In the middle of working, seeing Hamilton, watching Good Omens, planning for the annual Clarion West Write-a-Thon, and writing “one quick Shadowhunters fanfic” that’s somehow exploded into the size of a goddamn novella, I’m afraid that my blog has fallen a bit by the wayside. Today, however, I have our next TOS recap, in which Kirk invites a killer space probe on board the Enterprise–his options are limited–and things go downhill from there.
Especially for Uhura.
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 receives a distress alert from a system populated by four billion people, but when they arrive, they find that the entire species has already been obliterated by mysterious green bolts of energy. Naturally, the Enterprise is the next target. The ship is on the verge of destruction when Kirk finally attempts to communicate. The hostile alien initially responds in a 21st century Earth code; eventually, they’re able to establish a dialogue. The alien calls itself Nomad and agrees to come on board to talk to Kirk. Which is when it becomes apparent that Nomad is, in fact, not an organic being, but a little floating space computer.
Nomad continuously calls Kirk “the creator” and says that its mission is to sterilize biological infestations, or, in other words, destroy anyone who’s not perfect. This is bad news for Uhura, whose mind gets wiped, and also Scotty and several red shirts, who get flat-out murdered. Luckily, Nomad has handy resurrection abilities and brings Scotty back to life under Kirk’s orders. (The red shirts are less lucky. Also, Uhura, who has to literally be retaught everything she knows, and o-ho, will we be discussing that later.)
After initiating a mind meld, Spock confirms that Nomad is an ancient Earth probe whose mission was to seek out new alien lifeforms. After being hit by a meteor, however, Nomad somehow merged with an advanced alien probe whose purpose was to sterilize soil samples prior to colonization. Nomad’s memory banks were damaged and a new purpose was formed. The only thing keeping it from killing everyone on board (and/or killing everyone on Earth) is its mistaken belief that Kirk is Dr. Roykirk, its creator.
Of course, Nomad quickly starts doubting Kirk’s infallibility and takes over the ship. Kirk tells Nomad the truth, that he isn’t its creator and that it’s made multiple mistakes, which means it’s an imperfect creation that needs to be sterilized. Nomad has a can-not-compute meltdown, and they’re able to beam it out into space before it self-destructs.
Man. This show really does love its Logic Bomb trope, huh? (I can’t say the same, myself, although I do think its handled marginally better here than in “Return of the Archons.”)
Mostly, this is a middling episode for me. The very best thing about it, by far, is that Spock has a mind meld with a space probe, which I suspect other people hate because it’s ridiculous, but I love because–well, because it’s a little ridiculous, sure, but also because I am, and forever will be, a sucker for weird telepathy shit. (Besides, I actually don’t think it’s inherently ludicrous, mind-melding with a computer. There’s an argument to be made for Nomad’s sentience, and anyway, there absolutely has to be fanfic where Data mind-melds with somebody, right?) If I had my way, Kirk would need to pull his BFF out of a dangerous mind meld every other episode. I specifically love that Spock gets so overwhelmed by this particular one that he says “um” as he struggles to formulate his thoughts. (Seriously, how often do you hear Spock use filler words?) He also gives his very best Dalek impression here. The whole scene is pretty delightful.
But my god, people. None of that matters because we have to talk about Uhura.
When we first see her after the mind wipe, Uhura is completely catatonic: standing there, blinking, an empty shell. The structure of her brain technically hasn’t been damaged, but she’s definitely been rebooted to factory settings. And like, that sounds pretty dire, right? Well, Spock doesn’t seem to think so. He’s all, “That’s cool. We’ll just reeducate her.” And Kirk’s like, “Sounds good. Bones, get on that.” And Bones is like, “No problem. Nurse, hop to it.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? What in the actual FUCK?”
Our reeducation scene consists of Nurse Chapel teaching Uhura how to read again via children’s e-books–I’m talking “see Spot run” here–and it’s just problematic on so many levels, I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, watching a white woman cheerfully praise a grown ass black woman for managing one-syllable words is just as cringeworthy as it sounds. For another, this scene is played as a comedy, with a confused Uhura looking directly at the camera as she mispronounces “blue” as “blue-y.” Jesus Christ.
This whole subplot really just doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all. Like, Uhura starts speaking in Swahili, right? (To which Chapel is all, “No, no, Uhura, English,” which, yeah, is definitely another yikes moment.) But while it is undoubtedly awesome to hear Uhura actually speak Swahili on screen–something I’ve read Nichelle Nichols herself pushed for–I’m left wondering, “Who taught her this?” Because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Christine Chapel, and language isn’t instinctual like breathing. Even our first language must be learned . . . unless . . . unless we’re saying Swahili doesn’t count as a real language, or that English is the only one that matters?
And sure, it’s great that Uhura shows an aptitude for mathematics and all, but hey, what about her fucking life? Does anyone tell Uhura about her friends, her family? How does she feel about these people, considering she has absolutely no memories of them? How does she see herself? Everything she knows about her life–her entire sense of identity, be it cultural, racial, religious, sexual, professional, gender, etc.–presumably comes from what Nurse Chapel could find in her Starfleet record. I mean, there is so much existential drama happening here, it boggles the damn mind.
Naturally, though, TOS wants nothing to do with all that. We don’t even see Uhura after this scene; instead, at the end of the episode, Bones informs Kirk that Uhura’s relearning her college education now and should be back on the job within a week. Holy Jesus, how much time has passed between these scenes? Is it still supposed to be the same day? Is Uhura, in fact, the smartest person to ever exist? (Obviously, the answer is yes.) And that’s it; that’s all we’re ever going to hear about this ever again.
This episode has broken me. I am officially broken.
Literally the only good thing I can say about any of this is that Uhura and Chapel finally share a scene together, which means I don’t have to tag this review as a Bechdel Fail. Something like 30-episodes into the series, and I think this might be the very first time TOS actually passed this basic ass test.
Nomad initially goes after Uhura because it hears her singing over the comm. I’m amused by just how often Nichelle Nichols sings on this show. (Does anyone else in Trek sing so much? Robert Picardo on Voyager, maybe?) I’m considerably less amused, however by this exchange between Nomad and Spock, explaining why it wiped her brain:
“That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me.”
“That unit is a woman.”
“A mass of conflicting impulses.”
Ugh. In a semi-related note, it’s pretty cool that Uhura can recognize old interplanetary codes–or at least she could. Christ knows if she can now. This fucking show, I swear to God.
Sulu Watch: Sulu’s contributions to this episode are minimal, although it is funny, watching him scoot backwards out of the way as Nomad floats right past his face. He then silently reaches out to warn an oblivious Uhura, all, Um? UM? Sulu also pulls Uhura away to relative safety after she’s been mind-wiped, while Scotty distracts Nomad by charging straight at it.
Season 2 really does seem to be doubling down on Scotty’s instinctive need to save damsels in distress, coupled with his complete and hilarious inability to do so. Here, Scotty gets immediately (if temporarily) killed for trying to save Uhura, but at least his–shall we go with chivalry? Sure, his chivalry is much less annoying than it was in “Who Mourns For Adonais?” Blindly charging a genocidal super computer isn’t the most strategic of plans, no, but considering Uhura is actively in danger at the time, Scotty’s “attack, attack!” instincts aren’t completely unwarranted.
Besides, when it comes to Worst Self-Preservation Instincts, Bones is the clear winner. He outright yells at Nomad after the probe kills/resurrects Scotty, and it’s up to Spock to pointedly ask “the Creator” if maybe he wants Nomad to wait elsewhere, you know, before the little fucker sterilizes the ship’s CMO unit, too.
The smug expression on Spock’s face when Nomad declares that he, unlike everyone else on board, is “well-ordered” is pretty priceless.
After hearing Nomad’s backstory, Kirk provides our episode title by recalling the legend of the changeling: “A faerie child that was left in place of a human baby. The changeling assumed the identity of the human child.” Though I’ve always been drawn to changeling stories, I’ll admit that I am definitely not an expert on European folklore . . . and yet I can’t help but feel like there is a very sizable leap from “space probe was knocked around by a meteor and merged consciousness with an alien probe, which led it to becoming a KILLER PROBE” to, uh, “some imposter faerie baby.”
FASHION REPORT: Mostly, I just need to note that Nurse Chapel has returned to us with new, two-toned hair: platinum blonde on top, yellow blonde on bottom. It’s definitely not my favorite hairstyle, but it’s worlds better than it looked last season.
The Enterprise Didn’t Stick The Landing: in its typically atonal fashion, the show ends with Kirk joking about how losing Nomad was difficult because, in a way, it was like losing his own prodigy child. “My son,” he says, as jaunty music plays in the background, “a doctor.” Meanwhile, I’m sure that the handful of permanently dead crew members–not to mention the entire alien race who got wiped out by Nomad–are chuckling over Kirk’s jokes in Hell.
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“My congratulations, Captain. A dazzling display of logic.”
“You didn’t think I had it in me, did you, Spock?”
4 thoughts on “World’s Worst Trekkie: Carlie Takes On “The Changeling””
Now go watch Star Trek, The Motion Picture again and you’ll really understand why I call it “Star Trek, The Motionless Picture: Where Nomad Has Gone Before.”
Actually, I’ve never seen it. It’s the only TOS movie I haven’t watched, but I did read how similar it was to this episode.
I think you’ve pretty much nailed this one too. Looking back at the motion picture / changeling mishmash, I have to wonder what was going through my mind so many moons ago when I first saw Star Trek and enjoyed it so much. Nowadays I get more entertainment watching old Dr who episodes. The only real difference between the changeling and the motion picture is the special effects, though since you’ve seen 2001 you have that covered too.
One thing that always bugged me though, even when I first saw Trek, was the casual la-la-la way Kirk and Co waltzed through the galaxy, ignoring that prime directive thingy, and left utter chaos in their wake. How many times did they see things wiped out, whole civilizations way of thinking changed or just destroyed, and they they walked away smug that they had ‘done the right thing’.
Sorry, pre-coffee AM rant over.
Yeah, I wish the Prime Directive was handled better in Trek. It could make for really interesting moral dilemmas, but they ignore it so often–especially in TOS, I think–that it usually ends up feeling like an artificial plot complication. And agree 1000% on that whole “walking away smug” thing.