Star Trek: The Original Series

"A Private Little War"


Air date: 2/2/1968
Teleplay by Gene Roddenberry
Story by Jud Crucis
Directed by Marc Daniels

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

A lot of good work is evident in "A Private Little War," in which a primitive world on which Kirk once studied has experienced a sudden, unnatural advancement in technology. One side has received firearms which they can't possibly have built. A closer survey reveals that the Klingons have delivered weapons to a set of villagers who have opened attack on their neighbors. Kirk comes to the conclusion that arming the other side with equal weaponry may be the only choice to save them from annihilation. Meanwhile, Kirk finds himself under the spell of Nona (Nancy Kovak), who saved Kirk's life and now hopes he will repay her by arming the village with superior weapons.

This episode sometimes serves as an explicit Vietnam commentary, going so far as to mention the war specifically when Kirk and McCoy discuss the morality of Kirk's plan for armament. Meanwhile, Spock's life hangs in the balance aboard the Enterprise after having been shot on the planet surface. There are a lot of pieces to this episode—perhaps too many (Nona's bizarre spell coming across as the most unnecessary). The episode sometimes lacks focus, but the implications of the ending are too interesting to be ignored. The eruption of violence provides an indictment of an entire situation that has lost control, where placing blame is merely pointless. Even so, Kirk's actions lack personal consequences and the ending wraps too quickly. The underlying meaning contains intelligence, but the story's pursuit of its questions is shaky.

Previous episode: The Immunity Syndrome
Next episode: Return to Tomorrow

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11 comments on this review

Wed, May 16, 2012, 12:23am (UTC -5)
I love this episode- it has so many great elements:

1. The 'slapping of Spock' scene- hilarious!
2. A great 'Trekkian dilemma' with no 'good choice' at the end.
3. A heartfelt and reasonable explanation of the Price Directive from Kirk.
4. A sexy lady.
5. An awesome alien monster- plus two fight scenes with said monster!
6. The classic fight music and a big brawl.
7. McCoy saying: "She's dead."

I really loved this episode.
Wed, Apr 30, 2014, 6:43pm (UTC -5)
Am I the only one that found there would be a second solution?

*totally eliminate the village (and with them remove all knowledge of making guns)

*this needs to be done by cover up, so they use the enterprise to cause a MASSIVE disaster that looks like a natural disaster that wipes out the village.

*the woman needs to die too (her idea of "war and killing" even without the tools to do that, is contamination, she has to be eliminated.

*capture and kill all klingons, near (and if neccecairy go to war over this, but hope they back off)

*place a permament space station in orbit of this planet to monitor it's progress and to quarentine it (nobody will land on it ever again) -> while no issue for the foreseable future their technological progress makes it neccecairy, replace the space station with more stealthed observation methods.

But my line of thinking is clearly not the "cold war era" thinking when this was made.
William B
Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 9:00pm (UTC -5)
I agree with Jammer that this episode is interesting but all over the place. The big overriding metaphor (which is one that the series returns to quite often) is that of a Garden of Eden, and so Nona pretty clearly plays Eve -- which is the episode's weakest point. I grant the original series a certain amount of leeway given the restrictions placed on the show by the network (like eliminating the Number One character), but this episode is ridiculous: Nona is a misogynistic caricature, a witch who not only beguiles men with her wiles and is the *real* malevolent force pushing men to violence, but even betrays her side when it becomes slightly inconvenient. Say what you will about the gender dynamics in "Macbeth" -- but Lady M doesn't suddenly decide to throw her lot in with Macduff midway through. It would be one thing if I thought the episode were portraying Nona in a complex light -- showing, perhaps, how difficult her life is, and why she desires advancement so badly -- and in moments it does do this; the war that has started is beginning to have big amounts of sexual violence, with women as trophies (c.f. the scene between the Klingon and village leader), and where even Nona's attempt to betray her side to help the village leads to them attacking her. So there is some indication of what it is that Nona wants to escape through acquisition of power, but it's overall a rough portrayal. It doesn't help that she is also a darker-skinned, dark-haired woman who lures the bleach-blonde innocent, peaceful dudes into violence and depravity.

But I guess "the garden of Eden" is the central parable they wanted, so they went with that. There is some interesting tragedy here. Guns and weaponry are superficially the roles of the snake in the garden, as Kirk says explicitly, but really it's Kirk and the Klingons who play this role in general; Nona/Eve wants to go along with the power, Tyree/Adam really doesn't -- but through Nona/Eve eventually becomes corrupted. The big tragedy for *Tyree* specifically, and Kirk as well, is that Tyree's eventual transformation into a bloodthirsty warrior (at least, as implied by his last scene) happens because he loved a woman who was obsessed with power, who herself ends up being destroyed by it -- that the villagers are too stupid to realize that Nona is trying to give them ultimate power, means that she's got a bit of a tragic fate, too, since her grand (if evil) plans are too big for the villagers to comprehend and even her phaser ends up proving no defense against her. That's maybe the anti-war message amidst all the chaos: when war comes, even the biggest weapons are no actual defense; they are something of a defense, but they're not everything. War poisons everything.

I think it's noteworthy too that the Klingon's cynical, mustache-twirling EVIL manipulation of the villagers into seeing the bright side of killing has some connection to Kirk's presiding over his peaceful friend being extraordinarily blood thirsty at the end. Kirk doesn't *want* Tyree to lose his innocence, but that is kind of the consequence of his line of thinking. And there is the question of whether in helping to make it easier for Tyree to live, he's destroying his soul and goodness in the process.

I think the reason for Nona's magic spell in the episode is to make us really question Kirk's actions and logic. Kirk's concept of the balance of power is something that McCoy objects to on pretty reasonable grounds. Yes, it's wrong for the villagers to massacre the hill people, but is starting an arms race really the solution? What are the alternatives? There is a tiny hint of Col. Kurtz "Heart of Darkness"-esque madness to Kirk becoing embroiled in this conflict, as an outsider to this culture who ends up training people to be a certain kind of warrior, and while this episode never goes as far as Conrad did (or Coppola would, in Apocalypse Now), the idea that Kirk is actually at least a little bit made mad or irrational by the locals suggests, maybe, the impossibility of having actual perspective when effectively "adopting" a culture. There's some colonial guilt in there, or maybe some racism and sexism (again: Kirk is *literally bewitched!*). It's hard to parse this episode, and I will probably leave the more specific political implications to people who aren't me.

Why does Kirk just beam up at the end? Is he going to do anything about the Klingons arming the villagers on the planet? Does the planet have any people on it besides one set of villagers and one roughly equally-sized group of hill people? Is Kirk actually going to beam down those weapons when he just decides to beam up at the end? The episode's failure to resolve even these simple questions makes it all the shakier as an allegory. Still, it has enough interest to be worth watching -- if with some healthy skepticism. Probably 2.5 stars.
William B
Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 9:07pm (UTC -5)
Actually, I should add that the episode's ending really does work for me -- well, not Kirk zipping away in such a way as to make it unclear whether he beams the weapons down, but before that -- is that it does walk that balance of showing the destruction that Kirk's choices have wrought without condemning those choices. It's rare to see an effective portrayal of a no-win scenario (one of Kirk's real Kobayashi Maru situations), and the final moment of Tyree going into something like berserker rage demanding more weapons is haunting me a few days after watching the episode. I would go up to 3 stars, but I have a feeling that the episode can only maintain a solid "good" rating while I'm not actually watching it.
William B
Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 9:08pm (UTC -5)
Oh yeah, what the heck was with those Mugato? Really pointlessly overloaded episode.
Sun, Nov 8, 2015, 2:59pm (UTC -5)
I too found the Mugato ridiculous, but I think it does serve a certain function in the story. The Mugato seems to be the only natural predator of the hill people. In the beginning of the episode, Kirk even says something like "It'd Paradise here, if it were not for the Mugato." But when the villagers are equipped with firearms, they become much bigger threats to the lives of the hill people, even though they are of the same species. So I guess the Mugato's purpose in the story is to remind us of the dangers of nature to man, which are no match to man's own danger to himself when he turns to violence and war.
Mon, Jun 13, 2016, 7:00pm (UTC -5)
Abridged synopsis:

On The Planet of Men Wearing Really Bad Wigs, Kirk is bitten and poisoned by a white gorilla wearing a party hat and is subsequently cured by a dog turd.
Paul M.
Mon, Aug 8, 2016, 10:10am (UTC -5)
Unspeakably terrible episode, utter garbage. One of TOS's very worst. We need not speak of the atrociously bad acting or hilarious wigs or Evil Temptress with Fake Nails. The thing I find the most offensive though is the bogus handwringing at the end where Kirk comes to the conclusion, and the episode seems to agree with him, that the only way to save Tyree's people is to enter a proxy arms race with the Klingon-supported viilagers. Evidently, do to nothing would result in the annihilation of the hill people and would presumably deal a blow to Federation interests in the sector.

My main problem with this scenario is that the episode wants to convince us that there are only two solutions: either the total annihilation of one side or the balance of power/proxy war. I call total BS on that. Kirk never for a second considers alternatives. Why not open a dialogue with the Klingons? Whether it works or not, there's nothing lost by trying, right? Or how about quarantining the planet? If the Federation is really about "freedom and democracy and all those nice things" (to quote Colonel Tigh), why not refuse the game outright and prevent Klingons from supplying one side? Or why not try to mediate in some capacity between the warring sides and offer them something more appealing than weapons in exchange for cooperation?

I'm not saying these things would necessarily have worked, but the point is there are legitimate options to consider before condemning the damn planet to ever-escalating war and bloodshed. What we have here is a heavy-handed message on the evils of the Cold War and balance of power. But what's even worse is that the episode is actively saying that war is inevitable and in fact preferable to whataver alternatives there may have been. A strangely cynical and misguided episode, to be sure.

1.5 stars.
JERR west
Thu, Aug 18, 2016, 3:32am (UTC -5)
All of you don't understand what happens if Nona lived,she would have ordered kirk to kill Tyree ,then made him her husband and went to the ship with him,for life.
Sat, Feb 11, 2017, 7:44pm (UTC -5)
Can we just call this episode A Silly Little War instead? There was just too much going on: random attacks from the absurd looking Mugato, the sinister schemings of the Sexy Midriff Witch, dealing with the Klingons, Super Important Cold War Allegories!, Kirk being put under the spell of the Sexy Midriff Witch, Spock and Chapel's BDSM roleplay, and Tyree's inconsistent conversion from pacifism to aggression (but not, unfortunately, from bad acting to good acting). Some of the plot seemed worth exploring, but all the random junk, most of which wasn't needed at all, simply got in the way and made it kind of absurd to watch.

For all the talk about pacifism in Star Trek, the episode was intelligent enough to understand that this is a messy situation. Let's be honest, the Klingons weren't going to back down; if things continued the way they were going, the peaceful villagers were going to be wiped out or conquered. And, as Bones so wisely pointed out, because of Tyree's pacifism he would probably be one of the first to go. A speech wasn't going to solve the problem; the main bad guy even said that his people had started to enjoy the killing. The war was going to continue, whether Kirk liked it or not. I liked the intensity of his conversation with Bones. Bones was absolutely convinced Kirk was making the wrong decision, so Kirk challenged him to come up with a better one. And Bones didn't have an answer to that. It was ugly, and you could see Kirk's ruefulness at the end when he started waxing poetic about the end of the Garden of Eden. This part of the episode had potential; this part was worth exploring. But it just was buried underneath all that other stuff.

It also doesn't help that, for all Kirk's complaints that there is no other solution, the other one is kinda obvious (as others pointed out). Presumably, Kirk's mission was successful in exposing Klingon interference on the planet. We can presume also that, once exposed, the Klingons abandoned their plan (since war didn't break out at this time). The Federation, then, can fire phasers on stun onto the Klingon allies from orbit (as seen in A Piece of the Action), and then beam down a troop of redshirts to confiscate all of the weapons and means of producing them. Maybe even have Kirk or another Starfleet captain make a speech to the leader that worse will happen if he tries to reproduce what he learned. Voila, problem solved. No need to escalate the weapons each side has, and all done with minimal interference. Just fixing the contamination the Klingons made. Kirk's dilemma ends, and everyone goes home happy. But then Kirk can't angst about his decision, so we had to pretend not to notice.

Meanwhile, I have to question Dr. M'Benga's professionalism. So Spock's survival is dependent on being smacked back into reality. Does he explain this to Chapel, despite having adequate time to? Nope, he just gives her vague instructions and leaves, even though he knows its an awkward situation. Obviously it was done for our benefit, not Chapel's. Except the payoff is just dumb and ridiculous anyway, so why bother?

Also, as an aside, the time between the dawn of the iron age and flintlocks was 12 centuries Uhura? The iron age started around 1200 BC, and muskets around 1500. Just a bit more than 12 centuries...
JERR west
Fri, Feb 24, 2017, 6:09am (UTC -5)
Why do you protect James kirk,Nona had all the men under her power,all Tyree wanted was to be put under spell's, when Tyree said you will not speak of this to other's, Nona said I will not if I am made to understand, when yutan came he told Nona not excuse me he said forgive me,kirk was hers that's why she was waiting for him she wished him there,do a story about Nona had she lived.

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