Good morning, all. Today is my sister’s birthday, and really, what better gift can one give than the snarky over-analyzation of a beloved science fiction classic? In today’s episode of TOS, we have it all: a sexy psychologist, the first Vulcan mind meld, a boatload of unethical psychiatry, and a weird dude in a box.
Never let it be said I don’t know how to give bomb ass gifts, people.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
The Enterprise exchanges supplies with this super progressive penal colony, only the box they get comes with a surprise escaped prisoner inside. The patient, they discover, is Dr. Simon Van Gelder, the previous director of said colony. Van Gelder asks for asylum. While Kirk is skeptical that anything sinister is really going on, he reluctantly goes down to investigate with Dr. Helen Noel, a hot psychologist he had . . . something . . . with at the last Christmas party.
Dr. Adams, the new director and secret sinister bastard, is using a device called the neutral neutralizer (henceforth known as the Chair of Doom) to mind control, well, everyone, I guess. He can implant or steal memories, create false emotions, and inflict severe pain. Kirk finds this out firsthand when he and Dr. Noel are captured testing out the chair. Dr. Adams, of course, makes Kirk believe that he’s ardently in love with Noel.
Kirk–fighting the implanted memories–helps Noel escape so that she can turn off the station’s power. This allows Kirk to escape the Chair of Doom. It also allows Spock, who has since learned about Adams’s unethical experiments via mind meld, to beam down to the colony and basically fry Adams’s brain, albeit accidentally. Apparently, Adams didn’t die so much from the voltage as from “loneliness,” as his mind was completely emptied out from the Chair of Doom. It’s an ironic death, for sure, but I can’t say that it’s nearly as profound as the episode wants it to be.
There are a lot of things I can get pretty nerdy about in speculative fiction. Alien language. Cultural anthropology. SPACE GODS. Space ethics, too, are totally my jam; as such, I recognize some glimmers of potential in this episode. Like how Kirk seems to think penal colonies are necessary, but admires how Dr. Adams has revolutionized the system to be more humane. Meanwhile, Bones finds the whole idea of penal colonies barbaric, or as he puts it: “a cage is a cage, Jim.” That difference of opinion right there? I’m interested in that. Why was Kirk touring penal colonies anyway? Is Bones’s distaste for them personal or purely idealogical, and for that matter, does he have a different solution to replace the current prison system? What might such a solution be? He certainly doesn’t support Spock’s solution, which, predictably, is to excise all emotion. “Where there is no emotion,” Spock says, “there is no motive for violence.” I disagree with this theory with all my heart and soul, but it’s fascinating stuff, regardless. This is the kind of material I wish “Dagger of the Mind” really delved into.
Instead, the episode goes in a different direction, one in which I would best describe as “Kirk and Noel: Assholes or Major Assholes?”
At first, Kirk just seems like a normal asshole. His refusal to believe that Dr. Adams could be doing anything even remotely nefarious is frustrating, particularly when Adams is like, “Oh, I’d love it if you personally came down to investigate. But don’t bring too many people with you because, you know. Reasons.” Like, come on, dude. I know it’s hard when your heroes turn out to be total icky creepsters, but seriously. Get your shit together.
However, Kirk quickly Levels Up in Jackass when we meet Dr. Noel. Admittedly, Noel isn’t particularly discreet about their past, but Kirk is immediately SUCH A DICK about it. Like, sure, it’s probably awkward to work with the woman you nearly had a fling with–which, hey, what happened to that whole “oh, woe is me, the Captain never gets to bang his hot yeoman” angst–but seriously, suck it up, dude. Try some basic professionalism. Instead, Kirk glares at Noel, repeatedly cuts her off, and even questions her abilities to Spock right in front of her. This is all in the first few minutes of seeing her, mind. Throughout the episode, Kirk will continue to interrupt Noel and condescendingly brush off all her opinions, despite the fact that she’s literally there to provide him with her expertise.
Regretfully, Noel manages to be even worse. How? Well, for starters, those expert opinions actually are all pretty terrible. See, from the second they beam down to the penal colony, Noel suddenly becomes the totally biased hero-worshipper, while Kirk is now the cynical skeptic. I mean, it’s ridiculous: Noel shows absolutely no ability to be objective at all. And as far as her Level Up in Jackass goes, well. While testing out the Chair of Doom, Kirk tells Noel to try feeding his mind an “unusual suggestion.” Noel interprets that to mean “let me alter your memory of the Christmas party, so now you believe you carried me to your quarters for some steamy holiday sex.”
This is so unbelievably unethical and gross.
Of course, it’s Dr. Adams who makes it even creepier by suggesting that Kirk is madly in love with Noel, but, like, he’s the mad scientist bad guy. That’s how mad scientist bad guys do. I expect a lot fucking better from our heroes, cause if they’re gonna act like this? They need to be called out on it, pronto, and learn from it too.
But 1966, right? Yeah, no one’s learning shit in this episode.
It’s too bad that Noel is today’s Chief Asshat because there’s a moment here where she is honest-to-God badass. After crawling through the air ducts and briefly knocking out the power, Noel feigns injury before kicking a guard into the high voltage box, managing to knock out the power again and electrocuting this dude dead. It’s so epic I almost find myself liking her. Almost.
Here’s another problem for me: “Dagger of the Mind” ends without resolving Kirk’s brainwashed-induced feelings for Noel. Did they . . . what? Magically go away? Fade with time? Did someone reprogram Kirk back to normal? This would be so fascinating to see followed-up in later episodes; sadly, that’s not going to happen.
First Time We’ve Encountered: a Vulcan mind meld! YES! This is so exciting; this easily makes this whole “meh” episode worth watching. I’m curious to see the progression of mind melds over time. In this one, Spock creepily moves around Van Gelder’s head–seriously, there’s something really striking about his body language here–and asks things like, “What is our name?” and “What did he do to us?” It’s just, like, really fucking cool.
Predictably, Bones cares nothing for the cultural, psychological, or emotional implications of Spock performing his first mind meld on a human.
The giant box that Van Gelder hides in is, hilariously, marked CLASSIFIED MATERIAL – DO NOT OPEN. I want such a box now. In semi-related news, Van Gelder is awfully hard to take seriously. He’s definitely a proponent of the bug-eyed school of acting, and the close-ups don’t really help with that.
FASHION REPORT: Look, we all know that the TOS dresses are stupidly short, but Dr. Noel’s dress is so ridiculous that I can literally see her Spanx. I mean, Jesus. On a happier fashion note, the penal colony robes? Magnificent. They’re totally these blue bathrobes with, like, a bird and a wonky hand and a glowy sun where a left breast pocket would be. Oh, man. Maybe I can turn Star Trek Bathrobe Cosplays into an actual ongoing theme.
According to Noel, the shifting of memory patterns is “a basic of psychotherapy.” I am, admittedly, not an expert in psychotherapy, but find this assertion dubious nonetheless.
Jim Kirk’s School of Fighting will never not be funny.
I also kind of love that Kirk actually narrates his captain’s log from the captain’s chair. Man, that’s not me. I can’t write a two-sentence note without needing to stop and revise for clarity and wit.
I see it’s yet another vacation day for Sulu and Scotty.
Finally, my 100% legitimate interpretation of the scene where Bones convinces a reluctant Kirk to investigate shady Dr. Adams:
Bones: I have reasonable doubts, motherfucker, and as captain, you have a duty to answer them, so BOOM. *drops mic*
Kirk: Oh, that’s how it’s gonna be? Fine. That’s fine. Hope you don’t mind sleeping on the couch tonight, dick.
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“I want asylum.”