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The Devil in the Dark

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at November 11, 2005 - 8:44 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Devil in the Dark' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The mining colony of Janus VI, which is a source of the important mineral pergium, summons the Enterprise with reports of an underground creature massacring miners. When Kirk and Spock beam down to investigate, a reactor pump is stolen which could cause a meltdown that would poison half the planet. Spock believes they must be dealing with a logical life form and furthermore that it may be silicon-based rather than carbon-based, able to move through solid rock. He and Kirk see and injure the creature when it appears that it will attack, but the creature later spares Kirk's life while Kirk is trying to communicate with it. Spock performs a mind meld and discovers that the Horta is the last of its kind, protecting the eggs that will repopulate its species but which the miners have been destroying. While McCoy heals the Horta, Spock communicates the miners' desire for an alliance in which the miners will retrieve the pergium from the tunnels created by the newly-hatched Hortas.

Analysis: In this episode, Kirk and Spock encounter a being so alien to their experience that McCoy believes its physiology to be impossible and all humans who see it label it a monster. Within the course of the episode, Kirk and Spock prove that the Horta is not only sentient but intelligent, that its behavior can easily be explained in human terms and that a symbiotic relationship with this utterly foreign species can be extremely beneficial to humans. These are the finest values of Star Trek in a nutshell, and even though the episode suffers on DVD from comparisons with nearly four decades of sci-fi with improved special effects, sparking unfortunate "Pizza the Hutt" remarks about the Horta from younger viewers (and, okay, I laughed too), "The Devil in the Dark" remains one of the original series' most compelling episodes.

Does that all sound a little idealistic? Well, yes, but the story isn't told through science and rhetoric; Kirk doesn't even get to make one of his famous speeches about truth, justice and the American way to the miners. It's Spock who insists to begin with that the Horta should be treated as a unique and valuable being rather than a deadly adversary, and he's willing to toss that away when he believes Kirk's life may be in danger. If the extent to which Kirk matters to Spock, emotionally, has not been clear before now, there can be no doubt as he runs through the tunnels shouting, "JIM!" and begging Kirk to shoot quickly that this is not, to paraphrase from a few episodes down the road, Spock's quite logical fear of Starfleet losing a highly proficient captain. This concern is personal, and so is Kirk's choice not to shoot the creature on sight but to take Spock's words to heart and see whether there might be some way to get through to it.

That's the drama of "The Devil in the Dark" - not whether the alien critter will kill anyone more important than a red-shirt or destroy the mining colony. From the pattern of previous episodes, we know that Kirk and Spock are going to figure out what makes this critter tick, just as they did with Balok and Trelane and the Gorn and the Romulan Commander and Khan. If a battle is called for, they're ready and able to fight it, but it's never Spock's first choice and despite some misgivings, Kirk allows himself to be swayed by his friend. He's irritated when Spock tries to circumvent his orders to the security team by telling them to try to capture rather than kill the creature, but a moment later he tries to protect Spock by sending him to work with Scotty, insisting that they are not both expendable on such a dangerous hunt.

Spock doesn't even bother with the logic Riker would have used on Picard, telling him to get back to the ship; he insists only that the odds against both of them being killed are relatively small. It's hard to say how much of his desire to stay below stems from a desire to protect the creature and how much stems from a desire to protect Kirk, who begs him to stay out of trouble. "That is always my intention, Captain," replies Spock with that nope-not-a-grin, Vulcans-don't-grin on his face. Kirk returns the concern when he asks Spock whether he'd be willing to attempt a mind-meld with the wounded creature, though Spock has already mentioned the possibility and is apparently salivating to get in touch with the creature. (I'm not going to wonder too much about how he can touch it given that he warns Kirk not to touch even the residue of the corrosive secreted by its exoskeleton in the tunnels.)

Either you buy the mind-meld scene or you don't; it's one of the most oft-parodied moments in Star Trek by fans, with Spock yelling, "PAIN!" and making faces to show that this is not standard awful Vulcan pain but something very much worse. He also speaks in the poetry of Horta language, describing the chamber with the eggs as the Chamber of the Ages and the Vault of Tomorrow. I find this somewhat distancing; it establishes that the Horta is intelligent and articulate but to me it doesn't convey the raw passion of a mother who has lost many of her children to brutality and killed the attackers out of grief. When McCoy arrives, he brings some much-needed comic relief, objecting that he can't treat something made of stone and snapping that he's a doctor, not a bricklayer. Still, it's he and not Scotty who's the miracle worker of this episode, for Scotty's improvised pump fails while McCoy convinces himself that he could "cure a rainy day."

Administrator Vanderberg and his men are awfully quick to forgive a being that terrorized them and killed many of their colleagues, although they have also had the prospect of great riches held out before them and apparently Star Trek's post-capitalist future doesn't preclude raw greed. From its bloody beginning, the episode ends with humor, with Spock repeatedly praising the Horta's logical mind as preferable to that of humans - even though it was an emotional hunch more than logic that led Kirk to spare her life - and Kirk taunting that Spock's immodesty proves that he is becoming more human all the time. It's the alien culture clash in microcosm - if three people as different as Kirk, Spock and McCoy could become best friends, surely the miners and the Horta can get past their differences.

A little too pat? Sure, but it's emotionally true for the characters and so it resonates on a bigger scale. The ideology of "The Devil in the Dark" encapsulates the appeal of the original series in a way that I don't think any of the second generation series ever equaled.

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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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