For all that I keep saying and believing that Star Trek is often a more philosophical show than an adventure series, it is still capable of doing very action-packed episodes. Then we get an episode like “The Doomsday Machine” and all bets are off on that. True, there still is some classic Trek philosophizing, but this is just a damn exciting episode all around. And given how Netflix has the episodes with the newer special effects, the title threat looks a lot more dangerous now. Really, anyone who wants just an hour of sci-fi adventure can get it quite handily here.
And on top of all that, this was a bottle episode. Aside from the space shots, all the scenes are set in pre-built settings, with various Enterprise locations trashed a bit to stand in for the doomed USS Constellation.
As a Trek fan, I do get a kick out of the episodes fans generally see as great. You know, the obvious picks like “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Mirror, Mirror”. But then we have “The Doomsday Machine,” and it just rocks. The Enterprise is investigating a sector of space that normally has planets. Now it doesn’t. They find a badly damaged USS Constellation. The only living being on board that ship is its commanding officer, Commodore Decker. Decker is one of those old friend characters of Kirk’s we’ve never seen before but is somehow super-important. However, he isn’t a love interest, so I don’t mind so much this time.
What he is is a man haunted by guilt over his actions. The Constellation had come upon some kind of artificial planet killer. There was an attempt to fight the thing. It went poorly, so Decker beamed his whole crew down to a nearby planet, leaving himself to die. Then the machine ignored the damaged starship and ate the planet (a detail Spock figures is how the thing keeps itself fueled). Decker lived while his crew died. Due to the Constellation‘s supreme damage, Decker couldn’t have saved the crew if he wanted to, and he did. Now he just wants revenge.
Any decent Trek fan knows why a Moby-Dick-style revenge obsession never goes well.
But I gotta say, the set-up here works. Start with Decker himself. He’s got bloodshot eyes and a half-day or so’s beard. He looks like he just got off a bender. Sure, when he needs to, he commands authority. That’s the problem. While Kirk, Scotty, and some other guys are on the Constellation trying to get something working, Decker has pushed Spock out of command of the Enterprise. Decker is obviously unwell, and McCoy would gladly say so, but not fast enough to do so officially under Starfleet regulations. Heck, that dressing-down to McCoy is so sharp, it banishes him from the rest of the episode.
Now that he’s got a ship in top condition and the planet killer floats into view, Decker wants to try again. It won’t work. The hull is too strong. Even when Kirk and Scotty get the Constellation working well enough to fire some phasers and move around a little, Decker keeps trying to “help” and ruins Kirk’s plans. Why no one thinks to shoot down the planet killer’s “throat” I don’t know, but here we are.
Now, as for the mindless machine itself, the planet killer has a basic design: a long tube and a large opening to suck stuff into it or shoot stuff out of it. It has an animalistic look, and then combined with the music, a thrumming that builds in intensity as it gets closer to eating, well, it’s just a giant threat. The music does remind me a bit of Jaws, truth be told. The sheer size of the thing, the way it ignores phaser fire, it just keeps on going. The only time it slows down is when it stops to swallow some asteroids for fuel.
Oh, and it’s headed to one of the most populated parts of the galaxy.
Now, Decker may have been going about everything all wrong, but he’s not unsympathetic. There may be a Moby-Dick analogy at work, but this thing kills planets and ate Decker’s crew. It didn’t just chomp off Decker’s leg. And for all that Decker almost got the Enterprise destroyed as well, he does show how to beat the planet killer by flying a shuttlecraft down it’s gullet. Given the state the Constellation is in, it can easily be rigged to explode and stop the monster permanently. Can we have that done as tensely as possible?
Yeah, easy. Leave Kirk on the Constellation and have the transporter malfunction. Have Kirk call for help while Scotty runs around an exploding Jefferies Tube trying to fix it. Beam Kirk back at more or less the last possible second. Why not? It’s that kind of episode.
Perhaps appropriately, the episode doesn’t end in the standard way. We don’t have Kirk, McCoy, and Spock engaged in friendly bickering. Heck, Decker was dangerous enough to have Spock and McCoy on more or less the same page. Still, Decker was a longtime friend to Kirk, and the planet killer was exceedingly dangerous. Even if the Enterprise had escaped but failed to stop the machine, untold lives could have been lost. A nick of time rescue was exactly what the show needed. Maybe Star Trek didn’t do these sorts of episodes often in favor of the more familiar and more philosophical, but they could when they needed to. And heck, they did them well too.