The episode opens with the Enterprise shuttling an obnoxious ambassador to the planet Eminiar VII to negotiate a diplomatic agreement with its people. However, after several days of communicator silence from the planet, Eminiar finally responds with a universal code warning the ship not to enter their space for any reason. For once, Kirk is fairly eager to respect the wishes of the planet and stay out of dodge... but the ambassador is not, and serves the crew with some absurd ambassadorial authority the Federation's leadership has granted him, ordering the ship to proceed to the planet.
Upon arriving at Eminiar, Kirk ditches the Rules Lawyer on the ship and takes an away team to meet with the planet's commander, Anan 7. Anan chides them for disregarding the warning and explains it was for their protection: the planet's currently embroiled in a terrible war with its neighboring planet Vendikar. However, a scan revealing a complete lack of any of the destruction or loss of life commonly associated with war suggests to Kirk that this "war" of theirs is a Cozy Catastrophe at best and an Inferred Holocaust at worst.
As if to prove Anan's point, an incoming attack is announced, and everyone rushes to their computers. They talk about several strikes breaking through their defenses and massive casualties, yet the regular reports from Scotty and everyone else on Kirk's ship indicate no explosions, surges of radiation, or destruction of any kind. Still, the casualties mount, and then Spock starts realizing this war of theirs is purely theoretical. Say what? Yes, it turns out that Eminiar and Vendikar are actually in the middle of recreating the final scenes of WarGames, but in this war, the calculated dead in the affected areas are each given 24 hours to do their patriotic duty and march themselves into disintegration chambers.
In another twist of fate, it turns out one of the simulated attacks has also "destroyed" the Enterprise, forcing Anan 7 to hold the away team hostage until the ship's crew is beamed down to be executed. Naturally, Kirk is having none of this, but Anan's security arrests the entire away team and puts them under guard until he complies. To complicate matters further, Anan starts getting tired of waiting and opens fire on the Enterprise with sonic disruptors (don't you just love Star Trek and their love for Hollywood Science?).
When he can't make a dent in the shields, he then fakes a message from Kirk to try to trick the crew into beaming down. McCoy and Scotty, in command, aren't buying it, but unfortunately the idiot ambassador is, and he transports himself down to the planet with just his aide in tow after failing to convince Scotty to comply with Anan's orders. As pretty much everyone else anticipated, Anan's security forces promptly arrest them both to march them off to one of their disintegration chambers.
Fortunately for him, Kirk and Spock have managed to escape their captors and are wreaking havoc on Eminiar's tidy little war machine, with Spock demolishing every death chamber he can find (saving the ambassador's sorry life in the process), while Kirk has a good long talk with Anan, trying to intimidate the man by claiming to be able to destroy the planet with just his phasers. Unimpressed, Anan tries one last time to get Kirk to bring down his crew for the slaughter, but Kirk just orders Scotty to execute a planetary bombardment order if they don't hear from him within 2 hours.
Anan continues trying to force Kirk and his crew into compliance, but unfortunately for him, Kirk has had enough of this tidy little theoretical war and manages to strong-arm his way into the war machine's central computer core. With a little help from Spock, he sets the whole thing to blow and then phasers it into oblivion. Anan is understandably horrified, as the computer's destruction nullifies the agreement Eminiar had with Vendikar that created the whole theoretical war in the first place, meaning that now they'll have to fight a real war with all its random havoc and horror that the theoretical war was intended to prevent.
This, of course, is entirely what Kirk intended: he gambled that the same orderly mindset that enabled both planets to find such a neat and tidy way of avoiding the messier and more graphic horrors that usually come from fighting a war will now force them to negotiate a peace agreement to put a stop to their conflict before they experience the real thing. Anan acknowledges Kirk's point, and with the help of the (now chastened and much more sensible) ambassador, hails the Vendikarian rulers and begins negotiating for peace.
Safely back on his ship, Kirk calls off the bombardment order. On their way out, they receive word from the ambassador that prospects for reaching an agreement with Vendikar are, so far, looking quite hopeful.
Tropes used in the episode
- Absentee Actor: Sulu doesn't appear in this episode.
- Ac CENT Upon The Wrong Syl LA Ble: Depending on the character, the planet's pronunciation varies between "EE-miniar" and "EH-miniar", so someone must be saying it wrong.
- Aesoptinum: The computer game/disintegration chambers exist to set up a critique of the doctrine of "limited" war.
- Aggressive Negotiations: This comes with a side of Gunboat Diplomacy in this episode with Kirk's General Order 24. As Scotty notes, "A fully-armed phaser bank" is his favorite kind of diplomat, and as Spock says when Fox asks him what he thinks he's doing, he's exercising "a peculiar variety of diplomacy" by blasting the disintegration chambers. Blowing the war computers to kingdom come at the end also definitely qualifies as this kind of diplomacy.
- Artistic License Astronomy:
- "Ass" in Ambassador: Robert Fox is pretty much this until a bit more than half way through the episode, when he picks up a disruptor and becomes something of an Ambadassador.Fox: I've never been a soldier, Mister Spock, but I learn very quickly.
- Batman Gambit: Kirk pulls one off by destroying Anan's computer, suspecting that he would rather talk peace than continue a messier war.
- Bloodless Carnage: How Eminiar and Vendikar arranged to fight their supposedly inevitable Forever War, and how they've managed to keep it up: the only casualties are neatly and cleanly disposed of and no infrastructure is actually damaged, so they don't have to deal with the trauma of casualties and destruction.
- Break the Haughty: Learning that the Eminians don't respect "diplomatic immunity" and almost getting executed before being rescued by Spock has this effect on Fox.
- Cruel to Be Kind: Kirk destroys the computers that are used to prevent all out nuclear war. By making nuclear war possible, they now have a reason to actually end the conflict.
- Distant Finale: So what happened Eminiar VII after Kirk's ultimatum? It's subtle, but a TNG map showed it became a Federation member and hosted a Starbase, and ''DS9's promenade featured "visit scenic Eminiar VII" posters. Apparently common sense won out.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- Spock is referred to as a "Vulcanian" again, as he was in Mudd's Women and Court Martial. This would be the last time the term was used.
- Unless Kirk was just bluffing (as he was admittedly often known to do), the idea that Starfleet would have a "General Order 24" that covers total extermination of all life on a planet (and that this order can be enacted simply by the Captain, on his own say-so, giving a verbal command over a communication link) would be unthinkable in later Star Trek.
- The Federation: While such a group was named in "Arena," this episode formally introduces the United Federation of Planets, the government that the Enterprise serves.
- Fictional Geneva Conventions: The treaty between Eminiar and Vendikar, which supposedly is in place to prevent the destruction of infrastructure and much more cataclysmic warfare. In the end, it's deconstructed and played for brutal horror, because 500 years of executions by disintegration for the sake of maintaining the treaty (bear in mind the "attack" that "destroyed" the Enterprise and all of its crew also took out half a million Eminiars) means that both planets have killed a lot more people for the sake of "peace" than they have in actual bloody conflict and never tried to do something about it because they weren't brave enough to see what would happen if the other guy decided this kind of talking would be taken (or not taken) as a declaration of war.
- Forever War: Vendikar and Eminiar have been "waging war" for 500 years.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum:
- Ambassador Fox, along with his assistant, beaming down to Eminiar 7 while the Enterprise's "screens" were up; in numerous other episodes, it's a plot point that beaming people on or off the ship through the energy shields is basically impossible. (The crew from Deep Space Nine were only able to exploit a vulnerability in the shields to slip through them in "Trials and Tribble-ations" because they had fast-working 24th century transporters.) Nothing more is ever said of these "screens" and whether they're the same as the shields or some modified version of them, however, nor do we ever hear of them again.
- Spock, who usually has to be touching the intended contact with his hands for any sort of telepathic event, mentally dominates a guard standing on the other side of a solid wall several inches thick. While other Vulcans in various Star Trek series were occasionally shown to be able to extend their telepathy beyond their physical grasp, this is the only time one of them was ever shown extending a mind-meld from his hands through a wall as if it were a form of magnetization.
- Then again, this wasn't a mind meld, just projecting a general sense of irritation/suspicion, a "I better go check on them."
- Go Look at the Distraction: Spock tells one of his victims "Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder." The guard tumbles to his ploy... literally.
- Guns Akimbo: Kirk briefly wields two disruptor pistols, but doesn't shoot anyone with them.
- Humans Are Warriors: Well, Human Aliens Are Warriors, but this belief of the Emeniars (and presumably Vendikans) is why they've spent the last five hundred years fake-killing each other rather than actually negotiating a peace.
- Humans Kill Wantonly: This trope Kirk has to avert at the end of the story by telling the humanoid Eminiars that as civilized beings, they surely have enough capacity for self-control to restrain their acknowledged natural heritage of savagery and cut a peace deal with their enemies.
- Ironic Echo: Anan calls Kirk a "barbarian" when he barges in, phaser in hand. Later, when Anan realizes that Kirk is actually on the brink of overturning the whole computer-war system:Anan: What kind of monster are you?
Kirk: I'm a barbarian. You said it yourself.
- Kirk Summation: The way Kirk delivers this Aesop.Kirk: Death. Destruction. Disease. Horror. That's what war is all about! That's what makes it a thing to be avoided!
- Lottery of Doom: The casualties of each "attack" are apparently chosen semi-randomly based on where the "attacks" landed, and these are ordered to step into disintegration chambers within a day of being declared "killed".
- Master Computer: A different example of this trope from the usual kind for the series. While the Eminiars (and presumably Vendikans) have set up the computers to give orders to their civilizations, the computers aren't artificially intelligent; they're just calculating casualties the way they were programed to do. Additionally, Kirk destroys the computers by just shooting them, rather than talking them into destroying themselves with a Logic Bomb.
- A Million Is a Statistic: Part of this episode's Aesop is that adopting this attitude towards war actually helps facilitate it.
- Misapplied Phlebotinum: The Eminians and Vendikans both obviously have access to immense computing power capable of calculating all the complex variables involved in military operations to a staggering degree of accuracy. They use this to engage in simulated strikes with both parties taking "casualties" by a mutually prearranged agreement in order to spare the actual destruction of critical infrastructure that a real shooting war would cause. A simpler solution would have been to simply simulate the entire damned war, then allow the loser to concede without having to inflict any real damage to either people or property.
- Nasty Party: Anon 7 tries to invite the entire crew to one, but Scotty sees right through his ploy. Fox, in contrast, tumbles to it with all the grace and intellect of a pile of bricks.
- Orbital Bombardment: General Order 24, which Kirk orders Scotty to carry out if the Eminian problem isn't solved within two hours. Fortunately, this proves unnecessary to execute in the end, and he calls it off.
- Patrick Stewart Speech: Kirk beats the Trope Namer to the punch and delivers one on behalf of all sentient life, meant to counter Anan's belief that, at heart, all beings are barbarians and savage killers who can't change their violent nature."All right. It's instinctive, but the instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes, knowing that we're not going to kill today."
- Red Shirt: Kirk and Spock have three with them for this mission, but they all manage to make themselves useful, survive the story, and return safe and sound to the ship; partially by beating up some Eminiar Mooks and acquiring their uniforms for themselves.
- Fox's aide gets shot, but it's never said if he's killed or just stunned.
- Redundant Rescue: Spock bursts into the council chambers to save Kirk—to find The Captain holding the entire council at bay with a stolen disruptor. Kirk appreciates the effort nonetheless.Spock: I assumed you needed help. I can see that I am in error.
- Sadistic Choice: A rare example perpetrated by the hero. When Kirk destroys Anan's computer, he forces the warring planets either to find a way to get along or to start preparing for an old-fashioned war, hence destroying the precious order they were so desperate to preserve.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Scotty wisely refuses to follow Fox's tactically stupid orders, despite acknowledging that Fox outranks him.
- This episode is the kind of thing Captain Janeway talked about in the Voyager episode "Flashback" when she said that the TOS crew were "a little slower to invoke the Prime Directive." Kirk, without a second thought, blatantly violates it here, even though it's to make an important point.
- Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: Anan insists that making peace is simply not possible; Kirk is having none of it.
- Starfleet Code for Everything: Code 710 means "Stay the hell away from our planet." Fox, of course, tells Kirk to disregard the warning no matter what the repercussions.
- Stating the Simple Solution: It takes the entire episode, but Kirk eventually asks Anan why they don't just end the war. Anan insists that it's impossible because they're inherently warlike.
- That's an Order!:
- Anan 7 uses a voice duplicator to pose as Kirk and orders Scotty to bring the entire crew down for shore leave. Fortunately, Scotty's not fooled; the computer analysis tells him what he's already figured out.
- Fox then orders Scotty to lower the Deflector Shields and resume normal diplomacy. Scotty tells him to shove it, despite the threat of court-martial.
- Too Dumb to Live: Fox. Had Scotty followed his orders to lower the screens, the Enterprise would have been destroyed. He then beamed down right into the enemy's hands and would surely have been executed if not for Team Spock's Big Damn Heroes moment.
- War Is Hell: Kirk's reason for despising the Eminiars' tidy theoretical war, and the moral of the episode, is that war is supposed to be hellish; that way, people will do their best to avoid it and work to end the conflict quickly (one way or another) whenever they can't.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: All right, maybe the planet's "sonic" disruptors are just some kind of low-frequency spectral weapon of some sort; even so, decibels are a logarithmic unit, so Scotty's assessment that they're firing in terms of "Decibels - 18 to the 12th power" refers to a level of kinetic energy immensely greater than the luminosity of our entire galaxy!