Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Devil In The Dark

Balok is actually nice. Trelane is a child. The Gorn believe they were acting in self defence. Star Trek's three most notable plot twists so far from The Corbomite Maneuver, The Squire Of Gothos, and Arena. The Devil In The Dark can be added to the list because it has two big reveals. The first that the Horta is actually intelligent and not a rampaging monster. The second that it is a mother protecting unhatched eggs.

The plot twists of
The Corbomite Maneuver and Arena both generate surprise by coming out of nowhere. Until Kirk and the landing party beam to Balok's ship they, and the audience, have no idea Balok is not what he seems. Likewise until the Gorn captain talks to Kirk he, and by extension the audience, has no reason to see the Gorn as anything except aggressors. (Learning the Cestus III colony was built in Gorn space forces Kirk to re-evaluate his actions and is probably a major factor in leading him to spare the Gorn captain's life. It's fair to say Arena would have ended very differently if the Gorn captain had kept quiet). Pulling a twist out of thin air is not a trick The Squire Of Gothos can use. For the sake of consistent characterisation Trelane must act like a brat throughout the episode. Instead the twist is concealed by having the Enterprise crew express bewilderment at his behaviour, and encouraging the audience to think Trelane behaves the way he does as a result of having unlimited power, and also, most simply of all, by having Trelane played by a 43 year old man.

For The Devil In The Dark writer Gene L. Coon uses the same approach as The Squire Of Gothos. Obviously he would like both plot revelations, the Horta is intelligent and the Horta is a mother, to surprise the audience. However, for the sake of the plot he also needs to carefully seed information showing the Horta is more than just a mindless killing machine. Spock's decision to try a mind meld would be nonsensical without those little hints of intelligence: the sabotage of key machinery, the ability of the Horta to set traps like bringing the roof down near Kirk, and the way it is prepared to wait rather than kill Kirk immediately. Imagine Spock attempting to learn about the transporter malfunction in The Enemy Within by mind melding with Sulu's space dog, that's what The Devil In The Dark would be like. The hints of intelligence are also important for the characterisation of the Horta; and it is a character, not a monster. A script which treated the Horta like a rabid dog for 35 minutes and then suddenly went, “oh actually it's intelligent,” just wouldn't work. It would be like bolting the ending of The Squire Of Gothos on to Who Mourns For Adonais? (“he's not a god he's a very naughty boy”). The twist wouldn't just be unexpected, it would be unbelievable. Making the twists believable without blowing the surprise means Gene Coon spends 35 minutes performing the writing equivalent of close-up magic. There's a lot of misdirection going on.

There are two main lines of misdirection. The first involves borrowing the shape of a monster movie. Well not all of the a monster movie, just the bit where the army turns up to save the day. We skip over all the bits you'd find at the start of a film like The Blob or Invasion of the Body Snatchers where reports of a monster are dismissed as paranoia or mass hysteria. The teaser where Sam, Vanderberg, and the doomed Schmitter get the audience up to speed on events on Janus VI, covers the same ground as scenes of disbelieving cops complaining about crazy teenagers and their stories before dying horribly. We know there's a monster. It's killed 50 people already and the Enterprise crew are here to fight it like the US Army in Them! McCoy comes closest to expressing that doomed-cop disbelief when he refuses to even consider Spock's theory about a silicon-based lifeform. Even that can be seen as part of the misdirection. While the audience focus on another Spock/McCoy disagreement about the nature of the monster they are paying less attention to the way it behaves. Seen in this light Vanderberg's line, “we'll use clubs. We're not being chased away from here. We're staying,” is the equivalent of the scene where the townspeople join forces to fight the ants, or blob, or graboids. Using the shape of a monster movie primes the audience to expect the plot to play out in a certain way.

The second piece of misdirection involves the Horta as mother twist running interference for the Horta is intelligent twist. Gene Coon would like the reveal of both twists to be a surprise, but if one has to be sacrificed to protect the other, then the Horta as mother twist is more disposable.

The story would still work if the only twist was that the Horta was a mother. The Horta's actions could be related to a lioness protecting her cubs. However it's the reveal of intelligence which carries the real emotional weight. Suddenly the Horta isn't just an animal, it's just like us, and it's acting out of love and desperation, like we would. The reveal of intelligence also carries the very Star Trek message of not judging by appearances. And it forces the characters to rethink their actions. Kirk has to go from hunting the monster down to, effectively, negotiating peace between it and the miners. McCoy has to go from not believing in silicon-based life at all, to healing a thinking silicon lifeform. If the Horta was just an animal mother protecting eggs out of instinct then the miners could look guilty, and explain they didn't realise, and talk about how they would be more careful in the future. With the Horta being intelligent the miners have to accept that their actions, destroying the eggs which they thought were worthless silcon nodules, forced the Horta to choose to act as it did. It wasn't a killer until the miners made it a killer. However, as an intelligent being the Horta also has to accept the consequences of what it has done, and decide, if not to forgive the miners, at least to co-exist with them and give up any thoughts of revenge. Mistakes are made in ignorance and solved by communication, the second very Star Trek message of the episode.

So to conceal the Horta is intelligent plot, Gene Coon foregrounds the mystery of the silicon nodules. Spock can't keep his eyes off the one on Vanderberg's desk, and when Kirk quizes him about it the music gives us a significant sting. The script also explicitly links the monster to the nodules revealing they were first found on the newly opened level, just before the monster appeared. In effect the idea is to provide defence in depth. If the audience figure out the silicon nodules are eggs, and the Horta is their protective mother, then they will sit back and smugly think they've got the whole plot of this episode figured out. Allowing them to still be surprised when Spock realises the Horta is intelligent.

In fact the reveal of the Horta's intelligence goes a long way to explaining its actions throughout the episode. It picks off the miners one by one, until reinforcements arrive from the Enterprise. At this point the Horta must realise the enemy's numbers aren't limited, as it hoped, so instead it sabotages the reactor. How does it know to do this? It's never overtly stated but the Horta seems to be telepathic. When Spock makes initial contact the exchange of information is two way. Something the series has never showed us before. When Spock used telepathy to implant a message in the guard in A Taste Of Armageddon or interrogate Van Gelder in Dagger Of The Mind, the information exchange was all one way. Here, for the first time, we see information exchanged to both individuals. Spock learns the creature is in terrible pain. The Horta learns rudimentary English allowing it to write its brilliantly ambiguous message “NO KILL I.” So, if the Horta is telepathic, which seems like a sensible way to communicate miles underground, then it picks up that the reactor pump is crucial to the colony. Not in any detail, because humans don't have the same telepathic ability as Vulcans, but, in the same way Spock's attempt at non-contact telepathy reveals little more than the pain the Horta is in, it picks up the general concept; maybe everyone's worried the pump, the one non-replaceable piece of equipment, will fail. After stealing the pump the Horta also learns Kirk is important, so it isolates him with a cave in. We don't know what the Horta has planned because once it has Kirk alone it still can't communicate. Instead we get the wonderful scene where each time the Horta crawls forwards Kirk raises his phaser, and the creature moves away. Could the Horta have hoped to telepathically negotiate the return of the pump in exchange for the humans leaving its eggs alone? It certainly intends more than just isolating Kirk to kill him. It could have done that easily. It's already killed several armed men.

The realisation of the Horta itself is semi-successful. The Devil In The Dark is directed by Joseph Pevney, who also directed Arena. Like that story, and the Gorn, Pevney occasionally shows us too much of the Horta, particularly in the cavern scene with Kirk. Wide shots are important to show the audience the shape of the creature, but wide shots when the creature is moving clearly give away that it's a suit being moved by someone underneath; when the Horta climbs onto a rock to write its message the whole suit is visibly lifted and the shot would have benefited from being tighter. The Horta looks much better in close-up. Air bladders under the surface make the skin move and look alive. Best of all when Kirk and Spock examine the chunk they phasered off the Horta it still pulses and looks faintly disgusting. As with Arena, Pevney turns his shots into memorable images. The ending to act two is great. Looking up the Horta's tunnel we see Kirk and two guards framed in the hole as Shatner delivers the line, “We knew it was a killer. Now it's wounded, probably in pain somewhere back there. There's nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.” There's also terrific economy in the editing. At the start of the episode a planet zooms towards us, then we see a beautiful matt painting of an underground complex, and then a lone man in a tunnel with a gun. Within the space of 20 seconds, and without a line of dialogue, we've established location, a claustrophobic atmosphere, and no Enterprise. In fact this must be the least Enterprise focused episode so far. Dialogue in the teaser tells us the ship is on the way, and we see it orbiting the planet while the episode title is displayed. After that we get one more exterior shot of the ship, then a short scene of Scotty on the bridge, and that's it until the end of the episode.

Apparently The Devil In The Dark was the episode NBC used to announce Star Trek would be back for a second season. A voice-over gave the news given over the closing titles. The Devil In The Dark showcases Star Trek's quality, and values. If you wanted an episode to bring the audience back for a second series it's difficult to think of a more appropriate choice. 

Enterprise crew deaths: One. An unnamed security crewman becomes the last person killed by the Horta.
Running total: 26

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