In the ninth episode of the first season of Star Trek, a stowaway aboard the Enterprise reveals a possible conspiracy in an idyllic prison. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For lots of talk of consent and ableism, including nonconsensual medical procedures, and for violence against prisoners
HOLY SHIT, Y’ALL. I LOVED THIS EPISODE. There’s a few things I wished to see more of, certainly. This is another Kirk-heavy episode, and I found it strange that the whole plot was about medical procedures and Bones didn’t come along. However, that allowed us to get the story between Kirk and Dr. Helen Noel, which was surprisingly fascinating for what it was.
This is a case of science fiction coming a little close to the real world, and I thought it was largely done respectfully, especially given when this aired. We’re tricked in the opening scenes into thinking that Dr. Simon van Gelder is some horrible criminal who snuck on board the Enterprise. But the episode becomes a slow burn of awkwardness and unsettling details, and I love the pacing here. I admit that it’s actually really intriguing to view how storytelling was done nearly fifty years ago because I imagine that most people would find “Dagger of the Mind” boring. It’s nowhere near as fast-paced as a lot of modern sci-fi or action, but I think that even if you view this out of the context of when it was made, it still works. That’s because this story is about how a person’s stereotypical story is slowly eroded by suspicion. As Bones further probes van Gelder’s mind (and then Spock does it much more dramatically later in the episode), his story makes less and less sense.
That’s due to contrast, and in hindsight, that’s always what Dr. Adams intended. He wanted the crew of the Enterprise to write off Dr. van Gelder because he’d lost his sanity. (He seriously underestimated these people, obviously!) In contrast, Dr. Adams comes off as open, honest, and transparent. He doesn’t balk at Kirk when he’s questioned, and he quickly brushes off Kirk’s attempt to apologize for launching an investigation into the events that led to Dr. van Gelder.
It’s all a meticulous construction on his part to prevent Captain Kirk or Dr. Noel from suspecting him. And shit, it works on Dr. Noel for a while, doesn’t it? Dr. Noel understands what Dr. Adams is trying to do on Tantalus V, so she’s biased in his favor right from the start. But Kirk tries his best to put the pieces together, and he can’t do it. Part of that is because of the information that Spock and Bones provide him. (MORE BICKERING, YES. I WILL NEVER TIRE OF THIS EVER, I SWEAR.) If Dr. van Gelder is as damaged as Dr. Adams claims he is, why does he keep having these painful bursts of clarity? Shouldn’t the things he’s claiming lack any corroboration? AND THEN THERE’S THAT AWESOME SEQUENCE WHERE SPOCK MIND-MELDS WITH DR. VAN GELDER AND IT’S ABOUT THE COOLEST THING IN THE UNIVERSE AND I WOULD REALLY LIKE IT IF THAT HAPPENS AGAIN. From the camera angles to the music to Leonard Nimoy’s acting, it’s one of those things I watched and thought, “This is probably a super iconic scene.”
But let’s get back to Tantalus V, because there was also a lot of cool shit happening down there. While “Dagger of the Mind” is clearly fictional, the idea of testing experimental procedures on prisoners is nothing new at all. At times, the episode was a surreal thing to watch in 2014 because we now know how often experimental medicine was practiced in World War II, in America for the last 50 years, and on poor, marginalized communities of color. It’s something that probably seemed unfathomable at the time, but is now eerily omniscient for someone watching it decades after it was made.
Even if no one ever says the word “consent” in this episode, the concept is all over the story. Dr. Adams tries to say that Dr. van Gelder’s condition was the result of him stubbornly testing the neural neutralizer on himself, as if this was some foolishly noble act on van Gelder’s part. But the truth is so much more sinister than that, since Dr. Adams was using the prisoners as his guinea pigs. Dr. van Gelder was neutralized in order to keep the whole thing a secret, but Dr. Adams never expected him to be conscious enough to escape. The whole thing demonstrates Dr. Adams’ willingness to violate the consent of everyone put under his care, people who were supposed to come to Tantalus V to be rehabilitated. It’s extremely unsettling to think about! I mean, the opening of this episode features Spock openly criticizing the penal system on Earth for its perpetuation of violence AND IT’S SUPER BLATANT AND NOT AT ALL SUBTEXT. So, as disturbing as this was, I could tell that whoever wrote this episode understood what was so wrong about all this.
I think that’s best shown by the plot between Dr. Noel and Kirk. I admit that their subplot certainly suffers from being underdeveloped. There’s not much here. All we know is that Dr. Noel and Captain Kirk once flirted with at a Christmas party. But that detail is important in what comes later. Kirk’s test of the neural neutralizer hints at the fact that Dr. Noel is still attracted to Captain Kirk. So, when Dr. Adams brainwashes Kirk into believing that he’s deeply in love with Dr. Noel, she doesn’t take advantage of it. Here, her fantasy of Kirk has become reality, but she rejects Kirk and tells him it is wrong of them to kiss. I’m not saying that Star Trek is perfectly progressive because there have been issues so far, but I have seen so many more horrible treatments of consent in 2014. It’s surprising and refreshing and it’s old as balls.
The video for “Dagger of the Mind” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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