A Private Little War is a great episode of Star Trek that addresses the Cold War. Not as compelling as The Doomsday Machine or fascinatingly inverted in it’s approach to war like the episode A Taste of Armageddon, A Private Little War is still a great episode.
This episode is a must see and probably one of the best 20 episodes of the Original Series. We’ve got Klingons, a monster, a new planet and some fairly believable alien characters. Like many early Trek races you could call them camp-y, but LOW EFFORT just doesn’t apply. With little money and few props to work with we were never getting a planet of Gorn level aliens in TOS. These aliens are par for Old trek, they’re fine. They simply look just like us with some rustic outfits.
Star Trek may be the only show on TV at the time to address Vietnam. They do it pretty indirectly but clearly via a reference to “the 20th century brush wars on the asian continent.” This is Star Trek doing politics right.
It’s pretty hard to argue that ‘the Flame of Liberty must be jealously guarded’, so that’s the real focus of most of the episode. Vietnam was a controversial and somewhat taboo subject semi forbidden by network TV censors. This is really remarkable because Vietnam was a conflict that was largely viewed by Americans on TV news but was not in the content of any scripted show. For example, Gomer Pyle, a military comedy about the Marines, aired throughout the war without ever mentioning it. The war was also not going America’s was by the time the episode aired.
The issue of Vietnam was bubbling at the surface of society and only Star Trek could masquerade this problem by simply having it happen on another planet- which was a big part of Gene Roddenberry’s concept for the show and the way quality Star Trek addressed so many issues successfully. Never going to a planet and putting all analogies on an evil version of the Federation over and over again is (just one of many reasons) why Star Trek never works now.
The episode could have been a disaster, but putting the problem on another planet with a ‘just different enough’ society expertly took enough of the sting out of this story for it to be watchable by anyone no matter what they thought of the war. The episode doesn’t go right on the nose the way we see NuTrek addressing all matters.
Here’s something you won’t see on Kurtzman-Trek; the writers create a planet with an Earth-like Society that’s campy and just different enough. Though they have problems that arguably mirror ours, they aren’t us. In A Private Little War the Federation are a positive force in the galaxy simply looking to check in on a developing civilization when they come across evidence somethings wrong on the planet Neural.
The episode opens with Kirk, Bones and Spock on an apparently Non Contact Away Mission to Neural. They’re unaware that some of the inhabitants of Neural have broken from their peaceful ways. A small group of locals attacks the landing party with weapons they shouldn’t have- specifically muskets.
Spock is shot before they can beam back to the ship. His life hangs in the balance for much of the episode. When he does recover he’s mostly on the bridge, so we know we can count on the Enterprise and all its resources to be expertly handled.
The planet we explore in this imaginative episode has been known to the Federation for some time. We’ve already found out Kirk surveyed the planet for the Federation years earlier and knows some of the inhabitants. The Federation is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach with Neural. At some point Starfleet opted to let the inhabitants know the truth about who they were, but they have made it a point not to interfere in accordance with the Prime Directive.
The Federation are observing the planets development for scientific reasons. Neural is an idyllic, extremely habitable “Class M” Planet. There’s plentiful resources and no threats to the planet- like the star going supernova, so there’s no ethical concerns that compel the Federation to intercede. It seems Starfleet has not been back to the planet since Kirk was there. We can safely infer Neural is pretty far off the beaten path.
Once Spock’s stable there’s nothing McCoy can do but hand him off to a doctor who specializes in Vulcans, recurring character Dr M’Benga.
M’Benga is a very cool, extremely competent human who trained on Vulcan for a time. He’s highly qualified to treat Spock, who needs more than a little help. M’Benga’s presence underscores how serious the gunshot wound is and he has real gravitas on screen. M’Benga shows the ship is very well staffed and makes the Enterprise feel more real. I always remembered this crew member. We see M’benga a couple of times in the series. He’s in episode ‘That Which Survives’ as well. Sadly, M’Benga is soon to be destroyed in Strange New Worlds.
Kirk’s aim is to find out how the planet’s inhabitants leaped ahead 1,200 years technically and became warlike. To the rest of the bridge crew, including Uhura, it’s not clear that the planet hadn’t simply changed on its own like others they’d seen. Kirk allows some debate and a few thoughts to be aired before he shuts down the conversation, more or less admitting he’s confused and even angry.
The whole thing isn’t adding up for Kirk who had spent several weeks on the planet on another mission, so he’s got more to go on than anyone else. The captain’s not playing a crazy hunch here. He’s definitely going to find out just how the Hell this planet advanced about 100 times faster than earth. Kirk decides to make contact with the faction he knows from his previous trip there as a young officer and brings along McCoy as his wingman since there’s better medical care for Spock then he’s capable of anyway.
We get some amazing late 60s alien society costumes and the camp is flowing- but the story is good. We have Spock already in jeopardy and now we have a dangerous mission to a Strange, still somewhat New world.
There’s an attack by a super preposterous monster- the Mugatu – it’s just amazingly hilarious when Kirk fights it too. Some of Kirk’s old pals show up after McCoy phasers the Mugatu. The Mugatu has poisoned Kirk and we get William Shatner doing some of the signature acting Trek fans just love as he convulses, speaking with greatly affected delivery from the Space Poison. It’s an amazing scene.
McCoy disregards the Prime Directive because the aliens- who are pretty much medieval humans with some wigs (we’ll see these wigs again in The Apple) – already know about Starfleet and Kirk needs to be kept warm to survive. He’s seen by Nona, wife of Kirk’s old friend Tyree, using his phaser to heat the rocks in the cave where Kirk is passed out.
There’s a great scene where Kirk is saved from the Mugatu poison by the strange herbal knowledge of witch-y Nona. Soon he’s recovered and starts piecing together just what has happened since he was last on the planet 13 years previous.
The Hill People faction, now led by Kirk’s friend Tyree, haven’t changed a lot. The planets other inhabitants (who have different wigs) -The ‘Village People’ (lol) faction however, are very different. They’re uncharacteristically militaristic, suddenly have flintlock muskets and are spoiling for war. Tyree’s Hill People have no context for this. Its apparently been going on for a few months and the Villagers are becoming more aggressive.
Tyree is pretty sure that this is just a phase for the villagers, but his wife has had enough and she wants to fight back, immediately. The divisive choices, natural resentments and stresses of a society under attack are starting to show up. Tyree is paralyzed by the changed situation. Nona is more resentful and actually has a pretty understandable desire that they strike back.
Kirk decides to bring McCoy to check out the village. They find an 18th century forge but determine the muskets they find aren’t locally made, far superior tech was used fabricating them. It’s at that point they hide from the sound of people entering and we get the answer to our mysteries.
It’s the Klingons who are arming the villagers and fanning the flames of war. We get the Klingons plan straight out- they’re arming up the villagers in the hope this will give them control of the planet. After the Villagers subdue the Hill People the plan is they will join the Klingon Empire. It’s an expansionist policy using covert means. So we have a complete Cold War analogy. Right on cue there’s another fun action scene where Kirk and McCoy beat down a local and the Klingon “Military Advisor” who’s there guiding them.
It’s not that on the nose but the analogy to Vietnam is there. We have the Klingons arming up one side in a farce aimed at expansion- Neural is said to have a lot of unique resources. The Villagers have been thoroughly corrupted by the Klingons, who have completely overcome the aversion to violence that they once had. Their leader even says they’ve come to like killing. The other faction is aligned with the Federation and more inclined to be peaceful.
They’re not a lot like the Vietnamese- very much on purpose. Kirk matches the Klingon’s moves and also starts acting as a Military Advisor. He’s soon training Tyree’s people with captured muskets. They are obviously not natural soldiers. This leads to a confrontation with McCoy, who finds Kirk’s aggression repulsive.
This is a great moment in showing the advancement of the human race that was the core of Star Trek’s optimism, even in this cynical episode. Bones’ 22nd century sensibilities are that of a more evolved human. He can’t accept the idea violence is a viable answer that easily.
Meanwhile the inhabitants of the planet have stopped evolving and are actually becoming more primal. From Starfleets perspective the Prime Directive is no longer applicable. The planet has been culturally contaminated by the Klingons.
The whole situation is destroying and reordering the planet in a chaotic, violent way. The Hill People’s society is under immense pressure. They simply aren’t inclined to violence despite the situation. What really bothers McCoy is that Kirk is undeterred by this. He’s pretty much training the Hill People for war and to McCoy its damned Un-Federation-like!
The plot has some magic, subterfuge and some sexy time for a beguiled Kirk -with his buddy Tyree’s wife! As the episode enters its final act she’s luring Kirk to a secluded area. Kirk’s pretty high off of some voodoo entrancement involved with his being healed from the Mugatu poison. Kirk’s thinking he’s in for some wild pleasure, but Nona’s real plan is to bash him in the head with a rock and take his phaser. This quick moment encapsulates the episode’s theme- shes used the oldest, least technical of weapons to obtain a very modern one- Kirk’s phaser!
Nona, who’s memorably played by Nancy Kovack, is sexy and mysterious. She’s some kind of witch and has skills with herbal medicine, sex stimulants and intoxicants – all of which she uses a few times in this episode. She’s also really alpha and has had it with Tyree’s failure to react to the Villager’s aggressive moves. She wants to fight back, but by the episodes end her final course of action is underhanded. Embracing the violence she’s decided to switch sides and be with the winners by giving them Kirk’s phaser. Not the worst evil plan, actually. While Nona is pretty weird and sneaky from the moment we see her, one way of looking at her actions is “This societies war has given everyone some PTSD and no one is really thinking right.” This extends to Kirk, who is goading his friend into being more militaristic.
Sadly for Nona, the villagers she encounters first are looking to snuff her. Since she never test fired the phaser it’s useless to her. She looks to be in for a rough time as the Villagers are ready to do their worst. That’s when the Hill faction shows up and it’s clear they’re going to be shooting it out. Angered, the Villagers stab Nona as the fight begins.
McCoy ends up being the second crew member shot when he gets nicked in the arm. McCoy barely reacts as hes in shock, not from his wound, but from the primal display of brutality he’s witnessing as the Hill People’s small faction kill a couple of the Villagers. The fight is soon hand to hand.
The Hill people eventually prevail and Kirk has to stop his old friend Tyree from overkilling the hill person he’s taken out with a rock to the head. In the aftermath of the fight a vengeful Tyree orders his men to hunt down and kill the surviving hill people involved in the skirmish.
Losing his wife has either hardened Tyree into a soldier… or he’s now a killer with PTSD. It’s not really addressed. It’s natural enough for us to assume after all the killing anyone would snap and Tyree’s reaction is pretty normal. Kirk has created something of a general in him, which was really the captain’s ultimate goal anyway.
Kirk’s actions in this episode are somewhat questionable, but not outrageous or poorly thought out. The situation was bad and there just weren’t any good ways out of it, which is something we see in the real world daily. Kirk is shown as cynically pragmatic and in context it works.
With the Klingon meddling established the plan to arm to the Hill faction for ‘a brush war’ is put in place by a dejected Kirk. He clearly wishes there was another way, but he’s sure there’s not. It’s an intentionally melancholy ending done well. There’s a lot left unsaid. The writers trusted the audience to draw their own conclusions on the morality of the situation.
The episode has a clear aggressor in the Klingons and their Villager Proxies. The Hill People really will be wiped out if they don’t toughen up. The episode is fine leaving us with the idea war is always terrible but sometimes unavoidable, which is absolutely true.
The situation is already out of hand when the Enterprise showed up, so our heroes, though aggressive, are no worse in our eyes for their decisions. We understand why they did what they did and in fact, were repulsed at the solution they imposed. This was not a feel good ending- but it wasn’t overly dark. Though the planet was no longer idyllic and in for a war, Star Trek fans had already seen much worse places and now things were at least even. It’s implied the Federation would continue Kirk’s policies and match the Klingons. The thought I had on this one was “at this rate they will have a world war one like conflict in about 20 years if they don’t work this out.”
It’s just too bad The Next Generation never made its way back to Neural. While not as memorable as a place like Sigma Iota II (aka The Gangster Planet) it had as much potential for more stories. It would surely have been interesting to revisit Neural a decade or so later to update this Cold War story in the light of subsequent world events.
The episode probably has new relevance with a war in Europe raging. We’re seeing a conflict that isn’t all that dissimilar from Vietnam right now aside from the proximity of Russia to Ukraine. As we speak the idea of how much to arm up the Ukrainians is the biggest geopolitical question of the moment.
This Star Trek episode may not be anyone’s favorite, but it’s solid. The theme of imperialism is simply thrown out there in the form of Klingon expansionism, in this Vietnam Analogy it’s the Klingons actions that mirror those of America in interesting inversion. The show is clearly walking a thin line on this and the analogy isn’t overly elaborate. They wanted you to know they were analogizing Vietnam, but they don’t take sides.
Throughout the episode the concept of arming the Hill Faction is debated. No one really likes it. Kirk’s final word on the matter is it’s the only approach that preserves both sides. The episode ends with the simple admission that while no one wants the proxy war, as best they can figure out it’s just the lesser of two evils.
Whatever the intent was of Gene Roddenberry, Jud Crucis and the other creators was at the time, the episode now feels like a Warning from History. Maybe they only wanted to capture the feeling of helplessness the people of America felt as the war got progressively worse. Memory Alpha says that Gene Roddenberry spent a lot of time fine tuning this script. This probably made all the difference when it came to crafting it into such a quality story. What could have been a heavy handed morality tale or just a ‘shoot em up” episode was transformed into a more thoughtful analogy and the episode still featured some entertaining action.
When ‘A Private Little War’ first aired in February of 1968 the idea we would just lose in Vietnam had more than crept in to the national zeitgeist, people were finally actually saying it. It feels like Roddenberry saw this as “Fighting Not To Lose” and it’s actually also a little bit like America’s slide into 20 years of war in Afghanistan when all that was needed was the operation from Zero Dark 30.
These days, with the Russian Invasion of Ukraine and talk of a no-fly zone we have a far less ambiguous conflict – until one considers that the people of Russia are probably being told some of the same things the American public were about the war. In the case of Vietnam we also had a war of choice, just like the one Putin has launched in Europe. The Ukraine is also a fledgling government, having substantially changed less than 10 years ago in a strong turn westward. At this point? Anything could happen.
The only thing we know for sure is this time there won’t be a great Star Trek episode to make people consider any other perspectives or make a meaningful comment on it, that skill is nonexistent in the Secret Hideout Writers Room. They won’t get around to this event for several years, if ever. The writers of New Trek try to be really topical and tend to have their ‘ripped from the headlines’ Star Trek stories be aged out of relevance- like the Brexit aspect of season 1 of Picard that came after it was mostly over and reacted to much earlier aspects of it in a ham handed way. Go ahead and check out A Private Little War. It’s TV done right and some very enjoyable Star Trek.
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