Having shaken off most of their comedic aspirations, this episode marks a return to serious drama, and it's a very good one. Despite a teaser which falters somewhat, and a plethora of red shirts (are there 4 or 5?), when the episode gets cranked up, we see our characters in a very interesting situation. Best of all, they do not behave predictably, but quite plausibly. The characters actually grow, as do their relationships.
Shatner signals this with a very refined portrayal of Kirk's growing obsession, balanced nicely with the restraint required of a veteran commanding officer. From the beginning, as soon as he smells the creature (a wonderful device, since scent is such a universally powerful memory trigger), Shatner's face changes. He becomes someone other than the Kirk we've known: similar enough to recognize, but different enough to allow us to understand why his command crew might question his sanity. Then when his officers begin to question Kirk, Shatner fills the character with the dread of his youthful mistake mixed effectively with the experience he has since gained. The struggles going on within the character are masterfully communicated. His performance is so subtle that you can see visibly how the earlier experience was essential in making Kirk the character that he is now. This is a superb incorporation of subtext.
But the fine performances don't end there. Kelley shows amazing range in moving from consoling friend, to accuser, to cool Star Fleet medical officer, to humble apologizer. The part, like most of the episode, is extremely well-written. Similarly, Nimoy gets a great chance to show his range within the emotionless parameters he's been given (a difficult acting task which is frequently overlooked). He shines in the superior officer role while confronting Garravik. The younger actor also has some fine moments.
What keeps this episode from rising to the very top is mostly a formatting problem. Once all have acknowledged that the cloud is a dangerous creature, they set out to destroy it. While it is an acceptable solution, better ones were left on the table. It would have been consistent with the characters to have someone argue that destroying it is unnecessary, even cruel. Star Trek often goes out of its way to point out that evil is in the eye of the beholder. A better solution might have been built on Kirk's subconscious communication with the creature, and an agreement between the two species to live and let live. (Admittedly, this would echo the earlier Horta solution, but it was that incident which established the precedent for how our characters deal with unfamiliar life forms. Killing the creature -- without any discussion -- seems inconsistent with what we know about them.)
Also missing is any realization by Ensign Garravik that this thing is the same thing which killed his father. As an audience, we can put the pieces together, but the character apparently never does. This idea may have been simply too big for a 50-minute TV show, but it is a dramatic possibility which could have compounded the young Ensign's grief, while also fueling his motivation to join Kirk in confronting the thing.
These are small criticisms of an episode which is superb at building character motivation within what is essentially a monster movie. Lesser creative teams might have focused on the monster, while our team focused on the character reactions to it.
Rating: Top (2)