Science-fiction legend Norman Spinrad wrote “The Doomsday Machine”, one of Star Trek’s best pure suspense scripts.
The episode has some parallels with “Balance of Terror,” another space-battle multiple-cliffhanger episode with Cold War themes of nuclear apocalypse. While “Balance of Terror” was an apology for Cold War policy, especially in Vietnam, Spinrad—an avowed leftist—tilts more towards critique. Ultimately, though, the politics seem more tacked on than essential; this is, above all, a great space yarn.
Moby Dick, but With Space Robots
The yarn starts with the USS Enterprise under Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) patrolling (as it often does) when it discovers a disaster (as it often does). This time, they find a trail of solar systems in which every planet has been destroyed and reduced to rubble. They also identify a distress beacon from the USS Constellation, captained by Kirk’s friend and superior officer Commodore Matt Decker (William Windom).
When they find the Constellation, it’s been badly disabled. Kirk, Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and a fix-it team beam aboard, and discover the entire crew gone. Only Decker is left, and he is badly in shock.
Decker—contorting his face in a rictus of grief and terror and generally chewing all the scenery in sight—explains that the ship encountered a giant robot planet destroyer, which disabled the ship. His whole crew beamed down to a nearby planet, which the planet-destroyer…well, destroyed. Because of subspace interference caused by the destroyer, the Constellation wasn’t able to radio the situation to Starfleet. The Enterprise isn’t able to do so either.
Decker and McCoy beam back to the Enterprise, Kirk and Scott stay on the Constellation to try to get the impulse engines working again. But then the planet killer shows up—a long tube-like thing with a fire in its gullet, kind of like a space whale if you squint. Said space whale attacks, and damages the transporters, so Kirk and Scott can’t be brought aboard. It also knocks out communications.
Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), in command, wants to go pick up the Captain from the Enterprise and fly off to warn Starfleet. Decker, though, takes the role of Ahab. Hands twitching and grizzle grizzling, he insists they attack in an effort to stop the destroyer’s progress towards inhabited star systems. Under regulations as the superior officer, he takes command of the ship and directs helmsman Sulu (George Takai) to strafe the destroyer.
As you’ve probably, guessed, that doesn’t work. Even at ultra-close range, the ship’s phasers have no effect on the space whale’s ultra-thick plating. The Enterprise is disabled and caught in a tractor beam, which pulls it towards the thing’s maw.
At the last moment Kirk and Scott manage to get the Constellation’s engines online, and shoot a phaser blast which distracts the thing. The Enterprise regroups, and reestablishes contact with Kirk, who orders Spock to take back command.
He does, but the obsessed Decker isn’t done yet. He knocks out his security guard (those red shirts are really useless). Then he steals a shuttle-craft and flies it into the maw of the space whale, making some truly impressive facial contortions on the way. But despite those, blowing up the shuttle inside the thing does little.
It does have a small effect on reducing the thing’s power, though. That gives Kirk an idea. He rigs the Constellation on a delayed timer to blow up. Then he sends Scott back to the Enterprise, and pilots the ship into the mouth. The Enterprise is supposed to beam him up at the last minute.
But the transporter is wonky. Will he escape?!
Mutually Assured Survival
Of course, he does. They beam him up, and the space whale is knocked out.
It’s not surprising. But it is very dramatically done. As Scott frantically flips switches, Spock intones, “Mr. Scott” over and over in a dispassionate effort to convey the urgency of the situation, and Kirk, half-amused, half very nervous indeed, utters the immortal lines which could have been (but were not!) his last: “Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard.”
Once Kirk is back, they take a minute to settle in for the moral of the episode. Early in the runtime, Kirk speculated that the space whale robot was a kind of doomsday machine like the 20th century H-bomb. “It’s a weapon built primarily as a bluff. It’s never meant to be used. So strong, it could destroy both sides in a war,” Kirk explains.
The message here seems to be that such weapons can escape control and end up being used in dangerous ways even when no one intended them to be. It’s a stand against nuclear brinkmanship. In that context, Decker’s obsessive, Ahab-like mad obsession with destroying the machine echoes the weak and rabid leadership on display in something like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (released three years before this episode.) Should a man like Decker—obsessed with vengeance, filled with rage—be in charge of the fate of 400 people? Of the world? Should we give any leader that power?
As the episode unfolds, though, the warning about erratic leaders and weapons of mass destruction gets somewhat lost in the rush of the plot and the doomsday machine’s fiery maw. Decker turns out to be a principled, self-sacrificing, wise strategist after all, delivering the Enterprise the key information they need to triumph.
It’s not just Decker who is redeemed; the H-bomb is as well. Scott rigs the Enterprise to blow using technology that Kirk says is “something like” the hydrogen bomb. So the good guys basically use one doomsday machine to destroy another. “Probably the first time such a weapon has ever been used for constructive purposes,” Kirk muses.
A doomsday machine may have unexpected evil purposes. But it may also do unexpected good. That’s not exactly an anti-nuclear message.
It seems likely that Spinrad intended to side with nuclear skeptics. Other people worked on the episode though; television is always a collaborative endeavor. And, perhaps more importantly, Spinrad was writing a taut action script.
It’s difficult to tell a rousing adventure tale of space combat and end up with a coherent argument for nonviolence or de-escalation. This is a tale of planets blowing up, of daring attacks, of hairsbreadth escapes. In that context, when you’re fighting a planet-destroying super-whale, a giant explosion is going to look like a solution, not an occasion for existential dread.
“The Doomsday Machine” is caught between being a critique of violence and being a rip-roaring exercise in violent action. The fact that it’s so good at being the second explains why it doesn’t really manage to be the first.
Rating: 8.5/10 SPECS
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.