Presidents’ Day is a day for hailing all the Chief Executives of the United States, but it’s mostly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln you’ll see in TV ads this three-day weekend.
Washington hasn’t shown up as a Trek character, but two score and a dozen years ago, when “The Savage Curtain” first aired (March 7, 1969), Lincoln did.
Fans often remember “The Savage Curtain” as “the one with Abraham Lincoln in space.” Not even the CBS remastering team could make the sight of Lincoln on the viewscreen less absurd.
“The Savage Curtain” doesn’t deserve such a quick dismissal. During this Presidents’ Day weekend, watch it again. You may find more to explore and enjoy than you remember!
“The Savage Curtain” Expands Vulcan and Klingon History and Culture
The rock-like Excalbians, claiming no knowledge of good and evil, stage a “spectacle” pitting representatives of one against the other, “to discover which is the stronger.” Team Good consists of Kirk and Spock, Lincoln, and Surak—not a president, but first in the hearts of his “countrymen” as Washington was in the hearts of his.
Team Evil’s members are Genghis Khan, a two-dimensional, racist caricature, judging from some modern historians’ evaluations of him, and three fictional figures; genocidal human Colonel Green, sadistic scientist Zora of Tiburon, and Kahless, “the Klingon who set the pattern for his planet’s tyrannies.”
This “Kahless” is no more the real Kahless than the “Lincoln” is honestly Honest Abe. This gap gave writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, especially Ronald D. Moore, room to weave an elaborate mythology around Kahless as Klingons remembered him: fierce but honorable.
In contrast, Star Trek never revised our view of Surak.
In its fourth season, Star Trek: Enterprise devoted attention to Surak and to 22nd-century Vulcans’ rediscovery and recommitment to his teachings of logic and peace (“Awakening” and “Kir’Shara”).
But even in “The Savage Curtain,” Surak, played with great dignity by Barry Atwater, adds depth to Vulcan lore. When meeting Kirk, he expresses pleasure in the differences between humans and Vulcans: “May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.” His words summarize the Vulcan philosophy of Nome, or “All,” which Spock defines as the “combination of a number of things to make existence worthwhile.”
“The Savage Curtain” Reaffirms Star Trek’s Commitment to Taking Risks
Early in the episode, McCoy and Scotty object to Kirk and Spock beaming down to Excalbia, where “a small spot of Earth-type environment” has suddenly appeared on the otherwise barren and volcanic world. But Kirk justifies the risk by appealing to the Enterprise’s mission: “The very reason for the existence of our starships is contact with other life. Although the method is beyond our comprehension, we have been offered contact.”
Kirk reaffirms a pillar of Star Trek philosophy. Human beings are by nature explorers. While Trek never blesses outright recklessness, it does advocate risking engagement with the unknown and even incomprehensible when important new knowledge is at stake.
Ironically, both Spock and Kirk later try to prevent their respective heroes from taking risks: Surak attempts to negotiate with Green, and Lincoln tries to rescue Surak. Both Surak and Lincoln—the latter nobly portrayed by Lee Bergere—judge potential peace and freedom worth the risk.
“The Savage Curtain” Calls Viewers to Use the Past to Build a Better Future
In the episode’s final moments, Kirk reflects on how real the Lincoln he met seemed. Spock admits he felt likewise about Surak.
The conversation could easily turn to regret that they had not, in fact, met their personal heroes. But Kirk says, “There’s still so much of their work to be done in the galaxy.”
Star Trek encourages us to do more than idolizing the past. Our relationship to history should fuel our journey forward.
We value the achievements of those who came before us, strive to avoid repeating their mistakes, and commit ourselves to continuing whatever good work they began as we “continue to our next assignment.”
Working for liberty, freedom, and peace is our continuing mission. That’s why “The Savage Curtain” deserves another look this Presidents’ Day weekend.
What do you think about “The Savage Curtain?” Let us know in the comments below!