Original Air Date: November 3, 1966
Stardate: 2715.1 (2266)
Writer: Shimon Wincelberg (pen name: “S. Bar-David”)
Director: Vincent McEveety
“To all mankind. May we never find space so vast, planets so cold, heart and mind so empty that – that we cannot fill them with love and warmth.”
The USS Enterprise is conducting a routine supply delivery to Tantalus V, a somewhat featureless ringed planet (per the remastered series) which houses a penal colony surrounded by a forcefield to keep its inmates inside. Capt. Kirk amusingly interrupts the Enterprise transport operators as they transfer supplies. They appear befuddled so Kirk instructs them how to appropriately communicate with the colony prior to initiating the transporter. First, the colony needs to lower its forcefield before beaming down materials. Kirk smiles and walks away as the beaming down process begins. However, when the penal colony beams back board a large case of classified material for the Central Bureau of Penology at Stockholm, a seemingly deranged man quietly emerges from one of the cases and runs amok aboard the Enterprise before anyone realizes the gravity of the situation. Is he an escaped criminal? Once again, a routine or ordinary situation is disrupted by something unexpected. As the Enterprise departs from Tantalus V, the crew receives a message from the colony that an inmate has escaped –“a potentially violent case.”
After a dramatic confrontation on the bridge, the man is actually revealed to be Simon van Gelder (Morgan Woodward), an administrator of the facility who serves as the assistant to Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory), a well-regarded revolutionary expert who has made considerable leaps forward in humanizing the prison system. On Tantalus V, Dr. Adams’s lofty ambition is to convert the prison from an ordinary penal colony into a renowned rehabilitation facility. Meanwhile on the Enterprise, Van Gelder is being inspected by Dr. McCoy. He demands to be granted asylum, while warning of grave danger back on Tantalus V. Naturally, Dr. McCoy is suspicious of foul play so at Dr. McCoy’s insistence the Enterprise returns to Tantalus V and Capt. Kirk plans to visit the colony in order to investigate the situation (at least according to a strict interpretation of Starship regulations). Kirk asks Dr. McCoy to find him a crewman with knowledge of penal colonies, and so Bones selects a woman with psychiatric expertise named Helen Noel (Marianna Hill). Capt. Kirk has apparently previously “known” Helen at a science lab Christmas party. The subtext here is quite amusing.
When they beam down to the penal colony, Kirk and Noel take an elevator deep below the planet’s surface where they are greeted by Dr. Adams. He leads them back to his quarters and offers a toast: “To all mankind. May we never find space so vast, planets so cold, heart and mind so empty that – that we cannot fill them with love and warmth.” Kirk and Noel decide to stay the night, they wander about the facility before heading into a room containing a device known as a neural neutralizer. It involves a patient sitting in a chair staring up at a blaring, circular light. Dr. Adams has been using the device to remove criminal’s thoughts and thus hopefully end all criminal behavior, but the device also poses grave dangers. Noel whimsically tests it on Kirk. She playfully implants a false memory into Kirk’s mind –a memory which suggests they once fell in love — but suddenly, Dr. Adams emerges and begins brainwashing Kirk with the device. When they return to quarters, Noel helps Kirk recover, though they are now effectively prisoners. They quickly devise a plot wherein she crawls through the air duct to turn off the colony’s forcefield so they can be rescued by the Enterprise (recall from the outset of the episode that the colony’s forcefields must be down in order for material to be transported). Kirk is then forcibly brought back to the neural neutralizer by Dr. Adams. When Noel turns off the forcefield, Kirk is momentarily able to escape, but Spock beams down and without understanding the situation he turns the power back on leaving Dr. Adams alone to suffer under the neural neutralizer. Even though the setting of the machine was low, Dr. Adams was left alone so his mind went completely insane before he agonizingly dying. The remaining crew on Tantalus V return ominously to the Enterprise. “It’s hard to believe that a man could die of loneliness,” says Dr. McCoy. In response Kirk pauses and says, “Not after you’ve sat in that room.”
Technology confers power, and power tends to corrupt regardless of pure intentions, therefore technology is inherently dangerous and we should be guarded about those who wield its power. Dr. Adam bears witness to this truism in “Dagger of the Mind” (an episode which is remarkably similar to “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). We are naturally wary of those who claim to subvert nature by implanting false memories and ideas because the mind is a fragile thing –perhaps we are not all too distant from such fantastical notions in our present day and age. This idea was perhaps most famously explored in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
It should also be noted that this episode episode was released at a time when mental health and imprisonment were being seriously re-evaluated (as in the writings of Michel Foucault or even Ken Kesey). Still today we continue this conversation: what is the appropriate form of imprisonment? How shall we properly handle recidivism? Is there a distinction between mental recovery and brainwashing? Is the goal of a prison to punish people for crimes, or rather to better acclimate former criminals to free society ? After venturing forth, exploring new worlds and civilizations, perhaps the deepest adventure yet for the Enterprise lies in mining the depths of the human mind.
Writer Shimon Wincelberg (1924-2004, pen name: “S. Bar-David”) was a prolific television script writer for many shows ranging from Gunsmoke and Star Trek to Lost In Space and Law & Order.
Director Vincent McEveety (1929-2018) was an Emmy award winning director of numerous television shows such as Gunsmoke, Magnum, P.I., How the West Was Won, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Stranger at My Door, Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, and of course Star Trek.
Star Trek Trivia:
- The title of this episode is taken from the famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
- This episode introduces the Vulcan Mind Meld which Spock performs on Simon van Gelder.
- After finishing this episode Morgan Woodward reportedly went home and slept for four days. Despite looking much older Woodward was only 40 years old when this episode was filmed.
- The Tantalus penal colony artwork is the same as Delta Vega from the earlier episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with some slight color variation.
- Scotty does not appear in this episode because it would have cost slightly too much money.
- A shipping label from a future Deep Space Nine episode indicates a now elderly Dr. Van Gelder is still running the Tantalus colony years later.
- This is the first episode to establish that a transporter cannot penetrate a force field.
- Helen Noel is named for a) the most beautiful woman of ancient Greece –Helen, and b) the French word for Christmas –Noelle. Another minor character on Tantalus is named for the classical River Lethe, and of course Tantalus itself alludes to classical Greek mythology (from which we derive our word for “tantalizing”). Tantalus tested the knowledge of the gods, thus he was punished and condemned to Hades. His punishment was for food and water to forever remain just out of his reach.