Here's a story which is clearly the product of its times. Everyone in the crew gets a "happy pill" (Spock's words) and starts to enjoy a carefree, commune-like existence. It's a hippy paradise. But the premise, in addition to being derivative, has aged quite poorly.
Fontana was just breaking in as the story editor, and gets credit for this teleplay, despite the fact that it's not her original idea. That belongs to Jerry Sohl, who removed his name from the project after the rewrite. Undoubtedly, Fontana brought some good ideas which improved the script from its early drafts (or at least made it more Trek), but she cannot save it. It's a combination of "The Naked Time" and "Return of the Archons" with a little "Shore Leave" mixed in for good measure, and a less satisfying payoff.
The primary purpose seems to be for Spock to have some emotional time -- and get the girl for once. It allows for some surface treatment of his inner turmoil, and a couple of revelatory moments, but it's hardly worth the price of the entire episode. His emotions are released mostly as a novelty act. It's interesting to think that he once had daliances (such as during his emotional-experimentation phase documented in "The Cage"), but there is simply nothing to this romance (beyond the obvious allure of Jill Ireland). Sure, Nimoy gets to smile, talk back, watch clouds and rainbows, and climb a tree (a somewhat cringe-inducing list of mid-60s hippy-ness -- it's only missing beads and maybe a bong), but the character exploration is thin. He admits that he does not allow himself to love, and that the spores made him happy. But it begs the question of what really constitutes happiness for Spock: is it honoring the culture in which he was raised, or giving in to the humanity of which he is ashamed? With a clear head, he does one and rues the other. While drunk... There are no definitive answers here, and the hints we do get are somewhat contradictory.
Other characters merely get dopey grins (although both Ireland and Nichelle Nichols have very cute dopey grins), and McCoy returns to his southern roots. But the story is only half formed. The downside of the spores is just never made clear, and the plants themselves are just too cute (and obviously fake) to generate much fear. In fact, the spores not only make you calm and happy, they cure all diseases and remove scars and restore missing body parts -- sheesh, this place really is a paradise. Frankly, Sulu's zombie theory would probably have made a better episode. The guest stars are merely placeholders with no character to speak of. (It does not help that it follows so closely on the heels of "Space Seed," in which the villain is so very robust).
In some ways, it's a directorial problem as well. The plants, after all, do seem to have some intelligence and shoot unexpectedly. So why is Kirk positioned so close to Sulu yet not affected? And why is he not surprised and protective of his crew? It's one part blocking problem, one part motivation, and a similar problem occurs later on the bridge when Kirk should be fully aware that he is in danger, yet sits down right in front of a plant (which, admittedly, wasn't there in the previous shot -- a simple production oversight because presumably it was there when Kirk entered the bridge and he would have seen it). Senensky would go on to direct other better episodes (notably, "Obsession").
Shatner seems to enjoy the location shooting, and actually looks like he's having fun out in the sun. Contrast it with his dour mood while onboard the ship. Certainly, this is written into the episode, but there's a spark that emerges whenever Shatner is outdoors (which carries all the way through to "Generations"). It's quite obvious. He plays both ends of the spectrum well, getting laughs a couple of times, and still managing to be the Authority Figure who will set things right. His personal solution to the spores is well-acted, if ill-conceived. Surely the colonists have experienced strong emotions at some point and would have figured this out (of course, the spores are so pleasant that maybe they just went out and got themselves reinfected again). For his part, Spock should probably have shaken himself out of it just by the initial release of his pent-up emotional energy. The solution to the episode's central problem is only half formed. It also leads to yet another sloppy stunt-double fist fight in which the Spock-alike isn't even remotely plausible.
In short, the script lets us down, and routine production values do nothing to salvage things. The technicians certainly do their usual fine work, and we get a very lovely country farmhouse set, and some beautiful photography. The major technical gaffe is in the music. Henriksen seriously overuses Ruth's theme from "Shore Leave" to the point where it almost becomes its own cliche within the episode. In fact, large portions of the "Shore Leave" score are reprised, mixed with large doses of "The Cage." It almost covers the fact that the story hasn't quite been worked out.
Judging Fontana solely by the work which bore her name would just not be fair. Here she took a non-Trek script and made it into interesting (if flawed) Trek. Many of her contributions were made behind the scenes in scripts which were ultimately credited to other people. Her missteps are easily forgiven.
Rating: Bottom (6)