That Which Survives feels like a proper Star Trek romp with a strange planet, a mysterious woman, and a life or death struggle for the crew of the Enterprise. The truth is, this isn’t a great episode but it’s not a bad one either. And it’s one of the rare times a previous adventure is referenced. (That would be Devil in the Dark when Sulu talks about the silicone lifeform of Janus VI.)
The story opens mid-conversation. Kirk is asking Spock about “a ghost planet?” which is a great way to intrigue the audience! Kirk and 3 others beam to the planet to investigate and just as they are beaming out, a woman appears on the Enterprise, tells them not to go, then flings the Enterprise 900 odd-lightyears away. The stranded away team has to figure out why the mysterious woman wants to kill them as the Enterprise crew tries to get back to where they were and save the Captain.
For an episode that doesn’t really do a lot, and even has a rather abrupt ending, there are a handful of interesting things. Take the cultural diversity, often considered one of Trek’s strengths. There’s Lt. Rahda, Sulu’s stand-in. I don’t think I ever realized she’s wearing a bindi and based on her name, I would assume she’s of Indian descent. Dr. M’Benga shows up again as the ranking medical officer when McCoy is off the ship. (We last encountered him in season 2’s A Private Little War.) A little research shows he’s Ugandan. Then there’s one of the smartest crewmen around, Scotty’s assistant, Watkins. Watkins has the wherewithal to call out to Scotty before he’s murdered, giving a detailed account of what’s going on in just a few words. If not for Sulu’s somewhat sexist “I don’t want to have to kill a woman”, I would say this episode impressed me for depicting such a diverse crew so positively. (And it’s not that I don’t appreciate where Sulu is coming from, but shouldn’t it have simply been, “I don’t want to kill you”?)
While I found it extremely enjoyable, I got the impression Spock was having a bad day. He’s very literal in this story, almost as though he’s not familiar with speaking to humans. He did manage to make me laugh after the quake that had Uhura ask what happened with his, “The occipital area of my head seems to have impacted with the arm of the chair.” But throughout the episode, he wastes time splitting hairs and reading too much into a situation. Scotty actually calls him out on it at one point stating that in a few minutes, they would no longer be around to bandy words about.
There are some great effects in this story as well. The earthquake is strangely fluid, making me feel very uneasy about the land they are on. The music for Losira is magnificent, reminiscent of season one’s The Man Trap. And the effect of Losira vanishing was exceptionally interesting to watch. On the other hand, when the landing party had to create a gravestone, I did wonder what they wrote with! And when Kirk tells his two friends to “form a circle”, I had to wonder how many circles he knew of that had three sides.
The end of the episode offers the big reveal: Losira says her people were wiped out by a disease, which feels uncomfortably close to home after what was going on during the covid crisis, with numbers rising steadily for so long. Still, I think we’re a long way off from complete species annihilation but I can’t say the idea isn’t chilling and Losira’s holographic survival is all that remains of what might have been a majestic civilization. The episode takes a brighter tone with Kirk’s evaluation that “beauty survives.” But I couldn’t help but be put off a bit by that too. Yes, Losira was very pretty; her eyes were stunning, but what if she were an ugly creature, like the Horta or the Salt Vampire? Why does beauty endure? What actually constitutes “beauty”? Because what made Losira beautiful for us may not make her beautiful for another race and to them that means something ugly endured. It’s all perspective.
Yes, this was an interesting episode. I don’t love it, but I enjoyed the pulp-like quality of this adventure. Still, I can’t help but wonder how long it will endure… ML
The view from across the pond:
In this episode, four members of the Enterprise crew beam down to a dangerous planet. They are Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Sulu and Senior Geologist D’Amato. Can you guess which one of those gets killed almost immediately? This has become such a cliché that as soon as a name is mentioned that I don’t recognise, it has me thinking, “he’s going to die”. They could at least have introduced the away team victims the week before or something.
It’s a fun planet though, with wobbly rocks that throw everyone around (my kids would love those) and a magical woman who appears and disappears as if by magic. Having said that, it’s not a particularly fun planet for Senior Geologist D’Amato, or even for Sulu, who gets the molecules in his shoulder disrupted. He is hesitant to defend himself:
“I don’t want to have to kill a woman.”
No problem with killing men then Sulu? Maybe he’s curious about what the mystery woman means by this statement:
“I want to touch you.”
This is verging on a kind of fable that goes right back to Adam and Eve, with the female gender depicted as something dangerous, where temptation could lead a man into danger. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that the story in the end turns out to be far simpler and prosaic than that, yet another iteration of the computer-gone-wrong trope. The writers almost grasped an interesting storyline with a ghostly apparition and its melancholy link to the past, which is quite Dickensian, but if you’re going to make that idea effective you at least have to attempt to make the apparition spectral and the episode scary.
Events on the Enterprise are much more entertaining, with Spock trying to get back to the planet to save the away team. Spock himself is irritating, with his character seemingly now distilled into fussy exact calculations to two decimal places and a complete lack of understanding of the concept of a “turn of phrase”. He keeps getting snipey with everyone when they say things like “your guess is a good as mine”, which is simply another way of saying, “I don’t know”, but Mr Tedious takes every word completely literally. For a supposedly intelligent being he’s pretty dense at times. He doesn’t even realise there are 60 seconds in a minute, not 100. Dividing minutes into decimal places helps nobody under his command to understand how long they have any better, and simply wastes some of the seconds (OK, one-hundredths-of-a-minute) they have remaining.
Where Spock’s characterisation does work well is the coolness he shows in allowing Scotty every last second to save himself and the Enterprise, and then some. It also shows an admirable faith in his crew. That whole sequence is very exciting and by far the best part of the episode. After the ship gets sabotaged about a third of the episode plays out with almost nothing happening at all, and the 15 minute countdown plays out virtually in real time, but I didn’t mind that one little bit. The tension was built up very effectively.
And that’s about all I can say about this episode, because the plot is slender to say the least. As much as I approve of a simple idea, told effectively, I doubt this episode will leave any lasting impression. It’s a harmless, fun 50 minutes of television, so it has that in its favour, but I’m seeing little at the moment to indicate that Star Trek’s cancellation after three seasons was anything other than the correct decision. RP