Star Trek: The Changeling

Star Trek Opening TitlesNomad.  The very name conjures images of… Actually for me, it reminds me of a coffee pot my grandmother used to have.  It was a long, cylindrical thing made of metal that, lord knows, predated safety inspections on such devices.  The thing was metal, so when you boiled water within, the damned thing got so hot it would probably glow.  I didn’t drink coffee when I was a kid, actually I still don’t, but I was a weird little tyke and I loved Star Trek, so the most natural thing to do was… mind meld with the thing like Spock does in The Changeling.  And you know what?  I never got burned.  Be impressed!  Oh, I’m pretty sure it was hot as Dr. Helen Noel, but I did actually convince my 4 year old mind that it would not burn and hey… I’m typing away today with fully functional fingers!  (Not as tricky to say either as “fully functioning force field!”)

Alright, so maybe that shouldn’t be the first thought that comes to ones mind when dealing with a Star Trek episode.  As an adult who has to wear a red shirt at his job, this is the one episode that shows Scotty getting killed.  Yeah, he’s brought back, but that’s not the point.  The point is that there was only ever one red shirt who was consistently safe… and now even that safety blanket was gone!  “He’s dead, Jim!”  Damn it!

So here’s the deal.  Kirk and crew are investigating, undoubtedly looking for more gods to take down, when they are stuck by a weapon so powerful that… it doesn’t destroy them.  And right from the outset, I’m totally confused.  Spock says their shields absorbed an impact equivalent to 90 photon torpedoes.  That, friends, is a lot!  Like, in Star Trek VI, the Enterprise takes a beating and that’s with about 3 photon torpedoes.  90?????  You can’t see it but my eyebrows are raised in total shock right now!  Why do they always seem alarmed when being fired on?  By the time they get hit with 90 missiles, the enemy will have run out, no?   (And I can’t recall if Spock said that after the first salvo or the third but that means potentially the Enterprise withstands 270 torpedoes – I’m leaning to 90 at this point!)  OK, let’s ignore that and instead explore the second episode in a row to really show equality to women.  (Much like when I raised them before, my eyebrows are now raised in mock surprise!)  Nomad, the strange little robot, refers to women as “a mass of conflicting impulses”.  I still think Trek was ahead of its time in most situations but clearly treating women well was going where no man was ready to go yet.  Maybe by The Next Generation!

Getting past that, I think we can finally talk positively about the episode, though perhaps we’ve gone a bridge too far by this point.  Let’s try anyway.  The Changeling is actually a solid piece of science-fiction writing. Nomad was a probe that was damaged and merged with another mechanoid lifeform called Tan Ru.  Its mission became messed up and now goes out trying to cleanse the universe of its biological infestation.  Upon meeting Jim Kirk, it makes a mistake thinking Jim Kirk is Nomad’s creator, Jackson Roykirk.  So we’ve got a schizo-super computer capable of wiping out life on a massive scale (not just the 4 redshirts who die through disintegration) and Jim has to find a way to deal with it.  Naturally that means… destroy!   (I do wonder if Jim knew a certain Dominator…)  I have to say the writing was impressive in some instances, like when Jim believes there are beings inside Nomad.  One might find that a strange idea, since Nomad is about 3 feet tall, but Jim knows life comes in all shapes and sizes.  Just remember The Corbomite Maneuver or Devil in the Dark!  I was also impressed with Spock’s remonstration that “Intelligence does not necessarily require bulk.”  But the episode really gets impressive when Kirk has to beat Nomad.  Let’s look it over…

When you have a supercomputer capable of wiping out an entire star system, you probably don’t want to get it angry with you.   Not only is this his strategy, but Kirk does one better: he convinces Nomad that he is not “the creator” which means Nomad made a mistake, which is something only flawed beings do and flawed beings need to be destroyed.  In effect, without mincing words here, Kirk literally talks Nomad to death.  No joke. Dr. Jim Kevorkian Kirk has Nomad commit suicide.  He seems to make a habit of talking robots to death in fact, yet Nomad goes for it.  Nomad is perpetual… no more!

Did the episode miss an opportunity?  Yes!  The biggest is with Scotty who is brought back from the dead. It’s not instant either; he’s had some time to remain dead.  We had an amazing opportunity to investigate, even briefly, the idea of life after death.  As I said, missed opportunity.  And there’s one other opportunity missed here: Uhura has her mind wiped and in just a few days, she’s retrained on everything she knew.  (That’s a hell of a learning program the Enterprise has!)  But it would have been interesting to see that plot played out over several episodes.  Alas, 60’s TV wasn’t thinking of “arcs”.

The Changeling is a popular episode and I do understand why.  Did they need to recreate it for The Motion Picture?  I’m going with: hell no, but we’ll discuss that when the time comes.  For now, I’ll get back to reading the new instruction manual I just picked up: How to Disarm a Sentient Bomb, by Jim Kirk…  ML

The view from across the pond:

This episode starts off quite scary, with something incredibly powerful and very small firing at the Enterprise without explanation. It’s only a lucky break that stops the Enterprise from being destroyed.

What follows is a huge disappointment. We’re certainly working our way through the ABC of Sci-fi Clichés this season, and this week it’s C for Computer (let’s call last week B for Bull**** shall we? Erich von Bull****). Mike made a valid point to me when we were discussing Trek that a cliché nowadays wasn’t necessarily a cliché in the 60s. That’s fair, although I’m pretty sure a robot created by a human, trying to kill everybody because they are imperfect, wasn’t particularly original even at the time. For a viewer watching Trek for the first time in the 2020s, it’s a hoary old idea I’ve seen far too many times.

It’s not just the cliché of the deadly super-computer that is the problem anyway. It’s the way it’s written. There are too many moments like this:

“I am Nomad. What is opinion?”

… which is just the kind of thing I hate about these kinds of stories: a genius robot who can’t read a dictionary. And this:

“For what purpose is singing?”

Maybe look it up on Wikipedia, super-brain. Nomad also learns our entire language within seconds, but fails to notice that two different surnames are not the same word, just because they share a common syllable. I would also have put a lot of money on the solution to the problem, because it’s the same solution to the supercomputer problem in every sci-fi television series ever made: the hero makes the computer go mad by using logic against it. Just to check every possible box of boredom, Nomad’s voice even goes squeaky when it has its nervous breakdown, like the sound a reel-to-reel tape machine makes when it goes wrong.

There were a couple of exciting moments along the way though. Scotty has proven himself to be a bit of a hothead when it comes to chivalry, and this week he rushed to the aid of Uhura. That endeavour ended up with Uhura regressed to childhood and Scotty dead. I had the fleeting thought that he might actually be written out at this point, until I remembered I had seen him in a TNG episode, but at the time it must have felt like a strong possibility. There are only three cast members in the opening titles, and one of them is not James Doohan. Having said that, it was fairly obvious that Nomad would fix him. That was lucky, with Dr Useless in charge of the medical team.

“He’s dead, Jim.”

McCoy has to be the weirdest doctor ever. He confidently declares people dead just by glancing at them. I’m surprised he hasn’t told Kirk he’s dead yet.

“You’re dead, Jim.”
“No I’m not. You’re fired.”

The other big surprise was that Uhura didn’t get fixed. She had to take the slow road to recovery, although I’m not sure how she managed to go from not being able to read, to “college level” in a few hours. If there’s some trick to Christine’s teaching methods, as a parent I would be very interested to learn it.

I think what I enjoyed the most were the funny little character interactions: Kirk agreeing with Nomad’s assessment of McCoy, who “functions irrationally”, and Spock taking Nomad’s comment about him as “well-ordered” as a compliment, and giving Kirk a look as if to say “told you so”. These were mere crumbs of entertainment, but with a story as uninspired as this one, I’ll take any moments of fun I can find. Call me an “imperfection” if you like.   RP

About Roger Pocock

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3 Responses to Star Trek: The Changeling

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Nomad as a name became more chilling for me when I first saw the 1980s horror film Nomads with Pierce Brosnan. In The Changeling’s case, Nomad can be a reasonably more sympathetic villain for being an advanced AI who just lost his way, much like Landru and HAL 9000. The death scenes and especially where they are talked into committing suicide can make us see the heroes as callous. It’s now almost enough to bring one to tears, speaking from the last occasion when I rewatched the 7th Doctor coldly talking an apparently last Dalek into an anxiety-filled self-destruction. That made the more compassionately themed Dalek episode in 2005 a much needed remedy.

    That’s at least one reason why I don’t care to rewatch this Trek episode again. But it holds up for an obviously important message about how dangerous one’s obsession with perfection can become. It can be among the most down-to-basics Trek episodes for that much. But I look more forward to the Hugo-winning “Mirror, Mirror” having its Trek review on the Junkyard next week.

    Thanks, ML and RP. 🖖🏻🖖🏼🖖🏽🖖🏾🖖🏿

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ragaius says:

    Loved ML’s story about mind-melding with his grandmothers coffee pot! Wish I had thought of that as a kid 🙂 Also can’t resist saying that Dr. Helen Noel was a different kind of hot! Much, much different ❤

    This is a classic episode I remember fondly but I've learned from following your conversations that my perceptions have changed since the sixties and seventies. I'll have to give it a rewatch.

    Liked by 2 people

    • scifimike70 says:

      My perceptions of SF from the 60s and 70s can differ between originally as a kid seeing an SF film or show from that time and, after a very long time later, seeing one from those years for the first time. It can depend greatly on the atmosphere for a 60s or 70s production, as unique as they were for those decades. But it was finally seeing 60s Dr. Who in the 90s that made me rethink so much.

      We can really open our eyes and realize how different the earliest decades were SF. So much so that some like myself might agree with The Next Generation being the true core of Trek, as opposed to the considerably dated classic Trek. Whereas few other 60s and 70s SFs like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris may still greatly impact you no matter what decade you first see them. Changed perceptions are therefore all the more encouraging to share on the Junkyard.

      Thanks, John, for joining us here.

      Liked by 1 person

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