patterns of forceThere are few episodes from the original Star Trek series (1966-69) that I do not enjoy. But one that contains a thoughtful message beneath the thriller storyline is “Patterns of Force” from the show’s second season. Following on the popularity of the parallel Earth theme—including a gangster planet and a Roman planet—the producers came up with a Nazi planet. Aside from the interesting anachronisms, and the morbid fascination that the Third Reich exerts on most viewers, there lurks a very sensible analysis of political evil.

When the story begins, we learn that Federation historian John Gill has disappeared while working on the planet Ekos. The crew of the Enterprise are startled by the rapid advances of the Ekosians, and even more so by the transformation of a once primitive culture into a totalitarian society mimicking Hitler’s regime right down to jackboots and German helmets. The Ekosians have even embarked on a genocidal war against the (suggestively named) planet Zeon. Captain Kirk and his crew manage to infiltrate the Nazi headquarters disguised as SS officers. They finally locate Gill, who has become a drugged captive of Deputy Führer Melakon. In a brief moment of lucidity before he is assassinated by Melakon, Gill explains that his experiment was benign in its intentions. He wanted to implement a modified form of National Socialism in order to produce discipline and societal advancement within Ekos’ anarchic tribal society. John Gill’s dying words are: “Even historians fail to learn from history. They repeat the same mistakes.”

Kirk and Spock understand that any form of totalitarianism, regardless of its professed aims, will end in bullying and mass violence. It is a rather nuanced view when one considers the simplistic anti-McCarthyite atmosphere in Hollywood. People were increasingly told that that Marxism sought a truly admirable social order. It was only the excesses of maniacs like Stalin that brought it into disrepute. Ho Chi Minh and Lenin were not so bad. Would they have swallowed the thesis that there was a “good” form of Nazism? As it turns out, I have often found liberals express their admiration for the Third Reich, “if only it had not been anti-Semitic.” But that still leaves a lot of other unsavory practices, like forced eugenics and political policing. At the time of Star Trek those things were still frowned upon. It is less the case today.

“Patterns of Force” revealed the roots of the totalitarian temptation. It is a temptation to micro-manage human existence that we are all prone to, quite apart from the proximate manifestations of Hitler and German nationalism. People wonder how the forces of extremism can enervate the popular psyche. They may ask, with an air of smugness: “How could the Germans have allowed this to happen?” A more relevant question is, why are modern Americans so easily cowed by small but thuggish groups bent on dismantling traditional society? The deeper answer is that people will often accept the plausibility of emotive arguments by extremists. They are willing to concede moral points for the sake of fear, greed or hubris, without pondering the ultimate consequences. The Germans found out the hard way. You cannot delegate basic responsibility to political parties or five-year plans. Likewise, our own culture wars will ultimately be won or lost in the moral wars that take place in the heart of every individual.

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