This is the one I have waited for with greatest anticipation.
I feel a need to preface this article by stating that this episode I am about to review is not only my favorite in all of the Star Trek canon, it is my favorite television episode of all time. Bear that in mind as you proceed, and prepare for me to go into a geeky amount of detail during this review. Is all of it going to be necessary? No. Will it be fun? For me, yes.
As a child, the action and suspense in this episode was enough to keep me enthralled. The legendary Sol Kaplan score affected me back then in a way that I didn’t fully understand, but can appreciate now. This to me is Trek space action at its best. “The City On the Edge of Forever” is the best dramatic piece of the show, and “The Trouble With Tribbles” is easily the best comedy to be had in the series, so why does “The Doomsday Machine” beat those out for my favorite?
Although the aforementioned episodes absolutely have moral lessons to be gleaned from them, while they showcase the Original Series cast chemistry beautifully, while their pacing never wavers, it is in “The Doomsday Machine” where I feel the Trek signature of social allegory is better utilized. Said allegory, this one about weapons of mass destruction, is woven into a science fiction action story that is equal parts wondrous and terrifying, with an incredibly well-realized guest character that is both sympathetic and an antagonistic force for our heroes. Writers take note: this episode is your guide on how to make effective guest characters.
It all starts when the Enterprise investigates star system L-370, and later L-374, following a trail of destruction while on the lookout for her missing sister ship, Constellation. The latter is found as a broken wreck in a star system with all but two of its planets annihilated. Kirk and an away team beam over to find only one survivor, Commodore Matt Decker. After Decker comes to in Constellation’s wrecked auxiliary control room (since the ship’s bridge is uninhabitable), he informs Kirk of the awful truth: an automated ship of immense size and power destroyed L-374’s third planet, shortly after Decker ordered his crew to abandon ship and beam down to said planet. Cut off from them, Decker was forced to listen to his crew beg him for help as they and the planet they were on were devoured by an ancient planet killing machine.
William Windom as Decker is key in selling the drama of this situation. He portrays Decker as a good man who is devastated by his error in judgment. It is reasonable to assume he didn’t anticipate that the planet killer could destroy worlds so quickly (it was attacking the fourth planet of L-374 when Constellation moved in). He might’ve figured beaming the crew away to avoid casualties (if the ship came under further attack) was better while he tried to repair his ship enough to get a warning out to Starfleet. We don’t know exactly how long Decker was left alone, but it is safe to assume this a guy who is not only traumatized, but also suffering from fatigue and malnutrition. Windom nails his portrayal of a tortured, beaten man who acted with the best intentions and feels that he failed everyone he was sworn to protect.
This all comes to a head in spectacular fashion when Decker is taken back to the Enterprise, and the planet killer reappears before he can be given a medical examination.
This is not what you want to see behind you.
When the machine attacks, Enterprise is cut off from Constellation, the damage enough to keep transporters and communications from cutting through the planet killer’s massive subspace distortion field. Without input from Kirk, Spock is forced to make a decision: confront the machine before it moves on the nearest star system (the heavily populated Rigel system) or go back for the away team and try to escape the distortion field so Starfleet can be alerted.
When Spock chooses the latter, Decker steps in, exercising his authority as a Commodore to commandeer the Enterprise. This sets off a conflict between Spock and Decker that is amazing to watch, as Spock grills the Commodore with brutal Vulcan honesty, yet ultimately acquiesces for the sake of following regulations. It’s obvious to us, to McCoy, and doubtless Spock as well, that Decker is unhinged at this point, desperate to avenge his slain crew. However, his motivation to protect Rigel is altruistic and in keeping with Starfleet’s duty, so it’s difficult to be completely against Decker. The verbal sparring between Spock, McCoy, and Decker is a pleasure to watch here. It does beg the question of why Starfleet regulations didn’t demand for Decker to undergo examination before assuming command, but after what follows I suspect that’s a rule that was reexamined.
Decker orders the Enterprise to attack the planet killer, in a fashion that certainly echoes Moby Dick, albeit with an understandable motivation. Meanwhile, Kirk, stuck on the Constellation, works with Scotty and a damage control team to salvage the battered hulk into some semblance of useful again. The redress of the Enterprise sets for the Constellation are well done considering the budget, and that the producers couldn’t afford to do any real damage to their sets. It’s a testament to the Constitution-class and to Scotty’s engineering wizardry that the ship ends up moving under her own power again, and the sensors are repaired just in time for Kirk to see his ship battle the planet killer. When Constellation gets going again, there is a bit of a campy moment where William Shatner and James Doohan toss themselves around the sets. It is silly, but it does sell the fact that the ship they’re on is a mess at best (of course it looks like Scotty either forgot to turn the inertial dampeners back on or they weren’t ready for Kirk’s “full ahead” command).
Though awesome to watch, the battle in L-374 is not much of a fair fight. Phasers bounce off the planet killer’s nutronium hull without leaving a scratch, while the machine beats the Enterprise into submission with a devastating anti-proton beam. Though this was all fun to watch with the original effects, in the remastered episode, the struggle between our heroes’ ship and the planet killer is much more dynamic (instead of the two charging at each other straight on, we now see Enterprise moving about, trying to find a weak spot, but the planet killer outmaneuvers her, and brings down her shields in short order). This is all set to the tingle-inducing score composed by Sol Kaplan, that was so awesome at building suspense and suggesting a terror in the great deep, it later influenced (or was at least paralleled by) a little movie called Jaws.
Battle in L-374
I normally am not one to condone seeing the hard work and relatively well done original special effects tampered with or replaced in any given show or movie. I am more lenient on Trek because in instances like this they do help the story, and also, on the Blu-Ray sets, the new and old effects are allowed to exist side-by-side, instead of one replacing the other as though it never existed (I’m looking at you, Lucas).
Constellation ends up saving Enterprise before the latter is swallowed by the planet killer, and when contact is reestablished between the two ships, one of the best confrontations in franchise history goes down between Kirk and Decker. Decker technically outranks Kirk, but I gather that Kirk’s personal authority over the Enterprise is not something that a Commodore can overrule without good cause, evidenced by how quickly Decker backs down when Kirk orders Spock to assume command. We get some all time quotable lines in this exchange: “blast regulations!” and “Vulcans never bluff” being my favorites.
Decker can’t deal with the latest failure and humiliation. Rather than submit for medical examination, he attacks his security escort, steals a shuttle, and sends it on a collision course with the planet killer. In an intense scene, William Windom goes even deeper with the magnitude of Decker’s fall, allowing us to regain sympathy for this broken man who feels the weight of 400 deaths on his soul. Although it can be argued that his death is selfish, to free himself of his guilt, I’m sure at least part of him recognized that he was striking a final blow at the planet killer, and at worst, he was at least distracting it enough to let the Enterprise and Constellation get some breathing room. It’s a noble, sad, and wrenching scene, one of the best dramatic moments in the entire series. Kirk’s and Spock’s reactions are spot on.
Decker’s sacrifice does give Kirk the idea to perform the same act, only using a starship instead of a tiny shuttle, and of course beaming away in time to avoid death. It’s the epitome of Kirk to do something so brash and foolhardy, yet it is also exactly the best course of action to take in order to save Rigel. It’s a brave act, and sends us into an episode climax that I cannot refer to as anything but legendary. The score descends into a dark, cacophonous crescendo as Kirk stares into the same face of death as Decker, not wanting to die but ready to lay his life on the line to save untold numbers of innocents. Everything works together here in a masterful bit of editing, cut between shots of the Constellation speeding to her demise, to Kirk looking the planet killer in the eye, to Scotty making frantic repairs to the transporter, to Spock looking on while Sulu counts down. Even when you know Kirk will get beamed away at the last possible second like the flippant hero he is, the tension is palpable.
“And we used something like it to destroy another Doomsday Machine…”
Coming around in a full arc from the second act, the epilogue on the bridge once more brings up the allegory for nuclear weapons, certainly relevant to the Cold War era. It does, however, remain relevant today. The nuclear arms race may not be at its zenith like it was when this episode was made, but they haven’t gone away. Militaries and governments haven’t stopped working on ways to more efficiently kill other humans. The idea of a weapon so powerful that it could destroy both sides of a war then keep on killing is terrifying. The planet killer came from another galaxy (a case could be made for Andromeda, our closest galactic neighbor; more on that when we get to “By Any Other Name”), blindly increasing the casualty count for a war that in all likelihood lost all relevance eons ago. We already have weapons capable of annihilating our own world many times over. Is it so hard to believe that we could one day create something so unstoppable that it could have dire repercussions across time and space? Even if it seems preposterous, what harm is there is taking steps to keep such a thing firmly in the realm of absurdity and fiction?
The planet killer itself is a fascinating, truly alien piece of work. Yes, if you want to be silly, it kind of looks like a certain brand of crisp or a cornucopia. But if you think about being out in space, going up against a machine made out of impenetrable rock, that exists only to devour the living, and you’re on a ship that is barely a snack to it… it tends to shake away some of the levity for the thing’s appearance. Unfortunately, later uses of the machine in Trek have been less than interesting (to me at least), either throwing it in as a gimmick (like Star Trek: Online) or suggesting that it was originally designed to fight the Borg (though interesting, it’s not likely that a species outside the Milky Way would have cared about the Borg, especially when at that time the Collective either didn’t exist or was in its infancy). Of course, the planet killer has never appeared in another Trek episode or movie, so the above references are apocryphal anyway. We never learn much about the machine’s total conversion drive (the name implies to me that it either is able to perform total matter to energy conversion as its source of fuel, or it is able to convert its own mass or the field of subspace around it to achieve movement), or about its inner workings, but that doesn’t detract from an episode with expert editing, pacing, and a taut script.
I really can’t say enough about how much I love “The Doomsday Machine.” This is the most biased review I am ever going to write for this series, and I accept it wholeheartedly. There is no other episode I would recommend to a Trek newcomer over this one, and it to this day is teaching me lessons on how to write a damned effective piece of suspenseful action with nuanced characters and a powerful message that resonates across time. To me it doesn’t get any better than this. All of the thumbs up.
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