Saturday, October 12, 2013

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

Still from 'A Private Little War' (1967)
'A Private Little War' probably began as a pitch by Don Ingalls, who had previously written 'The Alternative Factor' for season one of Star Trek. Ingalls had been a police officer alongside series creator Gene Roddenberry in the LAPD, where the two became friends. And like Roddenberry, Ingalls eventually left the force for a career in television writing, which began by the late 1950s. By the time he was writing 'A Private Little War,' Ingalls was a television veteran with dozens of writing and producing credits to his name.

There's no record of Ingalls' pitch, but it was enough to convince the production to commit to a story outline, which Ingalls delivered on April 30, 1967, a few days before the second season was scheduled to go before the cameras. Ingalls called his story 'Ty-ree's Woman.'

Ingalls' first draft story outline contains many elements which would be eliminated or changed by the time the episode went before the cameras. Some of the more notable differences are:

-- A late, hand-written note provides a different explanation for the Enterprise's departure than the final episode, "to make contact with Federation agents who are hiding out on a planet torn by civil war."

-- The planet Neural is much more inhospitable than the "Garden of Eden" presented in the final version. Not only is there "the Neural Great Bear Creature, a sort of king-sized Grizzly-Hyena," but there is "scaring [sic] heat, sand storms, and clouds of ammonia belching from crevices in certain areas."

-- Kirk is slightly injured by the flintlocks in this version, not Spock, who escapes unscathed. There is therefore no subplot aboard the Enterprise dealing with Spock's injuries.

-- Kor, from 'Errand of Mercy,' is the Klingon discovered to be aiding Apella and the outer people, not Krell, as it is in the final version.

-- The outline ends on a downbeat note aboard the Enterprise as Kirk watches the planet fade from sight on the viewscreen, sensors indicating two sides fighting a stalemate war.  He wonders:
Would any of the personal tragedy have happened if the Neuralese had been left untouched, the first place? If there is an answer to such a question, it hasn't been found yet. If there is one, it hasn't been evolved, developed, mutated, or invented by any of God's children. If there is one, it is still hidden somewhere in the dark recesses of thought....waiting for discovery.....
Gene Roddenberry read Ingalls' first draft story outline a week later, and then dictated a two-page memo about it to producer Gene Coon on May 8, 1967. Roddenberry felt the story outline was far too problematic to go to teleplay, but expressed confidence in his friend from the LAPD:
We are going to have something of the same problem we had on 'Friday's Child' i.e., a lack of urgency and jeopardies [sic] involving our main characters, a lack of unified dramatic build, a lack of science fiction elements. Am sure the script can be made to work with Don’s inventiveness and talent, but we must challenge him to find these elements before he goes any further.
The lack of science fiction elements Roddenberry lamented had to do with the story's hill people, which he felt were too human, "almost exactly like us in person and customs." NBC often pushed for the show to exploit the concept of "strange new worlds," and here, Roddenberry shared their outlook:
Whether our audience would articulate it or not, they would have to be at least subconsciously disappointed in the fact we travel so far across space to see things which we could have seen in our own backyard here on Earth.
On the subject of Vietnam, Roddenberry asked:
More important, what is the theme? Don writes best when he has a meaningful, powerful theme. What is he saying here-- don't screw up simpler societies? If he is aiming for a Viet Nam [sic] theme that certainly can’t be it. The things at stake in Viet Nam [sic] are much more important and powerful than a charitable attitude toward simpler people in the world.
Roddenberry asking if Ingalls intended to pursue a Vietnam theme suggests that the idea to parallel that conflict belonged more to Roddenberry than it did to Ingalls.

Probably owing to the busy schedule of production, Bob Justman didn't deliver his comments about the story outline until a few weeks later, in a four page memo to Gene Coon dated May 26, 1967. Like Roddenberry, Justman was concerned that the story was too familiar, although he compared it to the yet unproduced 'The Omega Glory' rather than 'Friday's Child' (which had just completed its fifth day of production). More importantly, Justman thought the entire story was a mix of unbelievable, contradictory, and unresolved elements, which he took to task with his usual irreverence.

"Why is the only weapon taken along the hand phaser which Kirk wars on his belt?" Justman asked, especially since, "one of the two life-groups on the surface of the planet is essentially warlike." On the same subject, Justman wondered why Kirk didn't simply use his phaser against the Great Bear Creature when attacked. "Does he just use it for shaving," he quipped, "or can he use it to dispose of this horrible adversary?"

Justman was also confused why Ty-ree and Apella had been made aware of Kirk's true identity in the first place. "If such knowledge could inflict a disruptive and destructive effect upon the mores, standards and values of the simple Neuralese Peoples," he questioned, "then why were even the two leaders allowed to know about the existence of Captain Kirk and his party in their previous visit?"

Justman also wondered if the use of the Klingons, and the character of Kor in particular, made the Star Trek universe too small. "Here were are in the outer reaches of our galaxy," he wrote, "and who should Captain Kirk run into, but good old Kor ­­– an adversary that he has encountered before... Just think of it – billions of stars and millions of Class M-type planets and who should he run into, but a fella he has had trouble with before. No wonder Kor doesn't recognize him at first. The coincidence is so astounding, that he must feel certain that it couldn't possibly have happened."

Justman doesn't refer to any Vietnam parallels in his memo, but he does question Kirk's entire course of action in arming the hill people:
If I were Kirk, I would attempt to come to grips with Kor and solve the whole situation man to Klingon. I wouldn't attempt to arm my friends with rifles and ammunition, so that they and their opponents could go around ventilating each other with buckshot. Kor is the fly in the ointment. Kor is the key to the puzzle. Kirk is the jerk.
Finally, Justman was concerned about the way the story left many elements unresolved:
At the end of the story, Kirk and his friends leave the planet and fly away. The conflict between the two opposing forced on the planet has been left unresolved. We also never resolve the situation between Ty-ree and his woman and Captain Kirk. Not only have we left the conflict unresolved, but we are leaving the planet secure in the knowledge that these two groups are going to shoot each other to smithereens. Also, whatever happened to Kor, the Klingon?
Although Bob Justman and Gene Roddenberry had different views about what troubled the story, they agreed on one thing -- the story wasn't ready to go to teleplay. Don Ingalls went to work on a revised story outline.

(To be continued in Part Three)

(Part One can be read here).

Image courtesy of Trek Core.


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

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