenting said outsider with a rescue mission.
Just like the crew of the Enterprise, we will always struggle to find a balance between having respect for another culture’s beliefs and our own moral duty to interfere when individual rights are oppressed. Just like Landru’s computer, we will further struggle to determine how far our interference in another person’s freedom is absolutely necessary. These challenges often manifest into how much liberty a society is willing to allow its members without compromising their safety. Maybe one day a more balanced law will maximize both freedom and order…just don’t take it too literally!