Have you ever watched a movie or television show and thought, “Damn, this might’ve been a decent story, but JFC, we desperately need to recast this part?”
Yeah. Let’s talk about Star Trek. Specifically, let’s talk about “The Doomsday Machine.”
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, following a distress call, comes across a devastated star system where multiple planets have been destroyed. They also find a heavily damaged vessel, the USS: Constellation. When Kirk, Scotty, Bones, and a few others beam aboard, they find the ship empty except for Commodore Matt Decker, Kirk’s old friend, who’s pretty much catatonic from shock. As he slowly recovers, a horrified Decker explains how they were investigating the destruction of the fourth planet in the system. They quickly ran into this massive robot-thing in space (henceforth known as the “planet killer”), and in the ensuing battle, the Constellation was heavily damaged. Decker was forced to order a ship wide evacuation to the third planet, but before he could leave himself, the transporter was knocked offline, trapping Decker aboard. Helpless, he watched as the planet killer turned its attention to the third planet and annihilated it, killing Decker’s entire crew.
Bones and Decker make it back over to the Enterprise. Before Kirk and Scotty can join them, though, the planet killer returns. It attacks the Enterprise, knocking out its transporters, before giving up the chase and changing course towards some heavily populated colonies. Spock wants to retreat, go rescue Kirk and Scotty, and find a way to warn said colonies; unfortunately, Decker is the highest ranking officer, and he commands the crew to attack the planet killer instead, despite the fact that there’s virtually no chance of success. Meanwhile, Scotty finally gets the Constellation at least halfway working, so they can help save the Enterprise. Kirk, very displeased with Decker, orders Spock to relieve him of command.
Decker, naturally, immediately escapes and steals a shuttle, with the hope that he can destroy the planet killer if he flies straight into the ship’s maw. Kirk tries to dissuade him, saying that his plan won’t work, but Decker goes through with it, anyway, killing himself in the process. The damage to the planet killer is negligible, but it does lead Kirk to believe that Decker had the right idea, just too small of a ship. He alone stays on the Constellation and steers it towards the planet killer, much to the consternation of his crew, who are having serious trouble with their transporters. Fortunately, they manage to beam Kirk up at literally the very last second. The planet killer, of course, is destroyed.
“The Doomsday Machine” is one of the more beloved and critically acclaimed episodes of TOS, even earning a Hugo nomination. (It lost to “The City on the Edge of Forever.”) The story itself is pretty solid, maybe Star Trek’s first (though certainly not last) foray into Captain Ahab territory. There are a few bits I can’t help but poke at, like, Kirk immediately deciding that this planet killer was created as a bluffing tactic, an ultimate weapon that was never meant to be used. I know there’s nothing Trek loves more than talking about 20th century history, but Jesus Christ, there’s absolutely no evidence to support this in the episode itself, and also, who even cares? Themes are great, and morals are fine, but goddamn, this shit also needs to be relevant to the problem at hand. Also, while the show explains why neither Spock nor Bones can prove Decker’s unfit for command . . . I don’t know, that explanation feels pretty weak to me. Like, dude has clearly suffered massive psychological trauma and was utterly unresponsive not fifteen minutes ago. I’m not that convinced he’s got a leg to stand on here.
But these are relatively minor issues for me. Overall, this is a pretty strong story, giving us a sympathetic antagonist whose emotional and psychological trauma is both understandable and compelling. It’s especially brutal when it initially appears he dies for nothing, like, for Trek, that’s some pretty bleak shit. And while the story itself is relatively simple, that kinda works in its favor here: no ridiculous faux gods or glowing green space hands or zany costumes to take away from the episode’s inherent gravitas. Which isn’t to say there’s zero fun to be had–TOS will always, always have room for some Kirk-Spock-Bones banter–but the material is, overall, serious and thoughtful.
Decker is played by William Windom, and I cannot take a single one of his acting choices seriously. I want to; I really do. Decker had to watch, helpless, as the 400 people under his command died; seriously, it’s fucking brutal, and as an audience member, I wanna feel that. But whenever Windom delivers his lines, his grief feels cartoonish, laughable. I simply do not buy it, which means I don’t buy his need for vengeance, which means I don’t buy his self-sacrifice, or, frankly, the episode at large. That scene where Decker flies the shuttle to his doom? I genuinely like how he’s scared and overwhelmed, and yet . . . every facial expression is so over-exaggerated that I just cannot believe it. Windom’s odd habit of poking his tongue out definitely doesn’t help any. I haven’t seen this much unnecessary tongue acting since David Tennant in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.
“The Doomsday Machine” isn’t a bad story, in and of itself, but it relies heavily on a strong guest performance, and, for my money, Windom simply can’t deliver it. As such, I just don’t like this one nearly as much as other people seem to. It’s definitely not the worst Trek has to offer, but I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the top, either.
Unlike Decker, Kirk has no intention of sacrificing himself, so it’s pretty funny to watch him stranded on the Constellation, counting down the seconds, all, “Uh, hey?” as the Enterprise fails to beam him up. Although he doesn’t have much business acting surprised about it; Spock definitely warned him about the transporters. On a related note, Kirk is constantly asking Scotty to perform miracles on this show, which seems mildly unfair.
Dude’s literally got shit exploding around him as Kirk’s all, “Gentlemen,” and Spock’s all, “Mr. Scott,” and I’m just saying, Scotty’s earned himself a damn vacation, I think.
The Enterprise Doesn’t Stick The Landing: Okay, this isn’t one isn’t as tone deaf as TOS endings usually are. Still, the writing kills me a little as Kirk drags the moral of the episode/20th century history lesson, kicking and screaming, into the denouement. I’d probably forgive it if Spock’s line (“I can’t help wondering if there are any more of those ‘weapons’ wandering around the universe”) was actually setting up a later episode. Due to Trek’s incredibly episodic nature, though, I kind of doubt it.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that while I have some sympathy for Decker, he also gets a lot of people on the Enterprise needlessly killed, and I wish there was space for the show to talk about that a little. Like, I feel for the guy, I do, but I also feel pretty bad for all those severe casualties that are briefly reported and then never mentioned again.
In this episode, Kirk seems pretty content to break the rules and mouth off to superior officers, whereas Spock is dead set on adhering to regulations. When compared to their characterizations in the overall canon . . . yeah, that seems pretty on point. When compared to their actions in Season 1, though, it’s surprisingly kind of a 180. Okay, maybe Spock didn’t mouth off a whole lot, but he definitely broke more rules. Kirk, meanwhile, is definitely more of an obedient soldier in Season 1, and I’m very curious to see if this episode marks the beginning of a characterization shift, or if it’s more of a one-off.
I like that Spock, adorable pedantic bastard that he is, is always ready to correct Kirk on mathematics. When Kirk, laying out his plan to defeat the planet killer, asks, “Am I correct in assuming that a fusion explosion of 97 megatons will result if a starship impulse engine is overloaded?” Spock very seriously answers, “No, sir. 97.835 megatons.” Love you, Spock.
Sulu Watch: Sulu doesn’t have very much to do in this episode, unfortunately, other than look increasingly concerned with Decker’s poor decision making skills. Although he is the one who notices the planet killer’s small drop in power after Decker’s sacrifice, which leads to Kirk figuring out how to save the day. Love you, Sulu!
What’s Up, Uhura: Alas, Uhura is once again not in this episode. Come back to us, Uhura, we miss you!
Finally, and simply because Shatner’s delivery of the line is impeccable:
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“Gentlemen. Beam me aboard.”