Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Dagger of the Mind" (November 3, 1966)

Stardate: 2715.1

On a routine mission beaming down supplies to the penal colony on Tantalus V, the Enterprise becomes embroiled in an unexpected crisis.

A mad-man, Simon Van Gelder (Morgan Woodward) -- formerly a doctor at the facility -- has smuggled himself aboard the starship during the cargo transfer, thus escaping the penal colony’s security force field.

Van Gelder is captured quickly, but the incident requires Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to conduct an investigation of the colony. He is sheepish about doing so, because he deeply respects the director of the Tantalus Colony: Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory), and his life’s work.

In particular, Adams has “revolutionized and humanized” the treatment of prisoners in the Federation, transforming prisons into “clean, decent hospitals for sick minds.”

While Mr. Spock attempts the Vulcan mind-meld on Van Gelder, to learn what happened to him on Tantalus.

Meanwhile, Kirk and ship’s psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill), beam down to the facility for an extended tour.

There, they learn from Adams that he has been experimenting with a rehabilitation beam -- “a neural neutralizer” that is supposed to help “incorrigibles.”

In fact, as Captain Kirk learns the hard way, the neural neutralizer is a method of control, and even torture.

The creative template for “Dagger of the Mind,” is rather obviously, and disappointingly, an installment from two weeks back: “What are Little Girls Made Of.” 

Consider: in both narratives, Kirk beams down to an isolated planetary location with a beautiful female medical practitioner at his side, and is experimented upon there by a deeply-respected individual who is using new technology to bend others to his will.  Kirk's idealism is shattered as he realizes that his idol is no paragon at all.

In “What are Little Girls Made Of,” Kirk and Nurse Christine Chapel visit the treacherous caves of Exo III, where the “Pasteur of Archaeological Medicine,” Dr. Roger Korby, is working on a plan to have androids infiltrate the highest levels of the Federation. Korby experiments on Kirk, making an android duplicate.  Fortunately, Kirk is able -- from the planet surface -- to send a message to Spock, so that the half-Vulcan first officer can intervene and save the day.

In “Dagger of the Mind,” Kirk and Dr. Helen Noel beam down to a penal colony protected by a force field, where a great humanitarian, Dr. Tristan Adams is controlling minds using the neural neutralizer. Kirk is forced to submit to the device. Meanwhile, on board the Enterprise, Spock uses the Vulcan mind-meld to determine what is happening on the surface, intervenes, and saves the day.

Sound familiar?

In both cases, deeply respected professional men go off the rails, and become monsters. Yet “What Are Little Girls Made Of” is a much superior episode because Korby possesses a reason to go off the rails. His consciousness has been transferred to an android body and his “humanity” didn’t survive the transfer.  He is no longer himself, and the message that viewers glean is that man is not meant for immortality, or mechanical bodies  Something vital -- something compassionate and beautiful -- is sacrificed.

There is a reason, or motivation, in other words for Korby's anti-social behavior. We pity him, because we understand he is not really evil, and not really,  even, at fault.

And Dr. Adams in "Dagger of the Mind?" 

There is no reason or motivation even suggested in the episode that such a deeply-respected humanist would change his nature, jeopardize and his reputation and life’s work, to act as the monster we encounter.  

His plan doesn’t even make sense, when one considers it. 

Dr Adams is going to experiment on Kirk and torture Kirk, a starship captain? 

Well, Dr. Noel will be able to testify what happened to him, even if Kirk can’t.  Or is Adams planning on keeping her prisoner...an act which would the Enterprise would surely respond to. 

If not, let’s assume Adams takes the extra step and tortures and plays with Noel’s memory too.  If this is his plan, he’s still taking an enormous risk that the Enterprise crew will discover the truth.  After all, even while in orbit of Tantalus for just a few hours, the crew has determined the identity and history of Van Gelder.  

Why on Earth would Adams not believe that the crew, especially with a Vulcan involved, could not discover what happened to its beloved captain?

The truth would come out, sooner rather than later.

More so, it simply isn’t clear what Adams has to gain by torturing people, particularly a starship captain. There is no plan in place here to take the neutralizer out into the universe and turn people into zombies, so it is difficult to understand, exactly what Adams’ agenda really is, besides being purely and simply evil.

Even assuming Adams is purely and simply evil -- that he has cracked under the pressure of his difficult vocation -- why would he torture and abuse his biggest fan? 

Captain Kirk treats him with tremendous deference and respect. He's looking for a reason, any reason, to exonerate a man he admires. And so what does Adams do?  He makes a friend and a supporter into an enemy.  

Instead of torturing Kirk under the neural neutralizer, Adams could have stuck with his story that the device is a failure, and the room is closed down.  He would simply not use it again, until Kirk left. Then, with the Enterprise long gone and the investigation closed, he could resume torturing the inmates at his leisure.

The character’s lack of real motivation makes Adams a poor guest start, and a poor villain.  Usually on Star Trek, when a character commits what is considered an evil act, his or her motives are examined. The agenda is understood, even if we don’t agree with it.  “Dagger of the Mind” fails that benchmark rather egregiously. Even assuming Adams is purely and simply nuts, his behavior makes no sense. It’s silly and self-destructive.

So not only is "Dagger of the Mind" structurally a rehash of “What are Little Girls Made Of,” it is an inferior one, in terms of the details.  

In a three week period, essentially, Star Trek has twice proposed that great, respected leaders in their field actually possess feet of clay, and can be transformed into monsters by their quest to push the limits of science. 

Again -- and I make no moral judgment or political preference about this -- the message is undoubtedly conservative in nature.  It is better not to broach a new frontier -- like the creation of androids or an experimental beam -- because doing so will make slaves or inferiors of the human race. 

Progress, in both cases, is arrested so that the status quo remains in effect.  I find it odd not that Star Trek would (wisely) question the pace of new technological development or the impact it might have on humanity, but that it would repeat this same idea over three episodes in three weeks.  "Miri" had the same theme of over-reaching scientists causing havoc.

If scientists are such dangerous, irresponsible folk, how did the Federation ever get to this point of space exploration? Isn't some advancement good?  Doesn't it sometimes improve the human condition?

I guess I'm saying it would be nice to see a little variation in the messaging. Let's have some conservative wisdom, but let's also talk about pushing boundaries too, occasionally.  Fortunately, next week's episode ("The Corbomite Maneuver") adopts that approach so Star Trek's message doesn't feel so consistently in favor of the status quo.

Sadly, “Dagger of the Mind’ is not made any more effective through its visualization. 

If you were Dr. Adams, hoping to keep your real work a secret, would you house your prisoners in a room with a giant vent shaft leading right to the power generator controls that feed into your security field?  

Again, you can’t assume there’s nowhere else to house Kirk and Noel, because this is a penal colony, presumably with housing units (cells?) for all the inmates.

But let's assume, for argument’s sake, that there is no other room to use but the one with the biggest vent shaft opening in cult-TV history.  

Would you not attempt to seal it off so your prisoners can’t use it?

I mean, it’s not like a starship captain and his psychiatrist aren’t going to notice a gigantic vent shaft right there, at eye level, in their quarters.

Although “Dagger of the Mind” makes no sense from a story or character perspective, and opts for easy ways out, in terms of narrative solutions (see: the giant vent shaft), it nonetheless does boast some strengths that should be note.

I like the idea, for instance of the “Devil’s Island” setting; a realm reachable only by elevator, and once a shield is de-activated.  In concept (but not design; again see: vent shaft) Tantalus should be an inescapable prison.  It is always fascinating to have characters cut off from the power and technology of the Enterprise, forced to manage their own escape.

Also, I admire the performances of Morgan Woodward and Marianna Hill. Both Van Gelder and Helen Noel are welcome additions to the Star Trek universe. Van Gelder must overcome his own mental demons to help the Enterprise crew, and Noel is truly ‘tantalizing,’ a gorgeous and smart love interest for Kirk.

Most notably, “Dagger of the Mind” introduces the Vulcan mind-meld to Star Trek, and for that development the episode deserves, certainly, to be remembered and lauded. Star Trek’s first season is such a great time of invention, especially for Vulcan culture, given that we see the nerve pinch in “The Enemy Within” and the mind-meld here.

It’s just a shame that Spock’s ability to mind-fuse with other beings is featured in a rehash story notably lacking in any other brand of invention.  

Also, it's intriguing to note how the concept of the Vulcan mind-meld being a very private, intimate matter falls by the wayside in franchise history. By the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Spock performs, without hesitation, a mind-meld on Valeris (Kim Cattrall) in front of the entire bridge crew!

Next week, one of the most brilliant and well-made Star Trek episodes ever: "The Corbomite Maneuver."


  1. John thoughtful review of this memorable TOS episode.


  2. John,

    I really dislike this episode. Your review is spot-on perfect in a way "Dagger of the Mind" can only hope to be. Honestly, the two best things to come out of this entry are the Vulcan Mind Meld and a hilarious episode of South Park.

    I've read many books about Star Trek over the years, and there are reports that "Dagger of the Mind" is a veiled re-write of actual history, in which Grace Lee Whitney left the show for refusing an executive's advances after the studio's Christmas Party. I know it's all rumor and hearsay, but whenever I watch this episode, I really feel uncomfortable, for reasons that have nothing to do with the mood the show is trying to create. Can you get any more on-the-nose than naming a character "Noel" and having her hook up with Kirk at a Christmas party?

    An interesting note about the Vulcan Mind Meld: the script originally called for Spock to hypnotize Van Gelder, but Nimoy improvised the Vulcan technique as a means of keeping his character "alien." I'd say that was a choice that paid off rather well.


  3. I have not seen this episode in many years. After reading this review it's time for me to review "Dagger of the Mind". The episode has atmosphere and Morgan Woodward is superb as Van Gelder -- two elements that make it very affecting at times.

    By the way, John, I've noticed you're using low-grade frame captures. Too bad, especially since Star Trek is a great-looking show... one of the things it's known for. (You started off your series by using Blu-ray frames.)

    "Dagger of the Mind" came in under budget ($182,140) which no doubt pleased head office, saving them from going out of their minds: production designer Matt Jefferies recycled set pieces from "What Are Little Girls Made Of?", as per the norm with series television; and the show by now was starting to build stock shots of the Enterprise in space/around a planet, which could now be drawn from as needed.

    I spoke of Blu-ray, above. Your series is going to push me to by the show on that format. As a matter of fact I don't even have Trek on DVD.


  4. I too noticed the repetition of themes in the first season of Star Trek after watching the reruns a few times over. My theory is that the show was under such a time crunch in the first season with Roddenberry, Coons, and Fontana scrambling to keep scripts in the pipeline, they had no choice but to reuse ideas over and over. While the first season had some really great episodes and interesting elements that were later abandoned, I think the second season was more balanced in terms of story selection.

  5. Count me in on the thumbs down. One of my least favorite episodes for all the reasons you gave above. But I do love the Dr. Helen Noel character (a GREAT name!) and the actress. And it's always good to see Morgan Woodward.

  6. Sheri4:24 AM

    How would you like to be one of the unknown number of convicts stuck in prison because of faked FBI lab results? I've got news, people: scientists are human, and they are subject to all the faults of humanity. The mantle of "science" is no protection against greed, quackery, and delusions of grandeur--all of which afflict even well-meaning scientists with humanitarian ideals.

    You think Star Trek's Eugenics Wars were a random idea? Large numbers of "humanitarian" scientists saw to the sterilization of huge numbers of "unfit" and "degenerate" members of the lower classes in the interests of improving humanity! One need not have been a Joseph Mengele to have experimented hideously on helpless populations. Large numbers of Black men died in agony untreated in the syphilis studies. Truly alarming numbers of people were routinely diagnosed as incorrigibly mentally ill and lobotomized in assembly-line fashion without anesthesia over the course of decades. These things occurred right here in the United States in the 20th century.

    Psychiatry and psychology have historically been the purview of some of the most unethical, immoral practices the world has ever seen. Dr. Adams would only be the latest example in a long line of great humanitarians who became enamored of their own reputations and developed delusions of grandeur and God complexes. "Dagger of the Mind" could all too easily happen, because it already has happened, over and over and over again.

    1. Sheri, there is undoubtedly a lot of evil in human nature as you write here.

      For instance, there is also unethical, immoral behavior to be seen in priests, generals, and politicians.

      Singling out those in psychology/psychiatry rings a bit hollow, and untrue given a history of pedophile priests, politicians who lie us into wars and demogogue issues, and generals who authorize dehumanizing torture.

      And nobody on this blog is saying that a scientist couldn't do bad things (just read my review of the previous episode, "What Are Little Girls Made Of,") merely that -- from a viewpoint of drama (and issues like story structure) -- viewers deserve to know why Adams risks everything to torture Kirk, when he could go on being unethical and immoral in his own little kingdom.

      He has no reason, selfish, immoral or inhumane to act in the fashion he does; or at least the episode doesn't provide them.

      As a character in a drama he should bear some kind of motivation for his behavior (like improving the breed; like Korby). He doesn't.

      I understand your point that in real life people do bad things. I agree.

      What we demand of drama -- and Star Trek -- is that we understand those bad things through the lens of human nature.

      Pretty clearly, Adams fails that test. He's a two dimensional evil scientist, and we don't really learn much about human nature from his actions or behavior. We don't know his plan, or what he is trying to achieve. He's just evil for the sake of the plot.

      Welcome to the blog!


  7. Sheri1:54 AM

    I wasn't trying to suggest only scientists are unethical, John, and I take your point. It's just that I don't necessarily agree that a fully explained motive for Adams' is required in the context of this episode. Most of the inhumane scientific misjudgments in the name of helping humanity I described above make very little sense in terms of discerning motives; the scientists involved just went off the rails mainly because they became too convinced of their "rightness" and their greatness. Single-mindedness and obsession, even in pursuit of what seem to be "good" ends, is just single-mindedness and obsession.

    Put anybody in the position Dr. Adams is in, with a machine that can reorder minds on the basis of suggestion, and put him in authority over a captive population, and all the ingredients needed for monstrousness are already present. Throw in the occasional temptation to eliminate a colleague's troublesome ethical questions, and poof, you have a ghastly result. For highly controversial parallels in similar settings, Google the Stanford Philip Zimbardo study (which had to be halted due to ethical problems), or the Stanley Milgram study.

    I should point out that my degree is in psychology, and experience is a good teacher. The soft sciences are highly susceptible to temptations of misbehavior and faulty procedures that issue from dangerous thinking, because so little is strictly empirical. My own hometown had one of the highest rates of ADHD diagnoses and Ritalin prescriptions in the nation, all because of one doctor who thought himself a hammer and found nails all around him. If that guy had had a Fix-it Mind Machine at his disposal, he'd have turned the place into Zombie Central!

  8. I liked the interplay among Kirk, Spock and McCoy early on the bridge. Understated,effective, and in character. Agreed Adams motivation might have been blue-penciled somewhere along the way, because, really ... why? But I thought the penal colony insignias were the greatest, and I want one of those uniforms!