Star Trek: The Devil in the Dark

Vanderberg: "That thing has killed fifty of my men."
Kirk: "And you've killed thousands of her children."

Like "The Corbomite Maneuver," "The Devil in the Dark" fits beautifully into the core message of Star Trek: compassion for and acceptance of other beings, even if they happen to be acid-spraying rock creatures.

Yes, the plot where the monster has a genuinely moving and valid reason for what it was doing and turns out not to be a monster at all is fairly common. (See "Arena.") But I don't think it was common when this episode initially aired. It's sort of unfortunate that the Horta looked like a pizza crossed with a carpet; it tends to lessen the impact of a really good story. I've always really liked the idea of a silicon life form, too. A lot of the aliens on Star Trek tended to be what we called "face aliens" during Next Gen: people with some rubber on their faces and an interesting wig and costume. Can't say that about the Horta.

Spock was again the voice of reason and compassion, combined with a genuine thirst for scientific knowledge. He must have suspected early on that the silicon nodules weren't just rocks, and he gave Kirk grief repeatedly until he knew for certain. And Spock didn't hesitate to risk a horrible death in order to help the Horta. Leonard Nimoy made the episode work and gave another excellent performance as he mind-melded with the Horta, showing the audience what she was thinking and feeling (since a pizza slash carpet can't actually emote).



Kirk was initially on the side of the Federation's economic needs, although, commendably, he listened to Spock and gave the Horta a chance. The Horta was, of course, extremely lucky that Spock was there – and so were the miners, since the death toll could have gone up quite a bit before they gave up. And because of Spock, the miners acquired the perfect work partner. Which may mean that the moral of the story is that being kind to other creatures can be financially profitable as well as morally desirable.

Ben says...

Attack of the giant LOL Cat Smoldering pancake of doom.

U can haz cheeeeezburger IF no KILL

(Really, I should just stop with this comment, sadly for the readers I have no shame.)

This is the primordial bogeyman story, with Kirk as Beowulf and the Horta as Grendel and later Grendel's mother. Again though, you see what made Star Trek different from what had gone before both in terms of science fiction and, for that matter, in terms of heroic stories. It's as if Beowulf wrestled Grendel into submission and then helped him get the psychoanalysis he needed to resolve those mother issues. Kirk (with Spock's help) cannot help but appreciate the plight of the monster and help it. This is such a 20th century modernist problem. Achilles doesn't care that Hector is defending his home, Beowulf doesn't ask why. They try their strength against their opponents without thoughts of mercy. Nietzsche's warning about the consequences of staring into the abyss is always on the minds of modern heroes with the result that to keep from becoming a monster, you always have to ask why. (That was a tortured sentence, but I stand by it.) This is an episode where Kirk does exactly that.

LOL cats, Beowulf and Nietzsche, yep I should probably have stopped after my second sentence.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

— Stardate 3196.1. A pergeum production station on Janus VI.

— I was again struck by how freaking colorful this episode was, especially when you consider that nearly all we saw were caves, a rock monster, and a bunch of miners. There were pink walls, blue and green rock, and purple, yellow and orange jump suits. Although I don't think a real miner would be caught dead wearing a purple jumpsuit.

— Apparently, there are two types of phasers. The ones the miners originally had equaled training wheels, while the crew of the Enterprise had the real thing.

— In the early scenes, a large number of red shirts were sent after the Horta. One of them was immediately vaporized into sludge on the floor.

— William Shatner's father passed away during the shooting of this episode and a stand-in was used wherever possible. Shatner returned to work as quickly as he could and finished filming the episode. He's a trouper.

Quotes:

Spock: "The odds against you and I both being killed are two thousand, two hundred twenty-eight point seven to one." I believe this is the first time that Spock gave the odds in this particular way. Not the last, though.

Kirk: "Please stay out of trouble, Mister Spock."
Spock: "That is always my intention, Captain."

McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer."
Kirk: "You're a healer. There's a patient. That's an order."

McCoy: "By golly, Jim, I'm beginning to think I can cure a rainy day."

Spock: "She found humanoid appearance revolting, but thought she could get used to it."

Spock: "The Horta has a very logical mind. And after close association with humans, I find that curiously refreshing."

Kirk: "I suspect you're becoming more and more human all the time."
Spock: "Captain, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted."

Four out of four purple jump suits,

Billie
---
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

4 comments:

Mark Greig said...

‘The Devil in the Dark’ remains to this day one of my all-time favourite Star Trek episodes. I don’t even let how naff the Horta looks nowadays spoil my enjoyment.

Obviously being raised on classic Trek and Doctor Who has taught me to have an understanding and respect for primitive monster effects of all shapes and sizes, whether they be a pizza carpets or a pantomime horse painted green with some scales glued on.

GreenHornet said...

Whole lotta mining going on in Star Trek, isn't there! And/or underground locations carved out of the (sometimes) living rock. Not that it doesn't make sense, but perhaps also partially due to budgetary elements? It definitely works here -- the setting blending with story theme and characters rather than simply being a novel background for action.

The Horta name reminds me of Guy de Maupassant's Horla... or maybe that's a mindmeld too far?

Similarly, for some reason this episode is stored in my memory banks alongside the third Aliens movie. It was not my fav of the four films: very dark and dour, although valid I think -- especially given 1970's dystopic speculative SF. But miners running through tunnels or labyrinths chasing or being chased by creatures... and the ease with which those aliens (in our eyes) defeat us humanoids, in both cases -- well, let's just say the (pizza) rug really ties that room together.

And yeah: what has happened to all the COLOR?? TV or movies don't have to go all Carnaby Street on us, but don't you think they're missing a Beat (ok I'll stop) by not exploring that side too? I mean, I think they use color well in all the great shows, but almost always in more muted or au naturel palettes. Which is great, but remember Maya Deren talking about the complexities of color as one more thing to control in films -- am I missing boats or have we stopped imagining the future as different in this dimension? I suppose it coulda been a 'naturel' reaction against things like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century type shows... and maybe I'm glossing on modern examples that do harness color in fascinating and thematic ways. "Palmolive is neither palm nor olive -- talk amongst yourselves..."

tinkapuss said...

"Burned to A crisp! Just like Schmitter." came into the lexison of my family over the decades. I cannot now say something was 'burned to a crisp' without adding the ending. If I am around my brothers, we always have a chuckle; if I am around someone else entirely, I still say it, but they more often than not look at me strangely. I always wait for that day that someone will 'get' my reference.

Another thing this episode did for me was cement my decision to become vegetarian. It is not revealed in the series as yet that Spock is vegetarian but I felt his empathy for the Horta (made all the more surprising because empathy and compassion are supposedly human traits) was entirely believable and gratifying in such a character. This episode made so much sense to me; the Frankenstein's monster episode without the creator - only the misunderstood and feared 'other'. I am still vegetarian after 26 years - mainly vegan now. I think Spock would approve.

Corylea said...

I adore "The Devil in the Dark." I think it's the best episode to show people who've never seen Star Trek before and wonder what it's all about. Unlike some other great episodes -- like "Amok Time," for example -- you don't really have to know who the main characters are or how they usually behave in order to understand the story.

It's also the case that this is a more subtle morality play than some of the heavy-handed third-season episodes (like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," for example). The core values of Star Trek are on display here, and talking rather than shooting isn't just more ethical, it's also more effective.

Leonard Nimoy was such a fabulous actor! Who else could have mind-melded with a lumpy rock and sold the story? What a stunning talent that man was. It's a pity Gene Roddenberry never truly appreciated him and valued Bill Shatner's much showier style over Mr. Nimoy's quiet restraint.

People always talk about "The Man Trap" on TOS's anniversaries, but although TMT was the first episode broadcast, it was neither the first episode produced nor the best episode. If people plan to watch all of TOS, I think it makes much more sense to watch in PRODUCTION order, and if they're going to watch only one episode, I recommend this one: "The Devil in the Dark."