Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Obsession" (December 15, 1967)

Stardate 3619.2

While a landing party scans for rare minerals on a planet surface, a strange alien nemesis from Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) past attacks. It is a gaseous organism or cloud, composed of the ultra-rare substance dikironium.

Eleven years earlier, the starship Farragut encountered this unusual life form on the other side of the galaxy, and the encounter resulted in the death of many crewmen, including Captain Garrovick. All the victims had their red blood cells drained of hemoglobin by the alien.

Kirk was a young lieutenant aboard the Farragut during the incident, and hesitated to fire phasers before the attack. Ever since, he has blamed himself for the death of his captain and crewmates. He has blamed himself for his moment of hesitation; fearing that it cost lives.

Obsessed, Kirk makes hunting the creature a priority, despite the fact that the Enterprise is carrying medical supplies that are badly needed for Theta VII, and bound for an important rendezvous with the starship Yorktown.

Meanwhile, Ensign Garrovick (Stephen Brooks) is stationed aboard the Enterprise, and when he fails to kill the creature with his phaser, he blames himself, much as Kirk has done.

When the alien vampire cloud heads to Tycho IV -- possible to reproduce -- Kirk and Garrovick attempt to destroy it with an anti-matter bomb.

Buoyed by a tense finale, “Obsession” is a solid episode of Star Trek (1966-1969’s) second season, even though it falls into a pattern seen very commonly during this group of episodes.

Specifically, the Enterprise must intervene to stop a galaxy-threatening menace  

This formula might seem familiar to you. 

The menaces encountered during this span are “cosmic” ones, meaning that they don’t just threaten the ship, or a planet, or a solar system, but whole swaths of civilized space.

In the second season, the Enterprise stops such a menace in the best of these episodes, “The Doomsday Machine,” but also engages (and stops them) in “The Changeling” (Nomad) and here in “Obsession.”   Later, another such menace attacks in "The Immunity Syndrome."

Specifically, the vampire cloud featured in this tale is on the verge of initiating reproduction, spreading out across the galaxy, sucking the life from all red blooded beings, ostensibly.

For a personal story -- one that is really about Kirk’s sense of guilt over something that was never his fault -- this “galactic” canvas is simply unnecessary.  Actually, it's counter-productive from a character development standpoint.

The creature is a menace, it seems, to Kirk’s self-esteem, his sense of self.  It doesn’t need to be a threat to ALL HUMAN LIFE for the episode to work.

Also, and quite unfortunately, this episode goes out of its way to redeem Kirk when it is not necessary to do so.  

Consider: Kirk punishes Garrovick unnecessarily, delays a rendezvous with another starship, and imperils the safety of a distant world all on a hunch about this creature.  

Well, lo and behold, the episode vindicates Kirk's impulsive choices in the end, by revealing that the life form is on the verge of becoming a galactic threat.  So Kirk’s stubbornness and reckless command choices are all revealed to be completely valid.

All's well that ends well, right?

Yet the title of the episode is “Obsession,” and that term may be defined as a preoccupation that continually intrudes on the mind. In other words, obsession is a craze, a compulsion, a mania.  

An obsession is generally not considered a good state of mind, and an obsession usually boasts negative consequences.  

“Obsession” is smart enough to establish the consequences of Kirk’s behavior (a planet in jeopardy, a disease out of control, a starship idling on standby waiting for a rendezvous, a young man’s ego crushed) but then permits him to play the hero when things turn out okay.

When one thinks of obsession, the great literary work Moby Dick comes immediately to mind.  Consider that on at least two occasions in Star Trek lore, that Melville classic is  directly referenced.  

Khan (Ricardo Montalban), for example, is obsessed with Kirk in The Wrath of Khan (1982). He dies trying to execute his revenge, leading his people, in the process, to death and disaster.

In First Contact (1996), Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is obsessed with the destruction of the Borg, but, in the end, recognizes his obsession, and pulls back to a more responsible decision -making stance (choose to self-destruct the Enterprise and evacuate his crew to safety). Picard realizes that obsession has transformed him into an Ahab-type personality, to the detriment of all those loyal to him.

Here, Kirk never has that reckoning. 

Instead, the episode asks us to consider the idea that Kirk was right to do all the things he did, because the ends justified the means. The creature was going to reproduce, become a cosmic menace, and thus had to be stopped.  

So Kirk’s obsession -- even though he didn’t know any of that information -- was justified.

A more thoughtful narrative would see Kirk realizing, finally, that he was willing to sacrifice too much to settle an old score, to rectify a (perceived) mistake from his youth.

As I see it, there are two opportunities for Kirk to grow in “Obsession,” and two opportunities for the audience to gain a better appreciation of the character.  

The episode handles one opportunity masterfully, and one poorly. 

In the first case, Kirk realizes -- as he teaches Garrovick to go through the same thing -- that it is natural to feel fear, and freeze in the presence of something alien.  Kirk froze aboard the Farragut, but his actions made no difference, after all. He hesitated for a few seconds, as any of us would in the same scenario.  There should be no shame or guilt from this. Kirk was, and is, human.

As far as the second opportunity goes, it is squandered. Kirk does not recognize his obsession. and contend with the fall-out from it. 

He is willing to commit everything (his starship, his crew, another starship, a planet’s ENTIRE population...) to resolve his personal obsession.  

One can argue, I suppose, that Kirk's obsession grows, in part, from his ability to sense the thoughts/emotions of the creature on some basic level.  But even that is a weak argument.  Kirk should certainly apologize to his command crew for his behavior -- or at least his unnecessarily brusque manner -- during this incident. 

But importantly, Kirk doesn’t learn about himself here, that he too is vulnerable to irrational obsessions, and that it nearly costs a lot of people everything.

So thematically, “Obsession” is not entirely effective, I would assess. The writing misses the bigger story.  

Again, I am reminded of A Next Generation (1987-1994) story, “Silicon Avatar.” It too concerns a space-going entity that murders people: the Crystalline Entity.. A character aboard the Enterprise, a scientist, has been obsessed with it for decades, since it killed her son. She kills the dangerous out of spite and vengeance, but at least, in the last act, is held to account for her actions.  She realizes that the reasons she behaved the way she did were not really valid.  She committed murder for herself, for her own satisfaction, not for anyone else.

To restate the point: Kirk has no such reckoning about obsession here.

Still, I do enjoy “Obsession” for a number of reasons. 

For example, I love the concept of a blood sucking alien (see: It! The Terror from Beyond Space.) I also appreciate  learning something of Kirk’s early Starfleet career.  I also believe that the denouement, with the monster sucking up the bait -- a vat of blood -- works very effectively in creating and maintaining tension.

But overall, this is a “galactic” scaled story that should have been a “human” scaled story.  "Obsession" could have been a real meditation on leadership, instead of a an ends justify the means story.

Next week an episode that turns out not to have aged very well at all: “Wolf in the Fold.”


  1. Sheri2:08 AM

    John, I've been having trouble with the webpage today, so I hope my comment doesn't post a bunch of times. If it does, just delete any two!

    Thoughtful review, John, but I disagree with your conclusions about "Obsession". Kirk does learn. He learns that it may be impossible to ever achieve perfect certainty about one's own motivations, but one's vulnerability to irrationality (as you put it) can be overcome--not by everything turning out all right, but through one's willingness to be challenged by others and by oneself.

    I see the opposite of "stubbornness and reckless command choices" being portrayed here. Kirk doesn't avoid or berate Spock and McCoy when they come to challenge him; he regards it as necesssary and proper. They engage in a thorough discussion about what command decision-making should consist of. All three profess discomfort over the extent to which he must rely on his intuition of the vampire cloud's nature and intent--which cannot be known--but all agree that intuition is an important component of any captain's decisions. And guilt, which is the result of experience, is an element of intuition. They make a deliberate choice to allow for Kirk's intuitive surmises while remaining wary about whether he is doing the right thing.

    As Garrovick relives Kirk's own past in the present, Kirk comes to realize that although guilt feels solitary it is universal. He *shares* his guilt by having Garrovick accompany him to the planet. They acknowledge their *unity* in guilt when each competes to sacrifice himself to the vampire cloud for the other. Kirk expresses their *sameness* via guilt in his "no difference" remark. When Kirk invites Garrovick to the captain's quarters to share stories, it's an expression of Garrovick's elevation. That's his apology to Garrovick, John!

    And there's the resolution of the episode: guilt can't be erased, as it's a necessary part of what makes a whole man. Both Kirk and Garrovick have absorbed and accommodated their guilt within themselves. They've learned, grown, united, recognized their similarities, and become better men.

    "Obsession" is one of my favorite episodes and in my Top Ten of Season Two for all the above reasons. What a fine episode for the triumvirate this is, by the way.

    1. Sheri, your comments are as thoughtful and interesting as JKM's reviews; thanks so much for posting so many detailed and thoughtful analyses of the episodes.

  2. Sheri,
    A couple of my comments have been lost also, including one reply to your post last week, but hopefully the ghosts in the machine have dissipated, much like a cloud that feeds on red corpuscles.
    I like both your and Sheri's reviews in tandem, John. They compliment one another nicely.
    This episode generates suspense in a way that few others do. In the final sequence, when the cloud takes about 1.5 seconds to "eat" the bait, you truly get a sense of "Uh-oh, now what?" Even the transporter sequence leaves you with some doubt that Kirk and Garrovick will survive. The whole episode is really great at building that suspense to a crescendo, while allowing the twin personalities of Kirk and Garrovick to reflect and conflict with one another.
    I really like the idea of the two of them exchanging stories. Although we never see Garrovick again, one gets the impression that both men were changed by these events for the better.

  3. One of the things I like best about this episode is seeing McCoy act like a Starfleet officer. He tries the "friendly country doctor" routine first, and when that doesn't work, then he questions Kirk by the book and makes it clear that he's doing what he believes his duty to Starfleet requires him to do. McCoy gets away with murder during most of the series and is rarely forced to seriously act like a Starfleet officer. It's nice to know that when push comes to shove, he can and will.


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