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Star Trek: The Doomsday Machine

Decker: "The commander is responsible for the lives of his crew, and for their deaths. Well, I should have died with mine."

I've always loved this episode. It does what good science fiction is supposed to do. Not only is it a marvelous indictment of the horror and folly of the nuclear arms race taken to galactic extremes, it features tight, exciting military drama and an outstanding guest performance by William Windom as a surprisingly sympathetic and heroic Captain Queeg.

Commodore Matt Decker is such a three-dimensional character. He is at first an object of pity; he becomes utterly hateful when he wrests command of the Enterprise from Spock, and then he is sympathetic again as he sacrifices his life because he cannot bear to go on after losing his crew. I always had the feeling Decker was probably a terrific captain; what happened certainly wasn't his fault. William Windom as Decker may be my favorite TOS guest star, ever. His performance, particularly when he was telling Kirk what happened to the crew of the Constellation, was just exceptional. And I've always loved what he did with the disks as he was draped threateningly across the captain's chair, like a loving homage to Bogart.

Decker's conflict with Spock was classic Star Trek, too. It was rather heartwarming that everyone backed up Spock. McCoy expressed the distress and emotion everyone on the bridge was feeling, pretty much because Spock and the rest of the crew could not. And this episode also showcased the close relationship between Kirk and Spock. They were completely on the same wavelength, like two parts of a whole, even to the point of possible mutiny.

The space battles with the planet killer and the two starships were exceptional, too. I haven't said much about the newly remastered special effects yet in my reviews, and this is the perfect time. "The Doomsday Machine" is an effects-heavy episode, and the new effects were beautifully done — the damage to the USS Constellation, the detail on the planet killer, the space debris, the movement of the ships in battle. It made the episode seem new to me, and that's saying a lot considering how often I've seen it. I haven't seen all of the remastered episodes yet, but I suspect this one benefited the most.

Even the overused plot device of having the transporter malfunction worked for me, mostly because of the little touch of humor ("Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard" as smoke rose from the transporter pads). Kirk's error was not leaving someone else to coordinate repairs on the Constellation. But if he had, hey, galactic destruction could have ensued.

Although there are other episodes that I love, "The Doomsday Machine" is my favorite episode of the original series. It was when I was a kid, and it still is.

Ben says...

In the first of two consecutive holiday episodes ("Catspaw" still to come), Thanksgiving is celebrated by the assault of the "CORNUCOPIA OF DOOOOOOMMMMM." Built by space-faring descendants of the Native Americans who, upon reflection, felt that whole "share with the Pilgrims" thing just had not worked out. And so they created the DOOOOOMMSSS Day Machine. (sorry my keyboard seems to emphasizing DOOOOM today)

I have talked before about how the specter of the Second World War hung over this series, but (for all Trek's much ballyhooed hopefulness) it was the ghost of Future World Wars which haunted it even more obviously. This is hardly surprising in a decade where we had come within a hair's breadth of a nuclear war. It's interesting that some of the best treatments of the subject were either broadly and darkly comical (Dr. Strangelove) or science fiction (The Time Machine and Planet of the Apes). I think that more straightforward depictions of life during and after a nuclear war and the forces that seemed to be driving us towards it were just too much for people living in a time when it really did seem imminent. One great exception is On The Beach which, though brilliant, was just too harsh (and personally drove me into a depression at the certainty of our pending annihilation). This episode ended up doing what science fiction really does best; it took a ripping good adventure and used it to help us think about the most important topics of the day.

Let me just add: DOOOOOOMM! Happy Thanksgiving!

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

— Stardate unknown. System L374. The stardate given in Decker's log during the attack on the Constellation was 4202.1. The planet killer's next stop would have been Rigel.

— This was the first time we saw another Starfleet starship. The USS Constellation (NCC-1017) was a sister ship of the Enterprise.

— No Uhura. There was a Lt. Palmer at her station. No Chekov, either. Maybe they were on leave.

— Scott probably cemented his reputation as a miracle worker in this one. The last minute mess with the transporter in particular makes me wonder how any other starship can operate without Scott.

— A redshirt accompanied Decker to Sick Bay and got beaten up.

— There was a shot of Scott in crucifixion pose across the engines again. This shot was a repeat from an earlier episode.

— I believe this was the first time we saw the "auxiliary control room." It makes sense to have one, so good on them. It worked dramatically, too, because it visually emphasized the Constellation's devastated condition.

— Okay, Moby Dick, I mentioned it.


Decker: "They say there's no devil, Jim. But there is. Right out of Hell. I saw it."

Kirk: "Matt, where's your crew?"
Decker: "On the third planet."
Kirk: "There is no third planet."
Decker: (distraught) "Don't you think I know that?"

Kirk: "Bones, did you ever hear of a doomsday machine?"
McCoy: "No. I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."

Spock: "Random chance seems to have operated in our favor."
McCoy: "In plain, non-Vulcan English, we've been lucky."
Spock: "I believe I said that, doctor."

Kirk: "If I only had some phasers."
Scott: "Phasers? You got them. I have one bank recharged."
Kirk: "Scotty, you've just earned your pay for the week."

Decker: "You're bluffing."
Spock: "Vulcans never bluff."
This is my favorite Star Trek quote, ever.

Kirk: "Am I correct in assuming that a fusion explosion of 97 megatons will result if a starship impulse engine is overloaded?"
Spock: "No, sir. 97 point 835 megatons."

Four out of four white whales,

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


  1. Billie and Ben nailed it.

    Ben, certainly a sense of nuclear doom played out here quite liberally in dialog as well as theme and images and the dialog, certainly, made sense[ Kirk, a historically minded leader discusses the 20th Century H-Bomb and disaster as a smart man of the 23d Century would.

    And, Billie, a great recount in every way: Windom, the relationships of The Big Three, the effects (cool remastered but even the original shots deserve our respect), a great score by Sol Kaplan and a terrific teleplay by under appreciated science-fiction writer Norman Spinrad.

    Certainly in my personal Top 10-- Top 5 -- from the Original Series.

    I only chime in here very rarely but I read every review and while I don't always agree, I always appreciate.

  2. One of the best editions to the remastered version of the episode comes near the end, when Kirk and Spock are walking aropund the bridge discussing whether there might be other doomsday machines wandering around the galaxy. In the original version they walk in front of the bridge viewscreen which is simply a blank white, but in the remaster you can see a starfied on it with the doomsday machine floating powerlessly in the background.It's a subtle addition but and effective one.

  3. Decker's fight with the red shirt is one of my favorites in the show. Decker is malnourished, and clearly outclassed by this healthy security guard. But he makes up for it with guile and deviousness, like an experience captain should. (In homage to this scene, every time I have a pretend fight with someone, I always begin by coughing into my hand.)

  4. I can just imagine, though, the ribbing the poor security guard ("Mr. Montgomery", if memorys serves, took the next day at lunch from his fellow security mates.

  5. A few things … although I could go on

    1. That quote about bluffing …
    You left out Decker’s fantastic retort
    “No, I don’t suppose they do”

    2. The All-time “Hail Mary” which I always use when things in life look hopeless …

    “Mr. Scott, Try Inverse Phasing”

    3. The Music was awesome … each of the main characters … the Doomsdsy Machine, the Enterprise, even the Shuttlecraft … have their own Leitmotif Jingle … years before the Movies Jaws (the Shark) and Star Wars (Darth Vader) had their Leitmotif Music.

    4. If anyone doubts he cool Capt. Kirk is … staring down the maw of that Doomsday Machine, with seconds left in his life … a moment that made Decker fall to pieces … cool as the other side of the pillow…

    “Gentleman, I suggest you beam me aboard”

  6. This is TOS at its very best. My 2nd favorite episode, after Arena since I love the Gorn so much. This one has so much right, and that ominous music is so good and memorable, 2nd only to the classic fight music.

    I've not seen the remastered version, but the original special effects were fine for me, but if I pick up the collection on DVD, I hope there are options to watch it in both forms, like some classic Doctor Who let's us watch the original or with better special effects.

    Brilliant story that does hit those nuclear fears that were less for me as a kid of the 70s/80s, but were still there (The Day After freaked me out, let me tell you), is so well represented in this one as pointed out here already. I 100% agree that William Windom, who I've seen in a lot of stuff over the years, is fantastic here. Love it!

    1. Oh yeah! This is also a scenario in Star Fleet Battles, and since the monster moves via automatic rules, it's a great solo/training scenario too.


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