Written by Arthur Heinemann, Arthur H. Singer, and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Herschel Daugherty
The aliens of the universe seem to want to keep testing humanity (or the Federation, at least) to see if we are a worthy species in their eyes. In this case, the Vulcans are along for the ride on another script that’s been done numerous times in this series – and the Next Generation.
The Enterprise is orbiting a planet with a surface of molten lava and a poisonous atmosphere. It’s a planet with legends of life, and there are some indications of artificial power, but there’s no way to beam down and inspect the planet more closely. Just as Captain Kirk (William Shatner) makes the call to end their observation of the planet, the Enterprise is probed. In front of the viewscreen in space, they see a vision of Abraham Lincoln (Lee Bergere), sitting in a chair.
Mister Spock (Leonard Nimoy) states it must be an illusion created by whatever intelligent life scanned them. Abraham Lincoln responds that, with permission, he will board the Enterprise and show he is not an illusion. Before beaming him up, Mr. Spock takes a reading that shows almost living rock before coming through as human.
When Lincoln comes on board, he seems to not understand the concept of recorded music, nor a transporter. Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) takes a tricorder reading and pronounces him human. When he’s presented to Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), he calls her a “negress” and then apologizes for the use of the term. He promises Mr. Spock that he will meet a legendary Vulcan on the surface of the planet before going on a tour with Lt. Uhura.
Scotty (James Doohan) and Doctor McCoy object to how President Lincoln is being treated on the Enterprise . They think they are giving Presidential honors to an alien creature. Captain Kirk and Spock agree, but they make the case that they must continue to play along to see where it goes, including taking the invitation to beam down to the planet’s surface. When they beam down, their tricorders and phasers remain on the Enterprise , and their communicators are not working. On the Enterprise , the ship’s systems being to falter.
Spock is then welcomed to the planet’s surface by the legendary Vulcan, Surak (Barry Atwater). As they attempt to figure out what is going on, one of the nearby rocks transforms into a lava-rock-like creature. This creature introduces himself as Yarnek and states they are on the planet Excalbia. It tells Kirk and Spock that they are there to try to help the Excalbians figure out the concept of good versus evil. Apparently, this is done by teaming up Kirk, Spock, Lincoln, and Surak against historically evil figures. The Excalbians believe this will tell them which is the stronger philosophy. Hesitant to fight in this arena, Kirk, and Spock are given the incentive that the only way to save the Enterprise from blowing up in four hours is to fight the evil figures and win.
The idea here, I think, was to make the point that there’s really not all that much difference between good and evil. Yarnek makes that point when he’s summarizing the events that took place. True to his Vulcan roots and philosophy, Surak would not fight the evil figures. He proposes to try to make peace with them and recognize that the Excalbians are the real enemy of all of them. That doesn’t go quite as planned, although Kirk lets him try knowing he has no authority to stop him. Even then it is Lincoln who tries to save Surak, and ends up with a similar fate. It’s only when they are outnumbered four to two that Kirk and Spock go on the offense. The evil ones then seem to give up all too easily.
It’s a big problem that nothing happens at the end of this. It’s more like the writers wanted an excuse to put Abraham Lincoln on the screen, in particular, as well as other historical figures. Surak is the father of Vulcan philosophy, but it’s a draw to people the way someone seeing Abraham Lincoln floating in space might have their curiosity piqued to check out this story. I’m sure that was part of the idea at the time, but the series only had a few more episodes to be televised by this point. It wasn’t about to grab new viewers this way. Fans are left wondering what the point was – are the Excalbians going to join the Federation? Have they learned anything about how intelligent life functions in the universe? Or will they just shrug their rocky shoulders and wait for the next space-faring life-form to stumble into their path?
The second problem with The Savage Curtain is that we’ve seen the plot too many times. Nowadays you would have to stack all of the other Star Trek series that have the same concept with better execution (think Q in Encounter at Farpoint) as well as earlier episodes in the Original Series, such as Arena. The Savage Curtain falls far short of either one of these offerings, even with the early missteps of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It seems like the Excalbians have learned nothing from their experiment, and Kirk and Spock seem to just shrug their shoulders about the whole incident.
The “fight” scenes here are particularly terrible. The guest cast doesn’t seem to have a grasp as to what to do, and it looks as fake as it is. It would seem the message at the end is that the evil side is just a bunch of bullies and once Kirk and Spock seriously stood up to them, they ran away. That’s not the way it works in real life, and it just seemed like the story was written into a corner and this was the easiest, and quickest, way to wrap up the episode.
There’s not much good here. One thing I did like was the appearance of Yarnek. He was depicted as something other than a human with creative makeup. The abilities he displayed with being able to appear from a rock and then disappear the same way weren’t even mentioned. No “Whoa! Did you see that Spock?” when he appeared. The moments that could have been built into more were missed for a lot of dialogue and parading Abraham Lincoln around on the Enterprise.
I remember this one coming up frequently when I was growing up and the series was on every night at 6PM. I think the Abraham Lincoln imagery had something to do with it. However, there’s really not much that’s good here. There were a lot of missed opportunities (especially with Surak and Kahless – characters important to two of the alien races prominent in Star Trek lore) and poor execution overall.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Cloud Minders
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – All Our Yesterdays
I’ve never really got into it despite being a huge sci fi fan. But Patti, you certainly know your Star Trek! You passion speaks volumes for it.
Thanks! I watched this series so much growing up. It’s clearly all too optimistic about humanity though.