After the largely ho-hum set of episodes in the last round, we return, in my humble opinion, to a higher level of storytelling.
S03E09 – “The Tholian Web”
The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from the USS Defiant, whose entire crew went mad and killed one another in interphasic space. When Kirk is lost to interphase, Spock’s command is tested by similar madness from the crew and the threat of the ever-punctual Tholians.
This episode always seems to run a little too long, but it’s not for lack of character or plot. It’s a good one in my book, both on its own, and for the gift it keeps on giving to the Star Trek continuity. The opportunity to see Spock in command always seems to bring with it some remark from Bones suggesting that Spock is seizing upon some desired opportunity, advancement through assassination or something. I’ve never quite understood that, but at least here it can be chalked up to the effects of interphasic space. It goes without saying that Spock has no desire for command in the best of circumstances. To do so following the loss of his friend… well, we get the idea.
This is one of those stories that had so much to offer, and was underutilized for the longest time. We’ll hear about the Tholians again in the backstory of Kyle Riker, father of Commander William Riker, as well as a couple of other hot spots sprinkled throughout TNG and DS9. They’ll finally show up again on the final season of Enterprise a couple of times, the latter of which we’ll learn the Defiant phased through space and time — 150 years backwards, and into the Mirror Universe — where it would ultimately become the flagship of the Terran Empire. We’ll see more evidence of that, including some weapons upgrades, in the second half of Discovery‘s first season. And to think, all of that from little seeds planted here, in this episode. Don’t you just love it when story potential is pushed forward?
S03E10 – “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”
The artificial world of Yonada is on a collision course with another planet, and Dr. McCoy learns he is infected by an incurable disease. He has but one year to live.
As we’ve come to know our familiar Star Trek
tropes classic bits, we’ll recognize two of them straight off: science vs. faith and the ever-popular Kirk vs. the computer. To my mind, this episode is easily one of the best iterations of either of those ideas. What makes it so great is that we see where the faith isn’t necessarily wrong, but the dogma has been twisted by a computer’s literal interpretation. To restore the faith — and its promise of salvation — the dogma needs to be seen past and overthrown. I can’t tell you how readily applicable this message has been for me in the course of my life while studying all manner of theologies, and especially while confronting the dogmatism of Christianity in the form of my family. It’s a most solid lesson: instead of adhering to the letter of the word, see what the message is saying and why. The message is far more important than the messenger at all turns.
While DeForest Kelley considered “The Empath” to be his favorite episode, I personally consider this to be Kelley’s finest hour. We see the deepest levels of the friendship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones, which includes the sacrifices they’ll make for one another. We’ve seen it before, of course, but typically Bones isn’t at the center of it. This little shift in dynamic allows us to see it all anew and appreciate it that much more. Combine this with a sympathetic performance from Kelley and guest star Katherine Woodville, who played the lovely and charismatic high priestess Natira, and it just makes for one of the more memorable episodes in the entire series. At least, it does for me.
I always felt it was a shame they never came back to tell us what happened. Thankfully, one of the most talented scribes in the expanded Star Trek lore, Christopher L. Bennett, gave us a quality follow-up with his novel Ex Machina, which serves not only as a sequel to this episode, but also to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To my mind, it’s one of the very best Star Trek novels ever written, on a number of levels.
S03E11 – “Day of the Dove”
A Klingon crew is captured aboard the Enterprise, but an alien force is determined to keep the conflict going.
Political ideology. Racial prejudice. Bigotry, by any other name. These are the underlying ideas of war, hot or cold. For the most symbolic storytelling involving the cold war or racial injustice, the go-to antagonists are the Klingons, who are never quite as simplistic as people would like to believe. Michael Ansara’s Kang is the third of the great Klingon notables of the original series, rounding out the trio of Kor and Koloth. It’s easy to see why. There’s something bone-chilling about Ansara’s performance, a trait for which he became so renowned over the years that it led to him voicing the character of Mr. Freeze 25 years later in Batman: The Animated Series, easily the best incarnation of that character. It’s that same quality that gives Kang that domineering quality, making him the perfect foil for this episode and its message.
Star Trek offers an outside force for the conflict this time, but it only plays up on the problems already inherent between the Klingons and the Federation. The message is pretty basic, but ever so elusive: communication. In listening to others, we can overcome our differences. And when it comes to displays of machismo, as Mark Twain reminds us, “Against the power of laughter, no man can stand.”
My only regret in this entire episode (aside from the makeup effects) is that even though Scotty knows how to wield a sword, he doesn’t seem to know the difference between a claymore and a basket-hilt rapier. Apparently, if it looks Scottish, that’s enough for him. And here I thought this episode was all about overcoming stereotypes.
S03E12 – “Plato’s Stepchildren”
The Enterprise responds to a medical emergency only to become the pawns of a race of superpowered beings determined to keep Dr. McCoy for themselves.
Let’s talk real quick about the elephant in the room. This is recorded to be television’s first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Uhura. It was a very big deal at the time, and many would argue it still is, for both the right reasons and the wrong ones. Fun fact that pretty much every Trekkie already knows: they didn’t kiss. They didn’t even touch. That’s the technicality that allowed them to get past the network censors. And that seems to be all anyone’s ever taken away from this episode when it gets talked about. What a shame.
From the Talosians to Trelane to Q himself, godlike powers corrupt and dehumanize. The Platonians admit that they are themselves a product of eugenics. Remember that word and its Star Trek association? Consider a small group of people like Khan with this kind of power and the misguided belief that they are somehow morally superior in addition to everything else. History’s first interracial kiss, the one that really didn’t happen, is mired in what essentially plays out as a psychic Me Too drama. It’s disgusting, and that’s really the point. And yet, the kiss still matters for the right reasons. Even forced, the fact that it happened at all meant that some network affiliates, especially in the Deep South, chose not to air the episode.
Character actor Michael Dunn is a favorite of mine. He inspired many other character actors of smaller stature, and it’s known that he also inspired one of the next generation of filmmakers who had great respect and appreciation for Dunn and those like him who were far more talented than the world would give them credit. That filmmaker is George Lucas. It’s likely that had Dunn not passed away first, he’d have been in Star Wars. Dunn is likely remembered most for his recurring role on The Wild Wild West (another favorite of mine) as Dr. Miguelito Loveless, though roles like this one on Star Trek proved he was about as versatile as they come. What’s more, through all of the talk of power and corruption, the message of his character of Alexander comes shining through when he not only declines the power of those who abuse him, his need for vengeance against his bullies can be overcome through reason and friendly intervention. It’s a two-fold lesson that, quite frankly, is probably more powerful now than it was when the episode was new.