Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Deadly Years" (December 8, 1967)

Stardate: 3478.2

The Enterprise visits Gamma Hydra IV, a planet near the Romulan neutral zone that recently came in close contact with a rogue comet.

There, a landing party consisting of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Mr. Scott (James Doohan), Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Lt. Galway (Beerly Washburn find that scientists Robert (Felix Locher) and Elaine (Laura Wood) have inexplicably aged years -- even decades -- in less than a day. Another of their team has already died. Chekov is terrified when stumbling upon his corpse.

Aboard the Enterprise, the landing party members -- except for Chekov -- begins to show signs of the same mysterious malady they witnessed on the planet. They begin to age rapidly.

Commodore Stocker (Charles Drake), bound for a command at Starbase 10, wants Spock to convene a hearing that will judge Captain Kirk incompetent, and see him relieved of duty.  Spock reluctantly agrees, and the inexperienced Commodore takes command of the Enterprise.

Meanwhile, Kirk’s old flame, Dr. Janet Wallace (Sarah Marshall) works with Dr. McCoy to come up with an antidote to the aging illness.

While they struggle to find an answer, Stocker directs the Enterprise through the Romulan neutral zone, believing a direct course to Starbase 10 is necessary.  The Romulans, however, intercept the starship.

“The Deadly Years” is another classic episode of the original Star Trek (1966-1969), and one of the best installments of the second season.  The story is affecting, exciting and buttressed by great make-up effects.

One reason “The Deadly Years” works so well is that the theme of the episode, aging, is universal to the human experience.

We are all going to grow old, and face diminished possibilities in terms of our mental and physical acuity.  As we age, we grow weaker.  For some of us, it will be worse than that, and we will deal with age-related problems such as hearing loss, arthritis, and even dementia.  Old age is, frankly, a terrifying and implacable nemesis.

The universal nature of aging -- we will all experience it, without fail -- is not the only reason that “The Deadly Years” is so effective.  Before we face this particular enemy ourselves, we will watch it take the ones we love, too.  In the passage of the generations, we see our once-strong parents begin to weaken, grow less independent, and less able.

Here, we see the young and vital Captain Kirk transformed into a frail, forgetful, belligerent old man. There is something incredibly sad and upsetting about seeing a strong person rendered weak before our very eyes.  Kirk is a force of nature, a man of high energy. But even he is not exempt from the ravages of age.

The episode is powerful too, in part, because of Sulu’s (George Takei) and Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) reaction to Kirk’s aging, as he gives them orders that require questioning. Kirk repeats himself (about planetary orbit), and orders a signal sent using a code that the Romulans have already deciphered.  In one pitiful moment, he is seen asleep in his command chair on the bridge.  It is clear that Sulu and Uhura don’t want to question or harm Kirk, a man they deeply respect, and at his hearing they make excuses for his behavior. 

But you can see it in their eyes how it much it hurts them to have to question him and his competence.

One aspect of “The Deadly Years,” I never fully appreciated in my younger days was the unusual nature of the romantic relationship between Kirk and Wallace. It’s a little kinky, in a sense.  She only is attracted to Kirk as he grows old and less capable. She comes on to Kirk as he super-ages, and he realizes that this is her pattern of relationships with the opposite sex; to find herself attracted to older men. Perhaps because then any real commitment is time-limited.

It is also bittersweet to experience “The Deadly Years” in 2016, fifty years later, and reckon that the majority of the cast that grew old so colorfully (and with extensive, effective make-up) for this episode, have indeed died in their old age. 

We have lost De Forest Kelley, James Doohan and Leonard Nimoy.  It’s impossible not to think of that fact as these beloved actors “age” here in character. 

Although “The Deadly Years” ultimately sees our beloved characters restored to youthful vigor, in real life there is simply no antidote to old age, to creeping mortality.  As a forty-six (soon to be forty-seven) year old I am more conscious than ever that time only moves in one direction, and that aging is an irrevocable, diminishing process.  We may, hopefully, age gracefully.  But, regardless, the aging process occurs.

Part of that process of aging, I understand at almost 50, is failing to recognize one’s own limitations. It is especially appropriate that the impulsive, energetic Kirk would face this particular problem. He can’t let go of his command, and cannot see how his failing faculties are impacting the crew and the ship.  And he feels such intense betrayal and pain when Spock, under Stocker’s direction, must point out that he has lost the capacity to command a starship. Et tu, Spock?

The moments between an aged Kirk and Spock in “The Deadly Years” are especially heart-breaking.  Spock has performed his duty, as he must.  Kirk can’t see it that way, and turns against his old friend.
“The Deadly Years” is also a strong installment in terms of series continuity.  This is the first episode to feature the Romulans since the early first year segment “Balance of Terror.” It is also their only appearance in Star Trek’s second season. The Romulans appear in their painted bird of prey vessels, seen in that episode, and again fire their plasma-based energy weapons. 

Significantly, Kirk’s resolution to the Romulan confrontation harks back to another early first season episode of Star Trek. He re-uses the Corbomite gambit he tricked Balok with in “The Corbomite Maneuver.”   Again, it works.

One might also make the argument that “The Deadly Years” is an influential episode of Star Trek because Dr. Kate Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) suffers a similar super-aging malady in the second season Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) episode “Unnatural Selection.”

Next week: “Obsession.”


  1. John,
    This is not one of my favorites, but in the face of your admiration of "The Deadly Years," it is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why. I feel it's rather dull and meandering, and a recent viewing didn't change my opinion very much. However, I can appreciate your viewpoint, since neither of us is getting any younger, and it may be that my dislike of this episode may be rooted in the very thing you mention: seeing my heroes as old, decrepit and ineffectual. One thing is certain: the disease really hates Scotty more than the others for some reason.
    I think that if someone had been hit in the face with a robot head, like Weyland in Prometheus, that would've livened things up a little bit.
    Regardless, I've always heard that Captain Shatner objected to the old age makeup, and insisted that it be applied less liberally to himself than the other actors. Maybe they used all that leftover makeup on Jimmy Doohan. I'm amazed Scotty even survived this episode. He looks like Death eating a cracker.

    1. Sheri9:16 PM

      Steve, I've always heard just the opposite--that aging makeup to which Shatner objected, but rather the fact an afternoon was wasted applying the makeup to him in anticipation of filming several scenes that were then shifted to the next day--a needless waste of half a shooting day on a production always going overtime. I'd have been pissed, too. Watching the episode, Shatner's makeup is nearly as old as everyone else's, but out of sequence. Also, I always thought the reason Scotty and McCoy age so much more is that they were about a decade older than Kirk to begin with, so I don't see that as a problem.

      Really, the person who was hardest hit was Whatsername, who aged and died in a day! She got REALLY old, really fast!

    2. Sheri,
      "Whatsername" lol! She seems to be the most stressed out in the bunch, a textbook case for how stress can kill you. She did manage to elicit sympathy, however. I didn't want to joke at her expense. Thanks for the added info about Shatner's makeup. That makes much more sense than what I'd heard.

  2. Sheri2:15 PM

    John, I appreciate your review of "The Deadly Years" because you reviewed it on its own merits instead of automatically dismissing it as subpar. This episode has wonderful observations about aging, competence, and relationships--and in fact, it marks the first and only dramatization of dementia in television or film that I can remember until 1985's TV film "Do You Remember" with Richard Kiley and Joanne Woodward! The portrayal of Kirk's dementia, its sudden onset and its in-and-out quality, is remarkably insightful; Alzheimer's disease was a little-known phenomenon that didn't become mainstream knowledge until the 1980s.

    I, too, am struck by the relationship between Kirk and Wallace. One does sense it was her, not his, inability to commit that ended their previous relationship. Age obviously is her fetish. I'm trying to recall whether any other obvious fetishes were dramatized in the series, and I can't think of any offhand.

    Reading about the history of Star Trek, it seems this episode had delays and they were very pressed for time, which must be why the aging makeup has inconsistencies. For example, Kirk's late-age makeup looks younger than his previous-stage makeup, and McCoy seems to gain hair rather than losing it as he ages. I also find it kind of funny that Spock keeps complaining about the increasing chill to McCoy, who is the person most likely to yell, "Well, put on a sweater, you dumb green-blooded hobgoblin!"--but he never does. Don't they have sweaters in the 23rd century?

    I find the situation with Commodore Stocker to be very well depicted: he's not portrayed as the kind of officious higher-up who is anxious to relieve Kirk of command, but he's stuck in circumstances that call for someone with field experience and he has none. His errors are understandable but lethal, yet he is doing his job as compassionately and competently as he can.

    I have always found "The Deadly Years" to be moving and very accurate in its depiction of what happens to interpersonal relationships among people who rely on one another's competence. When mental acuity suffers, emotional reactions become unreliable and unpredictable, and "The Deadly Years" depicts this process as well as any story ever has.

  3. John, I can see that your positive review invites me to rewatch "The Deadly Years". Like Steve Kindernay, I too thought this episode to be a lesser installment. Now, I must admit that it's been twenty years or so since I've seen it... I was in my thirties; watching now as a fifty-plus may make me feel all the touches you outline in your review.

    Positives: The truly spooky teaser of Chekov seeing the corpse. (Cool planet set with the research station huts.)

    The old age makeup is outstanding; the perfomances are tops -- which shows that even when Star Trek is okay, the actors (and other departments) are a big attraction, making the series so addictively watchable.

    I'm still thinking too much time was spent in the briefing room. (It must be said that Gene Roddenberry sent a memo to that effect, during the second season of production, "to those concerned".)

    1. Sheri4:40 PM

      Barry! Where've you been?

      I have to agree with you, the performances make the show here. Shatner is especially adept in this episode: for all the comments about his "hamminess" directed at him these days, he gave quite a performance here of a man who really doesn't realize he's losing it. His movements are so good--everyone's are.

      I agree with you that something is off in the pacing department, which shows how the makeup requirements put a lot of pressure on the shooting schedule. Script revision didn't get the attention it should have, so we're stuck in long talky scenes instead of something like montages showing people conducting tests in labs, or some kind of action anyway. They talk about the competency hearing too much before actually conducting the competency hearing. We really appreciate the action when it finally does take place.

      I failed to mention the music, which is really well used here to support the twists and turns of the plot.

      The one thing I wish they'd had time to fix is the entree into the problem: it doesn't make sense that Checkov would be so deathly frightened of just a dead body. There should have been something else, something additional, that so scared the hell out of him. Maybe that's why this episode didn't grab more people--if they didn't buy the premise, they felt uninvolved in the story?