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The Doomsday Machine

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 27, 2006 - 9:11 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Doomsday Machine' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While attempting to determine why several entire solar systems have disappeared, the Enterprise finds a severely damaged sister ship, the USS Constellation, with only her captain on board. Commodore Matt Decker's ship had been attacked by what he described as a devil - a device capable of slicing up entire worlds - and when he tried to save his crew by beaming them off the wrecked starship to a planet in a nearby solar system, the machine destroyed the planet, killing everyone. While Kirk and Scotty try to make the Constellation space-worthy to be brought home, Decker beams aboard the Enterprise. But when an attack by the device damages the transporter, stranding Kirk on the Constellation, Decker takes command of the Enterprise and tries to destroy the Doomsday Machine. Kirk orders Spock to relieve Decker, who takes a shuttlecraft and flies inside the device hoping to blow it up with himself. Though his plan is unsuccessful, it gives Kirk the idea of doing the same thing with the Constellation, and he sets the starship to self-destruct, flying it into the maw of the machine. The starship's explosion destroys the mechanism of the planet killer, which is left dead in space.

Analysis: "The Doomsday Machine" is one of Star Trek's best science fiction stories. Though Norman Spinrad, an acclaimed science fiction writer, received script credit for the episode, it seems obvious that he got the idea from Fred Saberhagen, whose multi-volume Berserker series posits self-sustaining machines left over from an ancient, deadly interstellar war that travel around the galaxy wreaking havoc. Kirk compares the planet killer to the H-bomb, saying that it seems to be a device built for mutually assured destruction in an interplanetary war with no real expectation of use...except that someone has used this one, destroying its civilization of origin and unleashing it upon all other solar systems in its path. Though Decker seems quite mad and broken when away team members (and the audience) first see him, the extent of his horror begins to make more and more sense.

Spock and McCoy both see a death wish in Decker's madness, but while he is, as he tells Kirk, prepared to die from the moment he loses his crew, he isn't suicidal; he is determined to take the planet killer with him at all costs. Spock tries to talk reasonably to him, explaining that they would better serve the Federation by escaping and warning the people of Rigel of what is coming, but Decker is adamant that the device can and must be stopped then and there. Having already lost his own crew, he is willing to risk Kirk's to accomplish this task. It's certainly not his finest moment, and yet he does not come across as crazy - precisely the reason Spock and McCoy are reluctant to relieve him of duty even when he puts the Enterprise in danger. He has the right idea about the planet killer, but his nerves are too frayed for him to take the time to plan a course of action as Kirk does.

Once Kirk understands that his ship has been taken over by an impulsive, grief-stricken commodore, he acts swiftly and decisively, insisting that Spock take command on his personal authority and promising to take up the matter of regulations with Starfleet later. Left to his own devices (for of course a Starfleet captain can handle his escort of red shirts), Decker takes the rash action that at first makes Kirk say he threw his life away for nothing - he steals a shuttle and rams it down the planet killer's maw. It puzzles me that the device doesn't fire either on the shuttle or, later, the Constellation, but maybe the smaller and damaged engines don't set it off the way the Enterprise's nacelles do. Kirk and Spock would certainly never have given Decker permission to blow up himself and a shuttle to try to destroy the machine, yet this action gives Kirk the information he needs to succeed at doing the same thing with the Constellation.

And curiously, Spock is reluctant to let him try, though as the lower-ranking officer he is in no position to stop the captain. He does his very best to talk him out of it: "Jim, you'll be killed just like Decker...your chances of survival are not promising...the transporter is barely operating...30 seconds is very slim timing." Of course Kirk does it anyway. He's been getting his hands dirty, working with Scotty to try to get the Constellation's engines working, tying the impulse drive to the warp controls because the nacelles have been blasted and the impulse controls are fused; he knows exactly how badly the starship is damaged, that it probably can't be saved, and moreover he has heard that the planet killer is headed directly into the most populated part of the galaxy. One shattered starship would be a very small price to stop it, and he is willing to risk his own life rather than leaving anyone else to activate the detonator. (Good thing, too, since Kirk never could have fixed the Enterprise transporter as quickly as Scotty does to beam him back.)

All this unfolds with flawless pacing, first with the discovery of the wrecked planets, then the image on the viewscreen of a ship that looks just like the Enterprise but obviously in its death throes. Kirk looks as grieved for the Constellation as he has ever looked for any crewmember who died on his watch. This is a bottle show, for although the crew beams over to the other ship, it's entirely set on familiar standing sets; we can tell it's the Constellation's engine room rather than the Enterprise's because of the fallen pipes, but the briefing room and auxiliary control don't show any real alterations, no smoke damage or shattered panels, so it's left to the actors to convey the urgency of the situation. Like the Horta, Balok's beacon and so many other original series special effects, the Doomsday Machine suffers from being transferred to DVD and watched in widescreen, for its papier-mache "neutronium" hull and artificially lit maw resemble nothing so much as a hand-rolled cigarette, while the little dangling starships attacking it look like just that. Yet the storyline and characters keep the episode gripping.

And what dialogue! This is the one with "I'm a doctor, not a mechanic," "They say there's no devil but there is, right out of Hell," "Scotty, you've earned your pay for the week," "You worry about your miracle, I'll worry about mine," "Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard," "You're the lunatic responsible for almost destroying my ship?" and "Spock! Do something!" It's witty and energetic, giving weight to all the regular crewmembers present (Uhura and Chekov are inexplicably absent), and although Sulu says little, it's one of George Takei's memorable performances, as he must take orders from a commodore he has no desire to be obeying. My favorite Kirk moment is right after he uses the Constellation to distract the planet killer from its attack on the Enterprise, exclaiming, "Great! ...I think it's great. ..Scotty, get us out of here!" But William Shatner is also very fine in his impassioned final plea to Decker, telling him that no one expects him to die for an error in judgment. "You're a starship commander, that makes you a valuable commodity," he insists. "We need you...your experience, your judgment...we're stronger with you than without you."

And at the end, Kirk gets to offer one of his most subtle yet memorable social messages, again comparing the planet killer to the hydrogen bomb, the 20th century's doomsday machine. "We used something like it to destroy another...probably the first time such a weapon has ever been used for constructive purposes," he notes. And Spock - who has learned enough about humans to have consoled Kirk about Decker's death rather than pointing out its illogic - can't help wondering whether there are more of them out there.

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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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