Monday, September 05, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Dagger of the Mind"

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 act which  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 star, 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!

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