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The Enterprise is on an urgent mission to decontaminate the planet of Ariannus when it encounters a shuttlecraft that had been reported stolen from Starbase 4. They tow the shuttlecraft into the hangar deck and discover the occupant unconscious. He has extremely unusual skin coloration, as one side of his body has extremely black skin and one side of his body has extremely white skin.
In Sickbay, McCoy speculates that the man is some kind of mutation, but cannot be sure since he is a humanoid of a previously unknown race. When the man wakes up, he calls himself Lokai. When Kirk begins to question him about the theft of the shuttlecraft, he becomes extremely defensive and claims that his cause gave him the right to use the shuttlecraft. Kirk says that Lokai and the shuttlecraft will be returned to Starbase 4 after the mission to Ariannus.
Soon after, the Enterprise encounters another spaceship, although this one is of completely unknown specifications, is very small, and is somehow invisible. The ship begins penetrating into the Enterprise's deflector shields and disintegrates, but not before its single occupant can somehow transport himself onto the bridge. It's immediately obvious that the new arrival is of the same race as Lokai, since he's also half white and half black. The man names himself as Bele, a commissioner from the planet Cheron. His manner is extremely imperious; he demands that Lokai be turned over to him immediately.
Of course, Kirk doesn't take well to being ordered around on his own ship. He tells Bele that Lokai will be taken to Starbase 4, but he may visit Lokai. When Kirk and Spock take Bele to Sickbay, it's immediately obvious that the two know and hate each other. They begin arguing immediately. Bele claims that Lokai is a murderer and a traitor; Lokai claims that Bele and his kind have been enslaving Lokai's people. Kirk has to physically keep Bele from attacking Lokai in his rage.
Kirk reiterates that Lokai is going to Starbase 4, and as civilly as possible directs Bele to guest quarters. After Bele leaves, we immediately learn that the Enterprise is going off-course. Kirk returns to the bridge and orders checks by the bridge crew and Scotty, but no one can figure out why the ship will not respond to commands. Spock realizes that the ship is heading toward Cheron, which is the home of Bele and Lokai, but which is not part of the Federation and is virtually unknown. If it wasn't obvious enough, this fact tells us that one of the Cheronians (?) is responsible for the ship's problems.
Meanwhile, Lokai has come to the bridge to make demands of his own against Bele. Bele arrives and the two begin arguing again. Kirk orders security to remove them from the bridge, but the security guards are repelled by some kind of electric forcefield the two Cheronians can generate. They are also protected from phaser fire. Bele announces that he now controls the ship (through some kind of mental power) and they will be going to Cheron.
In a classic scene, Kirk refuses to give in to Bele's control. When Bele will not return control of the ship to him, Kirk orders the computer to star the self-destruct sequence. First Kirk, and then Spock, and then Scotty enter their activation codes while the computer verifies their identities through their voices. Once the codes are complete, Kirk starts the 30 second countdown. At the last second, Bele relents and returns ship control back to Kirk.
Bele tries to put on a show of being an accommodating, reasonable person - saying that he couldn't interrupt the mission of mercy to Ariannus - but a leopard can't change his spots, and we know that underneath he's seething to get at Lokai. Kirk gives him no slack and repeats that Lokai is going to Starbase 4; Bele can make his case to the authorities there. In fact, Kirk will send a message with Bele's request to Starfleet. In the meantime, Kirk allows both Cheronians the freedom of the ship as long as they do not make trouble. I'm not sure if I just think this is silly on Kirk's part, or a good cover for a bad situation: even if he assigned security guards to them, conventional weapons seem completely ineffective.
Lokai goes off to make speeches among the crew, looking for new sympathizers to his cause. Spock eavesdrops on some of this, but this plot point is never really brought up again.
Kirk and Spock have drinks with Bele and chat with him about Cheron and his conflict with Lokai. Kirk suggests that Bele and Lokai try to negotiate a truce of some kind, but Bele scoffs. We had previously gotten signs of racial bigotry between Bele and Lokai, but now that comes out in full force as Bele says Lokai's people are incapable of rational thought and peace. I really did enjoy how Kirk and Spock couldn't figure out the difference between Bele and Lokai that the Cheronians believe is so fundamental: they are both half white and half black, but on opposite sides of their bodies. This is true for all of the two races on Cheron. Kirk and Spock are basically speechless at this revelation.
Uhura calls with Starfleet's response to Bele's request: no. Once Lokai and Bele are at Starbase 4, they will take it into consideration. Actually, this makes a lot of sense. The Federation apparently has a very sensible law that no being may be "taken away" without due process, and since Cheron has no formal relationship with the Federation, there is no due process yet. Of course, Bele is not satisfied with this answer. The Enterprise has also arrived at Ariannus, and decontamination procedures are successful.
Bele again takes control of the ship, but this time after taking the precaution of wiping the self-destruct program out of the computer's memory. He is somehow able to accelerate the ship to warp speeds far beyond what it is normally capable of and sets course for Cheron. Lokai arrives on the bridge and demands that Kirk stops Bele, but at this point Kirk is powerless.
In a very short amount of time, the Enterprise arrives at Cheron. Spock reports that there are no intelligent lifeforms alive on the planet. In detail that would be laughable if it weren't such a tragic subject, Spock describes the piles of unburied corpses and vegetation that is starting to overtake the cities. Everyone immediately concludes that the two factions Bele and Lokai are part of annihilated each other.
Bele and Lokai jump at each others' throats, using their electrical powers somehow against each other. Kirk tries to talk them out of the fight, but it's clear that they are almost mad with grief over the fate of their peoples. Lokai manages to flee the bridge, and Bele chases after him. In succession, they beam down to Cheron. Kirk makes no attempt to stop them, and once they are gone, the Enterprise leaves them to their fate.
I have to admit that this episode was better than I remembered, but unfortunately the bad parts still outweigh the good. I'll start with the good.
I have to give the episode (and the series and the writers) a lot of credit for dealing with racism head-on. Sure, Bele and Lokai were half-black/half-white and not white against black, but I don't think anyone could have missed the point. The episode takes racism and pushes it to its logical conclusion, which also happens to be absurd: we think the difference between Lokai and Bele is trivial, but it's fundamental to them. Showing the absurdity involved in racism is very effective here.
This part of the episode also had another important point, which I think was glossed over. Bele said at one point that he had been chasing Lokai for 50,000 years. Presumably this means that the Cheronians are extremely long-lived. As a result, any prejudices that the people might have would have an extremely long time to become firmly established, making them even harder to overcome. In human society, these kinds of changes have largely come by the turn over in generations, as younger generations have different attitudes (for better or ill) than their parents.
The point behind the racism plot was worthy and some of the implementation was good. However, showing the absurdity in racism also included a lot of very annoying and frustrating arguments between Bele and Lokai. They were just painful to listen to, and way too much time was spent listening to them shout at each other.
The events of the episode's ending should have been very tragic, but unfortunately the execution was poor. The revelation about Cheron's fate was pretty nicely done, even if it involved incredible sensors, but the subsequent chase scenes through the ship were way too long and boring.
There are a lot of small things that bother me about the episode. Again, Kirk fails to immediately assign security guards to Lokai, who has apparently stolen a shuttlecraft! The plot of Lokai trying to recruit crewmen to his cause is not explored enough; it might have shed some light on the Federation's and Earth's history regarding racism. Bele makes some denigrating comments regarding humans having evolved from apes, but Spock gives an academic response and the issue is dropped.
Was Kirk bluffing regarding the self-destruct, or would he have let it happen? We know that he's an excellent bluffer. Nevertheles, we have seen previously (such as in season two's "By Any Other Name") that he is a great believer in the idea that there are always options (rather than self-destruction). On the other hand, he considered it absolutely imperative to regain control of the Enterprise. Fortunately we didn't have to find out what he would have done.
At the ending of the episode, Kirk seems to have given up on getting through to Bele and Lokai. Given the situation it might be understandable, but it's hard to imagine Kirk admitting defeat in anything. And yet he just let them run away, despite Lokai's shuttlecraft theft and Bele's repeated usurpation of control of the Enterprise. This just seemed odd, and it seemed to convey the message that fighting against racism was hopeless. I certainly hope that wasn't the point!
On a more practical note, the makeup jobs on Bele and Lokai must have been painstaking, but they still looked pretty awful. It was obvious how difficult the makeup was by the fact that no other parts of their bodies were exposed, so they wouldn't have to have any more makeup applied. Their costumes were so nondescript as to be laughable; one could say this was so there was no detraction from their faces, but it was probably more of a budgetary issue.