Workplace romance is hardly ever a good idea. Dealing with the same people day in and day out is tricky enough; throw actual emotion into the mix, and you’re inviting disaster. So you have a couple of drinks at an office mixer, and you and the temp suck face for a while in the break room. All fun and games, but the next thing you know, the temp is hired permanent, and you’re spending your afternoons avoiding eye contact and trying to time your bathroom breaks around staff meetings. Love, or sex, or that weird area between second and third base where there’s a lot of heavy breathing but no one really knows if anything actually gets done—it’s complicated, and it doesn't need further complications.
And if you think the 9-to-5 version is rough, try doing all of that trapped in a giant tin can flying through a billion miles of nothing.
“Dagger Of The Mind” has the Enterprise investigating a psychologist and his potentially shady brain-warping experiments; once again, Kirk finds his way planet-side to put himself in harm’s way, only this time, instead of a trained nurse, he’s accompanied by Dr. Helen Noel, who spends most of her time on-screen trying to contradict Kirk into submission. And yeah, there’s a history there. Nothing more scandalous than some dancing during a staff Christmas party (Noel—during a Christmas party. Does he hit on Maria Samhain come late October?), but when Kirk asks McCoy to provide him with an assistant for his trip, he’s not happy with what he finds waiting on the transporter pad.
The awkward drama that ensues is “Dagger”’s weakest element, mostly because Helen just isn’t likeable or clever enough to serve as a foil for Our James. It’s yet another example of the writers trying to find ways to bring a starship captain back down to Earth, but it falls flat; while it’s easy to relate to having to work with someone you don’t feel comfortable around, Helen and Kirk’s squabbling comes across as too petty and contrived, and they have the same chemistry levels as, say, a couch and a mildly annoyed cat. Apparently, Helen really wanted something more to happen after the party, which would be fine if the lady was ever given a personality beyond that desire. Oh, wait; she’s bossy, and while Kirk is questioning the suspicious Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory, the idiot senator from The Manchurian Candidate), she keeps butting in to disagree with the captain.
The set-up: while on a routine supply run to penal colony on Tantalus V, the Enterprise picks up an unexpected guest. The stowaway manages to take out a number of crew-members before breaking onto the bridge and demanding asylum; one Vulcan neck pinch later, the crazy man is down for the count, and the Enterprise is pulling a U-turn to head back to the planet. Spock does some digging, and finds that their guest, Van Gelder, wasn’t an inmate on Tantalus but a doctor working directly for the head man himself. Given Gelder’s highly unstable state (the poor guy seems to be delivering his lines while getting his junk slow roasted), McCoy’s suspicious, and Kirk decides to take a closer look. Dr. Adams is a pioneer in the field of prisoner rehabilitation, but as anybody knows, the better you look on the surface, the more chances you stand to be rotten underneath.
Enter Helen Noel, and all the banter she brings. The two beam down to the colony—note the matte painting here, swiped from “Where No Man Has Gone Before”—and are warmly greeted by Adams and his staff. Danger signs abound, from the assistant named Lethe (as in the river with the amnesia-inducing water) and the general thuggishness of the locals, as well as the neutralizer booth that Adams claims has been shut down, despite it being in use when Kirk and Helen walk by. Helen defends the good doctor, but Kirk won’t have it, and insists on trying out the neutralizer for himself.
For all his talk about loving the Enterprise, Kirk spends a lot of time trying to get off ship and into the line of fire. Obviously he’s got to be involved with every story; he’s the hero of the show, and heroes don’t sit around waiting for field reports. But there’s something absurd about the lengths he’ll go to, just to ensure he’s in the worst position he can possible be in. He comes down to Tantalus V with just one other person, despite the fact that, with Van Gelder neutralized, the Enterprise is in no danger from any of Dr. Adams’ work. Then he finds the most likely smoking gun in the area and immediately sets the barrel to his temple, just to see if the damn thing has any bullets left. It’s part of what makes the character so much fun, really; beneath all his heroism is an ego so large that he has to stick his nose in everything. If he wasn’t so likeable, he’d be, well, William Shatner, I guess.
The session in the booth confirms Kirk’s worst fears; not only is the neutralizer a hell of a lot more operational than Adams let on, the son of a bitch himself arrives and takes over the controls just when things were getting interesting. The machine works by blanking out a person’s mind, allowing the controller in the next room to implant whatever desire or memories into the empty space. Given what we’ve seen of her so far, it’s not really that surprising that Helen uses this as a way to try and bring her and Kirk closer—but while her actions are relatively innocuous, when Adams arrives with goon in tow, he pushes things to the edge. He tells the brain-drained Kirk that he’s “in love” with Helen. Wackiness, thus, ensues.
Back aboard ship, Spock and McCoy are trying to get proof out of Van Gelder as to just what the hell's going on. Ultimately this proof won’t have much impact on the plot; by the time they know Adams is up to no good, Kirk’s already been taken prisoner and things have moved on to the “mwa-ha-ha” stage. But we do get our very first Vulcan mind meld here, when Spock decides to use a very personal ritual of his race to break through Gelder’s constant crazy talk. Nimoy’s one of the best actors on the show, and he makes what could’ve been a hopelessly goofy sequence fairly effective. The look of despair that crosses his face once he really gets a sense of what Gelder’s going through is convincing, and it also ties in nicely with what we eventually learn about the neutralizer; when the mental slate is wiped clean, there’s a whole lot of emptiness left behind, and that emptiness can break even the strongest will.
Like I said last week, TOS really works best when there’s a strong sense of stakes. Here we’ve got Kirk and this week’s guest star in moderate danger, with the rest of the crew largely out of the action; while the booth itself is a nifty concept, Adams isn't that compelling a villain. The most memorable thing about him is the way he gets his just desserts—he’s stuck in the booth with his invention running and no one at the control panel to feed him new thoughts, so he has to face all that emptiness alone, and it kills him. I like how haunted Kirk looks by the episode’s end, and I wish more time had spent with him struggling against the mind-warping. If “Dagger” had done a better job tying together his experience with Van Gelder’s and Adams’, this could’ve been more memorable. As is, it's got a handful of excellent moments (the mind-meld, that damn booth) that don't fit as well as they should.
After spending the last few episodes in the company of humans (or at least people who used to be human, or look and act exactly like a human would), it's nice to get some good, old-fashioned alien action in. "The Corbomite Maneuver" has our heroes dealing with a threat that surpasses them on nearly every level; a force whose motives are a mystery, and whose hostility is immediate and decisive. This is TOS at its best—gripping, well-paced, and thematically coherent. Plus it's got a young Clint Howard, so what's not to like?
During a routine survey mission, the Enterprise comes across an unknown object blocking the way ahead. While Helmsman Bailey wigs out (hey look, a brand new guy on helm! I wonder if that will be important later on…), Spock and Sulu do their best to break away from turns out to be a giant, glowing cube, to no avail. Kirk gets interrupted during a check-up with McCoy—he's sweaty and shirtless, so yowza, I guess—but even he can't get free immediately. Discussion ensues; I always like seeing the whole group get together when some problem comes up, as there's something wonderfully rational about coming across a radioactive space-thingy and immediately sitting down with your co-workers for a nice chat. (The rationality is hurt somewhat by the fact there are no women involved in the discussion; here in the future, we welcome every race, color, or creed, and the ladies will bring y'all coffee!)
Everybody reacts to the current crisis as professionally as one would expect, except for poor old Bailey, who has come down with a serious case of the freak-outs. While Bailey sweats, Kirk re-news efforts to escape the cube—the thing closes in on the ship emitting a deadly radiation, ultimately forcing Kirk to bust out the phasers and blow it away. Unhappy with their response time during the crisis, the captain sets the crew to running emergency drills, while he settles in for a talk with McCoy, discussing the well-being of the men (McCoy is concerned about Mr. Freak-Out, of course), and the tragedy of having the apparently smoking hot Rand as a Yeoman. Yeah, it's so hard not to sexually harass someone you're attracted to, y'know?
But we're not out of the woods yet. There's another, much, much, much bigger problem ahead; a giant orb made entirely of glowing bulbs that measures roughly a mile in diameter. Apparently, that "cube" that got blown up has a daddy, and Daddy is pissed.
"Corbomite" is one of the highpoints of the first season (and the show as a whole) for a number of reasons. The threat is a memorable one, as it's arguably the first time the show actually tried to exploit the blank check that limitless space and alien life provides. While the crude effects work doesn't always do the idea justice, conceptually, a mile-wide ship makes for an arresting visual; and what makes it even better is how well that visual dovetails with the episode's central argument. This is a smart script (by Jerry Sohl), giving us the problem that's been with us since the first episode—namely, the terror of the unknown—and then providing us with what at first seems to be a completely justification of that terror. As Helmsman Bailey gets more and more nervous, it's hard to fault him his fear; which makes the ultimate resolution of the storyline all the more satisfying.
The new, big-ass ship declares itself the Fesarius of the "First Federation" (?!), and declares war on the Enterprise—the cube they destroyed was a warning buoy, and firing phasers on it was an unforgivable act of violence. Kirk tries to explain, but the other ship isn't buying; Spock manages to get a visual on the captain, Balok, and he is a not a happy looking dude. ("Balok"'s frozen face appears during the end credits of every episode, and it always used to freak me out as a kid. What's cool is how fake it looks; the visual Spock generates is murky enough to keep it ambiguous, but I can imagine a clever first-time viewer seeing the puppet and thinking its phoniness was just part of the show's usual so-so effects work.) Despite Kirk's best efforts, the sentence is laid down; the Enterprise will be destroyed, and there isn't a damn thing anybody can do about it.
Or is there? One of the big problems of sci-fi stories is coming up with problem solutions that don't revolve around magic-bullets. When your characters are working with a technology that doesn't actually exist in the real world, there's always the temptation to make up new technology whenever the need arises. Backed into a corner? Reverse the polarity! Everyone dead except for your main character? Flip the Romero/West switch! Lost viewers sick of the lazy-ass writing that can't be bothered to follow consistent rules? Reverse the—um—crap.
Star Trek is no stranger to this sort of thing, but even before it was a cliché, "Corbomite" turns the concept on its ear. As the clock counts down to destruction, Spock tells Kirk that he can see no logical alternative to death; as in chess, when one player is over-matched, the game is over. But Kirk, clever bastard that he is, changes the game (shades of the Kobayashi Maru here)—it's not chess, it's poker, and even if they can't come up with some magic tech to make the bad Balok go away, Balok doesn't know that. So, with the lives of over four hundred men and women and his beloved ship at stake, Kirk pulls a bluff. He tells the freaky alien that the Enterprise has a substance aboard known as corbomite. It's lethally destructive to any force that dares attack the ship. Corbomite is a standard addition to all Starfleet vessels, and since its initial inception, it's never, ever failed.
How stone cold is that shit? Oh sure, as lies go, corbomite is hilariously convenient, but as a bluff, it's crudely effective; just as our heroes can't be sure of the scope of Balok's abilities, he himself can't know everything there is to know about them. And crude or not, it's incredibly satisfying to see Kirk give his speech and then, when Balok demands proof, immediately cut communications short. The Enterprise and her crew spend a good chunk of their time getting dangled around like cat-toys in the paws of frustratingly omnipotent felines; it's nice to see them get the upper hand, and even nicer that they do it through wit alone.
There's more shenanigans to follow, but really, once Kirk manages to out-will the commander of the opposing ship, the battle is basically over. There's one final twist; after finally breaking free of the Fesarius' hold, Kirk, McCoy, and Bailey beam aboard—only to find that what we thought was "Balok" really was a puppet after all, and the actual creature is a bald-headed kid with a booming voice and freaky laugh. It's a swell metaphor for how fear of the unknown can be more dangerous than the unknown itself, but it's a little unintentionally creepy, too. Howard is freaky looking, and his request for a companion off the Enterprise—and Bailey's immediate acceptance of that request—makes you wonder how weird things are going to be once Kirk and the others make their exit. ("Hey, so what are all these knives for, anyway? And why do you keep telling me I have great skin?")
"Corbomite" is fun for all sorts of reasons, but the one that stays with you the longest is the optimism. Throughout the episode, Kirk tries to explain to Bailey (and us) why he refuses to give up hope; any intelligent life capable of space-travel, he says, has to be smart enough for peace. There's something almost hopelessly naïve about that (especially given the number of war-faring races we'll eventually stumble across), but it's worth believing in, even if it doesn't always prove to be true.
"Dagger Of The Mind": B
"The Corbomite Maneuver": A
--I love the chest-level duct work that runs through Adams' facility. I also dug the way Adams and his goons locked Kirk and Helen up, and then immediately forgot they'd captured Helen once she made her escape.
--Starfleet really isn't that effective a regulatory body, is it?
--Spock: "Has it occurred to you that there is a certain… inefficiency in constantly questioning me on things you've already made up your mind about?"
Kirk: "It gives me emotional security."
--Kirk to Bailey: “The face of the unknown. I think I owe you a look at it.” Good dialogue, great pick-up line.
--Next week, parts 1 and 2 of "The Menagerie."