OK, so, I have been bagging on the season three episodes quite a bit of late. Truth be told, I’ve seen some real stinkers the past few weeks as I work my way through Star Trek‘s final season. But there have been some good ones, episodes that maybe had some budget cuts but still managed to pull of a good fifty minutes of entertainment based in no small part by how well the cast has grown into their characters by now. Yeah, most of the problems seem to come from half-assed content that some writer thought was a much cooler idea on paper than it would be in execution, or the show drifted away a bit from what made Trek what it is.
Then along comes an episode like “The Tholian Web” and the show manages to toss a lot of problems at the crew that, through hard work and mutual cooperation, they manage to overcome. And all they had to do was remove William Shatner from most of the episode.
Yeah, Shatner isn’t in this one very much, relying on Spock and McCoy to get along long enough to save the day. Kirk’s role has always been the mediator between Spock and McCoy, and he actually does that here too in a small scene where a pre-recorded message to both men reminds them to work together. Is it a little hokey? Yeah, but so is everything else about even the best episodes of this series, so I won’t knock it too much. There was a need to remind everyone what Kirk brought to the show when Kirk himself was phasing in and out of regular space.
The episode opens with the Enterprise investigating the disappearance of the USS Defiant. They do manage to find the lost ship, but only visually. Nothing on the sensors. They have to actually look at it. Kirk beams over with Spock, McCoy, and Chekov, all decked out in environmental suits, and find the crew all dead, and most ominously, all dead at each other’s hands. Then McCoy puts his own hand through what should be some solid surfaces and Kirk realizes they have to leave right now. Unfortunately, the transporter can only take three of the four, and Kirk insists Scotty get the other three first and then beam him back. It doesn’t quite work out, and Kirk is stuck on the Defiant as it disappears. He may be retrievable if Spock’s calculations are correct when he, and he alone, partially phases back to their universe.
So, that seems simple enough. Wait two hours, beam Kirk back, report the whole thing to Starfleet Command. That won’t make for much of an episode. Spock takes over command, and McCoy initially thinks the Enterprise needs to leave immediately because there is a problem with that area of space. See, something about the area they are in makes people’s minds go, and they tend to get violent when it happens. Chekov goes nuts first and attacks the bridge crew because Chekov or Sulu are always infected pretty early to show the home audience how serious it is. Spock is sure he can just grab Kirk and go, asking McCoy to find a cure for the disease as it gradually spreads throughout the Enterprise.
The second problem is the Tholians, an alien race the pop in and claim that area of space is theirs. They do give Spock two hours to try and rescue the Captain, but when the time passes and Kirk fails to appear, they attack. The Enterprise returns fire and knocks the Tholian ship out, but then a second one shows up to wrap an energy web around the Enterprise and then cart the whole thing off as a captured vessel.
So, we have a problem outside the ship for Spock to work on while McCoy deals with the disease. And there’s also the problem of the ship blowing an important part that Scotty may or may not be able to repair and replace any time soon. This would be the worst time to start arguing.
Of course they start arguing. Spock first stays behind to try to retrieve Kirk. McCoy yells at him for endangering the rest of the crew because Kirk is probably dead. Later, after Spock tells the crew Kirk is probably dead, McCoy completely reverses tracks and accuses Spock of looking to grab command of the ship as quickly as he could. Spock is, naturally, hard to read in these moments. Is he just annoyed at McCoy? That could be it, but he doesn’t do emotion because he largely can’t. That would be where Kirk’s last message reminds them both that each has strengths the other needs and off they go to save the day before either the Tholians take the Enterprise away in their web or everyone goes homicidal.
Or other things when Uhura, in a rare shot of her relaxing in her quarters, sees a spectral Kirk in her mirror. Because of course Kirk would first reappear in a female crewmember’s quarters. McCoy initially thinks she’s going crazy too despite the fact she clearly is not showing any of the same symptoms as a nearby ranting Chekov. But that’s just a sign things are turning. Scotty gets the repairs done, McCoy finds a cure for the madness with, of all things, a diluted Klingon nerve gas mixed with alcohol, and Spock makes the plans needed to rescue the ship and Kirk at the same time. Problems solved, and all it took was the two men who often disagree with each other the most to calm down and work together.
But perhaps best of all, Spock and McCoy both play dumb when Kirk asks about the recorded orders he’d left behind for his two best friends. It is somewhat nice to see Kirk taken aback a bit at the idea that his final orders were never heard and actually unnecessary to save the day.
I like to think that was how Shatner looked when they first gave him the script.