“THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE”
Season 2, Episode 6 (Production 36), Story 35
Written by Norman Spinrad; Directed by Marc Daniels
PLOT: A planet killing spaceship wants to eat the Enterprise.
SUBPLOT: Where the hell is Uhura?
KIRKISM: “You worry about your miracles, Scotty. I’ll worry about mine.”
HEADER QUOTE SPOKEN BY: Kirk
It’s the rare episode like THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE that keeps me watching STAR TREK, but it’s appearance highlights again the frustrating rollercoaster nature of STAR TREK’s quality.
I’d almost prefer the show just pick an extreme, but then it might pick the suck half and then we’d miss DOOMSDAY MACHINE, which might very well be my favorite episode of STAR TREK that I’ve watched.
DOOMSDAY crackles from start to finish, fueled by a fantastic guest turn from William Windom playing Commodore Matt Decker, captain of the USS Constellation. The Enterprise picks up the Constellation‘s faint distress beacon and finds several decimated space systems, where entire planets have been reduced to rubble.
Kirk, Scotty, McCoy, and an away team beam over to the Constellation and find an empty ship. There’s a real creepy feeling to these scenes, a credit to the actors, director Marc Daniels (doing his usual bang-up job), and the inclusion of some actual, properly scored music. When Kirk openly wonders why there isn’t any paper cups lying around, suggesting that this was an orderly removal of the crew, the largeness of that empty ship really hits home. Kirk theorizes that the crew beamed down to a planet, but Spock tells him that neither of the two remaining, intact planets in this system could sustain life.
It’s a small line that comes back in a huge manner a few moments later. Kirk and McCoy find Commodore Decker in a post-traumatic fog and they have to force his mind into the present. Decker tells them that he beamed the crew down to the third planet. Kirk tells him, “There is no third planet,” and Decker wails, “Don’t you think I know that? There was, but not anymore!”
It’s a small moment but incredibly powerful.
Kirk orders Decker back to the Enterprise and before he can get back the planet killer shows up, preventing his own trip back to safety. It’s a great move that has real narrative consequence, something that’s sometimes absent in TOS. With Kirk trapped on the Constellation and Decker now the highest ranking officer on the Enterprise, we’ve got a captain in his right mind captaining a dead ship, and a rattled Commodore forcing his way to control of a live ship. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, and both Shatner and Windom act the heck out of their scenes.
There’s a nice mythological angle layered on top of everything, as the planet killer is theorized to be a “doomsday machine,” a machine so powerful that it would never need to be used. The front of the ship looks like a whale shark opening its mouth to collect plankton, and there’s some really good battle sequences between the planet killer and the Enterprise, something rarely seen in TOS. The Enterprise faces destruction every other week, of course, but this time around I really felt the danger. There’s just something menacing about this slow-moving, all-powerful machine, operating without any discernible captain or crew. It just eats, and what it eats are planets.
When Decker is finally relieved of command of the Enterprise, he hops into a shuttle and drives the small craft right into the mouth of the planet killer. Sulu notices that this act slightly damages their enemy, so Kirk ends up piloting the Constellation into the maw of the massive ship, destroying it.
There’s real tension here and real questions about the role of the captain. Decker is convinced he should die for making a decision that caused his crew to perish, while Kirk thinks that’s madness. Decker’s madness, however, gives them the idea to defeat the seemingly undefeatable machine.
It’s disappointing that Uhura’s not around during the one episode where her character would have had a ton to do, but it’s a small complaint in an otherwise top-notch episode.