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Dagger of the Mind

After starting out brilliantly, this episode devolves into a sloppy escape-from-a-madman chase. The two halves are so different, that they look like they were the product of completely different writers. The first half is tight, mysterious, character-driven. The second half is convoluted, filled with holes, and essentially devoid of characters. The script is also marred by a lack of a human entry point for the audience. It tries to build on mystery, and this works for pure entertainment value, but it never reaches a deeper level because it really has nothing to say about the human condition.

Maybe "nothing" is a bit strong. Toward the end, there does seem to be an attempt to insert a muddled message about loneliness, as if the torture chair creates loneliness which the operator has the authority (and responsibility) to fill. But besides leaving Kirk lonely (and hungry, and hopelessly in love with a shipmate, and completely trusting of his captor -- only not really any of these), not much is done with the idea. The tag is played as if Kirk is somehow deeply changed, but it's hard to see. What he experienced in the chair was completely in service to the plot -- and never an affront on his character (as Van Gelder must have received). Perhaps if Kirk had been given a real cross to bear (i.e. "Command and confidence eludes you."), something to bury into his character for him to struggle with going forward, the device could have been successful. Unfortunately, it's really a dead end.

It's too bad, because it wastes a truly fabulous performance by Morgan Woodward as Van Gelder. The character is carefully written to reveal just enough for the plot to move forward -- but not too quickly. He sets the pace of the episode until they arrive at the planet. Woodward plays a great lunatic (see also "The Omega Glory"), but is perfectly cast as a doctor who's psyche has been deeply damaged. A key scene is when Kirk has told Spock and McCoy that he's staying overnight and Van Gelder objects. As McCoy reaches for his hypo, Van Gelder cries, "Don't hypo me!" Woodward finds the perfect balance between complete madness and submerged sanity. This is simply one of the best guest performances of the first season.

Which is not to take away from James Gregory as Adams. His character is so slick and evil that it's easy to forget there's an actor creating him. The script is not very subtle with the character (he seems to guess every single question or next move before it happens, making him the ultimate arch-villain), but Adams manages to take a little bit of the edge off. When it comes time for him to turn evil, he's a splendidly cold adversary.

The other notable guest, Marianna Hill, doesn't fare nearly as well. She can be forgiven, however, because the role is utterly unnecessary to the story. Clearly, someone (probably seeing the end of Whitney's contract approaching) wanted a new love interest for Kirk. This may have been an audition. It doesn't work, mostly because she's not written very well. Her coy, knowing approach doesn't square with what we know of Starfleet crewmembers, nor is it what Roddenberry wants his characters to be. If someone on the Enterprise had a drunken encounter with the captain at a holiday party (unlikely as that is), I doubt that either would acknowledge it in public, let alone fall into each other's arms when an elevator goes down a little too fast.

But her character is solidly a part of the failed second half of the script. Until she appears, this is a tightly scripted mystery with marvelous potential. Once she appears, it becomes a mess of botched plot ideas. It also acquires an undercurrent of humor which seems somewhat out of place given the deep nature of the problem at hand.

No explanation is ever given for why Van Gelder was tortured, or what Adams intends to do with his machine. Kirk encounters the torture chamber by accident. Why not have Adams proudly show the room and admit, before being asked, that it was the sight of Van Gelder's accident? Kirk then waits until dark and returns unsupervised. Why not have Kirk wake up there, having been drugged or tricked as an attempt to prevent further inquiry? He sends Helen on a sketchy mission to turn off power with no real purpose (and no real training, which turns out to be pretty risky). Why not send her after the communicator and phaser? In other words, killing the force field is of no use without a communicator, and having a communicator is of no use without killing the force field. It's a pickle when you only have one character to go on two different -- but essential -- hunts.

It's quite a mess. Add to it a few zombie-like extras with goofy grins posing as penal colony residents, and the tension of the first half dissipates pretty quickly. By the time we get to Spock's first mind meld, we've forgotten just what problem we're trying to solve. In fact, Kirk and Spock simultaneously solve the same problem in different ways.

The regular cast turns in serviceable performances all around, with only Kelley getting a little something extra in his early suspicion. In the technical aspects, a new shot of the Enterprise approaching a planet is used, never to be seen again because the motion of the ship is all wrong. The music is also something of a disappointment, this being the first episode without its own original score. The music editors had not yet worked out the best way to use what was in the can, and the result is a composite which sometimes shifts mood (and key signatures) unexpectedly.

Fixing this script would have involved expanding on the marvelous first half by lengthening the journey back to the penal colony so that Spock's mind meld happens before Kirk leaves the ship. Then Kirk could walk into a situation where he is trying to confirm suspicions and heal Van Gelder, perhaps knowing that the only way to help him is to get him back into the chamber with a benevelant technician. This episode could have flourished if it had remained a character study of Van Gelder, minimizing its mad scientist aspect, and cutting altogether the lame romantic subplot.

Half of this is memorably good. Half is sloppy and regrettable. It's a case of the payoff simply not living up to the setup.

Rating: Middle-Upper (3)

Comments

You are right on about this being an episode with a quality set up with a sadly dissipated 2nd half. Dr. Noel - while being lovely - seems to have been tacked on as an alternate to evaporating Rand presence. Morgan Woodward was indeed superb, and apparently the scenes in Sickbay left him exhausted. I believe it. James Gregory was a great villain, and his anticipation of Kirk's questions really builds a visceral tension for the viewer. Thanks again for your site and insights. Reading your posts along with watching each episode is really like enjoying a great meal...

Posted December 18, 2013 3:29 PM by Tom