Mark Watches ‘Star Trek’: S02E03 – The Changeling

In the third episode of the second season of Star Trek, GOOD LORD THIS IS DISTURBING. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of genocide

You know, it’s not lost on me how many stories came after “The Changeling” that were likely inspired by this episode. At the heart of this episode is an AI force that uses logic to destroy others, and it’s then destroyed by its own logic at the very end. I’m sure plenty of us have seen other shows or books tackle this very trope before, so it’s really cool to watch something like “The Changeling” because it gives a piece of contextual science fiction history.


I think that after a season of Star Trek, I’ve gotten used to the pattern that the show uses for most of it’s storytelling, and that pattern definitely appears here. The cold open introduces an impossible mystery, the crew then spends a third of the episode trying to figure out what the hell is going on, the people or the ship or both get terribly messed up, and then there’s a solution! And everything is beautiful and fine and everyone is okay except for those unfortunate redshirts who all died. To be fair, this pattern has largely continued to this very day for episodic television. It’s a formula meant to grab the viewer in the opening moments, and it works! Plus, it’s not just something that sci-fi television uses. IT’S BASICALLY THE MOTIF FOR EVERY LAW & ORDER EPISODE EVER MADE, amidst many other things.

I dunno, I think about this kind of stuff every time I watch The X-Files, since that show became such a huge influence on how television was made. I’ve known for a long time how important it was to shows that came after it, and now I’m getting the chance to see the same thing unfold with my watch of Star Trek. I AM UNDERSTANDING THINGS, IT’S SO COOL.

Anyway, let’s talk about this episode, because I also need to admit something else: I never expected Star Trek to be so unnerving. At all. Over the course of the thirty-odd episodes I’ve seen this summer, I’m constantly surprised by how disturbed I am by the content of many of these episodes. In “The Changeling,” the writers take an initially frightening scenario – an unseen vessel repeatedly fires upon the Enterprise, bringing it to the brink of destruction – and make it EVEN WEIRDER. When the Nomad finally arrived onboard the ship, it was clear that the show was going to commit to this idea. A floating space probe that believed it was “sterilizing” the universe: THIS IS WHAT STAR TREK DOES TO US. And holy shit, if I was going to even remotely entertain the notion that this probe was too silly to take seriously, I learn very early on that the Nomad COMMITTED GENOCIDE. Let’s not beat around the bush here. That’s exactly what happened, and it was all done in the name of cleaning up “imperfections.”

Admittedly, it’s hard to talk about this without invoking the real-world implications of this, and that’s probably this episode’s biggest flaw. No one calls it genocide, but when you exterminate an entire culture because they’re perceived as imperfect? Whew, that’s unbearably uncomfortable. That’s not to say that “The Changeling” is making a mocker of the issue; it’s just that it’s an unspoken aspect of the story that’s hard to ignore. But if it wasn’t clear how messed up this was, then look no further than EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS ON THE BRIDGE IN THE FIRST HALF OF THIS EPISODE.

Because holy shit. Uhura’s entire bank of knowledge is pulled out of her head, and SCOTTY IS MURDERED. Like UNDENIABLY DEAD. The shock wore off, for the most part, when there was a solution offered up fairly quickly. (Which is an aspect of episodic television that can get kind of grating. I think that’s why I’m having so much fun with Farscape, because it’s now clear to me that that show would kill off Scotty and take Uhura’s entire memory and THEY WOULD STICK TO IT.) But that didn’t make it less disturbing, you know? I think part of that is because it has the unintended affect of making us associate Spock with Nomad. It’s not a direct parallel, but it is a machine that is obsessed with logic, and that logic is taken so much further than Spock has ever gone. Initially, of course, Kirk is able to work within the machine’s logic to keep it somewhat under control. But it was only a matter of time until even Kirk was unable to stop it, so the episode becomes a ticking clock. WHEN WOULD IT HAPPEN?

Amidst this is a plot that I wish the show had explored more. I think it’s very easy to pick apart the idea that Uhura was “re-educated” in just a week because it ignores a glaring fault: What the fuck happened to Uhura’s memories? You can’t simply “re-educate” a person that way! So, I have no problem admitting that Uhura’s story is handled poorly at times, and yet, I LOVE SO MUCH ABOUT IT. I love Nurse Chapel helping Uhura to read. I love that she got to sing again, and I love that Nichelle Nichols was allowed to speak un-subtitled Swahili on national television. I know how huge that must have been! It was nice that Uhura got a story outside of her role on the bridge. That doesn’t mean it was perfect, but SHE DESERVES SO MANY MORE OF HER OWN STORIES.

But I think this episode does a phenomenal job with the concept. As Nomad adapts to the life and culture on the Enterprise, we get a rare moment in the Star Trek universe: the crew (and the audience!) end up knowing more about the antagonist than the antagonist knows about themselves. Through a Vulcan mind meld (I LOVE WHEN SPOCK DOES THESE), Spock discovers that the Nomad isn’t really a Nomad. It’s two probes, the Nomad and the Tan Ru, an alien probe sent to sterilize SOIL SAMPLES. Not OTHER BEINGS. But in the aftermath of a collision, both probes survived by becoming one, and in the process, the Nomad’s faulty and violent programming is born. And really, that’s what Captain Kirk has to focus on after he finds out that Nomad has broken free and is killing his crew: the Nomad’s programming is wrong. It is flawed! It has no context for anything it does because it’s so committed to it’s own logical processes. It improves the ship’s speed without thinking of how that will affect the hull, and that’s just one of the smaller examples of how fucked up it is.

The only weapon Kirk has against the Nomad is the Nomad, since it’s clearly so goddamn powerful that any of their weapons won’t work. Again, I can’t possibly be certain of the history of this trope, but watching Kirk use logic to force the Nomad to sterilize itself felt so refreshing and new. It was thrilling! And it was a great resolution to an increasingly unnerving story, one that could have only ended with the Nomad’s destruction or the Enterprise’s destruction. And hey, it may be cheesy that everyone makes it out of this fine, BUT I’M OKAY WITH THAT BECAUSE IT’S SCOTTY AND UHURA. I can breathe freely now, because that would have been entirely not okay.

The video for “The Changeling” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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