One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Thursday, September 07, 2017
Star Trek Anniversary - John's Top 20: "The Doomsday Machine" (#3)
We're getting close to the top of my top 20 list now. At #3 is one of the most suspenseful and exciting hours of the series: "The Doomsday Machine." This episode pits the Enterprise crew against a giant "planet killer" but also an obsessed Starfleet captain, Matt Decker (William Windom). Stardate 4202.9
in close proximity to the L-370 star system, the Enterprise encounters the
disaster beacon of the U.S.S. Constellation, a Constitution class starship under
command of Commodore Matthew Decker (William Windom). Decker alone has survived
an attack on the Constellation from a giant automated device soon referred to as “the planet killer.”
is wracked with guilt and grief over the loss of his crew, and the
near-destruction of his ship. After he beams back to the Enterprise, however, Decker
relieves Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) of command when the planet killer returns.
(William Shatner) and Scotty (James Doohan) -- who have remained aboard the
Constellation -- struggle to make the ship operational as Commodore Decker
takes the Enterprise into a futile and deadly engagement with the alien device,
which will not run out of power so long as it has planets to consume.
Decker hovering on the verge of madness, Kirk orders him relieved. Meanwhile, Kirk speculates that the planet
killer is a “doomsday machine” belonging to a long-dead culture, perhaps from
culture, he believes, never meant to launch the device, a device that ensured
the destruction of its own makers.
by Norman Spinrad, “The Doomsday Machine” is another absolutely great episode of the original
Trek (1966-1969), and certainly one of the top ten titles in the Original Series canon.
Many Star Trek episodes
contend with the Enterprise encountering and engaging some kind of
planet-threatening opponent (“The Changeling,” “The Immunity Syndrome” and “Obsession”
for example), but “The Doomsday Machine” is the finest and most suspenseful of
this bunch, for many reasons.
of the tension arises from a human catalyst, in this case: Commodore Matt Decker.
portrays this character, survivor of the doomed Constellation, with real flair. He plays a fallible, desperate man seeking redemption. The problem, of course, is that there can be no redemption because of the nature of this enemy. Decker didn't make a mistake in judgment in his engagement with the Planet Killer. He faced, actually, a no-win scenario.
In an effort to assuage his guilt over his
mistakes, Decker takes the center seat on the Enterprise and blunders into the same mistakes all over
again. He finds himself positioned to lose a second starship, because no single vessel can successfully engage this opponent.
Windom plays Decker as a
hard-as-nails authority figure, but one without, necessarily, the capability to
look at himself in the mirror. His poor treatment
of Mr. Spock throughout the episode also hints at some form of prejudice
towards Vulcans, or perhaps just non-humans. Decker orders Spock to his station (at
the command chair) quite dismissively, almost like a dominating pet owner
summoning his animal. The man is stubborn and arrogant.
Decker is also a
physical threat, as his scuffle with a red shirt in an Enterprise corridor depicts. A physically fit man, and one with cunning, he is a powerful opponent.
But though we disagree with Decker's choices, once in command of the Enterprise, the great aspect of Windom's performance is that we can detect precisely why this man would rise to the rank of Commodore in Starfleet. He possesses a spine of steel. You can practically detect it just listening to Decker's log entry reports, played back on the Constellation.
What do we hear? Total confidence. The episode is so effective because a man of total confidence and authority encounters something that destroys his sense of self; his very identity. The Planet Killer's power not only ruined the Constellation, it destroyed Decker.
yet, through all the interpersonal conflict depicted here, one never considers Decker an evil man. Decker is very human -- and relatable too -- because he is tormented by guilt and shame.Before this incident, Decker never lost a command. Now, he has lost everything.
Even though we agree with McCoy and want Decker physically dragged from the bridge, we can understand why he
wants to take command of the Enterprise and destroy the planet killer. It would be one way to avenge his crew, and assuage
his own guilt for failing his people.
His plan, alas, is irrational, and bordering on suicidal, which is why
Spock ultimately finds the grounds to relieve him.
Still, Decker is a great foil for Spock and Kirk precisely because he isn’t evil.
Instead, he is a man who does things his own way, as any captain would. But his
way seem wrong for the situation, and for the Enterprise. He has tunnel vision. He can only see the destruction of the Planet
Killer, and not the fact that one ship alone can’t accomplish the impossible.
the personal fireworks, “The Doomsday Machine” succeeds on the basis of its
plot-line, which -- as usual -- is allegorical in nature.
Here, Kirk speculates about aliens locked in
a deadly war. They developed a weapon so
fearful that it was meant to terrify the enemy, but never actually be
used. He then likens the Planet Killer to the
old “H-Bomb” on Earth, specifically, and that’s the real meat and potatoes of
Lest we forget, Star Trek
aired on NBC during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union
were trapped in a kind of existential deadlock; ready to use nuclear weapons, but
simultaneously knowing that a nuclear exchange would trigger the end of the
Here, however, aliens “pushed the button”
and unleashed a weapon of mass destruction that ultimately came to outlive
them. Although they were destroyed, their
Frankenstein Monster continues in another galaxy, still destroying planets,
still imperiling life.
important idea here is that, like man, these aliens developed weapons faster
than they honed their “wisdom,” and they annihilated themselves.
As always, then, Star Trek has pinpointed an
illuminating way to discuss our present, while presumably concerning the world
of the future.
incredible highlight of this episode is Sol Kaplan’s tension-provoking score, which escalates the
episode’s suspense, and in some way seems to forecast the score for Jaws
(1975). Both the Doomsday Machine and the Enterprise get identifiable musical
themes in the episode, and very soon these ships (and their themes) are pitted against one another, in direct
opposition. The Doomsday Machine's theme sounds a lot like the great white shark's theme, from the Spielberg picture.
terms of my own interests, I always love this episode for showcasing another
Starfleet vessel: the Constellation. I like the
idea of discovering a wrecked sister ship, and Scotty and Kirk nursing her back to
health, just in time for her to be useful in combat against the Planet
Why do I enjoy this so
much? I suppose because of the implied
lesson for Kirk. Whenever the Enterprise
comes across a crippled starship, there’s always a “there but for the grace of God…”
quality or factor.
if the Enterprise had encountered the Planet Killer first?
Would it be Kirk overcome with guilt, having
lost his crew?
One of the story notes that
intrigued me most about Star Trek Beyond (2016) this summer
was the idea of Kirk encountering something new and dangerous, and not being
able to pull the Enterprise through. In
the prime universe, the U.S.S. Enterprise survived five years of threats like the Planet Killer without being destroyed. In the Kelvin universe, the Enterprise is destroyed three years
into the mission.
That’s a change that
has major repercussions, and one that also affects Kirk as a character, and as a human being.
realize that other fans disagree with me, on the next subject but I am glad that new(er) effects
were added to this episode recently.
There is so
much going in, character-wise and philosophy-wise in “The Doomsday Machine,”
but the special effects are critical to this episode's success.
"The Doomsday Machine" is basically an hour-long
engagement between the Planet Killer and two Starfleet vessels. The older effects (utilizing an AMT U.S.S.
Enterprise kit for the Constellation) look wobbly at best today.
The re-done effects, in my opinion, give
added life and vitality to this 49 year old classic. They give it a new shine, and allow other facts -- like Windom's performance, and Kaplan's score -- to shine again.