Star Trek Re-Watch: “Dagger of the Mind”

“Dagger of the Mind”
Written by S. Bar-David
Directed by Vincent McEeevy

Season 1, Episode 9
Production episode: 1×10
Original air date: November 3, 1966
Star date: 2715.1

Mission summary
After the Enterprise boldly goes to the penal colony on Tantalus V to deliver cargo, a man-sized box of research materials is transported to the ship for their next mail run. While the engineering technician has his back turned in the transporter room, a crazed and sweaty man emerges from the cardboard box like some horrible surprise at a bachelorette party, tiptoes around the console, then knocks out the hapless tech. He exchanges his prison garb for the tech’s more stylish red jumpsuit and attempts to blend in with the rest of the crew, which is only slightly less sweaty than he is. After the Enterprise leaves Tantalus, they receive a message from the colony: one of their prisoners has escaped! They suspect he was in the unnecessarily large box that was beamed to the Enterprise, and warn that he is “potentially violent.”

The ship goes to intruder alert, and an unusually observant crewman identifies the inmate immediately. The man gets away and attacks a security officer for good measure, taking his phaser. He makes his way to the bridge (he’s obviously heard how easy it is to take over a Constitution class starship these days) where he identifies himself as Van Gelder and requests asylum. Kirk won’t deal so Van Gelder threatens the ship, until Spock takes the matter in hand and subdues him with his patented Vulcan neck pinch.

On their way back to Tantalus, Dr. McCoy studies Van Gelder in sickbay and is unable to pin down exactly what kind of crazy he is. Van Gelder struggles to explain himself, claiming to be a director at the colony who was assisting Dr. Tristan Adams. It seems hard to believe, but Spock finds an ID tape that corroborates the information, and Adams confirms that Van Gelder was a doctor there who tested an experimental treatment on himself. McCoy is convinced something strange is going on, but Kirk is equally convinced that Adams is on the up and up:

You don’t believe him, and you can’t explain it. Bones, are you aware that in the last twenty years Doctor Adams has done more to revolutionize, to humanize prisons and the treatment of prisoners than all the rest of humanity had done in forty centuries? I’ve been to those penal colonies since they’ve begun following his methods, and they’re not cages anymore.

Nonetheless, McCoy demands an official investigation and Kirk humors him. He decides to beam down himself, since he’s “visited rehab colonies before,” and requests an assistant with a background in psychiatry and rehabilitative therapy. McCoy has the last word when he assigns the beautiful Dr. Helen Noel to the mission, whom Kirk has “interacted” with before at a science lab Christmas party and makes the captain decidedly uncomfortable.

On the planet, which Adams playfully calls “Devil’s Island,” Kirk and Noel meet Lethe, a rehabilitated criminal-turned-therapist who seems strangely vacant. Adams explains that part of their treatment includes memory alteration, essentially wiping out the person who committed the crimes. Adams leads them in a toast to celebrate their visit to the colony: “To all mankind. May we never find space so vast, planets so cold, heart and mind so empty that, that we cannot fill them with love and warmth.” Adams seems sincere and accommodating to Kirk’s questions, except when he asks about a particular treatment room.

Back on the Enterprise, Van Gelder blurts out something about a “neural neutralizer,” which happens to be the very device Adams is now demonstrating for Kirk and Noel. Adams claims it doesn’t even really work, but that it’s meant to calm down patients without the use of chemicals. This is the treatment that Van Gelder tested on himself, supposedly alone and at the highest intensity. Once they leave the room, the therapist operating the equipment on a patient instructs: “You will forget all you have heard. To remember any portion of it, any word, will cause you pain, terrible pain, growing more terrible as you fight to remember.”

Noel trusts Adams’ work even more than Kirk does, but Kirk has become suspicious of the “blank” behavior of the inmates. He decides they’ll spend the night on the colony. Meanwhile, Spock decides to use “an ancient Vulcan technique to probe into Van Gelder’s tortured mind,” after the man warns them that the captain is in danger. As he merges with Van Gelder’s mind, Spock learns that Adams has used the neural neutralizer to drain away Van Gelder’s thoughts and replace them with his own.

On Tantalus, Kirk visits Noel’s quarters in the middle of the night to solicit her help in checking out the neural neutralizer on their own. With her operating the equipment, Kirk subjects himself to its beam and asks her to try a “harmless suggestion.” She complies, planting the idea that he’s hungry. Convinced but wanting to be certain, Kirk asks her to plant a more unusual thought. Noel rewrites their encounter at the Christmas party as a Harlequin romance starring her and Captain Kirk, who sweeps her back to his cabin. In the midst of this fabrication, Adams discovers them and begins planting the suggestion that Kirk is madly in love with Noel and has him drop his phaser. Mustering incredible strength of will, Kirk attempts to contact the Enterprise with his communicator before losing consciousness.

Kirk wakes in his room with Noel crawling over him in bed. She resists when he says he’s in love with her and manages to break through the false memories placed by Adams. Kirk sends Noel through the air conditioning ducts to short-circuit the power and disable the security force field around the colony (which would allow someone from the Enterprise to beam down) and submits to further treatment to buy her some time. Lethe discovers that Noel is missing, but Kirk resists Adams’ questions long enough for Noel to cut the power by cleverly shoving a guard into the power grid, allowing Spock to beam down with a security detail. Kirk knocks out Adams and leaves him in the treatment room. When Spock restores power to the colony, the neural neutralizer switches back on and Adams is caught in the beam. Alone, his mind slowly empties of thoughts until he dies of loneliness—hoisted by his own petard.

Appropriately enough, I had little recollection of this episode, which is understandable since it’s somewhat mediocre. “Dagger of the Mind” obviously engages in questions about the humane treatment of prisoners and mental patients, a matter of great concern in the 1960s. By the time this show aired, barbaric treatments such as electroshock therapy and lobotomies were finally waning in popularity, replaced by revolutionary psychotropic drugs, the hallmark of that decade in medical—and recreational—practice. The effects of the “neural neutralizer” were arguably similar to lobotomy, from the erasure of specific memories to the vacant expressions and behavior of its victims, though the fact that Van Gelder is once again compis mentis at the end of the episode suggests that the treatment is reversible. I wondered if Kirk had his false feelings for Noel removed, or simply had her removed and left her behind on Tantalus, since we never see her again.

Though the ideas explored in the episode were interesting and valuable, I found it heavyhanded and uneven, particularly all the back-and-forth discussion that must have been criticism of modern institutions (in 1966, naturally). I was most struck by Spock’s smug commentary on the matter: “Interesting. Your Earth people glorify organized violence for forty centuries, but you imprison those who employ it privately.” It also seemed strange that Kirk was so gung ho about Dr. Adams’ methods. He mentioned his familiarity with “penal” colonies so many times, I almost expected someone to say to him “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Why, exactly, would Kirk have such intimate knowledge of rehabilitation facilities?

We also have the idea of loneliness again in this episode, and by extension, love; remember Adams’ toast, which spoke of “love and warmth.” It makes sense in the context of a five-year mission in deep space, particularly in the days of Star Trek where communications with Starfleet took days and weeks, unlike the nearly instantaneous subspace communications of TNG and later series. The Enterprise was cut off from contact with Earth for long periods of time, which is probably as lonely as you can get even with 430 warm bodies sharing the same ship. Adams plants an obsessive love for Noel in Kirk, but she clearly harbored her own feelings for the captain. I found it especially ironic as she planted these false memories that her fantasy self tells Kirk “I prefer honesty.” In fact, the title of the episode is derived from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act II Scene I: “A dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” Not too shabby for a science fiction show.

This episode is further riddled with interesting naming choices, some of which are distracting. How odd is it that Kirk met Dr. Helen Noel at a Christmas party? The planet is interestingly named Tantalus, after the tragic Greek figure who sacrificed his own son to the gods, stole the secrets of the gods and gifted them to man, and ultimately was punished by spending all eternity beneath a fruit tree in a pool of water, each of which drew out of reach whenever he tried to eat or drink. Dr. Adams calls the colony “Devil’s Island,” either a poor joke or blatant foreshadowing, since Wikipedia tells me this was the name of a notoriously deadly French penal colony in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then we have a woman named Lethe, after the river of forgetfulness in Hades, who has forgotten the criminal she used to be. Finally, Dr. Adams himself is named “Tristan,” the figure from the medieval tale of a man who falls under the spell of a love potion, in much the same way that Kirk is induced to love Noel. This unlikely conjunction of names means nothing to Kirk, but I imagine that had Captain Jean-Luc Picard encountered this situation, his literary background would have set off some warning klaxons.

This episode is really only notable for one thing: the first appearance of the Vulcan mind meld—the first time it is used on a human. Spock says it’s “a hidden, personal thing to the Vulcan people, part of our private lives,” which becomes very public, at least on the Enterprise.

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

Torie Atkinson: I’m going to disagree with Eugene again: I loved it. There are so many great little moments that just made the episode for me. When Van Gelder is loose on the ship, the turbolift doors open onto the bridge, and both Kirk and McCoy jump a little, scared, and give each other a sheepish look. The awkward whispering between Kirk and Noel in the transporter room was great, and Spock gives Kirk a priceless glance when he “catches” them. He gives them the same look when he finds them huddled at the end of the episode.

Now to the serious bits: the “neural neutralizer” struck me as a very Clockwork Orange principle, destroying the prisoner’s (or in this case, the victim’s) ability to make a moral choice.  Lethe has not chosen to abandon her violent past, she has been forced to, and in the process forced to abandon herself. Eliminating that moral choice amounts to dehumanization, not reformation—one must choose to change, and not simply be forced to behave differently. Both treatments leave the victim with a powerlessness that’s darkly monstrous, and criminal in and of itself. Creepy stuff. Love it.

Dr. Adams seemed to be very clearly based on actual people, particularly Dr. Ewan Cameron. Cameron received numerous grants from the CIA in the late ’50s to perform truly horrific and disturbing experiments on both unwitting and voluntary subjects, non-US and US citizens alike. His attempts to brainwash individuals included electroshock treatments (often hundreds of them), hallucinatory drugs (like PCP and LSD), sleep deprivation (for months on end), sensory deprivation (followed by “input overload”), sleep-comas (aided by paralytic drugs), and otherwise trying to force his victims to lose all sense of time and space. While he was all too successful at obliterating memory and “breaking” individuals into psychotic messes, his brainwashing attempts (suggestion, listening to looped noises and phrases), were utter failures. These experiments continued on into the early ’60s.1 It’s interesting that in this episode the brainwashing is successful, since despite man’s general suggestibility actual brainwashing never worked for Cameron. But whether it’s directly analogous or not, the point about destroying memories as a way to bury the past and eliminate the essential humanness was very, very real. It’s history that feels science fictional, not the other way around.

The Stepfordization of Lethe and Van Gelder’s desperation to hold onto who he is scared the bejesus out of me. Again we have a meditation on loneliness, but here it’s worse than that—it’s emptiness, coupled with loss. When Adams tortures Kirk the most painful thing he can create in the man’s mind is the feeling of deep, devoted, sincere love—and then its devasting loss. Adams constructs a memory only to force Kirk to feel the void of its absence. In “The Enemy Within” and “The Naked Time” it’s the loneliness of feeling trapped by who you are; here, it’s being sapped of who you are, and trapped in an empty shell of a body. Which is more frightening?

As McCoy says, “A cage is still a cage.” For Adams’ victims (including himself), their own minds and bodies are their cages. I can’t think of anything more terrifying.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: Kirk: “Mr. Spock, you tell McCoy that she had better check out as the best assistant I ever had.”

Syndication Edits: Kirk’s second log entry: “Mission, routine investigation and report as per ship surgeon’s medical log. As for my last entry, it seems I will get to meet Doctor Adams at last. However, I would have preferred other circumstances.” Spock’s log entry: “Enterprise log. First officer Spock, acting captain. I must now use an ancient Vulcan technique to probe into Van Gelder’s tortured mind.” Finally, Kirk’s recovery from the neural neutralizer session, in which he is lying in bed with Dr. Noel over him, professing his undying love. She reminds Kirk of what actually happened and he snaps out of it.

Trivia: Up until the final draft of the script, Yeoman Janice Rand was to accompany Kirk to Tantalus, not Dr. Noel.

Other notes: Observant viewers may remember Marianne Hill (Dr. Helen Noel) from the Adam West Batman TV show, where she appeared as the lovely Cleo Patrick in the episodes “The Spell of Tut” and “Tut’s Case is Shut.”

1 Klein, Naomi. “The Torture Lab: Ewen Cameron, The CIA and the Maniacal Quest to Erase and Remake the Human Mind,” The Shock Doctrine. New York: Picador, 2007

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 8 – “Miri.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 10 – “The Corbomite Maneuver.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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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 blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.