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Dagger of the Mind

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at July 22, 2005 - 6:31 PM GMT

See Also: 'Dagger of the Mind' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Upon leaving the penal colony Tantalus 5, the Enterprise crew discovers a stowaway who begs not to be returned. Upon investigation Spock is surprised to learn that the man is not a criminal but a physician, Dr. Van Gelder, whom facility administrator Dr. Adams claims injured himself using an experimental device called a neural neutralizer. When Captain Kirk beams down with Dr. Helen Noel, he asks her to test the device on him, only to have Adams take over the controls and use it to implant suggestions in Kirk's mind which make him believe that he is in love with Noel and that he trusts Adams. Meanwhile, using a Vulcan mind meld, Spock learns from Van Gelder that Adams has been using the neural neutralizer to wipe out patients' memories and replace them with his own instructions. He tries to warn Kirk but is unable to communicate or beam through the security shield until Noel, acting on Kirk's orders, sabotages the power grid. Once the station is restored to operational capacity, Adams is found dead; he was in the room with the neural neutralizer when the device came back on after the power was restored, and his mind was emptied completely.

Analysis: I've probably seen "Dagger of the Mind" 25 times over the years and had remembered it as a somewhat silly story with an unethical doctor who got his comeuppance and one of Kirk's least-discreet flings coming back to haunt him, so I was particularly struck at just how engaging it is. The ethical question at the center of the storyline is framed by McCoy, who tells Kirk that a cage is a cage when Kirk expresses admiration for Adams' reputation and says penal colonies are now more like resorts. There's an immediate contrast between the clean, elegantly designed Tantalus facility and the appearance of Dr. Van Gelder, who arrives in a supply crate looking like a wild man and who attacks the first two crewmembers he encounters. Yet he never sounds truly mad, only agonized, and Spock and McCoy both quickly guess that there's more to him than a doctor who's lost his mind. He contrasts as well with Lethe, a onetime patient of Adams' who has since become a healer in his facility. She is sleek and preternaturally calm, reciting his philosophy of leaving the past in the past (Lethe in Greek mythology is the river of forgetfulness in the underworld), and like the neural neutralizer technician, she's far creepier than the armed and dangerous Van Gelder.

One of the things that makes "Dagger of the Mind" work so well is spot-on casting and acting. Adams is affable, unassuming, a strong presence without being commandeering - the same qualities that made James Gregory perfect as Senator Iselin in the classic original Manchurian Candidate among many roles in his long career. Morgan Woodward as Van Gelder plays the fine line between over-the-top madness and just-sane-enough very well, and Marianna Hill takes on the thankless role of Kirk's once-and-would-be-future romantic interest with enough assertiveness and pride that when she switches roles from accommodating flirt ("Call me Helen," she says to everyone, and they proceed not only to address her casually but to dismiss her professional opinions as well) to Starfleet officer, she makes it believable. In addition, Nimoy gives an absolutely lovely performance as Spock experiencing emotions he would normally deny himself, both while melding with Van Gelder and later trying to understand Kirk's loneliness. And Shatner - well, contorting his face and crying, "NO!" are trademarks of his Kirk-under-duress, plus he gets to grab and kiss another girl.

But the other thing the episode has going for it is its focus on psychology and the limits of science, despite the fact that it's set in a futuristic, cutting-edge facility that supposedly can rehabilitate the most hopeless of pathological cases. Adams, the well-respected professional, is a megalomaniacal madman while those emotional humans Kirk and McCoy whom Spock is always criticizing are able to determine fairly quickly that something isn't right, although psychiatric professional Noel finds Adams' goals and techniques laudable. No one is terribly happy to visit Tantalus in the first place, and they all seem relieved to leave it behind despite Kirk's regrets at not having met the legendary Adams; Spock notes that he finds it curious that Earth glorified organized violence for hundreds of years in warfare but incarcerates individuals who use it for their own gain. Moments later he uses a nerve pinch on the phaser-wielding Van Gelder without a second thought, but he responds to McCoy's subjective, emotional belief that there is more to Van Gelder's condition than meets the eye despite Kirk's more logical attitude that Adams is a renowned expert in the field and eminently qualified to take care of the mad scientist.

Human emotion comes into play repeatedly in "Dagger of the Mind", leading to many stupid decisions - Noel being overly familiar with Kirk because of their encounter at the science lab Christmas party and failing to distinguish between her personal and professional concern for the captain, Kirk playing a hunch and asking Noel to test an unusual and dangerous piece of scientific equipment on him, McCoy insisting on the investigation that uncovers the "chamber of horrors" in the first place. Yet the most dramatic moment stemming from emotion, or at least intuition, is Spock's. Though reluctant to perform a mind meld, which he describes as very personal, he lets McCoy persuade him not by citing the need to protect other inmates but with the words, "Jim Kirk could be in real trouble!" The filming of the mind meld itself is very intimate, with close-ups of both Spock's face and Van Gelder's, though increasingly only Spock's tortured expression as he repeats the word "empty" while Van Gelder, in a strangely dispassionate voice, describes the agony of being devoid of all thought and feeling, wanting any word, even hatred or death.

Another notable moment is Kirk's flashback-that-is-not-a-flashback, where we see what he thinks would have happened had the Christmas party evening gone as Noel suggests rather than as it did, with Kirk talking about the stars. He envisions carrying her back to the cabin careless of what the crew might think, but when she worries about her reputation and says it would be different if he cared for her, he asks rather harshly if she wants him to manufacture a lie and wrap it up as Christmas present, to which she replies, "No. I prefer honesty." How much of this is fantasy versus some extended version of what actually happened, and how reflective is it of Kirk's true desires where it comes to women on his crew as opposed to what he thinks Helen, who gave him the order to reimagine the event, would want?

There is a very strong implied criticism of psychiatry that operates by having patients forget their pasts or repress their violent tendencies. Van Gelder only succeeds in making his voice heard by trying to take the crew hostage, while Lethe and the man running the neural neutralizer console serve entirely as automatons for Adams. Perhaps they have had their darker impulses suppressed, but they appear to have little personality at all, with no capacity for joy. When Lethe tells Kirk that she loves her work, she says it in a tone of utter disinterest. Adams, however, clearly does love his work: what's unclear is whether he sincerely believes he is doing what's best for his patients, rehabilitating them with the only tool in which he still has faith -- he and Noel share a dislike of tranquilizers, which they claim should not be used again and again -- and whether he believed Van Gelder was a necessary sacrifice to protecting his research, or whether he is less benevolent and simply wants absolute power in his little isolated domain.

In many ways "Dagger of the Mind" is rather weak as science fiction. We get no practical explanation of how the neural neutralizer is supposed to work, no scientific discussion of the mind meld, no mention of the history of criminal psychiatry and the tradition in which Adams is working...plus we also see one of the least-secure prison facilities ever, where a guest can walk in and use (or, conceivably, destroy) the most essential piece of equipment and where an untrained, non-technical scientist can crawl through air ducts into the engineering area and shut down power to the entire colony. This doesn't particularly diminish the experience of watching the episode, however, for the pacing is tight and the characterization is strong, particularly during the back-and-forth scenes in which Spock tries to learn Van Gelder's secrets on Enterprise while Kirk tries to learn Adams' down on Tantalus.

"It's hard to believe a man can die of loneliness," McCoy says at the end of the episode, but Kirk doesn't find it at all hard to believe after experiencing the neural neutralizer. Spock, who previously told McCoy that humans would be better off giving up their emotions, then gives Kirk a smile at the order to break orbit. I've been interested rewatching the series how very little idealization there is of the Vulcan way, because my childhood perception had always been that Vulcans were better than humans and logic was being idealized at the expense of strong emotion - not Kirk's hunches, but McCoy's occasional tantrums. Now I'm really not seeing it that way at all.

It was sad to see an original series episode without Scotty this unhappy week when the world lost James Doohan. He will be greatly missed.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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