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  • Shelby Cadwell

Sci-Fi Saturday #5

Welcome to Sci-Fi Saturday, a new column that is devoted to all things science fiction: film, television, comics, novels, video games, and local Metro Detroit events. If there is a topic you'd like to see covered in an upcoming column,

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This week I watched episodes 9 and 10 of Star Trek: The Original Series season 1, "Dagger of the Mind" and "The Corbomite Maneuver." In "Dagger of the Mind," the Enterprise is infiltrated by an escapee from a prison colony (Tantalus V) for the criminally insane. The stowaway, Dr. Simon Van Gelder (Morgan Woodward), seeks asylum on the USS Enterprise. Van Gelder's panicked and paranoid appeals to not be returned to Tantalus make Bones start wondering whether the doctor is dangerous or is escaping danger. After Kirk and Bones argue about whether or not to return Van Gelder to the colony, Kirk decides to go down to Tantalus V and investigate. For ~reasons~, Kirk is accompanied by Dr. Helen Noel, a beautiful lady psychiatrist.

The prison colony is run by a Dr. Adams, famous for his rehabilitative and compassionate approach to handling prisoners. As Kirk and Noel investigate, it is revealed that Adams is using a "neural neutralizer" to brainwash the prisoners, causing them intense pain when they try to remember their identities, past memories, etc. Expectedly, the machine gets turned on Kirk at a certain point. Also expectedly, the brainwashing machine is used to convince Kirk that he is madly in love with Helen Noel. As all of this is going down, Spock and Bones are interrogating the distraught Dr. Van Gelder back on the Enterprise. Spock performs a Vulcan "mind meld" with the doctor, which reveals the extent of the damage that the neural neutralizer can do.

In the end, Kirk and Noel are able to turn the tables on Adams, who is killed by his own machine. Dr. Van Gelder returns to the colony to take charge, but destroys the neural neutralizer to ensure that no more brainwashing occurs. Overall the episode has some great moments - Spock's mind meld, the scenes in the neural neutralizer room when Kirk is being brainwashed, and the commentary on the nature of prisons (I agree with Bones - "a cage is a cage" - no matter how you dress it up). The weakest part of the episode is the shoehorned in romance subplot with Kirk and Noel. I get that every episode needs to feature at least one woman fawning over Kirk, but this feels a bit excessive. I'd give the episode an 8/10, though, in part because Woodward's portrayal of the tortured doctor is compelling and because the mind-meld bit was pretty rad.

"The Corbomite Maneuver" starts off strong, but ends on a weird note. When the Enterprise encounters a strange multi-colored cube floating in space, Spock (correctly) surmises that it may be some sort of buoy or boundary marker. Having accidentally flown into First Federation territory, the Enterprise is accosted by a very powerful ship named the Fesarius, piloted by a blueish alien creature named Balok. When Balok threatens to blow up the Enterprise, Kirk tries to convince him to let the ship go, but Balok refuses to relent and gives the Enterprise crew ten minutes to get right with God before he goes nuclear on their asses. The crew argues among themselves about how to handle the situation, Spock arguing that they've been outmaneuvered and that this may be "checkmate" for the Enterprise. Kirk replies that they aren't playing chess, but poker; he then bluffs by telling Balok that the ship contains an element known as "corbomite" which ensures that any attacking vessel will be destroyed in turn. Balok buys the lie and doesn't blow up the Enterprise when the ten minute window has passed.

In a tighter version of this episode, the story would have ended here - with a pithy remark from Kirk or Spock to seal the deal. Unfortunately, we instead get another ten or fifteen minutes of a small landing party beaming to Balok's vessel and meeting *this* monstrosity, who was using the blue alien guy as an "alter ego":

The "real" Balok is a child with an adult's voice + fake ginger eyebrows and a costume from Dionne Warwick's fashion line for K-Mart. Clint Howard, the actor who played Balok, was an unfortunate-looking child who grew up to be an unfortunate-looking man. As my partner said, when you have to say that Ron Howard was the one in the family who got all the good looks, you know you're in trouble. But all roasting of Clint Howard aside, my main problem with the "meeting Balok" scene is that it feels irrelevant to the overall thrust of the episode and distracts from the more interesting points about facing down an unknown adversary and living to tell the tale. I'd give the first 40 minutes of the episode an 8/10, and the last bit like a 5/10.

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