I hate to say it, but Dr. Who has always been sort of the younger more attention-seeking brother. It wants to be taken seriously and occasionally ends up making a mature and adult point, but for the most part, it ends up being about a quippy extradimensional traveler and his wisecracking pals facing down often-goofy threats. It’s fun and it generally doesn’t take itself too painfully seriously.
The one thing that Dr. Who always did really well was characterizing its greatest threat, the Daleks. The quintessential killer robots, Daleks’ only objective is to “exterminate,” wiping out everything that comes into their path. They’re rarely characterized past their desire to wipe out life, particularly the Timelords and when they do speak, it’s generally to shout “exterminate,” or their plans to exterminate things in the near future.
The one thing the writers always knew to do with the Daleks was to follow the old adage of the best villains are the ones that talk the least. Sure, they’re alien trashcan robots that roll around, firing laser beams and babbling, but they’re threatening every time. We understand little about them and their motives. We can’t get into their heads and that’s a great thing. They’re here, they want to kill you and that’s all you need to know.
So, that’s the problem with “The Changeling.” Basically, it’s a killer robot that says to much, doesn’t kill enough and generally becomes the center of an incredibly boring episode. After starting a fire exchange with an incredibly small probe, the Enterprise finally makes contact with a talking satellite and beams it aboard for study. That’s where we meet Nomad, a talking computer who makes vague references to “the accident,” “the other” and “sterilization.” Everyone’s suspicious and become more so when Nomad starts acknowledging Kirk as “the creator” and refuses to be studied. Things only get worse when Nomad comes up to the bridge and interrogates Uhura for singing before mind wiping her and killing Scotty.
It’s shocking and I guess it’s nice that they put this sort of conflict this early in the episode, but more or less, it’s a sucker bet. We know Scotty isn’t dead and we know that Uhura will get over her knowledge drain, but it’s tense. It gets better when Nomad ends up reviving Scotty and refuses to repair Uhura’s memory, saying that she’s a damaged “unit.”
This is where things go off the rails. We start learning more and more about Nomad’s purpose and creation and what he can and cannot do, and frankly it’s just really goddamn boring. We know that Nomad is a damaged and dangerous unit from the beginning and I know that sooner or later he’s going to go on a killing spree, so every moment that he’s not doing that seems like filler. This isn’t just television hindsight and knowing genre conventions, but is instead something that is apparent from Nomad’s first actions on the bridge.
Not only do these problems nearly cripple the episode, but the parts without Nomad seem unnecessarily draggy. Spock, McCoy and Kirk generally research Nomad and figure out what caused it to be this way after Spock busts out his infamous mind-meld on the machine and that proves to be the most interesting scene of the episode. That may just be because it’s the mind meld, but it also is just a generally tense scene. The rest of the bits where they simply look things up in the library databanks don’t have much punch and prove to just take up time. I was checking out how much of the episode I had left at the 23-minute mark. There’s just nothing going on here.
After an agonizingly long wait, Nomad figures out that Kirk is a lesser being and decides to waste some motherfuckers on his quest to kill all humans on the Enterprise and then set his sights on Earth. Since Kirk can’t fist fight the robot in the engine room, Kirk ambushes him and decides to talk yet another robot to death. He posits that he is not the creator and that by making the mistake of thinking that Kirk is the creator and then by continuing to acknowledge that Kirk is the creator, Nomad has made mistakes and thus may be imperfect. For those counting at home, this is the third computer that the captain talks to death (“What are Little Girls Made of?” and “Return of the Archons” are the two others). Nomad starts smoking and they beam him out into space before he explodes.
Everything wraps up on the bridge with Kirk, McCoy and Spock realizing that Nomad may have had the potential to have a great benefit for the crew and humanity as a whole. His original design was to help and it wasn’t until the accident that Nomad’s purpose was corrupted. Kirk laments that the probe’s power to revive the dead as well as to learn and deal with so many different subjects. He also has a terrible joke about how Nomad was like a child. In a week, I’ll remember that more than the rest of this whole episode.
“This unit is different. It is well-ordered.”
“This unit is a woman.” “A mass of conflicting emotions.”
“My son, the doctor.”
I originally wrote a lengthy tirade about Uhura’s reeducation because it really rubs me the wrong way. The scene where Chapel and McCoy look over her as she relearns how to read feels a bit too much like a “white man set them free moment.” For some reason, they also decided to put her in pigtails to emphasize the infantilizing. Ultimately, I just thought it distracted from the main problem of the episode, which is failing to make an episode about killer robots interesting.
Next Up- “Mirror, Mirror,” and let’s face it, we all know it’s another icon.