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Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have beamed down to the planet Neural for specimens of the native flora, which have extraordinary medicinal possibilities. Kirk had lead a survey of the planet some 15 years earlier as a lieutenant, even living with some of the natives, although not revealing his true origins. It's fun to see Kirk reminisce about how perfect the native culture is, although even Kirk realizes he is seeing it through the rosy glow of youth.
At the time of his first visit, the natives had bow-and-arrow technology and were completely peaceful. However, now the landing party observes that the village people (no relation to the musical group!) have primitive guns and are hunting the hill people. When they disrupt the ambush, the villagers chase them and shoot Spock. The Starfleet men manage to beam back to the Enterprise.
McCoy works feverishly on Spock, but once he gets him stabilized, he still isn't sure if Spock will live. Fortunately, his medical staff includes a Vulcan specialist, Dr. M'Benga. (I don't recall that we ever see him again, which is too bad. The level of staffing in Sickbay has always seemed unbelievably low.)
Kirk is consumed with worry for Spock, but also for what's happening on the planet. Neural falls within the treaty zone with the Klingons, presumably of the Organian Peace Treaty mentioned in "The Trouble with Tribbles", so the Klingons are permitted to do scientific studies. It's not clear whether the restriction on interacting with the natives is a Starfleet restriction or a treaty restriction. Either way, Kirk fears that the Klingons are arming the village people in order to disrupt the local balance of power and manipulate the village people into giving them the planet's resources. Kirk's fears are supported by the arrival of a Klingon ship in orbit; some smart piloting by Chekov keeps the Enterprise from being detected, and Kirk orders them to continue to hide.
Kirk decides that he and McCoy will beam back down to investigate the situation on the planet. McCoy doesn't want to leave Spock, but Kirk tells him he needs advice that he can rely on as much as Spock's. This is such a great example of the chemistry and friendship between the main characters, and I'm hard-pressed to think of any similar example in a later Star Trek series.
When they beam down, they are almost immediately attacked by a beast called a Mugato. Kirk is bitten by it and infected with its poison before McCoy manages to kill it with his phaser. Through violent shakes Kirk tells McCoy to find his old friend Tyree, who knows someone who can cure him. Fortunately, some hill people have heard the attack and come to investigate, and they take them to Tyree's camp.
Tyree is now the leader of his camp, and has a witch-doctor wife, Nona. Tyree is upset that the village people have taken to violence and hopes they will give it up. Nona, on the other hand, thinks that their people need to arm themselves similarly in defense. We see that Nona is an expert on the properties of the native plants, as she uses the scent of a leaf as an aphrodisiac on Tyree.
News of Kirk and McCoy comes while Tyree is high, but we see that Nona has no problem taking charge in that case. She realizes that Kirk is the friend of the past that Tyree had told her about, although Tyree didn't tell her everything. She demands to know everything about Kirk before she will heal him; Tyree has no choice but to agree.
In a ritual involving chanting, a drum, and blood, Nona uses a root to heal Kirk's would completely. She is exhausted when she completes the healing. Exactly how did this work? The unusual properties of the native plants had already been demonstrated to us, but somehow adding effort or will from a person is a completely different idea. It's not explained, although McCoy would dearly like to know.
When Kirk wakes up, he's overjoyed to see Tyree again. He questions Tyree about when and how the village people acquired firearms, and they begin planning what to do. Nona adds her opinion in favor of plans, although she and Tyree still disagree about what to do. She knows Kirk has powerful weapons at his disposal and doesn't understand why Kirk doesn't help them. Kirk tells her about the Prime Directive, and gives her a nice analogy of not interfering with the development of a person. She's not convinced.
Kirk asks Tyree to take him and McCoy to the village to look things over. They sneak into the village, and Kirk and McCoy quickly and easily find the "forge" where the metal for the guns is being worked. They find lots of gun parts that are far too advanced for the village people to have made, but that have been altered to try to look primitive. Dr. "I'm a doctor, not a ..." McCoy suddenly becomes an expert on what primitive gun barrels should look like, which is amusing.
To cap it all off, a Klingon and a village man walk in, and the Starfleet men hear a conversation confirming all their suspicions. They are discovered, and must flee with Tyree back to the hills.
Kirk quickly comes to a decision - I assume he had already decided what to do if his suspicions regarding the Klingons were confirmed. They had stolen some guns and ammunition from the village people, so Kirk introduces them to the hill people, explains how they work, and starts them on target shooting.
He has decided that the balance of power between the hill people and the village people must be maintained to keep the culture from being destroyed. Naturally, McCoy is livid and blasts Kirk for the bloodshed and carnage that he is condemning the natives to. (Kirk did want advice!) Kirk realizes that himself and is upset about it, but he doesn't see any other course of action. The moralizing is a little too strong here, but the raw emotion that the characters bring to the scene sells it. Beyond the tactical strategy of a balance of power, it's rather humbling to think about how Kirk is nearly playing god in the situation. By arming the hill people, he is seriously interfering in the course of their lives, radically altering who will live and who will die.
While events are progressing on the planet, Spock is recovering in Sickbay. We learn that when Vulcans heal, they focus so much physical and mental effort on the healing process that by the time they are done healing, they might not be able to regain consciousness. This leads to a somewhat amusing scene of first Chapel and then M'Benga belting Spock while a disbelieving Scotty looks on.
Tyree is unenthusiastic about the new firearms, so Kirk decides to talk to Nona and get her to persuade Tyree. When he finds Nona in a secluded area, she has her own plans for Kirk. She uses her aphrodisiac plant to bend his will, presumably hoping to convince him to give her and the hill people weapons - she doesn't know about the firearms yet. By Kirk romantic standards, he resists pretty well, but is eventually helpless against the drug. A Mugato attacks, but in his doped-up state, Kirk isn't much good at defense. He finally manages to kill the Mugato with his phaser. Nona realizes her opportunity, knocks Kirk unconscious, and grabs his phaser.
She has finally given up on convincing Tyree to take up arms, so she has apparently decided to sell her knowledge and the phaser to the leader of the village people. She tells the first group of village men that she meets that she has a new weapon for their leader. Unfortunately for her, the phaser doesn't look at all like a weapon, and the men only see a beautiful and vulnerable woman. They grab her, clearly with the intent of rape. She fights back, but is outnumbered.
Meanwhile, McCoy and Tyree discover Kirk just coming to; Kirk realizes his phaser and missing and quickly deduces that Nona took it. They rush to find her, but when they approach the men attacking Nona, they kill her and try to run. Tyree, his men, and Kirk fight the village people before they can leave, killing or wounding some of them; some get away. McCoy gets shot, but it's only a flesh wound.
When Tyree discovers Nona is dead, he becomes enraged. He orders his men to track down the village men that got away, and demands more guns from Kirk. Tyree has changed into a man who will probably survive and possibly even thrive in the new situation he is in, but Kirk mourns the loss of his peaceful friend and the price he paid. This is one of the few TOS episodes without a happy ending, even a force one.
This episode is a little too preachy and definitely depressing, or I would have rated it higher. The acting is quite good. The plot is reasonable on the face of it, although I have some questions about it after further thought.
It's not quite clear to me exactly what advantage the Klingons are getting in having the village people annihilate the hill people. The only thing I can think of is that once the village people take over and become Klingon toadies, the Klingons will either turn them into slave labor to begin mining or harvesting resources, or the Klingons will bring in such labor.
If this is true, then I have to think that the Klingons are interested in the resources of the entire planet, not just around the one village. From that it follows that the Klingons must be arming village people all over the planet - after all, the men from this one village will not be going on a global conquest any time soon. As a result, Kirk must begin arming all of the hill people. It's obviously easier for the episode to show the local situation, but a mention of the global situation would have been good.
Kirk and McCoy talk about keeping the balance of power for years by matching Klingon weapons upgrades, but I can't imagine the situation would go on for long. First, didn't the local Klingon get a look at Kirk and McCoy? They sure don't look like hill people - they don't have the right wigs! Second, won't the Klingons realize what's going on when the hill people suddenly start appearing with many more weapons than could be accounted for by stealing village people weapons? Third, if the situation escalates and there are more and more upgrades, surely ships will encounter each other in orbit and the situation will become "public". Although as I said above, it's not clear if interfering with the natives is a treaty violation.
An interesting note to this situation is the fact that Kirk makes all of these decisions without Starfleet oversight or approval. The Enterprise must maintain radio silence to preserve the strategic advantage of being undetected by the Klingons. Yet Kirk debates only over the morality of his decisions, not about whether Starfleet would agree with them. This demonstrates the huge amount of power that Starfleet captains are invested with, at least in certain situations. No wonder Kirk sometimes seems like he's playing god with the natives.
The character of Tyree was remarkable and admirable for his strong stance against violence. I find it especially remarkable because death is generally much more common, both naturally and from violence, in cultures with such a low level of technology. I suppose it could be caused by the unusually peaceful cultural heritage of the natives, but the village people and even Tyree's followers didn't seem to have such strong feelings about it. Throughout the episode, Tyree consistently spoke out against violence and killing - even when he saw Kirk and Nona embracing, he dropped his gun and ran away instead of killing one or both of them. He even looked disgusted at himself that the idea of killing had even crossed his mind. That's a strong conviction to principle!
Nona was also a fascinating character, and somewhat unusual for TOS in that she was not only beautiful, but strong-willed, ambitious, intelligent, and physical. I have no doubt that her ambition caused her to engineer her marriage to Tyree, but I do believe that she had sincere concern for him and his people, at least at first. However, her ambition coupled with her frustration at Tyree's unwillingness to defend them led her to eventually betray him.
The minor plot involving Spock's injury gave us a little more background on Vulcans, but it was mostly a device to take Spock out of the picture and leave Kirk and McCoy to work things out on their own. If Spock had been on the ground with Kirk and McCoy, might things have turned out differently? Kirk's balance of power seems the logical strategy to employ; Spock's support on the logic might have buoyed Kirk a bit more against McCoy's criticism.