Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Original Series, Season 1: Dagger of the Mind

The Original Series, Season One
"Dagger of the Mind"
Airdate: November 3, 1966
11 of 80 produced
9 of 80 aired
Click here to watch on CBS.com


The Enterprise is making a supply run to the penal colony on Tantalus V. An apparently dangerous, violent prisoner manages to stowaway onboard. However, when he is captured, he claims to be one of the colonies administrators and that the chief administrator is performing horrible experiments on the minds of his prisoners.

Suddenly, the office Christmas party doesn't sound so bad...


Kevin: This is less of a strong science fiction plot for me more than it is a very strong 1960s plot. The discussion of how to treat prisoners and what was responsible for their behavior was increasingly part of the national debate, especially in light of advances in understanding the human brain and human behavior. Obviously, this episode falls into the camp that think rehabilitation is possible in every case. I have to say, I am one of the biggest liberals I know, and that's due in no small part to watching Star Trek, but I found the idea that every single criminal must be suffering from a mental defect that can be cured a little absurd. It's like in "The Battle" in TNG when Dr. Crusher says no one gets headaches anymore. It's just one step too far in trying to portray a future society. It's not credible that humans wouldn't get stress headaches or that they would seek medical intervention every time they did, and by the same token, it's not credible that the 23rd century has no more pickpockets, and even if they do, not all of them have a mental defect that is the root cause of their actions.

Matthew: While I agree that the treatment of criminal psychology is a bit too one-note here, there are some important caveats to mention. This episode could be construed as a warning against such a blanket theory, and certainly the show is a warning against blindly trusting authority figures and new technologies with something as fragile as human minds.

Kevin: I also found Helen Noel to be pretty flat. She ends up just parroting what Dr. Adams says, and the whole subplot of some almost-affair at the office Christmas party was strained. I think they meant it to spice up the conversation, maybe like Hepburn and Tracy, but it really just came off as if he was dismissing her because he had a thing for her this one time. Their interactions weren't fun to watch, and Kirk just comes off like a dick.

Matthew: I agree that Kirk was written just a bit off here, as was Dr. Noel. Kirk would not be so antagonistic, given her expertise and her ability to guide him in a strange environment. But then, she does play the role of orthodox psychological theoretician a bit too much to the hilt. It could be interpreted as her resistance to Kirk - she downplays his doubts because she is mad about the apparent one-night-stand she enjoyed with him. Overall, it wasn't terribly well done, which is too bad, with two such charming actors. Plus, I really like their scene in which she implants amorous suggestions into his mind. I cannot help but appreciate a hot, kinky scientist.

Kevin: I also want to say that it's obvious that Adams isn't on the level from the moment Spock tells Kirk that Van Gelder used to the director of the colony. Kirk's blind support of Adams over McCoy's concerns seems odd. Especially, since the minute he got down there, he seemed to ask a lot of questions and seemed to presume something was in fact wrong. The idea that a doctor would test a mind altering device on his own person at all, let alone without help or safety precautions is stupid on its face. It's like saying a gunshot victim ran into that bullet really fast.

Matthew: Dr. Adams is indeed a bit too poster-board - easy to see through, and without a credible motivation of his own. I do think there's an implication that Dr. Adams turned the machine on Van Gelder. Why, we never really find out - some sort of Josef Mengele evil experiment?

Kevin: The incompetence of the transporter operator and the security guard which allowed Van Gelder to get to the bridge also strained credulity.

Matthew: My credulity problem came from the fact that Kirk was so easily able to shrug off the effects of the machine. Where was his pain at separation from Noel? Where did his absolute trust for Adams go? I grant that he is a superhero of sorts, as a Starship captain, but if it worked on Van Gelder and all these psychopaths, it should have had more effect on Kirk.

Philosophy shout outs: The character named Lethe is apparently so named in keeping with the Greek word Lethe, meaning forget. The river Lethe in Greek mythology was one in whose waters all would forget. Alethea, the Greek word for truth, translates to "not-Lethe" or "not the River of Forgetting." Also, Dr. Adams compares Kirk to a skeptic who asks that a man defend his views standing on one foot. This is apparently a reference to an encounter Ayn Rand had prior to the publication of her book Atlas Shrugged in 1957. A publisher demanded that she do just that, which she indeed did.


Kevin: I did like Van Gelder's early portrayal in Sick Bay. It looks like he is actually in pain trying to recall details, a tactic we later see Adams employing. Later, I think it veers into stock "crazy person" territory. I also enjoyed the mind meld scene.

Matthew: Very much agreed. Morgan Woodward really nails the portrayal of Dr. Van Gelder, a person who is in excruciating pain as he tries to fight the damage that has been done to him. Interesting trivia: Woodward played Paul Newman's antagonist, the sunglass-wearing prison cop, in "Cool Hand Luke."

Kevin: I also liked Spock in the mind meld scene, the first of the franchise. Over the course of the franchise, despite repeated rumblings about the dangers of mind melds, Vulcans seem to use them all the time. Leonard Nimoy, at least, brought a wonderful gravity to scenes like these, which helped make the urgency and necessity of the act more credible.

Matthew: Whatever her faults, Marianna Hill as Dr. Helen Noel is SMOKING hot. They really are on a roll in these early shows with the beautiful women. And actually, although I agree with you on writing issues, I thought she had good chemistry with Shatner.

Production Values

Kevin: The logo on the Tantalus uniforms was downright silly. Also, the neutralizer room was poorly done, I feel. The light of the neutralizer looks like the lighting fixture in a 1960s bungalow and if you notice, it's never seen actually above the chair. It looks like they shot the chair, shot the light, and edited the film together.

Matthew: I liked the ventilation shafts and the power room. Or, maybe I just liked watching Dr. Noel crawl around them.


Kevin: Overall, I didn't like this one that much. The underlying discussion about rehabilitation and the human mind never actually occurred. The character interactions were off. High points did include the first mind meld scene and the look on Spock's face when he finds Kirk and Helen kissing. I also thought the second half action sequences were well done, and it was nice to see a secondary character, and a woman, no less, be the one who actually saves the day. I am going to give this a 2, based on our criteria. A few good moments with Spock and a little ass-kicking with Helen don't balance the credulity shattering set up and lackluster production.

Matthew: I didn't dislike this one as much as you did. I found it pretty average all around. I think the sci-fi premise is one of a mind-altering machine - something really cutting edge in the 60s. Execution was not great, but the acting was decent. I give it a 3, which brings our combined total for this episode to a 5.

1 comment:

  1. Matthew's comment that Dr. Addams compares Kirk to a skeptic who asks a man to defend his views on one foot can't be attributed to Ayn Rand. She stole that reference from a story in the Talmud about Hillel the Elder, a great sage who's story she used to try to insinuate that she was a thinker of equal stature.

    One of Hillel's greatest teachings is the one he gave to a skeptic Roman standing on one foot: you shouldn't treat others in a way that you yourself would find offensive. This reference foreshadows the hypocrisy and cruelty that Dr. Addams will demonstrate later in the story, which was no doubt what script writer, Shimon Wincelberg, intended. This matches nicely with other ancient references Matthew mentions, and a reference in the episode to Tantalus, a Greek god who was doomed to hunger and thirst for eternity. This is much like the fate of Dr. Addams when he's caught in the beam of the device, hungry for a suggestion that is never given to him.

    Star Trek episodes seem to have nothing of value to derive from the writings of Ayn Rand, except maybe to use them as a blueprint for the motivations of some of the villains the Enterprise encounters. Their strength comes from challenging viewers to look deeper into questions that mankind has been dwelling on for centuries.