Well if there’s an episode that goes heavy on redshirt deaths, its Obsession! If I counted correctly, we lose at least 5, but some don’t die immediately, get brought back to the ship then die offscreen later, so I’m not 100% on the count, but I think 5 is a fair number. This episode also improves upon an idea first posed during the Outer Limits episode It Crawled out of the Woodwork (1963), teaching us how to make a smell ominous. It’s not repeating “deadly sweet” over and over, but the occasional use of “sickly sweet” which is far more accurate. (I mean who ever died from smelling something sweet? I can see getting a bit ill, but outright death?)
Alright, so one thing we’ve learned in recent Trek stories is just how often the Flagship of the Federation is used for errand duty. It reminds me of those side missions you get in RPG video games; the main mission really moves the story along but the side missions are always “bring Commodore Stocker to Star Base 12” or “bring the vaccine to the Yorktown – do it in under 2 days for a bonus experience point!” And that is the mission: go get perishable medicine from the Yorktown and deliver it to those in need. Trek, therefore, is custom made for a good series of RPGs! While making a quick stop (one of the side-character missions, to get backstory on a bit character) Kirk smells something “sickly sweet” like being smothered in honey, which can only mean one thing: honeysuckle. Tsk, sorry! A gas cloud of death. (Ironically it is deadly sweet…)
The first thing I noticed is that Kirk takes the pick of the fleet down to the planet. He tells them all to shoot if they see a cloud and not one of them does. Which isn’t complimentary since the lesson is that it would not have mattered. Why couldn’t they have fired and “missed” – the same outcome in the end but without making Kirk’s crew of Redshirts look distinctly green? In truth, this episode is also very counter-intuitive for the mission of the Enterprise, as it focuses on Captain Jim Ahab Kirk on a mission to murder a lifeform he does not understand. “To seek out new life and new civilizations … except intelligent gas clouds that smell like honey, because by God, they need to die!” The thing is, Kirk says it’s intelligent; he can sense it. He even knows where “home” is for the creature. But just imagine how much worse off we’d be without the Horta? And that was intelligent too though it looked like an overgrown pepperoni pizza made on a boulder. I really thought when Spock tried to block a vent with his hands, he was going to meld with the cloud, because he surely didn’t think his hands would stop the gas from getting through, did he? I also think we missed an opportunity at the end when Kirk beams back up with Garrovick Captain Puncher and he fails to even mention the karate chop, even if it was to say “you punched me to save me, so I’ll let it go”. He sort of owed the man since that whole “you’ll get none [special treatment] aboard this ship” earlier in the episode. But my biggest complaint was the solution to getting the cloud monster out of the ship (and no, I’m not kidding): Flush the radioactive waste into the ventilation system. “Damn it, Jim, the whole crew has cancer now!” Didn’t Scotty think; Jim, I’ll do it but it’ll blow us all to hell…” or Spock: “Highly illogical Captain; we may kill the creature but develop toes growing out of our eyelids within months!”
That all said, I actually think this is a great episode looking at what things drive a man. There’s a distinct sense of a vampire to the creature, draining blood from the victim and Kirk plays a good Van Helsing. So we get a bit of Dracula mixed with Moby Dick but it works surprisingly well. In the process, we learn about Kirk’s first deep space mission 11 years ago when he was 23 (and probably still with no memory of Kodos the Executioner… just sayin’) where 200 people on board the USS Faragut were killed by this same cloud creature. We sort of needed that background into our captain who, until now, is almost as mysterious as Spock. (In fact, I think we know more about Spock by this point, don’t we! I mean, we met the parents…) Speaking of Spock, I can absolutely see why he was so loved as a character; his pragmatic approach to things is brilliant and I love when he comes to McCoy for advice (“then I need a drink”). I do have to admit, I got a kick out of Kirk offering Garrovick solace in that his delay made no difference, since Spock actually already told him that. Kirk has no way of knowing but probably wondered why Garrovick didn’t seem more relieved. And the dialogue with Scotty was subtle but brilliant as Kirk apologizes for the use of the word “conspired” and Scotty agrees that it was a bad choice of words. I also adore the music as the cloud creature approaches and I admit with some embarrassment that I was thinking “hurry, Jim! Tell Spock to detonate and energize” only to realize if he said it that way, we’d be watching a different show and in one fell swoop, I understood why I was not captain of the ship. (It’s always energize then detonate!) And we get a clear indication of what McCoy thinks of the transporter: crazy way to travel!
No, while some things that happen do make my head spin, I think the look at obsession is an important one. Maybe it’s easier to swallow than the bitter old age pill of last week because my worst obsession was collecting Doctor Who paraphernalia which entailed hunting and killing exactly no one ever, but I do find the subject a genuinely interesting one. And one last thing to share: I’m re-watching these with the remastered footage on Amazon Prime and have to say I thought it was such an inspired thing to see the massive crater left by the antimatter explosion as the Enterprise pulls out of orbit. Subtle but there for the observant viewer; a nice end to a strong episode. (But maybe I just feel that way because I’ve been inhaling radioactive waste moving through my ventilation system!) ML
The view from across the pond:
For a rehash of previous ideas, this isn’t a bad episode. We’ve had Trek does Moby Dick before, and only last week we had Kirk’s leadership abilities being questioned. But the combination of those two ideas just about makes this feel like something fresh.
The presence of three red shirts in a landing party doesn’t bode well. After investigating some pure
polystyrene tritanium, twenty times harder than jam diamonds, Kirk smells a smell and the fate of the red shirts is sealed. Luckily the one who bears a striking resemblance to Mike survives, but not for long. The culprit is “a cloud… a cloud!”, which doesn’t exactly inspire much fear, but the enemy isn’t the point of all this. It’s Kirk’s reaction that matters.
“The last time I caught an odour like that was eleven years ago.”
That must have been some curry. As the story progresses it appears that Kirk is behaving irrationally and it’s only when we get the context of what happened eleven years ago that we understand his behaviour. A moment of hesitation resulted in the death of 200 people, and that guilt is eating away at Kirk. He has a chance to put that right, or at least he thinks he does. In reality, revenge is never going to take away that kind of mental baggage. Instead, in an episode that is remarkably mature in its approach to the psychology of mental health, Kirk’s only route to healing is to forgive himself, and to do that he has to stop shouldering the blame for something that wasn’t really his fault.
“You know the greatest monster of all? Guilt.”
Kirk’s hesitation in the face of danger was a normal human reaction. Luckily his best buddy Spock has his back, and helps him to understand that. In fact, the Kirk/Spock relationship is probably Star Trek’s biggest strength.
Cleverly, Kirk gains a better understanding of the way he reacted eleven years ago by comparison to a similar situation, with Ensign Garrovick hesitating at the wrong moment as well. History repeats itself. You have to ignore the enormous coincidence of the grandson of Kirk’s former captain transferring to the Enterprise just before they encounter the same entity again, but other than that it works very well. Kirk projects his own guilt onto Garrovick and punishes him harshly for it, and the way they end up working together to destroy the cloud and heal themselves is very neat. The defeat of the cloud to some extent muddies the message, because the moment of healing is Kirk’s forgiveness of himself and Garrovick, with a beautiful little interaction between them. The defeat of the monster validates Kirk’s obsession when perhaps it would have been better to have found a different conclusion, but I suppose we can’t blame the writer for wanting a strong dramatic ending to the story, with Kirk the all-conquering hero as per usual. Hankering after a more modern approach to storytelling, where the hero’s fallibility has real consequences, is probably unrealistic when viewing a 60s series. It was good enough that Kirk was not only questioned by others but questioned himself.
“Am I letting the horrors of the past distort my judgement of the present?”
I continue to be impressed by this series, which doesn’t just give us character tropes; it gives us people we can understand. Kirk’s not just a hero. He’s a human being, whose human reactions are relatable. As I progress through this series, the reasons for Star Trek’s longevity are becoming abundantly clear. RP