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The Changeling

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 6, 2006 - 5:03 PM GMT

Plot Summary: After the Enterprise discovers that all the inhabitants of the Malurian star system have been wiped out, the ship is attacked by a small yet incredibly powerful space probe. When Kirk hails to negotiate, identifying himself as Captain James T. Kirk, the probe stops its assault and asks for direct communication, calling Kirk "The Creator." Kirk discovers that the device is Nomad, a probe designed by a computer expert named Jackson Roykirk that launched from Earth and was believed destroyed. After an accident in space, it was repaired by an alien probe designed to sterilize soil samples and the two devices merged their programming, creating a device that believes it is designed to seek out all biological imperfection and sterilize it. Nomad kills Scotty and erases Uhura's memory, claiming that both units were defective, though on Kirk's orders it brings the engineer back to life. But realizing that Kirk is a flawed biological being, Nomad refuses to take his orders until Kirk convinces the probe that it is flawed and imperfect as well for having mistaken him for Roykirk, causing Nomad to self-destruct.

Analysis: "The Changeling" should seem much sillier than it does. It's one of a host of episodes in which Kirk and Spock out-think a computer; it's one of far too many Trek installments where someone who's dead comes back to life; it demonstrates that Uhura has so little innate personality that what's there can be restored in the course of a week (though considering that she can speak her native Swahili before she has mastered English during her re-education, I'm inclined to believe that Nomad erased specific learning centers rather than her memory as a whole). Despite such fluffiness and the comical slaughter of red-shirted ensigns stupid enough to shoot at Nomad, the episode manages to be witty, engaging and well-paced...much more so than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, whose similarity of plot is inescapable once one has seen "The Changeling." In both cases, an innocuous device launched from Earth becomes convinced that machines are better than human beings and can't wait to wipe the biological imperfections off the planet to leave a pure environment for it to bond with its creator.

Having watched the growth of Kirk's ego over several decades of Star Trek as he slew false gods and saved Earth repeatedly, there is something undeniably hilarious about watching a super-powerful probe address him as "Creator" and tell him constantly how wonderful he is compared to the imperfect "units" who serve him. Spock's expression when Nomad announces that the Vulcan is not like the others since he has an ordered mind is hilarious; so are the little grimaces each time Nomad addresses Kirk in reverent tones, and his eye-rolling at the end as Kirk laments the fate of "my son, the doctor" perfects the moment. This is a very strong episode for the central trilogy, with McCoy spitting fury at Nomad's contempt for sentient life while Spock manages to admire the logical mind of a device that has wiped out the population of an entire solar system. Kirk's dislike for Nomad is just as strong as McCoy's, yet he picks right up on Spock's cue to act the role of the Creator even before he understands why Nomad has singled him out. What follows is Kirk's opportunity to play an uncomfortable deity who speaks confidently when he orders Nomad to bring Scotty back to from the dead.

Because the episode starts with a space battle and a report of billions of deaths, the tension never lets up, for it's clear that Nomad could turn on Kirk and destroy the Enterprise or its crew at any moment. Nomad's attempts to be helpful, boosting engine efficiency to such a degree that the ship exceeds Warp 10 and starts to break apart, are nearly as disastrous as its direct attacks on crewmembers. Four security officers die, a body count that would be shocking in later generations of Trek for a single crisis-of-the-week. It's obvious from the moment Kirk declares himself to be an imperfect biological life-form that he's made a mistake, though how Nomad could have failed to notice this is a great mystery, and at that moment an inkling of how Kirk is going to defeat this mechanical monster in search of perfection begins to appear, but there's lovely tension built as Nomad invades Sickbay to scan Kirk's medical records and then flatly ignores his commands.

I can't think of any mind-meld scenes that are less than compelling, but the one between Spock and Nomad is particularly intriguing. Nomad has become more than the sum of its programming and that of The Other, the alien probe with which is has merged; it has a mind, it can reason, and despite its difficulty adjusting to uncoordinated facts and non-sequiturs, it very quickly learns the idioms of the culture around it. Spock is in contact with a thinking creature, sifting through its damaged memory banks and putting together the pieces of its past that Nomad itself cannot process. As he says, it's a real shame that there isn't more time to attempt to reprogram Nomad, which for all its destructive capability seems strangely like a child (another recurring theme of the original series: a great many scary, dangerous aliens from Balok to Trelane to Yarnek seem to suffer from immature reasoning far more than any innate viciousness).

Nomad's original creator was such a brilliant computer scientist that even the sometimes technophobic McCoy knows his name. There's a hint of cautionary tale built into both Nomad and the premise of the original series about how easily a peaceful mission of exploration can turn imperialistic or destructive; Kirk isn't really taken to task for playing God until Khan comes to punish him for abandoning his exiles on a planet laid waste, but Nomad has been traveling for who knows how long wiping out life forms on alien worlds. Kirk and Spock are afraid that the probe will discover and later travel to their common point of origin and consign Earth to the same fate, but imagine if some other species encountered Nomad's destructive power, determine that humans launched it and came to punish all the creators? There's never mention again of the extinct Malurians, but there might be a lot of enraged offworld citizens who blame the inhabitants of Earth for launching the device that caused the genocide.

Nor is there ever mention again of the fact that Uhura's entire past is wiped out in an instant as Nomad - trying to understand why she is singing and what purpose music serves - erases her chaotic, conflicting memories. "This unit is defective," it declares, thinking that Uhura can be reprogrammed and leaving her brain intact. McCoy declares that there is no damage, so it should be possible to reeducate her, but presumably that would preclude all knowledge of her background and personal understanding of her culture, who her family is, what she dreams about. Yet in the charming scene where Chapel teaches Uhura to read (an extremely rare instance of female bonding on this quite masculine show), Uhura is fluent in her first language and quite articulate about her frustration. Since her career knowledge and personality are both completely intact by the next week, one must assume that Nomad did an imperfect job attempting to perfect her.

Scotty continues to display the impulsive streak that got him into trouble in "Who Mourns For Adonais?"; this time it gets him killed, but in this early example of what will become far too many returns from the dead in Star Trek, his fate is heroic, trying to protect Uhura from the "mechanical beastie." When he is miraculously revived, he later displays fearlessness when it invades engineering, trying to order it to stop modifications that are damaging his ship. Poor Scotty is on the receiving end of one of Spock's hilarious scathing comments, assuming that there must be some kind of lilliputian creatures living inside Nomad's metal exterior and wondering how anything so small could possibly be so powerful, leading the science officer to retort that intelligence does not always exist in bulk. You'd think a computer engineer would know that!

It's the collaboration of these humans and the human side of Nomad, who's very nearly a lost child, which gives the episode so much appeal. Kirk must order Nomad to break the mind meld from which Spock can't escape, then support him and try to talk him back to himself while Spock catches his breath and seems emotionally shaken by his reliving of Nomad's near-destruction and rebirth. When Kirk later plays Spock's logic card, talking Nomad into a loop by which it must destroy itself, he seems less impressed with himself than focused on an unpleasant task; even his "You didn't think I had it in me, did you, Spock?" lacks his usual preening (at least not until Spock replies, "No sir"). There is something both amusing and charming about the fact that Kirk refers to himself as Nomad's mother rather than its father. The strange little family drama gives the episode a heart that's missing from many later man-vs-machine episodes of Star Trek.

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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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