Star Trek: The Original Series

"Dagger of the Mind"

3.5 stars

Air date: 11/3/1966
Written by S. Bar-David
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Kirk, along with psychiatric expert Dr. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill), investigates the methods of Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory), a penal colony administrator who is using unique technology to control and terrorize his patients. The story's tech device is a "neural neutralizer," which allows Adams to cause great pain in patients who disobey him. No points for guessing that at one point in the story Kirk ends up as one of the "patients."

Acting gets the job done in an episode like this. When your neural neutralizer is no more than a little plastic dome on the ceiling with a rotating light in it, you need acting to sell the idea of it causing extreme pain, loss of will, and submission to an authority. Shatner is enjoyable to watch in such a situation, though the true praise deserves to go to Morgan Woodward as the tortured Dr. Van Gelder, who has been forced into deep madness by Adams' "therapy."

The Trek franchise's first mind meld confirms Spock's suspicions that Van Gelder is a victim rather than the problem. "Dagger" is one of those episodes that looks at the side of Trek that rarely manages to rear its head—that of analyzing violent tendencies and the potential madness and corruptibility of people. And by the end, the little plastic dome is actually a pretty terrifying object.

Previous episode: Miri
Next episode: The Corbomite Maneuver

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24 comments on this review

David Brilliance
Mon, Nov 1, 2010, 5:39am (UTC -5)
Watching `Dagger of the Mind', the thing that struck me most was how sick it was to have a woman (Helen Noel) in a very short skirt, black tights, blue panties clearly on view, walking around in a prison for the criminally-insane where a machine is being used to drive people mad, and mixed with scenes of a sweaty, raving madman (Van Gelder). Put a woman wearing a sexy costume into a grim scenario like this, and you end up with something that is kinky/sick, and done for Gene Roddenberry's titillation, as we now know he had a thing about women in short skirts. Im not complaining mind, this is just an observation.
Tue, Jul 17, 2012, 8:25pm (UTC -5)
I'm glad it wasn't just me...Dr. Noel's skirt was shorter than the usual ones, which are plenty short enough. I've worked in mental hospitals and prisons, and that would not be considered appropriate dress. The male prisoners are still men who get very little sexual contact--why walk around looking like a Starfleet centerfold?
Plain Simple
Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 1:44am (UTC -5)
I just watched the episode again, and by the end I couldn't help but wonder if they had somehow reset the changes made to Kirk's mind in the episode. Or is he still madly in love with Dr. Noel?
Mon, May 6, 2013, 2:36am (UTC -5)
Yeah, the neuralizer didn't seem to have that much of an effect on Kirk, given how (relatively) easily he managed to resist it's effects both while in the chair, and afterward.
Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 11:03pm (UTC -5)
Wasnt van gelder the same dude that led the comms against the yangs? Guy plays a good nut.

But not good enough as this one never broke out of the middle of the pack. Just a double.
Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 2:10pm (UTC -5)
They met at the Christmas party. I guess it was the only mention of such a Christian holiday in the ST-universe ever. But why the hell did they have to name Dr. Noel that way? Made me think she was some illusion in the first place, something written into Kirk's mind.
Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 10:54am (UTC -5)
This was a great episode. I feel like this episode and what are little girls made of are James Bondish. Kirk goes on a mission with an attractive crewmember and must stop a scientist well in this case doctor. The only thing that was missing in the episode was Kirk having a bedroom scene with Dr. Noel at the end giving her a performance review.

A missed opportunity for this episode is not making this a Kirk and Uhura episode. It would had been a great way to flesh out here character. They could had easily added a line saying Uhura spent time working at one of these places. Of course the love plot would had to been deleted.
Wed, Nov 26, 2014, 6:07am (UTC -5)
I really enjoyed this episode, and I agree with the rating. The brainwashing/memory-inducing machine reflects the times, when treatment for the mentally ill commonly involved lobotomy and eletro-shock therapy [the latter of which is, yes, still used today, but not as much as it was then]. It also reflects the fact that such treatments, and the conditions of mental institutions, were beginning to be perceived as controversial and highly problematic.

The mental undoing and death of the sick-minded Dr. Adams was particularly poignant, as was Kirk's expressions at the end of the show. It showed that, while he was able to fight the effects somewhat, this "therapy" will stick with him for some time...

...Which makes it unlikely that Dr. Van Gelder would be so quickly reinstated as head of the appropriately-named Tantalus IV Penal Colony. I should think that Van Gelder would need a few weeks or months of real therapy to bring him back to a better state of mind. Or maybe that mind-meld worked wonders on him (which makes one wonder what the long-term effects might have been on Spock).

The only minus for this episode was Dr. Noel (who met Kirk at the Xmas party, har har), the ditzy doctor who is too thick and arrogant to clue into the things that Kirk is noticing about the inmates at Tantalus. At least she was pretty competent in getting the power turned off and kicking the other guy's arse into the high-voltage power unit. Damn, girl, that was smooth!

One small plus that makes up for Dr. Noel's blue panties being visible under her mini-mini skirt is Lethe's really nice poncho dress. I'd kind of like to have me one o' those.

Also, on another topic, I remember what handle I had before - it was Lal. But it's easier to just go by Beth now. :)

Sat, Dec 27, 2014, 1:47am (UTC -5)
Uh....did anyone else think this episode was really boring?
Fri, Mar 13, 2015, 8:30am (UTC -5)
If you think so, say so and say why. Own your opinion.
Tue, Jun 2, 2015, 4:25pm (UTC -5)
Episode earns points for building tension and a thrilling climax. However, it loses points for inadequate narrative exposition. So many unanswered questions. What success has the doctor had other than his creepy machine? Is the suggestion that the machine accounts for all the doctor's success?

Still, it works as weird parable.

By the way, re: short skirt in prison: while Dr. Noel's short skirt may not have been in good taste, her choice to wear the attire is consistent her viewpoint in the story. It's clear Dr. Noel feels comfortable in the prison and that 23rd century prisons are not comparable to prisons of our day. With that said, the episode also issues a cautionary warning about Utopian prisons.

Skirt aside, I liked the inclusion of a romantic backstory for Kirk. Also, I think the original series could have benefited from more female professionals in the regular cast.
Tue, Jun 2, 2015, 4:54pm (UTC -5)
Edit: in above post, when I said "What success has the doctor had other than his creepy machine?" I meant "What success has the doctor had apart from the conversions made possible by the creepy machine." Of course, "success," may not be the right word. In any case, in the episode, it appears as if the doctor is completely dependent on the machine for any success he may have had. I would commend the episode more if his contributions to his field were better explained.
Sun, Nov 29, 2015, 3:11pm (UTC -5)
Good episode. Mccoy have concerns and Kirk fulfils his task.
Regarding Dr Noels skirt, Well we are in two different times late 1960 and 23 Century. Obviously the length was appropriate in those times.
Sun, Jul 17, 2016, 5:23pm (UTC -5)
This one reminds me an awful lot of What Are Little Girls Made Of. In both cases, we have a genius on a relatively isolated planet who tries to take over the universe (or whatever) with a classic sci-fi schtick, feeling completely morally justified the entire time. In Girls it was androids, here it's brainwashing. Which one's better? I think this one, but it's hard to tell.

On the one hand, Girls was, well, cheesy as heck. But that did serve to give it some charm. Whether it was the ridiculous red shirt deaths, the spinning cloning machine, or Kirk kissing an android into malfunctioning, the episode can at least be entertaining in a camp-like atmosphere. In contrast, there really isn't that much to laugh at in this episode, other than the silliness of Dr. Noel meeting Kirk at a Christmas party and some of Van Gelding's acting. So when this episode slows down, it can get a bit more boring than Girls.

But on the other hand, I think this episode is more internally consistent than Girls. The ending there seemed kinda rushed. Kirk manages to make Andrea malfunction in a manner of 2 minutes, then makes Ruk switch sides, and then suddenly reveals that the fiance has been an android all along, who then kills himself for no reason. Maybe I just didn't get it, but the resolution of that episode just made me go "huh?". Here, though, the plot plays out reasonably well. You get the sense that the brainwashing isn't complete, and so can understand why Van Gelder is the way he is. The plot resolution, with Noel trying to shut everything down while Spock tries to piece everything together while Kirk tries to stay alive, is reasonable enough. It's this episode's main strength, as the story is understandable and consistent. Note that that isn't saying all that much.

There are, however, two things that bug me:

1) What was the point of brainwashing Kirk into thinking he was in love with Noel? It didn't seem to do much to stop him afterwards, since he was able to think rationally enough and come up with a plan to save them once Noel and Kirk were alone. The obvious conflict I saw - that Kirk might put his brainwashed love of Noel ahead of his duty - never showed up. He even ordered Noel into a serious, dangerous situation! So what was Adams's plan? Why did he let Kirk go free so much?

2) What, exactly, was Adams's motivation? Brainwashing criminals as a way of rehabilitation, I can understand (not agreeing with it, just understanding the motivation). Brainwashing Van Gelding when he presumably objected and tried to out Adams, ok. Brainwashing Kirk once he discovers the truth, ok... But again, what's with the elaborate "you're in love with Noel" bit? If the purpose of wiping Van Gelder and Kirk's brains are simply to cover up his tracks, shouldn't Kirk's brainwashing be as simple as possible? "You investigated and found nothing unusual." Repeat for Noel. Voila, done. He seemed to switch over to maniacal villain at the end, just so that we could see our heroes take him down. Thus, I wasn't impressed with him as a character. It just seemed like an excuse to do a brainwashing show. A pretty decent brainwashing show, but an excuse nonetheless.
Sun, Aug 14, 2016, 6:20am (UTC -5)
Air conditioning ducting large enough to stroll around in cliche
Fri, Jan 20, 2017, 3:34pm (UTC -5)
Enjoyable episode although what I don't understand is what is Dr. Adams' purpose in harming Kirk with the NN? Did he think he could brainwash Kirk to the extent he did Van Gelder? It doesn't seem he has some grandiose plans going beyond his world. In the beginning he comes off as very normal and even helpful, but his sinister side just seems to come up at the flick of a switch later in the episode.

Woodward's acting of Van Gelder is excellent as a mind tormented by the NN and the Spock/McCoy efforts to uncover the truth on the ship while Kirk is on the planet trying to do the same is an interesting dynamic. Dr. Noel is mostly unprofessional by not bringing more scepticism to the investigation initially, but she proves her worth in the end.

Overall, I thought the episode moved pretty well - there was purpose to each scene and good ending without anything too farfetched. For me, 3.5/4 stars in this well thought out episode.
Tue, Mar 7, 2017, 1:32pm (UTC -5)
I liked this one a lot, even though it had its flaws. The set design was pretty basic, and I thought the Van Gelder guy could have toned it down a little (seemed like he was 11/10 crazy with every single line delivery). But the resolution was good, both with Noel fending for herself to save the day, and Kirk's meditations on the machine's effects.
Peter G.
Mon, May 15, 2017, 11:30am (UTC -5)
@ Skeptical,

I agree that Adams seemed to be off his rocker trying to brainwash Kirk, and so my guess is that he was a Bond villain type who thought that once he perfected the NN technique he could brainwash a Starfleet captain and...eventually take over the Federation? I guess if he could make an army of actual slaves this way it could be plausible, but it would have been nicer for him to have an actual motivation (the Federation screwed him over, etc.) rather than just pure mayhem.

However I think there's a reasonable explanation for why his first attempt on Kirk was to make him believe he loved Noel. Presumably he knew that subjects could resist to variable degrees, and so his first priority would be to break down that resistance by getting through to the subject in the easiest way possible. In Kirk's case he probably surmised (correctly) that Kirk found Noel attractive, and so it wasn't that hard a sell to convince Kirk's mind to accept that he loved her. If his first fake memory had been something less believable (e.g. that Kirk was a hamster) he might have trigger stronger defences in Kirk's mind. But once he could get access through the lie of love for Noel the idea would then be to ramp up the things he'd feed to Kirk's mind. We can sort of see him lose perspective on how to ramp it up properly when, in the next session, he tries to get right down to business and Kirk resists strenuously. But I guess the initial technique was sound, in giving Kirk something believable...or even believe for a first session.

Which kind of leads to what I think the episode hints at but fails to explain properly, which is why the colony is named Tantalus in the script. Based on the story we might assume it's just a vague reference to people being tormented by Adams in a kind of hell, but I think it's more than just that. Tantalus was tormented in Tartarus specifically by being shown things he wanted and being denied them by the tormentor. The episode is about futuristic attempts to rehabilitation through giving patients that which they crave - making the bad memories go away, or even giving them pleasant memories to replace them. The lady near the beginning of the episode claims, in a zombie-like way, that she's happy to have had her memories taken away from her. But the episode seems to me to be hinting at the fact that sometimes giving people what they think they want would be a worse torment than withdrawing it. 'Curing' people by creating fantasies in their head might sound appealing to some, but a dystopian take on it would be that it would be easy to manipulate this technique to control people, which is exactly what happens here. So maybe Adams is 'evil' only because the episode needed to show that messing with peoples' brains is something that could end up harming the public good in the end. One reason why we expect Kirk accepted being in love with Noel so easily is that it was something he instinctively wanted but was denying himself through willpower. So Adams could quite easily feed him that fantasy (like the grapes of Tantalus) and Kirk would reach for it. But the problem is that actually getting what one reaches for in this particular hell is what leads to becoming a zombie; that gratification of the fantasy takes away freedom.

So we might conclude from this that the episode is actually cautionary about a future in which people think they can simply take away pain and discomfort and give people everything they want. Actually I find a decent chunk of TOS is like this, where the utopian setting of the show is challenged by individual scripts that point out serious dangers in too much paradise. Kirk often ends up as a sort of agent of chaos in this sense, shaking things up and freeing the human spirit of freedom, which is strikingly different from TNG where the series for the most part has drank the Kool-Aid and believes everything is perfect. I don't know whether this is because writers snuck this stuff in under Gene's nose in TOS, or whether Gene lost perspective by the time of TNG. Maybe he really had less to do with the show's 'message' than he always claimed.
Dark Kirk
Sat, Jun 3, 2017, 9:43pm (UTC -5)
Appropriately eerie and Twilight-Zone-y ironic ending for the villain "mind emptied by that thing". It worked for me.
Tue, Aug 1, 2017, 8:43pm (UTC -5)
@graham: "Air conditioning ducting large enough to stroll around in cliche"

Sign of the times, and probably many were as large back then in RL.

Two more quick examples circa the 1960's?
---Mission: Impossible
---Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

You're right, tho. Cliche. ;)

Although if we wanted to stay completely true to life, and had each series continued into today (although I could not have watched a new "monster of the week" for 50 more years that Voyage had degenerated), suffice to say there's a good chance Captain Crane, Barney (especially Barney), and the very attractive Dr. Helen would be dealing with an asbestos-related disease which, sadly, will see peak mortality within the next three years per the CDC (2020).

Apologies for the dour note. A quick revisit of the Helen Noel scenes should cure that, unlike Mesothelioma which has no cure. OMG, I did it again. Okay.

Helen Noel. Helen Noel. Helen Noel. Get thru the duct quickly, Helen!


Helen Noel. Helen Noel. Helen Noel.
Peter G.
Wed, Aug 2, 2017, 9:16am (UTC -5)
...that's not all he's lost.
Trek fan
Thu, Sep 21, 2017, 8:29pm (UTC -5)
Star Trek does prison reform, a great episode underlining how there's no humane way to reform people through incarceration and "re-education" brainwashing. Although it's a shame that Dr. Adams dies before we learn his motives for being a mad scientist, the point here the Utopian people are often the most violent feels like a salutary lesson, and the episode is so darn well-executed that it covers this little gap. Also, as I've said before, there's no need to over-explain everything in Trek like the later series tend to do -- there's some enjoyment in the ambiguity of imagining that Dr. Adams simply got obsessed in the quest to remove "negative memories" (as he puts it early in the show) from people's minds, driving him to brainwash people entirely. I give this one 3 1/2 stars.

The pacing is excellent, with Morgan Woodward's great performance as the tortured doctor driven mad (much better than his Captain Tracey is the disappointing "Omega Glory") ratcheting up the tension early on -- the security manhunt for him is well-paced. Dr. Helen Noel is a great character -- TOS was way ahead of its time in presenting women doctors as guest stars -- who has a spunky chemistry with Kirk and (literally) kicks some butt in helping to save the day at the end. She makes for a very capable female character on Trek, perhaps the best so far in the series at this point in Season One, and it's understandable that she's fooled by Adams since he knows how to present things in professional language she understands while the non-technical Kirk struggles to reconcile it with little things he observes. Rings true for anyone who has ever sensed a disconnect between the words and actions of a doctor, as professional colleagues are likelier to excuse questionable deeds in one another than laymen are. Intriguing to me that Noel apparently caught Kirk in a vulnerable and lonely moment at the science lab Christmas party, but that the interaction (as we learn later when she plants false memories in Kirk while testing the machine) stopped just short of crossing professional boundaries and that Noel (not unlike many psychiatrists) playfully enjoys the discomfort her flirting continues to cause Kirk. And yet at the same time, she's all business when Kirk is brainwashed into thinking he loves her, resisting the temptation to indulge him for even a moment and confirming that she has no real designs on her -- smart lady.

Another thing that makes this episode great is the two-level storytelling where both elements actually blend and build the tension. In too many episodes of Star Trek where the landing party gets separated from the ship, including TOS, the shipboard scenes devolve into obvious filler where the crew tries and fails to find the missing team -- or else, on TNG, the filler unspools in cute irrelevant moments on the holodeck whenever we cut away from the A-story. But in "Dagger of the Mind," the shipboard B-story actually flows nicely with the underground prison A-story, as Trek's first mind meld (Spock with Van Gelder) is pretty compelling and keeps us on edge as we wonder whether the ship or Kirk will be first to find out what Adams is really up to. The McCoy-Spock dynamic on the ship is highly entertaining as they work the problem from their end, while the Kirk-Noel dynamic on the planet is also pretty darn compelling, including the creepy vacant stares of Lethe and the other "staff" at the prison who seem to have lost their affective vitality. Clearly Adams has deprived them of their humanity in taking away their negative emotions and replacing them with his own commands. Intriguing stuff to ponder. The creepy scenes of the neural neutralizer chair -- after seeing the operator cruelly test it on a patient, one squirms later when Kirk sits to "test" it -- and the final demise of Adams linger in the memory.

No Sulu or Scotty in this one and Uhura has a very small part. So perhaps not among my absolute favorites in Trek, as I tend to prefer episodes where the whole regular ensemble (minus Chekov in this season) get to shine. But "Dagger of the Mind" is a tense and well-paced show that manages to remain compelling in cross-cutting between its A-story and B-story, connecting them more seamlessly than many Trek episodes of any series. And it raises some thoughtful questions about the moral limitations of wiping people's minds -- shades of A Clockwork Orange -- to remove their violent tendencies and about the corrupting power of such methods on the one who controls those minds. Pretty good Star Trek here.

Zita Carno
Fri, Dec 22, 2017, 10:31pm (UTC -5)
This was a very good, suspenseful psychological thriller on all counts. Morgan Woodward did a fantastic job as the former assistant who escaped and demanded asylum,and it was wrenching to see how he was fighting the pain as he tried to tell Kirk and McCoy about what had happened. And much credit must go to McCoy---even as he called himself an old country doctor, he actually pushed Spock to try the Vulcan mind meld; as we all know, Vulcans are a telepathic species and Spock was one of the most powerful. What we saw here in that scene was actually a type of telepathic hypnosis; he recognized that strong suggestions of well-being and relaxation and a sense of weightlessness, of zero gravity, were needed to get van Gelder calm enough to tell Spock what had happened to him. This, I believe, was the turning point of the whole episode. I have seen this procedure, with and without physical contact, be a lifesaver in a variety of Star Trek episodes.
Zita Carno
Thu, Jan 4, 2018, 5:08pm (UTC -5)
A further comment: As I was watching this episode I was reminded of something I had read in a Sherlock Holmes story; he had observed that "When a doctor goes wrong, he is the first of criminals." I also remembered an expression I have run into a number of times: "Hoist by his own petard"---and I thought that this was wxactly what happened to Dr, Tristan Adams. He had fallen victim to his own nefarious machinations. Again, a very good Trek story on many levels.

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