I ask you, what makes a classic Trek episode? Is it the incredible music that features in The Doomsday Machine or the special effects that are even more amazing when seen in the remastered format? Or is it something else? I’m going to explain what makes it a classic and sum up the plot in just two words: Moby Dick. The Doomsday Machine is a fun adventure but when you come right down to it, it’s Moby Dick. Commodore Decker is Ahab and he is determined to find and kill his white whale. Or more specifically, the giant cone that floats through space with its maw wide open. See: space/water … spot the differences. It’s not the maw.
(Do you hear the Jaws theme or the Doomsday Machine music when you see these two pictures? Can the music be interchanged?)
It was bound to be a classic with that source material! But the irony is that it’s not the destructive device that makes the episode great. Well, barring some damned awesome scenes where the music gets… did I mention… awesome. It’s the tension that builds with a military chain of command. When we first meet Decker, he looks comatose. His eyes are open but he looks like he may very well be dead. But he soon ends up on the Enterprise and commandeers the ship while Kirk remains behind on the Constellation. (Note, the number of the Contellation is 1017. Enterprise is 1701. Numbers were at a premium the day they used those stencils!) This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the episode. Spock, ever aware of the regs, does not stand up to Decker because Decker does pull rank. McCoy’s deflating body language is hilarious, but the tension that builds is magnificent. “Spock! You can’t let him do this!” But Spock can, not because he doesn’t value Jim Kirk, but because he knows the regulations need to be followed. What I take issue with is that a medical doctor should be able to rule a person unfit for command if he is deemed to be so even if he has to produce methodical documentation after the fact. Recall, in Court Martial, McCoy was certified as an expert medical witness with a background in Psychology. I’d be hard pressed to think McCoy doesn’t see a legit issue with Decker. We can possibly write this off as an oversight due to the limited amount of time they had to work with, but it does create great drama. (And I do credit Spock for eventually taking over again and immediately sending Decker for that medical exam!)
There are a lot of great moments, but nothing comes close to the transporter malfunction as Kirk is trying to get off the ship. The music truly is inspired. But for all the things I like about this episode, and I do believe it belongs in the top 10 of all Classic Trek’s, it does have its issues. (Maybe had Uhura not been gallivanting, things wouldn’t have been so bad!) Let’s identify some things that were just nonsense.
- Why would Kirk stay on board a lifeless ship? Jim is the captain of the Enterprise. Scotty and a team, sure, but not Jim. Not during a crisis. Since when is he an engineer?
- Spock lets Decker know there are security guards on the bridge, but only sends one to escort the obsessed Decker to his aforementioned medical exam! Two would have been too much, eh?
- How do you fly a bomb into the maw of this thing and it not blast that bomb to pieces? Does it only activate when something is trying to get away from it; it just opens its mouth and waits when it sees food approaching? Maybe…
- And what exactly is an “anti-proton beam”? Would that be an electron beam? It’s like saying an anti-hot laser. Would that be cold?
But when you look at the drama as a whole, we can let the silly things slide. Trek has a formula that works more often than not. The chemistry among the main cast is astounding. From McCoy’s frustration with Spock to his “I’m a doctor, not a mechanic”, our good doctor always makes us smile. Spock’s reluctance to give up command to Decker is conveyed brilliantly by Nimoy. This isn’t the slightly comical Nimoy of The Apple, but a strong leader channeling the Mirror, Mirror version. (Watch the intensity in his eyes!) When he finds Jim’s life is in danger, it’s not a subordinate speaking to his commanding officer; it’s “Jim, you’ll be killed.” Jim! And speaking of Jim, even after what Matt Decker did, Jim tries to convince him that they are stronger with him than without. Life always wins out to the captain of the Enterprise! And even Matt Decker (whose son we will meet in The Motion Picture) plays his part marvelously. He shows the strain of having been responsible for killing his whole crew, beaming them down to a planet that was then destroyed. To a large extent, you can’t help but feel for him.
And then there’s the requisite Star Trek comedy. There’s the intentional comedy: Spock corrects Kirk’s assumption that an explosion is not 97 megatons, but 97.835. Kirk’s reaction, even under the circumstances, is brilliantly funny and superbly acted. And then there’s the unintentional comedy! Watch the scene closely: Scotty says to Washburn, “Come along lad”, asking for help. Instantly, Kirk says “Washburn, in here!” Well, this episode does teach us about chain of command after all, eh?
In the end, the question we have to ask in the fiction of the Star Trek universe is: if this device was built, this future version of the H-Bomb, who built it and why? And more importantly, could there be others? I might remind viewers that this season also introduced Nomad; a robot that merged with another artificial life form called Tan Ru. Are there other doomsday machines out there? And will the Enterprise ever encounter them again? Wait and see… ML
The view from across the pond:
Let’s imagine I’m a doctor on a starship (not a mechanic), and the captain has gone insane and needs to be removed from command. How do I go about doing that? According to Spock in this episode, I need medical evidence before I can take action, so in that case I have to ask the captain to be examined. There are two possible outcomes: (a) he says yes, and is therefore acting reasonably and does not need to be relieved of command, or (b) he says no, and I am unable to get the evidence I need. Do you begin to see a problem with this? Yes, according to the rules of Star Trek, the doctor has the theoretical ability to remove the captain from command if he goes crazy, but in practice it’s impossible. I’m guessing they’ll reassess those rules after the events of this episode.
In these circumstances, therefore, it’s reasonably clear that the law is an ass. What do McCoy and Spock do about that? They play by the rules, and in doing so they condemn the crew to almost certain death. If it wasn’t for the actions of Kirk and Scotty on the Constellation, the Enterprise crew would have been done for. So why don’t they do something about it? Their blind adherence to the rules is potentially lethal to them.
That’s interesting, in an episode that shows us the dangers of an unthinking force. The doomsday machine is a frightening prospect. It can’t be reasoned with. It has no thoughts and feelings, and it simply exists to eat everything in its path. In fact, it is so scary that it is defeated a little too easily. An ultimate weapon of destruction that can be taken out by one kamikaze starship isn’t going to win any wars, and it is clearly a weapon of war. But that’s the problem when a writer comes up with an unstoppable force as the enemy: at that point he’s written himself into a corner.
This episode maintains the proud Star Trek tradition of anyone above the rank of captain being a total knob, but the way Decker achieves his knobhood is the interesting bit. When we first meet him he is a broken man and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him. For somebody in charge of a starship, his life has just turned into the ultimate failure. His crew are all dead, and he had to listen to them beg for their lives before the planet he had sent them down to was obliterated. Over the course of the episode he goes through a character arc from nervous wreck to Captain Ahab, repeating the behaviour that led to the death of his entire crew, and nearly causing that to happen a second time. He becomes what he hates: an unthinking killing machine, blinkered in his obsession to destroy. There are no tactics here. He knows the weapons won’t work, but this is the only response to the problem he has. This all begins to raise the spectre of a society that is fundamentally flawed, and that’s a fascinating position for a Star Trek writer to take, considering this whole series is a thinly-veiled projection of the American nationalist superiority complex into the future. Decker is so obsessed with the enemy that he will not engage in a tactical retreat to gain some perspective on the problem and form a strategy. He fires off his useless weapons instead. Spock and McCoy are so obsessed with the rules that they will not break them to save their lives. Most illogical captain. The military faith in the chain of command has become almost a religious imperative; it’s certainly a way of life to these people, and that’s dangerous.
But Star Trek has a hero, and that’s Kirk. The brilliance of Norman Spinrad’s script is the way he recognises that Kirk is the heart and soul of this series. Actually, that’s not quite right. He’s the brains. And here he’s the only one who is able to see beyond the religion that is the Starfleet rule book and say “blast regulations”. And there we have Star Trek in a nutshell: a show about an independent thinker, who rises above the constraints of his society. Star Trek projects the American way of life into the future… and then rejects it. RP
As well as being the one classic Trek episode to look the best with CGI remastering, The Doomsday Machine is the best reminder of how Season 2’s sense of action-adventure was a pinnacle for Trek in the 60s, but never fully recaptured until Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. When Trek gives us a story with an enemy force of vastly destructive potential, it’s realistic enough of it can mirror how destructive our own history has potentially been. Hence the planet killer being Kirk’s allegory for the H Bomb. It’s Kirk’s own theory that the planet killer was built to end some huge alien war, but had destroyed both sides and just went on devouring planets. It’s a good theory, but at least as far as I know, it remains a mystery which makes the story far more impacting, with Spock wondering most naturally if there are anymore such weapons wandering around the universe.
William Windom is one of the most profound guest stars for the classic Trek. He was an excellent character actor and proved as Commodore Decker how the cautionary notes of Moby Dick should work most effectively for a Trek story. Vengefulness can still be an issue in Trek’s future and even Kirk is openly no exception. The need to punish or destroy someone or something that causes the worst of harm is as natural as can be expected. But the risk of sparking the same evil and danger from within ourselves is an equally natural consequence. So I don’t mind that issue being one of the most repetitive in Trek, or in Dr. Who, Star Wars or any SF legacy for that matter. Because it’s still an undeniably persistent issue in our world today.
The fight between Decker and Montgomery is one of the most excessive fight scenes in the classic Trek and another reason to be relieved that TV drama hardly needs such viewing expectations of primitive testosterone anymore. It’s also strange, no disrespect to Lt. Palmer, to see someone else put in charge of communications instead of Uhura for a classic Trek episode.
Thank you both for your reviews on a classic Trek story that I’m sure many Trekkers were looking forward to. 🖖🏻🖖🏼🖖🏽🖖🏾🖖🏿
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My favorite episode of the series probably and certainly the greatest from an action standpoint. It hits all the right notes for suspense action and even terror, combined with the best individual music score for a Trek episode IMO by Sol Kaplan.
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No way to argue that! ML
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