I don't know about you, but I could use a vacation. I had a four-month stay-at-home vacation recently, and at the end of that had three more weeks of it followed by an actual one-week vacation, and I could STILL use a dadgum vacation. We all could. "We are one weary ship," McCoy says to Sulu early in this episode of Star Trek, and Doc, I can relate. We sure the hell are.
Not a favorite episode of mine, to be honest. It's not bad. I mean, don't misunderstand me: I like it, of course I do. It's just not a favorite. "The Corbomite Maneuver," it ain't. No need for it to be, of course. And anyways, let's worry less about what it isn't than about what it is.
What it is is the story of a vessel whose crew has been (presumably) overworked, overstressed, and under-relaxed for the past several months. They are desperately in need of shore leave, and it seems to be the case that Doctor McCoy has made a medical diagnosis to that effect, and has prescribed it for the crew as a whole. We do not point-blank see this happen, but it is implied by that conversation I mentioned between Bones and Sulu. "Just what the doctor ordered, right, Doctor?" the helmsman asks him jovially while they are exploring the planet's surface.
I take this literally. I think McCoy has noticed an uptick in poor performance among the crew, and has decided that what's at fault is a lack of play. It could also be a sort of space-based cabin fever resulting from being cooped up in a tin can for too lengthy a period.
Whether you choose to interpret this as literally being McCoy's diagnosis, let's stop and consider the implications of needing shore leave at all. Here again, we've got evidence of the ways in which Star Trek is grounded in military/naval traditions and terminology. The very presence of "shore" in the phrase "shore leave" obviously implies being on the ocean. So here, we've got an admission: even in a more elevated and civilized future, a crew like this is going to have to contend with a need to step away from their jobs from time to time. Not only that, they are going to have to contend with the need to walk on earth from time to time, even if that earth is not on the actual planet Earth. These, Star Trek is telling us, are basic human needs.
According to Wikipedia, the notion of shore leave also carries with an implication of debauchery and perhaps even illegality among crews turned loose upon the land temporarily. There's a reason why docks where sailors hang out are viewed in culture as disreputable places; those fellows step foot off the boat and aim to blow off some steam, not only in the form of seeking female (or the applicable equivalent) accompaniment of a temporary nature, but also intoxication, brawling, and other forms of release.
I think we have to assume that the average viewer who sat down to watch "Shore Leave" in December of 1966 would have had thoughts like this come to mind. Many of them would have been veterans, and many of them would have served in the Navy, and would perhaps therefore be well familiar with this sort of activity; or, if not with the activity itself, with the stereotype of sailors being prone to that sort of behavior. I suspect that by 1966, it was decades removed from actually being a reliably real thing; but the stereotype remained, I bet. So I feel certain that for contemporary viewers, the expectation was that the crew of the Enterprise were going to be getting up to some debauched hijinks.
What's more, it is likely that the episode was made with this expectation in mind. If you want to read more about how this aspect worked within a late-sixties context, McMolo's writeup about the episode at Dog Star Omnibus does so more capably than I'd manage. Suffice it to say, there's a lot about sex in this episode.
And why not? That's what life is! A big chunk of it, at least. That's never going to change. Evolve, yes; or if not, devolve. But go away? Forget that idea. Roddenberry gets a bad rap for the ways in which he's said to have been constantly wishing to push the boundaries of exploring sexuality in the Star Trek franchise, but it's a very logical desire. The Puritanical idea that there's nothing to explore in sex from a storytelling standpoint is ludicrous. I'm not sure Roddenberry himself was operating from a dispassionate, intellectual stance, of course; I believe his bedrock interests in the matter were likely rather more salacious. Still, he wasn't wrong to insist that that sort of thing would still be around in the future; nor was he wrong, in my opinion, to insist that in a future like this one, people would be more open about it and less repressed.
No, I am not going to spend the rest of this post talking about that aspect of "Shore Leave." But it might come back here and there, so let's keep it in the back of our minds.
I'm going to try to talk about why the episode has even more violence and death in it than sex. And remember, the stereotypical view of carousing sailors on shore leave is that they are prone to violence; so I don't think screenwriter Theodore Sturgeon was wrong to include this aspect. What does this say about that elevated humanity of the future, however?
To me, I think it says that a certain amount of violent aggressiveness is simply in our genetic makeup, and always will be. The fact that this planet was created by and for a different species implies that that species must have been very similar to us, if only in this one regard. This, perhaps, is a byproduct of evolution from savagery to civilization. We must fight our way out of the muck in order to escape it; and whatever land we then claim as our own, we must defend it (perhaps after eliminating those who were upon it when we got there), and must keep defending it. Perhaps the need to retain the potential for violence never goes away at all, at least while we retain any semblance of our essential nature. If that is true, then perhaps the urges which come with that aspect of our nature is like a boiler in the basement of a hotel: the pressure that builds up in it must be safely expunged from time to time, lest we explode.
If this is true -- and I believe it is, but even if I didn't I'd say that I think this episode believes it is, at least within the context of this story -- then it is logical to deduce that for most human beings, a certain amount of violence must be expressed from time to time. Because it's in there, whether we like or not; that was true when we lived in trees and defended ourselves against lions, and it was true when we began building houses, and it was true in 1966, and it is true in 2020, and it will be true in the 23rd century when we are flying around the galaxy in starships. At some points along that timeline, there was no need to purge our violent tendencies; we were still having to actively use them. By the time of starships, that's almost entirely gone; but the urges remain, and so the need to purge them remains.
Why not do so safely, within a controlled environment? Spoiler alert: we've been doing that for centuries already. That's why spectators used to go to gladiatorial arenas and watch dudes cut each other to pieces; their feelings were purged by seeing others do the work for them. Playing violent video games is a modern equivalent; playing sports can be, as well.
That being the case, what should we make of the bloodbath that ensues when a few of the crewmembers of the Enterprise set foot on this amusement planet?
Let's take inventory: