Sunday, October 3, 2010

One Of The Best Episodes Of Star Trek Results Uncovering "The Devil In The Dark!"

The Good: Interesting concept, Decent (if simple) plot, Shatner and Nimoy's acting, Interesting character work
The Bad: Just a minute bit off on most everything
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at a mining planet suffering murders, Kirk and Spock try to find and understand the beast responsible, before more lives are lost!

Star Trek remains one of the most enduring shows in syndication not because it was recently redone with all new special effects, but because the stories are largely timeless. Indeed, the best Star Trek episodes involve universal themes and a timeless sensibility that keeps viewers coming back to them again and again. "The Devil In the Dark" is one of those classic episodes and while it has a timeless theme and a truly wonderful execution, it also has a camp feel to moments of it that just scream "'60's Science Fiction!" It is that sensibility and execution that keeps this otherwise worthwhile episode from achieving perfection.

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Janus VI, a mining colony that is suffering from a rash of murders. The Federation, which needs the pergium mined on Janus VI, has been pressuring the miners there to produce more and when Kirk arrives, he is greeted somewhat like one might greet a mob enforcer. The miners, who have been mining deeper into the planet, seem to have awoken something, which is what is killing them. Kirk and Spock investigate and are sent to hunt the creature before it may kill again. Spock, deeply reluctant to kill what might be the only silicon-based life form known to exist in this form, vows to protect Kirk and accompanies him deep into the mines, where the hunters become the hunted . . .

"The Devil In The Dark" is one of those episodes that virtually everyone who sees it remembers it and for good reason. Some might argue it is because the creature, the Horta, is a memorable entity and when the viewer finally sees it, it is exciting. Conversely, it is one of the campiest-looking creatures Star Trek ever created and it is only the performances of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy that sell it as anything more than the foam-rubber prop that it was. but I argue that people remember it because it has some of the most memorable first season moments shared between Kirk and Spock.

Unlike the much earlier episode, "The Man Trap" where Spock is urging the preservation of the ship over the survival of a species, here he seems more logical and ethically balanced. The mandates of science and decency motivate him and even after a series of kills from the creature, Spock argues in favor of communicating with it, not killing it.

Kirk and Spock, alone together in the mines actually have a conversation. Captain Kirk has some legitimate doubts about his safety, especially after Spock has argues so strenuously against killing the creature. The two are hunting in mines there the air is running out - the result of a vital piece of equipment being stolen by the creature, an act which proves to Spock that the creature is not a blind killer and likely is sentient. The tension between Kirk and Spock is palpable and that Kirk actually addresses his concern that given the opportunity, Spock might not fire his phaser even to save the Captain, is astonishingly good character work. Writer Gene L. Coon deserves some real credit for that!

In terms of plot, this is a rather simple episode; something is killing the men, something needs to be done about it. But when Spock becomes obsessed with understanding why the events are occurring, the episode takes on a different tenor entirely. Instead of worrying about stopping the killing, Spock is curious as to why there was killing at all and that his character moves along the plot as a result - instead of the mob-mentality "kill the villain!" plot dictates more plot story. Indeed, it is this very sensibility that has been lacking from every Star Trek film since Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan - with the exception of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In other words, once Wrath Of Khan was a huge success, the Star Trek film franchise became obsessed with that formula. Outside The Voyage Home, all of the films after that - no matter where they have begun - have degenerated into a stupid "kill the villain" flick. Well, "The Devil In The Dark" is the most poignant argument against that type of banality.

Here Spock argues, quite eloquently, for the life of the Horta, even before communications is established and the episode is in no way dull or pedantic. Instead, it is an ethical argument with teeth; Spock illustrates the quality of his character by accepting his captain's order to hunt despite his personal objections to it. It is that level of style and personal integrity that is mostly lacking from the latest incarnations of Trek. And to see it here in all its glory, is impressive.

What brings the episode down, other than some of the angles and insinuations about how the creature moves? Honestly, it's mostly the supplemental characters and actors. The miners, who are legitimately angry and afraid, are treated like a vengeful mob in a way that does not ring terribly true to me. I mean, I'm all for "workers of the world unite," but here they just seem mindless, noisy and super angry without any real sense of purpose other than revenge. That seems troubling for a show that is supposed to be illustrating how much humanity has grown.

The dynamic, then, between Kirk and the chief administrator of the Janus VI facility, Vanderberg seems somewhat forced with Kirk demanding more ore, Vanderberg demanding the Federation intervene for the safety of his men. It is executed in a fashion that seems rather petty and small as opposed to adult and reasonable.

What does work is the acting of the main cast. Recurring stars DeForest Kelley and James Doohan give wonderful supporting performances as McCoy and Scotty. Indeed, Kelley as one of his most physical - and messy - roles in "The Devil In The Dark" and as a result, he shines in a way that he seldom gets the opportunity to! As well, he treats the audience to a wonderful - and very practical - delivery of one of his trademark "I'm a doctor, not a . . ." lines!

Leonard Nimoy is phenomenal as Spock in "The Devil In The Dark." As a result of a mind-meld, he gets to emote and truly throw his body into the part. Spock is characterized in part by an economy of movement on Nimoy's part, so when he has the chance to express himself physically, Nimoy truly gets into it. He's amazing. Moreover, his sense of control and ability to clearly articulate his lines gives great strength to his dialogue and the ethical arguments Spock makes.

But this is one of those episodes William Shatner truly rocks in. Shatner has a very minimalist performance and the strength of the episode is revealed in the rewatching of the episode. Why? At one point in the filming of "The Devil In The Dark," Shatner was informed that his father had died, but he finished the day's work before leaving to go to the funeral. Find the point in the episode where Shatner learned that and you're grasping at straws; his performance is so consistent and true that it's impossible to find. He's a professional and his ability to help present a story that so intimately deals with issues of life and death while working through a personal tragedy of his own illustrates what a truly great actor and person he is.

"The Devil In The Dark" is not a perfect episode, but it is quite close, close enough that it's worth giving the five stars to. While fans of science fiction will undoubtedly love the episode, fans of drama in general are liable to appreciate the finesse of the ethical arguments and such but may be a bit strained by how long it takes to get to it. I tend to lean toward the side that this is appropriate for all audiences with patience and that this is one that deserves to be seen - and owned - by anyone who likes great television.

[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 and DVD reviews, check out my index page!

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

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