Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "Obsession" / "The Wolf In The Fold"

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James T. Kirk is obsessed. How do we know he's obsessed? Well, he has a persistent and unflagging commitment to an idea that may not be entirely worthy of such a commitment. (It's an evil mist. Quick, to the de-humidifier!) McCoy and Spock are both helpful in mentioning the problems with this; McCoy, in fact uses the very word. As does Kirk. And hey, it's even the title of the episode, so if you ever experience a moment of confusion—is Kirk irritated? Nauseous? Infatuated?—simply check the episode guide on the appropriate season, and you'll find the answer staring you in the face: "Obsession." This one is for the cheap (non-jewelry rattling) seats.

It may not be the subtlest episode in the show's history, but "Obsession" does manage to give us a slightly more complex take on James T. than we're used to, as well as handing down some decent back story, a creepy threat, and a dollop of ambiguity. Actually, it's probably less than a dollop; while the first half of the ep flirts with presenting Kirk as something less than the perfect hero, by the end, it finds a way to largely excuse his actions, even the ones that got crewmen killed. He learns his lesson, and the Enterprise saves the universe one more time from a destruction it wasn't even aware it was in danger from. (You ever wonder if people back on Earth ever read over Starfleet logs and just freak the fuck out? "Um, hey, I don't mean to be a bother, but.. what the hell is a 'doomsday machine'? And it says here that some doctor went back in time and destroyed all life as we know it, but it's okay because a couple other guys followed him and fixed everything, but they had to kill some girl. Wait, I'm sorry—they had to let her die. Okay, is there any way we could stop these guys from leaving their ships?")

Another planet, another scientific survey—this time, Spock, Kirk, and a few red-shirts are investigating Argus X's tritanium deposits. (Side note: it's generally used either as a MacGuffin or background detail, but I love the references to Starfleet's insatiable quest for minerals. It makes good sense; one of the reasons we're going to have to leave this planet eventually is that we're just going to run out of natural resources, no matter how politely we use them. Star ships must take an incredible amount of material to construct and fuel, not to mention colonizing new worlds, so it's a nice nod to realism that the Enterprise, in addition to its other duties, is always on the hunt for good rocks.) A sweet odor fills the air, like honey, and Kirk, apparently knowing more than he initially lets on, sends the red-shirts to investigate. They're attacked and killed by a sparkling cloud, their bodies drained of red corpuscles… and Kirk isn't really surprised at all.

There's nothing quite like a good Ahab complex to fill an hour—it's a way to make a lead character do unlikable things for sympathetic reasons ("The line must be drawn here!"), and it gives a writer a clear through line to build an episode around. Plus, it's easy to relate to; most of us don't own whaling ships (sigh), but we can at least understand what it's like to be so drawn to a thing that it drives every other concern from your mind. Kirk's need to defeat the Fog isn't developed as smoothly as it might have been, and the obstacle that's placed in his path (yet another ship-to-ship rendezvous; thankfully, no administrators are involved) is more than a little contrived, but the drama inherent in the basic conflict still rings true. What happens when the man responsible for the Enterprise, and everyone aboard her, suddenly loses his perspective?

Apart from a few more red-shirts getting drained, not much. (Well, the vaccines they're supposed to deliver are supposedly perishable—a trope they've used before—so maybe we get a couple of old sick people dying, too.) It helps that Kirk's got a decent motivation for his, ahem, you know, what's the word—fixation. Eleven years ago, he spent his first duty after graduating from Starfleet aboard a ship named the USS Farragut. Its captain, a man named Garrovick, taught Kirk a lot, so Kirk was understandably dismayed when a gaseous cloud (just like the cloud we saw on Argus!) killed Garrovick and a bunch of others. Worse, Kirk had an opportunity to shoot the cloud with his phaser, hesitated, and now blames himself for the deaths. It's not going to happen again, no matter what, and Kirk doesn't care how many have to die to make sure the cloud dissipates. Permanently.

"Obsession" has its flaws. Having an ensign repeat Kirk's "mistake," leading to more deaths and Kirk's over-reaction, is an unimaginative but decent way to show how seriously Kirk's head is mucked up, but making that ensign another Garrovick—the son of the captain Kirk so revered, in fact—is really pointless. It's a mistake we've seen before; taking a reasonable conflict and then screwing it up by trying to heighten the stakes in an unreasonable way. We've never seen Garrovick before, we'll never see him again, so why try and make him more important than he needs to be?

There's also the way the second half tries to mitigate Kirk's actions by making the cloud into more and more of a threat. Initially, the oddness of the situation makes Jim's need to find a solution appear unhealthy; the Death Fog seems restricted to the planet, so sending more bodies down to get murdered is hard to justify. Plus, contrived or not, there's the fact that definite lives hang in the balance when it comes to the vaccines. Kirk actually says he's willing to let people die to get the job done, and that makes him come off as a dick. That's a good thing. James T. is generally shown in such a consistently perfect light that having him behave like a regular, mistake-prone human is a nice change of pace.

But then it compromises by having the honey cloud ('ware the farts of Pooh) not just the cloud responsible for the deaths on the Farragut, but other deaths as well, capable of interstellar travel at incredible speeds (Warp 8! It's a fog that can hit warp 8!), and, near the end of the episode, just getting ready to reproduce itself a thousand fold. (Are there other clouds like this in the universe? Is this one an industrial accident of some kind?) No matter how many people lose out on the vaccines, Kirk saved a lot more lives by sticking to his guns. Obsessions are less dramatically compelling when they're wholly justified; the biggest lesson that Kirk learns here is that, no, it wasn't his fault that most of the Farragut crew died. So not only is his current mistake mitigated (his biggest crime is being a dick to Ensign Garrovick), his decade old mistake is dropped as well. I bet if he reached into his pocket, the bastard would've pulled out a peanut butter cup.

Plus, the Fog (where are the leper pirates, I ask you? I demand leper pirates!) is never really adequately explained. That wouldn't be a problem normally—I don't mind mysterious threats that stay mysterious—but when Kirk starts making wild assumptions about the thing's life cycle in the final act, and those assumptions are proven correct, it makes you look more harshly at the way nothing we see makes much sense when its put together.

I did like how the cloud appeared behind the people looking for it on the planet both times. Sure, you take one look and think "Fog machine behind the fake rocks," but if you see past that, it's a spooky, understated visual. We also get another Spock and McCoy chat, which are always a treat, with the two of them ultimately teaming up to try and talk Kirk back from the precipice. Kirk's final answer to the problem—using Ensign Garrovick and himself to lure the creature to an anti-matter bomb—is suitably ridiculous and the tension is well played. One of my biggest problems with season 2 so far has been a certain weakness in the writing, mainly in the way that premises aren't paying off as solidly as they should. "Obsession" is a perfect example of this; it's got a strong idea, but it gets sloppy in the details.

"Wolf In The Fold" has its own strong idea; but what's so weird is the way that idea doesn't actually surface till the last ten minutes of the episode. The script by Robert Bloch has some of Bloch's trademarks (there's a clunky mystery, Jack the Ripper makes an appearance, and women are treated like a completely different species)(even more so than usual, I mean), but Bloch generally had a strong sense of story; this one is all over the place. In some ways, that makes it more interesting to watch than the fairly straight-line "Obsession," but interesting or not, it isn't very good.

Before the episode even gets going, we have shit happening, although we only hear about it in a few lines of dialogue between Kirk and McCoy. There was this explosion that gave Scotty a serious bump on the head, leading to a concussion; so he's been down in the dumps lately. Even worse, the explosion was caused by a woman (McCoy just throws that one out there, and nobody bothers to explain it. Was there a woman in Engineering who messed up? Did a jilted ex throw a grenade?), so Scotty is supposed to have issues with women in general because of it. Ah, the clean and insightful grasp of psychology that this series is so well known for.

Only, Scotty doesn't seem all that woman-hating. He leers as much as anybody when Kirk and McCoy take him to see a belly dancer on Argelius, the pleasure planet, and is utterly delighted when Kirk has the belly dancer drop by the table for a chat. He starts in about how awesome fog is, and the woman acts like she's really into it, which makes you wonder if maybe a little money didn't change hands when Kirk was talking to her earlier. Scotty and the rejected Bond girl go for a walk, Kirk and McCoy are all set to go get laid or something (it's hard to tell—they're excited to go to this place "where the women-" but they're so excited that they can't be bothered to complete a damn sentence, so maybe there's a cribbage tournament going on somewhere), when a woman screams in the (incredibly foggy) night. The belly dancer is dead, from multiple stab wounds, and Scotty is cowering nearby, knife in hand, with no memory of what just happened.

A set-up like that can hook you, but it has one big flaw: nobody is going to think that Scotty is the killer. The best way to handle that is to acknowledge it immediately and make the episode about clearing Scotty's name, and not about whether he could've gone all kill crazy. "Wolf" sort of does that, but we waste far too much time with Kirk and McCoy discussing Scotty's concussion and how that could've affected his actions. I really don't think a concussion could make you stab somebody multiple times, or kill two other people just because they were within knife range. Maybe if the whole "a woman caused the explosion" thread had exposed something much darker and nastier in Scotty's persona, there might have been doubt here, but as is, it's pretty pointless.

Scotty is handed over to the authorities, a weaselly dude named Hengist (John Fiedler, aka, the voice of Piglet) and Jaris, the local prefect. (Apologies if I ever type "Jarvis." This episode would've been so much more awesome if Thor and the Hulk had a battle in the middle of it.) Argelius is a peaceful society, so everybody's real shocked about the murder; "The law of Argelius is love," which I gotta call bullshit on, because I don't think love would be much help in resolving four way intersections or property disputes. I also don't believe that a planet based on hedonism—a planet that happens to be an important port for the Federation—could be without completely violent crime. It would be sweet to believe that, left to their own devices, drunken horny idiots would never cause anyone any problems, but come on.

Things proceed as you would expect. Scotty has no memory, women keep dying around him, Kirk and McCoy get more and more worried while Hengist does the beauracrat thing and Jaris tries to be reasonable. Kirk argues that there's equipment on the Enterprise that could clear Scotty's name, but the whole thing has to be resolved under Argelian law; because of the planet's status in the Federation, some diplomacy is necessary, so they've got to play along. I'll buy that. But in waiting for the next shoe to drop, I got bored. The situation doesn't really change until Jaris's wife has a seance or whatever (it's like the Vulcan mind meld, only with incense), and she learns that there's an evil presence in the room named Beratis Kesla Redjac. Then she gets stabbed before she can give any real answers.

There's a hilarious scene afterwards with Kirk, McCoy, and Hengist chatting about the situation, while Jaris mourns over his wife in the background and everybody ignores him. Whatever you may say about Scotty's feelings towards women, at least he seems visibly upset by the situation. You half expect some big twist at the end that reveals the whole thing was a mind game to get Scotty to start feeling so bad about getting exploded on. But one of the few good things about "Wolf" is that the ending manages to outdo even that. It's like Bloch wrote the first couple acts, went out for some drinks, and came back six months later and finished the script without bothering to reread what he'd already got down.

Everybody winds up back on the Enterprise, so we can have another courtroom/interrogation scene in which we learn about the magic powers of computers to tell truths from lies. (There's also this thing called a psychic-tricorder. It's fun watching early sci-fi shows, because it all comes down to what Dr. Spaceman once said: "Science is whatever we want it to be.") There's more talking, a couple of red-herrings are introduced—the dead belly-dancer had an ex-fiance who got jealous, and a father, both of whom were around the night she was killed. I like the idea that on Argelius, jealousy is a horrible, horrible thing, but you could dump both these guys from the episode and not lose anything from the story.

All the questioning doesn't really solve the problem. Scotty is cleared, but there are still a bunch of dead women lying around. So Spock asks the computer about "Redjac," and that's when things get crazy. It turns out the killer is Jack the Ripper. Who is apparently this alien creature called a mellitus that can possess people and lives off of fear. It's been traveling the galaxy on a killing spree for centuries, and it landed on Argelius because everybody was so happy, and ripe for gutting. Scotty just had one of the crappiest cases of wrong place, wrong time in history.

It gets crazier. Kirk figures out that Hengist has a connection to the entity, and when Hengist tries to escape, Kirk punches him out. He was dead all along, possessed by the creature—which now climbs into the Enterprise computer.

See, that's what the episode should've focused on. With only ten minutes left, we finally had something to give a damn about. Sure, the Enterprise computer's been screwed with before, but hearing a disembodied voice screaming for your death is tres spooky; as is the vision of hell (or colored mist) we get in the computer display screens. Scotty's murder trial eats up two thirds of the episode and basically has nothing to do with anything. He doesn't help defeat the monster in the end, we never think for a minute that the charges will stick, and the solution to the mystery is so utterly out of left field that it could've had any other kind of build up and made about as much sense.

There are some clever bits that come out of dealing with a possessed ship. Kirk has the crew injected with a happy drug that makes everybody immune to fear, and Spock manages to drive the ghost out of the machine by setting the computer to calculate pi "to the last digit." That forces the thing back into Hengist (eventually), and Kirk and the others bring the poor dead sap to the transporter room where they beam him into space at the "widest possible dispersion." Which is bad-ass, definitely.

Too bad the rest of "Wolf" is such a slog. I like surprises, and I like it when a show tries to shake things up a bit, but this is not really a good example of either of those things. Too much time is wasted on a perfunctory and lazy premise, with a flurry of action at the end that serves mostly to irritate the viewer instead of reward them for their patience. Viewed intellectually, it's a fascinating example of what happens when a filmed script just hasn't had enough drafts (and there is something refreshing about the clunkiness here; most modern bad TV is just thuddingly mediocre, not actively insane), but as an actual episode, it's a drag.

"Obsession": B
"Wolf In The Fold": C+

Stray Observations:

  • The dangers of shooting out of order—red-shirt Rizzo, who gets a few lines and dies in "Obsession," pops up as a transporter tech in supposedly later "Wolf In The Fold."
  • McCoy to Kirk: "You know the greatest monster of them all, Jim? Guilt." Really? Worse than Hitler? Or a vampire? Or some kind of vampire-based Hitler?
  • Unintentional resonance: McCoy bitches about the transporter "spreading man's molecules all over the universe" in "Obsession," and in "Wolf In The Fold," they… spread a man's molecules all over the universe.
  • Next week: "The Trouble With Tribbles" and "The Gamesters of Triskelion."