Retro Review: Star Trek–Dagger of the Mind

Once again, it’s time to look back at an episode of classic Star Trek.  In this case, it’s “Dagger of the Mind,” which I’ll give you is a lot better than “Miri” but it’s still not one of my favorite first season episodes.

We’ll get into details on “Dagger of the Mind” just as soon as we reminisce about the science lab Christmas party…

If we were approaching this re-watch in the order I grew up watching classic Trek aka production order as opposed to original air order, I’d be getting pretty stoked about the direction the series was getting ready to take.   That’s not to say that “Dagger of the Mind” is a great episode mind you, nor even a good one.   No, it’s more about the fact that this is one of the last episodes produced before Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana arrive on the scene, which means there’s a lot to look forward to in the coming episodes.

Like most early classic Trek episodes, “Dagger of the Mind” has a lot of promise to it, though this time around watching it I have to admit I saw a lot more plot holes than I remembered.

Delivering supplies to a Federation penal colony, the Enterprise brings on board a box of records to return to Earth and a stowaway, Dr. Simon VanGelder.   Six months before, VanGelder was the second in command at the penal colony that treats psychiatric patients.   VanGelder has gone around the bend, becoming violent and irrational and requiring massive amounts of sedative in order to calm him.

Despite warnings from VanGelder, Kirk decides he will beam down to the Tantalus colony and look into things.  He’s assigned a young female member of the medical team with a background in psychiatry.    Her name is Dr. Helen Noel.  Oh yeah, and Kirk apparently flirted with her fairly hard at the science lab Christmas party, though nothing more developed from it.

Beaming down, Kirk meets Dr. Tristan Adams, a leading innovator in the field.  Adams shows Kirk and Noel a devise called the neural neutralizer that caused VanGelder’s current psychotic break.  Adams says the machine is a failure and that it was ordered shut down after VanGelder’s accident.  Kirk and Noel go back later to test it, finding it remarkably effective at bending the will of those who undergo treatment.  Noel implants an innocent suggestion of Kirk being hungry and then goes on to re-write their history after the Christmas party.  Adams comes in and decides he’ll give Kirk the full demonstration, implanting the idea that Kirk is madly in love with Noel and that he can’t live without her.  He causes Kirk an immense amount of pain as he tries to pacify and control our hero.

Meanwhile, back on the ship, VanGelder tries to warn Spock and McCoy of the danger to Kirk, but is unable to do so because of his mental issues.  Spock mind-melds and finds out the VanGelder is telling the truth and begins working out a way to get down to help Kirk.   The one fly in this ointment is the colony as a force field that prevents transport and communication unless it’s down.   Luckily, Noel is able to crawl through some duct work (which really brings up some questions about the design of a prison facility, mind you) and disable the shield.    The power outage frees Kirk from his second treatment by the device and he escapes, only to meet up with Spock and Noel.  They realize that Adams is alone with the machine and the power is back on.  They arrive to find his mind is wiped out and he’s died of loneliness under the neutralizer’s influence.

If you don’t think too much about things, “Dagger of the Mind” could almost work.   The problem is that if you even peel back a layer and ask a question of two, things being to unravel fairly quickly.

The biggest issue I had with the episode this time around was the motivation of Adams.   It’s never really addressed why he’s using the neutralizer to do harm to his patients and VanGelder.   When used properly, the neural neutralizer seems fairly effective in helping people with mental disorders.   Why Adams begins to abuse it and why he abuses Kirk with it doesn’t make much sense, other than placing Kirk in jeopardy for the second half of the story.

If we were to find some history of conflict between VanGelder and Adams or that the two disagreed on something–maybe even using the machine–it might all make a lot more sense.   Why Adams, who it’s stated several times has this great reputation in the psychiatric field, would risk all this to break down his patients and victims is never really addressed or really explained.

During my whirlwind tour of season three, I noted that while Kirk is certainly a big flirt in the early seasons, it’s not really until season three that he becomes the intergalactic horn-dog that we all know and love.  With the possible exception of this episode, that is.    It’s apparent there is an attraction between Kirk and Noel, though it’s one that doesn’t go beyond simple flirting at a party.  How these two avoided each other on the ship between then and now is a bit of a mystery, though if could be that Rand told Noel to back off.*    Couple this with the scenes of Kirk talking about how lonely he can be as the commander of the Enterprise from “The Naked Time” and it’s easy to see why Kirk keeps his distance from a lot of the crew and that he flirts with every attractive female on any alien world he visits.

*The script originally intended for Rand to beam down but when the character was written out, it was decided that Kirk needed someone with the proper medical background instead.  Hence, Noel.

I will admit that watching this episode, I’m intrigued by how they had to direct around the short skirts worn by the female crew members during this era.   It’s fun to watch how the actress (Marianna Hill) and the director have to work together through camera angles, shots and editing to ensure that the standards and practice regulations of the era are met.  It’s clear that the female uniforms aren’t designed for crawling around air ducts….

All that and I haven’t even dealt with fact that this episode introduces us to the Vulcan mind meld.  It’s interesting to see how reverently it’s treated here in it’s first use.  Spock states that it’s a private thing, rarely used on non-Vulcans and only done with the utmost care and consideration.   It’s also a fairly lengthy process for Spock.

This is , of course, in complete contrast to later episodes–even ones from this season–that will soon find Spock using the mind meld through walls to escape custody and melding with a giant silicon based lifeform.

I’m guessing once they had this particular plot device in hand, they were going to use it as much as possible.  Or maybe Spock just loosened up a bit more as the series went along.

All in all, “Dagger of the Mind” is an episode that could have been a lot better than it was.  In a lot of the kiss and tell books on classic Trek, we hear about how Gene Roddenberry slowly burned himself out with his attention to detail and re-writes of every line of most of the early Trek episodes.  It really shows here, since this is one of the last episodes that Roddenberry serves as sole producer for.   The gaping holes in the plot indicate the Roddenberry is getting worn out and allowing some things to slip through the cracks.

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