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RetroTrek: Reality Bites in Star Trek's "Spectre of the Gun"

  • May 19, 2014

(In an attempt to revisit all things classic to this Star Trek fan, I’m going to take some time over this lifetime to sound off on some episodes of all incarnations of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal science fiction franchise.  Along the way, I’ll try to keep things decidedly fascinating!)
For a whole lot of reasons, Star Trek’s (TOS) third season has suffered a lot of criticism over the years, but one of the strong points – so far as this Trek enthusiast concerned – was the sixth episode in that last year on television’s run: the Vincent McEveety-directed “Spectre of the Gun.”  In this hour, Kirk and his officers find themselves beamed into a version of the Old West, wherein the Clanton Cowboy Gang are waiting for a showdown with the Earps and Doc Holliday that will rather famously become known as ‘The Gunfight at the OK Corral.’  However, no Starfleet crew will willingly die-for-naught, and – before you can say “Prime Directive” – Spock speculates a solution most will find thematically in the keeping of the realm of science fiction, one involving the participants’ perspective on what is and what isn’t real.
It’d be easy to dismiss so much of “Spectre” for its wealth of factual flaws (for example, the drama incorporates Tombstone sheriff Johnny Behan into the story but largely neglects his role in the gunfighters’ showdown).  In short, I’ve been to ‘the town that wouldn’t die’ twice in this lifetime, and I’ve read more than a fair share of books on the topic.  I’ve seen perhaps every major and many minor recreations of the gunfight on film and in television, and Star Trek’s bares absolutely no relation to what took place on that fateful day in 1881.  In fact, the Gene Coon (under pen name Lee Cronin) script couldn’t even get the time right: the real fight took place most likely before 3 pm, while Kirk and his company we served notice to be ready to fight at 5 pm sharp.
As is often the case with classic Trek, it isn’t so much ‘the facts’ that matter as do ‘the sentiments,’ and “Spectre” does tap into the right vein.
Historically, those events in 1881 were as much about rejecting authority as they were anything else.  A sense of lawlessness persisted throughout most affairs in the town.  Local authorities such as Sheriff Behan was almost always at odds with what county and/or federal officials wanted or required, so the Cowboy Gang was only yet one more cog in an already stymied Western machine.  Depending upon which version of events one accepts, the regular people were split on who was right and who was wrong (some supported Behan, some supported the Earps, and others sided with the cowboys); so it was only natural that some event would pit all of these forces on a path to collide, which they only did in part on that day and continued for a time afterwards.
Coon’s script also thematically comes at a time in our history that most folks were evolving against the resident political structure in the United States.  Our nation was mired in the Vietnam crisis, and political parties were clashing regularly over cultural issues in our homes.  The ‘Great Society’ wasn’t quite what everyone believed it ought to be, so it’s easy to understand why Coon’s probably used the OK Corral as analogous to Starfleet’s impending contact with the Melkotians: apparently the Melkots held the Federation’s motivations as suspect, so why not pit a crew of its finest against what the aliens imagined Fleet personnel most resembled, namely lawless gunslingers who only respected their own badges?
Like the Melkots tried to warn the Enterprise away from their world and were successful, the Melkots see to it that Kirk cannot even reason with Morgan Earp, a man whom the script implies would shoot first and ask questions later.  (FYI: this characterization of Morgan, as with the rest of the Earps, I think is largely a product of the 60’s since it doesn’t survive to the time of my writing.  Either that or Coon’s was only using these people from history as stock figures, ascribing whatever intent he needed to them from thin air.)  All of the Earps – as well as the ailing Doc Holliday – are depicted as men who’d rather allow their lead to do the talking for them; what’s lost in this equation is that Wyatt, his brothers and the dentist were only intent on disarming the Cowboy Gang per city ordinance when they entered into the fray, but the rest is history.  Unfortunately, Coon’s script doesn’t really supply any motives to Kirk’s orders of establishing contact, leaving this alien species looking more than a bit trigger-happy all on their own.
Leave it to the logical-loving Vulcan to recognize that the Melkots’ creation bears no relation to reality except in his mind and that of his Starfleet comrades.  (This should’ve been obvious considering town’s haphazard and recklessly incomplete recreation of Tombstone – no doubt a budgetary constraint, too!)  When it becomes clear that the Melkots’ version of events is definitely altered from what could’ve/would’ve/should’ve been established facts, Spock deduces that they’ve all been experiencing events given a framework actually requiring their acceptance in order for it to be legitimate.
In simpler terms: “Reality bites … only if you let it.”
After a quickly spun Vulcan mind meld equips everyone to sufficiently alter their paradigm, the Melkots’ power over them vanishes.  The gunfight isn’t so much a gunfight as it is target practice, but bullets reduced to spectres from their guns can’t harm anyone.
Like so many times throughout Star Trek’s first run on television, audiences are delivered a moral to the story, this one being that mankind turned its back on the lawlessness of its distant past.  Only such an enlightened perspective would allow the future to shine so brightly as it did in late 60’s television.

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Ed ()
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops".   … more
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