Star Trek: Season 3, Episode Nine “The Tholian Web”

Stardate: 5693.2 (2268)
Original Air Date: November 15, 1968
Writers: Judy Burns and Chet Richards
Director: Herb Wallerstein (Ralph Senensky, uncredited)

“If we are not careful, we shall lose the Captain and become trapped ourselves…”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Enterprise is approaching the last known position of the U.S.S. Defiant, a Federation starship which vanished without a trace approximately three weeks ago. As they enter a pocket of un-surveyed territory, Spock acknowledges a strange phenomenon –the current readings on the computer show that space is apparently breaking apart. The Enterprise has stumbled onto a highly unusual interspatial rift. Then the derelict Defiant comes into view, though ship’s sensor readings suggest the Defiant is, in truth, not actually there. The Defiant floats aimlessly in space and it now appears covered in a luminescent green material –something unusual has clearly happened. Scotty is left to helm the Enterprise while Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and Chekov beam over to the Defiant, each wearing protective environmental suits (these suits are slightly different from the suits worn in Season 1’s “The Naked Time”).

Once aboard the Defiant, the crew discovers dead bodies strewn everywhere, almost as if they died while struggling (for example, the Defiant’s captain’s neck appears to be broken). Perhaps there was a mutiny on the Defiant, but Spock informs Chekov that there has been no such recorded instance of a mutiny. There are also no life forms aboard the Defiant –everyone is dead– but the ship remains fully functional. Something dark and ominous has occurred.  

While investigating the ship’s life support systems, Chekov suddenly grows lightheaded and he nearly faints. Dr. McCoy then makes a startling discovery –the Defiant is actually in the process dissolving. His hand passes right through a crewman’s dead body on the floor. The Enterprise crew must urgently vacate the Defiant before it disappears entirely, however in this strange area of space, power is limited on the Enterprise and Scotty can only beam back three of the four crewmen before trying again. Kirk predictably remains behind while Spock, Bones, and Chekov are narrowly brought back to the Enterprise. Scotty quickly fires up the transporter again, but before Kirk can materialize, the Defiant vanishes entirely. Where has the captain gone?

Spock is now in charge of the Enterprise. He speculates that Kirk has fallen into an alternate universe and that there will be a brief window of time when both universes overlap –an unusual moment called an “interphase” which allows matter to pass between universes. Spock believes that the next interphase will occur in approximately two hours. However, while Spock explains the situation to the crew, Chekov is driven into a violent fit of madness as he attacks Spock. Other crewmen soon fall prey to violent outbursts, as well. Then a strange hostile alien race known as the Tholians appears before the Enterprise. Led by Commander Loskene of the Tholian Assembly, the Tholians assert that the Enterprise has wrongly trespassed into Tholian territory. They threaten the Enterprise, but Spock manages to temporarily persuade the aliens that the Enterprise is actually on a rescue mission, to relocate another Federation ship which is interspatially trapped. He convinces the Tholians to wait exactly one hour and fifty-three minutes, the time until which he believes Kirk will reappear, but beyond that the Tholians will attack the Enterprise. The Tholians reluctantly agree but they warn that they do not “tolerate deceit.”  

When the time arrives and the Defiant does not appear, the Tholians grow impatient and fire upon the Enterprise causing serious damage, while Spock orders return phaser fire which damages Loskene’s ship. The battle drains the Enterprise’s power and the ship is cast adrift while a second and significantly larger Tholian ship arrives and begins constructing a dangerous web-like, geometric energy field (not unlike a cage) around the Enterprise. If it is fully constructed, the Enterprise might not be able to escape. Before enacting a plan, Spock takes a few moments to declare Kirk deceased to the crew. He and Bones then squabble over leadership of the Enterprise –together, they listen to a pre-recording by Kirk which offers some sage wisdom about respecting each other’s authority in his absence. Then, ghostly images of Kirk begin appearing on the ship to the both Uhura and Scotty. Kirk is apparently trapped in between universes, floating aimlessly through space in his environmental suit –and his oxygen supply is running short.  

With time slipping away and the Tholian web nearly constructed, Spock devises a plan to entrap Kirk during the next interphase. The Enterprise will use a minor boost of its engines to get closer to Kirk and use a transporter beam while narrowly escaping the construction of the Tholian web. Thankfully, the ploy works and once back aboard the Enterprise, Kirk questions Spock and Bones about his final recording. Both men decide to sheepishly lie to the captain, claiming they did not actually watch his pre-recording.  


My Thoughts on “The Tholian Web”

The elusive Tholians strike me as one of the more intriguing non-humanoid alien species to appear in Star Trek. We have seen other remarkable creatures like the Horta in “Devil in the Dark” or the tiny aliens in “Catspaw,” but none seem quite as astute or brutal as the Tholians. Perhaps this is why the Enterprise makes little attempt to form a pact with them, Spock does not even discuss inviting the Tholians to join the Federation. They seem like a no-nonsense species –precise, silicone-based, chrystalline geologic creatures –and according to later Treklore, they have geode-like heads with bright eyes and six legs. They thrive in extreme heat and are notably punctual. Their spider web, forcefield is slow to construct but apparently effective in entrapping enemies. I look forward to exploring the Tholians more as I dive deeper into Star Trek.

There are also a number of interesting themes in this episode –not least of which includes the problems associated with the successive chain of command in the event of Kirk’s death. Upon assuming the role of captain, Spock behaves as he once did in “The Galileo Seven,” and he quickly draws the ire of Bones. It is a tricky situation. If not for Kirk’s pre-recording, perhaps the ship might have fallen into a worse situation.

Also, the discovery of abandoned or derelict ships continues to be an intriguing premise –the U.S.S. Defiant almost seems like a ghostly Flying Dutchman which appears out of this strange rift across multiple universes. I can see where this episode’s horror story basis initially came from –there are echoes of ghosts and otherworldly mysteries. And while I thought this was another classic episode, a few questions still persist for me. What exactly happened to the Defiant? Is the crew’s madness a product of this particular pocket of space? Are the Tholians aware of the multiple universe interphases? How does the Enterprise successfully flee away from this place if the ship’s power is severely damaged? There are lots of fascinating ideas touched upon in this episode.    


Writer/Director

Married couple Judy Burns and Chet Richards wrote this episode. Judy was a freelance television writer hoping to earn money for a study trip to Africa. Her initial idea involved floating spirits around the Enterprise in a horror story, however Gene Roddenberry forbade unnatural supernatural events, like ghosts and so on. Judy then transformed the idea into an interdimensional rift story. Judy developed the idea for the Tholians, while the idea behind the Tholians came from Chet.  

This was the final episode directed by Ralph Senensky. In continuing with the unpleasantness behind the scenes during the third season, he was fired during mid-production of this episode as a result of going slightly over schedule. Herb Wallerstein was then ushered in to finish up the episode. Wallerstein was a director of other popular shows like Gunsmoke and Wonder Woman.


Star Trek Trivia:

  • The original title for this episode was ”The Nothing” or “In Essence – Nothing.”
  • The Tholians and the U.S.S. Defiant return in a mirror universe two-part episode of Star Trek Enterprise entitled “In A Mirror, Darkly.”
  • This episode highlights the problems occurring behind the scenes as Director Ralph Senensky was abruptly fired mid-episode.
  • There were some notable differences between the original script and final episode, such as the use of forcefield belts instead of environmental suits. The belts later appeared in the animated series. Another distinction was the name of the U.S.S. Defiant –initially it was called the “U.S.S. Scimitar.”
  • Paul Baxley
  • Nichelle Nichols praised two episodes as among her favorites: “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “The Tholian Web.”
  • Barbara Babcock, who appeared in a total of seven TOS episodes, performed an uncredited role in this episode as the voice of Loskene, the Tholian. Mike Minor created the original puppet of Loskene.
  • An ebonized statue of Napoleon III appears in Spock’s quarters in this episode. The prop also appears in classic films including It’s A Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane.
  • The US Customs department later borrowed the term “Tholian Web” to refer to an internet project to entrap and capture child predators.
  • Leonard Nimoy actually ad-libbed the line about Tholian “punctuality.”

Click here to return to my survey of the Star Trek series.

3 thoughts on “Star Trek: Season 3, Episode Nine “The Tholian Web”

  1. I thought it was interesting how this episode was referenced in season 1 of Discovery. It’s always intriguing how a sci-fi franchise finds ways to revisit or retcon the past. Thank you for your review and trivia.

    Liked by 2 people

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