Star Trek: The Original Series

"A Private Little War"

2.5 stars

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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19 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.
Okrad Del Diablo
Fri, Mar 31, 2017, 11:01am (UTC -5)
Mmmmmm Nona.... usually takes more then T&A of a sexy chick to beguile me, but she would be worth some pain (giving and taking it). Damn I love sexy, determined, manipulative ladies with attitude and ambition! :) Fun to be around, and she'd keep me on my toes.

Refreshing change from all the lovey-doey miniskirt honeycakes on the Enterprise. Now THEY are sexist, in my view. Nona is not. She has her agenda, she thinks for herself, she is ambitions (and genuinely wants to protect her people I believe)... and atop of that, she is drop-dead gorgeous. I'm not surprised all the losers in her village couldn't handle her, including Tyree. For a 1960 american show, I have to say I'm very surprised by her character. Awesome! Wouldn't mind if she did some actual ass-kicking too (she looks athletic enough), but I suppose thats too much to expect from the time-period of the show.

"I have the wrong husband!" damn right you do, babe! You need a right kind of man for you, not a pacifist pussy who would rather die then fight back and protect his people. Thats why she ran over to the opposing tribe, she got fed up by all the passivity. And in the end she was the catalyst that got Tyree to act. Too bad it cost her her life.

Also love the Spock-slapping. Not NEARLY hard enough, but I liked it! I'd have bitch-slapped the jerk so hard he'd be spitting blood by the end hehe.

3 stars. 2 for Nona, 1 for the right message in the end, about the need to maintain the balance of power and respond to violence with violence. One of the few times Trek's pacifist bullshit didnt prevail, but reality did. -1 for Nona getting killed. *cries*
Wed, Jun 21, 2017, 11:32pm (UTC -5)
Fodder for Right Wing snowflake Trek fans, of which there are many. Makes them feel like the "cucks" they think they're not while they watch the rapey hill people molest the hot girl they imagine as their wife. I agree with Paul on this one. It's patently ridiculous that Starfleet would arm a bunch of villagers in a proxy war with the Klingons. The logistics alone don't make sense. Not even Section 31 would be that daft. This is the single worst episode of the original 79. Give me Spock's Brain or the stupid hippie episode all day everyday instead of this steaming turd.
Fri, Jul 28, 2017, 10:15pm (UTC -5)
There's an awful lot going on in this episode that interferes with the main idea of Kirk establishing a "balance of power" -- essentially starting an arms race as what he thinks needs to be done.

I enjoyed the episode for its many allegories -- Garden of Eden, Vietnam War etc. Good debate between Kirk and McCoy about the "balance of power" and the helpless feeling he has in the end when he asks Scotty to make 100 rifles/snakes. Are there other solutions? Perhaps. But they may take much more time and it's pretty clear that Tyree's people are in grave danger.

Nona is an interesting character -- conniving although we can probably understand her motivations for 1) survival and 2) desire for power. Tyree's transformation can be believable -- from pacifist to warrior because his wife is killed.

As for the Mugato (or Gumato as its referred to in the ending credits), that's one of the added pieces that could be cut out. So it leads Nona to cure Kirk and cast a spell on him -- it ties in a loosely with the overall plot but I think it's extraneous. But I suppose it's good to show alien animal life which doesn't come up too often in TOS.

As for Spock's recovery, I guess it was meant to make this a Kirk/McCoy episode. The Spock recover mainly provided a bit of TOS-style humor which I always appreciate.

"A Private Little War" gets 3 stars -- it's a legit 60s Trek tale about nothing good about war, difficult or impossible decisions, and some good philosophical considerations. The execution was a bit helter-skelter and kind of like "Friday's Child" but definitely a pretty interesting episode.
Paul M.
Sat, Jul 29, 2017, 7:31am (UTC -5)
Rahul, my main problem with this episode stems from the fact that I can't ignore real world politics analyzing it, especially considering its on-the-nose allegory of the Cold War. Frankly, the very same vomit-inducing sentiment is alive and well in this day.

I DESPISE beyond words the fake self-proclaimed liberal and neoliberal human rights and democracy chest-thumping while "crying" about necessary evils of supporting vilest scum and reducing whole regions to ash.

We love life and human dignity so much that we simply must, in order to defend it!, napalm and agentorange everything, arm Pinochet's death squads, support medieval headchoppers in Saudi Arabia and so on and so forth.

This ep wants to cry over evils of war and basically supports it at the same time without stopping for a second to consider alternatives. It's an awful thinly veiled imperialist BS we can see in contemporary geopolitics all the time.
Trek fan
Sat, Nov 4, 2017, 7:16pm (UTC -5)
In a season full of lightweight adventure and character pieces up to this point, it's refreshing to have a slight return to the Trekkian pacifist ideals of Season One in "A Private Little War." One of Roddenberry's best writing efforts on the series, this episode fleshes out the Prime Directive more clearly and with greater nuance than any show up to this point, and the haunting ambiguous ending lingers more than most TOS episodes of similar content. I give this one 3 or 3 1/2 stars.

The Vietnam allegory and anti-war message works more strongly here because the payoff isn't easily earned; the idealism here doesn't end in a glib gambit (ala "A Piece of the Action" most recently) but in an anguished decision that Kirk realizes is a compromise of limited potential. Very rare on TOS to see Kirk find something less than the ideal solution, but this episode -- much like "Immunity Syndrome" last week -- presents a Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario that requires some sacrifice.

The kitchen sink approach here makes it a fast and fun episode to watch: We have the Klingon-Federation Cold War wrestling for political influence over a developing planet, much like "Friday's Child" earlier this season but with weightier and stronger plotting, as the Klingons here are actively interfering in the culture's development (rather than merely bargaining for its cooperation) by stoking a proxy war. We have the Mugato, the hill people, and the city dwellers. We have the appealing Tyree and his alluring witch doctor wife. We have Spock's illness with the great Chapel slapping scene, plus the welcome debut of Dr. M'Benga in sickbay. Overall, the stakes feel higher in this one than "Friday's Child," and the moral debate without any obvious solution (Kirk is moved to arm Tyree not merely by affection for his friend: Do we arm the other side or allow them to be slaughtered so the Klingons take over the planet?) lingers in its impact. By the end of the episode, we feel like the whole situation is now a mess, and the crew is powerless to fix it -- the haunting final scene with Tyree hits hard. It's not the best Trek episode ever, but it's quite possibly the most nuanced and thoughtful Prime Directive story on TOS, and combines colorful adventure with anguished moral challenges. Good stuff.
Sat, Mar 10, 2018, 9:36pm (UTC -5)
This goes out to Okrad Del Diablo:
What the heck is wrong with you? Did this episode get your rocks off or what? Real creepy.
This goes out to William B:
So if a female is portrayed as the villain, that's misogyny? Get over yourself.
Sat, Oct 6, 2018, 5:54pm (UTC -5)
Why didn't they just consult their history archives rather than get involved in an arms race?

"Captain, I have consulted the archives. It transpires that Captain Archer and the crew of the NX-01 faced a similar situation a century ago."
"I don't have time for a history lesson, Spock."
"Indeed. Captain Archer moved an entire encampment a few feet to one side. When the confused Klingons beamed down, the villagers then stood up for themselves, claiming they were no longer afraid of 'bullies'."
"Sounds like a risky plan, Mr Spock. What happened?"
"The Klingons returned in force three days after the NX-01 had departed and bombarded the planet for six hours."
"I saw Archer's statue last time I was on Earth. This explains why he was scultped with his pants around his ankles."
Sat, May 11, 2019, 8:21pm (UTC -5)
I didn't like it. Confusing mess of a plot and while I don't mind an "up in the air" ending, this one just felt like a cheat. An impossibly huge mess was made, leaving no choice but to simply abandon it.

Below average.

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