Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Immunity Syndrome" (January 19, 1968)

Stardate: 4307.1

On trajectory for Starbase 6 -- and shore leave -- the Enterprise and her exhausted crew are unexpectedly diverted by Starfleet to Sector 39J, where something terrible has happened to system Gamma 7A.  

That inhabited system contained two billion life forms.  All are now dead.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) psychically experiences the death of the starship Intrepid, a vessel manned entirely by Vulcans.

Upon investigation, the Enterprise encounters a zone of darkness in space. As the starship probes the void, the crew finds something at its heart: a “giant, single celled animal” made of protoplasm.  This amoeba-like creature, according to Spock, is more than 11,000 miles long, and is “invading our galaxy like a virus.”

Unfortunately, further study of the amoeba suggests that the organism mimics all functions of terrestrial life, meaning that it eats, breathes, and can reproduce.  It seems to eat energy, and life force too, and could be preparing to spawn more of its own, dangerous kind.  It is destructive, Spock concludes, to all known forms of life.

Kirk must make a difficult decision when he decides to send a shuttle to deposit an anti-matter magnetic bottle in the colossal space amoeba, which McCoy (De Forest Kelley) describes as “the greatest living laboratory” in the galaxy.  

Since it is a suicide mission, which of his friends -- Spock, or Bones -- should Kirk condemn to death?

“The Immunity Syndrome” is another “galaxy destroyer” episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) second season.  In stories of this formula, a force with destructive capacity beyond human understanding threatens to destroy whole swaths of the galaxy, until the Enterprise saves the day.

Already in Season Two, the Enterprise has vanquished destroyers such as Nomad (“The Changeling,”), the Planet Killer (“The Doomsday Machine”) and the Vampire Cloud (“Obsession.”)  This week, the 11,000 mile long space amoeba gets the same treatment.

“The Doomsday Machine” is the greatest episode of this particular narrative type, filled with dramatic character interaction, and heaps of tension and suspense.  It’s the best of the formula, and, actually, one of the very best episodes of Star Trek ever produced (which is saying something).

Episodes of this type tend to be painted on a large -- perhaps too large -- canvas.  Here for instance, two billion life-forms die, and yet by the end of the hour, Kirk is making eyes at a good looking yeoman and commenting about taking shore leave on a “lovely planet.”  

I’ll be brutally honest: killing 400 Vulcans on the Intrepid is “quite sufficient.”  There's no need to raise the stakes so the billions.  

Especially since billions were just eradicated in “The Changeling.”

Just how many ravaging, super-galactic monsters are roaming the Alpha Quadrant in 2268, anyway? 

And would the space faring civilians of a society like the Federation feel safe traveling anywhere with such holocausts occurring simultaneously, in manned space?

In the Federation history books, this year must be remembered as particularly catastrophic.

Still, it’s clear, at least, that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) -- a film I love and admire -- takes some elements from this tale, namely the Enterprise’s (dangerous) journey into the interior of an alien life form. 

Also, much like the first Star Trek movie, most of the action in this episode takes place on the bridge of the Enterprise.  It doesn't possess much visual distinction, though I love the original effects of the Enterprise approaching the amoeba.

One more similarity: Both "The Immunity Syndrome" and the first feature film also resolve when Spock is involved in a probe -- whether aboard a shuttle, or in a thruster suit -- deeper into the giant, enemy entity.

After a season including the similar tales “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Changeling,” “The Immunity Syndrome” doesn’t feel, perhaps, like a good choice regarding its particular narrative. It’s too familiar, and too predictable, and ramping up the death count -- 2 billion! -- doesn’t make the story any more suspenseful or exciting.

In fact, the episode has, at points, an unpleasant aura.  Since the giant space amoeba is draining the life of the crew, everyone is exhausted, suffering, and at their worst. This quality isn’t especially appealing to watch for fifty minutes.

However, taking the opposite tack, I do appreciate that “The Immunity Syndrome” finally comes down to something very dramatic, and something that truly matters: the agonizing choices a starship commander must make.  

Kirk has an unenviable task in this episode. He must choose which of his officers should die.  It’s not just that both Spock and McCoy are his friends, and he would hate to lose either. It’s that he must choose and decide who can best accomplish the mission.  

Kirk does make the choice, without shirking or delaying it, and it’s the right one. But I wouldn’t want to stand in his shoes. If he chooses right, and the ship is saved, there is still every likelihood he loses; sacrificing a friend and vital crew-member.  Fortunately, Spock survives.

Kirk’s choice, and the competition between Spock and Bones to lead the dangerous mission are the best elements of “The Immunity Syndrome.”  When Spock is chosen, and Bones needles him, Spock asks to grant him (Vulcan) dignity in the situation. McCoy, however, is upset not to have been chosen and says he can’t grant what he doesn’t understand. 

It’s a powerful character moment for both Spock and McCoy.

This episode also offers a splendid comparison between Spock and Bones.

Spock seems to want to go on the suicide mission because he knows he can best endure the journey. It is a logical choice for him to go, as the ship will be saved, and the research will be completed.  

By contrast, Bones wants to go, it seems, because he is excited by the possibility of discovering something new, of increasing the Federation's bank of knowledge or research. 

"The Immunity Syndrome" provides an interesting window on how each of these fine officers thinks, and how each views their role.

So, “The Immunity Syndrome” possesses merit. It asks us to weigh a commander’s difficult choice, and then it shows the impact of that choice on the men most responsible for carrying out the commander’s orders. 

I also find the starship Intrepid, and its fate, to be a fascinating aspect of both Star Trek in-universe history, and Star Trek’s influence on later popular science fiction ventures. 

On the former front, we learn that Starfleet has manned an entire starship -- 400 + individuals -- with Vulcans.  I wonder why this is the case, and why Starfleet made the decision to man the ship in this fashion. It might have been interesting to learn that other starships are primarily Andorian, or Tellarite majority.

On the latter front, there is a scene early in “The Immunity Syndrome” when Spock, at his console, reacts with pain and dismay, to the faraway destruction of the starship Intrepid. He feels, psychically, the loss of life. 

In Star Wars (1977), Ben Kenobi experiences a very similar moment on the Millennium Falcon, when he feels Alderaan die, in near identical fashion. 

We know from George Lucas himself that he watched Star Trek reruns while writing Star Wars (hence technology commonalities such as tractor beams and cloaking devices in both universes), and one has to wonder if “The Immunity Syndrome” was rerun at one point during his creative process.

So the question is: do Vulcans tap into the Force?

Next week: “A Private Little War.”


  1. Anonymous6:34 PM

    Another fine review. While I do agree that the total-destruction-of--all-known-lifeforms formula got overused in Season 2, I have a certain fondness for this episode. There is also an exchange between Spock and McCoy that I find very profound:

    SPOCK: I've noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.
    MCCOY: Suffer the death of thy neighbor, eh, Spock? You wouldn't wish that on us, would you?
    SPOCK: It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody.

    I've sometimes quoted this in my poetry classes when we're reading modern elegies or historical poems like Yusef Komunyakaa's extraordinary "The Towers" (an elegy for 9/11), Geoffrey Hill's Holocaust elegy "September Song," or Dave Smith's haunting "On a Field Trip at Fredericksburg" (site of the at-the-time most deadly US Civil War battle). All these poems struggle with how to how to mourn the many but anonymous and impersonal dead vs one personal death. It's a powerful theme in modern elegy, and it's impressive to me that Star Trek brought it to TV in this episode: the billions of dead vs. the one deeply personal potential dead (Spock or McCoy) to Kirk. In a way, the moment foreshadows "The Wrath of Khan" and later films' struggle with "the needs of the many" vs "the needs of the few, or the one."

    Rick B

  2. John,
    Excellent review of “The Immunity Syndrome” and it's ties along with “The Doomsday Machine”[Decker's father] and “The Changeling”[Earth probe combined with alien to search out it's creator...] to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

    Spock must be a Jedi.


  3. Sheri2:32 AM

    "The Immunity Syndrome" aired one week before Apollo 5, the first unmanned Lunar Module test flight, 6 missions before the first manned lunar mission. It's impossible to convey the constant sense of trepidation coupled with excitement that accompanied watching Star Trek every week during that period, John, and I guess that's why I give the show a break concerning the repetitious "billions in jeopardy" stories. The show was at pains to continually reinforce the idea that the galaxy is unimaginably vast and potentially inhabited by untold trillions of sentient beings--all endangered by God knows what.

    Those potential dangers were constantly in the news because the Apollo preparations were always in the news. Scientists speculated about everything from crazy viruses and microbes to solar radiation damage to organ and tissue damage from weightlessness to space dust contamination. It was postulated that some unforeseen effect might cause the men to fall unconscious with no means of rescue, which is one reason the spacesuits recorded all manner of physiological telemetry transmitting constantly. Feature stories about this stuff circulated constantly. It all affected the writers, who were trying to capture the sense of imminent unknown danger and the awesome REALNESS of it all. So a story about a giant viral cell in space causing debilitating fatigue on a starship seemed not much of a leap from all that speculation.

    I find "The Immunity Syndrome" to be one of those episodes that has more in it than you remember until you're watching it again. It just isn't as memorable as it should be, given the overall quality.

    I think McCoy is not exhibiting curiosity here, John--he's in a position for once to be not just a doctor but a scientist! He has a scientist's intellect as well as curiosity, just as Spock does, and he's equally as qualified as Spock on those terms--and wishes to be seen as such. And that, of course, is Kirk's terrible dilemma: where both are equally qualified and equally important to him as friends and officers, whom shall he sacrifice?

    I think the Intrepid was a possible experiment by Starfleet. Perhaps the Vulcans, being essentially pacifistic, were for too long unwilling to participate in Starfleet in significant numbers, so a segregated ship was a way to play catch-up. Or perhaps the biological imperative Vulcan males experience was thought to be a hindrance to their serving throughout the fleet, since the point is made in "Amok Time" that a dangerous amount of secrecy surrounds that issue. Maybe it was this Intrepid incident that convinced everyone that more Vulcans to should serve at large in the fleet afterward. I think Spock points out, doesn't he, that a ship full of Vulcans only had a crucial failure of imagination that caused their failure to recognize danger?

  4. I always felt the same way as Sheri about the Intrepid. I assumed that Vulcans preferred to stay with their own kind and Spock was an exception because of his half-human side. He suffered prejudice from other Vulcans because of this and chose to be on a starship with other races where, while he might still face some prejudice, he would not be scorned by the race he felt he belonged to. The fact that an all-Vulcan ship existed in Star Fleet hinted at this whole other backstory going on that we were not privy to but wanted to know more about. I love when a series can tease you in that way.

  5. John,

    For some reason (which might seem reasonable to those of us who first watched Star Trek in reruns and were subject to the scheduling whims of local tv stations, who would mix and match episodes from various seasons in the same week), I've always confused "The Immunity Syndrome" with "Operation: Annihilate!" Perhaps because Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice, but I always expected him to come out of the shuttle craft, walk into a desk and say "I am quite blind." Then they'd have to find a cure after he destroyed the space amoeba. Maybe I was ahead of my time, since - as your review points out - The Motion Picture basically merged three episodes together to form the film. "The Immunity Syndrome" is a good episode for all the reasons pointed out in your review and the comments. One word of advice, though...Never, ever watch this episode with headphones. I swear my ears are still ringing.


  6. Nice review. I am actually working on my own review for this episode. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and insights.

  7. Why would Starfleet have an all-Vulcan ship? I'd think the reasons would be obvious! We know from "The Deadly Years" that Spock finds 125 degrees a comfortable temperature. We know from "Amok Time" that Vulcan's air is a lot thinner than Earth's. We know from "Operation: Annihilate" that Vulcans have much more sensitive hearing. We know from "The Paradise Syndrome" that Vulcans can go a LOT longer without eating and sleeping than humans can.

    So, an all-Vulcan ship would have the temperature set to 125 or 130 degrees, would have air with a lower oxygen content, and would have the volume of the intercoms set to a much lower level. Instead of working for 8 hours, relaxing for 8 hours, and sleeping for 8 hours, a Vulcan ship could have shifts that were much longer, possibly as long as 36 hours, instead of 8. The monitored beds in sickbay could be set to Vulcan norms, and the food synthesizers could carry Vulcan food.

    It's true that the effectiveness of the Kirk-Spock team is a really strong argument for the value of having more than one species aboard a starship. :-) But there are serious biological differences -- even if we leave pon farr out of the equation -- that makes single-species starships more likely to be physically comfortable for their occupants.

    Spock is an anomaly; he serves on an all-human (until Star Trek: The Animated Series) starship for his PSYCHOLOGICAL comfort. When biracial people interact with members of the two groups they belong to, they are almost always perceived as belonging to whichever group the person they're interacting with is NOT. So humans see Spock as Vulcan, whereas Vulcans see him as human. Given that Spock values his Vulcanity, serving with humans allows him to be perceived in line with his identity. And that's why he puts up with a cold ship with thick air, too-loud intercoms, sickbay monitors that aren't calibrated to his physiology, and all the rest. Pure-blooded Vulcans, though, understandably prefer a warmer ship with quieter intercoms.

    We don't have to posit any prejudice or reluctance to interact with others, just the fact that differing biology will produce different needs for a healthy environment.


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