Star Trek: The Original Series

"Spectre of the Gun"

2.5 stars

Air date: 10/25/1968
Written by Lee Cronin
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Members of the Enterprise crew beam down to investigate a planet, contrary to the warnings of the Melkot, who subsequently place Kirk and his men into a surreal recreation of the American Old West, where they must avoid the showdown with Wyatt Earp (Ron Soble), Doc Holliday (Sam Gilman), and crew at the OK Corral.

More intriguing than it probably has any right to be, "Spectre of the Gun" benefits from its bizarre surrealism, and has a Twilight Zone-esque atmosphere and aesthetic feel. Still, the story is sometimes stiffly executed, with dialog that has a tendency to repeat itself. At times it feels like the episode simply didn't have enough scenes to fill an hour, resulting in inefficient dialog being tacked on. There's dialog where characters make statements that are nothing short of obvious.

The ending revolves around the fact that mental discipline controls the unreality, so Spock mind melds with Kirk, Bones, and Scotty so they'll believe that unreal bullets can't really hurt them. Chekov? He dies. But he comes back to life—always a nice side effect of dying in non-reality.

Previous episode: Is There In Truth No Beauty?
Next episode: Day of the Dove

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19 comments on this review

Lt. Yarko
Tue, May 21, 2013, 1:36pm (UTC -5)
Chekov is an idiot.
Fri, Dec 13, 2013, 2:10am (UTC -5)
Star Trek, the legendary original series, so "progressive" and "important" that each week our crew of scientists and explorers on their fabulous starship journey into recreations of Earth's past where they must engage in fisticuffs to save the day - because that's progress!

Honestly, I love Trek, but the original series writing staff seemed hell bent on doing some kind of historical drama. The message of peace and progress seems to be lost amid all the fighting; it's like Karate Kid, which I once heard described as a series of films which teach you that you don't have to fight, then put their characters in situations where fighting is the only answer.

Quite honestly TOS is my least favourite of the Treks and in my opinion barely qualifies as sci-fi. It's all well and good having phasers and warp drives if you're constantly in Nazi Germany or ancient Greece.
Wed, Feb 12, 2014, 3:50pm (UTC -5)
@ NoPoet, I thought the first season had a few episodes that were based on really good ideas, and even the second wasn't all that bad, but the third.....I have a really hard time making it through it. This one is next, and I'm dreading it. I love the Spock/Kirk dynamic/relationship, but as far as the shows go, I'm with you, TOS is my least favorite. I think it has not aged well. Then again I remember even from back when I was a kid in the 70s, that a lot of it seemed pretty ridiculous to me. When I decided to rewatch, I dreaded revisiting all those Earth-like plants because I had vivid memores of those. The only one of those episodes I enjoy, is A Piece of the Action, because it was such great comedy.

Ok, I'll watch this one now. I'm too OCD to skip episodes in my Watch-all-of-Trek-marathon.
Jo Jo Meastro
Sun, Feb 16, 2014, 10:14am (UTC -5)
I really enjoyed this one and the whole feel of the Western town, the crimson sky and eerily sparse buildings where a excellent touch to give a subtle yet distinct impression of warped reality.

Retro John-Wayne-era westerns are a guilty pleasure of mine so I was bound to enjoy this one! Although I do agree that there was some slightly plodding spells in the middle, I found it very entertaining on the whole and I liked the concept of desperately avoiding violence in a desperate surreal situation. 2.5 stars would be my verdict too, possibly edging more towards 3.

I don't mind taking a break from conventional sci-fi settings, especially when the results are this good and one of the things I enjoy most about TOS is its mythical fantasy-esque approach to this final frontier of mankind. I prefer this to the more harder and more drier sci-fi.

TOS just has a certain charm and magic to it even if you could never take it seriously as a viable vision of the future. When its bad it is horrendously bad, but when its good its pretty fantastic.
Wed, Feb 19, 2014, 3:22am (UTC -5)
The real world reason behind all of the parallel Earth, and historical stories, is for the producers to save money. They can use props , sets, and costumes on the Paramount lot.

I enjoyed this episode. It's nothing deep, but it is good fun. TOS did have a lot of episodes where they were in Earth's past, or a facsimile of Earth's past. We had the Roman planet, the gangster planet, the Nazi planet, the Wild West simulation, the ancient Greek planet (in Plato's Stepchildren), etc
William B
Thu, Sep 18, 2014, 4:54pm (UTC -5)
Having recently read the first two books of the "Dune" series, I kept thinking about the Bene Gessarit litany against fear at the end of this episode:

"I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing....only I will remain."

I agree with Jammer that this episode is more engaging than it seems like it should be; the only obvious "idea" in all this is the way Spock recognizes that the situation they are in is unreal, and that the only way to escape it is to believe they cannot be hurt by it. I think there is something pretty profound in that observation. Obviously in real life, if you get shot, whether you fear it or not, it will hurt you pretty badly. But the way in which they end up in this obviously-a-soundstage Western town, with some shops being just a facade with no interior at all, suggests the unreality of their situation in very stark, obvious terms, like a Brechtian distancing tactic. And yet, they are *still* threatened by it -- because the human mind is so easily fooled even by obvious fabrications, if these fabrications speak to a person on an emotional or instinctual level, or even an intellectual level. Fears, including irrational ones, can become devastating. Propaganda can create entire false realities inside people's heads that then control their actions. It takes tremendous effort to escape from the prison of one's own fears and the lies told by others -- even if one intellectually understands that they are irrational.

So on the one hand, I agree with the first commenter Lt. Yarko's succinct observation that Chekov is an idiot. Apparently all it takes is for a pretty woman to bat her eyelashes at him, and he starts believing that he has a real relationship with her and, I guess, that this relationship actually exists even though she thinks he's a historical figure in 19th century Tombstone and that he's got on totally different clothes than the one he has on. Instead of working on how not to die or how to get out of this trap, he expends mental energy flirting with her, agreeing to go to the dance in a week (?) but telling her that marriage is out of the question, too serious! I mean, it seems obvious that this is not a real person, that none of this scenario is real, and that this romantic subplot is totally irrelevant to the more important concerns. But, well.... I think the thing is, humans are much more suggestible than we like to admit, and if placed in a completely bizarre situation that nonetheless "feels" real, and in dealing with a person who seems sentient, it's hard to remember that it's fake, especially for a young and open-minded and friendly and flirtatious person like Chekov. I don't know whether his apparently forgetting that none of this is real for periods of time is "realistic," but I kind of suspect that humans are less focused and more distractible by what their senses are telling them.

One of the interesting consequences of the choice of the OK Corral gunfight as the setting for the episode is that the Enterprise crew are cast as the Canton gang, and their opposition the Earps. Quoting Wikipedia here:

"According to the Earp version of events, the fight was in self-defense because the Cowboys, armed in violation of local ordinance, aggressively threatened the lawmen, defying a lawful order to hand over their weapons. The Cowboys maintained that they raised their hands, offering no resistance, and were shot in cold blood by the Earps. Sorting out who was telling the truth then and now remains difficult."

Popular depiction of the fight, though, in things like John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp) and John Sturges' "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (with Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday and Burt Lancaster as Wyatt, and DeForest Kelley as Morgan Earp!) (and "Tombstone," which comes out years after the episode did) sides very heavily with the Earps and Holliday -- symbols of law and order staving off chaos. It takes just a little tweaking for representatives of civilization and order to become tyrants, figures of illegal chaos to become victims of an oppressive system they cannot escape. The choice is particularly interesting because the setting is one in which the Cantons are "trespassers" -- instructed to leave Tombstone, but with no particular way of making their way outside it, which ends up mapping quite well onto the away team, who *want* to escape the conflict but have no way to do so, and this also makes the aliens running the show map very well onto this depiction of the Earps brutally gunning down people for trespassing into their territory.

That Kirk spares the life of the Earps at the end is not all that meaningful since they're not real in the first place. But still, the point being made is that the human instinct to kill is alive and well in Kirk, but he can overcome it. This really comes back to the same thing as Spock's helping Kirk, McCoy and Scotty recognize the unreality of what they are facing. The stagey, false Western town of Kirk's imagination is not the *real* Old West, but the imaginary one which lives on in many people, especially Americans, in which the conflict between civilization and freedom is fought out with physical violence. And so it's appropriate that the way to escape the kill-or-be-killed mentality is to escape from that mental framework altogether, by recognizing that *it is not real*.

Still pretty silly and slow-paced but I'm somewhat fond of it. 2.5 stars also.
Sat, Aug 22, 2015, 6:06pm (UTC -5)
They acted more like invaders in this episode than peaceful explorers. They were told they weren't welcome, warned to leave, yet they barge into their space anyway.
Thu, Dec 3, 2015, 8:56pm (UTC -5)
There is no spoon.
Patrick D
Thu, Jul 7, 2016, 11:25am (UTC -5)
This is easily one of the best episodes of season 3. "SotG" bears a striking resemblance in its basic structure to season 1's "Arena" right down to the ending. And, you know what? It's beats the pants off of it! The "showing mercy to your enemy while impressing the super alien" denouement works infinitely better here.

As stated by an online reviewer named, Linkara, this episode is about problem solving. Kirk and Co. act like scientists and diplomats to solve their problems all the while the Melkotians are throwing up new barriers. Kirk, Spock and Co. have rarely been more resourceful than in "Spectre".

P.S.--It's also Eddie Murphy's favorite Star Trek episode (as stated in his Playboy interview). He found the 'mind over matter' theme at the end inspiring.
Trek fan
Fri, Dec 2, 2016, 12:12am (UTC -5)
Really loved this episode. It's intriguing, surreal, spooky, and -- yes -- thoughtful. The analysis of Old West morality, together with the whole analysis of the nature of reality, comes across very well-written here. This is classic Trek, hitting a theme -- xenophobic aliens test whether they can trust the Federation -- with a flavorful execution. I would give it 3 or 3 1/2 stars and agree with Patrick D. that it's one of the best episodes of Season 3. I'd say it's one of the top-drawer episodes of the series overall.
Fri, Jan 13, 2017, 9:05am (UTC -5)
Felt like I should have liked it better than I did. I can see all the good points, but still found it slow and preachy, with Chekhov so infantile I wanted to slap him up alongside the head. The trouble is, there has been so much better Trek created since the days of TOS. Some of these old TOS shows just don't hold up. (And some do--can re-watch The Enterprise Incident, the Horta, the Tribbles...true classics.)
Sun, Mar 12, 2017, 7:14am (UTC -5)
"I really enjoyed this one and the whole feel of the Western town, the crimson sky and eerily sparse buildings where a excellent touch to give a subtle yet distinct impression of warped reality. "

Very much this. The creepy unfinished buildings with red sky were very effective. Disappointed that Chekov survived.

What's with the lighting in series 3? It's extremely harsh and distracting. Is it a budgetary issue?
Tue, Mar 14, 2017, 8:30pm (UTC -5)
WRITER 1: We need a new idea for a Star Trek episode. Anyone got any ideas?

WRITER 2: How about an all-powerful alien makes Kirk fight to the death to teach a lesson about pacifism?

WRITER 1: Bleh, we already did that. I want original ideas people. Original!

WRITER 3: OK, ummm... Kirk comes across a planet that looks exactly like some CBS backlot and so re-enacts a portion of Western history?

WRITER 1: I said original, dagnabbit! That was like half of the last 10 episodes!

WRITER 4: Hmmm... I'm just spitballing here, but what if... what if we had an all powerful alien make Kirk fight to the death to teach a lesson about pacifism... within a planet that looks exactly like some CBS backlot in order to re-enact a portion of Western history?

WRITER 1: Brilliant! That's the sort of original thinking I like to see here!

OK, snark aside, it really was that hard for me to get past the premise of the episode. I mean, the execution was pretty well done. Like others said, the mystery of what was going on built up well, and I think the reveal, that this was all in their heads, worked reasonably well given the clues we were given beforehand. Even the very first reveal of the aliens - when they spoke to everyone in their own languages - hinted that nothing they did was necessarily physical. And the clue of the knockout bomb not working was a big one. It was maybe a bit silly that Spock had to meld with everyone in order to save them (yet another example of Spock's magical Vulcan-ness saving the day), but the scene of the crew standing calmly while the Earps shot them was effective I thought.

It's just that the idea is so hokey... Maybe I was just in a snarky mood when I watched it or something, but some of the decisions just seemed weird. What was with Chekov being more obsessed with getting it on with the girl than the fact that he was scheduled to be executed in a few hours? How is Spock so absurdly well-versed in everything that he is fully aware of one single even that happened on Earth 400 years ago? Why is the Federation mission to establish contact "at all costs"; what if these people just want to be left alone? Why is it that the answer to everything in the Star Trek universe is a quick battle to the death rather than any sort of communication?

I guess it was just too much of a pill to swallow for me.
Tue, Apr 4, 2017, 8:19pm (UTC -5)
We saw a Federation directive to establish contact "at all costs" in A Taste of Armageddon too.

Shades of The Corbomite Maneuver with that warning buoy.
Fri, Jun 23, 2017, 2:26pm (UTC -5)
The best part of this episode was the spooky atmosphere - the red skies, half finished buildings, the background hum -- it did an excellent job of putting the crew in a surreal situation where they need to figure out a solution. Whether it is lack of budget (highly likely) or by design -- it worked.
I thought the guest actors playing the Earps etc. were convincing in their steadfast desire to kill Kirk & Co. Chekov acts unprofessionally but his death does give a clue to the solution of mind over matter.
It's always a bit awkward when Kirk & Co. get put into a contrived situation due to the incredible powers of some alien but it's all to tell a story and this one is not a bad one. The pacing is slow and it does drag on a bit, but it ultimately a test from the Melkotians -- as another commenter mentioned, similar to "Arena".
Makes "sense" how Spock arrives at the solution - evaluating how things have happened and how the laws of reality aren't being observed.
Agree with Jammer's 2.5 stars rating - not a bad hour of Trek but not a great one either. A contrived story but one with a reasonable solution that seems to add up.
Daniel B
Mon, Jul 17, 2017, 2:58am (UTC -5)
Skeptical - that was a great analysis of the episode.

I can forgive them for reusing existing sets and costumes given the budget. And give this one a little credit for not being a "just like Earth" planet.

It wasn't all that great, but it stands out above most of season 3 as being passable.
Doctor Bob
Fri, Oct 6, 2017, 8:32pm (UTC -5)
The actors who played the Earps and Doc Holliday could have been cast perfect in any movie about the OK Corral!
Tue, Oct 31, 2017, 11:38am (UTC -5)
I'm surprised that NoPoet, above, deems this episode "not progressive". In an era where westerns typically ended with the law reasserting order via violence, this episode sides against Wyatt Earp and resolves its conflict by having our heroes allowing themselves to be shot. In the face of a reality which threatens violence, which is seductive, which is designed wholesale to make you pull the trigger, Kirk and the gang refuse to abide. That's a very potent pacifist message. Also interesting is the way the episode reverses traditional mythology; traditionally, Wyatt Earp and the gang are the heroes (though historically we know they were violent opportunists). This episode dares to do the opposite

Also interesting are the episode's surreal sets and distinct red skies. There's a neat alien statue and floating head too, reminding us that TOS has always had the most odd, alien and surreal aliens/planets.

Of course "Spectre of the Gun" has its problems. Let's be honest, a good 25 minutes of this episode is pure filler. There's not enough material here for a 50 minute episode. Still, it's decent.
Sat, Feb 17, 2018, 2:31pm (UTC -5)
Interesting episode, the first of Season 3 produced.

Another good looking production. The plan was to shoot the Tombstone material on location, but thanks to the slashed budget, they couldn't afford it. There was no money for extras, transportation, and catering. So was born the clever idea that the town was put together from Kirk's spotty memory. I was glad to see what money was left was used for that great buoy miniature plus a non-humanoid alien. (Yeah, yeah, I know the Melkotian was obscured by the mist it could have been a sock puppet for all we knew, lol!)

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