Captain Kirk falls in love with a Native American woman in this possibly questionable episode. However, aside from a few unflattering stereotypes, the story is not bad, and it was reasonably well received by audiences. The 60s were a thing, and Kirk embraces his inner flower child in a beautiful wilderness setting. For a character who typically womanizes every new alien of the week, this relationship was a little more well developed and thoughtful.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to an Earth-like planet to save it from an asteroid. Why the planet is so Earth-like is not explained, which is one of the episode’s most glaring flaws, but it is innocuous enough to ignore. I suspect it had to do with budget. Either way, the three space explorers find a more expensive looking obelisk. The team is distracted by the society who built this monument, descended from Earth’s own Native American tribes, and Kirk is zapped by a mysterious beam after falling into the obelisk. Unable to locate their comrade, Spock and McCoy are forced to return to the ship to tackle the asteroid issue, but Kirk emerges from the tribe’s temple and is mistaken for a god.
The shock to Kirk’s brain gave him a strong case of plot contrivance amnesia, in which the character remembers and forgets exactly what is necessary for the plot. All memory of who he is and how he got there is conveniently missing, but how to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation or the concept of a temple are important enough for the narrative. Pseudo-amnesia aside, the story of aliens sharing their advanced technology with a more primitive people is reminiscent of the cargo cult phenomenon.
Cargo cults are a belief system which forms when an indigenous tribe valuing material wealth comes into contact with a colonial or foreign people who possess and distribute a seemingly unending supply of material goods. The tribe reveres the foreign visitors as superior beings, often enacting rituals and religious practices to call upon the deities and receive more cargo. One of the more well-known examples of these occurred in the Pacific islands during World War II. Many of the indigenous islanders had never seen foreigners before, and vast amounts of factory manufactured military equipment, food, and other supplies were being introduced to them for the first time.
It is understandable that these people would be astounded by the new technology. In the words of Arthor C. Clark, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With no explanation of how machine-made clothing and tools were possible, they would be seen as the work of the gods. When Captain Kirk resuscitated the drowned boy, it must have appeared as if a god was breathing life back into his body. The amnesia-riddled captain was then given a place of honor among the tribe and fell in love with the tribal priestess.
It’s easy to feel superior toward ignorant people if we have the knowledge that they lack. Arthor Clark’s observation works just as well in the reverse: any sufficiently understood magic is indistinguishable from science. If we are familiar with a technological or scientific concept, it would be nothing more to us than the mundane workings of a lawful universe. However, we can sometimes be just as quick to give incomprehensible phenomenon supernatural explanations.
Kirk and crew discover that the tribe was seeded on the planet by an unknown alien race who wanted to preserve rare lineages of humans. Ironically, the obelisk was an asteroid deflector, and its malfunction is what brought the Enterprise to the planet in the first place. It’s interesting that the Native American culture didn’t evolve on the new planet, even though they’ve been there for the same amount of time it took other Starfleet cultures to evolve to their present state. Perhaps the planet was so idyllic, there was no selection pressure compelling the people to invent new technology. They were content with keeping the secrets of their origins mysterious and holy. When aliens did visit, they were treated as the advanced beings they were. Even though the Enterprise crew were not the ‘aliens’ who seeded the tribes, the tribal belief was still technically correct.