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Star Trek: "The Apple" / "The Doomsday Machine"

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I've got a friend—yeah, I'm as surprised as you—and she absolutely hates "The Apple." She brings it up every time we talk about Star Trek. Sitting down to re-watch the episode, I could hear her ripping it apart in my head (it's okay, I'm medicated), and it's hard to argue against her main point: what business does Kirk have to expel the innocents from a veritable Eden? More than anything we've seen so far, here is confirmation that our Captain is a man with a mission, and that mission isn't just to explore and take notes. He's an old-fashioned kind of hero: he assesses a situation, decides what needs to be changed, and then by god, he pushes up his sleeves and changes it. It's a philosophy as noble as it is arrogant, and it's impossible to imagine the same story being told the same way today. At the very least, we've learned the dangers of trying to make the rest of the world into what we think it should be.

I think my friend is being just a little hard on "The Apple," though, which is more ambiguous than I remembered. Kirk doesn't make his decision without some internal debate (as opposed to McCoy, who's as reactionary as ever), and when he does finally Take Steps, a large part of his decision is motivated by a need to save the Enterprise and the 400 men and women still aboard. "Apple" is at least interested in discussing the situation, even if it does close on a note that basically renders those discussions moot. So give it some points for trying, and for a decent hook; and then maybe take away some of those points for actually having a scene where two infantile grown-ups discover the magic that is kiss. (As in face-sucking. This would've been a really different episode if it had gone the Gene Simmons route.)

Standard set-up: the Enterprise is checking out an unexplored (by Starfleet) planet, and Kirk's down on the surface with McCoy, Chekov, Spock, the latest hottie Yeoman, and the usual assortment of red-shirts. (And man, if you ever wanted to show somebody the ep that made that whole "red-shirts always get killed" joke work, look no further.) Everybody marvels at how idyllic the planet is, with its 76 degree temperature, fertile soil, and climate that remains consistent from pole to pole; this is an implied awesomeness, as the fake plants and rocks are no more impressive than usual, and the red sky overhead (so are sailors delighting and taking warning?) doesn't seem all that welcoming.

It could be the sky is a message that Kirk and the others should've heeded quicker than they do, because our first red-shirt gets taken out by dart-firing plant. Further exploration yields explosive rocks ("Fragile, good cleavage," says Spock; sounds like the perfect personals ad, am I right fellas?), and clouds that toast another red-shirt with lightning. Spock gets himself darted to save Kirk's life, but because of his Vulcan physiology, he survives long enough to get a treatment from McCoy. Lucky for him, too, since when Kirk tries to beam everybody back aboard the Enterprise, Scotty discovers that the transporters are kerfucked; there's an energy source down on the planet that's screwing up the anti-matter pods on the ship, which leaves Kirk and his landing party temporarily stranded.

But somebody said something about a village, right? The energy source that's screwing with the Enterprise is located right next to a bunch of huts, which one of our red-shirts discovers. He gets blowed up real good on his way back to Kirk, which drives Kirk to finally take action against the mysterious person who's been following them around for the better part of an hour. With Spock and Chekov on distraction duty (given Spock's strength, I'd be letting him take the assault missions, but I guess that's why I'm not the captain), Kirk gets the drop on a swhite haired man with red skin. One punch later, and white-hair is crying. He doesn't understand what's happened.

Our heroes quickly discover that white-hair (Akuta) and his people are a childlike race who spend their days feeding their machine-god Vaal and the rest of the time, I dunno, tanning and not having sex. (This last bit shocks Kirk and the rest the most; it's funny how the blonde Yeoman is the one who keeps bringing it up. I guess women only have one thing on their minds, eh?) McCoy's medical scan reveals that none of the Adams and Eves are aging, and a few awkwardly placed questions—ah, the sixties, the era of free love when nobody ever used the word sex on TV—reveal that none of them know how to mate. There's some theorizing as to what happens if an Adam or Eve were to die by accident, but the question is never explicitly resolved. Nor do we ever understand how any of this came to be; Vaal never communicates, beyond his eyes lighting up, and none of the locals are bright enough to have memories.

McCoy is immediately outraged by the whole set up. The humanoids don't make their own decisions, they don't advance, they don't evolve; McCoy considers this a form of slavery, and every living creature has the right to be free. Spock isn't so sure. The system seems one of simple back and forth. The natives provide Vaal with food, and it makes sure they live forever, so long as they don't screw around or anything. An eternity of peace, relaxation, and geometric face painting? (Oh, and really cool antennae stuck out behind your ears.) Sounds perfect.

My friend is firmly on Spock's side in the debate, and normally, I would be too; but it's a little harder to judge here, since Vaal's insistence that none of his worshippers get past home plate on the field of sexual advancement makes the arrangement harder to defend. A couple of innocents catch Chekov and the Yeoman canoodling, and decide they want to try it for themselves. (Good thing they didn't taking anything else Chekov did to heart; the guy makes evil universe Sulu look like Cary Grant.) They immediately get lectured, and Vaal gets pissed off—for what? Apart from making sure we follow the Biblical implications, there are no attempts to really understand why Vaal doesn't want the idiots mating.

So the sex stuff is odd. But what really makes it difficult to side against Kirk is that the Enterprise is in direct danger from Vaal. Destroying the computer is the only way to save the ship—and as always, that's Kirk's main goal. (More so than usual, even; he does a lot of soul-searching about how his mistakes led to the deaths of the red-shirts.) Besides, once Vaal realizes that the Enterprise folks are a bad influence, he orders the Adams to kill the landing party—it's not like everybody was holding hands and singing and Kirk just kicked dirt in their faces.

The biggest issue here is that everyone would probably've been better off if our heroes had never beamed down. The red-shirts would still be alive, and the immortals would still be immortal. Sure, they now get to create culture and farm crops and have lots of hot passionate jungle loving, but from what we've seen, this is not a bright race. The place they live in is literally filled with death traps, and even if Vaal's death gets rid of the killer plants and lightning bolts (I can't imagine it affecting the exploding rocks, but who knows), the now-very-mortals have to figure out everything the hard way. Hell, we don't even know if Vaal was the reason the climate was so temperate; how could these morons survive an actual winter?

Kirk's biggest crime is trying to free a society without worriyng about what happens once they're free; which is a way too excellent metaphor for American foreign policy for me to be comfortable with, really. McCoy, Spock, and James T. have their usual post-adventure ribbing session, where Spock points out the Biblical connection, and Kirk takes mock offense at being compared to Satan.  I got news for you, Kirk. Satan just tempted Eve. He didn't force the fruit down her throat. (I've always preferred the interpretation of the First Couple's expulsion from Paradise as being a necessary thing—free will and all. So that makes Kirk look a little better, but I still wouldn't be surprised if everybody on the planet wound up dead in a year.)

Monomania is a common affliction in Starfleet; Kirk may have a touch of it in his do-gooding ways, and we've also seen asshole ambassadors and bureaucrats who refuse to listen to reason. Meet Matt Decker, captain of the Constellation. He's got—issues. And as well-motivated as those issues may be, they drive him to put the Enterprise at risk, strand Kirk in a near dead ship, and, perhaps worst of all, repeatedly ignore Spock's attempts to reason with him. Ships and obssessives go together like chocolate and rain; it's just too bad that this time, Kirk and everyone else is standing in the way of Space Ahab.

We all joke about how often red-shirts die, but I'm starting to wonder if just being a solar system isn't a dangerous enough job—a bunch more are wiped out in "The Doomsday Machine," and nobody bats an eye. It's probably safe to assume that's because these particular systems weren't inhabited; either that, or the Enterprise crew is hella callous, because they're a lot more concerned about the fate of the Constellation, floating dead in the vacuum with some obvious battle damage. After being unable to get in touch with anyone on the ship via hailing, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty beam aboard. The place is a wreck, the engines are largely dead, the phaser banks spent; and there's nobody aboard. No warm bodies, no cold ones, just debris.

Well, okay, there's the one guy. Commodore Matt Decker is alive, but he isn't too happy about it. Once McCoy gets him talking, we learn why: there's a giant thing out there, moving through space and destroying planets. The Constellation came across it while doing a routine survey, and were unable to get a message back to Starfleet due to subspace interference. So they tried to attack head on, to no avail. The ship barely holding on, Decker beamed his entire crew down to the nearest planet, third from the sun—y'know, the one that isn't actually there anymore. When the thing attacked, he had to listen to his people die, because the transporters stopped worked, and there was no place for anyone to go.

"Doomsday" is very strong stuff; the threat level is constant, and even when the tension building tricks are obvious (like the Enterprise's transporter woes in the last ten minutes), they work very well. Equally important is the development of Decker's character. We see that he's distraught, we find out exactly why he's distraught, and once he gets aboard the Enterprise and takes command away from Spock, we understand exactly why he does what he does. Unlike the earlier jag offs who've thrown their weight around, this is a guy who's been through what has to be the absolute worst situation for a captain to go through, and you never completely lose sympathy for him even when he starts going off the rails. Hell, I can't imagine Kirk doing much better were their positions reversed.

The episode's few weak moments come when Kirk and Spock try to explain the giant worm tail of death thing. Spock confirms what Decker has told them, as well as pointing out that the thing is headed towards the populous region of their home galaxy (much like in "The Changeling," this is an unnecessary attempt to bring the threat home; it's raised once, and then never mentioned again), and Kirk goes into this long speculative speech about "doomsday machines" that were created largely as a way to prevent destruction—weapons whose incredible power made their use almost unthinkable. It's not a bad theory, but it isn't based on anything beyond vague speculation, and it's unny how Kirk has to be the one to come up with it. Makes you wonder if all those rumors of Shatner counting lines were true.

But we have our threat, the Doomsday Machine, and once Decker beams aboard the Enterprise, we have our danger; because while Kirk is stuck on the Constellation trying (with Scotty's help) to get the engines running, Decker is determined to get another crack at the thing that killed his crew. "My mistake before was that we didn't get close enough," he tells Spock and the bridge crew, which, as comforting "I have a plan" lines go, is about on level with "The lion will back down if I just slap it hard enough." The DM (it's not Dungeon Master. I know, it's hard to read that otherwise, but please, try—for me?) is headed toward the Rigel colony, so there are more lives at risk; but as Spock points out, the Enterprise doesn't have the weapon power to successfully fight back. The priority should be to get Kirk, Scotty and the others on the Constellation back on board and then alert Starfleet to the danger.

Decker's having none of that; he seizes control of the Enterprise through the rule book, the one way that would keep Spock from fighting back, despite McCoy's fervent wishes to the contrary. The first attempt on the DM goes poorly, but Decker still won't back down. Kirk, having finally got the view screen on the Constellation running, has to watch in horror as his ship is nearly destroyed. When the comm. officer (who isn't Uhura for once) finally manages to get through to the Constellation, Kirk orders Spock to take back command. There's an excellent exchange between Decker and Spock—"Vulcans never bluff."—but Decker stands down. Even that won't stop him, though, because while Spock is swinging the ship back to pick up the real captain, Decker steals a shuttlecraft and flies right down the DM's gullet.

One of the things I've always wondered about Star Trek is why someone as clearly capable as Spock never rose to the captain's chair, and in an odd way, "The Doomsday Machine" gives us a reason. Spock's arguments against Decker are logical and undeniable; Decker's actions are risky to the point of the madness, and his need to expurgate his guilty clearly clouds his judgment. But if Decker hadn't taken command, and if he hadn't finally suicided in a last ditch attempt to kill his white whale, Kirk would never have come up with a plan to destroy the machine. Kirk's plan is also a little on the crazy side—he's going to fly the Constellation into the DM, blowing up the engines and beaming out at the last possible second—but it works, saving millions of lives. In order to be captain, you need that extra edge of intuition and chutzpah which Spock, with all his rationality, doesn't have.

But that's really incidental. "Machine" is terrific; Sol Kaplan's music matches the actors' intensity, and as silly as it kind of looks, I actually dug the Machine itself. The Moby Dick parallels aren't overdone, and the fact the we never find out what the DM is or where it came from works to the episode's advantage. "The Apple"'s lack of backstory reduces the ep to a somewhat tedious allegory, but in "Machine," the few facts work to make the situation more plausible. After all, as we've seen time and again, space is big. Really, really big. And while it's pointless to fear the unknown, a certain amount of caution is advisable. Who knows what could be lurking in all that darkness?

"The Apple": B-
"The Doomsday Machine": A

Stray Observations:

  • Say what you want about the Doomsday Machine, it looks a lot better than Fantastic Four 2: Lower Your Expectations Still Further's Galactus.
  • Every time I typed "The Apple" for this recap, a voice in my head screeched, "Take a biiiiiiiiiite!" Sigh.
  • Last week there was some talk about trying to combine the first Trek movie with "Doomsday Machine"; it didn't work out, but I'll be seeing the new Trek this weekend. Anybody be interested in a write up on The Motion Picture and Abrams' film?