Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Tholian Web”

The Tholian Web
Written by Judy Burns and Chet Richards
Directed by Herb Wallerstein and Ralph Senensky (uncredited)

Season 3, Episode 9
Production episode: 3×09
Original air date: November 15, 1968
Star date:5693.2

Mission summary

On the Enterprise bridge, Chekov and Sulu look like they regret whatever they had for lunch, but it turns out that space itself is disagreeing with them–Spock reports that it’s “literally breaking up.” Kirk is used to bad breakups, but this is causing all sorts of wonky sensor readings and the warp engines are inexplicably losing power. Then Chekov notices a ghostly ship ahead on the main viewscreen: the U.S.S. Defiant, a Constitution-class Federation ship which has been missing for three weeks. In this case they can only trust what they see with their own eyes, because sensors indicate their sister ship isn’t actually there. There’s no response to hails, so there’s only one thing to do–beam aboard to check things out.

They wear protection of course: sparkly, bulky spacesuits with independent life support systems and fancy name plates on the helmets. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Chekov transport directly to Defiant‘s bridge and discover two bodies: a crewman with his hands wrapped around his captain’s broken neck. McCoy scans them to make sure, but yeah, they’re very dead. This is either the first mutiny in Starfleet history, or a lovers’ tryst gone too far. Chekov locates additional grotesque corpses in Engineering and, ironically, Life Support, while McCoy investigates Defiant‘s sickbay-turned-morgue, and Spock confirms that the entire crew is dead. The doctor finds some of the patients strapped into the medical beds and surmises that Defiant‘s crewmembers killed each other. Chekov gets dizzy and his vision goes all fisheyed, but he shakes it off. It’s probably not important.

McCoy discovers something much more significant: a transparent body lying in the corridor. When his hand passes through both the man and a table, he realizes he has to get his parents to kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance or he’ll never be born! Or the ship is dissolving around them. They decide it’s time to get out of there, but Scotty forgot to mention that the transporters are malfunctioning because of the localized Weirdness and he can only beam three of them back to the ship at a time. Kirk counts off quickly and realizes there are four of them. Using the logic of “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” he decides to stay behind and sends the others back to Enterprise. Spock offers to stay behind to “complete the data,” and because the captain is, you know, kind of important, but Kirk Spock-blocks him and insists on going in the next trip. Apparently he’s under the mistaken impression that a captain has to go down with any ship.

Scotty takes over the transporter controls from his useless intern and has a difficult time transporting Spock, McCoy, and Chekov. He has even more trouble locking onto Captain Kirk, no matter how many buttons he pushes or how forcefully. As Chekov watches Defiant fade away on the viewer, they lose the captain’s signal completely.

Hoping to avoid filling out all the paperwork involved when your captain dies, Spock refuses to believe Kirk is gone. The Vulcan calculates the next “period of spatial interphase,” when they might be able to grab Kirk from his previous coordinates. It’s crucial that they stay in one place and limit the use of power to avoid disrupting the fragile fabric of space. Chekov starts getting surly:

CHEKOV: I don’t understand what’s so special about this region of space.
SPOCK: Well, picture it this way, Mr. Chekov. We exist in a universe which co-exists with a multitude of others in the same physical space. At certain brief periods of time, an area of their space overlaps an area of ours. That is a time of interphase, during which we can connect with the Defiant‘s universe.

That sounds plausible, but Chekov must not like Spock’s condescending tone because he attacks him, howling like a monkey. Spock relaxes him with a Vulcan neck pinch and carts him off to Sickbay. McCoy suggests they move the ship away from the Defiant, but Spock insists they have to wait to retrieve the captain. Then an alien ship arrives and they’re hailed by Commander Loskene of the Tholian Assembly. He tells them to move along, they’re in a no-standing zone, but Spock convinces him that they’re trying to rescue an “interspatially trapped” ship and the Tholian agrees to wait to see if he’s telling the truth.

Meanwhile, other crewmembers are going fisheyed as Dr. McCoy races to find a cure for what’s ailing them. When the next interphase occurs, Scott tries to beam Captain Kirk back, but he isn’t where he was supposed to be. Spock thinks that the Tholian ship must have disrupted space and shifted Kirk’s coordinates, so he stubbornly decides to calculate the next interphase and wait some more. McCoy protests–the local Weirdness is responsible for the space madness afflicting the crew so the best thing would be to leave.

The Tholians agree and fire on Enterprise. Spock reluctantly fires back and disables their ship. Now they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to–Enterprise‘s power supply converters are busted. McCoy, naturally, is peeved.

MCCOY: Are you satisfied? Spock, why did you do it?
SPOCK: The decision to fight was logical. Lack of time prevented any other course of action. The Tholian ship had to be disabled.
MCCOY: You should’ve known what could’ve happened and done everything in your power to safeguard your crew. That is the mark of a starship captain, like Jim.
SPOCK: Doctor, I hardly believe this is the time for comparisons. Please go to your laboratory and search for an antidote to the effects of this space. That is your primary task, since we must remain here.

Then Tholian reinforcements arrive: a second ship seems to uh, mate with the first and together they begin projecting an energy filament around Enterprise. It’s all rather indecent. Spock and the computer have never seen anything like this energy field, but it’s clear that if they can’t restore power and leave before the Tholian web is completed, they’re done for.

Scott calls a press conference to pronounce Captain Kirk dead. One of the crew takes it really hard and he goes ballistic at the news. They calm him down forcefully and cart him off to Sickbay. Spock cops out of Kirk’s eulogy:

I shall not attempt to voice the quality of respect and admiration which Captain Kirk commanded. Each of you must evaluate the loss in the privacy of your own thoughts.

Scotty calls for a moment of silence–about ten seconds should do it, they’re in the middle of a situation, and Kirk didn’t even know most of their names, after all. Spock is raring to get back to the bridge and encourages McCoy to return to the lab to do his job, but the doctor reminds him that Kirk’s final orders were to listen to a pre-recorded message to be played in the event of his untimely demise. Spock resists, but finally agrees. In the captain’s quarters, the doctor reveals that he lured Spock there under false pretenses–not the first time someone was tricked into Kirk’s bedroom.

MCCOY: I really came here to find out why you stayed and fought.
SPOCK: The captain would have remained to recover a crew member at the risk of his own life or even his own ship.
MCCOY: Yes, he would, Mr. Spock, but you didn’t have that decision to make. What would you gain by fighting the Tholians? You could have assured yourself of a captaincy by leaving the area. But you chose to stay. Why?
SPOCK: I need not explain my rationale to you or any other member of this crew. There is a margin of variation in any experiment. While there was a chance, I was bound legally and morally to ascertain the captain’s status.
MCCOY: You mean to be sure if he was dead. Well, you made certain of that.
SPOCK: That is enough, Doctor. We both have other things to do.

Oh yeah, the message! McCoy takes a couple cheap shots at Spock while the Vulcan retrieves the tape from Kirk’s safe and plays it. From beyond the grave, Kirk advises them to stop bickering and do their jobs. Visibly embarrassed, McCoy apologizes for his behavior. Spock is saved by the whistle when Scotty calls him on the intercom to tell him he knows when the Tholian web will be completed–but of course, this information is best heard on the bridge.

Uhura’s getting ready for a relaxing evening in her own quarters when suddenly she feels a pang and sees Captain Kirk’s ghostly figure in her mirror. She rushes into the corridor to share the news that Kirk’s alive–sort of, somewhere, maybe–but McCoy finds her, assumes she’s lost her mind, and coaxes her to Sickbay to strap her into a bed. At least she’s already dressed for it. Scotty’s also having a pretty bad day. He’s in Engineering, minding his own business and trying to fix the ship, when a fisheyed engineer attacks him. The space madness is spreading, but the doctor is working on an antidote.

Time is running out. Scotty sees another of his crewmen go woozy and assumes they’re experiencing another moment of interphase. Spock says no, so perhaps the crewman just got into Scotty’s liquor cabinet… Then Scotty sees Kirk’s apparition floating before him then disappear. Spock summons the engineer to the bridge to smell his breath, where McCoy is once again slacking off.

MCCOY: Sounds like a horror story. Suppose there’s any truth in it?
SPOCK: In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see.
MCCOY: Do you suppose they’re seeing Jim because they’ve lost confidence in you?
SPOCK: I was merely stating a fact, Doctor.
MCCOY: It’s getting critical. There have been a number of assaults down on the lower decks. Even Scotty’s being affected. If Scotty goes under, that’s the finish of whatever chance we have of getting the Enterprise out of here.
SPOCK: Please leave that to me, Dr. McCoy. I realise that the crew are your prime concern. You can best serve them in your laboratory. I urge you to confine yourself to it until a remedy has been found.
MCCOY: Spock! It must be this space. It’s getting to me too. I know it’s nothing you’ve done, Spock. I, I’m sorry.

Convenient excuse, that. Spock should probably ignore those drunken text messages too.

Scotty arrives and points out their Ghost Captain, who is standing, er, hovering right behind them, trying to get Spock’s attention. He soon disappears, but now they know he’s alive…ish, and that Uhura isn’t crazy. McCoy returns to Sickbay to release her, and Nurse Chapel tells him the cure is ready. Things are finally coming together: Scotty has patched up the ship, mostly, and Spock has calculated the next interphase along with Kirk’s new coordinates. McCoy brings them all shots to celebrate–a cocktail derived from theragen, a Klingon nerve toxin, which should block the space madness.

MCCOY: One good slug of this, and you can hit a man with phaser stun, and he’d never feel it or even know it.
SCOTT: Does it make a good mix with Scotch?
MCCOY: It should.
SCOTT: I’ll let you know.

As the Tholian web closes in on Enterprise, interphase occurs and Kirk manifests on the viewscreen. Intern O’Neil gets a transporter lock on him just as their power usage shifts them through interphase and throws them out of the Tholian tractor field. O’Neil pushes a bunch of buttons and manages to get Kirk to materialize safely on the transporter pad, where McCoy pumps him full of a tri-ox compound to compensate for oxygen deprivation. The captain seems none the worse for wear. He returns to duty and tells his first officer and the doctor about the universe he had all to himself. He asks how they got on without him, and they pretend they didn’t have any problems at all.

KIRK: Well, I hope my last orders were helpful in solving any problems that you don’t feel worth reporting.
SPOCK: Orders, Captain?
MCCOY: What orders are you referring to, Jim?
KIRK: My last orders. The last orders that I left for both of you. The last taped orders.
MCCOY: Oh, those orders. Well, there wasn’t time. We never had a chance to listen to them.
SPOCK: No. You see, the crisis was upon us, and then passed so quickly, Captain, that we–
KIRK: Good. Good. Well, I hope we won’t have similar opportunities to test those orders… which you never heard.

Analysis

I was looking forward to this episode as one of the bright points of season three, and it didn’t disappoint. It starts off with a mysterious catastrophe on another Constitution-class ship, but unlike “The Omega Glory” it maintains the promise of the teaser when Defiant and Captain Kirk disappear, madness strikes the crew, and the Tholians turn up to further complicate matters. This is one of those stories where everything goes wrong, perhaps too much, but it all comes right in the end–and mostly because the crew is so damned good. Better than Defiant‘s, anyway. The escape from the Tholian web seems a bit too easy, but at least it’s consistent with the rules of interphase that were previously established. Sort of. Okay, it doesn’t really make any sense I suppose, but it didn’t ruin the rest of the episode for me.

The whole space madness schtick is getting a little old, and I would be happy if I never saw another fisheye camera shot for the rest of my life, let alone the rest of this series. But whenever McCoy isn’t goofing off or haranguing Spock, he’s actually earning his paycheck to come up with a solution, even if it’s just an excuse to prescribe alcohol. (Shouldn’t someone have stopped Scotty from running off with the whole bottle?) Spock’s also no slouch as either science officer or captain. He figures out the whole interphase thing, and he’s come a long way from his command of the stranded Galileo crew in season one; if you recall, he didn’t want to spare a moment to bury the dead crew then, but this time he holds a service in Kirk’s honor, even if it’s just a short one with a random assortment of crewmembers they probably pulled from the hall to fill seats. Perhaps his consideration is only because the casualty was his best friend, but still.

Misremembering the episode, I thought Kirk’s interphased form appeared all throughout the episode, causing them to actively search for him, so it was interesting to see that they really thought he was dead for most of it. Captain Kirk is largely absent, but his presence is strongly felt in almost every scene. Kirk is the main bond between Spock and McCoy, and his apparent death tears them apart just as it ultimately brings them closer together. Kirk’s prediction that they’re “locked in mortal combat” would seem like hyperbole if we didn’t see McCoy constantly dressing the Vulcan down and questioning his every action, repeatedly comparing the command style of his two friends. They make small but significant gestures to comfort each other, and in the end they unite to play a practical joke on Kirk. (And prove once again that Vulcans can lie.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Tholians ever since this episode (the only time they’re seen for a long while), and I was impressed by the fact that Commander Loskene was actually quite reasonable: he gives Spock a chance to prove he’s on a rescue mission before attacking. Even then, they don’t destroy the Enterprise, they just start to tow it away from the No Parking zone. The web is one of the coolest effects in the series, but it isn’t the most effective tractor technology, is it? Some other standout moments: the lingering shot on the monitor in Kirk’s quarters after they play his tape, the last link to the supposedly dead captain; McCoy’s discomfort as he listens to the message; and way the script weaves humor, horror, and seriousness together. Star Trek: Enterprise‘s combined callback to “The Tholian Web” and “Mirror, Mirror,” in which we learn that Defiant ended up in the mirror universe where Captain Archer tries to use its advanced technology to rule the Empire, is one of the highlights of that flawed series, one of the few episodes I’ve seen and can recommend.

Yes, this episode has its share of plot holes, but the story is compelling, the dialogue is terrific, and the visual effects are truly special.

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

Torie Atkinson: I was definitely looking forward to this one since so many have cited it as a bright spot, but it failed to elicit anything other than confusion out of me.

Let’s start with the spider web first. I love this idea… in theory. That a species can set traps in space for unsuspecting victims is creepy and cool, but it made absolutely no sense here. Why build an elaborate webbed sphere? What are they going to do with a ship once it’s in a ball? Play with it like a giant cat toy? Throw it down the garbage chute? Eat the tasty morsels inside? By the time they start constructing the web the Enterprise is already disabled. There’s nothing they can do at that point that they couldn’t do already. The web here was a delaying tactic to drag out the episode and keep the ship near the last known location of a Defiant–a plot contrivance that just annoyed me. TAKE THE ENTERPRISE, Tholians! It’s right there! Where’s the brilliant scheme I’m missing?

As for the interphase space tissue paper dissolving or whatever–what? To be honest, I had trouble following this plot thread at all. Was this spot in space deliberately warped to set a trap, or did it just happen to be a weak spot in the continuum that the Tholians were exploiting? If there’s some random spot in space that just keeps breaking apart, it seems like lurking around it and waiting for unsuspecting ships to get caught is a) what they were doing already and b) sufficient to accomplish whatever their goal is without building a web.

Space madness: oh wow, am I sick of this trope. But even if I weren’t, how did the space madness happen? I am, again, completely befuddled by the basic course of events. Is it a Tholian trap planted in the interphase hole? An inherent characteristic of the breaking apart of space? If the latter… what?

But I can forgive plot conveniences and promising story ideas lost in the rewriting process. I have a much more difficult time forgiving such a clumsy handling of Spock and McCoy’s characters. Here again we have Spock, cool as a cucumber, completely unaffected by the space madness. And again, we have McCoy being a complete asshat to him, like a nagging aunt or disgruntled middle manager. I felt tried having to watch this play out, and the only thing that made it worse was the fanfiction-esque addition of Kirk’s Last Tape that hopes they will be bestest friends and overcome their differences. Come on. Is Kirk their mother? I had to watch this crap in 5th grade and I sighed audibly then, too. I thought it made sense that McCoy would hate Spock, perhaps even openly, for losing Kirk–but to have that amplified in such an inexpert and frankly laughable way as to eliminate all nuance and subtlety… blame the space madness if you will, but it was a chore to watch.

The over-the-top performances from Kelley (flashbacks of Mr. DeMartino, anyone?) and Koenig (monkey screaming?), Nichol’s wide-eyed St. Stephen impression (with her exaggerated and high-strung movements you’d think she’d seen Jesus), and the patronizing moral about getting along struck me as pure melodrama.

The worst part was Kirk’s “funeral,” of which I remember almost nothing but the crazy guy having to be escorted from the room –talk about staying power. Here’s a real opportunity for something thoughtful, poetic, beautiful. But the writer clearly wasn’t up to that. As much as “Skin of Evil” was a giant flaming turd thrown through the window of the franchise, the funeral scene for Tasha Yar was so sweet and sad that even I–who hated Tasha– teared up a little. Did Spock’s notes sweat off his hand? Did McCoy forget to get up and say something? Did our producer Freddie just say “We’ve only got 30 seconds to do a funeral scene, make it shitty”?

I haven’t been this let down by hype since “Arena.”

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3

Best Line: SPOCK: I understand, Doctor. I’m sure the captain would simply have said, “Forget it, Bones.”

Syndication Edits: None

Trivia: The original outline for this episode, “In Essence Nothing,” had the starship Scimitar lost in interphase with Kirk pronounced dead immediately. Uhura leaves his memorial service and spots his ghostly form, but McCoy doesn’t believe her until he gives her a physical, but Spock remains skeptical and the doctor accuses him of being unable to hope the captain’s still alive. Chekov suggests they follow Scimitar into the other universe, which destroys the Tholian web and convinces Commander “LoCene” to trust them. The outline also referenced personal force fields instead of environmental units, which would not be used onscreen until the animated series.

Ralph Senensky was fired while directing this episode and replaced by Herb Wallerstein, but not before making his mark with the same fisheye camera lens trick he abused in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?

Freelance writer Judy Burns pitched this episode as spirits surrounding Enterprise and came up with the interphase dimension to meet Roddenberry’s insistence that episodes be based on science, not supernatural events. She used the money she earned from the episode for a study trip to Africa.

The fate of the Defiant is shown in the Star Trek: Enterprise two-parter, “In a Mirror, Darkly.” Tholians also appear in another episode of that series, “Future Tense” and are referenced in other Star Trek series, including a Deep Space Nine episode titled “Defiant,” which is also the name of Captain Sisko’s starship while in command of the station.

Other notes: This episode won Star Trek‘s first Emmy for “Best Special Effects,” as created by Mike Minor, Denis Russell, and Van der Veer Photo Effects.

The apprentice became the master when camera operator Al Francis took over as director of photography from Jerry Finnerman, who held the job since Star Trek‘s first pilot, “The Cage.”

There are some fun international interpretations of the title for this episode, including “The Web” (Portugal), “The Spider Web” (Germany), and “Crisis of Captain Kirk Who Was Thrown Into Different Dimensional Space” (Japan).

Nichelle Nichols has cited this as one of her favorite episodes, along with “The Trouble With Tribbles.”


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 8 -“For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 10 – “Plato’s Stepchildren.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

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 fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr.

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.