EPISODE NINE: Dagger of the Mind
Damn. This is an incredible episode; the tone is perfect and unsettling and it explores some genuinely dark stuff. Also, we get our first Vulcan Mind Meld.
When Kirk and Co beam aboard a crazed stowaway escaping from a penal colony, Bones follows his instinct that something is rotten in the state of Denmark and forces Kirk to conduct an investigation. From the very beginning I was getting an ill feeling about the proceedings, there’s just something set in the tone immediately with the establishing first shot of neurotoxin bound for a penal colony that something bad is happening. Kirk is assigned the lovely Helen Noel to accompany him, a psychiatrist with whom he shared a dance and kiss at a Christmas party. She digs him, but he is actively annoyed by her smirking insistence that there is something between them (it should be noted that she basically replaced Yeoman Rand, who was written out of the episode). I really enjoy this dynamic, she likes him but in a goading and teasing way, rather than a doe-eyed useless way. She’s got the power from the onset, which is great to see.
They quickly discover that the doctor running the penal colony has been using a neural neutralizer to wipe clean the inmates’ minds and replace them with his own programming, turning the population into mindless drones. Essentially, the device turns your brain into a sponge, that will accept any suggestion given to it (in a place called ‘The Emptying Room.” There’s a creepy Orwellian undertone that pervades the concept and execution quite nicely. The stowaway was the doctor who built the device and had his brain wiped to by the evil doctor (who wears a creepy cult leader version of the Star Fleet engineering toga.) His wiped mind leads to lots of bursts of screaming and hysteria as he tries to remember things and it’s unsettling despite being a bit overplayed. In order to access his mind, Spock tries his first Vulcan-to-human mind meld and presents it as a very intimate, secret thing in Vulcan culture that he is inclined to keep private. It’s a nice moment and proves yet again how good Nemoy is at sneaking a fantastic subtle performance in under the blank Vulcan persona.
Meanwhile, worry that the process is destroying the personality of the test subjects leads Kirk to test the machine with Noel at the controls, where she uses the device to implant a memory of a tryst following the dance. It’s a little creepy, but she’s a neat character (constantly challenging Kirk and winning to his annoyance) so we let it slide. The problem is Dr Evil shows up and decides to take it a step further, implanting a love for Noel into Kirk. This is a bit of a deus ex for dealing with Rand’s departure, but is also potentially a big continuity point: when Kirk eventually saves Noel, he passionately kisses her (giving Spock a great eyebrow acting moment when he discovers them) ands never gets reprogrammed. It’s a neat Midsummer Night’s Dreamesque problem where at the end of the play, the love quadrangle is quietly solved by one suitor remaining enchanted and thus in love. The feeling is real, but the root is false. Cool.
The episode culminates in Kirk being tortured by the machine, while the surprisingly capable Noel kicks ass and takes names, managing to shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level-sorry, wrong Star thing-ummm shut down the neural neutralizer and the force field preventing their rescue and thus allowing Kirk to escape. This in turn leads to an epic ground invasion led by Spock and Bones to reclaim the facility and the discovery of Dr Evil who Kirk judo chopped back in the neutralizer room having been stuck with the device on full blast. His mind has been entirely blank with no one to add new programming and thus he has essentially gone mad and died of lonliness.
It’s a really upsetting end, punctuated by Kirk’s comment, “Imagine being stuck alone with this machine…not even a tormenter for company.” Given the state of espionage during the Cold War, issues of torture were (and remain) very real, very scary things. The idea of a tormenter at least being company is one of the saddest and most profound things a TV show has given me; particularly in an age of sensory deprevation tanks and the generally obscured details of how ‘interogations’ in the War on Terror are conducted. Once everything is settled, a remarkably shell shocked Kirk takes the bridge to the concern of Bones and Spock.
“It’s hard to believe someone could die of lonliness.”
Kirk responds: Not once you’ve sat in that room.
He then flashes them a disarming smile and they leave him be…only the audience gets to see the smile quickly fade back to shell shock just as the credits begin. It’s a somber, nuanced performance by all involved and left me a little shaken.
Great stuff and evokes many incredible works about domination and mind control, as well as real world concerns about mental abuse in war. Trek at its best.