Talk about depressing! I mean, here’s the thing: Trek often tackles some big ideas and often that’s about slavery or racism or pets that reproduce so quickly they eat you out of house and home (…ok, fine, we’re not there yet), but when we start to look at a beast of indomitable power that will come for all of us… well, I want something a bit less … well, real! In this episode, the senior staff really becomes the senior staff! (Read: Senior Citizen Staff!) And the reminder of what we may all face in our futures is a bitter pill to swallow. At least they maintain standard orbit again, so I get one chuckle!
I’ve got to start with something important though and this requires a revisit to season 1’s The Conscience of the King. In that episode, Kirk is involved with hunting Kodos the Executioner, because 20 years ago, they had crossed paths, etc, etc. Well, that was last year in terms of the series and in this episode, Kirk states he is 34. Thus we have established that last year, he’d have been 33, and 20 years earlier, he would have been 13. My 13 year old kid wouldn’t recognize one of my aunts if they stopped by for a visit and they might have met her before. Kodos + 13 year old Jim = “Nope, I don’t know when we could have met!” Kodos was safe. Ok, now back to this episode…
Ok, this is a great episode but more because of the acting of the cast than the ideas behind it. On a mission to one of my favorite-named planets, Gamma Hydra IV, the landing party get sick and start to age rapidly. The aging process is depicted well and it’s all that the aging process really is: disappointing, and scary, and sad. The failing faculties of the once-great crew is gut wrenching. To consider that we may all face many of these challenges is a serious hit to the ego and makes for a good concept for a story. But, good god, are there problems with the ideas as they are presented.
First we hear about a “secret weapon” that the Romulans are working on. But Kirk encountered them last season and not only does he know the weapon, it seems like its diminished in power in this episode; or the Enterprise shields got a hefty upgrade! They are struck many times with minimal damage. Then there’s the tried and tested idea of having a random high-ranking officer on the ship who will push the crew to make a mistake. Commodore Stocker isn’t a pushy man like his season 1 predecessor, but he still makes a command decision that’s actually out of character with his other choices; namely he makes all “by the book” decisions until he decides to cross the Romulan neutral zone and risk all out war. Dr. McCoy, determined to make Roger’s point that he is a random dude who walked onto the Enterprise one day, offers some great medical advice to a woman going deaf: “Forget about it!” (Oh, what, you’ve got Covid? Forget about it! Cancer? You know the cure: forget about it!) Then there’s a competency hearing to determine Kirk’s mental state too, which Kirk is the only one who understands the stupidity of, considering the chief medical officer is not working on a cure, but present for the hearing! “A competency hearing when there’s work to be done!” Damn right, Jim. These guys have days to live, at best. More likely they have hours and the crew thinks a hearing is in order? Even if that is the right thing to do, did McCoy need to be there, or was his attitude about the disease the same as before: “Forget about it”? Also, the absolute first thing I would have done upon finding that the symptoms were present in everyone but Chekov, would be to go over systematically what was different about him on the surface? Instead Jim and Sherlock Spock wait until senility has kicked in to go over the events to realize he had a burst of adrenaline. Shouldn’t that have been in hour one? And once again, bouncing back to our ships doctor, does anyone else get bothered that he does zero work on producing the cure? Probably, the ships records will show that he cured them all single-handedly and this makes me wonder if Kirk really is playing favorites with an old friend!
One other thing I found distasteful was Kirk’s verbal assault on his ex-girlfriend. While she clearly has no love for her dead ex-husband, I still don’t think her throwing herself at the aging Kirk warranted his question if she was offering him a “going away present”. Grim and rude! (Why does there have to be a random woman on board that does not wear regulation attire anyway?)
All that said, I love the way Spock diffuses a tense situation and I love the moment when Kirk returns to the bridge rejuvenated. I love the use of the Corbomite device which featured at the start of the series too. For a series with so little continuity, that was a nice touch. Alas, I didn’t know adrenaline could de-wrinkle the skin or return hair color, but I’m about to go for a hearty run to see if it works; might even scare myself a bit along the way to really get the color back in the temple area! I do like this episode because I feel like it’s well acted but I wish Spock were behind the script writing; it definitely needed a bit more logic in that final draft. ML
The view from across the pond:
When it comes to the “isms”, Star Trek has done about as well as you would expect from a 1960s series, which is to say not very well at all. It is frequently a horrendously sexist series, probably more so than any series I have ever watched (and that includes a lot of 60s shows), and as far as racism is concerned it has its plus points which are well documented, but it also uses actors in blackface as its principle moustache-twirler villains. So how about the one “ism” that the series hasn’t really touched upon yet, ageism?
Many sci-fi shows over the years have done an ageing to death story, and this is an early example, if not the first on television. What makes it differ from so many other attempts is that it focusses just as much on the mental ravages of age as the physical. Yes, we do see the physical consequences of rapid ageing, and the makeup for that is incredibly well done and much more convincing than even Doctor Who was managing 40 years later but I think the performances are a huge help in selling the illusion. DeForest Kelley does well, but William Shatner is amazing, making gradual changes to the way he walks and holds his arms. He 100% sells it. More importantly, he sells the stubbornness and frustration that comes with encroaching senility, with his memory letting him down and other people’s recollection of events failing to chime with what he thinks has been said. There is so much truth in his performance, it’s stunning.
In the middle of the episode we have a hearing to decide whether Kirk is fit for duty, and initially that felt like a huge waste of time. It didn’t seem like the outcome mattered: either he is healed in a day or so and then it’s irrelevant, or he dies and it’s still irrelevant. But while we watched people talking about things we had just seen, it all started to make sense, because we were seeing Kirk’s friends and colleagues struggling with having to tell the truth, when that truth meant betrayal. And in the end the outcome did actually matter, because as soon as the “chair-bound pen pusher” took over command, he was woefully unsuitable for the job and very nearly got them all killed, until a rejuvenated Kirk turned up to show off his Corbomite maneuver.
And that’s why I loved this episode, because it finally gets an “ism” right. When Kirk and his friends start ageing to death, they are virtually left to solve the problem themselves, with little help from anyone else. Not only do the old dodderers heal themselves, but they prove that a man who is elderly, frail and senile can still be a better captain than a younger man in full possession of his faculties. With his dying breath, Kirk would still never have given that order to cross the Neutral Zone, nor would he have ever panicked in a life-or-death situation. So that hearing to remove Kirk from command, superficially perfectly sensible and logical and in the best interests of the ship, is in fact shown to be fatally flawed, because it ignores the fact than an elderly man with a failing memory can still possess the necessary qualities to be the best man for a job.
Of all the “isms”, ageism is probably the one we have progressed the least with since the 1960s. Attempting to list the myriad ways in which the elderly are still discriminated against, perhaps even more so than the 60s in some respects, is beyond the scope of this article, but it was so refreshing to see something made in 1967 delivering a clear message that old doesn’t mean useless. That’s why The Deadly Years is the best episode of Star Trek I have seen so far, and for my money one of the greatest examples of 1960s television ever made. Bravo. RP