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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35 comments on this review

David Brilliance
Mon, Nov 1, 2010, 5:39am (UTC -6)
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.
Strider
Tue, Jul 17, 2012, 8:25pm (UTC -6)
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 -6)
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?
Alex
Mon, May 6, 2013, 2:36am (UTC -6)
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.
redshirt28
Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 11:03pm (UTC -6)
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.
Markus
Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 2:10pm (UTC -6)
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.
stallion
Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 10:54am (UTC -6)
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.
Beth
Wed, Nov 26, 2014, 6:07am (UTC -6)
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. :)

Nonya
Sat, Dec 27, 2014, 1:47am (UTC -6)
Uh....did anyone else think this episode was really boring?
DSL
Fri, Mar 13, 2015, 8:30am (UTC -6)
If you think so, say so and say why. Own your opinion.
Eli
Tue, Jun 2, 2015, 4:25pm (UTC -6)
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.
Eli
Tue, Jun 2, 2015, 4:54pm (UTC -6)
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.
Maq
Sun, Nov 29, 2015, 3:11pm (UTC -6)
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.
Skeptical
Sun, Jul 17, 2016, 5:23pm (UTC -6)
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.
graham
Sun, Aug 14, 2016, 6:20am (UTC -6)
Air conditioning ducting large enough to stroll around in cliche
Rahul
Fri, Jan 20, 2017, 3:34pm (UTC -6)
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.
Jonathon
Tue, Mar 7, 2017, 1:32pm (UTC -6)
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 -6)
@ 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 desirable...to 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 -6)
Appropriately eerie and Twilight-Zone-y ironic ending for the villain "mind emptied by that thing". It worked for me.
Bill
Tue, Aug 1, 2017, 8:43pm (UTC -6)
@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!

Argh!!

Helen Noel. Helen Noel. Helen Noel.
Peter G.
Wed, Aug 2, 2017, 9:16am (UTC -6)
...that's not all he's lost.
Trek fan
Thu, Sep 21, 2017, 8:29pm (UTC -6)
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 -6)
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 -6)
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.
ZITA CARNO
Thu, Jul 19, 2018, 2:27am (UTC -6)
This was the first instance of the use of the Vulcan mind-meld, and one thing must be mentioned: a lot of credit has to go to Dr.McCoy who pushed the reluctant Vulcan with the urgent "Will it work---or not?" Bones may have called himself an "old country doctor", but he was light-years ahead of everyone else, and knowing Spock's formidable mental powers he insisted that it be tried. And it worked; Spock actually used a combination of the mind-meld with telepathic hypnosis, delivering in a quiet half-whisper two strong suggestions of wellbeing and relaxation and weightless suspension ---and he got van Gelder calm enough to talk about his ordeal.
JTIBERIUS
Sat, Nov 24, 2018, 9:31pm (UTC -6)
in theory, dagger is my jam. It’s a sci-fi horror mystery tackling the ethics of penal colonies (even ‘resort penal colonies’), clockwork-orange-style behavioral control/personality & memory modification and the atrocity of medical abuses. these are high-level ethical concepts that resist easy arguments for and against, even from enlightened thinkers. what to do with offenders who are chronically unable to function in larger society is a question for the ages and no proposed solution can realistically serve the inmates and the larger human community both with perfect justice. while the episode doesn’t clarify whether tantalus colony also houses lower-level offenders with shorter-than-life sentences, i take the episode’s emphasis on psychiatric treatment and behavioral modification as a signal that the colony (or at least dr. adams’ department) is meant for habitual criminal insanity and not petty lawlessness--more mental institution than strictly punitive, run-of-the-mill detention facility. frankly, if that is not the case and the memory/behavior modification technology is also being used to ‘rehabilitate’ minor offenders i find the whole set-up even more insidious, and kirk’s out-the-gate hero worship of dr. adams comes off a bit like he drank the kool-aid and got convinced by some government propaganda. i mean, he sounds like joe kennedy talking up lobotomies at a fundraiser.

any way you slice it, this is where the episode fumbles. even if you accept kirk’s early defense of the good doctor’s humanitarian mission, this is where Dagger kicks off some of the most out-of-character writing for kirk we ever get. right away it sets him up for that really weird exchange with bones, where he shuts him down for suspecting something isn’t quite right--odd coming from a character whose gut-instincts are AT LEAST as responsible for his success as his intellect and who typically trusts the council of his friends (see head/heart/kirk triangle). especially since:
a) bones has ALREADY confirmed that the mad stowaway doesn’t have ‘any condition he is acquainted with’ but that he senses the ‘ring of truth’ in the disordered ravings (confirmed when the guy turns out to actually be who he claims)--hmm suspicious.
b) disturbed intruder dr. van gelder has ALREADY been confirmed to be a successful professional as recently as six months ago (and his only request is to not be taken back, why?)--highly suspicious,
c) tantalus colony (dr. adams) has ALREADY FLAT LIED to kirk--tantalus: ‘we are unable to locate one of our INMATES/this is a potentially violent CASE’ fast forward to--> kirk: ‘dr. adams, regarding your escaped man--’/adams: ‘is dr. van gelder alright?’--red alert. very fraking suspicious.
yet it still takes bones pulling rank and forcing jim to write a report AND prodding from spock to get him planetside. listen to his apologetic fawning when he gets back on with adams ‘...rather embarrassing...strict interpretation of regulation...required to investigate’ etc. he delivers ‘i’ve been to penal colonies before (kirksmirk)’ like an out-of-state security guard turning his citizen’s arrest over to the local authorities.

then the episode doubles down on kirk’s obliviousness in the whole dr. helen subplot, which is one of my least favorite of the kirk-pairings in the whole series. so far he doesn’t trust bones anymore (or his choice of personnel for the mission) and he definitely doesn’t trust dr. noel (or respect her expertise at all or even seem to respect her as a starfleet officer honestly). whatever happened at that christmas party, helen made a pretty bad impression beyond her nice yabos cuz kirk treats her like she’s an incompetent idiot who can’t keep things profesh--nevermind that five seconds into their mission (in the middle of scolding her for flirting) he practically jumps on her in the lift. like, WHAT is going on here? Is kirk embarrassed of her or himself? is guilt over his prior lack of professionalism causing those awkward dismissals of every mission-related thing she says? or does he actually think she’s incompetent (yet attractive of course) despite their history and believe that bones sent him down there with an idiot as a joke (paraphrasing kirk to spock: ‘tell bones she better be the best assistant i ever had’)? I really have no idea. It doesn’t help that she ends up being almost as incompetent as he treats her, contributes nothing of value to the mission, and then breaks with every ethical and moral standard associated with her discipline by reprogramming him to love her--among the most horrific things we see the neural neutralizer do. a deep feminist analysis of this shit would probably make my head explode if anyone is up for doing that (i'd read it).

literally every second devoted to the two of them would be better spent developing the mystery or further escalating the sense of horror--maybe more information about/illustration of the doctor’s past abuses or concrete clues that help kirk arrive at his conclusion (more lethe? other inmates? more on why adams turned on van gelder in the first place?). instead kirk just stumbles upon The Room, has GUT FEELS talking to adams, scoffs at literally everything his colleague says, and then practically jumps in the chair based on, like NOTHING--i mean, he’s RIGHT of course, cuz psychic guts, but it renders his early write-off of bones spectacularly hypocritical. then when noel sides with him against bones and says she sees nothing to indicate foul play by adams, kirk is ridiculously smug about it even though he now suspects something amiss as well--the way he says it, we know he thinks her current assessment is wrong, which would make bones initial suspicions right, so why the frak does it seem like he’s gloating? I don’t require that helen be likable. I don’t care that she’s hot or that she got sloppy at an office party or even that she’s essentially as monstrous as adams by the end (everyone forgets that anyway), but the way this episode goes out of its way to have kirk make her look stupid for basically agreeing with his original assessment and then pillories her for doing the exact same thing he JUST did to bones is, for me, a bit of a mindwarp that can’t just be hand-waved away because ‘TOS is dated-->expect stupid women.’ thank god she gets that solo side-mission to cut off the forcefield later (even though she doesn’t know anything about hyper-power circuits and the ducts are clearly large enough for kirk).

this is the same type of great-concept-but-surface-deep sci fi writing that gets episodes from other treks (mostly VOY/ENT) a good mud-dragging. It does have great and memorable moments in the latter half though--and some really great acting from tortured shatner and the actor who plays van gelder--it just takes SO many eye rolls to get to the good stuff.

the scenes with the first mind meld, for instance, are pretty flipping great. here the meld is presented as a last resort, a desperate move to protect the endangered captain, and characterized as a ‘hidden personal thing to the vulcan people, part of their private lives’ by spock, a notion that isn’t always congruous with later treks. I love how the meld here seems a lot more technical and difficult than it becomes later on--although it is mentioned with fair regularity in the franchise that melds are dangerous to attempt without training, few give the same sense that the meld is active, continuous work for the vulcan and not a form of trance/meditation state that just works once firm connection is achieved. this has something to do with the early technobabble here explaining how the meld works: ‘it requires i make pressure changes in your nerves and your blood vessels’ and something to do with nimoy’s lively enactment (moving around, changing his point of physical contact etc) as well as his more expansive meld-monologue. In general i prefer the monologue-melds to the ones that cut-to dream sequences in the mind--i don’t hate them, it depends on the story, but watching the actor perform the meld is usually more interesting to me. watching this time i wondered if ENT’s ‘vulcan neuropressure’ was reclaiming some of this abandoned meld-science.

How the neural device is handled is insanely interesting conceptually too, mostly because the episode puts forward the idea that to the human mind, the worst horror is emptiness rather than forcible suggestion--the deeply unsettling implication being that after losing your thoughts, memories, indeed, yourself to the machine, the very absence of YOU doesn’t SPARE you existential pain, rather it dials it up to the level of torture--a torture of existential dread so great that being given a thought, ANY thought to think or task to perform alleviates suffering, such that you will happily give up the core of yourself just to be SOMEONE, ANYONE, no matter who that is--or you basically just self-implode to death from loneliness (non-liness?) as adams ultimately does. I mean, that is some seriously good shit right there. It kind of blows my mind. the actor playing gelder is terrifically sadistic and shatner turns in a customary 110% performance. and by that point it’s just so great to watch him back in his wheelhouse that you can almost forget how kirk got there--until you realize the same people who started writing this episode also finished writing it too, because we never do find out what happens to helen or kirk’s presumably deprogrammed love for her lol. shout out to shatner’s ‘loneliness’ reaction-shot in the wrap up tho.
JTIBERIUS
Sun, Nov 25, 2018, 10:14am (UTC -6)
in the final paragraph I meant 'the actor playing ADAMS is terrifically sadistic' not 'gelder' as I typed
JTIBERIUS
Sun, Nov 25, 2018, 5:17pm (UTC -6)
i had another thought about death by neural neutralizer today that I hadn’t had before and scrolled through some of the past comments to see if I spotted anything similar. it seems to me that if the NN really did get left active on a person long enough, the cause of soul-death may very well be loneliness (or as i said before, perhaps ‘non-liness’ is more accurate), but i hadn’t thought about the fact that physiological-death might actually occur in stages as the brain begins to ‘empty’ even further, shutting down systems as it loses the basic information necessary to operate them, eventually unable to sustain the body’s functions--something analogous to the end of HAL9000.

i really hate to read comments before i post my own thoughts and i usually never go farther back than a year because it is so easy for me to get mired there and never write anything, but i did enjoy scrolling through these.

@ Peter G (from 2017):
-really liked your interpretation of adam’s choosing the love angle first as a sort of boundary-test of kirk’s natural resistance to suggestion based on his obvious attraction to noel. i find the notion that he is using his subject’s actual subconscious desires to slip in and gain traction instead of immediately forcing his own command so creepy and clever. very savvy insight that adds dimension to adams and enhances my experience--especially since what we do get about why adams does anything amounts to very little.

-three cheers for your comments on the naming of tantalus colony! i had a similar stray thought watching but after my rant wound down it just seemed like too much to stuff it in somewhere for kicks instead of developing it--you link it up with your previous insight about the love-suggestion very nicely...so brave-new-world-death-from-what-you-love, really enjoyed reading it.

-finally, your ’kirk as agent of chaos’ finding the DIS- in UTOPIA was also a nicely articulated discussion. ty.
Peter G.
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 11:46am (UTC -6)
Thanks, JTIBERIUS.

One thing I deeply respect in TOS episodes is that the staff had a taste for classic literary writing, which resulted in many episodes either alluding to classical mythology or to Shakespeare (in title or content), and also results in the writing having many levels and being structured with connected motifs in place. This episode is a great example, which has a mix of all the great TOS elements:

-Highly dramatic situation involving one's very humanity being threatened (no low-stakes alien of the week stuff).

-The theme being a very serious sci-fi concept, such as "what happens when we can fulfill any desire through technology: will we become mindless zombies"? This is very much a Huxley-esque but also hard sci-fi type theme.

-We have a reference to Macbeth in the title: referring to Macbeth recounting a story of seeing bloody daggers, and wondering about whether he had really seen them or whether they existed in his mind only - and whether there's a difference.

-We have a story about desires fulfilled even when they shouldn't be, featuring a colony called Tantalus - a reference to Greek myth about a man trapped in Tartarus. And worse, the story of Tantalus is specifically one about he who feeds on human flesh and also feeds it to the gods, from his own son no less. So the great feast in the story, eating the forbidden food, comes with the result of the death of Tantalus' own family and ultimately his eternal unhappiness.

And finally Dr. Noel herself - a Christmas present for Kirk? Metaphor for getting what you always wanted - free sex with no strings attached? Very much a Brave New World scenario, where this might sound good to some but forebodes a grim result. I almost feel like Kirk's initial irritation for her might not be a foreshadow of the fact that he knows the dangers of temptation and doesn't like them to be around for too long a time.

This is very typical of the scripting for a TOS episode, and this was never again to be repeated in Trek. TNG did pay homage to Shakespeare on occasion, which was nice, but rarely did the actual scripting and writing structure deviate from a "let's get down to business" sort of plotting. TOS was written in a time when writing was appreciated for its own sake, and on top of that we could find great stories and characters. That's why I think TOS surpasses the other Treks in not only alluding to mythology but of creating its own. Even a middling episode like this one (with *some* great elements) is a master class in how to draft a comprehensively written script with many layers to it.
Rahul
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 1:24pm (UTC -6)
@ Peter G.

Totally agree with most everything you wrote - well put, as usual - but to call it a "middling episode"?? I think "Dagger" is a fantastic episode on a number of levels, one of which is the idea of Spock/McCoy each bringing their own expertise and reasoning to examine Dr. van Gelder and determine what's going on, threat to Kirk etc. This is another dynamic where 2 of the BIg 3 help the other.

As JTIBERIUS put it Kirk was a bit out-of-character. But it wasn't too bad. He was somewhat indecisive and naive in this episode. He was much too friendly with Adams and somewhat skeptical of Spock/McCoy initially. The only thing he seemed certain about was Noel -- i.e. not taking her seriously. I think her earlier part in the episode is somewhat weak - but I'm in agreement with Peter G. with what she represents here.
Peter G.
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 2:16pm (UTC -6)
@ Rahul,

I call it middling for a couple of reasons. One, and the most important, is that ever since I was a kid I didn't enjoy watching it, flat out. When I was 7 or 10 years old I didn't have a 'reason' for that, I just didn't get that much enjoyment out of it. Now that I'm older I can identity some reasons for that, the most obvious is that a lot of it is simply unpleasant, especially the *terrific* portrayal of Dr. Van Gelder. I can appreciate that this is a truly great portrayal while also acknowledging that it's not fun to watch and is rarely something I'd like to turn on for pleasure. So on a purely aesthetic level the episode fails because it has too much discomfort without a balancing amount of positive things such as humor, optimism, or love. Many episodes of TOS have painful scenes, especially ones like Plato's Stepchildren, however those tend to also include the hopeful, beautiful side of the equation, and nothing in Stepchildren can overshadow Alexander's amazing smile at the end. But Dagger doesn't have much to redeem it's stark content other than intellectual exploration.

Other than that I call it middling because as JTIBERIUS points out, there are some aspects of the episode that don't quite work, or are otherwise a bit too much in the service of the narrative it's trying to present without being sensible on their own terms. Like, I get that Dr. Noel is there as a metaphor for the tantalizing things that can weaken a Captain's resolve, but unfortunately she never ends up being more than a literary device; as a person she at best ends up looking pretty bad, assuming we take her seriously as a person at all.

What's great here is the examination of "rehabilitation" at the expense of free will; at the look of inventing paradise but only in the mind; at how terrible it is to be offered that which will alleviate discomfort, only to realize that you'd be nothing without your pains (here we see that in being a Starship Captain). And the concept itself of mental horror as being a lack of something, and then pairing that up with the opposite horror of having something filled in its place, but not of your choosing - these are some very compelling looks at a hellish existence. But amidst all of that interesting stuff I feel like questions are asked but on some fronts no answers are offered, and all of this sometimes takes a back seat to the obligatory thriller moments that TOS was forced to include in episodes to placate the network. IMO instead of being an enthralling episode instead it's merely an interesting one but with many parts that are awkward or painful to watch, and without an equal complement of uplifting parts.
Rahul
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 3:38pm (UTC -6)
@ Peter G.,

OK I see where you're coming from. "Dagger" is a dark, grim episode -- I suppose the only positive thing about it is Dr. Adams' lab being dismantled and Dr. van Gelder back to work. Van Gelder's performance is excellent even if it is unpleasant (separate thought: didn't guest actor performances on TOS simply blow away guest actors on later Treks?)

Roddenberry liked his utopian society and happy endings are nice but it's a good change of pace to see an episode be mostly unsettling -- the life of mental patients is a tortured one, and then you add on a character like Adams ... Can't always be all roses and I'm glad TOS took that direction on occasion.

How about how the way "The City on the Edge of Forever" ends with Kirk's "Let's get the hell out of here" -- yes history has been restored, but what about the do-gooder that was Edith Keeler? Gotta give props to that episode for not being able to have its cake and eat it too.

But what is triumphant about "Dagger" (and for TOS in general) is how it produces a dark episode. There's no need for stupid shock value which DSC used in Season 1 and the effect is far more powerful here. Think of "The Conscience of the King" and the Lenore's chilling stare as she's about to phaser Kirk. Here, "Dagger" makes your mind do more of the work. But that's fine.

Interesting you mention "Plato's Stepchildren" -- I count that as one of my least favorite TOS episodes even though critically speaking, it's decent. I hated how Kirk and Spock were humiliated -- it was especially hard to take as a kid.

For me, I was always liked "Dagger" even as a kid. And while Noel isn't a great character, she showed her value by being useful in the end -- so she wasn't completely pointless -- maybe there's a bit of a redemption story there.
Peter G.
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 5:20pm (UTC -6)
@ Rahul,

Plato's wasn't my favorite as a kid but I liked it, and I think what it has that's still watchable by child-me is Alexander as a real beacon of hope (as in, there is hope he can be saved), and also the fact that during the torture we sort of know that they'll find a way out of it. For Dr. Van Gelder, though, since he isn't a regular there is no plot-foreknowledge that he'll be ok. He's just crazed and that may be it for him, and it's horrible to watch (in a great way).

I agree that TOS didn't shy away from 'real darkness', and it didn't have to be a boogeyman like Gul Madred in Chain of Command. In TOS that darkness is in all of us.

"(separate thought: didn't guest actor performances on TOS simply blow away guest actors on later Treks?) "

Absolutely, no question. I consider most of the main cast to be far superior in talent and skills to any Trek cast thereafter; and the guest starts regularly knock it out. I can't account for why this is: maybe the killing of style in acting? Maybe too much competition in a variety of TV shows means the good actors are spread thin? Or maybe just an unnecessarily low bar from the casting department starting with TNG? Let's face it, even some of the stars of TNG wouldn't have even hacked it as guest starts on TOS. Hard to say why this is.
JTIBERIUS
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 5:32pm (UTC -6)
@ Rahul

I COMPLETELY GET why people love this episode--the second half is DYNAMITE horrorfi and the allegorical layer is solid on its own. i think it’s just my disappointment that the narrative and plot don’t live up to any of the episode’s clearly winning aspects that makes me pout. It’s the disappointment of the almost-brilliant that hurts the most.

Also, i think disliking plato’s stepchildren is very congruent with disliking DSC--for some reason these two things seem to divide people into roughly the same two camps, i’ll have to think more about that. i don’t really mind trek going dark, i kind of love it--i just think people draw the line differently when it comes to DARK vs BLEAK. I like seriously love dark trek, bleak trek not so much. Both discovery and stepchildren seem to take that dividing-line head on, which side you fall on may come down to a matter of taste in either case--also, i started to like DSC a little more when i stopped applying episodic thinking to individual episodes. It’s meant for binging, it definitely feels better constructed if you analyze it as one long episode or installment of trek.

@ Peter G

i actually had the lines from Macbeth copy/pasted into the comments field the whole time i was writing but i ran out of steam. i'm a sucker for some shakespeare myself and love TOS's more literary moments as well--i think most tv writing backed off this type of homage for a few decades because adapting/reworking classics (shakespeare/greek/historical pageantry etc) became cliche--it was their version of reboot-fatigue. plus there was just too much new technology to speculate about in fiction.

by the 90s there was a noticeable lack of this kind of fare, particularly on television (movies did better) and particularly on the drama side of the drama/comedy divide. Short-form episodic writing produced some of the best comedy forms we have though--sitcoms, sketch shows, political commentary, cartoons--comedy is where the 30-60 minute episode truly comes to shine for a few decades artistry-wise. To me, at the time it came out TNG was actually one of the only shows to write anything close to what you describe that i can remember right now--maybe i’m wrong but nothing specific is coming to mind for 87...hmm scanning brain for early 90s tv drama...police procedurals, hospital dramas, X-files, buffy? I got nothing of note.

but it's definitely coming back around (breaking bad brainpops first). i think the changing tv landscape and the rise of serialization is restoring some aspects of literariness to television--though that shift is tangled up with naturalism-dominance too, a great and terrible two-headed beast called REALLYREAL&REALLYLONG--because along with the drawn-out grit and hopelessness has finally come the long-form style of film we used to fantasize about, and with it great opportunities for metaphor, thematic depth, time to develop motivic repertoires of our own (like, say, the star wars music) that can link ideas and create parallels across time/space/story--that's mythology building too and, like the 19th cent novel, it can be both great and overbearing. but even with the ridiculous rise of cinematic universes and shows that spend whole seasons of hours doing absolutely NOTHING to advance plot (looking at you walking dead), there is still a lot happening in tv writing that is exciting for a voracious reader with a weakness for the bard, and we’re establishing a more universal, sophisticated poetics of television every day telling us how to decode different kinds of shows on their own terms.

in literature, after all, there are long books with great character studies and no plot at all. there are interconnected universes a la stephen king’s gunslinger. there are expansively plotted political intrigues from dune to game of thrones. But there are also short stories, epic poems, absurdist pieces written in the style of plays but that are impossible to perform, magical realism like american gods or comics like watchmen which resist film adaptation by their very nature. I dont grind on naturalism because i hate it--it’s out there giving us some great things--it’s just that like everything dominant, it flourishes at the expense of other literary impulses. i just can’t wait until we have enough of an established televisual lit-canon (as distinguished from pop/pulp) to use naturalism as a tool rather than a limitation/standard that we judge things by.

my point is that i’m really excited that visual mediums are finally beginning to allow themselves the freedom to aspire to the semiotic complexity of literature and music even if gritty realism is the route they often take--because my prediction is that shows like BSG and ST DSC are necessary pit-stops on the road back to what you're talking about--smart/layered/literary screenwriting that pays homage to naturalism without being cripplingly bound to it, or which pays homage to multiple literary traditions/mythologies simultaneously and unabashedly (performance styles too)--creating richer tapestries of experience for the viewer. right now we are witnessing the codification of visual-lit and watching isms form like planets out of dust in a protoplanetary disc of cinematic potential.

one thing i’ll say for DSC is that even weighted down by the cultural impulse to realism and despite its fundamentally different (serialized) format from all other treks, out of all of them, only it is really TRYING to do what you describe. It displays a taste for 'classical literary writing' and puts actual effort into invoking the metaphors and motifs not only of the western literary canon, but also the themes/motifs of the startrek mythos as well. does this make it more reboot than ‘real’ trek? SO DEBATABLE that you have to at least respect that it is doing some things for some people that it is not doing for you (me lol. I mean the universal 'you', i.e. me). honestly i think it will get better and that in retrospect disappointment over S1 will soften as we get more of what it’s trying to do. i'm still hopeful it will find it's sea legs and give us something closer in tone to dark-TOS than we've had since the original run. the pieces are there, now if they can just nail that dark-not-bleak note we need, i think it can become a formidable trek with that unselfconscious literary gravitas that diehard TOS fans (me again ) miss most. my fingers do hurt from being crossed so long on that though lol.
JTIBERIUS
Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 5:49pm (UTC -6)
re: TOS guest stars:

i think actor-TRAINING as distinct from style used to be better. today actors end up on camera from all sorts of paths and often time learn to act on set with a mish-mash of different techniques or whatever master class they can. the pool TOS drew it's guest stars from were all proficient classically trained stage actors as a baseline = before they EVER got a chance on camera. no matter what your age was you were expected to do your time in live theater first, like the minor leagues . tv casting-directors used to pull exclusively from the stage pool for character actors when they didn't already have someone in mind for a type.

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