This may be a very memorable episode, but that's because it's a beautiful telling of a very uncompelling story. In fact, it's so well told that you might almost forget (or never realize) that the story has almost nothing to it. It does not have interesting characters, an unusual or distinctive plot, a satisfying setup or even a satisfying payoff. But the craft is so good, the dialogue and pacing so sharp, the visual details so rich, the guest star so cute, that it's almost forgiveable. Almost.
The title character, a child on the cusp of adulthood (and, therefore, Certain Death), is potentially interesting. She is, after all, some 300 years old, and has spent most of that time in arrested adolescence. She's in denial about her impending adulthood (and Certain Death), and experiencing love and jealousy for the first time. The question is: What has she been doing for 300 years? She may have a child's body, and even a child's mind, but she has a whole lot of experience. It makes no sense for her to be in denial of her forthcoming Certain Death. Quite the contrary, she's seen death over and over and should be motivated to help the Enterprise crew succeed.
But she is given nothing of any substance to do. Though Kim Darby is a sweet presence on the screen, and Miri makes one key decision to fuel the plot (even though it's really just an extender), the character is not sufficiently explored. She seems to be present mostly to fill in the gaps in the backstory. And it is almost unconscionable to have the 34-year-old Kirk hitting on her to get information. Even in the 60s -- especially in the 60s! -- this had to be frowned upon. It also seems beneath Kirk, and Shatner does little to mute the sexual tension. It might have been more appropriate to reverse things and have a world-weary 16-year-old hitting on the reticent Captain.
The other children start out as promising characters. They scurry about just out of sight like rats, suggesting a "Lord of the Flies" style existence. But when they do finally appear, they are essentially just normal children, a bit too cute and urchin-like (think Oliver Twist meets Peter Pan), and oh-so-perfectly dirty. They carry styrofoam clubs, and chant as a sign of menace (an idea still fresh when this was made, which has aged badly).
But like so much filmed menace, what we don't see is much more interesting than what we do. The children would have been so much more frightening if they attacked sporadically and ferociously then disappeared, with Kirk and company capturing their tormentors one at a time and slowly realizing that they are all dangerous, feral children. They need not speak, but when enough are finally confined, spontaneous chanting would be very creepy. In such a scenario, Miri could then appear as tame to fill in the backstory, but turn out to have a very selfish motive (staving off Certain Death). After trying (and failing) to seduce Kirk, she might steal the antidote for herself and the others. Admittedly, this would have changed the episode substantially, but that is what's missing in this story: logic, common sense, and motivation. Having imagined a world of impossibly old children, the creative team has backed away from the interesting possibilities of their premise.
Children as enemy is very difficult to do (see also "And the Children Shall Lead"), and requires some very fine actors to pull off. It's hard to tell whether Darby might have been up for something more sophisticated. Michael Pollard surely would have been, although he's just barely plausible as leader of the children since he's clearly in his mid-20s. In any case, using the offspring of cast and crew results in kids who look just like kids. They're cute, and never truly menacing. And suddenly, without much reason, after Kirk gives his big speech the goods are returned and, boom, here comes Kirk with the kids in tow like a great big happy space-daycare.
To be sure, the story (or lack of one) here is the problem. The script is actually quite good, and makes the most of the scant action it has to work with (this may have been a Gene Coon rewrite, it bears some of his distinctive marks). It turns into a series-building episode with ramifications well beyond the scope of its story. This was often the case when the individual stories were bad. The creative team would gussie them up with character-defining moments for our heroes. Thus, this episode contains a wonderful moment which would define McCoy's character (testing the serum on himself), and a cringe-inducing moment which would effectively kill the Yeoman Rand character once and for all ("Captain, look at my legs.").
Finally working out the Yeoman Rand Dilemma may be the most interesting thing about this episode. She is included on the landing party for reasons unknown, has nothing whatsoever to do on the planet, has no skills to offer the problem-solving (can't even hold on to beakers properly), and falls to pieces when the going gets tough. In short, she is utterly unnecessary to the holy trinity of Kirk-Spock-McCoy. Worse than unnecessary, she's actually a distraction, and it's her very presence that complicates things for our heroes (by making Miri jealous). It doesn't help that Whitney simply does not have the depth or range of the actors around her, nor does she have any chemistry with Shatner. Her abilities seem limited to one word exclamations ("Earth!") and crying. We would never forgive Kirk if he fell for such a simp.
Bigger than all these things is the discovery over the last three episodes that Kirk can successfully balance itinerant romance with command of a starship. Having a shipboard mistress would put a serious crimp in his convenient womanizing with guests. Realizing this removes the last possible reason to keep Yeoman Rand around. Thus, this episode becomes her swan song.
Creatively, she will not be missed because in this episode we have the true birth of the trio as an entity. It's been almost there a couple of times previously, but here the three have to rely on each other to solve a very big problem, and each goes to his task: Kirk to the politics, Spock to the calculations, McCoy to the intuition. We even have the birth of the sparring that Coon creates for Spock and McCoy. More often than not, these little scenes ("Being a red-blooded human obviously has its disadvantages.") will distract from, rather than add to, the episode in which they are found. But it's undeniable that they deepen and change the relationship for the better in the long run. (Frankly, sometimes I find them quite annoying.)
The production looks good as we get off the Enterprise sets for the bulk of the episode. The backlot is suitably desolate, and the new sets are marvelously decorated by Marvin March. This leads to a very weird directorial decision at one point to dolly forward through a cobweb. It seems like a good idea, until the thing appears to get stuck and has to be pulled away by a crewmember. This is uncharacteristically distracting. Also the opticals on the phaser blast are somewhat odd, making it look almost like two blasts from the phaser, despite the fact that the girl gets hit only once.
Also in the optical department, one has to question the decision to use a globe as the planet. By the time this episode was filmed, the look of the earth from space was becoming quite well known (the first weather satellite went into orbit in 1960). To show a planet with no clouds seems very sloppy. I'm sure they wanted to make it obvious that this was an earth clone, but even that decision must be questioned. The fact that the two planets were identical geographically is completely unnecessary to the story, and causes a rare moment when we are conscious of watching a television show. Even if this epsiode was meant as a cautionary tale about genetic engineering, there is no reason for the planets themselves to be identical. It seems an unnecessary addition designed to suit the opticals -- rather than the other way around.
As with the previous episode, the music editing is very crude in spots. It results in a confusing opening few seconds, and at least one spot (as Spock approaches a window which has just been cleaned) where an edit is clearly audible because the tempo of the two segments does not match. On the other hand, a nice new piece of music is used when Kirk and Miri converse, and a lovely solo violin can be heard late in the episode.
As with the weaker episodes of the series, the question must be asked: Why tell this story? As an allegory it fails. As a character story it fails. As an action adventure it fails. As a romance it fails. The script may have aspirations of commenting on the loss of innocence. It may also want to talk about meddling with Mother Nature, or the hubris of humankind. But these are, if anything, only footnotes to a pure action/adventure race with the clock. It is entertaining, to be sure, but leaves too many possibilities on the table. It is saved by the gains made by our regular characters, but overall hardly seems worth the great labor which went into creating it.
Rating: Middle (4)