Star Trek Re-Watch: “Metamorphosis”

Written by Gene L. Coon
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Season 2, Episode 9
Production episode:
Original air date: November 10, 1967
Star date: 3219.8

Mission summary

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are escorting Assistant Federation Commissioner Nancy Hedford in the shuttlecraft Galileo to the Enterprise for emergency medical care. In the middle of delicate negotiations on Epsilon Canaris III, she contracted Sakuro’s disease, a rare illness that is fatal if left untreated. She’s anxious to get back to prevent a war, but when they’re only four hours away from rendezvous with the ship, scanners pick up a weird cloud in space blocking their way. Hedford whines about the situation, but that has no effect. The cloud sucks the shuttle in and whisks them off course.

The shuttle is deposited in a cave on a small planetoid with an Earth-like atmosphere. Since they didn’t bring any red shirts along for the trip, Kirk sends Dr. McCoy to reconnoiter while Spock examines the shuttle. The dead ship appears to be undamaged. “Nothing wrong and nothing works,” Kirk says. The only explanation is the ionized space cloud that brought them there, which McCoy’s tricorder indicates is now on the planet with them. A moment later they find out that someone else is around: a man calls out “Hello!” and waves to them in the distance. He makes his way over the rocky terrain, as excited as a schoolboy. “Are you real?” he asks. “We’re real enough,” Kirk replies.

The stranger introduces himself as Cochrane, and takes a particular interest in Commissioner Hedford. He immediately sticks his foot in it: “You’re food to a starving man.” But he recovers nicely by hurriedly adding, “All of you.” Cochrane tells them he’s been marooned on the planetoid for a long time—long enough that he’s never heard of the Federation. Yet he recognizes Spock as a Vulcan, and the only thing he finds as interesting as Hedford is their shuttle. Cochrane informs them there’s a dampening field that’s interfering with their ship and invites them over to his place to get to know each other. “I can even offer you a hot bath,” he says to Hedford. “How perceptive of you to notice I needed one,” the diplomat snaps back.

While Spock explains warp technology to Cochrane, McCoy reminds Kirk that Hedford needs to get back to the Enterprise. They compare notes and realize that Cochrane looks familiar to both of them and decide to accept his hospitality. At his house, they examine his collection of antique equipment, which he calls his “instruments.” Hedford begins to develop a fever, the first sign of her illness. Spock spots the cloud creature outside the window and Cochrane plays dumb until Kirk demands an explanation. He reluctantly admits that he calls the cloud “the Companion.” It found him dying of old age in his disabled ship and brought him to its planetoid, where it saved his life and restored his youth. He doesn’t know what it is exactly, but he can at least communicate with it.

McCoy shows some unusual skepticism considering what they’ve seen so far: “That’s a pretty far out story.” Kirk asks Cochrane for his first name, which he gives as Zefram. (No wonder he didn’t mention it earlier; all the kids probably made fun of him in school.)

KIRK: Zefram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri, the discoverer of the space warp?
COCHRANE: That’s right, Captain.
MCCOY: But that’s impossible. Zefram Cochrane died 150 years ago.
SPOCK: The name of Zefram Cochrane is revered throughout the known galaxy. Planets were named after him. Great universities, cities.
KIRK: Isn’t your story a little improbable, Mr. Cochrane?
COCHRANE: No, it’s true. I was eighty-seven years old when I came here.
KIRK: You say this Companion found you and rejuvenated you? What were you doing in space at the age of eighty-seven?
COCHRANE: I was tired, Captain. I was going to die, and I wanted to die in space. That’s all.
SPOCK: True, his body was never found.
COCHRANE: You’re looking at it, Mr. Spock.
SPOCK: If so, you wear your age very well.

Cochrane explains that the Companion keeps him young and provides everything he needs. Well, almost everything. Hoping it would free him, he complained he would die of loneliness, so it brought their shuttle there to keep him company. Hedford completely flips out:

“No! No! No! That’s disgusting! We’re not animals! No! Oh, no! It’s inhuman! No! No!”

She’s obviously getting worse. McCoy only gives her another few hours to live. He drugs her into silence and makes her lie down. Kirk asks Spock to find him a weapon to use against the Companion. Spock asks if he’s going to kill it, and Kirk immediately gets defensive, stating they will do what it takes to escape and get Hedford some help. Kirk convinces Cochrane to help them by telling him about all the cool stuff that he’s been missing out on:

We’re on a thousand planets and spreading out. We cross fantastic distances and everything’s alive, Cochrane. Life everywhere. We estimate there are millions of planets with intelligent life. We haven’t begun to map them. Interesting?

Kirk’s play works. Cochrane is bored of immortality, and agrees to help. Outside, by the shuttle, the Companion sneaks up on Spock while he’s running some scans. Spock attempts to touch the creature and it zaps him, shorting out the shuttle’s electronics for good measure.

Cochrane summons the Companion, which appears and surrounds him in its sparkly cloud. McCoy and Kirk discuss the odd symbiotic joining, realizing that it seems like the Companion loves Cochrane. Even so, Cochrane reports that the Companion can do nothing to help Hedford, sealing her fate. McCoy finds the electrocuted Spock outside of the shuttle. Spock now has firsthand knowledge that the creature is largely electrical, which the doctor concludes means it can be shorted out.

Spock puts this information to good use and develops a device that will “scramble every electrical impulse the creature can produce” with the flick of a switch. Cochrane’s unhappy at the prospect of betraying the Companion and potentially killing it, but they peer pressure him into luring it into their trap. When he summons it back, it surrounds him as before and Spock switches his device on.

The creature zaps Cochrane unconscious and comes for them in the house. It destroy’s Spock’s toy and starts choking Kirk and Spock while McCoy desperately begs it to stop. Cochrane recovers and calls off the cloud. Kirk despairs, blaming himself for their predicament and convinced there’s no way to fight such a powerful being. McCoy chides him, “Maybe you’re a soldier so often that you forget you’re also trained to be a diplomat. Why not try a carrot instead of a stick?” Struck by the novelty of talking to a new life form instead of killing it, Kirk orders Spock to adapt the Galileo’s universal translator to communicate with the amorphous creature. Meanwhile, Hedford’s condition worsens, and on the Enterprise, Chief Engineer Scott launches a search for the missing shuttlecraft.

Cochrane calls the Companion again and they try out the translator. It works! The Companion speaks to them in a female voice, surprised that the device is communicating her thoughts to them. Spock says, “The matter of gender could change the entire situation.” Kirk agrees, assigning her the role of lover instead of pet owner or zookeeper. At least this explains why the Companion seems to be made entirely out of soft focus.

Kirk uses his best computer-destroying logic on the Companion, insisting that humans need freedom, and telling her that Hedford will die if they don’t leave. The Companion doesn’t fall for it:

Your impulses are illogical. This communication is useless. The man must continue. Therefore, you will continue. It is necessary.

Then she takes off. Cochrane’s confused by the Companion’s female voice, and they break the news that she views him as a lover. “I’m a what?” he says. He’s completely disgusted by the way the creature has used him, and even more disturbed when McCoy reassures him with, “You get used to those things.”

SPOCK: Your highly emotional reaction is most illogical. Your relationship with the Companion has for one hundred and fifty years been emotionally satisfying, eminently practical, and totally harmless. It may indeed have been quite beneficial.
COCHRANE: Is this what the future holds? Men who have no notion of decency or morality? Maybe I’m a hundred and fifty years out of style, but I’m not going to be fodder for any inhuman monster.
SPOCK: Fascinating. A totally parochial attitude.

Cochrane goes out for some air and Hedford marvels that he’s upset at being loved. Maybe it’s the drugs or the fever, but she weeps:

No. I don’t want to die. I’ve been good at my job, but I’ve never been loved. Never. What kind of life is that? Not to be loved, never to have shown love? And he runs away from love.

Kirk tries to convince the Companion again, this time explaining that humans need obstacles to overcome, but that she removes all of them. When this fails to sway her, he tells her that she can never love Cochrane because she isn’t human. He’s a man, she’s a cloud, it’ll never work out. “If I were human, there can be love?” she asks. Hmmm.

MCCOY: What did you hope to gain by that, Jim?
KIRK: Try to convince her of the hopelessness of it. Love sometimes expresses itself in sacrifice. I thought maybe if she loved him, she’d let him go.

So much for that. But just as it seems there’s no hope, Hedford appears at the door, remarkably healthy. “Zefram Cochrane,” she says. This time he’s swifter on the uptake, instantly understanding that the Companion now shares Hedford’s body, which is now stronger than ever. She joined with her just before Hedford would have died. The new symbiotic being approaches Cochrane and he steps back in fear. She understands now, too:

Zefram, we frighten you. We’ve never frightened you before. Loneliness. This is loneliness. Oh, what a bitter thing. Oh, Zefram, it’s so sad. How do you bear it, this loneliness?

Now that the Companion is in a beautiful female body, she doesn’t seem so bad. She tells them that they’re free, that she can’t stop them from leaving now that she’s human. She has given up her power and her immortality to be with Cochrane. They go for a walk together, holding hands, while Spock checks out the shuttle and Kirk contacts the Enterprise, which is still searching for them.

Cochrane excitedly tells the Companion/Nancy about all the planets they’ll visit, but she reveals that she can’t leave her planetoid for long, because her life is linked to it. Faced with abandoning her for his freedom, he suddenly understands that she loves him. He decides to stay, and they kiss.

He breaks the news to Kirk, who tries to tempt him with all the honors waiting for him in the galaxy. But he’d rather stay there and grow old and die with the woman he loves. “That’s been happening to men and women for a long time. I’ve got the feeling it’s one of the pleasanter things about being human, as long as you grow old together.” Kirk wishes him luck with that and promises not to tell anyone about discovering Cochrane alive. When McCoy reminds him about the war on Epsilon Canaris III, the captain flippantly responds, “Well, I’m sure the Federation can find another woman somewhere who’ll stop that war.”

We’ve seen this all before. “Metamorphosis” engages with themes popular in Star Trek: loneliness, love, alien contact, responsibility, immortality, humanity, and a sense of wonder for the unknown. Kirk almost repeats himself verbatim from “This Side of Paradise” when he says that man needs obstacles to overcome, and once again immortality is portrayed as boring, at least without companionship. It isn’t surprising that a show about space travel would revisit these ideas over and over again, but I think this episode brings them all together in a way we haven’t seen before, and does so more successfully than any of its predecessors. Moreover, because these ideas have been explored previously, it allows the story to focus on other things, like character, instead of becoming all about eternal youth or first contact.

If there’s one aspect of the episode that could have been handled better, it’s Nancy Hedford. As with many Star Trek plots, “Metamorphosis” ultimately fails to fully develop the female guest star of the week. Hedford primarily serves as a problem to solve and a ticking clock—they must get her back to the Enterprise before she dies. She’s a relatively strong female at least, as she’s responsible for mediating a planetary dispute that could lead to war (though there’s something dismissive about Kirk’s comment that they can just find another woman to do it for her, unless I’m misreading him). This time, it seems more like a failure to give her an actual personality and allow us to care about her, so we feel some sympathy for her loveless life and loss when she merges with the Companion. Unfortunately, as strong as she must be, she’s also shrewish and whiney, and is only a sexual object to Cochrane. She spends most of the episode feverish and unconscious, which is kind of a relief since she is so annoying. (Though I do love how she keeps referring to “The Starfleet”.) The fact that she complains about following her career but wishes someone had loved her is moving, but stereotyped. It’s also pretty damned convenient, as it turns out, though I wonder how predictable the fusion with the Companion was for those who watched this for the first time.

We do have a second strong female character: the Companion. She is supremely powerful, but slavishly devoted to Cochrane and also yearns for love, though she doesn’t know it until she has a human body to process the emotions. My jaw practically dropped when Spock said “the matter of gender could change the entire situation,” and Kirk later claimed, with no one arguing otherwise, that “the idea of male and female are universal constants.” This seems a little too simplistic, even for the sixties. I’m also a little troubled by the symbiotic union between Cochrane and Hedford. Since we don’t have a better sense of Hedford’s personality, it’s hard to tell, but it sure seems like the Companion completely subsumes her, providing the mind to her body. That’s pretty screwed up, isn’t it?

Another trope of Star Trek is Kirk wanting to kill a strange new lifeform while Spock wants to study it. It happens so often, I propose a new term for it: “Spock-blocking.” It’s unfortunate that first contact often coincides with a threat to their lives, but it’s strange for a compassionate explorer like Kirk to choose murder so easily, and I’m glad that McCoy calls him on it this time. Despite his reputation as a diplomat, Kirk is definitely a military man first and an explorer second.

This episode is probably most notable because it provides some background into the development of the warp drive, inspiring the plot of Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Borg travel back into Earth’s past to prevent Zefram Cochrane from launching the first warp-capable ship. James Cromwell’s portrayal of Cochrane as an embittered man pushed to greatness strays so much from Glenn Corbet’s naive and wistful performance, they’re like entirely different characters. In a sense, they are, as we only see him in the moments before and after his great discovery. It isn’t hard to see the man from the movie disappearing to die in space and choosing to hide from those who would honor him. It seems odd that Kirk and McCoy didn’t recognize him sooner, though perhaps it’s understandable in the seemingly impossible context of his youthful appearance.

This episode has many interesting moments: Kirk napping in the shuttle, betraying a rare moment of public weakness; the first real explanation of how the universal translator works, even if it doesn’t make any sense; and Scott’s calm handling of the search and rescue, even in the face of Uhura’s irksome pessimism. There’s a beautiful scene where the Companion in Hedford’s body holds up her scarf and views Cochrane through it, simulating the way she’s always seen him through her electrical cloud.

And there are minor problems of course. How does Spock’s device work when there’s apparently a dampening field on the planet? We also haven’t avoided the inevitable religious implications, with the Companion’s veiled reference to God as “the maker of all things” (unless she’s referring to Roddenberry) and Cochrane talks about planting a fig tree, which sounds suspiciously like yet another reference to the Garden of Eden. McCoy once again exercises his poor bedside manner when he tells Kirk that Hedford only has a matter of hours to live, well within earshot of his patient. I found Cochrane slightly hypocritical, since he’s disgusted by the Companion’s feelings for him until it’s in a female human body, suggesting that he’s not lonely so much as he’s interested in sex.

But overall, I thought this was a thoughtful story, with realistic, human reactions to first contact with a new species and a difficult, high-pressure situation. My rating is high because I’m not deducting for the fact that the episode covers well-traveled ground; this is the best exploration of the complexities of love and companionship in the series so far.

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

Torie Atkinson: I don’t know that I can write anything coherent now that I’ve got “Spock-blocking” in my vocabulary.

Eugene touched on most of the points I had, particularly the problematic gender politics of this episode. We finally meet an interesting, powerful, otherworldly female alien, and she turns out to be desperate for love. Great. I assumed that this would be another salt vampire episode, with the Companion dying tragically in the end, so it certainly surprised me with the body possession thing (and she’s still better than a Pah-wraith). I think Hedford got the short end of the stick here, though—if she has any desires or opinions they’re entirely subsumed by the Companion’s. (I know there’s some question of how much of Hedford is left at the end, and I’m inclined to believe none. The Companion, when in her body, claims to discover loneliness for the first time. If we’re to believe Hedford’s deathbed regret, it’s that she knew loneliness very well indeed.)

Unlike Eugene, I was very disappointed with this episode, mostly because of Cochrane. He was an entirely tepid, milquetoast character: a total non-entity. Every scene he entered felt drained by his vacuous presence. I’m certainly spoiled by the delightful James Cromwell in his turn as a very different Cochrane, but this guy was a big yawn for me. What has he been doing for a hundred and fifty years? Decorating his shack, it looks like. He supposedly discovered warp and yet has no aspirations, no yearning for science or discovery, no desires, no curiosity, no passion. He’s a great hero of history, a legend, but when we finally meet him he’s the anti-human, content with being idle and unchallenged for centuries.

Kirk claims men can’t live without challenges or obstacles, and yet here’s Cochrane, living proof that Roddenberry’s moral truth is a lie. So which is it? If we’re to believe Kirk, Cochrane should be miserable, despondent, desperate for escape, feeling inhuman and monstrous by the lack of stimuli. “We’re not animals!” Hedford screams. But he seems fine, I guess. He doesn’t leap at the chance to leave the planet, and is only briefly filled with a sense of wonder at the one hundred and fifty years that have passed. Are you serious? I fondly remember James Doohan’s turn in Next Generation, where Scotty has been trapped in a Dyson sphere for seventy-five years and is reconstituted by Geordi La Forge. The two talk excitedly of the technology that has developed in all that time. He wants to know what the future is like—a sentiment shared only briefly, and extremely mildly, by Cochrane.

And yet this passionless dead fish is suddenly filled with the warmth of love at the end? I don’t buy it, and it didn’t work at all for me. I was also baffled by his mysterious change of heart when he learns the creature is female. Suddenly it’s “used” him? Used him for what? If it had been male how would that have been different?

Luckily, the Second Shift Show starring Scotty and Uhura was a delight, and helped tide me over through the boring Cochrane scenes.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 3

Best Line: Spock: “A most fascinating thing happened. Apparently, the Companion imparted to me a rather quaint, old-fashioned electric shock of respectable voltage.”

Syndication Edits: The middle section of Cochrane approaching the Galileo; Hedford snapping at Cochrane about needing a bath and Kirk asking more questions; McCoy’s examination of Hedford and prognosis, along with more of her complaining and Kirk’s questioning; Cochrane explains how he summons the Companion; McCoy begging the Companion to stop choking Kirk and Spock; Scotty’s log entry and the scanners losing the Galileo’s trail; Kirk and the others return to Cochrane’s house after attempting to contact the Companion before Cochrane rejoins them.

Trivia: The sparkling effects accompanying the Enterprise’s phasers in “The Apple” originated with this episode and will be seen again in “Obsession.” The patterns on Hedford’s scarf were intended to mimic the Companion’s energy field; the scarf itself was also used to disguise a drooping neckline since actress Elinor Donahue lost weight over the course of production, according to her foreword to a Bantam foto-novel adaptation of this episode. In the first draft of the script, Scotty was in the shuttle Edison with Kirk, McCoy, Spock, and Hedford, and gets zapped instead of Spock. The head-on shot of the Enterprise is unique to this episode. Actress Elizabeth Rogers provided the voice of the Companion, and appears twice onscreen as the non-Uhura communications officer, Lt. Palmer. Footage of the Galileo in space is recycled from “The Galileo Seven,” which explains why the ship is still in use, although a photo still reveals unused effects shots with a shuttle named Galileo II.

Other notes: Cochrane reappears in Star Trek: First Contact and his voice is featured in the Enterprise pilot episode, “Broken Bow,” both played by James Cromwell. There is a sequel comic to this episode titled “A Warp in Space” (written by George Kashdan with art by Alden McWilliams), issue #49 of Star Trek from Gold Key Comics.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 8 – “I, Mudd.”

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 10 – “Journey to Babel.” 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.