Oct 9, 2020
Star Trek “The Tholian Web”: a Mirror Universe special
Once again, it’s time for another installment in the Agony Booth’s ongoing look at the Star Trek Mirror Universe episodes that gave the site its name! No, really.
As it turns out, “The Tholian Web”, one of the stronger episodes of the original series’ third season, was actually a Mirror Universe episode all along. We just didn’t know it until 2005, when Star Trek: Enterprise aired the two-parter “In a Mirror, Darkly”, which simultaneously served as both a prequel to “Mirror, Mirror” and a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, tying the events of the latter episode into the Mirror Universe for the first time.
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I’m no fan of these kinds of retcons, particularly when a substandard spinoff tries to rewrite the intentions of its far superior predecessor. However, my eventual recap of “In a Mirror, Darkly” will make a lot more sense if everyone’s familiar with “The Tholian Web” ahead of time. And let’s face it, this is mostly just an excuse to recap a TOS episode, which I’ve strangely only managed to do three times in the website’s history.
We open with the Enterprise heading towards the last known position of the USS Defiant (not to be confused with Deep Space Nine’s warship of the same name) to investigate its recent disappearance. On the bridge, Kirk learns from Spock that they’re venturing into an area where “space itself is literally breaking up”, and Scotty says that this strange part of space is causing the warp engines to lose power.
Chekov directs everyone’s attention to a bright green blob on the viewscreen which isn’t being picked up by sensors. But moving in closer, they can see it’s the Defiant, a Constitution-class starship just like the Enterprise, currently all covered in green sparkles.
Kirk assembles an away team of himself, Spock, McCoy, and Chekov to go investigate, but before they head over, they all put on these big, bulky silver spacesuits all covered in brightly colored tubes that couldn’t possibly have any practical function. It’s almost like the four of them are cosplaying as Slim Goodbody and showing us their veins and arteries.
They beam over to the Defiant’s bridge, which is of course the same set as the Enterprise’s bridge, only more darkly lit. They find the place completely empty except for two dead guys. One of them appears to be the ship’s captain, and the other appears to have died while strangling him. McCoy examines the men and says the captain’s neck is broken. Kirk has Chekov and McCoy go check out engineering and sickbay, respectively.
Down in engineering, Chekov finds everybody dead, but then he starts feeling woozy and seeing his surroundings through a wide angle lens. Over in sickbay, McCoy reports in that he’s found more dead people, and it appears they all killed each other. He also discovers that his hand passes right through one of those dead people. When his hand also passes through a table, he reports the ship is “dissolving”. Over on the Enterprise, they notice that the Defiant is beginning to disappear.
As you’d expect, Kirk wisely decides this is a good time to get back to the Enterprise. Unfortunately, this odd area of space is causing headaches for this week’s transporter chief Lt. O’Neil (previously featured prominently in a first season episode). The best part is the look he gives Scotty, like he’s completely in over his head with all this “transporter” business. Something tells me O’Neil will be first in line for the next landing party to the surface of a black hole.
The contrivance is that they can only beam back three people at a time. Kirk orders the other three to head back while he waits to catch the next beam. But when it’s Kirk’s turn, things unfortunately go awry. In the transporter room, Chekov switches on a nearby viewscreen just in time to see the Defiant has disappeared completely (or “wanished”, per Chekov), taking Kirk with it. Fade out on Spock’s stunned expression.
Later on the bridge, Spock is calculating the “next period of spatial interphase”, when he thinks the Defiant will rematerialize and they can rescue Kirk. But it’s not for another two hours and 12 minutes, and Scotty doesn’t think he can hold the ship in place for that long.
Chekov, with a distinct air of malice, grumbles, “I dun understand what’s so special about dees region of space!” Obviously, his mental state has been affected by whatever happened on the Defiant, but it’s amusing to think he simply hasn’t had his morning coffee yet, or maybe it was supposed to be his day off and he got called in to cover some asshole’s shift at the last minute.
Spock responds by explaining the existence of parallel universes, and says they’re in a part of space where another universe “overlaps” with ours. In two hours, they’ll again be linked with “the Defiant’s universe”. But then he makes the mistake of saying there’s a chance they could become trapped along with Kirk, and Chekov totally loses his shit, screaming about dying while clawing at Sulu’s face. Spock tries to reason with him for a bit, then gives up and delivers his famous nerve pinch and has Chekov carted off to sickbay.
As he gets hauled away, McCoy expresses concern that whatever caused the Defiant crew to kill each other might be “communicable”. He advises Spock to move the ship away from the Defiant, but Spock refuses to budge until they rescue Kirk.
Just then, a prism-like ship appears on the viewscreen. The Enterprise is hailed by “Commander Loskene” who tells them they’re trespassing in the territory of the “Tholian Assembly”. And as usual, the original series was about a million times more creative in designing alien races than the crinkly noses and weird foreheads of the later Star Trek shows.
Until they resurfaced on Enterprise, there was much fan speculation about what Tholians really look like, and whether or not they were simply ordinary-looking humanoids wearing helmets. But according to “In a Mirror, Darkly”, this is their true appearance, and they have vaguely insect-like, crystalline bodies. Also, the Enterprise episode implies that the ripples we see on the viewscreen here are really heat ripples, as the Tholians require extremely high temperatures to survive.
Spock tells the Tholian they’re responding to a distress call, but Loskene notes there are no other ships in the vicinity. Spock explains that the “other ship is interspatially trapped” and will reappear in “one hour and 53 minutes”. The Tholian accepts this explanation like it’s a totally normal thing, and says they’ll be back then to make sure Spock’s not lying.
Down in sickbay, one of McCoy’s orderlies starts seeing the world through the ol’ fisheye lens. He goes nuts on McCoy, while Nurse Chapel takes her sweet time grabbing a hypospray to sedate him.
Back on the bridge, it’s time for the interphase, but nothing is happening. Spock realizes the intrusion of the Tholian ship has thrown everything off. McCoy calls up at that moment to annoy the crap out of Spock for not having rescued Kirk yet, and then he finally explains that this area of space is “distorting” everyone’s brains, which accounts for all the manic episodes, and they have to get out of here now.
That’s when the Tholian ship reappears and fires on the Enterprise. Spock declares, “The renowned Tholian punctuality!” Ah yes, from one end of the galaxy to the other, men tell tales and women sing songs about the Tholians’ amazing ability to show up on time.
Spock orders Sulu to divert power to the shields, but Sulu points out that this will “reduce our phaser power by 50%!” And Spock just gives him a withering glare as if to say, “Bitch, is you serious?” McCoy shows up to tell Spock that he’s lost Kirk and needs to get the ship out of here. Instead, Spock decides to return fire, disabling the Tholian ship and causing it to drift away.
But thanks to this area of space, the ship’s fuses have shorted out or something, and now the Enterprise is also disabled. McCoy asks Spock, “Are you satisfied?” He says Spock should have protected his crew, which is “the mark of a starship captain! Like Jim!” Spock calmly tells him to go back to his lab and work on an antidote for this area of space, because they’re obviously not going anywhere for a while.
And one of things I love about TOS, which is another thing that the later shows seriously lacked, is that it was never afraid to have this kind of balls-out conflict among its senior crew. Never in a million years would you have seen a regular on TNG/Voyager/Enterprise tell a commanding officer that he/she sucked at being a captain (though I think we can all agree there were a few times when it was warranted).
Suddenly, another Tholian ship shows up. It links up with the previous ship, creating a filament-like line between them. Spock watches fascinated as they begin to surround the Enterprise with this line. Even though there’s nothing in the Federation’s databanks about it, Spock somehow knows the Tholians are building an “energy field” around the Enterprise, and if they succeed in finishing it, “we shall not see home again.”
Obviously, they’re building the “Tholian Web” of the episode title. It’s a cool idea for a weapon, in that they’re not just shooting more energy blobs at the Enterprise. But I don’t know how this could possibly be a practical weapon, seeing as how it’s only effective against an enemy who holds completely still for hours on end.
Back from break, the senior staff and a lot of random crewpeople are filing into the Enterprise’s chapel, where Spock stands at the pulpit. Evidently, Kirk only had a few hours of oxygen in his suit, and their inability to rescue him means he must be dead by now, so Spock is here to memorialize him.
Instead, Spock delivers a weird eulogy where he essentially covers his own ass, explaining that he had no other choice but to fire on the Tholian ship. And as a result of that, they must assume the captain is now dead.
One guy in the pews must have a distorted brain, or was really a fan of Kirk, because he suddenly freaks out, screaming and shoving people around until McCoy orders him taken to sickbay. And then, everyone just awkwardly sits back down like nothing happened so that Spock can continue his speech. But then it turns out the rest of his eulogy is two lines long and ends with, “Each of you must evaluate the loss in the privacy of your own thoughts.” Um, okay, then. Thanks. Glad I got dressed up and came all the way down to the chapel just for that.
Scotty calls for a moment of silence, and then dismisses everyone. McCoy walks up to remind Spock of what they must do now, which is to watch a “message tape” Kirk left behind in the event of his being declared dead. Spock says he’s needed on the bridge, but McCoy suggests he doesn’t want to watch it because it might “change your present status”. Yeah, gee, you nailed it, Bones. This was all totally just a ploy for power-hungry Spock to further his Starfleet career.
Outside the ship, the Tholians are still building their web as Spock and McCoy go to Kirk’s quarters. McCoy looks over some random medal Kirk won, and by the looks of it, he won it for having the largest pumpkin at the Iowa state fair.
McCoy then yells at Spock some more about failing to rescue Kirk and dooming the ship, until Spock brings things back around to viewing the tape. But McCoy wants to know why Spock fought the Tholians, because “you could have assured yourself of a captaincy by leaving the area”, again furthering this bizarre notion that all Spock really cares about is moving up in rank.
A moment later, McCoy complains he should be working on an antidote, while Spock is the one demanding that he view the tape. What the hell? This was McCoy’s idea in the first place! Did they accidentally mix up each other’s lines or something?
After a bit more dialogue where McCoy continues to imply that all Spock really wanted was Kirk’s command, they finally play the damn tape. It turns out to be a highly situational message, in that Kirk is addressing both Spock and McCoy in it. Does he have other messages ready in case both he and Spock happen to die at the same time, or he and McCoy die?
Kirk on the tape knows that if he’s dead, some crisis is unfolding, and Spock is now in command, and surely he and McCoy are currently “locked in mortal combat”. His advice to Spock is to “temper your judgment with intuitive insight”, and if he can’t do that, seek out McCoy’s advice. And he tells McCoy to help Spock, and respect his authority. So basically, the perfect words delivered at just the right time. McCoy finally chills out a bit and both he and Spock get back to work.
Meanwhile, Uhura’s in her quarters in casual 24th Century evening wear. Hey, might as well relax and unwind, there’s clearly nothing anyone can do about the Tholians slowly but surely building their death web to surround us and destroy us all. She gets a sudden pain in her gut, then looks in a mirror and sees a ghostly image of Kirk, floating in his spacesuit. Now obviously, Kirk is still alive (sorry for the spoilers there) and Uhura is seeing him in some kind of transdimensional state, but… why does she only see him in the mirror?
Uhura runs to McCoy to say she saw Kirk, and McCoy basically pats her on the head and goes, “Why, of course you saw him, little lady!” And even though Uhura is a senior Starfleet officer, and even though both she and McCoy have certainly seen weirder things on the job, McCoy just assumes she’s delusional. Nice one. Though, she does kind of hurt her case by immediately fainting for no reason.
Since we’re in need of some action, a random Redshirt down in engineering gets the fisheye goggles and attacks Scotty and gets hauled away. In sickbay, Chekov is in restraints, screaming and howling and grunting. Uhura is also here in restraints, even though she’s not being the slightest bit violent. It’s like she’s one of those 19th Century women diagnosed with “hysteria” and then promptly committed. She’s even got herself believing that she didn’t see Kirk and is just catching the crazy that’s going around. She fears ending up like Chekov, but McCoy assures her they’ll find an antidote.
But then in engineering, Scotty sees a translucent Kirk floating on a catwalk. He reports this to Spock and McCoy on the bridge, and tellingly, McCoy doesn’t suggest that Scotty be immediately tied up for his own safety. Instead, he asks Spock, “Do you suppose they’re seeing Jim because they lost confidence in you?” Jesus Christ, man. Somehow, Spock refrains from bitch-slapping McCoy, and without even looking at him, calmly tells him to go back to his lab.
So McCoy angrily whirls around the captain’s chair to force Spock to look at him. McCoy swiftly realizes “this space” is getting to him too, and apologizes to Spock. Hmm. Affected by this region of space, or just a colossal dick? You be the judge. Spock brushes it off, saying if Kirk were here, he would have simply said, “Forget it, Bones.”
McCoy has a bit of a moment where he almost collapses, but then Kirk materializes on the bridge in his ghostly form. They all stare at him as he tries to say something, but no sounds come out of his mouth. Spock walks up to him and he disappears.
Back from break, we see the Tholian Web still being constructed. But I’m sure it’ll be finished any day now. In sickbay, McCoy releases Uhura, because now that the sensible menfolk have also seen the captain, it means she’s not crazy after all.
In Spock’s quarters, Scotty is explaining that when they fired phasers at the Tholian ship, they “blasted a hole right through that crazy space fabric, and only heaven knows where it sent the Defiant!” Whoa, ease up on the technical jargon there, professor. So the Defiant is lost, but thanks to being partially caught in the transporter beam, Kirk remained behind. Spock goes to his computer and pulls up a strange diagram that evidently indicates when the next “interphase” will occur—remember this diagram for (40 years) later—and Scotty says the ship will be ready.
McCoy enters with what appears to be a beaker full of Tang, saying it’s the antidote. Yes, it turns out that the cure for a region of space causing brain cells and nerves to (presumably) phase in and out of reality is drinking a glass of Sunny D. He says it’s a diluted version of a Klingon nerve gas, and Scotty gets scared at first, but McCoy says the concentration is just enough to deaden “certain nerve inputs to the brain!”
Deadening nerve inputs to the brain? Now Scotty is interested. He downs a whole glass of it and asks, “Does it make a good mix with Scotch?” and leaves with the entire beaker to presumably go get drunk. Hooray for ethnic stereotypes!
Before Spock takes his dose, McCoy raises his glass and calls him “captain”, and it would appear the two have resolved their differences. Spock then heads back to the bridge, where he warmly welcomes back both Uhura and Chekov. See? He’s learning how to command with a smooth touch. But Sulu best not be backtalking him again. The Tholians are just about to finish their web, when Kirk appears hovering on the viewscreen.
“I see him!” Uhura yells. “There he is!” cries Chekov. “It’s the captain!” Sulu adds. There are a lot of keen eyes on this bridge, I can say that for sure. They get ready to transport Kirk onto the ship, but some sort of tractor beam (from the Tholians, I guess?) is pulling them away. So Spock orders Scotty to bring the Enterprise “up to full capability”.
There’s a big jolt, and abruptly, the Enterprise disappears from the Tholian Web and is cruising along in starless space. The stars reappear and Chekov says they must have destroyed the Tholian Web. But Spock corrects him: “Utilizing ship’s power has thrown us clear of it.” Okay, then. Going by an earlier line where Chekov mentions “[driving] into interspace”, I’m guessing the ship briefly crossed over into wherever Kirk is trapped, but I think most viewers can be forgiven for having no clue what the hell just happened.
Kirk again appears on the viewscreen, and they’re able to get a transporter fix. Spock says his “oxygen supply is running out now”, even though it presumably ran out hours ago, which is why they had a memorial service in his honor. Nevertheless, Mr. O’Neil avoids the inevitable demotion to latrine duty when he’s finally able to transport Kirk aboard.
And now we wrap up with the usual lighthearted banter on the bridge. Kirk describes what he went through, saying, “I had a whole universe to myself!” And it still wasn’t enough to contain Shatner’s ego. Kirk asks Spock and McCoy if they had any problems, and they both play coy and act like they got along just fine. They even pretend like they never watched his “last orders” because there wasn’t any time. Kirk just looks confused, Spock and McCoy give each other knowing looks, and we’re out of here at warp factor two.
Overall, this was a pretty solid episode, despite coming from the “turd season” that TOS fans generally hold in low regard. And it’s true that “The Tholian Web” has that same rough, slipshod feel of most third season episodes, particularly in the way so many questions are left unanswered at the end.
Where did the Defiant go, exactly? Did the Tholians attack the Defiant, or did they really not know it was there? What was causing space to “break up” in that area in the first place? For the longest time, I assumed the Tholians were to blame, but the episode itself never gives a reason. And if the Tholians had completed their “web”, what would have happened, exactly? It’s a bit of a letdown that they spend the entire episode building this energy field and/or weapon, only to never show us what it actually does.
But the special effects here are some of the series’ best, and in fact, “The Tholian Web” is one of those rare cases where the updated CGI effects of the “remastered” version are a step down from the original. In particular, the decision to replace the distinctive, colorful Tholian ship models with the flat, dull, gray CGI models seen on Enterprise is completely mystifying.
I dig any and all conflict between Spock and McCoy, because Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley were always so great at playing off each other, but the crux of their disagreement in this episode makes no sense. I’m pretty sure that if Kirk had still been in command, and Spock had been the one who vanished, Kirk would have pretty much done all the same things to rescue him. On this show, McCoy often butted heads with Spock over his slavish adherence to logic and lack of emotion, but what Spock did here was very much the emotional thing to do. The logical thing would have been to haul ass out of there as soon as the Tholians fired on them to save the rest of the crew.
And all of McCoy’s accusations that Spock was executing some kind of power ploy were overly harsh and way out of character. I suppose it can be blamed on that weird area of space they were in, but I tend to think it’s more the product of two first-time writers who didn’t understand the characters that well. Spock straight up lying to Kirk about not having watched his final orders at the end is also a bit odd for him.
But probably the biggest factor in how the episode turned out is how original director Ralph Senensky was fired a few days into filming, apparently for falling behind schedule due to difficulties dealing with those bulky silver spacesuits (though Senensky himself thinks Paramount was just making an example out of him). With another director coming in at the last minute to finish the job, it’s no surprise that a few plot threads were left dangling.
Perhaps all those unanswered questions is why this particular episode got a follow-up nearly forty years later. And now, thanks to Enterprise, we know exactly where the Defiant went: To the Mirror Universe, 100 years in the past. I know, it’s just so obvious, right? Which means it’s time for me to head once more unto the breach, and recap another episode of the weakest Star Trek series of them all, featuring a captain who’s an incompetent boob in both universes. Can’t wait.