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The Enterprise is orbiting the planet of Excalbia to investigate unusual sensor readings and "legends" indicating that it has intelligent life. However, this seems very improbable, since the planet is covered by molten lava. The ship is just about to leave when an image of Abraham Lincoln appears on the screen. Lincoln says he wants them to beam him aboard. Meanwhile, on the planet, a small part of the surface has become Earth-like.
Kirk and Spock realize there's no way the being could be the "real" Lincoln, but they see the communication as a way to talk to the natives. Lincoln is beamed aboard with full presidential honors, and Kirk shows him around the ship. Lincoln does not understand most of the ship's technology, but he has no problem accepting that various magical things are happening. After a time, Lincoln asks Kirk and Spock to beam down to the planet, where he says a famous Vulcan is waiting.
Scotty and McCoy are dead set against the idea, but Kirk points out that this is the way that they are going to communicate with the beings on the planet, which is the goal of their mission. When Kirk and Spock beam down with Lincoln, their phasers and tricorders are left behind, and their communicators don't work.
They meet the famous Vulcan: Surak, whom Spock says is considered to be the father of modern Vulcan civilization. He believes in peace at all costs. He is also apparently the originator of the Vulcan philosophy of non-emotion, as he chides Spock for showing emotion at his appearance.
As they are wondering why they are there, a rock morphs into a somewhat humanoid shape. The rock calls himself Yarnek. The natives of the planet are part of the molten lava, but they can make themselves solid at least temporarily in order to communicate with the Starfleet men. Yarnek says that they do not understand the human concepts of "good" and "evil", so the Starfleet men are to be part of a "spectacle" in order to demonstrate which is stronger. To facilitate this, Yarnek has created Lincoln and Surak as fellow "good" people. It has also created four evil people from Federation history: Colonel Green, who lead a genocidal war on Earth in the 21st century; Kahless, the Klingon who sparked the modern Klingon society; Zora, a woman who conducted brutal experiments on living sentient beings; Genghis Kahn, from Earth. Yarnek says that the "good" and "evil" sides are fighting for survival, and whoever wins will go free.
Kirk is not inclined to cooperate with Yarnek's spectacle. Green plays on this, and begins talking to Kirk about some kind of truce between their groups. Meanwhile, the other "evil" people sneak around behind the "good" people and launch an attack. The "good" people manage to fight off their attackers and get them on the run temporarily.
Kirk says that they refuse to fight any further. Yarnek realizes he needs an incentive and causes a malfunction on the Enterprise that will cause the ship's engines to explode in four hours. Yarnek allows Kirk to verify this by communicating with Scotty. Unbeknowst to Kirk and Spock, Yarnek has enabled the Enterprise's bridge to monitor the events on the surface.
With no choice, Kirk begins to strategize for a fight. Surak, however, says that he will not fight and instead intends to visit the other party to try to negotiate a truce. When he approaches the other camp, he is promptly captured. The "evil" people aren't interested in a truce, but only how to use Surak's capture to their advantage. Kirk, Spock, and Lincoln begin hearing screams and cries for help in Surak's voice. Even though Spock points out that Surak would not cry out and that the "evil" people are just trying to goad them into a fight they aren't prepared for, Kirk can't sit by while Surak screams.
At Lincoln's suggestion, Kirk and Spock begin a frontal assault with spears they have cut. Lincoln circles around to try to sneak into the enemy camp and free Surak. He discovers that Surak is dead and that Kahless has been mimicking Surak's voice. The "evil" people kill Lincoln, too, in front of Kirk. Enraged, Kirk (with Spock's help) kills some of the "evil" people and runs the others off.
Yarnek declares that "good" is the winner, although it says that the spectacle didn't clarify the difference between good and evil, because both sides used the same methods. Kirk points out the differences in the reasons why both sides fought: "good" fought to save the lives of the Enterprise crew, while "evil" fought for power. Kirk also berates Yarnek for the spectacle, asking it what gave it the right to subject them to a fight to the death. Yarnek says it's the same right the Starfleet men felt they had to beam down to the planet and explore. Yarnek's people are just doing their learning and exploring without leaving their own planet. Kirk and Spock return to the Enterprise, which is no longer in danger.
This episode was overall a dud. I was going to say that it had lofty goals, but in retrospect I'm not sure what those goals were: to show the difference between good and evil? Or to show that there isn't much difference between good and evil?
The recreation of historic people sounds interesting, but the execution of it in the episode wasn't interesting. We didn't really learn anything new about Lincoln. The other recreated characters were hardly filled in at all. We saw that Surak really felt strongly about peace - so strongly that he went through with the stupid idea of trying to negotiate a truce. We learned even less about the other characters. Green did show his manipulative and duplicitous nature, even though it was pretty generically "evil". On the other hand, Kahless is the most notorious Klingon of all time, and he was not impressive in any way. Zora and Genghis Kahn hardly spoke.
The idea of a "fight to the death" has been done numerous times in TOS, and this episode didn't bring anything new to it. Kirk and Spock were never really in any danger, so there was no suspense. All of the other characters were fake, so who cares what happened to them?
The treatment of the fake people by Kirk and Spock was very uneven. I understand that at first, especially with Lincoln, they thought perhaps Lincoln was the manifestation of one of the native beings. Once they were on the planet, however, it was pretty clear that the historic people were simply manufactured in some way. So why worry about killing the "evil" ones? An even better question is, why worry about rescuing Surak? On a related issue, I really didn't need this episode to give me the image of Lincoln crawling through dirt, even if it was for a good reason.
Yarnek's reason for the spectacle was also dubious: it's hard to believe that any race of individual beings would not have some conception of good and evil, even if they don't consider the same things to be "good" and "evil".
I felt like there were a lot of references to "human" history and "human" values (good vs. evil). This was very weird, considering that one of the two real beings involved was Vulcan, and that several of the manufactured beings (Kahless, Zora (?), Surak) were not human. This just felt off to me, considering the usual efforts of the series to be inclusive.
There wasn't much else that was interesting in the episode; the best character interaction was actually aboard the ship before the fight. McCoy and Scotty protesting the beam-down to the planet was accurate, as well as their disbelief in according presidential treatment to Lincoln.