Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Tholian Web"

3 stars

Air date: 11/15/1968
Written by Judy Burns and Chet Richards
Directed by Herb Wallerstein

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

An Enterprise away party beams over to the USS Defiant, found dead in space, to assess why its crew had gone mad and apparently mutinied itself to death. When the Defiant begins dissolving and enters an "interphase realm," the party hastily returns to the Enterprise, except Kirk, who is left stranded on the Defiant when a lack of power causes his transport to be delayed.

Spock plans to retrieve the captain when the Defiant returns to normal space from its interphase cycle, provided Kirk's atmosphere suit can keep him alive long enough. The situation grows more complicated when the Tholians intervene, ordering Spock to leave the area, which they claim as their own. Whether it's Spock's interphasic theories, the Tholians' energy webs, or McCoy's medical research to cure the insanity that has spread from the Defiant to the Enterprise, "The Tholian Web" provides a good example of Trekkian tech plots being juggled in relatively interesting fashion. And although the "interphase" plotting rules are conjured at will, they're somehow still believable on the story's terms.

What gives this episode its lasting power, however, is the way Spock and McCoy work with and challenge each other—as McCoy questions Spock's dangerous plan to retrieve the captain at the expense of the ship's safety. Eventually, it is Kirk's final recorded message that reveals the way Spock and Bones require each other for guidance, nicely highlighting the cemented relationships within the Big Three.

Previous episode: For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky
Next episode: Plato's Stepchildren

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18 comments on this review

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 11:39am (UTC -5)
This isn't a great episode -- the space madness stuff is tired by season 3 and the scenes on the Defiant are clunky. Also, I never understood how the Enterprise was "thrown clear" of the web.

But the McCoy/Spock stuff is great and the scene where McCoy gives "a medical order" is one of the best in the series. TOS was clearly showing it's age by this point, but in spots, it still had its moments.
Thu, Sep 19, 2013, 6:53am (UTC -5)
nice web ,and movie reviews ,thanks.
Jo Jo Meastro
Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 7:49am (UTC -5)
I'll start with what I liked. The director did a great job in creating an atmosphere and I love the use of first person perspective and unusual camera angles. It was nice to see Uhura get a chance to sign which was all too rare on TOS. There were some imaginative and fun sci-fi which makes a nice addition to the TOS cannon. The Bones / Spock conflict was a mixed bag for me but at least the pay-off was very good.

As mentioned, the conflict needed to reach that pay-off was a mixed bag. This was down to Bones being completely unprofessional and undermining Spock with little reason. I agreed with Spock every time he essentially told him to shut up and get on with his work. I also found the outbursts of space madness unintentionally hilarious!

All in all though, it was highly enjoyable and a good insight into the crew dealing with a crisis without their captain. A solid 2.5 star outing imho.
Jo Jo Meastro
Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 7:51am (UTC -5)
nice to see Uhura get a chance to shine*
Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 3:47pm (UTC -5)
I thought it was a pretty dramatic reversal for McCoy, in that he was haranguing Spock for the decision to stay and try to rescue Kirk, whereas usually his problem is that Spock isn't doing enough in similar scenarios. It's as if he's bent on taking a contrarian to Spock's as often as he can.
Wed, Jun 4, 2014, 4:36pm (UTC -5)
I was looking forward to this episode because I had heard good things about it, and because it had a tie-in with an episode of Enterprise (the series I watched before TOS) that takes place in the mirror universe.

I found Tholian Web to be just too much complexity and plot without enough clarity on any one aspect of the story. How the Defiant disappeared into another universe was completely esoteric and not well explained. Why Kirk didn't quite disappear with it was a bit better (he was "caught in the transporter beam at the time"), but still wanted for more effort of explanation. For example, why did he keep halfway appearing at odd places of the ship? The Tholians were ok as meddlesome side-antagonists, but the "space madness" sickness was just the straw that broke the camels back. Too many things going on at once made the episode feel like it was trying to do too much, and nothing ended up feeling whole.

Yeah, the Spock/McCoy interaction was good, I'll give it that. Just would have preferred a less hairy plot to support that interaction. Weirdly, I feel like this same plot would have come across better if it were stretched into a 2 hour movie. Hey, could be good for the third new Star Trek movie, as there hasn't been much McCoy/Spock interaction in those as of yet.
William B
Wed, Oct 1, 2014, 10:58am (UTC -5)
According to Memory Alpha, the original author of the episode wanted to do a ghost story, and Roddenberry insisted that Trek was SF and not fantasy. No ghosts. So he went with an interdimensional phasing thing instead. Great! And that is how this episode functions as SF, though of course like most Trek it's of the softer sort. But really, this is a ghost story. The Enterprise comes across a ghost ship where the whole crew are dead, and then the captain apparently remains with it, and he fades in and out of existence and he may be real, or is he just a figment of their imaginations? And they all go mad. Meanwhile, enemies are enclosing them in a net, which means that if they don't move right then they may be trapped at this boundary between two universes -- you know, the real universe and the spirit world -- forever, and be driven mad by it, until they, perhaps, become a ghost ship themselves. Pretty worrying situation! The decision to set this episode within the established conventions of the Trek universe -- parallel dimensions were established in "Mirror, Mirror," after all -- is an important one, because while continuity and internal consistency is spotty in TOS, it is still meant to overall be recognizably a universe that mostly obeys rational laws, or pretends to. However, the point of this rundown is that the episode's overall emotional impact and story structure are not significantly different than if the Defiant really were a ghost ship, Kirk really did become a ghost, and the crew just went mad because of being close to the spirit world, like this is a Gothic naval novel. Kirk becoming a translucent figure caught between dimensions has the same narrative function of him being a "ghost."

Part of the reason ghost stories have their impact is that they can represent, in emotional/intuitive language, the way in which our bonds with people close to us and to the past in general continue even when the person is no longer alive. That works in this episode -- in which the crew believes that Kirk is dead, and then his "ghost" haunts the ship, even as Kirk is essentially still maybe *the* dominant factor in the Spock/Bones dynamic -- they are unable to grieve Kirk, and as a result they naturally come into their usual pattern of conflict, but without the ability to mediate themselves the way Kirk would mediate them. Similarly, the madness throughout the whole ship is the result of Kirk being gone, possibly dead. The ship is perhaps going to be trapped in a web, forever. The normal tensions within the crew in a stressful, deadly situation are exacerbated by the absence of their leader -- both lack of a leader everyone fully trusts, and grief over the man they admired. Space madness is the figurative representation of the irrational anger and confusion resulting from grief and loss -- exaggerated here for mythological reasons.

I think the idea that the madness is the result of the intersection of two worlds is kind of nifty, because, if one accepts my premise that this story is basically a SF update of ghost lit tropes, it represents madness at peering into the divide between the world of the living and the world of the dead. That Kirk seems to be completely into the world of the dead means that initially his ghost sightings are just attributed to madness. But he's still alive -- just trapped somewhere between what we think of as "living" and "dead," and only carefully watching for the signs he might still be out there can lead to him being recovered (as if he were, for instance, floating out in the ocean, just barely staying afloat but soon to be pulled under by the waves, or in a coma slowly losing life signs). Spock's decision to stay in this intermediate space between life and death in order to recover Kirk has some mythic connotations -- going into the underworld, and risking anyone who goes down there, to save one who is trapped there. In addition to representing the *impact* of Kirk's apparent death, and the continued uncertainty of whether this has actually happened, the "space madness" has the narrative advantage that it allows ghost-Kirk's visits to occur without immediately requiring action.

So, the big draw here is the Spock/McCoy interaction. One thing I find interesting is that it starts off from a conflict in which their superficial roles seem to be reversed: McCoy insists that they need to get out of there as soon as possible, ditch Jim in order to save the rest of the crew. Spock is willing to risk the ship to save Kirk. This makes the episode build on the conflict in previous episodes, especially "The Galileo Seven," in which Spock's for-the-good-of-the-many pragmatism ran up against the others', and particularly McCoy's, human and emotional values. However, true to form, Spock continues to justify his decision on cold, rational grounds, and McCoy continues to voice his objections in terms of hot-headed emotional outbursts, which become increasingly irrational and even contradictory as the episode goes on.

So I...sort of agree with other posters (Jo Jo Maestro, Alex) that McCoy seems a little exaggeratedly contrarian in his interactions with Spock. I mean, McCoy is actually very possibly *right* that the ship needs to get out of there as soon as possible, and that Kirk would prefer them leave and safeguard the crew rather than wait to rescue him. However, Spock's "illogically" staying to try to protect Kirk is totally inconsistent with McCoy's eventual angrier and angrier accusations that Spock is just doing this because he wants Jim's command, which even McCoy seems to recognize (stating as he does that he doesn't understand why Spock would not just leave and protect his new command). McCoy's internal logic breaks down, because he starts using any and all emotional reasons to be mad at Spock to start because he's too stressed to think clearly, and because he's angry that Spock has apparently killed them all in a doomed attempt to save Kirk. I wouldn't be surprised if there was an element of anger at himself in all this, for McCoy to be confused and frustrated that *he* is the one advocating leaving Jim behind and Spock is the one who seems to cling to saving the captain. Because it's so inconceivable to him that Spock might be even more tied to the captain emotionally than McCoy is, his quick, intuitive, not-fully-logically-consistent mind keeps searching for cold-blooded reasons why Spock might want to stay and can find none, and it just makes him angrier.

Meanwhile, Spock really does risk the ship to save Kirk -- and why? I think that there are logical reasons to do so -- as long as Kirk might be out there, there is a distinct possibility that he can protect everyone on the ship from death, including Kirk. Spock's calculation is the one prioritizing the best best-case scenario, rather than prioritizing the best *worst*-case scenario, which is what leaving immediately and abandoning Kirk would mean. I do think that there is an emotional component to Spock's decision, however -- not emotional in the sense of "irrational," but emotional in that Spock's value system is one in which he really does personally value Kirk's life more than he personally values other lives, including his own. Kirk is Spock's friend and Spock will not abandon him. I think this is extremely difficult for Spock to explain or justify, so he simply doesn't explain or justify it, but I think it's one of the major reasons behind Spock's decision, and it's the missing element of Spock's decision to stay, which does turn out to be justified, which McCoy doesn't initially expect or understand.

I do like that it's Kirk's tape that allows Spock and McCoy to come back into alignment -- because it's really an inability to properly grieve Kirk, or to incorporate Kirk's role into their dynamic, which is the source of their conflict. With Kirk there, they can snipe all they want until Kirk stops them, and they can even do so affectionately, but they don't have very effective brakes on their conflict (well, McCoy especially doesn't). They are both angry at the loss of Kirk and unwilling to accept his departure enough to start trying to do for themselves what Kirk would do for them -- remind them that they need each other. It's also another type of "ghostly" message from Kirk, where his presence changes their dynamic after his apparent departure.

Ultimately, Spock's big play to stay and try to save Kirk pays off. I also really like that the way they escape the Tholian web is by phasing into the other dimension when they meet Kirk -- thus being able to escape the purely "our universe"/physical boundaries set up by the Tholian web. The last moment of Spock and McCoy pretending they hadn't seen Kirk's video suggests their new stronger private bond. Here, and in Spock's "I'm sure the captain would simply have said: 'Forget about it, Bones,'" there is the sense of Spock's continued comfort with his humanity without losing his essential core of Vulcan logic, which fits along with McCoy's increasingly recognizing the pragmatic essentials of the situation (i.e. in his willingness to abandon Jim to his fate).

Did Scotty just go get super-drunk at the end of this episode? He is probably THE reason Starfleet put synthehol on their starships.

An effective, if somewhat scattered, episode, and one of the few very essential episodes of season three. A high 3 stars.
Thu, Oct 6, 2016, 8:06pm (UTC -5)
Another awesome comment by William B, bravo.

I must say I was a little shocked when Spock and Scott discuss that they have 20 minutes to get the ship ready or they're dead, and then they forget that urgency and Scott starts drinking on the job! Perhaps it was the space madness.
Tue, Jun 27, 2017, 7:33am (UTC -5)
Christopher Booker says that there are only 7 basic story plots: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest. voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Maybe you can come up with a couple more but given the limits of plots available, repetitive themes are bound to happen in a series that runs for years with 20 episodes per season. The job of the writers is to try to make interesting stories around these limited plot lines.
Over the years, between the various series and movies, Star Trek has done a pretty good job with making the story lines interesting. the type of shows I tend to hate are what I refer to as 'hospital shows'; in which a series regular lies in a bed for 45 minutes and the viewer is essentially asked to sit in the waiting room. DS09 did it often. How many times was Dax in a bed in mortal danger for 45 minutes? Enough times that I got tired of it.
This was essentially a hospital show (Kirk was the patient who wasn't going to die), but there was enough going on where you did not feel like you were in the waiting room. The conflict between Spock and McCoy took center stage. The madness, the Tholians and even Kirk's dilemma were merely minor distractions.
Daniel B
Mon, Jul 17, 2017, 2:56am (UTC -5)
They should have eliminated the Tholians, just made it an area of space that's phasing into another dimension, and called it something different.

As it is, we build up all episode waiting to see what will happen when the web is finally complete, and then poof they get thrown clear and we never find out. It's a Shaggy Dog Story.
Thu, Oct 19, 2017, 7:24am (UTC -5)
The Tholian Web seems like a poor weapon. It can only work if the target ship is immobilised and has no weapons to fire at the small ships.
Mon, Nov 20, 2017, 5:38pm (UTC -5)
Pretty strong episode here without too many flaws although there's an awful lot going on that doesn't get satisfactorily explained for my liking.

The most important part about this episode is another Spock/McCoy interaction. Kirk's dead captain log settles it, but McCoy is out of line on a couple of arguments and Spock's actions were justifiable. For McCoy to harass Spock about firing on the Tholians and not withdrawing is ridiculous. Then he accuses Spock of wanting Kirk's captaincy. But at least they had a good scene at the end when they feign not having had to listen to Kirk's dead captain log.

Great start to the episode with finding the Defiant and the mystery about its crew -- the whole space is breaking up phenomenon and the eery music created the right atmosphere -- kind of like when Kirk & co. go aboard the Constellation in "The Doomsday Machine". Good tension/suspense here.

It gets a bit tricky with Kirk's situation -- apparently he's caught in the transporter beam and not moving in space despite what the Defiant and the 2 universes are doing somehow. And at the end when the Tholians complete their web and the Enterprise just disappears and re-appears somewhere else -- how did the ship's power throw them clear of the web? A bit of handwaving required here I think.

Also, what's the explanation for the Kirk visions? It's sci-fi here, not fantasy. Only thing we get is from Spock saying something like in dire situations, people see what they want to see?

Spock declaring Kirk dead, I guess, is based on the amount of time until the next interphase possible being too long after his oxygen supply runs out. In retrospect, that was presumptuous but it gave him and Bones the duty to listen to the dead captain log, which was needed to get them out of the predicament.

As for the Tholians, we don't learn too much about them but it's interesting that the Enterprise series made use of them in a couple of episodes. I wish other Trek series had made more use of TOS aliens (like the Gorn etc.).

A strong 3 stars for "The Tholian Web" -- nearly 3.5 stars for me but for some minor flaws in the writing and McCoy's acting toward Spock. The revisiting of multiple universes is good sci-fi. Definitely one of the better Season 3 episodes and a good one for Spock.
Trek fan
Tue, Nov 28, 2017, 12:58pm (UTC -5)
A great "ghost ship" story with a strong Sci-Fi hook centering on inter-dimensional phasing, "The Tholian Web" stands out as one of the few TOS episodes that ends with the mystery unresolved, and I like that ambiguous feeling here which doesn't try to over-explain everything and tie it all up with a neat bow. I liked this one as a kid because of the cool Tholians and their web weapon, but there's a lot of good character stuff here as well, continuing a Season 3 theme of testing how the characters react to the loss of their own. I give it 3 1/2 stars as one of the really good and memorable TOS episodes that borders on great-to-excellent in its mix of pure Sci-Fi elements and strong character moments.

We all know that Season 3 suffered from a reduced budget and the departure of some great craftsmen from the show. To me, that's most visible in the frizzled hair/makeup (everyone looks a little frazzled in this season) and the garish over-lighting of every scene that washes out people's faces on the bridge in what looks like harsh halogen lighting. But low budgets can also spark creativity, and "Tholian" combines some really cool special effects (hands passing through tables and people, ships and people phasing out of solid matter, etc.) with "crew under duress" moments in a way that really generates some good Sci-Fi thriller tension.

As the crew tries to solve the mystery of the Defiant and locate Kirk, the arrival of the Tholians and space madness symptoms really up the ante. Compared to "Immunity Syndrome" in Season 2, where the crew likewise suffered from space madness but there was little sense of tension or urgency until the very end, I actually much prefer "Web." Like "Syndrome," "Web" gives us some classic Spock-McCoy moments, and I love the touching scene where Kirk's farewell log predicts their enmity in his absence and urges them to work together, which yields a great payoff at the end when the recovered Kirk asks if they played his death log. For whatever reason, perhaps because of the lack of a tangible threat like the Tholians, "Immunity" has always been a really slow burn for me that lulls me to sleep until the great final act featuring McCoy-Spock-Kirk.

I also love Uhura's strong role in the story of this episode and the next one, "Plato's Stepchildren," giving her some strong moments regarding her affection for the captain. The plight of the person who sees something that others think is a hallucination, recalling Shatner's own Twilight Zone episode with the Gremlin on the airplane wing, is a classic Hitchcockian theme and Sci-Fi thriller trope. Nice to see Uhura be the one to see Kirk, rather than the usual suspects, and to be vindicated at the end of the story. Her deep affection for Kirk makes it natural for the others to believe she is seeing what she wants to see; this is a nice bit of building on what we already know about the character.

And I have a confession to make: I love Chekov, who was my favorite character as a kid because he is such a hot mess of inexperienced youth, and Walter Koenig flipping out with some alien torment is always a guilty pleasure for me. It's campy but fun. Indeed, one of my lasting disappointments with "The Deadly Years" in Season 2 is that Chekov's initial freakout proves a false alarm, as he is the one member of the landing party not afflicted with the aging disease. A pity: There's something fun and goofy about watching Koenig get horribly tormented by things throughout the series and movies.
Fri, May 24, 2019, 3:38am (UTC -5)
Some goofy stuff going on and things don't make much sense, but overall, a good, entertaining story is told.

The McCoy Spock stuff was a bit awkward and overdone, but still the best part.

I'm having a hard time getting through TOS, but I'm going to persevere to the end.

This messy, goofy, awkward offering seems above average to me.

How many more of these do I have?
William B
Fri, May 24, 2019, 9:01am (UTC -5)

IMO season 3 is quite rough, and I like season 1 and 2 a fair bit. There are still some episodes I find worthwhile, though the TOS goofiness is present in most of them.

It's up to you but I might recommend swapping Turnabout Intruder and All Our Yesterdays, which is considered by most (including me) to be a better episode, and a better one to go out on, if you want to end on a higher note. AOY gives a lot of attention to Spock & McCoy, whereas Turnabout Intruder, while having good qualities, is infamous for SHATNER ACTING and sexism. (Well, not everyone agrees re: sexism, or that the SHATNER ACTING is bad. But I think you will fall in with the not being a fan of TI camp.)
Fri, May 24, 2019, 9:31am (UTC -5)
Yeah, Turnabout Intruder is an awful note to go out on.

This is one of the reasons I prefer to view TOS in stardate order rather than production order. "All Our Yesterdays" is a far better episode to end the series with.

This is even truer for the remastered version, which added a CGI view of the star going nova as the final scene. It's a wonderful breathtaking shot, which lets you go out with bang.
William B
Fri, May 24, 2019, 9:37am (UTC -5)
In fairness, there are a few things that I like about TI as a final episode, involving the supporting cast. I won't say them here because Springy's going through the series (and that's why I wrote my comment). But overall, no.
Sun, Jun 7, 2020, 2:52pm (UTC -5)
Thoughts on Star Trek Continues: "Still Treads the Shadow" which takes a tangent from this episode and is the best STC episode yet for me. It employs some cliches but ultimately it's a pretty good story about a duplicate of Kirk getting trapped alone for 200+ years with AI for company. Defeating the AI "Tiberius" requires some hand-waving and there's the token love interest thrown in with Rekha Sharma (not an actor I really care for but who does a reasonable job here).

The episode employed some themes and plot moves from original episodes like "Metamorphosis" with a companion to keep a human company, the surprise injection to knock out Kirk (a la "The Empath" when McCoy tranquilizes Spock), and of course making a computer (AI) self-destruct. But all these things were woven into a good TOS-style tale. I also liked the visuals of the black hole/rift in space/dark matter -- looked like what you might see in some of the better TOS enhanced visuals.

Some interesting conversations between the 2 Kirks and the counselor about being old and alone, "old mariner", and also between McCoy (who overacts) and Spock about what is evil vs. AI just using cold logic. The episode gave enough time to breathe and think beyond the next step in the plot.

3 stars for "Still Treads the Shadow" -- overall a nice package of sci-fi, the human condition of loneliness and getting old and a clever way to do a twist on a "The Tholian Web" epilogue. The part about AI run wild has been done enough on nu-Trek but here it is more like the Companion although more intransigent (perhaps a bit convenient to be dismantled so summarily, but that's TOS). Good to see some seemingly additional thought put into coming up with this STC episode.

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