One Trek Mind #60: Trek's Take On Lincoln
“It is a magnificent work of duplication.” So said Spock himself concerning Lee Bergere's representation of President Abraham Lincoln, as drawn from the collective memories and historical records aboard the USS Enterprise.
Daniel Day-Lewis is currently on a grand tour of awards-collecting, getting all sorts of recognition for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. In his version, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg (whoever those two are!) Lincoln is an ends-justify-the-means chess player with a determination to evolve society at whatever cost. He's a raconteur and a kind-hearted man. He also wears a ridiculously ostentatious hat. And, as it is in so many other ways, Star Trek had nailed this down over 40 years earlier!
Star Trek's third season is loaded with land mines. Alas, the antepenultimate episode to air, “The Savage Curtain,” is one of them. I can't lie. It kinda stinks. (Nota bene: “Spock's Brain” does not! Look for a future One Trek Mind column defending this oft-maligned work of tremendous entertainment!) The episode tries to rehash an “Arena”-style battle on a strange planet, but this time as some sort of tag team between the forces of Good and Evil. It doesn't really work – but it isn't for lack of trying.
After an opening that peeks behind the curtain of “just another day on the Enterprise,” Kirk is about to throw in the towel on his current assignment. The planet they are observing is just molten rock with no breathable atmosphere. “There's no intelligent life here,” Bones declares. Sulu gets the order to break orbit, but then… sensors go off. The ship is being probed. And an image appears on the viewscreen that is sure to make Star Trek skeptics snicker.
Abraham Lincoln, seated as though he were in his Washington D.C. monument, is floating in the inky blackness of space. Indeed, I have a wisenheimer friend who doesn't much care for the “jumpsuit-fest,” as she calls it, that is our beloved franchise. “Is that the one where they hang out with Ben Franklin?” whenever I mention any episode.
It's not really Abraham Lincoln, obviously, but a projection from the highly advanced Excalbian rock creatures on the planet's surface. (And something of a prelude of forthcoming holodeck adventures.) Kirk demands that the “being,” whose scans read as human, be treated as though he were actually the savior of the Union. He certainly looks like Honest Abe, and acts the way we expect him, too.
In the transporter room he shows wide-eyed fascination at taped music and politely, but deliberately, urges the security detail to put away their phasers. He's insistent in his position (that he is real, and not a facsimile), but is thoughtful enough to recognize that that is how others see him. (“For an illusion, my opponent carried a considerable punch. Oh, I forgot. You consider me an illusion, too.”)
There's also a bit of business on the bridge that may give modern viewers pause, but in 1969 was absolutely on the right side of progress. Lincoln refers to Uhura as a “charming Negress,” then jumps to apologize for his time period's attitude toward people of color. Uhura (and Kirk) don't miss a beat. That business is so behind them that no offense could possibly be taken.
Soon the meat of the episode is laid out. Kirk, Spock, Lincoln and the Father of Vulcan philosophy, Surak, must play a deadly game of cowboys and Indians opposite projections of Genghis Khan, Kahless the Unforgettable (a character who'll get the second biggest retcon after Zefram Cochrane,) Zora of Tiburon and 21st Century World War III villain Colonel Green. (Notable is how much Colonel Green looks like a space ranger straight out of Tom Paris' Captain Proton holonovels.)
Lincoln and Kirk quickly slip into roles of Commander in Chief and General. Kirk darn near blushes when compared to Ulysses S. Grant, and we get a peek at some of Lincoln's tactical thinking. (Okay, “sneaking around back” isn't exactly genius, but they've got to express these things quickly and efficiently.) What's amazing is how, once we're in the heart of it, you actually do kinda buy that it is Abe Lincoln on the planet's surface.
Lincoln's demise comes with an axe to the back. Not a bullet, mind you, but a weapon thrown by Kahless, who was previously impersonating the voice of Surak. (So, he was an actor just like John Wilkes Booth, if you really want to extend the metaphor.)
According to legend, Mark Lenard was originally offered the role. This would have made his third appearance after the Romulan Commander in “Balance of Terror” and Spock's father Sarek in “Journey to Babel.”
The role ultimately went to Lee Bergere, who would later find great success on TV's Dynasty. He was a journeyman actor, appearing in guest appearances on many shows as well as theater in New York and Los Angeles. He also pushed the envelope for gay rights playing one of the first openly homosexual characters on a television program, the short-lived 1975 situation comedy Hot L Baltimore.
Did Daniel Day-Lewis crib everything for his portrayal of Lincoln from this episode? We can never know for sure. But I say yes. I also say he based There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview on Gul Dukat and prepared for The Boxer by studying the sport of Anbo-jyutsu. Then again, I'm insane. Does Lee Bergere's performance as the 16th US President hold any special meaning for you? Sound off in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.