Star Trek: The Tholian Web

Star Trek Blue LogoUp, down, up, down… this season is a roller coaster ride.  One good one, one bad one…   The Tholian Web opens with a great mystery not unlike The Omega Glory; everyone on the Starship Defiant is dead, all apparently killed by their own hands.  Then as McCoy investigates, he starts phasing through solid matter.  Very cool indeed.  Unlike The Omega Glory, this episode remains interesting, if flawed.  We don’t have a wild-eyed madman listening at doors, which is a nice change, but we do have some madmen around.  So what works, and what doesn’t?

Story-wise, this is genuinely a fascinating tale keeping us interested the whole time.  Jim is dead, there’s a ceremony, and Spock and McCoy even watch a video of his last wishes.  There’s a new alien race, the Tholians.  Well, I say “new” but clearly the Federation knows of them based on Spock’s comment of the “renowned Tholian punctuality.”  There’s the ghostly ship and later, the ghostly sightings of Kirk.  There’s a weak point in space, a concept that is just too good to get wrong.  (I should be careful saying that, considering The Alternative Factor!)  But I said “interested” because I was interested in how the crew would escape the situation, but found myself tired while watching it.  The episode is grossly overburdened by the Spock/McCoy rivalry; a rivalry which really paints McCoy to be a total arse.

You know, growing up a fan of Classic Trek, I always loved the interaction between Kirk, Spock and McCoy but as an adult, watching with adult understanding, I really do wonder why I ever liked McCoy.  I can blame Roger for flagging it initially, but by this episode it becomes clear even to the biggest McCoy fans: McCoy is just not Starfleet material.  So much so that Spock has to tell McCoy what his job is and he repeatedly advises him to go to Sickbay.  He even tells McCoy to confine himself there until a cure can be found for the “space madness”.  (No, that was not a Trek quote; it’s a Ren and Stimpy one!)  Almost comically, McCoy tells Spock at one point that his presence in sickbay won’t change the outcome of the search for a cure.  Yeah, you know why?  Because Roger was right – McCoy isn’t a very good doctor!  Not just that, he’s not a very decent man, dropping racist comments about Spock’s Vulcan heritage for the umpteenth time in just three seasons!  He forces Spock to listen to Jim’s final wishes, then uses that time to berate him rather than actually do what they had come for.  Even Spock seems annoyed saying they will do what they came for, as if to say, “you pulled me from my duties for this, so we are getting it done!”  When they listen and Kirk manages to help the two find a balance (as he predicted they’d be “locked in mortal combat”), McCoy is tempered, but Spock has nothing to offer because he realizes McCoy was in the wrong.  “What would you have me say, doctor?”  He’s right!  McCoy was grossly out of line!

Ok, fans of McCoy are going to say “but it was the weak area of space affecting his mind”.  Maybe, if not for the fact that it happens all the time.  In The Paradise Syndrome, McCoy is ready to similarly criticize Spock for his choices too and that was only a few episodes earlier.  McCoy consistently thinks he knows better but then suggests that mixing a medical antidote with alcohol might be a good idea; an antidote to keep the brain stable…  (“I’ll get back to you”, says Scotty, before walking off with the bottle!)  As if all of this isn’t enough, after saving Jim, McCoy lies about how he and Spock got along saying “Spock gave the orders and I found the answers!”  Ummmm no you didn’t!  You found Tang and made some for everyone!   While Spock does the decent thing and keeps the argument from Jim, he never completes the sentence because Vulcans don’t lie.  The whole episode, McCoy was the weak link in what should have been a very solid story.  But he wasn’t alone…

There are a few other things that derailed me.  Who painted the transporter room fuchsia?  At what point did the crew decide to use these colorful space suits?  Was it mentioned that these were needed.  (They weren’t needed in The Omega Glory!)  Did anyone else notice how many people don’t reply to a direct question in this episode?  Kirk asks Bones for a status and is forced to wait several seconds before getting an answer.  Spock goes through the same thing with Scotty.  What was up with everyone here?  And why are the seats on the enterprise just chairs?  Shouldn’t they be bolted down?  (I mean, they probably need seatbelts too!)  Chekov and Sulu get into  a brief scuffle and both chairs are just knocked over pretty easily.  And speaking of Chekov, his screaming is out of sync during camera cuts.  When Jim is saved at the end, McCoy gives him an injection through the space suit.  Wouldn’t that render the suit unusable?  And why is it that his nurse knew enough to remove the helmet to give Jim air?  Shouldn’t the good doctor have known to do that?  Also, in an area of space now identified as making people go insane, when Kirk appears and they “all saw him”, wouldn’t there be a better likelihood that they were all losing their minds?  Certainly more likely than the dead captain playing the part of Marley’s ghost?  And even the titular Tholian Web is a non-issue.   They start making the web, which seems to be moving at remarkable speeds until the last few minutes when the Enterprise escapes by not moving into a void that it … moved into… and pulled Kirk through interstitial space to the area of real space… where they were able to wait for him to reappear… to beam him back… what??? 

Look, I very much like the ideas behind The Tholian Web.  I just don’t think it was executed as well as I remembered.  I think someone needed to review this episode and then rewrite it.   ML

The view from across the pond:

This episode is packed full of good ideas: space “literally breaking up”; a starship fading away into nothingness; dead bodies everywhere on the creepy, lifeless ship, obviously having suffered violent deaths; Kirk left alone on the ship when it completely disappears, possibly lost forever; and then when it looks like Spock might have found a way to save him, some aliens turn up and start weaving a web around the Enterprise. These are all the ingredients for a brilliant episode of Star Trek.

This is not a brilliant episode of Star Trek.

Regular readers of this blog will probably have already guessed why I might not like this episode. It’s because Dr Leonard “Bonehead” McCoy completely ruins it. Just a few weeks ago he was giving Spock a hard time in The Paradise Syndrome because he wanted to leave Kirk for a while and go off and save the population of an entire planet. Instead, McMoron wanted to let all those millions of people die, to look for Kirk. Here, Spock decides to take a reasonable level of risk in order to stay behind for a couple of hours, because there’s a chance to save Kirk’s life, and McCoy says this:

“You’ve lost Jim. Take the ship out of here.”

I get that McCoy’s role is nearly always to play the doom-monger. He’ll always look on the bleak side of life if he can, but this is outrageously hypocritical of him. Spock’s decision shows how he has matured as a character over the last couple of years, and is tempering his logic with his instincts and half-humanity, if you like. He’s exactly the person Kirk wants him to be, when he gives his post-mortem video speech. And you can bet that if Spock had chosen instead to fly away, McLoser would have been chewing his arse for doing that, accusing him of putting his career advancement ahead of his friend’s life. With roles reversed, he astonishingly complains that Spock isn’t being logical, in McCoy’s warped (deliberate mis-)understanding of Spock’s logic, and putting his career advancement first. At this point, Spock simply can’t win, whatever he does. It’s all part of McCoy’s xenophobia towards him, and frankly he needs to be blasted out of the nearest airlock.

This episode barely features Kirk, which should be an interesting dynamic, but instead it’s just an excuse for McCoy to spend most of the episode attacking Spock. He even tries to tell him what it means to be a captain, but how about giving some thought about what it means to be a doctor instead? I’m pretty sure the job description doesn’t say, “hang around on the bridge for no good reason, undermining whoever is in charge”. Line after line from McCoy beggars belief in the level of hypocrisy, and Kirk’s video message is just as bad.

“His decisions must be followed without question.”

What, like McCoy never did for you, Jim? How about giving McCoy a lesson in how to not be a tosspot while you’re still alive, rather than a post-mortem video recording!

So yeah, a potentially great episode, packed full of fun ideas, completely ruined by the one character who has never worked for this ensemble. If McCoy was supposed to be a jerk, perhaps a likeable disruptive influence (e.g. Smith in Lost in Space) then there might just have been a point to all this, but I suspect the writers thought all those McCoy/Spock arguments would be effective drama that divided viewers’ opinions or had us sympathising with human McCoy over Vulcan Spock. To do so would require a degree of empathy for McCoy’s inherent xenophobia. Depressingly, those writers probably achieved the reaction they wanted, but I would like to think the world has grown up a bit since the 60s (well, some parts of it, at least). McCoy and Spock are a representation of “us” and “them”. The “us” is the monster here.   RP

About Roger Pocock

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1 Response to Star Trek: The Tholian Web

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The Tholian Web is one of the easiest reminders of how the classic Trek’s action and adventure was considerably toned down for its final season. In obvious ways it was a good thing and certainly for how we can now view the character dynamics of Kirk, Spock and McCoy from a better perspective. They each had their blatantly dislikeable qualities. Focusing on McCoy’s xenophobia against Spock and how this was meant to create some exciting drama, perhaps that would work for the turbulent 60s, as Alice and Norton always fat-shaming Ralph in The Honeymooners would have been seen as an acceptable form of comedy for the 50s.

    But now it’s sadly all the more agreeable why McCoy for all his flaws would not be among the best Star Trek doctors. Beverly Crusher in her feminine ways would have the bedside manner that McCoy didn’t. Julian Bashir had a sense of innocence that the youthful doctors in the audiences could identify with. McCoy was a curmudgeon which worked as a character tradition, much like how Kirk’s womanizing and impulsive brawling worked for all the stereotypically dashing heroism of the 60s.

    Spock is the more at the heart of this episode for me with his potential to fully become the new Captain of the Enterprise creating an intriguing drama for the crew. What would the Enterprise be like without Kirk? Particularly after how dominating Shatner has been up to this point? For all intents and purposes, The Tholian Web succeeds as one of those sci-fi TV stories that gives an audience plenty to think about. Much of the classic Trek’s final season can be positively viewed that way and later sci-fi shows like The Starlost and Space 1999 could build on that style of sci-fi writing. It’s certainly interesting to have a title for this episode that doesn’t have as much to do with the story as one might expect, much like classic Dr. Who titles of course. But the Tholians’ web could work as a metaphor for the enclosure and entanglement for all the ensuing issues of the Enterprise crew, as the word ‘web’ can often be metaphorically used in such dramas.

    It would have been interesting to learn more about the Tholians as an alien race. Clearly the temperature in their ships is very high to somehow sustain their quite compact physiognomy. It’s most interesting to have Barbara Babcock as the voice of Loskene, one of several roles she had in the classic Trek, some of them also voice roles including Trelane’s mother.

    Thank you both for your reviews on one of the most retrospectively interesting classic Treks.

    Liked by 2 people

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