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Spectre of the Gun

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at September 15, 2006 - 5:31 PM GMT

Plot Summary: Under orders to make contact with the Melkotians, Kirk orders the Enterprise past a warning beacon and beams down with a landing party only to be told that as a punishment for trespassing, he and his men will die in a manner befitting their history. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov then find themselves in an incomplete recreation of Tombstone, Arizona, where everyone who sees them believes them to be the Clanton gang. It is October 26th, 1881, and Kirk realizes that the Earps will kill them at 5 o'clock that afternoon if they can't find a way to escape. They try to negotiate, then to develop a tranquilizer to knock the Earps out, but when it fails to function, Spock realizes that physical laws are not in effect. He also realizes that history is not unchangeable when Chekov, whom the Earps believe to be Billy Claiborne, is shot in a quarrel over the affections of a woman, though the real Billy survived the gunfight at the OK Corral. Spock concludes that the entire scenario is only a mental projection and uses mind melds to convince the other crewmembers that the bullets cannot harm them. Because Kirk declines to return the Earps' fire, the Melkotians come to believe that his mission really is peaceful and agree to talks with the Federation; they also restore the entire landing party, including Chekov, to the Enterprise.

Analysis: There's no escaping from the sense that this episode was created because someone discovered a half-finished Western set on the Paramount lot and decided to write a story to go along with it; like the incomplete structures and sets, the storyline feels rather half-baked. The dialogue is often boring, repetitive and rather out of character, and the actors' efforts to compensate lead to some rather painful performance moments, none more so than William Shatner shrieking, "I can't kill them!" while the town sheriff is earnestly assuring the man he assumes to be Ike Clanton that there will be no questions asked if he does. Since the overall storyline is rather reminiscent of "Arena" - powerful aliens make the Enterprise crew fight to the death, then offer a reprieve when they show themselves to be peaceful - it's just not very engaging.

There is something rather nicely creepy about the unfinished sets and seeing the actors in their Starfleet uniforms, minus phasers and with guns, but I also can't help but feel like it would have been wiser to go all-out, fill in the blanks, complete the buildings and give us Spock in a big hat and Kirk in boots with spurs. The visual oddity of being able to see the sky through walls starts to wear thin pretty quickly, and it's never clear how this metaphor is supposed to work. Do we see Tombstone unfinished because this is all that Kirk remembers of the story of the Clanton gang? Does Chekov have a girlfriend because it was historically true of Billy or because Chekov's sense of himself in an Old West scenario would be as a lover, not a fighter? Both Spock and McCoy seem off in their reactions to Chekov's "death"; is this because of their altered state, or is it just bad writing? These sorts of blanks need to be filled in, even if the details of the actual gunfight at the OK Corral can be passed over.

This episode really makes clear just how big a role the technology of Star Trek plays in its ethos. Unlike other episodes set in eras where phasers, communicators and the like must be hidden - "The City on the Edge of Forever", "A Private Little War" - here the crew is without it entirely, and they seem quite lost. Kirk is the one who comes up with the idea of McCoy using local herbs and venom to produce a tranquilizer, based on a comment of Chekov's, while the science officer looks blank. And even Kirk seems rather at a loss - longing, as Spock later points out, simply to use the guns they have been given, though he knows it's the wrong thing to do. No one suggests less extreme measures for diverting the Earps from the gunfight - stealing their horses, starting a barfight, asking Sylvia if they can borrow her dress and having Kirk do a striptease...okay, not that, but the crew seems shockingly stymied and uncreative. The captain is so insistent that there must be a way to run away rather than to deflect the situation that Wyatt Earp's accusation of cowardice actually starts to sound reasonable.

There aren't enough moments of humor, as when Chekov insists that he has no choice but to play his role and kiss a pretty girl, McCoy chats blithely with the unrecognized Doc Holliday and Scotty drinks a glass of moonshine "to kill the pain" after volunteering to test the tranquilizer, only to shake his head after being told it will be painless and say, "Well, you should've warned me sooner, Mr. Spock." This is an episode that really could have benefited from one of the trademark comic tags among the main characters, though the ending is reasonably satisfying, mostly because Nimoy plays it well; asked by Kirk to perform mind-melds with each of the senior officers so they will share Spock's certainty that the bullets cannot harm them, he responds very stiffly and formally to the uncomfortable demand, "Very well, sir", then addresses Scotty as "Engineer."

When the guns don't kill them, Kirk gets in a few flying kicks and punches before the crew is restored. But it's just not all that engaging. While this isn't a truly awful episode like some of those later in the third season, there's little that's memorable about it beyond the visual of the red sky over the incomplete town and Spock's voice intoning that the bullets are not real and the landing party members shouldn't trust their minds.

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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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