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The Enterprise comes to the assistance of the Exeter, orbiting the previously unexplored planet Omega IV. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt beam over to the Exeter to investigate. They discover the entire crew is dead, dessicated in situ down to their crystallized mineral constituents. A medical log informs them that this was the result of a disease brought back from the planet's surface; the log also warns that anyone visiting the Exeter is contaminated and should beam down to the planet immediately in order to survive.
This is a very interesting and urgent opening to the episode, but unfortunately the rest of the plot quickly descends into incoherence. The party beams down to the planet immediately, and in short order are greeted by Ronald Tracey, captain of the Exeter. He's the only member of his crew that has survived - apparently the disease is neutralized by something on the planet's surface. Why wasn't this discovered in time to save at least some of his crew? It's not clear, and it seems like quite a plot hole to me.
Tracey has formed a relationship with the leaders of the local village people, called Kohms. In fact, evidence soon mounts that Tracey has used his phaser to defend the villagers against attacks by the "savage" Yangs, in defiance of the Prime Directive. The Kohms are civilized and seem reasonable, and are very Asian in appearance. The Yangs seem to be violent barbarians, with a distinctly Caucasian appearance.
Tracey takes the Enterprise men under his wing, providing food and shelter while McCoy has medical equipment beamed down in order to study their disease. But when the evidence of Tracey's violation of the Prime Directive becomes irrefutable, Tracey imprisons them to keep them from reporting to the Enterprise. He reveals his true intentions: the Kohms have extremely long lifespans, so he's convinced there's some kind of longevity-inducing substance on the planet. He wants to figure out what it is and then use that knowledge to gain power and wealth in the Federation. He puts McCoy to work research this under supervision.
The Yangs seem to be massing for a huge attack, so Tracey demands weapons from the Enterprise, but Kirk refuses to comply. He throws Kirk and Spock into prison. Kirk is intentionally put into a cell with a Yang man and woman that were seen earlier in the episode. True to stereotype, the Yang man attacks Kirk immediately. They spar for quite some time, with and without the Yang woman being involved. Finally, he maneuvers the Yang woman to a position where Spock can knock her out through the bars with a nerve pinch, at which time the man stops attacking in order to care for her.
Kirk's conversational mention of "freedom" to Spock causes the Yang man to speak: he can speak English, and he considers "freedom" to be a sacred word that Kirk shouldn't be saying. Kirk tries to befriend him, saying that they also consider "freedom" to be sacred. Kirk and the man managed to remove some of the bars from the window of their cell, whereupon the man knocks Kirk out and escapes with the woman.
When Kirk comes to (hours later - didn't anyone check on them in the interim?), he also escapes and then frees Spock. They find McCoy, who has concluded that there's nothing special about the natives' long lifespans - it is merely a result of evolution of the species on this planet. He has found evidence that some kind of catastrophe befell the human civilization on the planet in the past, possibly a biowar, which resulted in extremely hardy people from the survivors. He also has realized that the disease that they carried has already been neutralized, so they are safe to return to the Enterprise at any time.
Tracey bursts in on them, looking quite a mess - the Yangs have attacked again, and despite the use of his phaser, they overwhelmed the Kohms. He describes killing thousands of them, and yet the rest came on. This is probably an exaggeration, but it's still an effective description. McCoy's revelation about the lifespans of the natives doesn't go over well, but at the moment Tracey just wants more weapons. He makes Kirk contact the Enterprise, but refuses to give Sulu the verification he needs that there are no problems, so nothing comes of the contact.
Kirk manages to knock Tracey's phaser away, and they start a running fight through the village. They are rolling on the ground at each other's throats, when the victorious Yang conquerors pull them apart and take them all prisoner.
The Yangs keep them on display during victory ceremonies led by Cloud William, the Yang man that was in Kirk's cell. The Yangs have a tattered US flag, and Cloud William begins reciting an almost unrecognizable Pledge of Allegiance. Kirk finishes the pledge, causing a huge outcry over his knowledge of sacred words.
This is the point where the episode becomes ridiculous. Recently in "Patterns of Force", Spock had said that the chances of two civilizations randomly evolving identical organizations (complete with names and symbols) were so small as to be impossible. This was (reasonably) used as support for the idea that John Gill had interfered with the Ekosian culture. In this episode, Spock calmly explains how civilization on Omega IV had apparently paralleled Earth cultures, down to having a United States of America. Kirk follows this up by realizing that the Kohms are communists and the Yangs are Yankees. This is unbelievable.
Because Kirk violated Yang laws by speaking sacred words, Cloud William may order them executed. Tracey tries to save himself by claiming that he is good, but the others have been sent by the devil. He even goes so far as to point out Spock's resemblance to the devil. One tactic that I will admit is clever is that Tracey claims that Spock doesn't have a heart; when Cloud William listens, sure enough, he doesn't hear anything, since Spock's heart is in a different location. Things are not looking so good for the Enterprise men.
Kirk challenges Tracey to a hand-to-hand fight to the death, as a fight between good and evil. Good, of course, should win, which will decide the issue. The Yangs tie together one hand from each man and provide a knife. They begin fighting. Tracey is bigger than Kirk and has the urgency of madness, but Kirk manages to get the knife and hold it at Tracey's throat. He refuses to kill Tracey, which angers the Yangs, until Kirk recites the beginning of the US Constitution to them (which they had started saying before).
During the fight, Spock had sent a telepathic command to one of the Yang women so that she would get one of their communicators and open a line for him to the Enterprise. Consequently, by the end of the fight, Sulu and two security guards have beamed into the room, awing the Yangs.
Kirk thus has the situation well in hand, and Tracey is escorted out as a Starfleet prisoner. Kirk tells the Yangs that their "sacred words" should not be only for important people, but for everyone. He forces them to open up their sacred documents and show them to all the Yangs - and lo and behold, there's a tattered copy of the US Constitution, complete with the country as the United States of America. This is the final piece of idiocy in the episode. I'm only glad we couldn't see signatures to see if the looked exactly the same, too.
This may be one of the worst, if not the worst episode in the series; in my opinion, it competes with "The Alternative Factor" in season 1. Let me discuss the main bad points.
This is the second time we've met a captain who has had a breakdown from losing his crew - the first was Commodore Decker in "The Doomsday Machine". However, Tracey's breakdown seems to have driven him toward... greed? He doesn't seem too feel all that bad about his crew; he just wants to commercialize the fountain of youth and get rich. What a great guy.
So we had the first plot - a deadly disease - tossed aside quickly in favor of the second plot: discovering the reason for the longevity of the natives. But this plot was also a wild goose chase, since McCoy quickly concludes that there's no special reason for it. After that, there really doesn't seem to be a plot, except for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy needing to escape from the Yangs while also not letting Tracey escape.
The parallel civilization idea as presented in this episode is completely ridiculous, as I've mentioned throughout the review. How could the Yangs even have identical symbols, such as the flag, and language and writing as the US? Even further, since they do, why can't they pronounce it any more - why the garbled reading of the Pledge of Allegiance, for example? The stereotyping of the cultures - Kohms being Asian, and Yangs Caucasian - was insulting, despite the obvious attempt at presenting a surprise - gee, the Kohms seemed civilized, while the Yangs didn't.
Using Spock's telepathy here was a stretch, too. We saw him implant suggestions in minds before, but they were always relatively simple things: open a door. Here he got the woman to cross a room during an exciting event, get a communicator, and bring it to him, which are fairly complicated tasks. And all in a very loud environment, hardly conducive to mind-melding. Just one smaller problem in a horrible episode.