Over the years, President Abraham Lincoln has been used as a pop culture icon, with movies and television shows liberally removing him from his Civil War era and injecting him into present-day scenarios. South Park, Robot Chicken, and most memorably Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure have all used the iconic image of the 16th U.S. President — whose birthday today marks a national holiday — to yield humorous results.
In the third season episode of Star Trek: TOS, The Savage Curtain, a 19th-century President Lincoln is thrust into the 23rd century not for laughs, but to represent a person of good nature and character in history in this “good vs. evil” and the struggle for peace-themed episode.
Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of Starship Enterprise are getting readings of possible carbon-based life forms on a seemingly uninhabitable planet they’re orbiting. The planet’s molten lava-like conditions and poisonous atmosphere make it impossible for a landing crew to beam down to the surface and investigate the readings. Just as Kirk gives the order for the ship to warp out and continue on to the next assignment, Spock picks up a signal that the ship is being scanned by a probe. On the ship’s view screen, a familiar outline appears floating in space, which eventually becomes a person resembling Abraham Lincoln, complete with necktie and stovepipe hat, sitting in an armchair reminiscent of the one in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While the crew is skeptical of the Lincoln figure’s identity, armchair Lincoln clearly believes he is the former U.S. President. “I am Abraham Lincoln,” he proclaims.
The episode focuses are several themes: Kirk’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln; Lincoln’s quest for peace in time of war; good vs. evil and the struggle for survival; and self-sacrifice for the greater good. I talk about this episode in length below, so beware of SPOILERS. You can watch a clip of the scene, which takes place before the opening theme, over at Amazon and you can buy the episode there too for $1.99 (or 12 Pepsi points).
Lincoln (played by Lee Bergere) requests to come aboard the Enterprise and upon arrival via transporter is greeted with Presidential honors by the crew, including ceremonial music (taped, not live) and Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Scotty in full-dress uniforms (with Scotty in a Scottish-themed uniform). Scotty tells McCoy that what he beamed aboard could have been made of living rock, and Kirk ponders whether this figure is an illusion or a reincarnation.
“I cannot conceive it possible that Abraham Lincoln could have actually been reincarnated, but yet … his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humor, everything about him is so right.”
Lincoln invites Kirk and Spock down to the surface with him to a small area of the planet with Earth-like conditions. The two officers know they’re being lured down to the planet for some reason, but don’t know why. Spock states that whatever the purpose, it’s obvious that the life form was made to look and act like the President as a way to titillate Kirk’s curiosity, since Lincoln has always been a hero of his. The life form is also meant to affect Spock, who finds the President “fascinating” and charming.
Once down on the surface, Kirk and Spock realize that their phasers and tricorders did not beam with them, and that all communications to the Enterprise have been cut off. The trio finds out from the powerful rock-like entity Yarnek that they’ve been lured to the planet, called Excalbia, to participate in a battle for survival. Lincoln, Kirk, Spock, and Vulcan founder Surak are to fight Genghis Khan and three other notoriously evil figures from Star Trek history, so that Yarnek and his kind can observe which of the two humanoid philosophies — good and evil — is the stronger.
After the evil figures attack, the sides get into a scuffle, but quickly conclude that Yarnek is the real enemy. Yarnek observes that the good side will not fight without a cause, so he sets the Enterprise to self-destruct in four hours if the good side does not defeat its evil opponents.
In an allusion to the American Civil War, Lincoln tells Kirk, “The war is forced upon us. History repeats itself.” They have no choice now but to fight. Kirk strategizes their attack plan, which Lincoln says reminds him of another man he admires — General Grant (leader of the northern Union army — the “good” side — during the U.S. Civil War).
Surak approaches the evil opponents offering peace, but they capture him to provoke the others to battle. Lincoln comes up with a rescue plan that has them fighting on the same level with “trickery, brutality, finality … we match their evil.” He explains that while he’s typically thought of as a gentle man, he was Commander in Chief during the four bloodiest years of his country’s history, giving orders that sent 100,000 men to their deaths during the Civil War.
There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending.
Both Lincoln and Surak perish in the battle, but ultimately Kirk and Spock win by fighting until their opponents flee. The good side wins out, though the entity still doesn’t see many differences between the two sides. Kirk and Spock are free to return to the Enterprise and all’s well again.
Back aboard the ship, Spock conjectures that the entity was able to scan their minds to create the perfect images of Lincoln and Surak, the two people Kirk and Spock admire, respectively. “They seemed so real,” Kirk says. “I feel I actually met Lincoln.” Kirk says that after seeing Lincoln die again, he feels like he understands what Earth must have gone through to achieve final peace.
Of Lincoln and Surak, Kirks says:
“There’s still so much of their work to be done in the galaxy.”