A very early episode of South Park was basically a parody of this particular episode. It scared me away from planetariums for years.
This episode? Well, it would scare me away from prison planets instead if I were inclined to go to one for no reason.
Yes, the Enterprise is delivering stuff again, this time to a penal colony with a tough forcefield that makes the transporter a little dodgy. However, when they beam up a box of what looks like classified material, there’s a bit more in there than might have been assumed in the form of a man with a crazed look in his eye, and this time it isn’t Shatner. Who is this man? He appears to be an escaped prisoner. In fact, the penal colony calls up the Enterprise to warn them as much. And you know, once the guy knocks out a crewman and steals the bathrobe that is apparently an Engineering uniform (does Scotty have one?), he could run amok on the ship for hours and cause all kinds of trouble.
Spock takes him out pretty quick with a neck pinch.
You know one of the things I love about Spock in early Trek when they were still figuring Vulcans out? Since he was an alien, if they needed him to do, oh, anything, he could do it. Knock out a crazed prisoner by just grabbing his neck? No problem! Be immune to a disease? He’s fine! Give the Captain an arch look when some woman shows up to be Love Interest of the Week? Why not? And one more for this episode in the form of the Vulcan Mind Meld, performed for the first time on the unconscious man, who, it turns out, is not an escaped criminal.
Nope, he’s the escaped assistant to Dr. Adams, the guy running the colony.
So, yeah, this could be bad. Kirk arranges to go down and check on things as he should. He’s interested in meeting Adams, someone whose work he’s admired for years, regardless, and if you think Kirk is dumb enough to go down to a penal colony alone, you are very much mistaken.
He’ll take one of the Enterprise‘s psychiatrists, a woman named Dr. Noel. Call her Helen. She says that to everybody.
Oh, and she and Kirk almost had a fling after the ship’s last Christmas party.
I wonder what Spock does for Christmas…
OK, so, again we have a woman with a thing for Kirk. Are there no women without a thing for Kirk he could have taken instead? Could he have found maybe a male crewman instead, even though that guy probably would have had a thing for Kirk too at this rate? Dr. Noel, there are other men on the ship or even in the galaxy? Try one of them instead. How about Scotty? Won’t someone throw some affection that poor guy’s way once in a while?
So, what about Dr. Adams? Well, he has a former prisoner he’s reformed on the planet, a blank-faced woman who speaks in a monotone and this somehow does not set off any alarm bells right away. Her name is Lethe, too. You know, from Greek myth, the river whose water makes people forget? Does Dr. Adams need to draw a map?
He might. He has a machine that, he says, will reform anyone. And Kirk and Noel decide to give it a test run later that night while Adams is away.
That would be about when Spock uses, against his better judgment, his mind meld on formerly crazy-eyed escapee Dr. van Gelder to learn that machine is bad news. It, well, messes with people’s mind.
Kirk and Noel find this out when she uses it on him, first telling him he’s hungry…and he is! Then he tells her to go for something bigger, so she says the Christmas party was a lot more passionate than it was because of course she did.
And Dr. Adams will show up to make all this worse.
Look, this episode famously ends with Dr. Adams getting a dose from the machine when no one is around to give him any new programming, resulting in his death. We won’t see Dr. Noel again, either, so hopefully Kirk got over her quickly enough that it doesn’t distract him from next episode’s woman with the hots for him. But this is Star Trek, so we probably need to ask about Dr. Adams’ overall plan to basically make sure no one stopped his rather drastic version of criminal reform. Kirk and van Gelder were both given doses of the machine to basically make sure they wouldn’t shut Adams down. And while it would be nice to see some way to make people who’ve committed violent crimes get true rehabilitation, this is clearly not the way to go. Van Gelder’s mind was almost permanently destroyed while Kirk’s emotions were flipped in ways that could have had an extremely detrimental effect on his future career…and as a Starfleet officer, well, he can’t be having that. He might need to protect the Federation at some point. Still, the prisoner Lethe we saw in the colony had no real personality of her own in her one scene, and even if she was a galactic-scale murderer, the episode (rightfully, if you ask me) presents that as wrong. I am reminded a little of the Babylon 5 ultimate punishment of “death of personality” that was reserved for that series’ own worst criminals where the particularly heinous had their minds wiped by telepaths and a new personalty put in, a harmless one that would give back to the community in some capacity in recompense for what the convicted felon had done, all while said felon had no idea he or she had done anything beforehand.
But there are some differences here. First off, “death of personality” was actually debated a bit by the characters on the show. One of them wanted to go back to capital punishment. The moral ambiguity of the punishment was part of the debate for the episode. And even though the punishment is still in place by episode’s end, that doesn’t change the fact that it was a controversial in-universe punishment.
Contrast that with Star Trek: Dr. Adams is clearly in the wrong. His prisoners are not people with personalities from what little we see of them, and they are not serving the community to make up for their crimes so much as they seem to be just working like zombies for Dr. Adams. His machine also proves fatal if it isn’t used correctly, and he’s clearly abusing his power if only to keep what he’s doing a secret. You’d think something this big would have been brought the attention of all kinds of people. Clearly, even Dr. Adams knows he’s doing the wrong thing here.
By episode’s end, Dr. McCoy is a bit amazed a man can die of loneliness. Kirk isn’t, but I think it is safe to say all people need some form of human contact, and we all need some guidance from time-to-time. But then, we also have and need the ability to make our own choices, and as Adams set himself up as a form of God, well, maybe he forfeited the right to be truly human as far as the machine went.
Instant karma’s gonna get ya.