The Enterprise versus the Space Nazis – 40 years late

More than forty years after it originally aired in 1968, the Star Trek episode Patterns of Force a.k.a. the Space Nazi episode, has finally been broadcast on German TV this weekend.

Patterns of Force was the only Star Trek episode that was omitted both during the original German run in the early 1970s (when only about half of the original episodes were broadcast – the rest, including Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever, were deemed as too violent) as well as during the first complete broadcast in the late 1980s. As for why this episode was never broadcast – well, duh, it’s about Nazis. And pop culture about Nazis, even pop culture involving Nazi analogues being evil, has always been problematic in post WWII Germany and what is and is not deemed acceptable does not always make sense (otherwise that piece of trash known as Inglorious Basterds would never have been in German cinemas and supported by funds of the German film support foundation).

Since ZDF in the infinite wisdom of the public TV stations of the time only broadcast half the series anyway, because the rest was deemed “too brutal” for tender German viewers, it’s not surprising that they would omit Patterns of Force. As for why Sat 1 omitted the episode as well during the first complete German Star Trek broadcast in the late 1980s – I suspect that the Nazi content specifically put them off. What is more, private TV stations like Sat 1 were and to some degree continue to be under extreme scrutiny, because they were allegedly broadcasting “violent American trash” (in truth fairly innocuous 1960s to 1980s shows) in order to attract viewers. So knowing that the anti-private-TV lobby was waiting for a misstep, Sat 1 omitted Patterns of Force because they feared the controversy. Remembering the climate of that time, I can’t even say I blame them.

Case in point: The German tabloid Bild reports about the belated debut of Patterns of Force and predictably tries to manufacture the whole thing into an outrage.

Because it was the only Star Trek episode never broadcast in Germany, Patterns of Force gained something of a mythic status. Undubbed third generation bootleg tapes were passed around among Trekkies curious to finally see the banned episode (though it was never technically banned). A friend of mine, SF fan and occasional Trekkie, had an older brother who was a hardcore Trekkie and who had managed to get hold of a bootleg tape. I never watched it, but my friend did and told me that she had no idea what all the fuss was about, the episode was kind of stupid to be honest.

Patterns of Force eventually appeared in DVD boxsets and was dubbed somewhere alone the way. The episode was apparently also included in a Star Trek rerun on a Pay-TV channel a few years ago, which almost nobody watched, because in a TV-license country like Germany only rabid sport freaks subscribe to Pay-TV, which is why the Pay-TV provider goes bankrupt and changes its name every five years or so.

And this weekend finally, Patterns of Force finally made its free TV debut in Germany, even on a subsidiary of the very station that broadcast the original run of the show almost forty years ago. And since I used to be a Star Trek fan, I of course watched it.

So was all the fuss and the controversy justified? Well, it’s a 1960s Star Trek episode, so the dated gender relations are probably more offensive than anything involving people in Nazi uniforms. Otherwise, it’s one of those Star Trek episodes that look just like Mission Impossible episodes (City on the Edge of Forever is another), shot on the same backlot sets that every Mission Impossible viewer has seen a thousand times, featuring some of the same actors and also reusing the Nazi uniforms left over from some war flick or other.

The plot is that Kirk and Spock beam down to investigate a planet that is shooting at the Enterprise with weapons it shouldn’t have and land among the Space Nazis, just as they landed among 1920s gangsters, ancient Romans and in Tombstone at the time of Wyatt Earp in other episodes of the same era. The Space Nazis are a people called the Ekosians who are in the process of arresting and exterminating their neighbours, a people called the Zeonists – wince. Just in case you still didn’t get the analogy, there are some slow people out there after all, the Zeonists we meet have names like Isac and Abram – double wince.

There’s a bit of fun, as Kirk and Spock appropriate Nazi uniforms to infiltrate the Space Nazis HQ, even though Spock is quite outraged about dressing like a Nazi. The Space Nazis are the least convincing Nazis ever – apparently the Aryan stereotypes were all shooting Mission Impossible that day. After a lot of running around the set, Kirk and Spock and Bones finally track down the Space Nazis’ Hitler surrogate, a Federation historian who decided that a dose of fascism was just what this undercivilized planet needed, since fascism was “the most efficient form of government ever devised”. By this point, we are beginning to worry about the state of historical scholarship in the Federation. The Hitler surrogate did not want to inject a racist element into his Third Reich in space, but his vice leader dethroned, drugged and imprisoned him. Kirk, Spock and Bones read everyone the riot act, the Space Nazis miraculously decide that persecuting Zeonists is not cool and the Enterprise flies off to explore new worlds. In short, it’s a typical 1960s Star Trek episode complete with thinly veiled metaphors and moral lesson. And it’s really not the sort of thing that deserves to remain in the poison cabinet for forty years.

Early in the episode, Kirk and Spock are arrested by the Space Nazis and subjected to a fairly extensive (by 1960s standards) whipping. They also run around bare-chested quite a lot of the time, all of which makes me suspect that the brother of my old friend liked the episode after all, even if the sister didn’t. The whipping scenes and the bare-chest Kirk and Spock scenes are probably the most recognizable part of this episode, because they appear in every second slashy Kirk/Spock fanvid ever. And on the rare occasions that I actually watched a slashy fanvid, I always wondered where on Earth they got the whipping scenes from, because I couldn’t recall any whipping or for that matter any bare-chested Spock scenes in Star Trek.

Well, now I know.

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3 Responses to The Enterprise versus the Space Nazis – 40 years late

  1. Sherwood says:

    Heh! That was a reeeely dumb episode, though one friend adored it for the moment the baddies see Spock’s ears when he pulls his helmet off. Much fanfic was inspired from that moment.

    My guess is, like you say, they had a lot of Nazi uniforms hanging around the costume department, and so that episode probably had a budget of $10.00

    • Cora says:

      I have no doubt that episode inspired a lot of fanfic. With all the whipping and running around bare-chested, it’s slashy as hell. And the look on pseudo-nazi’s face (who really has to be among the least convincing Nazis ever) upon seeing Spock’s face is priceless.

      Paramount must have had a lot of Nazi uniforms in the costume department, since they also kept showing up (sans insignia) in Mission Impossible during the same time period. I don’t know if they made that many WWII films, but then I never watch WWII films.

      Though in general I found Patterns of Force less offensive than most episodes of SF shows featuring random Nazis. I was actually bracing myself for more childhood heroes sprouting dialogue that people like me were evil and needed to be destroyed (because being hated by the Doctor, Indiana Jones and every comic superhero ever obviously wasn’t enough), yet the dialogue was actually fairly restrained. Even the fictional space Nazis were mostly misguided except for the vice-leader who was truly evil.

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