“Deadlock” is incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, it's the first Star Trek episode to deal overtly with the dark side of the Federation and Starfleet, but on the other hand it's not because it doubles-back on itself and refuses to actually fully commit to the accusations it levels and issues it raises. It opens seemingly promising to make explicit a lot of the implicit concerns and reservations we've held about Star Trek from the very beginning, but because of its ultimate balking and painfully bog-standard climax and conclusion, it actually ends up feeling less satisfying and critical then previous efforts.
Answering a distress signal from the USS Intrepid (no, not that one) in “Uncharted Region 019”, the Enterprise is suddenly and inexplicably called away to Starbase 7, leaving Kirk suspicious and Decker enraged. Upon arrival, a Commodore Hunter informs Kirk that he called the Enterprise away to participate in a series of top-secret Starfleet psychological experiments. The crew's first assignment is to shut down all power to the ship and await further orders from behavioural scientist Lang Cardon. Troubled, Kirk asks Scotty and Xon to come up with an algorithm that would allow them to take the ship from a cold stop to mission stations at the first sign of danger.
While powered down, the crew experiences a series of hypnotic, flashing psychedelic images. The crew becomes entranced, with the exception of Xon and Ilia, who have altogether different and disturbing experiences. Afterwards, Xon tells Kirk that he and Ilia had visions of grave danger, and a message: “Enterprise, you must escape! Report to Starfleet...A plot-Cardon is...”.After learning Cardon's experiments had been suspended some months prior with no official explanation given, the crew decides to investigate the starbase themselves. Kirk beams over to check things over for himself, instructing Decker to wait an hour, at which point, if Kirk hasn't checked in, he's to seize and secure Starbase 7, using any means necessary.
While “Deadlock” initially seems like it's going to be a deconstruction and criticism of Starfleet ethics and operational structure, what it in practice turns out to be is another of Star Trek's semi-regular “let's try and do a current events story” type of episodes. This time, it's Star Trek's stab at Project MKUltra, which was a series of CIA experiments looking into the feasibility of controlling human behaviour through various stimuli. From in the 1953 to 1973, Project MKUltra tested a whole suite of techniques running the gamut from illegal to unethical to completely ridiculous, such as sexual abuse, torture, hypnosis, sensory deprivation and, most famously, clandestinely dropping LSD into random people's drinks to see if the ensuing acid trips could be used as a form of mind control. Some historians believe the endgame of Project MKUltra was to create a kind of mentally servile supersoldier, while others posit the theory that the more out-there experiments were deliberately emphasized by the CIA to draw attention away from its real purpose, which, according to this theory, was to find more effective means of that favourite government buzzword: “Enhanced interrogation”.
For whatever the reason though, Project MKUltra was made public in 1975 following an investigation from a congressional committee and the Ford administration, so, while “Deadlock” is arriving somewhat late to the party in 1978, this still would have been an issue that would be relatively fresh in audiences' minds. And, attributing a Project MKUltra-style mind control experiment to Starfleet is a pretty bold move, I have to give it that-This show is definitely unafraid to shake things up and take risks. That said, there's a problem. A big one. That problem being, the experiment isn't actually Starfleet's. Yeah, it turns out it's all the work of some aliens who live in Sector 019 who can imprint on thought and emotion and consider the presence of humans and their angry, conflicted personalities to be dangerous to their people. So, they cooked up the whole scheme to test the Enterprise crew to see if they posed a threat to them. Eventually, the aliens decide the humans need to destroy each other, and start manipulating the minds of the Enterprise crew and the Starbase 7 personnel until Kirk can find a way to defend humanity to them.
At this point “Deadlock” throws out all potential of being a challenging critique to Star Trek's internal logic and ends up another generic “Kirk has to justify humans to advanced aliens” story. And there's not much more to add to that, except to say it's a very tired story archetype by this point, and will remain so until it gets a much-needed twist nine years later. That said, I'm not going to pull the teleology argument here by saying that somehow Star Trek doesn't have the maturity or hasn't evolved enough to do this kind of story yet and “Deadlock” is some needed stepping-stone to, say, the Section 31 stuff from the Dominion War arc. Star Trek can absolutely do this story in 1978, it frankly should have done it a long time ago and the only reason it hasn't is because the production team is either too afraid or unwilling to cast that critical a lens on Starfleet. And it all comes back to that dangerous and fallacious conflation of the idealism of Star Trek with the idealism of the Federation: It's entirely possible, and preferable, for that matter, to have the former without the latter.
But when I say “the creative team”, I of course mean "people other than D.C. Fontana", who has forever been reticent about lionizing and glorifying the more militaristic aspects of Star Trek, which may well have been a reason she's walked away from the franchise at least six separate times. Fontana tried to do a very similar story to this (even tying it into current events) in “The Enterprise Incident” and, when that didn't go so well and just to drive the point home, she did it again, and decisively, with Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Experiment. The whole point of both was to look honestly at the negative implications of a world the likes of which the Federation posits, which giving Starfleet their own Project MKUltra, which consisted of involuntary experiments conducted on its own people, would certainly have managed. The fact that it takes until 2008 to get this kind of story told and told properly is very telling. Both in regards to Star Trek forever avoiding engaging in serious self-critique (perhaps for fear it wouldn't be able to hold up to its own scrutiny) until a point in time when it absolutely didn't matter anymore, and in terms of how royally screwed D.C. Fontana was and is.
There are other issues with “Deadlock” too, and, while they're bad, they're minor compared to simply being unwilling to commit to itself. This is again a story that revolves mostly around Kirk and Xon, though Decker and Scotty get quite a bit of action too. Ilia is once again an issue: Though she senses the danger message at the same time as Xon, the script attributes this to him “projecting onto” and “influencing” her instead of giving her any actual agency. And later, Xon basically takes control of Ilia and works her like a marionette to get her to type out his equations, which she wasn't on the bridge to see, as proof that the Enterprise crew have peaceful intentions and their transmissions are genuine, which is pretty uncomfortable to watch. Ilia is swiftly becoming a problem, with none of these writers seeming to understand her potential as a character: At her best she's basically used as interchangeable with Chekov's old role (excepting that great bit at the end of “Tomorrow and the Stars”, which actually did manage to use her properly) and at her worst we get, well, this. And “The Child”.
Thankfully, there's at least one angle to this story that I can have some fun with: “Deadlock” is the most late-night radio-friendly bit of Star Trek produced to date. Project MKUltra is a favourite debate topic for the future Coast to Coast AM set, and it's exceedingly charming to have this story come so soon after William Shatner's “Rocket Man”. Imagine a version of this story from that perspective: Lonely Space Truckers of the future driving down the galactic highway call into Long John Shatner's subspace radio show to discuss the conspiracy theories. What does Starfleet really get up to in those remote and isolated starbase laboratories? How much does the Federation really know? Do we have the full story behind Project Genesis? From the city of Angel One to the High Desert and the Great Vulcan Southwest, good morning, good evening, wherever you may be. This is Quadrant to Quadrant AM.