Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Doomsday Machine”

“The Doomsday Machine”
Written by Norman Spinrad
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 2, Episode 6
Production episode: 2×06
Original air date: October 20, 1967
Star date: 4202.9

Mission Summary:
When the Enterprise receives a garbled distress signal (only the word “Constellation” is intelligible), they approach system L-370 to discover that all seven planets in the solar system have been destroyed—there is “nothing left but rubble and asteroids.” They continue to system L-374, which has fallen to a similar fate. Suddenly they pick up a ship’s disaster beacon, and find the U.S.S. Constellation drifting in space. It is heavily damaged, presumably by the same thing that destroyed the solar systems in this sector. Kirk, in his green command sarong, Mr. Scott, Dr. McCoy, Lt. Washburn, and two others beam to the ship to investigate.

They find no survivors, but no bodies, either—the ship was abandoned with warning, not taken by surprise. The phaser banks have been exhausted, too, evidencing some kind of battle. The landing party moves on to the computer room and finds Commodore Decker in a state of shock, half-comatose on the console. McCoy is able to revive him but he can’t seem to explain what happened to his ship. Scotty is able to access the computer banks and replay the commodore’s log, which seems to snap Decker out of it. He explains that subspace interference prevented them from reporting back to Starfleet, and that he beamed his entire crew to the surface of the third planet because the ship was dead in the water. He stayed behind, as the captain, the last one to go. But the enemy took out his transporter and he was stranded on the ship. His crew—over 400 men and women—became trapped on the planet. And when the enemy destroyed that planet, they went down with it.

KIRK: What hit? What attacked you?
DECKER: They say there’s no devil, Jim, but there is. Right out of hell, I saw it.

Kirk was hoping for more of a court reporter’s sketch, and Decker explains that what attacked him was some kind of great weapon, “miles long, with a maw that could swallow a dozen starships. It destroys planets, chops them into rubble.”

Spock, who has analyzed the logs from the Constellation, has determined that it was some kind of robot: “an automated weapon of immense size and power. Its apparent function is to smash planets to rubble and then digest the debris for fuel. It is, therefore, self-sustaining as long as there are planetary bodies for it to feed on.” He doesn’t know where it came from or why, but it appears to have originated in another galaxy. But it gets worse: they’ve plotted its trajectory, and it’s headed straight for the most densely populated section of our galaxy.

McCoy chimes in asking for a little exposition, and Kirk explains the title of the episode for us:

KIRK: Bones, did you ever hear of a doomsday machine?
MCCOY: No. I’m a doctor, not a mechanic.
KIRK: It’s a weapon built primarily as a bluff. It’s never meant to be used. So strong, it could destroy both sides in a war. Something like the old H-Bomb was supposed to be. That’s what I think this is. A doomsday machine that somebody used in a war uncounted years ago. They don’t exist anymore, but the machine is still destroying.

Decker flips out at the reminder of what he faced, so Kirk suggests that he and McCoy beam back to the Enterprise while Kirk prepares the Constellation to be towed. Just as McCoy and Decker beam back they hear a red alert alarm and rush to the bridge. Decker’s planet killer, as Spock calls it, appears on the viewscreen, and it’s headed right for the Enterprise.

Kirk knows that they must stop it, but Spock tells him there is no chance of deactivating it or even attacking it without provoking a direct assault. The power from the Enterprise’s nacelles seems to attract it, and suddenly the machine opens fire on the ship. Transporters are down, and then communications cut out as well. Kirk, Scotty, and Washburn are stuck now on the Constellation. Kirk orders Scotty to get impulse engines back online while he and Washburn try and re-activate the viewscreen and get some idea of what’s going on out there.

The Enterprise was lucky enough to get out of range, and the machine resumes its previous heading to the Rigel system. Spock decides to maintain a reasonable distance from the planet killer and circle back to pick up Kirk. But the commodore won’t have it—he instructs Sulu to belay Spock’s order and instead turn about for a full attack. He wants to win this time, and he doesn’t care about the cost.

DECKER: That thing must be destroyed.
SPOCK: You tried to destroy it once before, Commodore. The result was a wrecked ship and a dead crew.
DECKER: I made a mistake then. We were too far away. This time I’m going to hit it with full phasers at point-blank range.
SPOCK: Sensors show the object’s hull is solid neutronium. A single ship cannot combat it.

But Decker won’t hear it—he relieves Spock of command. McCoy begs Spock not to give in, but Spock won’t disobey an order from a superior officer (this time…). He does offer that McCoy could certify him medically or psychologically unfit for command (uh, CHECK), but McCoy hasn’t had time to examine him, and so his assessment would not be valid. (Note: The man is obviously a few fries short of a happy meal—do you really need an examination for that??) Decker, now sitting comfortably in the captain’s chair, orders McCoy off the bridge and arms the Enterprise for a direct attack.

The machine attacks, weakening the shields. Spock again urges the commodore to retreat, but he refuses. Meanwhile, Kirk and Washburn have successfully repaired the viewscreen, just in time to see the Enterprise firing on the space worm. Their phasers bounce right off the hull of the machine, to no effect. It counterattacks, obliterating the ship’s shields. Additional attacks rupture the hull, destroy warp power, and take out an entire deck. The commodore wants to continue phaser fire but Spock argues that that is illogical, and is tantamount to suicide. Moreover, attempted suicide would be evidence that he is unfit for command, and would be grounds to relieve him of duty. (Why didn’t he use that trick ten minutes ago??) The commodore reluctantly veers off in an attempt to break free of the tractor beam. But it’s too late, they can’t break away, and the Enterprise is slowly pulled into the gullet of the machine.

Impulse power on the Constellation is restored (barely), and they maneuver awkwardly towards the Enterprise. They fire their one phaser bank at the machine, drawing its attention away from the Enterprise. The commodore returns the phaser fire to draw it away from Kirk, and they both make it outside of the danger zone. Lt. Palmer re-establishes ship-to-ship communications and puts Kirk on audio.

DECKER: Commodore Decker speaking.
KIRK: Matt. What’s going on? Give me Mister Spock.
DECKER: I’m in command here, Jim.
KIRK : What happened to Spock?
DECKER: Nothing. I assumed command according to regulations. Since your first officer was reluctant to take aggressive action against the—
KIRK You mean you’re the lunatic who’s responsible for almost destroying my ship???

You tell him, Kirk! He then orders Spock to relieve the Commodore of command on his personal authority, against regulations.

DECKER: I don’t recognize your authority to relieve me.
SPOCK: You may file a formal protest with Starfleet Command, assuming we survive to reach a Starbase.

He orders a redshirt to take Decker to sickbay for an examination, and tells Sulu to come around to pick up Kirk on the Constellation. But the commodore is a wily one, and as soon as those turbolift doors open he earns his name, decking the redshirt in the face. The two proceed to engage is class-A man-fighting—no tunic is injured, but it’s a dirty fight nonetheless. The commodore wins, dragging the unconscious redshirt offscreen. He then sneaks into the shuttlecraft hangar deck.

Sulu notices too late that a shuttlecraft has escaped. They hail it, and insist that the commodore return to the ship. But the commodore has made his decision. They had been unable to penetrate its hull before, so he will attempt instead to blow it up from the inside. It’s a suicide mission and he knows it, but “I’ve been prepared for death ever since I…ever since I killed my crew.” Saying he should’ve died with his crew, Kirk begs him to reconsider: “No one expects you to die for an error in judgment.” He tries to tell him that his knowledge and experience is not just valuable but necessary. But the commodore cuts off the speaker, before he can change his mind. Our last images of him are of the man writhing in terror.

The object continues to pursue them, but Sulu notices a slight drop in power. Kirk gets an idea—Decker had the right idea but not enough power. Kirk will send the Constellation in with a delayed detonation device: an explosive meal for the mechanical worm. Scotty is able to beam back, but the transporters drop out. He rushes to repair them in time to beam Kirk out, before the whole thing blows. He juryrigs it temporarily, but just as Kirk activates the detonator, the transporters blow again. Scotty has twenty seconds to repair it in time to get Kirk back. Kirk sweats bullets as he faces down the mouth of the doomsday machine. He is successfully beamed back just in time.

Back on the bridge, the machine still appears on the viewscreen—but it’s been completely deactivated. Kirk muses on its death:

KIRK: Ironic, isn’t it? Way back in the 20th century, the H-Bomb was the ultimate weapon, their doomsday machine, and we used something like it to destroy another doomsday machine. Probably the first time such a weapon has ever been used for constructive purposes.
SPOCK: Appropriate, Captain. However, I can’t help wondering if there are any more of those weapons wandering around the universe.
KIRK: Well, I certainly hope not. I found one quite sufficient.

Like “A Taste of Armageddon,” “The Doomsday Machine” is a thought experiment on the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Kirk supposes (we never do find out what the machine’s real origin or purpose is) that the planet killer was a “bluff” device, never intended to be real—a threat strong enough to deter warfare because its use would mean annihilation for both sides. He makes the H-bomb comparison twice, and it’s hard to imagine this episode outside of the context of the Cold War. The fact that we never see or know anything of who made it or who it was used against is, to my mind, a very meaningful indicator of the power of this weapon. While I think that “A Taste of Armageddon” was a lot more disturbing when it approached the implications of MAD, this one is just as interesting (and terrifying). I find myself thinking of all the ways in which weapons can outlive their creators, like the continuing threat of land mines and the eternal issue of dealing with nuclear waste. Our creations can get away from us, and we sometimes don’t think of the impact on future generations of today’s wars.

I would be remiss in not praising William Windom for his phenomenal turn as Commodore Decker. Originally I made up a joking nickname for him in this review (I’m not naming all my names but “Commodore Crazypants” may have been involved), but I’ve changed my mind. Decker here is clearly suffering from intense PTSD. He simply cannot forgive himself, and he keeps imagining himself in the shoes of the men and women he unknowingly doomed on the third planet from the sun (an allegory?). He so desperately wants to avenge them, not to clear his reputation, but to put them at peace. When he describes their screams, begging him to save them as the planet killer approaches, Windom’s face screws up in pain and horror and you can see the living nightmare in which he’s been condemned. I didn’t notice until the second viewing the incredible difference between the Decker we see in this episode and the Decker who records the captain’s log that Scotty plays back. The former is broken, half-delusional, obsessed; the latter is calm, deliberate, reasonable. You can hear Kirk in him.

It strikes a great balance of smart, serious, creepy, and funny. When Kirk and the others walk around the empty ship, it feels like a ghost ship, a casualty of an ancient war. Decker’s mad desire for vengeance is both infuriating (why can’t he just give up?) and tragic. You can see that he means to atone for his sins, and that he’s utterly blind to the repercussions of the choices he’s making. There are a number of good zingers, too—I liked McCoy’s response to Decker’s “You’re out of line!”: “So are you! (Pause.) Sir.”

The weakest part, I think, was Decker’s ease taking control of the Enterprise. It’s established in “Court Martial” that Dr. McCoy is a well-reputed psychologist—why can’t he determine on observation alone that Decker is out of his flipping mind?

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 5

Eugene Myers: I was looking forward to seeing this episode again, and it didn’t disappoint. From the tense and intriguing opening to the bittersweet, somewhat ominous ending, this is a compelling story. This time I noticed that the script was written by legendary SF author Norman Spinrad, which accounts for its high quality. This isn’t just good Star Trek, it’s good science fiction.

Much of the excitement and conflict arises from a powerful, seemingly invincible enemy that can’t be reasoned with because it’s a robot programmed for destruction. Unlike Nomad, this “Doomsday Machine” was designed purely as a weapon, one that has perhaps escaped the control of its creators. (Or at least, this is Kirk’s conjecture, and we have no way of knowing the truth. Like the probe in Star Trek IV, someone built this thing for something and it’s anyone’s guess.) As such, this episode is clearly a cautionary tale, as demonstrated by Kirk’s comparison to the hydrogen bomb. This was especially relevant in 1967, in the midst of the Cold War; in fact, China had successfully detonated their first H-bomb only a few months before this episode aired.

But a lot of tension also comes from placing Kirk on a crippled ship while an apparent madman with a death wish takes control of the Enterprise. It’s exciting to watch Kirk and Scott bring the Constellation back to life while their own ship takes on the planet killer. Seeing another Constitution-class ship at all is a rare pleasure, though the fate of its crew is sobering, a reminder that their mission is dangerous and a disaster like this could easily destroy the Enterprise as well. The solution to problems on Star Trek usually isn’t a violent one, but in this case there’s no choice. There’s no talking this robot to death. Since its is on a course for Sol, they have to stop it, though Spock’s suggestion to send a warning and call for reinforcements is logical and might have been the wisest decision, had they not discovered the machine’s weakness.

Matt Decker is racked with grief and obsessed with destroying the machine, perhaps a bit like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. With his crew gone, and him inadvertently responsible for their deaths, he has nothing to lose and the Enterprise is an opportunity both for revenge and redemption. William Windom is terrific as the Commodore, somehow making him sympathetic and competent even while he’s being a crazed jerk. I liked the fact that when the Enterprise is first attacked, he rushes to the helm after Sulu is tossed out of his seat, showing the man still has some of his marbles. Despite Decker’s methods, it’s his sacrifice that gives them a clue to destroying the machine. It’s strange that the machine doesn’t attack his shuttle or the Constellation as they fly into it, but it does try to pull the Enterprise in so maybe it doesn’t care as long as it gets to eat something.

There are some great shots of the Enterprise and her sister ship in this episode, and a number of other memorable moments. Spock looks deeply concerned for Kirk’s safety when he plans to fly the Constellation into the maw of the planet killer. I thought he might even cry. The machine itself actually looks dangerous, and I liked how it “dies” and goes cold when they destroy it from the inside. I wonder what happened to the shell? The final scene is also surprising when Kirk and Spock walk around the Bridge and actually pass in front of the viewscreen. I don’t remember that ever happening on the original series, but I guess it does at least once!

Some curiosities too: Why is a Commodore commanding a starship? Who is Lt. Palmer and what has she done with Uhura? Why are guards sometimes posted on the Bridge? Why are the transporter beams blue in this episode?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 6

Best Line: KIRK, after the phaser fire has drawn the machine away from the Enterprise: Mister Scott, it worked! Great! (Seeing the machine head for him instead) I think it’s great… Scotty, get us out of here!

Syndication Edits: A flyby of the Enterprise in the very beginning; Kirk, McCoy, and Scott heading to Auxiliary Control aboard the Constellation; Spock’s report on the object and Kirk and the landing party’s attempt to return to the ship right before the machine attacks; McCoy reporting no casualties after the first attack; reaction shots from Decker and Spock during their tense stand-off; Decker sizing up the crew before ordering them to attack; reaction shots of Sulu accepting that order; the shot of Scotty pulling out a huge trident scanner from a wall panel, and Kirk working on the viewscreen; Decker’s entrance into the hangar deck and Scott’s update to Kirk that he has hooked into communications; a section of the sequence of Decker flying into the machine and Kirk trying to dissuade him (alas, not sure which lines).

Trivia: Pay attention to Scotty’s line “Thirty seconds later…poof!” What’s missing? His Scottish accent! And some arguably non-canon trivia: in Peter David’s TNG novel Vendetta, he ascribes the planet killer (and the galactic barrier also mentioned in this episode) as the creation of the Preservers from “The Paradise Syndrome.” He writes that it was created to fight the Borg. So cool!

Other Notes: Spinrad’s original draft of the episode, entitled “The Planet Eater,” was inspired in part by Moby Dick. The biggest change from draft to final was that in the original, Decker doesn’t sacrifice himself—he survives to admit his mistakes! Also interestingly, Spinrad envisioned the Planet Eater as a big mechanical thing covered in dangerous and evil-looking weapons, and was disappointed with the final wormy design. He was also disappointed with the casting choice of William Windom, because he had envisioned Robert Ryan in the role of Decker. Ryan was unavailable due to another commitment. Spinrad did a really fun videoblog for TrekMovie back in 2007 talking about how this episode came to be (he also refers to the final design of the machine as “a windsock dipped in cement,” which made me snort my soda), so if you”re interested, check that out here.

“The Doomsday Machine” was nominated for a Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation.”

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 5 – “The Apple.”

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 7 – “Catspaw.” 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.