Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Devil in the Dark”

“The Devil in the Dark”
Written by Gene L. Coon
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 1, Episode 25
Production episode: 1×26
Original air date: March 9, 1967
Star date: 3196.1

Mission summary
We don’t begin on the Enterprise but rather in the deep mines of Moria Janus VI, where an unknown “monster” has been taking out guards left and right. A deeply nervous guard, Schmitter, tells us that phaser fire is useless against it—but that the Enterprise is on its way.

“You’ll be all right,” his superior tells him, sealing the man’s fate.

Sure enough, as soon as the other men are out of sight, a huge plasticine creature-thing attacks. By the time the men run back it’s too late.

“Like the rest of them. Burnt to a crisp.”

Soon enough the Enterprise arrives and the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to speak with Chief Engineer Vanderberg, administrative head of the mining operation and the jerk who told the last guy he’d be juuuuuust fine. Vanderberg explains that about three months ago they opened up a new level, due to sensors picking up extraordinary readings of pergium, a crucial energy source, along with a slew of other valuable metals. But soon equipment began to disintegrate due to some corrosive agent. When repair crews investigated, they, too, were burnt to a crisp. With no known volcanic activity on the planet, Vanderberg assumes that it’s the act of the monster.

Chief processing engineer Appel enters, and tells Kirk that he’s seen the monster:

KIRK: Describe it.
APPEL: I can’t. I only got a glimpse of it, but it’s big and shaggy.

Real helpful, pal. At least now they know they’re looking for a Jim Henson creature. Appel goes on to say that he shot the creature but his phaser had absolutely no effect. Spock doesn’t seem interested in tales of badly-outfitted puppeteers, so he begins fondling one of Vanderberg’s desk ornaments: an enormous shiny sphere. So shiny. Vanderberg tells him that it’s some kind of silicon nodule, and that there are millions in the caves and tunnels below, but no matter: they have no commercial value. Since those couldn’t possibly play a larger role later, let’s pretend you didn’t see them.

Kirk wonders if there’s a way to draw out the monster, but before he can choose the appropriate virgin sacrifice an alarm goes off in Vanderberg’s office—the nuclear reactor! They rush to the scene and find the guard a mere stain upon the floor, and a huge hole burned through the door. It looks like whatever did this took the main circulator pump for the nuclear reactor. Without the pump, it will “go supercritical,” poisoning the whole area with radiation. Unfortunately the device is so antiquated that no replacement exists either in the colony or onboard the Enterprise.

KIRK: Mr. Spock, it seems we’ve been given a choice. Death by asphyxiation, or death by radiation poisoning.

Uh, that’s a no brainer. Asphyxiation, please! But anyway, they must find it, or the whole mining operation could be destroyed.

Kirk contacts Scotty about a replacement, but Scotty practically laughs at the idea. “I haven’t seen a PXK in twenty years!” He agrees to rig something up with odds and ends, but it won’t last more than 48 hours. The clock is ticking.

Spock believes that the creature is intelligent—the PXK is the one piece that the entire machine depended on. He goes on to speculate that though they have only ever encountered carbon-based life, this life here could be made of silicon. *dramatic music cue*

MCCOY: You’re creating fantasies, Mr. Spock!

Kirk isn’t so easy to dismiss it—he read about this on the internet once—and suggests that perhaps, if it is a silicon-based lifeform, it would be “of an entirely different order.” That may explain its existence deep within the rocky planet, as well as its resistance to phaser fire. Spock returns to batting his favorite yarn ball, the silicon sphere, and Kirk asks him what his fascination is with the object. Spock believes there may be some connection between the sphere, which Vanderberg had said was one of millions that they discovered right before the first monster attack, and the creature itself.

KIRK: Speculate.
SPOCK: I have already given Dr. McCoy sufficient cause for amusement. I prefer to cogitate the possibilities for a time.

Kirk assigns duties to a bunch of lucky red-shirts, and they all disperse to locate the creature and/or the reactor pump. Spock has reconfigured their phasers against silicon life should they find the creature, and Kirk instructs them to shoot on sight. No mercy for this muppet!

In no time at all another red shirt goes down, Kirk and Spock arriving too late. But the creature is still there—and just as they let their guard down it emerges from a tunnel! The creature is a flat, hairy, amoeba-like creature, shuffling across the ground much like a team of puppeteers would. You’d think it’d be large and round like the tunnels it creates, but, uh, don’t worry about that. The men come to their senses and fire their phasers, wounding the creature, which retreats rapidly through a tunnel.

Astonished at how quickly it can move and how thoroughly it can create these tunnels, Kirk and Spock decide to examine the chunk they cut off with their phasers. It throbs and pulses in their hands, and Spock confirms that it’s like asbestos—a creature made from minerals. Kirk tells the redshirts to be on alert: “There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.”

Spock takes readings of the area within 100 miles in all directions, and he can only find one creature. Baffled as to how this many tunnels could have been created, Kirk suggests that the tricorder is malfunctioning, or perhaps it has an extraordinarily long lifespan. Spock has a different theory:

Or it is the last of a race of creatures which made these tunnels. If so, if it is the only survivor of a dead race. To kill it would be a crime against science.

In a moment of unprecedented callousness, Kirk reminds him that “our mission is to protect the colony, to get the pergium moving again. This is not a zoological expedition….I’m sorry, Mr. Spock, but I’m afraid the creature must die.”

The tension between them builds when Kirk gives orders to the redshirts to disperse and find the creature, and Spock tells them to attempt to capture it. “Shoot to kill,” Kirk corrects him. Irritated by this insubordination, Kirk tries to reassign Spock to Scotty’s detail—but Spock out-logics him into allowing himself to come along anyway.

Kirk gets a call on his communicator from Scotty—the improvised reactor pump has failed, and Scotty agrees to beam most of the miners back to the Enterprise. Some of the key personnel agree to stay behind and try and find the creature. They split up, but Spock appears almost uneasy. “We’re being watched,” he says.

They come upon a split in the tunnel, creating two paths that diverge here but theoretically re-join down the line. Luckily they can travel both, so they decide to separate. Spock clearly got the one having perhaps the better claim because Kirk emerges in a room full of those silicon nodules. Suddenly the roof caves in, and then the wall turns bright red—the creature has burrowed its way into Kirk’s chamber.

The two stand off tensely. As Kirk approaches with the phaser the creature retreats, and as the creature approaches Kirk points the phaser at it. Silently, they try to gauge each others’ intentions.

Spock uselessly phones in to let Kirk know that the life form is very near him, but Kirk of course already know this.

SPOCK: Where, Captain?
KIRK: Ten feet away from me.
SPOCK: Kill it, Captain, quickly!

But Kirk begins to doubt his plan. The creature has made “no threatening moves” towards him.

SPOCK: You don’t dare the chance, Captain. Kill it.
KIRK: I thought you were the one who wanted it kept alive, captured if possible.
SPOCK: Jim, your life is in danger. You can’t take the risk.
KIRK: It seems to be waiting.
SPOCK: I remind you it’s a proven killer. I’m on my way. Spock out.

Kirk shuffles around uncomfortably before settling on his haunches. He awkwardly addresses the creature: “So what do we do now? Just…talk it over?” The creature spins around to show Kirk its rear (well now…), and the poor thing is oozing; it’s been seriously hurt.

Spock joins them, and Kirk instructs him not to shoot. Spock suggests a Vulcan mind meld to try and communicate with the creature, which is increasingly looking like a stained rug. From afar, Spock begins to get in touch with the creature’s mind… but staggers back screaming “Pain! Pain! Pain! That’s all I got, Captain. Waves and waves of searing pain. It’s in agony.”

The creature seemed to have understood something of Spock during the mind meld, and it shuffles to a rock face. Pulling back, it left an imprint seared on the stone: “NO KILL I.” Poor little rug. “What does that mean?” Kirk asks stupidly. The Vulcan explains that the creature is not at all acting like an animal—it doesn’t lash out at them in pain, but asks their mercy. And it calls itself a Horta.

Kirk wants to win the creature’s confidence, so he phones Dr. McCoy to come down with his medical kit. Bones is going to be so thrilled when he sees this! Kirk also wants to know where the reactor pump is, and why this creature has resorted to murder: he asks Spock to re-establish telepathic contact, and in order to do that Spock will have to touch it.

Spock does so, writhing in pain, and then begins shouting incomprehensible, pseudo-religious rants:

Murder. Of thousands. Devils! Eternity ends. The chamber of the ages. The altar of tomorrow! Murderers! Stop them. Kill! Strike back! Monsters!

Oooookay crazy rug. Suddenly McCoy walks in, to see Kirk voyeuristically observing this intimate connection. “What in the name of…” he wonders. I can’t blame him, that’s some pretty freaky stuff. It gets freakier when Kirk orders him to find a way to help the creature.

MCCOY: You can’t be serious, that thing is virtually made out of stone!
KIRK: Help it. Treat it.
MCCOY: I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!

Kirk reminds Spock that they’ve got things to do, and again asks for information about the reactor pump. The Horta gives him directions, and instructs him to “walk carefully in the vault of tomorrow” and “cry for the children.” Kirk does as instructed and shuffles into this vault—full of smashed and broken spheres. Eggs.

Meanwhile, the miners are getting antsy in their orange jumpsuits. They want vengeance for their lost men. They trick the redshirts guarding them and in proper mob fashion make their way to the chamber with the horta. They try to attack but Kirk firmly lets them know that the “first man that fires is dead.”

VANDERBERG: That thing killed fifty of my men!
KIRK: You’ve killed thousands of her children.

Spock explains that the Horta have been on the planet for hundreds of thousands of years. Every fifty thousand years, the entire race dies—save one, who stays to care for the eggs.

KIRK: The Horta is intelligent, peaceful, mild. She had no objection to sharing this planet with you, ’til you broke into her nursery and started destroying her eggs. Then she fought back in the only way she knew how, as any mother would fight when her children are in danger.

Vanderberg looks like he just drowned a puppy, and in a way he kind of did. The mob cools off, and Kirk returns the reactor pump to them. Vanderberg is worried about having thousands of these creatures running around, but the captain, as always, has a solution:

KIRK: You’ve complained this planet is a mineralogical treasure house if you had the equipment to get at it. Gentlemen, the Horta moves through rock the way we move through air, and it leaves tunnels. The greatest natural miners in the universe. It seems to me we could make an agreement, reach a modus vivendi. They tunnel; you collect and process, and your process operation would be a thousand times more profitable.

Meanwhile, McCoy is covered in concrete. He had the ship beam down “thermoconcrete,” made from silicon, and trowelled it into the wound as a makeshift bandage. “Jim, I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!” Spock gets back in touch with the Horta to offer the proposition.

Later, onboard the Enterprise, Kirk speaks to Vanderberg, who sounds thrilled at their new coexistence. He will soon be “embarassingly rich” from the new deposits uncovered with the help of the Horta. “You know, they’re really not so bad once you’re used to their appearance,” he says.

SPOCK: Curious. What Vanderberg said about the Horta is exactly what the mother Horta said to me. She found humanoid appearance revolting, but she thought she could get used to it.

He goes on to say that the Horta found his ears especially appealing, but he “didn’t have the heart to tell her that only I have them.”

KIRK: She really liked those ears?
SPOCK: Captain, the Horta is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive creature, with impeccable taste.

KIRK: Mr. Spock, I suspect you’re becoming more and more human all the time.
SPOCK: Captain, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted.

Kirk and McCoy smile, and the captain orders the Enterprise ahead, warp factor two.

Everyone kept telling me that this is one of the “famous” episodes, but aside from the “No Kill I” (which I vaguely remember from…something) I don’t recall ever learning anything about it, not even through parody.

The tension and the drama of this one is really well done. It felt as tense to me as parts of “Balance of Terror.” The way that Kirk and Spock explore the tunnels, walking in and out of pools of light, with dramatic music playing in the background felt almost like a Twilight Zone episode. When Kirk does finally see the Horta he looks downright scared! Very tense, very tight, and at times even suspenseful. The little standoff that they had is a bit giggle-worthy at this point (the rug! it’s attacking!), but their actions felt natural.

We’ve certainly dealt with the inscrutable and dangerous unknown in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” though there the alien resembled a godlike being rather than an animal. But again, we have something that we do not understand, a creature entirely unlike one ever encountered before, that is incredibly dangerous and destructive without actually being evil. Like the salt vampire, it’s the last of its kind, and the deaths it has caused have been purely incidental to the creature’s need for survival.

While this sounds fairly enlightened, I’m a little annoyed that no one cared about the Horta until they found out it was a mom. Spock postulates fairly early on that it’s the last of its kind, and Kirk tosses that out the window as a reason to save it. In fact, I believe his exact words are “the creature must die.” Why isn’t that enough of a reason? The salt vampire, too, was the last of its kind, and they did wind up killing it. What if she had been a mother? The “they’re going to die out anyway” reasoning does not persuade me. It’s unique, and it’s desperate for life. Why not leave it alone? Doesn’t it have more right to live in those caves than the humans?

The answer is the pergium, which seems to be some kind of valuable fuel source. I always remind my Star Trek-hating friends that this is not a perfect universe. In TOS, we don’t have a post-scarcity society, and to exist, subsist, and persist, men necessarily harvest scarce resources throughout the galaxy. In many ways this added to my dissatisfaction with this episode. It felt to me like a direct analogy for a lot of environmental dilemmas, in which something valuable (say, oil) is only reachable by destroying certain habitats and the life within in them. No one but Spock seems to blink an eye at this—the pergium is necessary, at all costs, end of conversation. That need outweighs new life, even when discovering new life is the ship’s prime mission. The motives feel all wrong to me, and while I’m pleased that they came to an understanding by the end, I didn’t feel that it was for the right reasons. They don’t ultimately coexist because of mutual respect for each other’s species and way of life—they coexist because the men realize they can insanely profit off of the creature’s presence there.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I always liked this episode because of the sheer alienness of the Horta and the creativity of a creature composed of silicon instead of carbon. Aside from the goofy costume (and that is a costume, with a man crawling around under it), which still reminds me of Pizza the Hut from Spaceballs, I think it engages with some interesting questions of first contact with new races and not judging others solely on appearance. But there’s much more to the conflict than just a simple misunderstanding or instinctual dislike for the unfamiliar: the Horta only attacked the miners after they invaded her caverns and destroyed her eggs, and the miners understandably were upset when the Horta began frying them to protect her children. The moral here seems to be “don’t destroy things you don’t understand.” What is perhaps most interesting in this episode is that it takes Spock, the product of two species, human and Vulcan, to intermediate between the Horta and the miners through a painful (and painfully prolonged) mind meld.

There’s also the revelation that humanity must harvest minerals from other planets to meet the needs of thousands of planets in the Federation. Whatever pergium is, they don’t have enough of it, and it must be impossible or at least prohibitively difficult to create the element artificially to fuel their reactors. This parallels contemporary concerns about exhausting our own natural resources, but I had pretty much assumed that dilithium and matter-antimatter reactors would solve all of our energy problems in the future. Silly me.

For some reason, this time around a lot of flaws in the episode stood out, nearly eclipsing the good moments like McCoy’s bricklaying and Spock’s comments on the Horta liking his ears. Why did the Horta steal the pump instead of melting it, and more importantly, how did she carry it off? How could the Horta etch a message so meticulously in the rock? What kind of alien biology requires all but one member of a species to die out every 50,000 years? Then there’s Spock’s calculation of the odds of both him and Kirk being killed, which doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that they’re together in the tunnels for most of the episode. I was disappointed that Spock didn’t stick up more for the Horta, immediately choosing Kirk’s life over the Horta’s, though the creature was the last of its race. It was also sad when Kirk tried to come up with an excuse to remove Spock from the search, since he didn’t trust him to follow his orders to kill it.

Ultimately, I also wasn’t sure that the agreement between the Horta and the miners would hold. They’re supposed to leave each other alone, but Kirk implies that the mother Horta is going to tell her kids to look for “gold and platinum and rare earths” for the miners, which sounds suspiciously like the beginnings of slavery. I just don’t see what the Horta can get out of the deal, except for their ensured survival.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: KIRK (on the makeshift reactor pump): Scotty, ride hard on it. Kind words. Tender, loving care. Kiss it. Baby it. Flatter it if you have to, but keep it going.

Syndication Edits: Small section of the exchange between Vanderberg and Schmitter; Kirk ordering the first search teams to start on the 23rd level and then instructing Vanderberg to stay on the top level; parts of the first search; Spock informing Kirk that the search team is gathering in the main tunnel, and Kirk’s pep talk before Spock gives the men the last known location of the creature (when he tells them the creature is wounded and dangerous); pieces of the second search and his discovery of the Horta; Kirk calling McCoy to heal the Horta (in the syndicated version he just shows up!).

Trivia: Shatner’s father died during the production of this episode, but Shatner finished all filming for the day. He apparently found Nimoy’s mind meld scenes hilarious, and they made him laugh and cheered him up. You can see where his stand-in is because his arms are positioned differently.

The silicon sphere eggs were actually kids bouncy balls painted over.

Other Notes: Janos Prohaska created the Horta here. He wore it into Gene Coon’s office and Coon was so impressed that he banged out a story about it in just a few days. Prohaska used a similar creature for The Outer Limits episode “The Probe.”

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 23 – “This Side of Paradise.”


Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 25 – “Errand of Mercy.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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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.