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Star Trek: "This Side Of Paradise" / "The Devil In The Dark"

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We've seen Spock dead; we've seen him sick and struggling against his emotions; we've seen him make mistakes; but this may be a first. This week—we see Spock smile. Not smirk, not half-grin, not appear bemused. The sonofabitch flat out, nothing held back, maybe five degrees split from actual hilarity, smiles. It's something of a shock.

We've talked before about Kirk's passion for blowing up societies that don't agree with him, and, of what we've seen so far, this week's "This Side Of Paradise" presents that passion in its starkest terms. It's an intriguingly ambiguous episode, for all the theatrics and occasional silliness; Spock isn't the only one to find satisfaction on Omicron Ceti III, but his emergent joy of life is the most symbolic both of what the planet offers to everyone on board the Enterprise, and what it ultimately takes away. That smile of his—it's shocking because smiling just isn't Spock's way. It never has been. Can an effect that so thoroughly distorts his personality be said to be a positive one? But then, if that effect leaves him content, how could it be anything but?


150 men, women, and children settled on Omicron four years ago. (Weird how you don't see any kids bopping around the planet surface. The issue's never raised, but seeing as it hasn't been that long, wouldn't you expect at least a few teenagers? It could be an oversight, but I like to think of it's something more sinister; the plant spores that make everybody so darn happy, and protect them from the deadly rays that destroy all animal matter, well, maybe those spores don't really work for kids. Maybe each and every living adult still on Omicron watched their children die; only they were so delighted by everything that it never occurred to them to care. I guess that would make Kirk's fight against the spore-heads a bit more black-and-white.) Sorry, got lost in the parenthetical. Settlers, planet, Enterprise comes to check things out—right, here we are. The place is constantly being bombarded by deadly energy called "berthold rays," which seem to guarantee that there'd be no survivors left of the original colony. Not really sure about the line of thought here for the initial colonization—Kirk implies that Elias Sandoval, head of the settlers, knew about the possibility of rays, but decided to take his (and their) chances anyway. But nobody's heard back from Sandoval or his group in a while, and the assumption is, everybody's toast.

The rays don't immediately kill you—takes about a week for the effect to set in—so it's safe enough for Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Sulu, and a couple random guys to beam down. They see white picket fences, houses, barns; and just as someone mentions how all the people must be dead, a group of men in green-gray overalls shows up. Their leader identifies himself as Sandoval, and while McCoy has to give everyone a full physical, the truth seems obvious; the colonists are alive and well, berthold rays be damned.

Of course, something must be up. McCoy senses it when, after doing a check-up on Sandoval, he finds that the man is actually too healthy; he's missing scar tissue on his lungs from an early surgery. It's Spock who discovers the cause, courtesy of his long-lost love, Leila. (I love the awkwardness of Spock having a romantic past; with Kirk, we expect broken hearts strewn across the galaxy, but it's a surprise to find out that Spock had a sort-of girlfriend at one point. From what we get in the episode, she loved him, but he never admitted anything on his part. We never really find out why, apart from Spock's obvious reluctance to admit to any feeling, and that's probably for the best.) Leila's talked it over with Sandoval, and has gotten the go ahead to bring Spock in with the team. So she tells him the answer to all his questions is in this really fake looking plant. When Spock gets too close, the plant hits him with some spores and ta-da: smiling half-Vulcan.

One of the reasons "Paradise" still works as well as it does (and I'd rank it as one of the best of the first season) is that for all its melodrama—between Spock and Leila, and Kirk's struggles against himself, there's a lot to go around—the ep has a terrific sense of humor about itself. Just seeing Kirk trying to deal with a goofy, carefree first officer is great fun; from their first conversation post-sporification to Kirk's utter astonishment at finding Spock literally up a tree, it's some of the funniest stuff we've seen in the show. (Slightly less funny, but still sort of charming, are McCoy's Southern accent and attempts to construct a mint julep once he gets infected.) I really love Kirk and McCoy's brief conversation after Spock's first refusal to come back. McCoy notes that Spock doesn't sound like himself, and Kirk tells the doctor, "I thought you said you might like him if he mellowed a little." McCoy's immediate backpedaling of "I didn't say that!" tells you a lot about the character.

Sandoval and his people have survived exposure to berthold rays because the plant spores render them immune. In addition, the spores make everybody cheery as hell, but they also take away a person's drive to accomplish anything. In all the time they've been on the planet, none of the colonists have made any progress in the scientific research that had driven them there in the first place. This lack of ambition becomes an even more serious problem when Spock and Sandoval arrange for the rest of the Enterprise's crew to get infected; Starfleet has issued orders that the colonists are to leave the planet, and Sandoval would rather bring everybody on the ship down to his level then leave such a good thing behind. With Spock's help, the conquest is a breeze, although it has to be one of the most laid-back mutinies in history—there's no forced exposure to the plants, and no attempt to force anyone to do anything. Just careful placement of the plants and crossed fingers. (The reason behind this lack of aggression becomes much clearer by the end.)

Soon enough, Kirk is the only man left aboard the Enterprise who isn't marvelling at the way his hand does that thing, y'know, that thing, and man, we really are a living part of the universe, y'know? Whoa. On his own, there's not much Kirk can accomplish, aside from bemoan his fate; Uhura sabotaged communications, so there's no way to get a message to Starfleet as to what's going on. Inevitably Kirk himself is infected, but before he can beam down to the planet, his innate sense of duty rises up and forces him back to sanity; he realizes that violent emotions, like rage, are the only way to cure the spore's influence. So he beams Spock up and picks a fight with him. (More great dialogue from Kirk: Spock is "a simpering, devil-eared freak, who's father was a computer and who's mother was an encyclopedia." And the unforgettable topper: "You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship. Right next to the dog face boy!")

After a brief scuffle, Spock is Spock again, and that means it's only a quick spot of work to get everybody else "healthy." While Kirk's point about humans needing forward momentum to be human is well taken, and Sandoval himself is horrified at his inaction while infected, it's a little sad to see everybody stripped away from such a pleasant mindset. Nowhere is that sadness more apparent than when Spock confronts Leila after he's been "saved" by Kirk; he basically tells her that whether or not he has feelings for her, he is who he is, and he has his duty. This heartbreak frees Leila, although neither she nor Spock seem particularly relieved to be free. There's no sense of judgment in the episode about their sense of loss, either. In the coda, Spock tells Kirk, "for the first time in my life… I was happy." It's a simple statement; Kirk doesn't offer an apology for destroying his happiness, and Spock doesn't ask for one. Just a simple melancholic fact of existence: we are who are.

Delightfully, "Devil In The Dark" provides us with the one thing "Paradise" lacked: monsters! Or rather, monster, singular. (I guess the plants shooting the spores are sort of monster-like, but they don't have much in the way of personality.) Janus VI has some of the richest pergium deposits in the galaxy —and that's a good thing, since everybody wants and needs pergium. The mining colony on the planet has run into some serious problems of late, though. First their equipment started disintegrating, and then people started dying. Fifty so far, and the deaths haven't been pretty; corpses burned beyond all recognition. Vanderberg, the colony head, is at his wit's end. Something's out there, in the dark. Something that isn't affected by phaser fire, and can't be stopped.

Enter the Enterprise. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down, and a preliminary scan of the planet shows that there are no other life forms around apart from Vanderberg's crew. But the scans only look for carbon-based life; what if there's something else out there? Vanderberg lays down the situation: a number of planets depend on Janus VI's pergium output, but they haven't been able to get work done during the attacks. All they've got now are a bunch of useless silicon nodules that litter the mine. Even more frustrating, Venderberg's men had just found a huge new deposit of the mineral right before miners started getting killed. It was on the lower levels, ones that they hadn't explored before, and if they could only get at it, everyone's problems would be solved.

Before anything can be decided, though, the monster strikes again, this time stealing a crucial part from the mine's nuclear reactor. The colonists don't have a spare kicking around, and neither does Scotty; something to do with the equipment being too out of date. This is not good at all, because while Scotty can work up a temporary fix, sooner or later, the reactor's going to fail and everyone is going to die. Now it's not just the potential danger of the monster killing again; now it's a matter of life and death. (Okay, so everybody could just beam back up and leave, but dammit, people need their pergium!)

I expect even those of you who haven't seen the episode have made the connection, yes? When the miners broke into the lower levels, they pissed something off, and that something has been taking its revenge ever since. It's just like a classic monster flick—stupid humans wake up a beasty, beasty rampages, poor beasty has to pay the ultimate price for human carelessness. And one of the reasons "Devil" is so cool is that it plays out a lot like a monster movie, from the POV shots that hide the nature of the threat till the last minute, to the way everybody has a bad habit of wandering off alone. It's not all that scary to me now, especially knowing the ending, but as a kid, this was by the far the freakiest of original Trek episodes. Even seeing the monster, which, to an unkind eye, is just a goofy looking hunky of carpet, didn't make me feel better. Something about the cheapness of the effect actually made it more threatening; that something could look that silly, and still be a threat.

Another common element of all those fifties monster movies is the not-entirely-sane scientist who demands that the creature be captured for the purposes of, um, humanity and learning and padding out the plot. Here we have Mr. Spock, a more than adequate substitute; he spends the episode the usual three or four steps ahead of everyone else (although notice how he doesn't come out and actually say that the silicon nodules are eggs until Kirk does? Either he's covering his ass, or we just had to make sure Kirk made the most important discovery, even if somebody else beat him to the punch), and he figures out quickly that while only one monster has been doing the attacking on Janus, the place used to be filled with 'em. He expresses regret to Kirk that the creature must be killed, and even suggests to the security team the Enterprise sends down (all red-shirts, poor bastards) that it might be nice to capture the thing alive, if possible.

Unlike those earlier scientists, however, Spock is still a realist. When Kirk wanders off and gets trapped by the creature, Spock demands over the communicators that Kirk kill the thing for his own protection. Thing is, the creature isn't making any threatening moves. Earlier in the ep, Spock and Kirk decided that one of the reasons why the colonists' phaser fire wasn't damaging the beasty was that they only had "phaser 1." When the two bump into the thing themselves, they fire on it using phaser 2, which damages it but doesn't kill it. And now, face to, er, shag with the thing, Kirk sees the wound. Is it reluctant to attack now that it knows it can be hurt? Or is it trying to communicate something?

Spock arrives, and decides the only way to proceed is to attempt to mind-meld with the thing. In his first try, he doesn't make physical contact; all he manages to discover is that the creature is called a "Horta," and it's in severe pain. The brief connection is enough to pass on information to the Horta, who burns a message in the rock: "NO KILL I." That's enough for Kirk—while Vanderberg's men are getting increasingly restless outside, Kirk summons McCoy. Spock is going to make another pass at mind melding, this time with actual touch, and Kirk is determined that the Horta survive the attempt.

"Devil" is mostly a showcase for Kirk and Spock (Spock's mind melding acting is—well, we'll get to that), but McCoy gets one of his great moments here, when confronted by a wounded creature whose biological composition is so alien it might as well be inanimate. Spock earlier theorized that the Horta is silicon-based life, as opposed to us carbon-based folks; McCoy reacted with his usual skepticism, but Spock's theory proved out, as it explains why the phasers were so useless on the thing, and also why it was able to tunnel so efficiently through rock. (Well, that plus the corrosive juices it secretes.) This puts McCoy in a quandary; as he helpfully points out to Kirk, "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer," but Kirk isn't having any of it. So McCoy pulls up his sleeves and improvises, using thermoconcrete from the Enterprisee to patch the Horta's injury. Works like a charm, and McCoy is understandably pleased: "Jim, I'm beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!"

Vanderberg and his men are less than pleased, though; with the Horta cornered, they see their chance to strike, even going so far as to attack the red-shirts Kirk left behind to keep things orderly. They break into the room just as Spock is ending his last session—and I said I was going to talk about his mind meld, right? It should be ridiculous. Spock's basically groping a puppet and treating it like a massive spiritual and moral struggle. But it works; I'm willing to bet if you asked somebody who hadn't watched "Devil" in a while to tell you what they remembered best from it, they'd say the Horta, and Spock yelling "PAIN!" It's not memorable because it's campy, either. Nimoy's acting sells it because he never allows for a moment that what he's doing is absurd. He commits, as my old acting teacher would say, and the sequence becomes this whole tragic, horrifying tribute both to his skills as a performer and the writer behind the episode.

What Spock learns is something most of us probably figured out twenty minutes ago: the silicon nodules are eggs, and the miners inadvertently destroyed them while moving into the lower levels of the planet. The current Horta is the last one of her kind alive; they have a curious life cycle, in which every 50,000 years the entire race but one dies, and it's her job to stick around and take care of the eggs. So she'd be a little pissed if those eggs were threatened. The old "scary monster is just a loving mama" routine is familiar, but effective, and it nicely reinforces one of TOS's big themes: to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the alien, and it is us. Vanderberg realizes the error of his ways, and an arrangement between Horta and humans is made. Everything winds up happily after all, unless you're some miner's widow, and I'm sure they were all bachelors anyway.

Not a bad way to come off last week; both "Paradise" and "Devil" are classics. I could nitpick a little, if I were so inclined, but I think I'll just leave off here. For some reason, seeing the Horta always makes me want a pizza.

"This Side Of Paradise": A
"Devil In The Dark": A

Stray Observations:

  • Ah, Spock: "Emotions are alien to me. I am a scientist."
  • Spock tells Leila she "couldn't pronounce" his first name. I wonder, when was the first time that gag got used?
  • Love the exchange between Kirk and Spock when Kirk tries to send Spock away from the Horta hunt; apparently the odds of them both getting killed are 2,228.7 to 1.
  • Up next week: "Errand Of Mercy" and (ugh) "The Alternative Factor"