Oct 9, 2020
Star Trek "Dagger of the Mind"
In the franchise’s entire 51-year history, there’s only been one Star Trek episode of any of the six series that’s been holiday-themed. That episode was the original series’ “Catspaw”, which was the first episode filmed for the show’s second season, although it was the seventh aired. This is because NBC deliberately aired it during Halloween week 1967.
That episode is enjoyable enough, and it isn’t subtle about making references to the Eve of All Saints. After some checking, the only episode I found with any reference to the only holiday people spend more money on than Halloween (in other words, Christmas) is the original Star Trek‘s first season episode “Dagger of the Mind,” the ninth episode of that season to air.
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Before I begin, for anyone wondering, no, I haven’t forgotten the Christmas reference in Star Trek: Generations. But considering how awful that film was, I prefer to forget it.
The story begins with the Enterprise arriving at the Tantalus penal colony, and the two guys in the transporter room begin beaming down cargo meant for the institute’s director, Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory). Kirk arrives to see the looks of confusion on the crewmen’s faces as the cargo isn’t actually beaming down. He has to remind them that they must get the colony itself to lower its security field which prevents the beaming. After the schmuck expresses embarrassment for his blunder (an expression everyone on Voyager would have when they looked at Harry Kim), the cargo beams down and he informs Kirk that there’s one package scheduled for the ship to beam up. After Kirk and the clueless transporter chief leave (presumably to prepare this new cargo, although I don’t know why the crewman had to leave to do that), the other transporter technician begins looking at the wall behind him and writing on the same Etch-a-Sketch pad that Kirk would often use to sign reports.
This is why he doesn’t see the cargo container open up behind him to reveal a wide-eyed man (Morgan Woodward) has stowed aboard the ship. This man stealthily makes his way toward the technician, knocking him out.
After the main credits, Kirk and McCoy discuss Tantalus, with the captain expressing admiration for how far such institutions have come thanks to Adams’s work. McCoy, however, just states that a prison is a prison.
The ship suddenly gets a message from the colony stating that one of their inmates has gone missing, and that this person is violent. The stowaway is next seen leaving the transporter room, now dressed like the guy he knocked out (how convenient that the poor schmuck had clothes that were just his size). A ship-wide alert is given before the inmate takes out a security guard, stealing his phaser.
Kirk contacts the colony and confirms to Adams that the missing inmate in on board. As the search continues, Spock and Bones have another of their funny arguments in which Spock points out the irony of how humanity makes it a point to imprison those who use violence privately. The inmate suddenly arrives, taking out another guard, and demands to speak to Kirk. He identifies himself as Van Gelder and tells Kirk that he doesn’t want to return to Tantalus. Kirk simply tells him to surrender his weapon, to which Van Gelder threatens to destroy the ship before Spock nerve pinches him. Van Gelder is taken to Sickbay as Kirk orders a return to Tantalus.
En route, Kirk tries to get answers out of Van Gelder. But the latter simply answers with gibberish and violent spasms before Bones puts him under. On the bridge, Spock informs Kirk that Van Gelder is indeed supposed to be at Tantalus, but not as an inmate. Rather, he was assigned at the location months earlier as Adams’s colleague. Kirk tells Uhura to raise the colony again and Adams confirms that Van Gelder was an associate of his, and that he attempted to perform experimental treatment on others. McCoy arrives and says that Adams’s story doesn’t exactly check out. But Kirk points out Adams’s achievements in his field. Adams asks if the ship knows of any better place they could take Van Gelder. Bones is at a loss, as there aren’t any.
Adams then invites Kirk to come to the colony to check things out, albeit with as few people as possible. Kirk accepts and tells Bones to assign someone who has knowledge in rehabilitative therapy.
Kirk gets ready to beam down and is startled to find the person McCoy picked for this assignment is Dr. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill), who brings up the fact that she and Kirk met before at a science lab Christmas party. The captain quickly shuts down any discussion on that matter, while Spock just has an amused look on his face. Kirk tells Spock that McCoy’s in deep trouble if Noel doesn’t do her job.
After they arrive, Noel requests that Kirk address her by her first name. But Kirk says this isn’t the time for that, as they go into an elevator which basically plunges to the duo a long way down before they’re greeted by Adams, who’s willing to address Noel by her first name as they’re two of many doctors on this planet (although, there’s no repeat of that “Doctor, Doctor” scene in Spies Like Us).
Adams offers his guests a drink while Kirk calls Spock to confirm they’ve arrived safely. The doctor then introduces Kirk and Noel to Lethe (Susanne Wasson), a former inmate who has since become a staff member. Despite Adams’s praise for her work, all Lethe does is answer questions with a blank look on her face.
As Adams gives the duo a tour of his facility, Kirk notices a device that Adams says is the reason for Van Gelder’s condition. Adams also states that he’s considering abandoning the device.
On the Enterprise, Spock is still trying to get answers from Van Gelder, who says “neural neutralizer” and refers to a “room”.
As it turns out, the device which caught Kirk’s eye is called a neural neutralizer, which Adams says is experimental. The doctor further states that Van Gelder tested it on himself, and overuse led to his condition. As Kirk and Noel leave, we see the machine being used on some poor guy who gets a horrified look on his face as he stares at the light flashing above him.
Spock informs Kirk of the references Van Gelder has made. Adams graciously excuses himself so Spock can repeat Van Gelder’s claims that Kirk and Noel are in danger. She brushes these warnings off. When Kirk says that he and Noel will spend the night at the colony, Van Gelder goes crazy shouting “NOOOO!!” Kirk signs off after assuring Spock they’ll keep checking in regularly. Van Gelder begs Bones to not put him under again, saying that Adams will destroy Kirk.
This leads to the first time we see Spock perform a mind-meld on someone, as a way of getting more info. He’s uncertain this technique will work on a non-Vulcan, but as subsequent episodes have proven, this concern is just lip service and nothing more. Van Gelder is sane enough to agree to undergo it.
Back on the planet, Kirk pops into Noel’s quarters and asks for her take on the inmates. She says they seem happy, but Kirk notes that they seem to share the stoned, blank look that Lethe did, and over Noel’s protests, he says he wants to check out the neural neutralizer again.
Spock’s mind-meld with Van Gelder makes the doctor calmer as he reveals that Adams is using the neural neutralizer to alter the minds of anyone he chooses.
Kirk asks for Noel’s assurances that she can keep the neutralizer in check as Kirk decides to test it on himself. Noel turns it on low for just a second and Kirk doesn’t seem to be aware anything has taken place. Their second try has Noel telling Kirk he’s hungry, a feeling he reflects afterward. Next, she brings up memories of the previously-mentioned Christmas party. But she says that, unlike at the real party, they actually had a more romantic time. We’re even treated to a “flashback” of the two making out despite the lack of mistletoe.
As Kirk is clearly enjoying this mind trip, Adams and one of his men burst in and subdue Noel. Taking the controls, Adams increases the machine’s strength, telling Kirk that he’s madly in love with Noel and there’s nothing but pain without her. Adams tells Kirk that she’s gone, causing Kirk pain. Adams then promises more pain as he tells Kirk to discard his phaser and communicator. Kirk attempts to contact the Enterprise, but the pain is too overwhelming.
Noel is next seen comforting Kirk as he professes his love for her. She tells him to remember what Adams did to him. Kirk is able to snap out of it enough to fiddle with a nearby vent, which he tells Noel to crawl through in order to reach the facility’s power source, which she can then disable.
As Kirk is tortured again by Adams, the doctor’s delight turns to anger when he learns Noel has vanished. Adams increases the pain on Kirk, demanding to know where she is. At the same time, Spock is attempting to beam down, but the colony’s force field is still up. But Noel manages to shut down the power, taking out the force field as well as the neural neutralizer. This gives Kirk a chance to take down Adams before making his escape.
Spock uses this chance to beam himself down, while Noel fights off a staff member, before frying him with the old “just touching the controls can electrocute you” gag. As she leaves, Spock arrives to permanently disable the field and restore the power. This, naturally, includes the neutralizer, which now has Adams in its range.
Kirk and Noel reunite at the other end of the vent. As she (weakly) attempts to discourage Kirk from passionately kissing her (and this is Kirk, so she’d have better luck getting Trump to stop being immodest), Spock steps in with a “why am I not surprised?” look on his face. Her reminder that Adams is the cause of this behavior makes Kirk realize Adams is under the neutralizer. As a security team beams down and takes control of the situation, Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Noel find Adams dead. Kirk states that Adams was alone, and thus had nobody to save him from basically having his mind drained.
Later, Kirk is back on the ship and Spock informs him that Van Gelder has destroyed the neutralizer.
This episode itself is a nice, creepy tale, with an especially intriguing first act. Gregory is appropriately smarmy as Adams, and Woodward (who would later appear in the second season episode “The Omega Glory”) does a good job at acting crazy.
Like the Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind”, this episode delves into the idea of someone losing their sanity (heck, both episodes have the word “mind” in their titles). But while that episode was told entirely from Riker’s point of view, we have more of an idea of what and who is behind the mind-bending proceedings here. It’s just a matter of seeing how Kirk will get out of it. The good news is both episodes are great viewing.