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 Text

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

Like this site? Support it by buying Jammer a coffee.

◄ Season Index

Comment Section

44 comments on this post

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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?


    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.)

    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.

    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.

    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.

    3 stars @Jammer (and @Rahul)?!? Are you out of your Vulcan minds?!? Just cause it has your beloved “Defiant” does not make it good ;)

    Weak sauce, 2 stars at best.

    And I am officially sick of people going or acting mad. We’re only 9 episodes into season 3, and so far madness has played a role in 6 episodes!

    - The Enterprise Incident - Kirk acts like a raving lunatic as a cover
    - Paradise Syndrome - Kirk catches the Tahiti Syndrome
    - And The Children - weird fist-bump thingy makes people act insane
    - Is there no Truth - looking at the Medusan ambassador drives you mad
    - Day of the Dove - weird red blob thingy makes everyone crazy
    - Tholian Web - space is warping and driving people mad

    Madness, Madness, Madness I tells ya!

    If this was Voyager, I’d say the writers had simply run out of ideas. Oh wait, I’ll still say that ;)

    I agree with @Daniel B, the episode would have been just fine without the Tholians. And it would have saved @dgalvan a watch.

    Only saving grace for this episode is that it means Discovery does not take place in our universe. To wit,

    CHEKOV: Has there ever been a mutiny on a starship before?

    SPOCK: Absolutely no record of such an occurrence, Ensign.

    So how do we explain Discovery? To wit,

    SPOCK: Well, picture it this way, Mister Chekov. We exist in a universe which co-exists with a multitude of others in the same physical space. At certain brief periods of time, an area of their space overlaps an area of ours. That is a time of interphase, during which we can connect with the Defiant's universe.

    So it turns out that CBS All Access is actually access to all the different universes, and in one of those, Discovery exists as a Star Trek series.

    Either that, or Spock is a damned liar. After all, he liars to his captain:

    KIRK: My last orders. The last orders that I left for both of you. The last taped orders.

    MCCOY: Oh, those orders. Well, there wasn't time. We never had a chance to listen to them.

    SPOCK: No. You see, the crisis was upon us, and then passed so quickly, Captain, that we

    KIRK: Good. Good.

    Finally, if as @William B says, “The Tholian Web” was meant as a ghost story, then dang nab it, this episode and Sub Rosa (TNG) are proof positive that Star Trek should never EVER do a ghost episode again.

    I can see, @William B, why Scotty’s been hitting the bottle so hard lately (see also "Spectre of the Gun”). With all the madness this season, I can't say's I blame him.


    Even after re-watching TOS umpteen times, it never bothered me that with "The Tholian Web" (TW), it is another episode where the crew goes "insane".

    TOS will use devices like insanity (or mass crew manipulation more broadly) and super-beings (particularly in S1) over and over but with enough twists on it so that they tell a different story or focus on a different theme every time.

    There's plenty of substance in TW to differentiate from the mediocrity of a 2* episode. William B.'s ghost analogy is very well thought out (as usual), but where TOS shines here is the situation created with Kirk's seeming death and the effects that has on Spock/Bones. Even if Bones is over the top, he is playing an archetypal role, as is Spock with Kirk (presumed dead) not available to balance things out. I really liked this dynamic, particularly for Spock.

    It's a very busy episode sort of like your favorite "Journey to Babel" but the pacing is excellent and it all works very well, with a touch of handwaving. From the standpoint of TOS sci-fi, this one is also pretty good and the intro of the Tholians as a hostile species with a different technology (weapon) with their web shows some creativity in that it's not just another race that's going to pew-pew you to death.

    Anyhow, I think you're about to review "The Empath" -- one of my favorites, so I look forward to that!

    @Rahul said, "where TOS shines here is the situation created with Kirk's seeming death and the effects that has on Spock/Bones. Even if Bones is over the top, he is playing an archetypal role”

    I agree completely that the sibling rivalry between Bones and Spock, and how it comes to a head here, would be a core contribution to TOS, especially in light of “Bread and Circuses,” which has that cute dialogue when the four of them are in jail,

    SPOCK: Doctor, if I were able to show emotion, your new infatuation with that term would begin to annoy me.

    MCCOY: What term? Logic? Medical men are trained in logic, Mister Spock.

    SPOCK: Really, Doctor, I had no idea they were trained. Watching you, I assumed it was trial and error.

    FLAVIUS: Are they enemies, Captain?

    KIRK: I'm not sure they're sure.

    I’m not sure they’re sure. LoL :-) Well, “The Tholian Web” could have gone a long way to sorting that out. Except for one thing that really detracts from everything. The madness.

    They start this episode with a mutiny on board the Defiant, which leaves everyone dead. And then the madness causes our crew to also lose it. In that kind of artificially-mutinous environment, how can we tell if the friction between Spock and Bones is really at so high a level that they have to go watch Kirk’s final home video, or if that is just a symptom of the madness (madness I tells ya!)? The artificial madness really muddies the waters. For what purpose?

    They could have played “Tholian” like “The Immunity Syndrome”, an insanely competent crew trying to find its ghosted captain while also dealing with a unique adversary intent on trapping them in a web. Now that’s something I would have loved to watch!

    It’s a matter of TPTB being lazy in season 3 and going with madness again and again and again.

    I suspect it is harder to write a strong competent crew, in which, sure, Bones has strong reservations about Spock’s command abilities. After all, Bones was there on “The Galileo Seven” and saw so many men die under Spock’s first command. Just a few weeks ago, Bones had to order Spock to get some damn rest in “Paradise Syndrome” because the stresses of command were getting to him. But as competent professionals, they take Kirk’s final orders as a sign to fall in line for now. They have a job to do. They have a captain to save. They have a web to evade.

    Oh by the way, getting rid of madness would have also elevated Uhura’s role. Bones would have taken her glimpse of Kirk far more seriously, rather than the ravings of a mad woman. Remember how weird it was the first time Jake sees dead Sisko in “The Visitor”? How much less of an impact would that have been if everyone on DS9 was going mad at the time? I’m not even in “The Visitor” fan club, but I think it did a much better ghost story than “Tholian”.

    “Tholian” is like if “The Visitor” took place during "Dramatis Personae”. Ridiculous.

    I love the idea of “Tholian”. The new alien race. What is the "territorial annex of the Tholian Assembly”??? I want to know.

    I love seeing the Defiant, even if it is unfortunate that every time we see a Constitution class ship, the ship and crew are dead. Decker lost the Constellation (“Doomsday”). The Republic was destroyed because of Finney (“Court Martial”). The Farragut crew was killed by some weird fog (“Obsession”). 500 people on the Lexington and Excalibur were killed by The Ultimate Computer. We could go on and on… . In any case, there were lots of good ideas in Tholian, including pushing the Bones/Spock relationship up to the next level. Maybe I’m so hard on the episode not because of what was there, but because of what was squandered.

    @Rahul said, "Anyhow, I think you're about to review "The Empath" -- one of my favorites, so I look forward to that!”

    For “The Empath,” I’m thinking of just re-posting what @Brundledan wrote for his review of Plato’s Stepchildren,




    There aren't enough words in the dictionary to describe "Plato's Stepchildren". It is fifty minutes of pure, sadistic humiliation of our lead characters. The third season had its share of stinkers, but this is the only one of them that makes me wish the series had been yanked from the network schedule before the ep had a chance to air.

    I can only imagine how many Trekkies who had worked so hard to get the show renewed sat in front of their televisions in slack-jawed horror that Friday night in November 1968, watching Kirk slap himself silly for thirty seconds and wondering what they had written all of those letters for.



    Weirdly, I used to always enjoy The Empath.

    I think back in the day, when they would air TOS reruns during marathons, they would be careful not to put too many torture episodes or too many madness episodes into any given marathon. I suspect these episodes hold up a lot better on their own or when couched with some fun episodes, rather than when they are viewed in Season 3 airing order - which makes them seem needlessly derivative, and over the top sadistic.

    On TNG, Chain of Command part II is one of my all-time favorites. On Babylon 5, Intersections in Real Time - the Sheridan torture hour - is one of my favorites. The Delenn torture episode is also good - "Comes the Inquisitor” starring Jack the Ripper! On Firefly, "War Stores" - the Mal & Wash torture hour - is awesome. But if these episodes were all aired one after another, they themselves would become torture. I feel Season 3 of TOS is a lot like that.


    Re. the madness being needed or not in this episode, I suspect it is a "feature" meant to amp up the ticking time bomb factor. It could have been done without, but the episode would have been less visceral. Also, given the episodic nature of TOS, I don't think TPTB expected us to be counting the number of recent episodes where the crew is going insane. They surely didn't expect folks like us to watch the series over and over again and analyze it to death!

    Also, I think we have to assume that for most of the duration of the episode, Bones and Spock are not affected by the madness, such that they are able to carry on their "rivalry" as being true to their archetypes. That's how I feel that these 2 characters maintain their integrity here and why TW is a high 3 stars ep.

    I'll also add re. "Plato's Stepchildren" that it is the one of the very few TOS episodes that I actually also hate, though I do respect it from a critical standpoint. On re-watches, I don't watch the parts where Kirk/Spock get humiliated. I also found CoC II to be tough to watch at times but it's a very powerful hour and in the context of a prisoner of war situation, the torture is more understandable.

    But as for "The Empath", this one is more true to TOS in that we don't actually see brutal torture taking place. It wouldn't be consistent with the aesthetic of the episode. Bones is at death's door but the writers leave it to us to fill in the details. Can you imagine if DSC was to do "The Empath" -- well, I guess we have seen how idiotically brutal DSC can be...

    3.5 stars. There, I’ve said it.

    I have read the negative reviews of this episode, and am truly amazed. This was always one of my favourite episodes and watching again hasn’t changed my mind. No, it isn’t perfect but the main ‘criticism’ is that there is so much in it. Too much? Well, it crackles along with energy and tension and is never boring, so I’d say no, not too much.

    I’m not sure I agree with William that it’s a ghost story though the visions of Kirk ARE ghostly. However, look what we did get: great Spock/ Bones scenes; more involvement for Uhura; a decent different (I.e. non-humanoid) alien AT LONG LAST; a break from Kirk dominating every scene; tension everywhere and drama. The negatives are few: the contrived way they finally escape; the budget limiting an entire crew of 400 to less than 50 for the funeral service... and that’s about it.

    This episode is as strong as anything in Series 2, in my opinion. I love it still.

    Oh, and it made a great Mac screensaver in the 90s!

    I never realized before now how little this episode features Kirk. I wonder if Shatner was pleased to have some time off, or pissed that he wasn't front & center as the star?

    I love this one. Spock and McCoy at their best without "The Shat". These episodes should be taken on their own and not linked to each other like a lot of fans try to do. Taken on their own they are still the best SF ever on television.

    This was a great episode, the pacing and depth is fantastic as well as the character development.


    The "Vulcans don't lie, but they can mislead" idea really does have such potential for cleverly written dialogue, but repeatedly, the writers come CLOSE to clever, then throw it away and just have Spock out-and-out lie.

    Eliminate the word "No" from the start of Spock's line, "You see, the crisis was upon us, and passed so quickly …" and he's just making a statement of fact that combines with McCoy's lie about not having listened to the recorded orders to reinforce an untrue impression.

    So close. So close to clever.

    The web was cool although a bit pedestrian as a way of defeating an enemy. As a Kirk-lite episode it worked pretty well. The camerawork was good - a fisheye lens POV shot looking at Spock was quite disturbing! Some good banter between the main cast. 3 out of 5.

    2.5 stars

    This ep had more potential but execution held it back

    Just watched again last night and shocked at how much of an a-hole Bones is especially in his interaction with Spock
    Wondering if it’s just him succumbing to the pressure of the situation or the effects of interspace and the madness
    His character is redeemed by the ep’s conclusion but some of the dialogue was cringeworthy
    Spock’s temperance was noteworthy

    "Just watched again last night and shocked at how much of an a-hole Bones is especially in his interaction with Spock"

    Some writers understand the Spock-McCoy dynamic and some don't. By season three Coon and Fontana had left the show I think so maybe that's why you get more OOC moments.

    I rewatched a bit of this one to see what Gary was talking about. For some reason the Spock-McCoy roles were switched in this one. Usually it would have been Bones insisting on saving the Captain, with Spock taking the logical course of putting the safety of the crew first. Odd.

    I was absolutely despising the way this was going at first. Why was Spock holding Kirk's death announcement meeting so soon? Why did McCoy claim he wasn't needed to work on the cure because his staff was working "around the clock" --- it's been all of like two or three hours.

    Why does McCoy insinuate Spock wants the Enterprise? Etc etc. The whole Spock/McCoy dynamic is whacky and out of character.

    However, it all makes perfect sense if they are all subtly affected by the space sickness. McCoy even suggests it at one point, but it's never made remotely as explicit as Trek usually does which makes it fairly deeper writing.

    This is one of many episodes focused on the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but what sets it apart from others is the ex negativo examination with Kirk absent for most of the time while Spock and McCoy are facing a sort of no-win situation: if they stay, the Tholians will attack and they will all succumb to the disease; if they leave, they have no chance to save Kirk.

    Some have complained that McCoy’s reproaches to Spock are illogical and unfair, and I fully agree: on the one hand, he’s blaming Spock for Kirk’s death, on the other hand, he insists on leaving the area, and his allegation that Spock wants Kirk dead in order to assume command is totally unjustified. However, I think McCoy is very much in character here; his behavior shows his inner conflict, how he is torn apart by his emotions which, as usual, are standing in sharp contrast to Spock’s rational way to deal with the situation. And of course, this contrast is what upsets McCoy even more. He contrasts his own feelings of grief and despair with Spock’s apparent dead-heartedness, and he wants to provoke an emotional reaction from him, no matter the cost – that’s why he attacks Spock in such a blind rage. Spock, however, tries to handle the situation in the same way he supposes Kirk would do: negotiate with the Tholians; defend the ship against their attack; stay behind and at least attempt to save the missing crewmember. He doesn’t make an error; he’s not to blame for failing – as I said above, it’s a sort of no-win situation.

    The escalation of the conflict between Spock and McCoy while Kirk is absent shows just how much they need him, to balance logic and emotion and to find a compromise between the extremes. His absence makes their relationship break up. In this respect, Kirk’s last orders hit home, as if he had divined the conflict when he made the tape… well, to be honest, he doesn’t need to be a prophet to see it coming, but to me it seems that his words really have an impact on both Spock and McCoy: they realize that he’s dead and that his legacy, his last wish, the last thing they can do for him is to stick together for the sake of the Enterprise and its crew. That’s what brings them to at least try to understand each other. And it’s simply brilliant how both finally find it in their heart to apologize. It’s almost as if the conflict has brought them closer together; I love the final scene on the bridge because it showcases their newfound complicity in covering up for each other. I think Kirk knows exactly that they are flat-out lying to him – and they know that he knows! – but he respects their secret (or he prefers not to know…) and lets the matter rest: “I hope we won't have similar opportunities to test those orders which you never heard.”

    This one just happened to be next in my watch-through, timing is very closely with Lannion's post. I was actively thinking about his ideas while watching it (that it's an examination of Spock and McCoy's weaknesses without Kirk to moderate them) but one thing I found troubling was just how aggressive McCoy was toward Spock, without it being reciprocated. And unlike how The Galileo Seven highlighted the problem of supposedly pure logic in chaotic situations, this episode didn't show me that clearly that Spock was making too-logical but emotionally cut-off choices. So I don't quite see McCoy and Spock's usual selves being put to question. Rather, McCoy quite aggressively lays into Spock for putting the ship in danger, which he did do. In this respect I think McCoy was acting the same way he would have toward Kirk. Things get weird when McCoy starts saying that Spock did it all to steal the command from Kirk (!?) and that he's going to do everything in how power to take Spock down. These elements are so weird and out of characters (and so randomly nonsensical in-context) that I don't see how they represent McCoy's natural tendencies but out of temper due to Kirk not being there.

    But in one of their conflicts when McCoy is about to get physical on the bridge, he catches himself and sheepishly says the space sickness must be getting to him. But what is played as a feeble apology should be taken pretty seriously: the space sickness clearly was getting to him, and in fact is the only rational explanation for his outright hostility to Spock the entire time. But Spock hasn't been acting strangely at all, and contrary to Bones, I don't think hanging around in the dangerous anomaly to try to rescue the Captain is (a) unwarranted, or (b) selfish. In fact it's the sort of thing I'd expect McCoy to respect, taking a risk to save a comrade. So it flies in the face of his own values and of common sense to lay into Spock for what he claims is getting rid of the Captain for good and sticking around to ensure he becomes the new captain. So why shouldn't we just assume he's literally going insane? But that does beg the question of what the point is supposed to be of Kirk's secret order and the lesson they learned but didn't want to admit? What lesson did Spock actually learn, anyhow, where he had to admit he was wrong to ignore his 'human intuition' and also McCoy? I just don't see it. So a writing error, then?

    But here's an idea of mine: maybe the plot is representational generally of what a Captain does for his ship, and the spatial anomaly is a metaphor for the things that start going wrong when the captain is absent. Maybe the captain balances and holds all things together, evening out problems and enhancing everything. Maybe the ship's engines losing power is an example of the weakness in the physical function of the ship without its captain. Maybe Spock and McCoy's disputes aren't so much about McCoy's character flaws, but about how the trust between them is channeled through Kirk. So in the details I think McCoy's actions are best explained as insanity caused by the anomaly, but the meta-story is that his bond with Spock is really a 3-way bond, of which Kirk is the lynchpin. And we may also notice that Chekhov is the first officer to go insane after Kirk has gone, and Chekhov is notably the character usually portrayed as Kirk's protégé, or perhaps as the one who looks up to Kirk the most. He's the first to lose his composure, so maybe that's not an accident. It would fit in with the idea that the episode really about just how important the captain is to everyone on the ship, both functionally and in terms of morale. But more than that, I think maybe the episode is saying that part of the civilization effect of Starship life is just how great and admired the captain is. Rather than being a laterally collegial sophistication, it looks a lot like it's more like an aristocracy, where the greatness of the captain holds together the best human parts of the crew, like reason, peace, and harmony. Maybe the episode is hinting that even in a great future society like the Federation, we still can't expect that each person will be able to mightily overcome all their weaknesses and become a paragon, but that with a leader-figure to look up to and respect, perhaps one in relatively close proximity, people can and will rise up to be much better people. What would then make the Federation different from the present is that at present the ecosystem punishes virtue and rewards corruption and the power-hungry. CEO's are successful by maximizing profits, not by maximizing decency. Maybe in the Federation the system is set up so that people succeed by being better people, and this self-reinforcing situation elevates everyone. That way we could well imagine that Kirk's role on the Enterprise isn't merely to be the one to give orders, but to be the role model (not a fake role model like politicians today), the teacher of morals and wisdom, the judge and arbiter of disputes (like Moses), and the one who understands each crew member well enough to know how to nurture their development. It's sort of like a military/religious/civic leader all rolled into one. And to be honest, now that I say this, I do think this is consistent with how TOS portrays Kirk's role in general.

    An interest comparison might be with Picard, for whom I also think it's true that he makes the people around him better and more civilized than they would otherwise be. To an extent I think TNG also uses this model of the captaincy, as being far more than just being at the head of a chain of command on a ship. And as he is a paragon, like Kirk perhaps, it's not quite true that the Federation must be littered with Picards, which we could hardly believe, but is perhaps believable that the Federation uniquely enables Picards to be in command positions, so that they can lift everyone up as Kirk did. That greatest society, then, may well be the one the can identify and raise up the greatest citizens, so that they can serve as guide, model, and teacher for everyone else. And maybe most importantly, so that those kinds of leaders can be close to everyone else and in their actual lives. Just think - wouldn't you treat your job or other areas of your life differently if you were literally working for Jean-Luc Picard? If just working next to him changed your views of the world, of how to treat others, and made you feel like being part of the human race was a great honor? If I'm right, The Tholian Web is saying something like this. I don't think its script works all the time, and especially not in the exact nature of McCoy's accusations against Spock. I think there could have been a more organic way for their tendencies to turn them against each other, as they did in Galileo Seven. And if all of McCoy's actions were merely space insanity, this point was not made clear enough either. The literal story seems to perhaps take back seat to the meta-story, which is a weakness in writing.

    Without feeling the need to write a PhD dissertation here to dissect it, let me simply and humbly say this one of if not the best season 3 episodes, and of my favorites overall in the original series. Ignore the diatribes above; it's a good one.

    Mr. Jimmy nails it. Just simply an enjoyable hour of 1960s Star Trek. Some may see the flaws in any or all of TOS episodes, but I frankly wish that they all were as good as this one. Favorite line by Spock, renowned Tholian punctuality.

    WAIT QUESTION--isn't Spock way out of character--staying behind for a friend and risking all other lives--isn't that illogical and emotional or did I miss something?

    The Tholian Web feels more like a season two, or even season one episode from my point of view. It’s a pretty competent, engaging, and fairly taught episode with multiple ticking clocks being raced against. The character work is the typical TOS standard, layered and emotional without being garish or unreasonable. However, the space madness stuff does kind of undercut the character interplay, which sort of dulls the potency of this episode much like McCoy’s nerve/agent scotch cocktail softens the brains of our crew. We can’t be sure if McCoy and Spock are engaged in their usual acerbic banter or if they’re both a little haywire from some kooky mind warping. McCoy in particular is heavily implied to be a bit off kilter, even catching himself in the processs. But, even that negative has some saving grace in the moments of reconciliation and understanding that Spock and bones share, which always has to be played with such subtly that it constantly surprises me how impactful that nuanced style of character work is. Also the ending in which the big three all slyly agree not to acknowledge what they all know to be the truth is such a strong statement of their friendship and mutual respect, it really is the backbone of what makes TOS work.

    I really like the introduction of the Tholians, a truly alien species. I also like that the Tholians aren’t depicted as purely unreasonable, they give the enterprise time to make good on their claims about space being all fuzzy before they start webbing it up. And speaking of that web, it’s a strange and cool concept. I like the idea that the Tholians, being an insectoid species, even employ alien concepts of weaponry, building webs in space, with their tech possibly reflecting their evolutionary history in a way. The web might be a corollary to a tractor beam, or perhaps as insect-like creatures they have a different approach to conflict in general, prioritizing immobilization over outright destruction. Pretty cool stuff.

    I’d say this is a pretty strong outing and a good argument that the perception of season three as a dismal crapfest is greatly exaggerated. Although, I’m aware of the doozies coming along the back stretch: space hippies(shudder).
    A few other thoughts:
    -I always dig it when the crew dons spacesuits. It’s nice to get a glint of hard sci-fi every now and then.
    -McCoy straight up gets the entire crew drunk as the solution to their space madness problem. I mean, Scotty was apparently already there , as usual. It never ceases to amuse me that Scotty has two skills: badass engineering acumen, and an extreme alcohol tolerance. The Scottish functioning alcoholic stereotyping continues!
    -the poor Defiant. Yet another ship with all hands lost, between The Doomsday Machine, The Omega Glory, The Ultimate Computer, and the Enterprise’s trail of redshirt corpses left in space it’s a wonder the federation made it to that next generation.

    3/4 incorporeal, floating, Shatners.

    A jumbled episode but good parts. The idea of Captain Kirk "dying" but then phasing in to the crew is really strong. But its undercut by the B, C, even D plots that are sort of thrown in there. Even tho the Tholians are genuinely of the more interesting of Star Trek aliens.

    If all of their sensors (except the main view screen and presumably looking out a window) were unable to detect the Defiant, how was Sulu able to get the Enterprise within transport range, and how was the transporter operator able to lock on to the Defiant's bridge?

    This "spider web in space" episode I just learned was a sort of fan inspired episode which is a good thing because the original writers had by this time run out of hat tricks, left out of frustration, or been otherwise let go. Yet adaptations were made to abide with a prohibition against story lines with supernatural elements like a "ghost ship" and ghosts in general, so the alternative of a sci-fi "multiple dimensions" gets it's third or fourth dose. I don't see what the big deal was, it's perfectly acceptable to turn into a cat and back and forth, and monsters can turn into other things, but no ghosts. There were also no scantily clad women in this episode, although Ohura presents well in a rare costume change. Thought to be crazy at first for reporting seeing an apparition, but later vindicated when the command crew is also confronted with the appearance of the same apparition. Although the spells of weakness followed by bursts of madness thingy.... which was not caused by a pathogen or an alien will, gets attributed to the same interdimensional warp, is difficult for me to find convincing, but it was easy to just say and cheap to film lol. Buried in the mix is the bug like alien, bug like alien ships, bug like cocoon they were deploying around the Enterprise, that didn't provide as much tension as it could have. Because too much emphasis was being placed on spock and mccoy jousting for positions of power after the captain's presumed demise. And how they all suddenly escaped from that dilemma, retrieved the captain, and resumed normally going about their way in about thirty seconds....... have to leave room for the commercial.

    Agree with many on here - this is easily the best most competently written and produced Season 3 episode so far in season 3. I was never bored, there were many different moods, great use of actors, a decent script, real danger, mostly believable causes and effects, believable reactions that were true to character character, different use of camera angles and music and lighting, and no repetitive filler scenes. Some really nice understated and genuine work by Leanard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley really lifted this to well above average.

    As fans i think we know what we love about Star Trek which is why new trek failed to find an audience. even when its goofy star trek still treated us with respect because fans are important to fandom. That seems to be missing from new trek.

    My theory on the 'madness' in this epizode is that the "interphase" intersects the Mirror Universe (as proven in ENT mirror episodes). So the 'madness' is actualy not madness at all, but just the fact that 'our' universe's Humans can't handle the very different subconscious pressures of the other, more savage universe. So they break and go insane, since they can't control it.

    And yes, I know there are other episodes where Mirror crossovers happen and nobody goes crazy, but never in a area of space that is itself in flux. So even tho we cross over, our 'essence' if you will, is stil from our universe, not the other one. We're "shielded". Maybe the interphasic rift causes the other universe's 'energies' to imprint themselvs into our subconscious mind, making us as base and violent as the mirror Humans. We just can't control it like they can (they're used to it, they evolved in it), so we go berserk, not just savage and brutal.

    In the ep, Chapel describes the effects as 'deteriorating'. I dont think they are. I think it's the Mirror Universe trying to 'rewrite' us, and we're not 'compatible'. Just like the Defiant crew, but they stayed in the rift a lot longer, before crossing over fully. So they killed each other.

    Aniway, that's why I like this ep. Because I can attach my own theory to it, and it makes more sense then just random 'space madness'. Also brings up a interesting point. Maybe the mirror Terrans simply can't help being the way they are, becauze thats how the other universe 'wired' them. And specifically the humans, since we see that Spock is pretty much the same, in both universes. So are the Vulcans in general, and the Andorians, and evryone else. it's just us that basicly get flipped upside down.

    Basicly (chaneling my inner nerd XD ) I think as a species, we'r very sensitive to different quantum states and evolve according to them.

    And yea, Bones' 'antidote' is just a shot of souped-up booze. Cute XD I mean it wil deaden the nerves, probably keep the madness away, but it's not a cure lol


    Submit a comment

    ◄ Season Index