If Star Trek has one single theme, it’s a devotion to a ship and a crew. Every iteration of the show has focused on a group of people coming together to stay together in the face of the unknown. The captains put their crews in the face of an indifferent galaxy constantly and struggle to make sure that everyone survives to fight another day. It’s a romantic set-up that allows for any number of stories to be told. The problem that it presents is a limited number of themes that can actually be explored.
“The Doomsday Machine” is a story you’ve seen before and viewers of the show in the original run had almost certainly seen before. Kirk and the Enterprise answer a distress call to find a single survivor of a cataclysm, the mostly insane and definitely depressed Commodore Matt Decker. His ship was destroyed by the doomsday machine of the title and in a last ditch effort to save his crew, the captain beamed his crew down to a close planet, hoping that they would be able to be saved by Starfleet later. Unfortunately, the fiery toilet paper tube annihilated the planet and the crew, racking the commodore with grief. Kirk orders the survivor back up to the Enterprise while he and Scotty try to fire back up the Constellation.
I’m sure that it’s no surprise to anyone what happens from here. The apocalyptic machine shows back up and starts destroying things, targeting the Enterprise. Spock, in command of the ship, takes strategic action, realizing that they have no way to deactivate the machine without drawing attention to his ship. Naturally, Decker orders the ship to attack and elicits Starfleet bylaws to seize control of the Enterprise and pull the ship into an attack against the unstoppable device.
Spock initially denies Decker attempting to pick up the away team from the Constellation but the commodore is determined to try to destroy the planet killer before it can approach the densely populated Rigel system. Against McCoy’s protesting, Decker takes command and begins launching a fruitless phaser and photon torpedo attack on the machine. There’s a nice character beat with Sulu following orders, knowing the result of the actions will be pointless. He’s essentially a soldier but he knows the folly of the orders he’s receiving. Spock knows that he has an out if he can prove Decker is insane and he bides his time, waiting to relieve the commodore of command.
Kirk and crewman-of-the-week Washburn finally start getting shit done on the Constellation, firing up the viewscreen and seeing the Enterprise’s attack on the machine. Kirk tries to get on the horn to talk to his ship but can’t make it. As Decker continues to attack, ignoring Spock’s recommendation to pull away, he begins to note the ineffectiveness and follows the Vulcan’s recommendation to try to escape before they get pulled into the tractor beam. No one knocked on wood, and as Spock says that if Decker ignores orders, he’ll be able to relieve him on grounds of attempted suicide and insanity, the commodore breaks off the attack only to find the ship stuck in the machine’s gravitational pull.
It’s here where we finally have tension. The stuff on the bridge is interesting, mostly for my well documented love of space law and Cosmos C-SPAN, but this is the first great space battle episode since “Balance of Terror.” Sure, it doesn’t have that great cat and mouse game in there, but it’s a lot of fun to see the maneuvering of these crafts in combat. The only problem is still how worn out the setup is. Let’s not fool ourselves, as soon as Decker shows up as the last man, we all know he’s going to sacrifice himself in a way that will either destroy the machine or expose its weakness. We’re pretty much just waiting for this to happen so the climax of the episode can be handed back to Kirk and Spock.
Scotty finally activates the Constellation’s impulse engines and Kirk manually draws the ship in to try to draw the planet killer’s attention away from the Enterprise. He fires the one phaser bank that the ship has operational and draws the Galactacus thing away long enough for the Enterprise to break free, only for it to draw it’s attention onto the warp driveless ship. Decker orders that the Enterprise provide a distraction, firing on the machine and pulling away. It appears that they have escaped the device’s range, but the ship’s shields and engines will be offline for a day, while their opponent begins refilling from the debris around it. Decker wants to pull around for another pass, but they finally receive communication from the Constellation.
It’s probably the one moment of brightness to a generally dull and plodding episode to have Kirk get confused as to how Decker has taken control of the ship. He keeps trying to issue orders to Spock only to be blocked by Decker at every turn and the commodore eventually has to cede control to the ship’s first officer. It’s a telling moment for the continued relationship between Spock and Kirk. There’s a trust and a respect there that’s been here the whole series but it ends up really shining when Kirk isn’t able to lead the ship that he loves. It’s a situation where he’s truly powerless and he needs someone to lead in his place.
Decker is relieved and is escorted to sickbay before he breaks away, seizing a shuttlecraft and going for the machine himself. Both the Constellation and the Enterprise try to hail him to no avail. Decker feels like this is what he has to do for his lost crew and we see his sense of honor blend with his insanity and finally break in his moments before he is consumed by the machine. It’s something out of Lovecraftian mind-shattering horror and he manages to play it without veering too far into camp.
Kirk comments that Decker’s sacrifice was for nothing, but he realizes that the commodore may have just needed more power to make his move worth something. He and Scotty rig an explosive to the Constellation, which they plan on piloting into the machine’s tractor beam before beaming off the ship and detonating the bomb from the Enterprise’s bridge. Spock is skeptical, with the ship’s transporters not working at 100% efficiency, but Kirk hasn’t heard a suicidal plan that he didn’t like so he starts getting the ship ready for its suicide run.
It’s all rather exciting. After Scotty beams off the ship and Kirk pilots the craft into the beam, the Enterprise can’t beam the captain back. Scotty has to make last second repairs before they can bring Kirk back and in the last second, he materializes in the transporter room. It’s a fun little finish and it’s nice to have something like this after what is such a dry and predictable hour.
The last few minutes of the episode are usually where Kirk, Spock and McCoy do some bullshit philosophy and make some jokes at Spock’s expense. This time it’s a little darker. There were really no answers as to where the device came from and all the three can do is hope that there are no more of these machines floating around the galaxy, swallowing planets and ravaging civilizations. It’s a grim ending, particularly for an episode that ends up being considerably more about cosmic horror than an encounter with alien artifacts.
Really, this episode almost serves as a counterpoint to Season 1’s “Arena.” “Arena” posits an Enterprise that can encounter a great unknown and ultimately learn to live in a galaxy with the alien. They can learn from their expansionistic action and make room in the galaxy for everyone. There’s no such out in the admittedly less successful “The Doomsday Machine.” There’s going to be unknown, uncaring, brutal things out there in the universe that don’t care about mercy or peace. They’ll mindlessly destroy until they can’t. It’s a grim episode and it does have the themes Lovecraft and his contemporaries explored when they looked up at the stars and felt only fear.
Strangely, there’s no Uhura. I guess that’s what it takes to give Sulu a mini-moment.
Robert Ryan was supposed to play Decker. You know him best as Deke Thorton, who fucked up a bunch of people’s days in “The Wild Bunch.”
Next Up: “Catspaw,” which, well, it’s written by Bloch, and is a Halloween episode, so…