Tom’s Unpopular Opinion: “Spock’s Brain” is not as bad as you think
When talking about bad episodes of the original Star Trek, sadly there are plenty of candidates. And what people think of as the worst depends on matter of taste. We all have our “favorites”, and I think for most when it comes to the original series, the two that rise to the top (or sink to the bottom, depending on your point of view) are “The Way to Eden” and “Spock’s Brain”. I won’t go into all the ways “Eden” sucks both as a Star Trek episode and as entertainment in general. I mean, yeah, in a way it’s entertaining, but surely not in the way the producers intended.
But what about “Spock’s Brain”, that much maligned and mocked episode? The Daystrom Institute gave it a zero out of five, Ex Astris Scientia’s score was 1/10, as was SF Debris’ rating. I respect the opinions of these reviewers, as well as Winston’s recap of the episode (and for only five bucks, you can unlock his recap as well as a ton of other classic material on the site. A fin, a fiver, half a sawbuck gets you a lot at the Booth), but is “Spock’s Brain” really that bad? I think not.
First of all, I won’t hold its production values against the episode; compared to modern Trek, the Original Series is always going to come up short. It was a different era where TV programs operated on tighter budgets and had to produce more episodes a year than what we normally see now. Costumes often looked cheap, furniture on sets was purchased at retailers rather than built specifically for episodes, and the special effects were bad. And HD streaming hasn’t been TOS’s friend in this regard, as you can now clearly see body doubles standing in for Shatner and others during many fight scenes. So yeah, tearing into the Original Series for its production values is low-hanging fruit; people who do that are just as likely to trash original Doctor Who episodes because the monsters were covered in tin foil and alien worlds were often shot at stone quarries in Wales.
No, what I want to focus on is the story. A quick breakdown of the plot is as follows: a lovely woman transports onto the Enterprise from an alien spacecraft…
…and knocks everyone unconscious. She then steals Spock’s brain, while leaving his body in sickbay for… reasons.
Dr. McCoy is able to keep Spock’s body alive, but only for a short while, so Kirk leads the ship in pursuit of the alien vessel and its pilot. Arriving at a system with three habitable planets, Kirk picks the (apparently) least advanced one and discovers men live above the surface in primitive conditions…
…while the women live below in an advanced complex where they keep men as slaves, using special belts that deliver horrific pain if they step out of line.
Kirk, Scotty, and McCoy escape (of course) and discover Spock’s brain is being used to manage the city’s infrastructure, including the heat, light, plumbing, etc. They also discover the woman who stole the brain, who seemed as simpleminded as the others, employed a special device that temporarily boosted her intellect. McCoy uses the same device…
…and with his new hyper-knowledge, he begins to re-install Spock’s brain. And as his enhanced intellect starts to fail, Spock helps him to finish the job.
Okay, look, I’m not going to say this episode is by any stretch “good”, but at least it isn’t awkwardly timely (e.g. “The Way to Eden”), and it’s not a clip show (e.g. The Next Generation’s “Shades of Gray”) or well, outright stupid (i.e. Deep Space Nine‘s “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”). And it doesn’t play fast and loose with science to the point where the plot becomes a laughable joke (i.e. Voyager’s “Threshold”). As bad as “Spock’s Brain” is, there are (sadly) far worse Star Trek episodes.
But what’s good about it? I’m glad you asked. First of all, let’s address the apparent idiocy of the women. I don’t deny it’s a sexist aspect of the story, especially when you consider the male whom Kirk interrogates on the surface seems much more articulate in comparison and has a lot more going on upstairs. But when you’re living in a society where your every need is provided and there’s no impetus to learn and grow, and where there isn’t an effective education system, doesn’t your brain atrophy? Honestly, go to Twitter and see some serious ignorance play out. “What is brain?” one of the women asks. Well, if no one is teaching basic anatomy or biology, then what kind of answer are you expecting? And doesn’t being forced to live on the surface in a harsh environment where you have to constantly struggle to survive make your wits sharper? The stupid die; that’s Darwinism in action.
Is it possible that writer/producer Gene L. Coon (using the pseudonym Lee Cronin) was penning a criticism of modern society, that Western culture had become too soft? More recently, we’ve seen something similar from Mike Judge and his movie Idiocracy. You might say that Coon was a better producer than writer, and it’s true that he was responsible for such scripts as the cringeworthy “Metamorphosis” and “Bread and Circuses”. But he also penned “Devil in the Dark” and “Errand of Mercy”, as well as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. And let’s not forget one of my favorites from season three, the minimalist masterpiece known as “Spectre of the Gun”. The point is, the women are childlike because they’ve been living like children. Didn’t we see something similar in the classic story/film The Time Machine, where the child-like Eloi were utterly ignorant because the Morlocks saw to their every need?
I guess because it’s only the women who are seen as ignorant, this element of the story is derided, and I can agree that’s a valid complaint. I just don’t think that sexism was the motive here.
Speaking of The Time Machine, let’s look deeper at that particular trope of the failed or twisted civilization which splits into two factions, one often existing in harsh and barbaric conditions, the other in high-tech splendor, and in which the latter often preys upon the former. We’ve seen stories like this in different TV episodes such as Doctor Who’s “The Face of Evil” and “The Savages” (one of the few episodes of the original run preserved on video and not lost to BBC short-sightedness) and Space: 1999’s “Mission of the Darians”, as well as movies like Metropolis and Zardoz. Star Trek even did it again the same season in “The Cloud Minders”, and later to a degree in The Next Generation’s “Symbiosis”. It’s still seen in modern science fiction such as The Hunger Games, with the citizens of Panem living in harsh, subsistence level conditions while those in the Capitol enjoy decadent splendor, the Matt Damon film Elysium, and the TV series Firefly. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and in almost every case, the primitive culture is seen as the more noble and less corrupt. And where was this trope first seen on American TV? On Star Trek, probably?
Ah, okay. The Twilight Zone might have done it a few years earlier with the episode “To Serve Man”. But there’s no shame in second when it’s the Twilight Zone‘s dust you’re eating. Regardless, when people talk about “Spock’s Brain”, this concept is never discussed. It’s always about how the women are portrayed, or lines like “Jim, his brain is missing!” The worst elements of the episode overshadow any and all interesting plot points.
High-tech/primitive cultures or power disparity aren’t the only parts of the episode I find of interest. When Kirk and company come to find out what happened to Spock’s (presumably) gray matter, they deliberately walk into a trap to gain entry into the facility below. This implies the women captured the men, and all those guys down below used to be free. Which means there are likely no men raised below. So what happens to the male children? I think the first season Rick and Morty episode “Raising Gazorpazorp” answers this question:
Yes, they’re sent to the surface to be raised by the other males. It’s a pretty horrific thought when you consider it. I mean, what if the men above only take in kids when they feel like it? How many babies were left to die in the harsh, bitter cold? Or worse? That kind of puts a horrific spin on this society, doesn’t it?
Now, let’s take the issue of Spock’s brain being repurposed to run a civilization’s infrastructure. Honestly, I can’t think of any time that concept was used bef—wait. Checking the list of Twilight Zone episodes… Nope! Better check The Outer Limits to be sure… Okay, I’m almost certain this way-cool sci-fi high-concept plot element was at the time unique. I don’t even think Doctor Who used it at that point. And this concept also just gets lost in the shuffle as people concentrate on stuff like “They are the bringers of pain and delight”. A dude’s brain is running a city, man!
And then there’s the matter of Kara, the civilization’s leader and chief antagonist.
She seems like a contradiction, doesn’t she? She steals a stranger’s brain, but then leaves it in sickbay. If she knows at that point that stealing the brain will effectively kill the body, then why bother? Unless it’s meant as a gesture of respect for the dead, or regret. For all we know, this is what’s done with the bodies of the dead in her culture: they’re taken to the medical center for repair or disposal. Kara doesn’t seem like a cruel person, only one driven by necessity. You see how easy it was to fix that plot hole? Simply add a reasonable motive.
Finally, we have the, well, finale, where Kirk shuts down the whole operation, supposedly once again violating the Prime Directive. But is he? A warp-capable ship shows up and starts attacking passing vessels and stealing first officers’ brains. That’s not Kirk interfering with their culture; that’s Kara’s culture interfering with others. Kirk is the equivalent of the county sheriff; he can’t let brain rustlers roam around loose. And Kirk has seen this sort of thing before in “Return of the Archons”, where primitive people are manipulated by some prior age’s technological advancements and stagnating, and never moving forward. And who’s to say Kirk just walks away afterward? In “Archons”, Jim leaves behind experts to help the civilization. It’s likely he did the same here to ensure that there was at least some sort of transition to a functioning society. What that society would look like is anyone’s guess, but at least there wouldn’t be any more stolen brains or men enslaved with pain belts.
When looking at this episode and then comparing it to modern Star Trek, what I’m struck by is that, while this script has potentially good ideas executed poorly, at least they feel ambitious. Coon introduced plenty of unique or little-used science fiction concepts to the Original Series, which is one of the reasons why it’s endured for so long. When Star Trek: Discovery first started, there was the question as to whether or not the producers had stolen concepts from other writers. It went back to the Mirror Universe well; The principal bad guys were Klingons and the likes of Harry Mudd. There didn’t seem to be any fresh ideas. Picard relied heavily on nostalgia, and arguably its plot borrowed heavily from the Mass Effect game. Star Trek went from being a series that boldly went to one that timidly retreaded. Say what you will about “Spock’s Brain”, but at least people are still talking about it decades later. Does anyone honestly feel modern Trek will be remembered at all a generation from now?