Review: Star Trek TOS, S1Ep10 "The Corbomite Maneuver": Peace at Any Cost?
Somehow, I always used to catch the end of this episode in reruns, and this final scene is just creepy every time.
Weird children is an apparently common theme in TOS. After watching “Miri” (S1Ep8), I considered writing a different post. But all I’ve got to say about that is this: “If my previous post demonstrated that the writers didn’t know what archaeology was, then this one proves they didn’t know what children were either.” It doesn’t help that the leader of the child gang was played by a 27-year-old. And then there’s “Charlie X” (S1Ep2) in which an emotionally stunted teenager uses his god-like powers to bully the crew of the Enterprise. Kids on screen in 60s TV and film are always so weird – even Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems unnatural to me. I suppose it’s no worse than 90s TV kids when the taste was for over-the-top cuteness and obnoxiousness (the Olsen twins, Nicky from Fresh Prince). After watching “The Corbomite Maneuver” twice, I can see why this episode regularly makes top-ten lists, despite the chilling conclusion.
“The Corbomite Maneuver” is an important episode because it’s the first one that really develops the Star Trek ethos of peaceful conflict resolution and extending friendship across the universe. Up until now, the Enterprise has encountered no other living sentient races beyond humans, and Spock of course. There is the salt vampire from episode one, but it’s the last of its kind and, despite its intelligence, it behaves more like a wild animal than a rational being. The encounter with Balok, a representative of an entire living civilization (the First Federation), sets the precedent for future interactions with new aliens with unknown motives and technologies. The upshot of the story is that Balok – who first resembles the standard little grey man – commands a giant ship that is superior in every way and threatens to destroy the Enterprise because humans are too violent to be allowed contact with the First Federation. Kirk bluffs his way out of annihilation (the titular maneuver), so Balok decides to imprison the crew on a planet instead. A smaller ship tows the Enterprise away, but they manage to break free, at which point they immediately receive a distress call from Balok’s ship, so Kirk orders his crew to help. Upon beaming aboard, they find that the alien they’ve seen is just a dummy and that the real Balok is child-sized with a man’s voice. He explains that this was all a test to ensure that humans really are interested in peaceful exploration.
A secondary conflict of the episode involves an unseasoned navigator named Bailey who has a major freak-out when Balok counts down to the destruction of the Enterprise while the rest of the crew continues to follow procedure and does not fire upon the aliens:
BAILEY: I don't understand this. Spock's wasting time. Everybody else is just sitting
around. Somebody's got to do something.
MCCOY: Easy, Bailey.
BAILEY: What do they want from us? Let's find out what they want us to do.
KIRK: They want us to lose our heads.
BAILEY: We've only got eight minutes left.
SULU: Seven minutes and forty-five seconds.
BAILEY: He's doing a countdown!
MCCOY: Practically end of watch.
BAILEY: What, are you all out of your minds? End of watch? It's the end of everything. What
are you, robots? Wound-up toy soldiers? Don't you know when you're dying? Watch
and regulations and orders What do they mean?
Bailey is then escorted back to his quarters. Now, at this point in the series, there has been no clear indication of what the regulations are, or even who Kirk reports to. Kirk refers to himself as a representative of United Earth earlier in the episode, so even the writers didn’t yet have a clear idea of what the Federation was all about. And that’s why Kirk’s insistence on holding fire and negotiating even to the last second is so crucial. It’s thanks to Bailey’s panicked questioning of the rules that we can glean that there are any rules at all, and Kirk’s stubbornness to make peace work goes a long way to defining them. Bailey, with his lack of experience and all too human frustration with a counter-intuitive peaceful response to danger allows us to see how far humanity, if not humans, have evolved in the future.
The message here, and repeated frequently in TNG and Voyager (pretty much not at all in the new movies) is that in the future, humanity will have learned to curb the fight-or-flight response so that even the threat of immediate destruction will not allow us to undermine the ideals of collective good. Indeed, this principle is an extension of the civilizing force that runs through human history as we’ve learned to recognize that killing our perceived enemies is generally detrimental in the long run, and that violence and exclusionary ideologies are ultimately self-destructive. Thus, we’ve extended our frame of kinship beyond immediate family to nations to all humans and, increasingly, to animals, and even the Earth itself. In the case of this episode, the message about restraint is qualified by the knowledge that Balok’s intentions were ultimately peaceful, so of course refusing to fire was the right choice. But we could also assume that had the Enterprise been more aggressive, they would have gotten themselves killed, and the implications about the self-destructiveness of aggression is clear. The TNG two-parter “Gambit” offers a much clearer metaphor for the futility of violence in an ancient Vulcan weapon that only worked on targets who harboured violent thoughts; when even just one party is committed to peace, alternatives to violence will present themselves, and Balok’s tests prove exactly that.
Kirk is a great leader because he understands the importance of negotiating despite the fear or hopelessness. (In TNG, Bailey’s role is filled by Wharf, who always gets shut down when suggesting the most aggressive option.) I was especially impressed by the line where Kirk recognizes the subjectivity of human experiences regarding alien encounters. He says “there are lives at stake. By our standards, alien life, but lives nevertheless.” Here, Kirk demonstrates his great leadership and why he is best qualified to lead first-contact missions. He sees himself as a representative of Earth, but he also knows how different, yet valid, may be the perspectives of those aliens he encounters. Kirk repeatedly insists that the whole reason his ship is out there is to learn about and from new civilizations, so engaging in battle is counterproductive by all accounts.
Kirk’s decision to trust in Bailey, against Bones’s advice - Bones being the constant voice of intollerance, especially toward Spock - extends his role as a negotiator of peace and cooperation as he encourages the rookie officer to learn firsthand how to embody these ideals. Bailey admits his error of doubting the power of negotiation, and he volunteers to stay with Balok as part of a cultural exchange, suggesting again how commitment to understanding improves individuals as well as civilizations:
BALOK: Ah. You represent Earth's best, then.
BAILEY: No, sir, I'm not. I'll make plenty of mistakes.
KIRK: But you'd find out more about us that way, and I'd get a
better officer in return.
Ironically, Bailey does represent Earth’s best because he can understand his flaws and commit to improvement. More importantly, the show tells us that improvement is possible.
Verdict: 8 tranyas out of 10