Star Trek Review: TOS – Dagger of the Mind (1×09)

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Where there is no emotion, there is no motive for violence.

By my reckoning, this may well be the first episode we’ve got that actually is something approaching utopian. Or, sort of, anyway.

The idea of how prisons would work in a utopia like the federation is actually quite an interesting one, when you think about it; presumably the focus would very much be on rehabilitation, rather than punishment. (The three main potential aims of a prison being rehabilitation, retribution, and restraint.) Equally, of course, one might argue that you wouldn’t really commit crimes in a utopia, surely, so why do they even have prisons? It’s such an interesting question because prisons are, I suppose, actually sort of an important facet of society, so when you’re talking about a new society, that throws up lots of intriguing points and questions. Moreso, really, when it’s a perfect society – what is the perfect prison like?

Admittedly, the way we handle this isn’t quite dedicated to answering those questions. It’s becoming a bit of a theme with Star Trek, I realise, where interesting questions are being thrown up essentially as a backdrop to normal television stories. This episode here is basically a thriller; the questions of how prisons should and do work are more or less left largely unanswered. Thinking about it, then, I suppose I may well have stumbled upon another of the reasons why Star Trek ended up so popular – it posed all of these questions which would capture one’s imagination, but largely left the answers up to the viewer. To be presented with a world that is, essentially, very much your own is quite powerful, and that’s going to lead it to resonate with a fairly large number of individuals; in many ways that’s perhaps going to help people skip over the less desirable parts, because they can more easily focus on the aspects that are their own.

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Helen Noel I think is worth commenting on. I actually counted this, interestingly, and the moment she’s introduced with the “da-dah” music and the camera zoom is about 20 minutes in; this is the same time Miri yesterday, and while I’m not certain, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true of Andrea and Mudd’s eponymous Women. So it seems that the sex appeal aspect is quite cynically positioned in these episodes (or I’m drawing more of a connection than actually exists).

Still, what I have realised is that I can’t make a point of it every time I see something I consider somewhat sexist or male gaze-y in these episodes, because otherwise I would be writing about it every single time. And there’s a value in that, don’t get me wrong; a deconstruction of the male gaze in Star Trek would probably be a really fascinating thing to read, if you’ve got suitably niche interests as myself. But it’s also not something that I would feel comfortable writing, or indeed competent enough to write; for now, these vaguely meandering and infrequently insightful little commentaries are probably the best I can manage. For now, though, I think I’m going to have to gradually begin to ignore that sort of thing; sadly, it’s just part of the fabric of the episodes. Short of outright rape apologia (again), I’ll likely just let it go. Unless it particularly aggravates me, I suppose.

So, even though she’s introduced in a very male gaze-y way, is Helen Noel a sexist caricature? As written, you could perhaps make the case that she is; there’s all the science Christmas party stuff (which I admittedly found hilarious) and the fact that she uses the neuralyzer to brainwash Kirk into loving her. However, I think they just about get away with it because Marianne Hill plays the role with a sort of… knowing sarcasm, I suppose. It comes across as quite self-aware, and often her comments to Kirk read as more playful and teasing than wistful and desperate; I think you can reasonably justify reading her as a character, rather than a caricature. It’s also quite important to note that, in the end, she plays quite an important part in saving the day – complete with ventilation shaft crawl! I must admit, I love ventilation shaft sequences. They’re classics. So, you know. That’ll do.

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Something I appreciated about this episode was the dual focus on Spock and Bones, as well as Kirk and Dr Noel. I’ve spoken in the past about how I think these episodes need a B plot of sorts to try and fill the runtime, and I reckon this episode is a very good example of that; while Kirk and Dr Noel are working to solve the mystery on the surface, you’ve got Spock and Bones working to solve the same mystery from the Enterprise.

It was nice to see the pair of the working together, actually, because thus far I think that’s been a little rare; with this episode you can begin to see the development of that aspect of the Kirk/Spock/Bones trio which is so well known. It doesn’t really work unless it is a trio, to my mind; you need to be able to see that Spock and Bones are friends, just as much as Kirk and Spock or Kirk and Bones. (You can sort of see how they struggled with that in Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness, only getting it right with Star Trek Beyond.)

Notably, we’ve also got the first appearance of the Vulcan mind meld, which will obviously go on to be a staple of Star Trek for years to come; it’s interesting, I think, to see that we’re already getting that sort of “Spock is special” vibe, which obviously develops further as he increasingly becomes a fan favourite character, ahead of all others.

In the end, then, Dagger of the Mind is a decent episode. Another one which is quite entertaining, and though nothing special, it still stands up reasonably well even now.

7/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – Miri (1×08)

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Blah, blah, blah!

We’ve now reached the point at which, for the most part, I actually don’t know a lot about what’s going to happen. Miri isn’t an episode I even knew existed, to be frank; we’ve well and truly scratched away the surface of my relatively superficial knowledge of the original show, and we’re getting into an aspect of Star Trek that I’m just not all that familiar with. In some regards, that’s actually really exciting, because it means I’m viewing these episodes almost completely as if they’re new.

I think Miri starts quite well, actually. You’ve got a really interesting hook, right from the beginning: this alternate Earth. Obviously, this is conceived of primarily as a cost-saving device – I’m under no illusions about that. At the same time, though, it’s a great premise from which to start the episode, and this episode gives us Star Trek’s best pre-credits sequence so far, to my mind. There’s an immediate level of intrigue, not just because it sounds strange to us, but also because the crew are baffled by it; there’s something immediately appealing about a phenomenon that isn’t known to our heroes. (Although, I suppose, if they are seeking out that which is strange and new, this probably shouldn’t be quite as exciting a pitch as I found it. Hmm.)

Beam down, though, and it gets even better. I’ve spoken about the idea of the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane a lot, particularly in terms of Doctor Who, but this is the first time that Star Trek actively engages with it – because here’s the first time we see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy wandering around in a setting that we recognise. They’re quite explicit about that, actually, with Spock likening the surroundings to 1960s America; this is Star Trek interacting with our world. (Of course, since I’m watching this about 50 years on, it does take on a rather different feeling; this is Star Trek interacting with the world contemporary to it, not my world. And yet the effect remains broadly the same, given it’s still playing upon an iconography familiar to me and alien to their usual setting.)

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Despite starting well – and, to be fair, continuing well for the first twenty minutes, until the rather excellent revelation that Kirk has contracted the disease – the episode does gradually begin to fall apart.

The primary issue, I think, is that they don’t really follow through on the original premise. Rather than exploring this Earth, and why we have an exact replica of Earth in the 1960s, we end up substituting that plot for what is essentially a riff on Lord of the Flies; it becomes painfully evident that, despite how tantalising an idea it made, this 1960s setting really is just a cost saving measure. That’s a shame, to be honest; I can’t help but feel as though the writers should have made a more concerted effort to work within their limitations, as opposed to essentially just ignoring them. The idea of a society that exactly reflects Earth is a fascinating one; I also know it’s something we’ll return to later, so I don’t feel too hard done by, but I can’t help but feel as though the ball was dropped here. Even then, though – the new Lord of the Flies type plot feels astonishingly underdeveloped. There’s actually quite an interesting idea at the core of this too; the children live for a very long time, but because of the social structures in placed, they’re never really forced to mature or to grow up. You could do a lot about a society like that, and really dig deep into the concepts at the heart of it… but they just sort of don’t. Thus we end up with a rather empty feeling town, and though at times it can be a bit unsettling and creepy to hear the children chanting, mostly I only feel disappointed we didn’t get something better.

Still, there’s certainly engaging aspects to it; our crew are, as ever, pretty reliably fantastic. DeForest Kelly stands out in particular, as he so often does, because of how fantastic his performance is; McCoy getting increasingly stressed and agitated is a really impressive thing to see. It’s great to give the actors the opportunity to play against type, because we really get the chance to see how talented they are, and the range they’re capable of. (Shatner, admittedly, doesn’t do quite as well here with his aspect of the angry acting.)

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The biggest flaw in the episode is Miri herself, to be perfectly honest. It’s… creepy, to be honest, to see her interacting with Kirk. Her crush on Kirk is, I suppose, meant to be played as though it’s little more than that, just a young girl infatuated with this amazing gentleman. However, since she was being played by a 19-year-old, it doesn’t really read that way. Indeed, given it’s followed by Kirk giving her instructions and telling her to clean and do tasks and such, it either comes across as him being quite manipulative, or of her finally maturing to the point she’d ready to be a wife, or some such similar. It’s really just quite uncomfortable.

It gets worse, though, because Miri is contrasted with Janice Rand; Janice is seemingly quite jealous of Miri, because Kirk appears to be interested in her. Don’t forget, of course, that we’re meant to read Miri as pre-pubescent, so about 12 or 13 maybe. Janice is captured, and given lines like “I always wanted you to look at my legs”, and in the end, she’s almost the butt of the final joke – when Kirk says “I always stay away from older women”, that’s a reference to the fact that Grace Lee Whitney was older than William Shatner.

And so, in a way, Miri is pretty much the end of Janice Rand. It was her last episode filmed, as I understand; even if we see her again, this is basically her final outing. It also marks the start, arguably, of Kirk’s love interest of the week; even if Miri is a pretty creepy starting point, you can see how the show is picking up on a precedent established with the android yesterday, and developing this idea of Kirk having a new alien (or variations thereupon) babe to hook up with in each episode. After that, there just isn’t much space for Janice Rand, is there? Who needs a romantic lead when you’re making it part of the fabric of your show to swap in a new one each week? Janice is also the only one who points out that the Kirk/Miri interactions are a bit creepy, so there she’s quite literally getting in the way of Kirk womanising his way across the galaxy.

When I began this trek, if you will, I wasn’t really aware of Janice Rand as a character. In theory, sure, I knew the broad details of who she was, but I’d never seen a single episode that she was actually in. Generally speaking, I’ve actually quite liked her. But I also can’t help but look at her as the symbol of Star Trek’s early failures, and the manner in which it began as something very far from the utopian ideals we like to impose upon it. It was just as sexist, and at times outwardly misogynistic, as the rest of television in the 60s.

Because of it, Star Trek failed Janice Rand, and that’s a failure the show will always have to try and fix.

5/10

Related:

Star Trek: The Original Series reviews

Star Trek: Discovery reviews

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