Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dagger Of The Mind

It's glib to describe an episode about brainwashing as forgettable, but it took almost ten minutes before I realised I had confused Dagger Of The Mind with Whom Gods Destroy. The plots are similar, bad trouble in futuristic asylums, but Dagger Of The Mind is unmemorable for an episode which includes the first Vulcan mind meld, talk about what Captain Kirk got up to at the science lab Christmas party, and the baddie having his brain ironically erased by his own neural neutralizer.

The slow pace of the story doesn't help. When George Clayton Johnson was writing The Man Trap Associate Producer John D. F. Black told him the problem with the script was, “you don't get the creature aboard the ship fast enough.” Dagger Of The Mind writer S. Bar-David could have done with similar advice. In The Man Trap the creature gets on to the Enterprise in act two. In Dagger Of The Mind the story doesn't reveal Doctor Tristan Adams as the villain until the end of act three; 35 minutes into a 48 minute episode. Even then it's not a surprise. Just confirmation of something the audience has known since the insane Simon Van Gelder began babbling to Doctor McCoy almost 20 minutes earlier.

It's one of those occasions where the limitations of television work against a script. It doesn't matter if Doctor Adams is nice and cooperative. Or how pleasant the Tantalus Penal Colony appears. If Doctor McCoy has a feeling something isn't right, and Kirk beams down to investigate, then something is wrong. It has to be. Kirk and McCoy are the heroes. The episode isn't going to end with Kirk giving the colony a clean bill of health and warping out of orbit. That's not how television works; and this is something the audience knows. The script writer has to put in some extra effort. An exciting twist, or making the process of investigation itself interesting. But in Dagger Of The Mind that never happens. Instead Kirk investigates, Doctor Adams cooperates, Van Gelder babbles, and McCoy can't shake this feeling something is wrong. Until we need an conclusion to act three when Kirk decides to test the neural neutralizer on himself and Doctor Adams leaps out the of shadows and reveals himself to be the villain.

Unless I missed something, and I'm pretty sure I didn't, it's never explained why Doctor Adams is doing what he does. He's a successful psychologist with a twenty year track record of transforming prisons and the treatment of prisoners; Kirk speaks about him in glowing terms at the beginning of the episode. One morning six months ago he decided to start using his neural neutralizer on Van Gelder. He starts torturing Kirk as well, once Kirk discovers the true effectiveness of the neutralizer. It never seems to occur to him to implant a simple message of “everything's fine” in Kirk and Doctor Helen Noel's minds and send them back to the Enterprise. So in addition to being motiveless he is bad at planning.

Doctor Helen Noel is a psychologist and member of McCoy's staff. She beams down with Kirk to inspect the Tantalus Penal Colony. She and Kirk met once before at the science lab Christmas party and since then she must have carried a torch for Kirk because while testing the neutralizer she interprets Kirk's order to implant an unusual suggestion to mean she should fake a memory of their Christmas party encounter going all the way to first base. Doctor Adams, in his new role as motiveless insane sadist, builds on this to convince Kirk he is madly in love with Doctor Noel. This leads to a lovesick Kirk mooning over Noel, one of the few memorable moments of the episode, and a good joke when Kirk crawls across a bed towards Doctor Noel. It looks as if he is about to ravish her until he moves past her to an air vent he actually wants to examine for escape possibilities. At the end of the episode, when Kirk has been de-programmed, Shatner makes Kirk vulnerable in a way we've not really seen before. His subdued walk onto the bridge is the sort of small but effective moment Shatner often sneaks into episodes but which get lost among his bigger performances.

Leonard Nimoy makes the most of a scene where we see the first Vulcan mind meld. Nimoy plays it in a weirdly sensual way with Spock pressing splayed fingers to Van Gelder's head, then moving his head closer to Van Gelder's, dropping his voice at times to a hoarse whisper, and sometimes silently moving his lips to Van Gelder's dialogue. It looks private, and intimate, when another actor could have made it look clumsy and stupid.

Lastly a personal gripe, but one which for me sums up the episode as bog standard television. The neutralizer is depicted as a spinning electronic eye in the ceiling. In itself, a simple but good effect, especially when shown in close-up. The trouble is we only ever see it in cutaway shots because obviously it's not really mounted in the ceiling; that would be expensive and impractical to shoot. As a result you never see the neutralizer in the same shot as the cast, and you're never convinced it's physically there, no matter how much the cast look up on entering the neutralizer room.

Cutaway shots are a standard part of making television but each cut to the neutralizer emphasises the artificiality of a production already suffering from a script not written to provide anything interesting or new to the audience. In the past Star Trek has been really good at world building (the window across the cave in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, or the communication chatter we hear on the Enterprise bridge) but somehow this has the opposite effect; antiworldbuilding for want of a better word.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. As Van Gelder runs through the Enterprise several crewmen get bonked on the head  but they all make a full recovery.
Running total: 19

No comments:

Post a Comment