“The Deadly Years” is an episode of Star Trek with a lot of unrealized potential. Normally, Star Trek likes to make some sort of philosophical point about whatever they’re dealing with, but not this time. Instead, we get some ideas about real experience…sort of. A few vital crewmembers get some kind of rapid-aging disease. That, by itself, could be a real problem. Then the episode factors in a bunch of standard Star Trek plot elements like a visiting commodore, the Neutral Zone, and just questions about procedure, but there’s a real missed opportunity here that the show could have taken a look at.
Instead, we get to watch Captain Kirk lose his mind.
See, there is a real opportunity here to address ageism. Granted, the concept of prejudice against older people probably wasn’t something anyone even thought about in 1967. On a routine visit to a science colony, an Away Team of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and the Female Officer Of The Week all catch a disease of some kind. Said disease rapid ages people about thirty years every day. Most of the scientists are dead aside from two ancient folks who claim to be in their late 20s. In fact, no one in the colony was over 30.
Does that seem odd to anyone else? I would think there would be a few more mature people in such a place.
Point is, it isn’t too long before even the last of the survivors dies of old age. And it isn’t much longer after that that the Away Team starts to age rapidly too. Well, not quite all. For some reason, Chekov is absolutely fine. Plus, the aging hits some people faster than others. The lone woman goes very old very fast, and Scotty sure doesn’t look too good when he pops into Sickbay. Kirk’s symptoms are initially more mental than physical. He forgets things and somehow develops arthritis. Spock, due to his Vulcan physiology, ages the slowest, but even he is quick to point out that his mental sharpness is on the decline and he finds rooms too cold.
Now, an episode like this could really get into how we treat the elderly. That visiting Commodore wants to continue the investigation at Starbase 10. Kirk, while he is still with it, insists that the Enterprise can do the job on its own. The episode ultimately proves Kirk right, but the thing is, the episode also never portrays the Commodore as a bad guy. He really cares. He honestly thinks Starbase 10 is a better place to be, and he only invokes Starfleet regulations when Kirk’s obviously faulty mind can’t keep up.
And you know, episodes like this one are among the prime reasons why it makes no sense for all the senior officers to be any given Away Team. Had a cure not been found, the Enterprise would have been out a captain, science officer/first officer, chief medical officer, and chief engineer. Sure, the Commodore believes the ship could function without most of those, but why were they put in such a position in the first place?
In fact, for all Kirk rails against his treatment, he’s wrong here. He really is incapable of being the captain of a starship. He just keeps forgetting everything. It’s one thing to be a little fuzzy, but Kirk barely remembers the last thing that came out of his mouth. As for the others, Spock is just a little slower, McCoy’s Southern accent is showing again, and Scotty needs a little help getting to Engineering.
Oh, and the woman officer is the only one to sadly note her physical deterioration. Because, you know, the woman had to be the only one to care about her looks. Then again, she’s also the only one who dies, so draw your own conclusions.
My ultimate point is this episode could have really showed age is just a number. Kirk’s general experience should matter for more in the grand scheme of things. It’s almost like the show had to give him the senility to justify the Commodore’s well-meaning actions. No, the real issue is the Commodore has apparently never run a starship before. And then he flies the straightest path to Starbase 10…through the Neutral Zone and into Romulan fire. Only by then, Spock and McCoy have cured Kirk, and he easily outsmarts the Romulans with a variation on the corbomite maneuver.
So, did anyone learn to respect the elderly? Nope! By this episode’s logic, getting old just sucks. The only one who learned a lesson was the Commodore, a career pencil-pusher, and that was about respecting a starship captain. But again, only one who has youth on his side. An old one can’t. A young one can.
It also turns out Chekov freaking out over seeing a corpse is what saved him from the disease. The associated adrenaline boost kept the radiation involved from making him a cranky old Russian. Instead, he can be a cranky young Russian that has to play guinea pig.
All that, said, aside from a quasi-romantic subplot involving Kirk and a visiting doctor, there isn’t much here that I haven’t seen on other, better episodes. True, Kirk’s triumphant return to the bridge does easily save the day. It works. The old age make-up was, I suppose, good for its time. It doesn’t hold up well today. But the way the episode depicted old age was as a series of stereotypes, even Spock’s complaining about the temperature in his Vulcan way. It wasn’t what I would call a bad episode. It just never quite lived up to its own potential.