Star Trek: The Devil in the Dark

Star Trek Opening TitlesI love this episode.  I don’t love it because of the great acting by Nimoy during his mind-meld, but because it really did something really amazing.  It gave us the Horta. You’re probably thinking: why is that special?  Look at the creatures that we’ve encountered up until now.  The M-113 (salt vampire) is humanoid.  The spores were plants; big orchids.  The Talosians were humanoid.  Balok, the Gorn, Khan, Landru… human(oid).  Even the Squire of Gothos appears as human even if he is ultimately a flashlight spot on the universe.  Not exactly awe-inspiring!  The Horta, however, is the first alien in Trek that is truly alien.  It doesn’t speak and only manages three etched-in-stone words: No Kill I after communing with Spock’s mind.  (If you think about The Girl in the Fireplace from Doctor Who, a mind meld can be a two-way communing of minds, so Star Trek got to that idea first!)   It’s a creature that, like any other, protects its young.  But it is gloriously alien in all other respects.  This opens an entire question which, considering this was 1967, is really interesting: can life exist that is not carbon based?  According to Star Trek, it can but that may not be enough for reality.  The idea of “no life as we know it” does open the mind to the possibility of other forms of life, totally alien to our way of understanding. For me, that’s “mind candy!”

Don’t misunderstand me; the episode is not flawless.  The fact that the Horta decides to damage the planet’s power reactor is silly considering the creature probably didn’t attend Starfleet tech classes, yet it knew exactly what to take.  And more importantly, considering its willingness to kill to protect its young, why only take the reactor when destroying it would have made more sense?  I know Kirk looks over the shoulder of a redshirt when Spock is giving them their orders, but did he really memorize the cave map?  And “a few thousand meters” was about 20 feet in the episode.  Spock’s odds that he shares with Kirk about both of them dying is all well and good, even if exaggerated, but that does entail the idea that they don’t go exploring together; one big target. (I still want to comment on the base director’s poster that he pulls out of the maps… and then says nothing about it, only for Spock to tell Jim he’s “charted” the deaths.  By looking at a maze?!  But I’ll let that go…)

What I can’t let go is the positive outcome that will make the miners rich.  I sure hope Jim arrested the people who brutally beat his security detail with clubs!  Even if he understands their motivations, he better have dealt with that before giving them the keys to Aladdin’s cave.

That said, I still need to sing its praises.  When a piece of the creature is blasted off, it still pulsates!  I utterly love that little detail.  I love that Spock is unwilling to commit genocide and even disobeys Jim’s orders to try to capture the creature… until Jim himself is in danger.  Suddenly Spock changes his tune and he is ready to kill to save his friend.  I love the Silicone nodules are actually eggs.  And that they are large round orbs, not something Jon Pertwee can use to stir his coffee (See: Doctor Who: The Three Doctors).  I love the little lesson about motherhood; that a mother will do anything to protect her young.  It’s a simple, but effective message.  And most of all, I love McCoy’s “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”  I wish I could use that somewhere.

I will tie this one up with yet one more Doctor Who knot.  This story not only arrived at the two-way mind meld years before Doctor Who, it also introduced a creature called the Horta on the plant Janus.  Interestingly, by January of 1977, exactly 10 years after this episode, Doctor Who gave us The Face of Evil.  Significant only in that we find a small carnivore called the Horda.  And Leela, introduced in this episode, uses the Janis thorn to paralyze people.  Like Talos, Trek got there just a little ahead of Telos.  Trek truly was a pioneer in science fiction.  And this episode was, for my money, way ahead of its time!  ML

The view from across the pond:

In this episode Kirk comes to the rescue of a mining operation that is being attacked by a monster. It’s a deadly monster too, capable of reducing men to a burning cinder in an instant, and tunnelling through rock and, well, just about anything. So we have a good, old-fashioned, Doctor Who base under siege, with a near-omnipotent and almost indestructible foe.

For the first third of the episode the monster is kept off-camera, and that is when it is at its most effective, an unseen enemy, picking off anyone foolish enough to go out alone into the mines (and apparently lots of the miners are foolish enough to do that). Once the nature of the threat is revealed it is a qualified success of a monster costume, rock-like, scuttling and inhuman in form, but a bit too fabric-like and silly to entirely convince. I suspect this is one that really scared the kids watching, but made more than a few adults laugh.

Once again, a Trek storyline relies on people doing foolish things. As soon as I saw that silver sphere I wrote in my notes “maybe it wants its ball back”. But the most foolish thing of all was the sight of Vanderberg, Kirk and Spock finding the door that says “Power Reactor” and “Caution Radiation” with a massive hole burnt into it, and just walking merrily through the hole. They’re going to feel that in the morning.

After far too many scenes of people wandering around tunnels and talking, we finally got to the point of the episode, and it’s another one that challenges assumptions. The thing with those Doctor Who base under siege stories, or just about any monster movie or television series you would care to name, is the plot is nearly always resolved by killing the monster. The hero might make an attempt at talking things through (and even that is rare), but a story about a monster attacking people is almost always going to end with the people finding a way to kill it. But this is Star Trek, and it makes us look at things in a new way.

First of all, Spock points out that the destruction of the creature would be genocide. He has a point, but so does Kirk when he points out how many people are dying. There is an uncomfortable theme running through these episodes though. Kirk never acknowledges who the invaders are. Once again, humans have landed on somebody else’s planet, started being attacked, and think that’s somebody else’s fault and they have a right to defend themselves, even to the point of genocide. This is the one area where Trek always comes across as a brave attempt at a morality tale but also as an attempt at a particular variety of storytelling that is in its infancy. The ethics are never quite thought through. But in common with many other episodes, Kirk’s mind is finally opened and he does the right thing when given a chance.


The scuttling thing burning letters into the ground is unintentionally amusing, but by this point it doesn’t matter, because this is a story being delivered with such conviction. Just look at how well Leonard Nimoy sells the scenes of his mind meld with the creature. It could so easily have been his Creature from the Pit moment, but instead he commits fully and actually makes us care about this actor-shuffling-under-a-knobbly-rug.

And once again, Star Trek rejects the vicious circle of retribution and retaliation. The creature has killed many people, but Kirk has the compassion and intelligence to just stop for a moment and ask one vital question: why? How many conflicts could be resolved, on a personal and perhaps international level, by people just asking that simple question, trying to find out the motivations of their enemies? The miners’ “enemy” is nothing more than a mother protecting her eggs, which they have been merrily smashing to pieces. So there is understanding, healing, and finally a compromise is reached that benefits everyone. I am watching Star Trek for the first time, over 50 years since it was first broadcast, and yet it is one of the most enlightened and refreshing series I have ever seen.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Errand of Mercy

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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5 Responses to Star Trek: The Devil in the Dark

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The Horta fascinated me on the spot for being the first silicon-based alien lifeform I ever knew in the SF universe, aside of course from Eldrad in Dr. Who. But I was mostly pleased by the fact that the Horta wasn’t evil, but simply a mother fiercely protecting her endangered children and finally making her peace with humanity thanks to Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The Devil In The Dark was an excellently down-to-basics morality tale about understanding and respect for other environments which, in reflection of Avatar and Ray Bradbury’s “And The Moon Be Still As Bright”, clearly paved the way for plenty of SF morality tales. Thank you both for your reviews on this one. 🖖🏻

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I imagine the Horta probably looked VERY convincing back in the late 1960s on a small-screen low-resolution television set, especially if you were a kid. I saw this episode for the first time in the early 1980s when I was around five or six years old, and I totally believed the Horta looked real. I think you only notice that it’s a guy in a costume when you’re an adult and you watch this episode on a high-definition screen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      I think so too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Definitely right about kids being convinced.  As for how it looked on an old television, I don’t think we can know for sure unless we actually rigged up a late 60s television and tried it.  This kind of excuse is one I hear a lot, and I wonder to what extent it was true, or if the effects still looked rubbish on old televisions!  Clearly anything shoddy wouldn’t have been quite as noticeable, but I don’t think we can be definitive about that, and if we are entirely forgiving of all dodgy effects because of that excuse then you’re basically saying it didn’t matter what people who made television put on screen at the time, which is clearly not the case.  Look at the effort that went into Marco Polo for Doctor Who in 63, for example.  There was so much detail in those costumes and sets, that they surely couldn’t have been making that, thinking nobody would be able to see much of it.  I think there’s a middle ground here, but it’s certainly not as simple as just saying: televisions were small, so nothing mattered.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        Knowing how advanced SF’s alien and robot likenesses would become by the late 70s, thanks to Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Black Hole and Alien, it makes it all the more nostalgic to look back on the original impacts on audiences that 60s’ non-humanoid beings would generally have. I see it all so much differently now, even if I was smart enough as a kid to understand that something in either Star Trek, Dr. Who or Star Wars (despite the available realism) was made up. Seeing the Horta quite sufficiently as a main character, even if needing Spock for a voice, is the whole point and the old days of SF could always be consistent in that sense.

        Liked by 1 person

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