Star Trek Re-Watch: “Spectre of the Gun”

Spectre of the Gun
Written by Lee Cronin
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Season 3, Episode 6
Production episode: 3×01
Original air date: October 25, 1968
Star date:4385.3

Mission summary

En route to establish relations with the Melkotians–a reclusive, papier-mâché-mask-wearing race–the Enterprise is intercepted by a space buoy with a very serious warning:

Aliens, you have encroached on the space of the Melkot. You will turn back immediately. This is the only warning you will receive.

Kirk hears it in English, but Spock hears it in Vulcan, Chekov hears it in Russian, and Uhura hears it in Swahili. It’s using some kind of telepathy to communicate to all of them. Though he understands the message perfectly, Kirk decides to disregard it pretty much immediately because “Our orders are very clear. We’re to establish contact with the Melkotians at all costs.”

Involuntary peace ahoy!

After some failed attempts at hailing them, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov beam down to what they think is the planet, but is actually just a giant fog machine because planets are expensive. Worse, they quickly discover that their communicators no longer work and the Melkotians don’t like trespassers. A Melkotian appears and calls the men “outside, a disease,” and says that because Kirk ordered his crew to do this thing, “yours shall be the pattern of your death.”

They are then instantly transported to a low-budget, flimsy Hollywood set of the Old West.

You can tell it’s the Old West because a building reads “Saloon”: a word which, like the rest of the French language, died out hundreds of years ago. All of the buildings are hollow shells–just facades, with no other walls. Kirk notices a newspaper, which tells them they’re in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26, 1881. That seems familiar somehow, but not enough to jog Kirk’s memory. A sheriff runs out and seems to know the Starfleet officers. He calls Kirk “Ike,” Spock “Frank,” Scotty “Billy,” McCoy “Tom,” and Chekov “Billy” as well. And that’s when Kirk connects the dots: they are the Clanton gang. Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Claibourne, and Billy Clanton fought the Earp gang: Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp (along with “Doc” Holliday) on that day in history. The Melkotians have created a surreal recreation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and cast our heroes as the losers!

Well, maybe it’s just a game, right? Alas, they enter the saloon in time to see Morgan Earp take out a random bar patron with his six-shooter. McCoy proclaims that in this place “death is real,” and they take uneasy seats inside the bar. An excitable blonde runs straight for Chekov and showers him with kisses. She seems to be Billy’s girlfriend, but Morgan Earp doesn’t like the competition. Morgan nearly shoots them right there until Kirk diffuses the situation (sort of). Then Kirk tries to convince the bartender that he’s not really Ike Clanton, he’s a spaceship captain–and the bartender just laughs in his face.

Hello, Plan A! Kirk tries to make peace with Morgan Earp, who will hear none of it, and slugs him right in the face. And if they can’t talk their way out of a fight, that leaves just one thing left to do: run. Hello, Plan B! Running! They try to leave town but find themselves trapped by forcefields, because there’s still 40 minutes left.

And now we’re at Plan C: what kind of weapons can they use? They don’t want to duel the most accomplished pistol-whippers in the West, so they brainstorm alternatives. Chekov mentions that “those Western Cossacks” had venomous snakes and cactus plants–aha! We’ll make a stew! A gas grenade stew! McCoy takes off to the dentist to find some necessary drugs; Chekov goes to find a mortar and pestle; Scotty heads to the apothecary for some cotton wadding; and Spock begins work on the grenade itself.

McCoy tries to coax the dentist into giving him the drugs he needs, but the assistant seems awfully wary. It turns out the dentist is none other than “Doc” Holliday, and he’s got a sawed-off shotgun to emphasize his point. He gives Bones what he needs, though, figuring the man’ll be dead in just a few hours anyway.

Meanwhile, Chekov is working very hard to get that mortar and pestle. In fact, that he’s off with Sylvia being nagged about getting engaged. She’s already bought the material for the dress, so won’t he just propose already? He tells her it’s impossible but clearly has formed enough of an attachment that when Morgan Earp breaks up their little lovefest Chekov tries to defend her. He gets a direct shot in the gut for his trouble. The rest of our boys show up and scramble to Chekov’s side, but he’s dead, and there’s nothing the doctor can do.

Back at the saloon, the men grieve for Chekov as they put together the finishing touches on their gas grenade. But something isn’t right: in actual history, Billy Claiborne survived the shootout at the O.K. Corral. So how could he be dead? They must be able to change history! Kirk decides to try one more thing before giving in to the gunfight–he tries to get the law on his side. In Plan D, he finds the sheriff but fails to persuade him to intervene:

KIRK: I can’t kill them! I can’t kill them!
BEHAN: Kill them any way you can! There’ll be no questions asked. Honest. I guarantee that!

So… why is there law enforcement again? Back to Plan C. The grenade is done and Kirk wants to try it out before the big showdown, though, so Scotty volunteers (after a deep draft of bourbon). He inhales deeply but the grenade doesn’t do anything. What’s going on? Spock has a theory: if some of the laws of science don’t apply here, than none of them must apply. It’s all some kind of vast, space douchey illusion.  Which leads us to Plan E: wait in the saloon and just let the clock tick to 5pm! Don’t play the game!

Unfortunately, they’re warped instantly to the spot of the fight just a few moments before the shootout is to take place. They try again to run but a forcefield once more blocks their paths. They must fight.


SPOCK: We judge reality by the response of our senses. Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. We judged the bullets to be solid, the guns to be real, therefore they can kill.
KIRK: Chekov is dead because he believed the bullets would kill him.
SPOCK: He may indeed be dead. We do not know.
KIRK: But we do know that the Melkotians created the situation. If we do not allow ourselves to believe that the bullets are real, they cannot kill us.
SPOCK: Exactly. I know the bullets are unreal, therefore they cannot harm me.

That’s a pretty big gamble and McCoy knows that he’ll never really be able to convince himself that is the case. There’s only one way to effectively brainwash them: the Vulcan mind meld.  First Scotty, then McCoy, and then finally Kirk.

SPOCK: The bullets are unreal. Without body. They are illusions only. Shadows without substance. They will not pass through your body, for they do not exist. […] Unreal. Appearances only. They are shadows. Illusions. Nothing but ghosts of reality. They are lies. Falsehoods. Spectres without body. They are to be ignored.

The Earp gang shows up just as they’ve completed the mind melds. They order Kirk and the others to draw, and though Kirk reaches for his gun, he does not fire. The Earps, however, don’t care–they empty their ammo into the men, but Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty all remain unharmed. Kirk engages Wyatt Earp in some man-wrestling, and once he’s pinned him to the ground he considers–and then rejects–the idea of shooting him.

They are all then instantly transported back to the Enterprise. Chekov is alive and well, babbling still about the beautiful Sylvia. In an example of logical gymnastics we are told he escaped death because the only thing real to him was the girl.

The space buoy explodes, and the Melkotians hail Kirk:

MELKOTIAN: Captain Kirk. You did not kill. Is this the way of your kind?
KIRK: It is. We fight only when there’s no choice. We prefer the ways of peaceful contact. I speak for a vast alliance of fellow creatures who believe in the same thing. We have sought you out to join us. Our mission is still one of peace.
MELKOTIAN: Approach our planet and be welcome. A delegation will come out to meet you. Our warning threats are over.

What luck! They plot a course for the planet, but Spock has something nagging him. He knows that Kirk wanted to kill Wyatt Earp. But he chose not to. How did mankind ever survive that kind of barbarism in their pasts?

KIRK: We overcame our instinct for violence.


Did anyone else get Ghostbusters II flashbacks watching this?

“Spectre of the Gun” has a dreamy and imaginative vein running through it, and it’s a shame the episode isn’t just a little better. Reality is subjective, of course, but what does that mean in the face of a sufficiently advanced holodeck/space douche? Human beings are easily suggestible;  gullible, even. People can believe a lot of crazy, unsupported things, but can we believe that we will die? And if we believe it, can we make it happen? It’s not a rhetorical question, really–the answer is yes. Psychosomatic medicine has been well documented, from the placebo effect to people giving themselves diseases like diabetes simply because they’re sure they have them.  We tend to accept the information our senses feed us even if it doesn’t quite compute logically. Paradoxically, we trust what we see and hear more than what we know to be true. It works both ways, actually. When Kirk tries to explain to the Barman that he isn’t Ike Clanton, the Barman says to him: “Don’t make no difference who I think you are. Your problem is, who does Wyatt Earp think you are?” It doesn’t matter what Kirk can do to show he’s a different person, Wyatt is going to believe he’s Ike, and that’s the reality that matters.

I wish the episode had dispensed with the “reveal” of the illusion much earlier. We all know it can’t be real–space douches are clever, but they don’t usually jettison people back through time just to kill them in ironic and morally appropriate ways. (Besides, they’re not in a realistic version of the town.) For me, the real tension–one that McCoy spoke to–was the way in which people struggle with doubt. You can be told over and over again that something is so, and intellectually you can believe it, but doubt still exists. When here just the inkling of doubt could kill, the stakes are so high. What if you were wrong? I think that’s more interesting, and yet we only saw our characters struggle with it for the briefest of moments before Mighty Spock (here he comes to save the plot! Again!) fixes everything in a neat little way.

Matt Jefferies did an outstanding job turning a limited budget into a chance to illustrate a central theme. The flimsy facades serve as signs of places rather than places themselves, in much the same way our memories will latch on to a detail or two and let the rest fall away to time. I remember the little green rhinestones my mom used to embroider into my jeans, but I can’t for the life of me remember the pants themselves, or anything else I wore in grade school. The Tombstone, Arizona of this episode is a hodgepodge of recognizable signs and symbols, unreal, dreamlike, and as much in shadow as it is illuminated. It’s a spectre of the town it’s attempting to represent and just enough to seem real, while at the same time just enough off, wrong, and unfinished to make you doubt the place. The lighting is haunting, particularly in the final sequence, and the way the bullets blow apart the wooden fence behind Kirk and yet leave the men themselves unharmed is very, very cool.

But like a bad dream, most of the episode never adds up. Why on earth is the Enterprise tasked with establishing contact with an alien race “at all costs”? What could they possibly gain through aggression and force in that way, if they’re attempting peaceful diplomacy? I’m not condoning the Cardassian-like court system of immediate execution but I think the Melkotians have every right to tell the UFP to buzz off, if that’s their wish. And for all that talk of venomous snakes and cactus plants, did anyone SEE either of those when they were preparing the gas grenade?

The illusion really falls apart in its contradictions, though. Kirk confidently proclaims early on that history can’t be changed, but this obviously isn’t history (unless buildings seriously didn’t have walls or roofs back then). And if it’s all an illusion, and all you need to make the place real is the belief that it is real, shouldn’t the gas grenade work? Shouldn’t Scotty, believing it to be effective, collapse as promised? To say that this reality is real if you believe it while simultaneously saying that the laws of science don’t apply here and thus it can’t be real conflates objective measure with subjective measure. If, objectively, the gas grenade doesn’t knock out Scotty, then objectively those bullets shouldn’t hurt Chekov.

I’m no expert on Westerns but I did enjoy the little cues they threw in from time to time. The Earps speak slowly, in almost comic deliberateness, while Kirk and the others rattle on quickly. The back and forth had a lot of the silliness of Western dialogue, too. McCoy, caught off guard that “Doc” Holliday is the dentist, insists “The emergency is real.” Holliday responds after a moment: “Sure is real.” It’s not Shakespeare, but it does feel Hollywood-Westerny.

As much as we get another moral lesson about the inherent violence of human beings (it’s been done), the lesson seemed out of place for the Old West. For me, the frontier represents a kind of lawlessness that says less about any particular individual predilection for violence than it does about the cultural framework that allows, encourages, and promotes that kind of violence. When Kirk tries to get the sheriff involved, he wants nothing to do with it, and points to his gun as the only law in town. Vigilantism, not the crumbling moral fiber of men, seems to be the issue at hand.

I think what I came away with most of all was that the Old West works a lot better as a metaphor than it does as a literal reality–and it’s a shame, too, considering the parallels between Westerns and SF. This remained true in The Next Generation’s groan-inducing “A Fistful of Datas.”

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I’ve seen ominous comments from people leading up to “Spectre of the Gun” that led me to expect another abysmal season three episode, but it turns out I’m rather fond of it. I didn’t remember it being bad exactly, but if you go solely by what it says on the tin the premise does sound ridiculous. There isn’t much new here either: it’s basically a story about first contact with another race of powerful space douches (who must have gotten a good deal on a used fog machine from the ornithoids in “Catspaw“). It’s definitely in the best interest of the Federation to make friends with the Melkotians, but the Enterprise is about as welcome as a Fuller Brush Man. (Come to think of it, I wish I could cause unwanted solicitors to hallucinate that they’re trapped in the Old West.)

I felt at a disadvantage because I just don’t know that much about the O.K. Corral and what went down there. I suspect the frontier would have been very familiar to viewers in the 1960s–Gunsmoke was still going strong while Star Trek was on the air, and it was a common setting for films of the era–but my interest in the Wild West is confined to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr and Back to the Future III. The Star Trek: TNG episode “A Fistful of Datas” is one of my least favorites of the series, and in some ways “Spectre” easily could have taken place in a holodeck with the safety systems disabled.

Part of what charms me about this episode is the set design. Kirk and his crew are on an obviously alien world with red skies and incomplete buildings, arranged like a studio backlot, but they seem convinced they’re in Earth’s past, limited by their roles and confined to historical events. There are few walls, yet they respect the doors that have been provided; I was impressed by the clocks and paintings hanging in mid-air, perhaps implying that the walls are merely transparent.

Though the half-formed structures were a cost-saving measure, along with probably-borrowed costumes from another production, the minimalist approach is inventive and makes the episode feel like a stage play with Kirk, McCoy, Scott, Spock, and Chekov poorly cast as period gunmen; the lightning flashes with the shadows of trees projected against the sky also add to this effect during the storm preceding the showdown. Despite his prior stints in Westerns, DeForest Kelley hams it up in places, some of his worst acting since “Spock’s Brain.” The way the Melkotians move the crew around on the planet follows the logic of a television show, whisking them from scene to scene against their will courtesy of a crazy zoom-in on their chests.

Just as the store fronts are mere facades, nothing on the planet is what it seems–in fact, it isn’t even a planet. Spock’s realization that reality is based on their beliefs is, well, fascinating. It’s all in their heads, and they can win via mind meld over matter. We’ve seen this concept in episodes like “Shore Leave” and “The Menagerie,” but I like the poeticism of Spock’s implanted thoughts:

They are shadows. Illusions. Nothing but ghosts of reality. They are lies. Falsehoods. Spectres without body.

(What’s with the British spelling of “specter”?)

As usual, Spock has some opportunities to shine. His subdued manner after Chekov’s assumed death and his comment that “they forget I am half human” ironically adds some much needed emotional weight to the episode. He’s clearly shaken, because a moment later he actually compliments Dr.McCoy’s ingenuity. They’re all working at top form on this mission, as they plan a way out of their predicament and arrive at a creative solution that should work. The moment where Kirk seeks justice from the Sheriff and discovers that the code of conduct actually encourages murder is especially stirring. Similarly, Spock’s question about whether Kirk wanted to kill is a sobering alternative to their usual laugh at the end of the episode. Unfortunately, it all boils down to another test of Kirk’s compassion, the idea that humanity has overcome its “instinct for violence.”

The episode also suffers because it lacks a genuine emotional core. Chekov’s romance with Sylvia is as manufactured as everything else, even if he is briefly tempted by her passion for the man she thinks he is. Similarly, Chekov’s death rings hollow; there’s no chance that a main character would be killed off, so it only tips us off that there’s a trick. However, most of the character interactions are spot on, and there’s a lot of good dialogue to enjoy. Also some inconsistencies to keep us thinking: how can Spock know so much about Earth in the 1880s when he couldn’t master the slang of the 1920s? An even better question: who brings a shotgun to a showdown? They pack a wallop, but isn’t the whole point to be quick on the draw?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 4

Best Line: CHEKOV: Where are we going, Captain?
KIRK: To exercise the better part of valor.

Syndication Edits: Chekov reporting the buoy’s range; Kirk ordering a course change to outmaneuver the buoy; Kirk asking Uhura to hail the Melkotians again; the landing party discussing the pistols; Spock assuring the Barman that they will watch “it” very closely; Kirk asking Sylvia again to let Chekov go; Kirk telling the Barman he hasn’t been born yet; two chunks of Kirk’s dialogue with the Earps in Wyatt’s office; McCoy cleaning up Kirk’s busted lip and their jokes about bourbon being “for external use only”; Kirk telling Scotty that they can’t beat the Earps with guns; McCoy leaving Holliday’s office and Sylvia approaching the store; the Earps egging on Kirk after they’ve killed Chekov; McCoy trying to console Kirk over Chekov’s death by telling him they all knew the risks of their jobs.

Trivia: The episode was originally called “The Last Gunfight” and Chekov wasn’t in it at all–instead a random redshirt was killed and never came back. There was also no warning buoy, which adds to the douchiness factor of these Melkotians. In town, the people walked to and fro as they pleased, and only Kirk and his men were trapped by forcefields. And McCoy, knowing that Holliday had tuberculosis, offered to cure him–Holliday declined. The ending was completely different, as well. Kirk and the crew ambush the Earps, who cry that the “code of the West” has been violated, and then disappear. The Melkotians (in this draft, the “Shawnians”) don’t understand why the “code” was in Kirk’s memories and he violated it anyway–so they assume he is insane, and being merciful creatures, let the ship go because they don’t believe in punishing irrational creatures.

The voice of the buoy is James Doohan. The Melkotian is Abraham Sofaer, who was the Thasian in “Charlie X.”

The episode aired one day before the anniversary of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Historical errors: Kirk’s character, Ike Clanton, also survived the gunfight (both he and Billy were unarmed and ran away); Morgan Earp, not Wyatt Earp, was the marshal of Tombstone, and despite the accusation that he “killed on sight” he was apparently one of the more moderate lawmen; and the actual shootout took place outside Fly’s Photographic Studio (not really near the O.K. Corral) and was fairly spontaneous, at 3pm, not 5pm.

Other notes: Before Star Trek, DeForest Kelley was ubiquitous in Westerns, including numerous depictions of this particular gunfight. In 1955 he played Ike Clanton in an episode of You Were There, and two years later played Morgan Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He usually played villains.

Bonnie Beecher, who played Sylvia, retired from acting shortly after this episode. She’s an ex-girlfriend of Bob Dylan’s (they went to college together) and went on to marry Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney), the counterculture icon. She now goes by Jahanara Romney.

The Earp gang were no strangers to Westerns: Ron Soble, who played Wyatt Earp, was in True Grit with John Wayne; Charles Maxwell (Virgil Earp) was in The High Chapperal, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza (and was the voice of the announcer on Gilligan’s Island); Rex Holman (Morgan Earp) was on Wagon Train and countless others; and Sam Gilman (“Doc” Holliday) was on Gunsmoke and The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp. To be fair, saying anyone in 1968 had appeared in Westerns was like saying an actor today appeared on Law & Order.

Mike Minor, who created the Melkot mask, designed the refit of the Enterprise in ST:TMP and was the art director for Wrath of Khan. He also did visual effects work on The Beastmaster, if that brings back any memories.

Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 5 – “Is There in Truth No Beauty?

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 7 – “Day of the Dove.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.