Sunday, January 5, 2014

Writing 'A Private Little War,' Star Trek's Allegory for the American War in Vietnam (Part Five)

Still from 'A Private Little War' (1967)
On August 21, 1967, ten days after Fontana and Justman’s memos about the first draft of 'A Private Little War,' Gene Coon sent a thirteen page memo of his own to Don Ingalls requesting numerous changes to the script. He began cordially, writing, “Generally speaking, this is the story we talked about,” but quickly moved onto discussing the changes he wanted in detail.

Fontana was worried the location would make the episode too similar to ‘Friday’s Child.’ Justman simply felt the location was impractical, noting that “we have been damned unsuccessful in finding things like [verdant paradises] outside.” Coon relayed both of these concerns to Ingalls, and said, “I think we should make the planet Neural a semi-arid, rocky, mountainous terrain, rather than the verdant paradise you describe. Southern California is short on verdant paradises.”

There was also the believability problem of the premise. Keeping the Neuralese from seeing advanced technology was what drove the story, but beaming down with only one phaser didn’t make sense. Coon split the difference, writing, “Logically, despite the necessity for non-interference, all of our people would carry hand phasers on their belt and communicators. In addition, McCoy would carry his small medi-kit. However, we must establish very strongly in the early portions of film that under no circumstances, except as an absolute life and death last resort, can we use any of the phasers or any other gadgets in the presence of any Neuralese.”

Perhaps disappointed that ‘Friday’s Child’ and ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ had dropped the darker complexion of the Klingons seen in ‘Errand of Mercy,’ Coon advised Ingalls that “we should establish that [Krell] is coppery colored and has rather peculiar hirsute adornment. We usually invent weird beards for Klingons.” Krell’s make-up would ultimately mark a return to the design from ‘Errand of Mercy,’ as would all subsequent Klingon appearances in the third season.

Following Justman’s suggestion, Coon instructed Ingalls to “please have a security man beam down with our party” and be wounded instead of the Captain. He reasoned that, “if Kirk…were seriously injured, it would be logical, if McCoy could not treat him on the ground, to beam him back to the Enterprise, and, boy, would we bit in a lot of trouble as far as our story goes.” He also asked Ingalls to implement Justman’s idea that the great ape later “scratch or bite” the captain, making McCoy’s inability to treat him and Nona’s success with herbal remedies more plausible. Coon noted this had parallels to “some of our Indians [having] native remedies for the bites of rattlesnakes.”

In regards to the similarities to ‘Friday’s Child,’ Coon’s solution was to lampshade the problem by having the characters address it in dialogue. “Please specify exactly that we have seen the Klingon do almost the same thing on the planet Capella,” he told Ingalls. “I specify this because in a script called ‘Friday’s Child’ which will air prior to ‘A Private Little War’, we have seen the Klingons competing with the Federation for the loyalties of a primitive people on an undeveloped planet. We might also invent several other planets where we have played out the same game with the Klingons.”

In other areas, Coon suggested ways Ingalls could differentiate his teleplay from ‘Friday’s Child,’ and ease the production process. For example, he wrote, “In a show with the Capellans which I mentioned a moment ago, they were giants. I would much prefer to go with a planet of short, squat, muscular men. But even this might be difficult to cast, so I think we should assume that the Neuralese are just normal people.”

Mincing no words, Coon objected to the characterization of Ty-Ree in relation to his wife, writing:
There is a touchy area in almost all the scenes between Ty-Ree and Nona. We seem to get the impression that Ty-Ree [is] impotent in regarding his wife. Granted, he has a lot on his mind, but I’m sure you and I have a lot on our minds, but we manage to get in our screwing with our lawful wedded spouses from time-to-time. The impression throughout this script is that Ty-Ree just isn’t making it with her. Certainly Nona can complain that she isn’t getting enough attention, but please let’s not get the implication of sexual impotence as far as Ty-Ree is concerned.
Much like Fontana and Justman, Coon had other concerns about Ty-Ree’s characterization as well, telling Ingalls that, “we must positively be sure that Ty-Ree never comes off like a coward.” He advised Ingalls to make the character stronger and more proactive, and less dependent on “Kirk to take his irons out of the fire.”

Recognizing an opportunity for a little bickering between Spock and McCoy, an element of the series which Coon liked, the writer-producer told Ingalls:
McCoy, being a typical doctor, probably would not be so eager to accept a primitive home remedy. But, Spock, who has an encyclopedic memory, could list a number of famous native cures on other planets which have startled medical science and say that it is logical to try the native remedy here. This could be a good scene of conflict between Spock and McCoy, and as the saying goes, “it wouldn’t hurt”.
Coon also shared Justman’s concern that Nona’s ambitions weren’t fully explained in the script, and suggested Ingalls write a scene “in which we see that she is an incipient Lady Macbeth… Nona wants to be a queen… If it is so established early and well, then we will understand her actions a lot better throughout the script.”

Ingalls, like many freelancers, had some trouble adapting to the futuristic world of Star Trek. In his script, for example, Captain Kirk wore a watch, which Coon corrected and then added, with a sense of wit, “Please do not ask me how they tell time. I don’t know.” Elsewhere, Ingalls had McCoy dress Kirk’s wounds with a conventional bandage, to which Coon responded, “We spray bandages out of a little can. They are invisible.”

Lastly, echoing Fontana’s criticism that the script was short on action, Coon advised Ingalls, “I feel the need for more action, since we have a great deal of talk, [philosophy] and politics throughout here, but not very much action.” He suggested an attack by some of Apella’s men after the failed truce talks, where “a couple of Ty-ree’s men are killed [and] of course, we overcome because we are the heroes.”

Discussing the political allegory of the story, Coon drew some chilling parallels between the actions of the Enterprise crew in the script and contemporary political struggles:
Captain Kirk and his men, in this particular show, are put rather in the situation of the current day CIA which has secret instructions to go in and overthrow a government. This is not necessarily a moral or a decent thing to do, but it is something that must be done. We do not, however, call attention to it. We do everything we can to keep it [quiet].
Later in the memo, Coon addressed the story's allegory for Vietnam, and invoked the domino theory in his analysis:
The Klingon’s [sic] would not like an excuse to declare open war on the Federation. We have always played them very much like the Russians. They want to gain their aims by any means short of actual war. I would like a little rationality from Kirk besides simply saying he has to do this because he is ordered. After all, in the current situation in Vietnam we are in an intolerable situation. We are doing exactly that which we are forced to do, and we can find no other way to do it. Certainly there are rules and orders, and Kirk is operating under rules, but they are not arbitrary rules. They outline the only course we have been able to figure out to take. If we are to honor our commitments, we must counter-balance the Klingons. If we do not play it this way, and it is admittedly the hard way, the Klingons will take over and threaten the Federation, even as the situation is in Vietnam, which is, as I remember, if Vietnam falls all Southeast Asia falls. In this case, if Neural falls, this entire quadrant of space falls. Please let us have Kirk give a logical presentation of his own and the Federation’s dilemma. Yes, it is evil, but we have never been able to figure out another alternative. 
Later, Coon invoked Vietnam again, writing:
I think Kirk should point out that there is a moral difference between killing and fighting to protect oneself. Besides, this might be a very good place to establish that we will send advisors who will teach them to defend themselves, to protect themselves against aggression. Why don’t we follow the Johnsonian line in Kirk’s speech throughout, because he is, after all, a man in the military service and he must, as do our own ambassadors, follow the line which is the official line of his government. 
Finally, Coon discussed the ending of the piece, the parallels to Vietnam, and the potential fight the script might lead to, presumably with NBC:
I have a fine idea, or at least I think [its] fine. That is, to make the bottom of page 62 the last line of the show. I am willing to fight for the line: “there isn’t one damned thing you and I can do about it”. I guarantee you it will be a fight, but I have warred in these things before. If we do so, however, we’ll have to insert earlier in the page the line, yes we’ll drop advisors now but I wonder how long it will be before we’ll have to drop off troops”. At this time, it should be evident to everyone that we have essentially been talking about Vietnam and the war is off and running. What we are trying to sell is the hopelessness of the situation. The fact that we are absolutely forced into taking steps we know may be morally wrong, but for our own enlightened self-interest, there is nothing we can do about it. Plus the fact that it is also to Ty-Ree’s own best interest that we are doing these things.
In Gene Coon’s mind in 1967, the American War in Vietnam was immoral and hopeless – but ultimately inevitable and inescapable, and in the best interest of the South Vietnamese people. The writer-producer died in 1973, two years before the war’s conclusion, but it’s hard not to wonder what his version of ‘A Private Little War’ would have been like just a few years later.

As was often the case on Star Trek, the production needed the script as soon as possible. Getting the script into shape, however, would ultimately take another month and a major rewrite by Gene Roddenberry.

(To Be Continued in Part Six)

(Part One can be read here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here).

Image courtesy of Trek Core.


The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)


  1. Thanks for reporting on this; it's always interesting to see Coon in action.