In the twelfth episode of the second season of Star Trek, WOW, THIS WAS REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of ageism and body horror.
This episode absolutely did not go where I thought it was going, and I’m really pleased with the result. I mentioned on video during the credits that I was interested to see how Star Trek would deal with the rapid aging trope. It’s an archetype that has since become very common in sci-fi/genre shows, and this might be the first time one ever aired on television. (Of course, I have no idea if that’s the case, so please don’t take my word on this.) The story progresses rather the same across the board. (Except for Farscape, fuck that show, IT’S RUINING ME FOREVER.) Someone rapidly ages, the make-up never really looks convincing, everything is solved by the end of the episode, and it’s just another wacky adventure. (Again, Farscape, why must you continue your trope upheaval? I’m so thankful I’m watching that show alongside Star Trek. It’s such a fun experience!)
I wouldn’t say that “The Deadly Years” necessarily changes up this formula. But it’s in the examination of age, ability, and loyalty that this episode takes a trope (and again, perhaps the first televised usage of it) and gives us a story. I would offer up the theory that “The Deadly Years” absolutely could not work in the first season of this show because of this. The story has such a profound affect on us because we’ve spent over forty episodes with this crew and this captain. We’ve watched them interact, we’ve watched them grow closer to one another, and we understand why they are such a good team.
What happens in this episode is a degradation of trust alongside one of body degradation. If this were merely the story of the crew coping with rapid aging, I honestly don’t think it would have been nearly as interesting as the final result we get here. It’s a disturbing transformation, of course, one that manifests in each of the crew members differently. It’s not just that their bodies age, but each person begins to behave differently. Kirk is frequently forgetful; Bones is quick to snap at others; Spock’s ability to process and use logic is slowed; Lt. Galway becomes increasingly fearful. It was neat to see each of these actors portray their characters slightly differently as well.
But it’s the presence of Commodore Stocker and his influence on the story that makes this such a memorable episode for me. Initially, he doesn’t play much of a part in “The Deadly Years.” We know he’s heading to his new command at Starbase 10 and that he’s eager to begin his duty there. It was clear he knew who Captain Kirk was, either by a past acquaintance or reputation, so in the first third or so of this episode, he’s mostly there to look on at the aging crew with concern. BECAUSE IT’S REALLY DISTURBING. The same goes for Kirk’s old flame, Dr. Janet Wallace. She knew him before, and so she can provide us with a reference for Kirk’s behavior. I will admit that I am very confused by the confrontation they have in the hallway of the Enterprise about Dr. Wallace’s past marriage and her marrying someone older than her. I was totally convinced that this was a hint to the cause of the aging. Did she poison them all just to make Captain Kirk age because she had a thing for older men? I think I’d be less bewildered by this if Dr. Wallace was given any sort of story beyond this, but instead, we’re given hints of a greater plot, and she’s just a background character by the end of “The Deadly Years.”
Admittedly, I felt a little lost by the midpoint of this episode anyway. Once Commodore Stocker convened the hearing to determine Captain Kirk’s ability to captain the Enterprise, I didn’t really understand where this episode was going. We’d already seen evidence that he was both forgetful and belligerent about it. So as each of the crewmembers recounted stuff we’d seen just minutes before, I thought all the drama and tension was sucked out of that scene. It wasn’t until the final moments of the hearing that I realized what was happening. There’s a context to that scene that requires having watched this crew grow together and work with one another. The hierarchal structure of the Starship’s command means that many of the crew look to Captain Kirk for guidance and advice. That doesn’t mean these people are incompetent without him or that he is the most important person around. At the same time, they are reluctant to say anything that might get Kirk removed from command. They know Federation regulations, and they know what the end result of their testimony will be. That is the point of the hearing sequence. Each of these people has to fight the urge to be loyal to Kirk because they have to be loyal to the rules of their starship.
Perhaps no one exhibits this better than Spock, who we just saw recently espousing the importance of following command regulations at the expense of his own father. I did not see this episode as a contradiction of character, but rather a statement about how much Spock cares for and respect Captain Kirk. He knows what the rules are, but he’s also aware that Commodore Stocker is not exactly the optimal person to command the Enterprise. So he resists all of Stocker’s logic. HE RESISTS LOGIC, Y’ALL, AND IT’S ALL BECAUSE OF CAPTAIN KIRK. How could you not ship this oh my god.
It’s painful to watch. We know that Kirk really is experiencing memory issues, but we also know that despite this, HE IS MUCH BETTER SUITED TO LEAD THE SHIP THAN STOCKER IS. And perhaps I’m just reading way too much into this (I accept that!), but I love the idea that this episode kind of tells us that Kirk still is fit for duty, that his experience as a captain of a starship is better than Stocker’s memory. Stocker does not victoriously save the day; rather, his lack of experience with deep space flight brings the Enterprise close to destruction. It’s only after Kirk properly devises a bluff that they escape the Romulans. Granted, the solution to the rapid aging is assembled hastily and makes absolutely no sense to me, but I didn’t really care about that. BECAUSE THIS DYNAMIC WAS SO COOL. I didn’t expect that the show would go in this direction, and I’m satisfied that they made the point they did. Old age is not enough of a reason to disqualify someone for command.
Bravo, Star Trek. That was a great episode.
The video for “The Deadly Years” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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