“The choice is with us still”: The Doomsday Machine

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The beginning of a proud tradition,

“The Doomsday Machine” is one of the episodes I most fondly remember from the Original Series. For me it was always a highlight of the second season: I enjoyed the tense, thriller-like pacing as the crew races against time to prevent the planet killer from destroying everything, I thought splitting the main cast up was a great way to play up the drama of the situation (though it's been done before this season, I think it might be the most effective here) and I loved the fact Kirk, Scotty and the away team get the Constellation up and running by themselves and operate it all on their own. I also loved the design and concept of the planet killer itself, a big, scary automaton of destruction that the crew had to out-think and outmaneuver and I thought Commodore Decker's tragic fall from grace was a particularly well-executed and memorable character moment. Naturally, it would seem few people agree with me as this seems to be one of the more contentious episodes of the year.

James Doohan seems to have considered this his favourite episode of the Original Series and said so at conventions on a number of occasions. Apparently, however, he was frequently met with eye-rolls and groans from the audience whenever he said so. D.C. Fontana as well has been quoted as saying this is the weakest episode of the series and her least favourite. I must say I'm at something at a loss to explain why: I always thought this episode was both a critical and fan favourite, and I really can't see how Fontana can claim “The Doomsday Machine” is in any way worse than, say, “The Omega Glory” or indeed her own “Friday's Child” and that's just from this season alone. Expand your lens to the years that bookended season two and you've got “The Enemy Within”, “Mudd's Women” and “Space Seed” to pick three particularly egregious examples of episodes that weigh down the first season considerably, not to mention, well, pretty much all of season three. Even the episode's own cast isn't completely on the same page: While the regulars are as fantastic as always (special notice being paid to William Shatner, James Doohan and Leonard Nimoy, who all deliver compellingly intense and colourful performances), William Windom, who played Decker, has gone on record a number of times to say he didn't take Star Trek at all seriously because it was science fiction and played his role basically as a cartoon character in an attempt to mock it (ironically, Windom's performance remains commendable and memorable, despite a few instances of obvious gurning).

What “The Doomsday Machine” seems like to me is a very simple, straightforward and more than sufficiently entertaining thriller. This is important to take note of, because this the first time Star Trek has actually done “straightforward” all year: “Catspaw” and “Amok Time” were by necessity bombshell game-changing episodes while “Metamorphosis” was Gene Coon's reaction to this and the next step in his evolving vision for the series. Meanwhile, “Friday's Child” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?” were each some manner of horrifying disaster, so we were sort of unable to get a sense for what an “average” episode of Star Trek in its second season was going to look like before now. There are ramifications and consequences to this (and to the fact a not-insignificant number of people seem to have failed to read this episode that way) to which I'll return a little later on, but for now let's look at the particular way in which “The Doomsday Machine” is straightforward.

The first most immediately obvious way to take the plot is that it's a critique of the Cold War-era arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The episode is, after all, called “The Doomsday Machine” and features a literal doomsday machine built as a bluff in a war that ceased to be relevant eons ago, yet still remains to threaten the safety of the galaxy. Kirk also explicitly compares it to the hydrogen bombs of the 20th century at key points in the episode. However, this is in actuality just background to the actual story, which is about Commodore Decker's guilt over the loss of the Constellation and his crew and his determination to redeem himself, clear his conscience and exact revenge, no matter if it means jeopardizing a second starship and the lives of everyone aboard in order to do so. This, in turn, provides the necessary framework upon which the show drapes on layers and layers of thriller tropes, right down to an ominous countdown to a seemingly-inescapable cataclysm the heroes manage to escape with nail-bitingly little time to spare. In other words, what “The Doomsday Machine” does is fake us out with the typical Gene Roddenberry Star Trek approach of blunt moralizing, before turning on its heels to become a character study melded with a thriller.

Commodore Decker's story is similarly clear, being more or less a straight lift of Moby-Dick. Star Trek has a peculiar fascination with this particular novel, cribbing from it quite blatantly not only here, but later on in the season with “Obsession” as well as the two consensus-best films in the franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek First Contact, which is a fact that is probably fairly revealing in its own right. I have my own theory as to why this may be the case, but elaborating on it in detail is something probably best saved for 1982, because it fits Nicholas Meyer like a glove. Either way, of all the quite frankly far too many Star Trek adaptations of Herman Melville, I must say “The Doomsday Machine” is probably still my favourite, as it maintains the structure of the novel by having the Ahab character's downfall observed by a third party, upon whom we get to see the consequences of his quest take its toll. This is a very wise use of the Enterprise crew in my opinion, because while it defies common storytelling logic which would seem to indicate you'd want all of your big character moments to go to the main cast (something that even unites Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman and Michael Piller on Star Trek: The Next Generation, probably the only thing those three agreed on) it seems to fit a setting like the one Star Trek has, especially as it starts to flirt more and more seriously with idealism and utopianism.

See, in my opinion there is an extremely thin line you have to walk when you're dealing with an idealistic setting in regards to character development. On the one hand you want to make your characters interesting, but on the other hand you can't give them too much drama and conflict lest you risk abandoning your utopianism as, you know, your characters are supposed to be ideals. One one extreme lies panglossianism, on the other complete nihilism, and neither is a desirable or helpful starting point for fiction in my view. This is, once again, a problem that won't plague the rest of the Original Series too much as it was never really meant to take place in an idealized society in the first place, but it's going to absolutely dog every single other incarnation of Star Trek and is something I don't think the franchise ever found a workable answer to.

Here though the idealism and conflict cohabitate perfectly happily: We have a tense situation growing all the more dire, forcing our people to push their improvisation skills to the limit, and we have a guest star who we need to be able to rely on clearly dealing with severe mental pain and anguish making things substantially worse. To top it off, Decker's personal demons also allow us to take another critical look at the world of the Federation, as his particular interpretation of and devotion to his duties as an officer led to the death of the Constellation and her crew, almost did the same for the Enterprise, and ultimately caused him to sacrifice his life on a fool's gambit he would have had no way of determining would actually be successful. And Shatner absolutely sells Kirk's anguish over Decker's death: Just like in “Operation -- Annihilate!”, even though we never saw this person before and will never see him again, we totally believe he was an important person to Kirk and we utterly feel and empathize with his sadness at losing him. This one goes one better though, because right after Shatner's big scene as Kirk we also get Leonard Nimoy playing Spock in full-on logic machine Vulcan mode attempting to console his own close friend, and his turbulent mixture of pure rationality and deep compassion is truly intoxicating.

Furthermore, that Commodore Decker's arc is basically Moby-Dick for Star Trek actually fits the structure of “The Doomsday Machine” quite well: It's a transparent plot lift, yes, but that's OK as this episode doesn't need to be a particularly complicated or specialized bit of character development as it really is a thriller first and foremost, and a damn good one if I may say so. And anyway, Moby-Dick in a sci-fi setting really does seem to be the sort of thing that Star Trek in particular amongst its peers is the best suited to doing: The theatrical bombast and overreach is a natural match for the direction people like Gene Coon and William Shatner have been pushing it towards, and it's little wonder Nicholas Meyer will eventually attempt essentially the same tactic in eighteen years or so to massive acclaim. Because of this, we get the second one-episode-wonder iconic character the show's given us in a row: “Amok Time” introduced T'Pau and now “The Doomsday Machine” has Matt Decker. As histrionic as William Windom has the tendency to be on occasion, his neurotic, obsessive anguish is instantly memorable and leaves an impression. It certainly did on Gene Roddenberry, who introduced Decker's son Will as a major character, Kirk's new executive officer, on Star Trek Phase II and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Will himself went on to have his own spiritual successor, one Will Riker, XO of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Aside from the gravity of Windom's performance, another reason Decker stands out in the memory is that he's a return to the idea of a mythic/mundane contrast Coon introduced in “Metamorphosis” and that the show has pretty much failed to engage with in any meaningful way since. We're not meant to admire Decker for his loyalty and sense of duty, we're meant to pity him for his inability to to handle his guilt and the foolishly rash decisions this causes him to make. As Kirk says “he gave his life so that others could live. I suppose if you have to die that's the best way to go”, but what seems to be frequently forgotten is that this comes right after a scene where Kirk passionately and desperately tries to talk Decker out of his suicide run down the maw of the planet killer, imploring him as a friend that no-one should throw their lives away because of an honest mistake, and that he's much more valuable to the fleet alive then dead. This is a direct callback to and rebuttal of Decker's comment in the opening of the episode about “...the captain going down with the ship? That's what you're supposed to do, isn't it?” (which is largely a myth anyway: Typically if and when this happened it was out of fear about the career repercussions of losing a command, not chivalry. Kirk is right: Losing a highly experienced captain is a blow to any service) and his last words "The commander is responsible for the lives of his crew, and for their deaths. Well, I should have died with mine”. In other words, Matt Decker is trying to fulfill his pre-ordained role as the tragic hero in an operatic military epic who goes out in a blaze of glory. Crucially though, Shatner-as-Kirk thinks this is absolutely insane, proving that he's the one with the ability to keep the show grounded in the world of the everyday (albeit the everyday in deep space), finally rising to Coon's most recent challenge.

But then the other shoe has to drop. “The Doomsday Machine” may well be the perfect example of what an average episode of second season-era Star Trek should look like, but the problem is that...it's not an average episode at all. We're six weeks into the year and this is the first time the show has actually hit “basically entertaining”. This...really isn't a good sign. “The Doomsday Machine” is exceptionally good for Star Trek, but it absolutely shouldn't be exceptional in the slightest. The show should be aiming for this baseline of quality every week, and the fact it's not only consistently failing to do this, but is in fact regularly throwing out offensively retrograde and alienating atom bombs of scripts, is a major issue. Apollo may be long gone, but the horrific effect his presence had on the series remains, and Star Trek faces a continually uphill battle for legitimacy. It's got all the pieces in place, but they're not always enough to get the show to where it needs to be, at least in this form.

Comments

Cleofis 3 years, 8 months ago

Wow, nothing much to add here. Our opinions are identical on this one; one of the earliest Trek episodes I remember seeing, and one that left a real impression on me, and to this day my favorite of TOS. For all that Windom played his character as a cartoon, his performance was greatly unsettling to me as a kid, and the finale was my first brush with what I would later learn is called "Lovecraftian horror."

Actually, come to that, I find it hard in retrospect to not think of this episode in Lovecraftian terms, as the Machine is easily the truest eldrtich horror Trek ever produced, albeit not the first and not an official invocation as such; to this day when I think of Lovecraftian terror, of what it would look or be like to stare something old and unknowable and unreasonable and terrible in the face and lose, I think of Decker heading into the maw of the Machine.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 8 months ago

This could also tie in with a theme In introduced in the "Who Mourns for Adonais?" post (and will return to on Friday): The evil humans do is just as frightening and terrible as the most horrific Eldritch Abominations. The planet killer may be a Lovecraftian monster, but it was originally built by a kind of people, after all.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 8 months ago

Part of what I think is cool about this blog is that it considers what would have been the experience of watching this show one episode at a time, once each week, in a set broadcast order, not knowing anything about them beforehand. Because I don't know if this has ever been how anyone for a long time has experienced TOS. With DVDs, the internet, and syndicated reruns, we watch the episodes in a variety of orders, and we usually do that with choice. I can't remember the last time I've just found an episode of Star Trek playing on TV and not been able to identify which one it was within five minutes (maybe not remembering the episode title, but definitely by the name of "the one with—").

It makes for a productively weird collision with your larger subject for the blog, because you write as if you already know where the franchise is going in its far future, though still only discovering TOS as a phenomenon episode by episode.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 8 months ago

"It makes for a productively weird collision with your larger subject for the blog, because you write as if you already know where the franchise is going in its far future, though still only discovering TOS as a phenomenon episode by episode."

This was rather the point-I'm glad people are beginning to take notice :-)

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K. Jones 3 years, 8 months ago

I was under the perhaps flawed assumption that "Doomsday Machine" was well-liked. I've always loved it. It's impossible to ever call Star Trek episodes "good ensemble episodes" because Uhura, Sulu and Chekov are used so sparingly in deference to the three "Western" white men and the Vulcan at the top of the command structure. But this was an example of good usage of Scotty, and those episodes that split the "three man dynamic" off into pairs, with Kirk interacting with Scott and Spock left to handle Bones, or Kirk off bromancing with Spock while Bones bears witness to how deft and shrewd Scotty is in command; or the rare and effective "Kirk and Bones in danger, Spock and Scotty have to team up to make insane repairs." These are typically stronger elements when contrasted with the usual power trio dynamic.

If I'm not mistaken, the Constellation in this episode marks the first time another Constitution-class starship was ever seen, and Decker might be the first "corrupted Captain" archetype we ever got as well. The "Dark Captain" has always been an important mirror to hold up to Kirk, and far more effective than say, splitting him into magical good and evil halves.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 8 months ago

"But this was an example of good usage of Scotty, and those episodes that split the "three man dynamic" off into pairs, with Kirk interacting with Scott and Spock left to handle Bones, or Kirk off bromancing with Spock while Bones bears witness to how deft and shrewd Scotty is in command; or the rare and effective "Kirk and Bones in danger, Spock and Scotty have to team up to make insane repairs." These are typically stronger elements when contrasted with the usual power trio dynamic."

Very much agreed!

"If I'm not mistaken, the Constellation in this episode marks the first time another Constitution-class starship was ever seen"

It was, and it was also built out of an AMT USS Enterprise model kit, the first example of "kitbash" special effects in Star Trek (and hence the Constellation's 1017 registration number).

"The "Dark Captain" has always been an important mirror to hold up to Kirk, and far more effective than say, splitting him into magical good and evil halves."

I may quibble over your use of the term "magical", but yes, pretty much this.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

When you get to Wrath of Khan will you discuss CLR James' take on Moby-Dick?

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

Possibly. I do quite like James' reading of the story, but it'll depend on how much I find it gels with Nicholas Meyer's interpretation of both it and Star Trek. I still haven't decided quite how to tackle The Wrath of Khan yet.

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