Years ago, at DragonCon, I watched Mother Horta take home the crown at the annual Miss Star Trek Universe Pageant. Of course, that mostly meant I had to do some quick Googling because, not having actually watched TOS yet, I had no real frame of reference for who this character was.
So, it was to my great delight when–almost 20 minutes into “The Devil in the Dark”–I sat up and realized, Holy shit, this is the Mother Horta episode!
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 arrives at Janus VI, a super important mining colony where 50 workers have been killed by some tunnel monster. (Specifically, they’ve been burned to ash.) Meanwhile, Spock just happens to notice this very obviously placed silicon ball on the foreman’s desk, but I’m sure those things are completely unrelated.
The monster turns out to be a silicon-based lifeform. Spock is reluctant to kill it, at least until Kirk’s in danger; then he’s all, “Shoot that motherfucker, Jim!” Kirk, OTOH, is definitely on board to kill the creature until he comes face-to-face with it; then, seeing how it doesn’t attack, decides to have Spock conduct a mind meld instead. Not everyone’s feeling so peaceful, though: an angry mob of vengeful miners come bearing their figurative torches, while a bunch of Enterprise extras try to fend them off.
Through the mind meld, Spock discovers that the alien is a Horta, the last of its generation, and has only been trying to protect the next generation of Horta from the humans. The silicon balls–of which there are millions–are Horta eggs about to hatch. Bones heals the injured Mother Horta, while Kirk manages to broker a peace between her and the angry mob of vengeful miners, arguing in favor of a mutually beneficial collaboration. By the end, Spock compliments his own ears, Kirk insults Spock by pointing out his humanlike tendencies, and all is well and good in the land of the USS: Enterprise.
I’m sure I’ve said this before (and will undoubtedly say it again), but episodes like this one are always a little difficult to fully appreciate because I’ve seen so many variations on the basic theme before. I know full well that this peaceful resolution for a classic monster hunt was likely groundbreaking stuff at the time, that the whole “misunderstood beast” trope was probably a fresh twist in 1967. Unfortunately, it’s 2019 now, and I took a whole one second to look at that first silicon ball before going, “Oh, it’s the alien’s baby.”
It doesn’t help, either, that Spock immediately comes to the same conclusion . . . only to keep mum because, you know, this knowledge can only be revealed at the proper time, or whatever. (His actual excuse is that he’d rather not say anything else that might make Bones laugh at him, which is a funny line, but c’mon now.) Spock withholds (or is prevented from explaining) his hypothesis at least two more times before we finally get the Big Inevitable Reveal, and honestly, that’s just even more grating, like, you know when you’re on the phone, and you’re listening to atrocious hold music, only it keeps getting interrupted every 30 seconds with an automated reminder that your call is very important and someone will be with you shortly? It’s kind of like that: something that’s intended to be useful, but really just increases your homicidal tendencies.
On the upside, this is really a pretty decent Spock/Kirk shipper episode. Kirk tries to bench Spock from the monster hunt, and yeah, it’s probably because he suspects his First Officer is gonna try and capture Mother Horta alive, but it’s also totally because he loves Spock and doesn’t want him to get hurt. Kirk’s bemused reaction when Spock tells him the exact odds of their both getting killed is pretty priceless, like, this banter–particularly from Kirk–is downright flirty, and that’s coming from me, the girl who is always looking for epic platonic relationships. Meanwhile, watch Spock just totally abandon his principles the very second Kirk’s life is in danger, like, even Kirk calls him out on that shit. For Christ’s sake, Spock abandons formalities and calls out, “Jim!” as he starts running forward to save his friend’s life.
Yeah, dudes. Just kiss already.
Sad trivia time: William Shatner’s father passed away while he was working on this episode. He stayed on set to finish filming before going home. That’s just awful.
On a happier note? Mother Horta. Mother Freaking Horta, OMG. This is the most hilarious creature design. She’s like . . . she’s like a giant brain made up of, IDK, Hamburger Helper? Or maybe a bunch of rocks covered in a ketchup and mustard magma? No description can possibly do her justice.
I feel sorry for the poor miner in the beginning of this episode. He’s extremely reluctant about guard duty, and for good reason, too: dude is toast, pretty much literally. He dies for nothing, either, like he’s supposed to be a guard, but really he’s just a sitting duck who’s waiting to be murdered. Hopefully, this isn’t how every single one of the 50 dead miners have met their end, like, I know they’ve all been burned to death, but surely not one-by-one over a period of three months? I’m just saying, if that’s the case, a change in strategy might be in order. Also, Jesus, Enterprise. Maybe drive a little faster?
In all seriousness, though, I’m actually frustrated by how the foreman is written. I don’t object to the idea that he might want revenge against Mother Horta, but everything this guy does for, like, 2/3 of the episode is all about protecting his people: insisting that going after the creature is suicide, demanding mass evacuations, etc. This is all pretty reasonable for a dude who has lost 50 of his workers–so it makes little sense when he completely 180s, all WE WON’T BE CHASED AWAY; WE WILL KILL THIS MONSTER WITH OUR BARE HANDS, you know, just as soon as the Moral of the Story requires it. It’s pretty weak.
Y’all know I adore me some Leonard Nimoy, but the mind meld scene here is . . . not good. Or it’s great, rather, if you’re going for hysterical, but man. “PAIN!” Spock screams, as I crack up and Mek jokes that Marina Sirtis must watch this clip and be all, “Suck it haters.”
Which, gotta agree. I’m not saying I’ve never mocked a Troi line (my personal favorite is “I have to find you! I have to tell you!”) but in this particular scene, Nimoy’s telepathy is just as cheesy and laughably bad as anything Sirtis did on TNG.
First Time We’ve Encountered: I’m a Doctor, Not a Fill-in-the-Blank! (In this case, it’s “bricklayer.”) This is exciting! Although it should be said, while I agree with Kirk’s sentiment here–namely, that Bones is a healer and Mother Horta is a patient, which is all that matters–not giving Bones a heads up that the patient he’s being called to consult on is an acid-spewing mass murderer is kind of a dick move.
FWIW, The Vault of Tomorrow is a pretty decent band name.
Sulu Watch: Sulu isn’t in this episode, sadly. Neither is Uhura (or, for that matter, literally any other woman), so I choose to believe either he’s teaching her how to fence or she’s teaching him how to sing. Possibly both. Swordplay duets FTW!
I’ve said before that the ending banter between Spock and Kirk and (occasionally) Bones doesn’t always work for me–either because it’s repetitive, doesn’t match the tone of the episode, or both–but here I actually do quite like it. Couldn’t say why, exactly; after all, Kirk poking at Spock for being half-human is pretty old hat by now. Still, this closing bit works for me.
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“I have already given Dr. McCoy sufficient cause for amusement. I would prefer to cogitate the possibilities for a time.”