Written by Don Ingalls and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Marc Danielss
There are quite a number of episodes that draw on the history of the crew of the Enterprise prior to the current time. Many of them seem to be there to build a history for Captain Kirk (William Shatner). At 32, he became the youngest starship captain ever in Starfleet, so that’s a lot to pack into those few years.
Neural is a planet where Captain Kirk once studied the population. He made friends with some of the population, so the Enterprise is sent there to do a scientific survey. The population was a pre-industrial society when he last visited. As Captain Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) are surveying the planet, they are ambushed and Spock is shot with a flint-lock rifle. They beam back to the Enterprise and Spock survives.
After spotting a Klingon bird of prey, they suspect the Klingons have interfered with the development of the society there. There is no way any of the beings on the planet should have anything like the technology of a flint-lock rifle. To prove it, Kirk and McCoy beam back down, intent on proving the Klingons are violating the Organian Peace Treaty and finding his friend Tyree (Michael Whitney). Kirk is poisoned by a beast known as a mugato that attacks them. They are found by Tyree, who asks his wife, Nona (Nancy Kovack) to save Kirk. However, there is a cost to what she has done since their blood has comingled.
Once they confirm the Klingons have been interfering, Kirk proposes to arm his friend’s side so they are equal to what the Klingons have been doing with the others.
If this sounds like a commentary on the Vietnam War, it was. It managed to slip by the network censors who would not have allowed it to air if they realized it at the time. They were likely distracted by Nona’s slinky costume and the strange beasts with rubber plates on their backs that attacked the crew.
When Kirk finds Tyree, he learns that the people he once considered an adversary but coexisted with are now armed by the Klingons, meaning Tyree and his tribe will eventually be wiped out. Despite a policy of non-interference, Kirk is ready to send rifles to Tyree’s tribe to keep them on equal footing and survive. He begins training them on how to use the weapons. This not-so-subtly mimics the Vietnam War where the U.S. was arming the South Vietnamese and China was arming the North Vietnamese. Both sides were sure they were doing the right thing and yet it was pointless.
Kirk is pulled in many different directions here. Some of it appears to be due to Nona’s “treatment” and the after-effect, but some are due to his own morals. Without weaponry, the people of Tyree’s tribe will likely be wiped out. Shatner does a really good job here with Kirk. He’s convincingly fervid to protect his friend, but every now and then there’s the sense that something is nagging at the back of his brain.
Without Spock there, it’s up to McCoy to be his foil, and as a physician, McCoy sees the cost of what Kirk is proposing all too well. It’s a good balance between the two of them, and the idea of removing Spock from the situation was a good one. This is definitely one of the best moments for both the character and the actor.
Rubber-suited alien creatures don’t add to the situation but are also a distraction. The mugato are poorly depicted and hardly seem to be a threat. Nona’s “performance” when she saves Kirk from the poison seems far-fetched. She claims to have used her spells to entice Tyree and keep him as her husband, but there seems to be little motivation as to why she’s done this. The actors share absolutely no chemistry whatsoever and it’s hard to see the attraction between the two. I would have thought it to be a political alliance type of marriage. The guest cast just doesn’t hold up well. Neither Nancy Kovack nor Michael Whitney are convincing as primitive residents of the planet. Both seem to have trouble getting a handle on their characters.
A Private Little War is a good episode of the series that just misses being great due to these few things. In general, rewatching it is still enjoyable all of these years later due to a terrific story. The ending is a bit ambiguous, although it leads me to believe Tyree’s tribe will be wiped out.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Immunity Syndrome
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Return to Tomorrow
Wow, I had no idea that TOS was doing so much anti-war critique. Thank you, Patti!
Roddenberry did what he could. The network would not have allowed too much overtly. The joke is that he distracted them with the costumes so they didn’t pay attention to what was being said by the characters.