|This is the weirdest orgy I've ever been to...|
“The Devil in the Dark” is one of the most beloved episodes of the Original Series to fans and at the top of both William Shatner's and Leonard Nimoy's list of favourite episodes they worked on. It's deservedly a classic Star Trek episode and undeniably a highlight of the season-While it might not quite unseat “Balance of Terror” as the year's high-water mark, it's certainly one of the best episodes the show's put out yet and absolutely the sort of thing we needed after the last month, which was just about enough to suck the will to live from anyone.
The fundamental thing that makes “The Devil in the Dark” so successful is that it's just about everything “The Man Trap” was trying to do except done right. Once again, we have an unknown, dangerous alien lurking in the shadows and picking people off one by one who turns out to be a highly sophisticated and unique being and an intellectual equal to the crew, but here the justification for the creature's actions is far clearer and far more defensible. Also, delightfully, the solution Kirk, Spock and McCoy come to involves communication (in particular giving the voiceless party the ability to speak that it had been denied before), cooperation and the free exchange of ideas instead of blowing it to pieces. The one thing this episode doesn't do that its predecessor was able to is mix and match and play with the tropes of multiple genres, but I think there's a good reason for that: We're at the opposite end of the season now, and “Star Trek” is an established genre itself. While “The Man Trap” was in hindsight prophetic for where the franchise eventually goes, at the time it was really just experimenting to try and get an early handle on what made this particular show unique. “The Devil in the Dark”, by contrast, is about taking what we might expect typical sci-fi plot, or indeed a typical Star Trek episode to be (and tellingly, an early, Gene Roddenberry-produced episode) and setting about subverting those expectations.
Fittingly, this is another Gene Coon script. Coon seems liberated and refreshed here, which is a more than welcome sight after the past few scripts his name's appeared on. Perhaps in hindsight most of the cynicism of the past month can be laid at the feet of Robert Hamner and Carey Wilber, because, freed from the shackles of having to adapt their stories to a teleplay, Coon is right back in “Arena” territory: He's still very critical of the way the show is operating, but he remains optimistic it can do more and better than what it's been allowed to be so far. Quite noticeably, once the Enterprise crew shows up Kirk immediately begins running the operation like a strict military commander: He paces up and down and addresses his men in a lineup (and “men” is a very appropriate term as there are zero female characters in this episode, save the Horta), formulates attack strategies with Spock and sends strike forces into the tunnels to hunt down the enemy. Also, as in “Arena”, his first instinct is to vaporize his opponent and issues a standing shoot-to-kill order before having a change of heart at the last second once he becomes able to see his adversary as another life form who is an equal to him.
This gets at another thread I mentioned in my writeup of “Arena”, and of “The Squire of Gothos” as well, because what I think Coon is doing here is using Kirk as a stand-in for the ethics of Star Trek itself (at least Star Trek as originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry) and forcing him to face the consequences and implications of such a worldview both diegtically and extradiegetically. I'm still not convinced this is the best use of Kirk's character, but it's a savvy move nonetheless and this concept is the clearest in this episode it's been yet. Consider the startling teaser sequence, set entirely on the mining colony as the guards nervously scan the tunnels awaiting the next move of a creature they can't see or track. This is the only time in the entire Original Series where an episode doesn't open with Kirk's narration and where the Enterprise never appears: Instead, it opens somewhere else in the galaxy with a mystery. This is at once the logical evolution of a pattern we've been following since “Miri” and the first indication that there's both a cohesiveness to the world of Star Trek and that, even more so than with the Metrons, the actions of the Enterprise crew can be observed from perspectives other than that of the audience.
What we have then, is both an unknown and the first real serious test the show has of its ethics and, thankfully, it doesn't *quite* screw it up completely. The Enterprise, and by extension Star Trek, has a mandate to “explore strange new worlds” and to “seek out new life and new civilizations”. However, almost a full season into this mission, it's done almost none of those things. It's much preferred so far to ferry people and supplies between Earth colonies and inciting the occasional diplomatic incident, and (“Where No Man Has Gone Before” aside) Kirk seems very keen to think of himself as a soldier rather than an explorer. Here, however, we have a strange new world right from the beginning, and the Enterprise is nowhere to be found: They have to pick up a distress signal before going anywhere near the place. The Horta turns out to be both a new life and a new civilization, but both the miners and Kirk come perilously close to wiping the whole species out before they learn anything about it. But crucially this *doesn't* happen: Kirk spares the Horta when he had a clean shot at it, trusted it enough to let Spock try and communicate with it and put it in McCoy's care. Kirk is not only continuing to justify the Metrons' faith in him but starting to refute his own claim about himself in “A Taste of Armageddon”: Maybe he's not just a bloodthirsty killer acting against instinct. Maybe he *is* more than that, and maybe he's capable of showing a model for humanity to become apart from Khan Noonien Singh.
Coon's critique here isn't just about Star Trek's own interiority and introspection either: It's about the entire genre of science fiction on the whole. Recall one thing that makes Star Trek unique is that it is, at least in part, a paradoxical and oxymoronic mixture of both pulp and Golden Age sci-fi. Despite being on the surface diametrically opposed approaches to conceptualizing speculative fiction, they both share a common weakness in that they're frankly not very good on the mundane human level of things. Pulp sci-fi, with its fixation on flashy spectacle, exciting setpieces and rugged, manly heroes, oftentimes means characters end up disposable as things like death and war are at best glossed over and at worst glamourized. In addition, due to its *extremely* masculine-centred structure, women in particular end up fetishized and stripped of their personhood. Golden Age science fiction has its own problems: By it's very definition it's about high-concept technoscientific futurism, logic-puzzle plots and grand, vast, sweeping settings that dwarf everything else. The key failing of Foundation, after all, was the concept of psychohistory and that every single aspect of human behaviour can be mathematically calculated and predicted and ultimately reduced to cold numbers and theory. That's going to be dehumanizing by default.
But Star Trek has a very peculiar solution to this, even if it doesn't quite have a hold on it yet. Aside from the two types of science fiction, Star Trek also draws on soap operas, and will later also add a kind of prototypical character drama to its wheelhouse as well. Getting back to “The Man Trap” for a moment, that was one of the more interesting things about that episode and one of the best arguments for making it the premier: The focus on the everyday lives of the Enterprise crew (to better explore how Salt Vampire's presence disrupts this, or perhaps doesn't) was one of the things that made the story so memorable. While Coon hasn't played up this angle of the show as much as Roddenberry did (albeit sporadically), he is very much interested in the human element of the series, as evidenced by the kinds of scripts that have gone out under his watch, such as “The Conscience of the King”, “The Galileo Seven”, “Court Martial” bits of “Shore Leave” and even absolute turkeys like “Miri” and “This Side of Paradise” to some extent. What Coon's also done is severely tone down Roddenberry's clunky, heavy-handed moralizing, often fearlessly and without hesitation calling the entire show's premise into question and forcing it to justify its existence.
What this means is that even if Coon isn't always as keen on the character development angle, he's very much engaging with the show's worldview and the repercussions this has for people at a metatextual level. It's because of this Star Trek is going to be able to fray its bonds a bit, and in this regard it's appropriate that “The Devil in the Dark” marks the second appearance of the Vulcan Mind Meld. The Mind Meld is, after all, a very intimate, spiritual and sexually coded process by which two people can know each other utterly and fully. This is significant for a number of reasons, the first of which is obviously that of the two times we've seen Spock do this on the show so far one was with another man and one was with an alien rock lady. Secondly, however, the Mind Meld is about communication and the sharing of worldviews. Indeed, it could well be seen as the purest, most naked form of it there is: Not just discourse, but discourse framed in terms of mysticism and meditation-Spiritual, mental joining, in a sense. What we have here at long last is finally something that can be seen as a way for Star Trek to grow, and that this is the way Coon has Kirk and Spock resolve the conflict with the Horta is genuinely fascinating, if you pardon the term.
We've got a ways to go for sure, but “The Devil in the Dark” isn't just a sign things might get better, its a decisive step forward, the first we've really seen Star Trek take and absolutely the right way to respond to the damnation of the past month. The show's identity crisis over for the time being, it can finally continue its journey of self-improvement without fear it might implode in on itself, at least for now. We've learned how to better ourselves and that there's more to humans than war, killing and hatred, now we just need to actually put these principles into action for a change. And about time too, as Star Trek's biggest challenges are still to come.