Monday, September 20, 2010

Star Trek's Obsession With The Crazy Begins With "Dagger Of The Mind!"

The Good: Not a bad principle, Moments of acting
The Bad: Most of the acting, Low on character, Remarkably inconsistent
The Basics: When Star Trek journeys to a prison planet where a doctor has taken over using a new device, the threads don't add up and the audience is bored.

There is much that is admirable about the ideology of Star Trek, not the least of which is the idea that galactic peace might be possible and that diplomacy is the ideal way to solve problems. Star Trek envisioned a place and time where people of all types got along and they did so with tolerance and no strong ideology outside working together for a common goal and a sense that they all belonged to the same outfit. And out in the galaxy of Star Trek, the idea was extended to helping all people and one of the ideas pitched early on was that humanity could exist without any criminally insane people who took joy in harming others. That idea was first presented in the first season episode “Dagger Of The Mind.”

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at the Tantalus Penal Colony where Dr. Tristan Adams is revolutionizing the treatment of criminals against the Federation, though no one knows quite how. Captain Kirk and the ship’s psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Noel, beam down to the prison to look over Dr. Adams’s work while Spock and McCoy deal with a stowaway who has beamed up from the planet. McCoy is troubled by the violent nature of Dr. Simon van Gelder, one of Dr. Adams’s assistants, who is in an agitated state after coming aboard and he and Spock try to figure out what happened to him. Down on the Tantalus Colony, Kirk and Dr. Noel learn about the neural neutralizer, the rehabilitative device Dr. Adams has pioneered. It soon becomes evident to them that Adams is not only subduing the criminal population, but experimenting on the staff as well.

Now call me crazy – many have – but when I’m touring a facility of any kind and I see people who look like zombies, I have to ask “What’s going on?” When I see them operating the machinery, I think I’d suspect that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong in the place. Apparently, Captain Kirk is a lot more lax about such things than I am, as he does not seem to notice what is going on around the prison. No, he goes along with it and is much more preoccupied with Dr. Noel and not being attracted or interested in her.

The problem with “Dagger Of The Mind” is that it is remarkably inconsistent. Dr. van Gelder is pretty much fried by the neural neutralizer, as most of the inmates of the Tantalus Penal Colony have been. Van Gelder is programmed by Dr. Adams to receive pain whenever he so much as thinks about revealing what is going on at the Tantalus Colony. Granted, van Gelder has no doubt been tortured using the rehabilitative device many, many times. Van Gelder is the end result, the viewer is meant to fear, of any abuse that occurs from the use of the neural neutralizer.

So when Kirk is put under the influence of the device, the audience has a legitimate sense of fear for the Captain’s mental health. Indeed, when Dr. Adams illustrates to Dr. Noel how the device works by implanting an innocuous suggestion in the Captain’s mind, it is immediately effective and the viewer might actually be surprised to learn the system is on its lowest setting. Our intrepid captain is putty to Dr. Adams while in that chair!

So, then, it makes no sense that Kirk is able to shrug off the ideas implanted in his mind after Noel is restrained and Dr. Adams and his goons turn the device up full blast! Yes, this idea is far from nitpicky as it guts the real menace of the episode. After all, if Kirk can just shrug off the effects of the Neural Neutralizer, can’t anyone, given enough time?

But that leads to the tremendous character trouble of Dr. Adams. Man, this guy is crazy! I mean, here he is trapped on a rock under shields that no one can penetrate without his permission and he has designed the ultimate mind-control device. So, what does he do with it? He takes over a small prison population and assaults a starship captain. Moron!

I mean, the Star Trek franchise does mind control occasionally and even episodes like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Game” are better than this one! I mean how stupid can Dr. Adams be to lash out in the development stage?! A real villain waits until the populace can be controlled to exert his control. In order for Dr. Adams to make sense, he needs to do something with the Neural Neutralizer like the Emperor did in Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith.

This is, granted, a long way to go around saying that Dr. Tristan Adams makes no sense as a character. What motivates him? What changed to make him into an evil (if stupid) villain? Why should the viewer care what happens to him?

Far more engaging – and that’s saying a lot because it’s not a terribly thrilling one! – a plot is what is going on aboard the Enterprise. Spock and McCoy work to find out what happened to van Gelder and his scenes are all that make this episode bearable. Van Gelder is a victim and while the Captain is known to be heroic and better than your average man, no such prejudice exists in favor of van Gelder. Thus, we are left to assume that a kindly doctor was abused and destroyed by Dr. Adams. That makes him a far more interesting character than either Dr. Adams or short-skirt of the week, Dr. Helen Noel.

Morgan Woodward plays Dr. Simon van Gelder and despite being on his back most of the episode, Woodward is impressive in the role. He runs around with a manic fear and fury in his eyes that is actually quite disturbing to watch. Restrained in SickBay, Woodward thrashes about as van Gelder in a way that makes the viewer feel extremely uncomfortable. Woodward embodies with his physical style of acting all that we fear about losing out mind or our sense of control and he steals every scene he is in in this episode!

Leonard Nimoy gives a decent supporting performance in “Dagger Of The Mind,” though much of that has to do with his ability to play off Woodward. This is the first episode where Spock reveals the Vulcan Mind-meld and while it generally suggests that he would have had a higher ESP rating to have an effect in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” this is not a huge problem as the nature of the mind-meld remains largely unexplained in the series.

Unfortunately, though, “Dagger Of The Mind” is one of the episodes that clearly establishes the stereotype of William Shatner’s hammy overacting. Sure, Kirk is in a situation where there are heightened emotions, manipulations and perhaps a call for overacting, but Shatner really goes for it in this one. The problem is when the effect ought to be devastating and troubling, it’s painful to watch because it just looks too silly.

The story deserved better. But then again, it deserved a more solid story as well. “Dagger Of The Mind” does not have a bad premise, but to pull it off, it needed to be better-conceived than it is, most notably with the villain. Dr. Adams has the potential to be a big villain; he is doing something that it truly evil and disturbing. The problem is, the episode has a microcosm, one small planet with prisoners that no one really cares about (including the audience). If he had been out to conquer the galaxy with the Neural Neutralizer, that would have been one thing, he just wants to own his little rock.

Ultimately, the episode does not think big enough and it is far too concerned with the mechanics as opposed to consistency, character or performance. As a result, it falls . . . hard.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season" on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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