Saturday, November 9, 2013

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

Still from 'A Private Little War' (1967)
Don Ingalls submitted his first draft teleplay of ‘A Private Little War’ on August 8, 1967. Ten episodes of the second season had already gone before the cameras and an eleventh, ‘The Deadly Years,’ was in the midst of production.

Following Roddenberry’s advice, Ingalls jettisoned the shipboard prologue and began his script with the arrival of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on the planet surface. In this draft, the landing party arrives dressed in the clothes of the Neuralese, which Ingalls describes as “simple blouse shirts, baggy pants, [and] boots, all very similar to what is worn by the Asian Mongols,” perhaps picking up on D.C. Fontana’s suggestion to make the natives less Arabic and more Mongol-like.

Another change is the reason why the Enterprise is absent for most of the episode. In the second and third draft story outlines, the ship left on “another important mission.” In this version, Kirk orders the ship to leave orbit for twenty-four hours, telling Scotty, “If there are any Klingon ships prowling out there, I don’t want to give them the chance to start shooting.”

Most of the teleplay, however, hews closely to Ingalls’ revised story outline. Kirk is still the one shot at the end of the teaser, not Spock. The wild animal that attacks the landing party is still “the Great Ape Creature,” which is described as being “seven feet tall, thick as a gorilla, [and] a bright, sickening magenta in color.” Alan Ashermann’s Star Trek Compendium claims that “a security man was shot during the initial attack” in this version, but that change actually happened in a subsequent draft.

The debate between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy over arming the hill people plays out the same way it did in Ingalls’ revised story outline, including the hawkish characterization of McCoy. Not only are Kirk’s orders to “maintain the balance of power,” but dialogue establishes that he doesn’t have the “option of independent action.”

The Vietnam parallels are about the same as in the story outline. The only noticeable difference is the way Ingalls compares Apella, the leader of the nomads, to Ho Chi Minh:
[Apella] is quite old, looking a great deal like Ho Chi Min, a wise face, and scholarly eyes, at first glance. A closer look there reveals a innate cruelty...the look of a man whose senses are not offended by death.
The staff reaction to Ingalls’ first stab at the teleplay was mixed, leaning negative. Bob Justman dictated a memo to Gene Coon on August 11, 1967 which said that “much surgery is going to have to be performed on [the script]” before it could reach its potential. Justman was especially concerned that ‘A Private Little War’ was now much too similar to ‘Friday’s Child,’ echoing the earlier concerns of Fontana and Roddenberry.

Justman was also worried by Ingalls’ inability to solve many of the problems he had pinpointed in the first story outline. He still disliked the conceit that only Kirk would carry a phaser, as well as the captain’s reticence to use his weapon when threatened. Since Kirk had already made his true nature apparent to both Ty-ree and Apella, Justman felt he had “already interfered with the normal development of an Alien Society.”

Justman’s memo also contributed an important story change. Instead of Kirk being shot at the top of the story, Justman proposed the captain be injured during the Great Ape Creature’s attack in act one. To keep the jeopardy alive at the end of the teaser, Justman suggested “a Security Man or some nondescript fellow get killed or wounded” before the credits.

Other things that bothered Justman:

-- He felt that Nona’s interest in the landing party’s secrets, as well as her lust for personal power, were unmotivated. “The way Nona behaves,” he wrote, “I kinda get the feeling that she is a Klingon spy.”

-- Justman didn’t understand Ingalls’ characterization of Kirk as rigid and unwilling to break the rules. “I find this strangely inconsistent of our Captain, since we oftentimes have him disobeying direct orders from Starfleet Command,” he wrote.

-- Drawing a parallel between Vietnam and Kirk’s inability to disregard his orders, Justman wrote, “I realize that you are attempting to draw a parallel between this story and the Vietnam situation with respect to escalation and balance of power, but I don’t think that we are doing our moral position in Vietnam any appreciable good at all – but we are certainly causing our Captain to behave like a schmuck!”

-- Justman didn’t like the way the story concluded at all:
I again resent the attitude and dialogue written in for Captain Kirk.  I resent what he’s attempting to tell Ty-Ree. He plays Devil’s Advocate and appears to me to be doing exactly the opposite of what Federation policy really is. I think that Federation policy is to let civilizations develop at their own pace without outside interference. Kirk’s primary purpose on this planet should be to get rid of the Klingon influence and allow the opposing forces to bury the hatchet and get back together again. Additionally, the things that Kirk says in his final two speeches…are the sort of thing which can readily depress a viewer. By the time Kirk finishes talking to McCoy, he has made it perfectly clear that there is no hope for the human race. Remember, [Star Trek] takes places [sic] hundreds of years in the future and from what is being said on these pages, the present viewing audience can have no expectations of a better life for succeeding generations.
-- Displaying his trademark wit, Justman wrote, “Bill Shatner won’t like the scene description of Nona being nearly as strong as he is.”

-- Elsewhere he joked that, “I have just read the scene description at the top of Page 57. I would like to have the opportunity of casting the part of Nona.” For the record, Ingalls describes the way Nona hovers over the wounded captain Kirk in the following manner:

She is like a great, graceful feline as she creeps closer to the fallen man....her great eyes on the magic box at his belt....her pointed tongue touches her lips...then she darts in and hovers over him....quick fingers fumbling at his belt, taking the phaser.

Still from 'A Private Little War' (1967)
D.C. Fontana delivered her own memo to Gene Coon the same day as Justman. She was even less enthusiastic, opening her six page memo by stating, “I have a lot of bones to pick with this script.” Although she complained about the “heavy-handed sex,” Fontana’s greatest concern was that the script was “very talky,” without “decisive action until the very end.”

Fontana remained worried that the episode was too similar to ‘Friday’s Child,’ and suggested a few changes to at least alleviate the problem:

-- Ingalls described Yutan as “a broad faced giant with a booming voice.” Fontana squashed the idea, since ‘Friday’s Child’ had already depicted native giants.

-- Ingalls depicted Ty-ree’s settlement as a series of tents. Fontana urged Coon to change this, writing, “Please let us not have tents. I was informed in fluent profanity about all the difficulties encountered trying to shoot the insides of tents on FRIDAY’S CHILD.”

-- Fontana suggested using Busch Gardens as a filming location, which she had recently visited and photographed. She noted, “the have eight very well-trained parrots and eight very well-trained cockatoos we might be able to use in the bargain.” It would have been a new location for Star Trek, and would have helped set it apart from other episodes, including ‘Friday’s Child’ (ultimately, the series never used the location; the Van Nuys park closed in 1979).

Like Justman, Fontana didn’t understand why there was only one phaser with the landing party. “They are not stupid,” she wrote, “they understand the complications of revealing sophisticated weaponry and equipment to primitive peoples. But they should be armed. All should have communicators. And McCoy should have his very small medi-kit.”

Unsurprisingly, Fontana didn’t like the characterization of McCoy in the script. “McCoy gets too hysterical,” she wrote, “It’s not like him at all.” She also objected to the characterization of Ty-ree, which prevented him from being a credible leader. “Ty-ree, as painted throughout this story, is a weakling and seems almost a coward,” she wrote. “No wonder Nona wants to quit of him. I don’t blame her. Ty-ree should be much stronger, a reluctant warrior, but still a man.”

Fontana’s main criticism of this draft of ‘A Private Little War,’ however, was not directed towards its characterization. Rather, her concern was with the script’s lack of action. Discussing the second half of the teleplay, she wrote, “We expound on a great deal of philosophy here and do very little… Philosophies are great, but in the end, action usually prevails.” 

She didn’t find the first half of the teleplay to be much better. Although it had more action, including a surprise attack which ends with Kirk being shot and a confrontation with the Great Ape, Fontana felt this material was mostly “padding” that did little to advance the story. “At this point,” she wrote, “we must stop the side excursions and get directly to Ty-ree and the story.” In her estimation, it took too long to introduce the Klingon and too long for Kirk to accomplish much of anything. Always direct, Fontana further emphasized her point, writing, “Don must cut all the rubbish and get to the story.”

Among Fontana’s other concerns: 

-- Again, she suggested Krell’s name be changed, since “the Krell were the ancient race in the MGM sf picture, FORBIDDEN PLANET.” 

-- Like Justman, she felt Krell’s immediate recognition of Kirk, “who is running away, in a long shot” was unbelievable. 

-- She wondered, if Nona and Ty-ree were just married two weeks prior to the landing party’s arrival, “how is it everyone on the opposite side of the fence knows she’s Ty-ree’s woman? Were they at the party?”

-- Keeping an eye on costs, Fontana suggested dropping Scotty from the script altogether, since in this version he only appears in two scenes, and speaks in only one.

Although Star Trek needed scripts that were ready to go before the cameras, ‘A Private Little War’ clearly wasn’t ready. Gene Coon went to work on a detailed memo to Don Ingalls, which outlined the many changes to the script that would be needed before the episode could go into production.

(To be continued in Part Five)

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

Images courtesy of Trek Core.


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

The Star Trek Compendium (Alan Asherman, 1981)

The Star Trek Compendium (Alan Asherman, Revised 1993) 

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