Star Trek Re-Watch: “Obsession”

Written by Art Wallace
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Season 2, Episode 13
Production episode: 2×18
Original air date: December 15, 1967
Star date: 3619.2

Mission summary

Kirk, Spock, and some red shirts are surveying Argus X for tritanium, a substance Spock says is “21.4 times as hard” as a diamond. As they look at a rock, a strange fog rolls over the rocks above them, but it retreats when they harvest a tritanium sample with a phaser beam. Kirk hasn’t seen the fog, but he notices a sweet odor. The smell triggers the memory of something on another planet eleven years ago. He sends the security officers out to look for a “gaseous cloud,” and asks Spock to scan for dikironium, an element rarely seen and even more rarely pronounced. From Enterprise, Scott reminds him that they’ll be late for their rendezvous with Yorktown if they delay, but Kirk doesn’t care. A little ways off, Ensign Rizzo monologues on how the thing he’s scanning seems to be changing, while the fog surrounds his two friends and appears to suffocate them. Instead of firing at it, he calls Kirk and Spock to tell them about it. By the time they rush to his aid, he’s unconscious, and Kirk already knows the dead security men are missing all of their red blood cells. Spock asks what they’re looking for, and he replies, “Something that can’t possibly exist, but it does.”

Kirk seems intent on finding whatever it is that can’t possibly exist, even though they’re due to pick up perishable vaccines that are desperately needed on Theta VII. Unconcerned that he’s risking so many lives, he rushes to sickbay to interrogate Rizzo, fresh from a blood transfusion but still in bad shape. McCoy grudgingly allows Kirk to ask his patient some questions. Rizzo confirms that he smelled something sweet, like he was “smothered in honey.” The captain asks whether he sensed the presence of intelligence, and he claims it was drawing strength from them. McCoy has a lot of research ahead of him to figure out what killed the men, but Kirk saves him some trouble by telling him to read up on similar deaths on the Farragut eleven years ago. Even Nurse Chapel wonders “What’s with the captain?”

Kirk orders Rizzo’s replacement to the Bridge, Ensign Garrovick. Not only was he friends with Rizzo, who just kicked it, but Kirk mentions that he knew Garrovick’s father; this red shirt is not like the others, so he might have a chance of surviving the episode. Spock conjectures that the creature that he doesn’t believe in might be altering its molecular structure. They scan for it on the planet and Kirk leads another away team to the surface. They split into two search parties, and he strongly encourages his men to fire at the cloud on sight.

The creature soon creeps up on Garrovick’s group. He fires on it after a moment, but it attacks the two men who never got names, leaving one dead and the other in critical condition. Kirk concludes that this is the same creature that killed most of the crew on the Farragut… eleven years ago. It seems pretty clear that this thing doesn’t like them (or likes their blood more) and they should get the heck away. Even Kirk wonders why he’s keeping the ship there.

Kirk, Scott, and McCoy debrief Garrovick on his encounter with the cloud monster and is especially hard on the ensign, accusing him of freezing when faced with the creature. He relieves the young man of duty and confines him to quarters. On the Bridge, Mr. Scott mentions that he’s cleaning the vent on impulse engine two while they’re sitting around, and reminds Kirk that they still have to get to Theta VII. Kirk repeats that Enterprise isn’t leaving the planet and snaps, “I’m getting a little tired of my senior officers conspiring against me.” He immediately apologizes for using the word “conspire” and orders them to keep scanning the planet.

Concerned about the captain’s erratic behavior, Spock visits McCoy for his insight into human irrationality and obsession. He also shares his own research with the doctor, revealing that Kirk was stationed on the Farragut…eleven years ago…serving under Captain Garrovick, the ensign’s father. On his first deep space mission, Lieutenant James T. Kirk hesitated before firing on the cloud creature, and has spent the rest of his life blaming himself for his crewmates’ deaths. McCoy tries to talk some sense into the Captain in his quarters, explaining that it wasn’t his fault, but Kirk says:

I can’t help how I feel. There’s an intelligence about it, Bones. A malevolence. It’s evil. It must be destroyed.

McCoy tries a different tactic, threatening to pronounce Kirk unfit for command. He brings Spock in as a witness. It turns out they are conspiring against him! Spock does it by the book and asks the captain to explain himself. Kirk continues to insist that the cloud is a thinking creature, and the skeptical Spock agrees that if it is, it could pose a threat. Kirk seizes on this as his excuse, claiming, “Intuition is recognized as a command prerogative.” Chekov summons him to the Bridge—the cloud is leaving the planet.

Enterprise pursues with a vengeance, but can’t keep up, even pushing at warp eight. Spock’s scans indicate that the creature is in a “borderline state between matter and energy,” which is pretty weird. Even weirder, the creature slows down and approaches them, which finally convinces Spock that it’s intelligent after all and is now stalking them. He and McCoy apologize to Kirk—they should have believed him all along. Phasers and photon torpedoes pass through the cloud with no effect, as if it were…a cloud. It easily penetrates their shields and moves into the ship through the impulse engine Scott opened earlier. They shut down all the air vents, but it’s already in their ventilation system, restricting the crew to two hours of oxygen. Meanwhile, in a fit of frustration and guilt, Ensign Garrovick throws the lid of a food tray and accidentally switches the vent on in his quarters.

Spock takes a turn trying to relieve Kirk of his guilt, babbling about the creature being out of “time sync.” There’s no way he could have stopped the creature eleven years ago even if he’d made like Han Solo and shot first. It’s small comfort, and Kirk tells him to sell it somewhere else. So Spock visits Ensign Garrovick to deliver the same message, but with a slightly different approach:

I would like you to consider that the hesitation for which you are blaming yourself is an hereditary trait of your species. When suddenly faced by the unknown or imminent danger, the human will experience a split second of indecision. He hesitates.

Fortunately Garrovick’s attention wanders during this pep talk, because he notices the cloud creature coming through his air vent—which is definitely his fault. Spock throws the lieutenant into the corridor for his safety and attempts to stop the gas from coming through with his hands, which is about as effective as you’d expect. Fortunately his green Vulcan blood, with its hemoglobin based on copper instead of iron, protects him from the cloud’s appetite until the air flow can be reversed, sucking the creature back up.

Scotty flushes the vents with radioactive waste, and the creature escapes into space and takes off at speed. Kirk thinks he knows where it’s heading; when he smelled the cloud in Garrovick’s quarters, the thought of home came to him, so it’s probably going back to Tychos IV, where the Farragut first encountered it. He’s so confident they can wrap this up, he signals the Yorktown that they’ll meet in 48 hours.

Garrovick asks to be returned to duty, and Kirk agrees, telling him that even if he had fired immediately, his phaser wouldn’t have had any effect. He realizes the same is true of his own first run-in with the cloud. Their new sense of vindication doesn’t stop them from trying to blow the hell out of the creature. Spock surmises it’s going to its home planet to spawn, so they devise a plan to lure it with a container of hemoplasma and an antimatter bomb. But while they’re setting up the trap, the cloud takes all the hemoplasma, leaving them without bait—unless they use themselves.

Garrovick tries to knock out Kirk to take his place as bait, or maybe just knock some sense into him. Kirk fights him off and keeps his shirt on. “This is no time for heroics,” he says. “I have no intention of sacrificing myself, at least not yet.” It’ll be close, though: the bomb has the destructive power of 10,000 cobalt bombs, which sounds like a lot. It will destroy half the planet’s atmosphere, send a shockwave that will threaten Enterprise, and make it difficult to transport out at the moment of detonation. Other than that, it’s a brilliant plan, and not heroic in the slightest.

As soon as the cloud wanders over for lunch, Kirk signals the ship to set off the bomb and beam them up, or maybe it’s the other way around. Scott has trouble materializing their patterns though. While McCoy grumbles about the transporters, Spock manages to TECH and saves them. With the rare alien lifeform dead and Enterprise on its way to perform its actual mission to save human lives, Kirk takes a moment to bond with Garrovick, promising to tell him stories about his old man.

I’ve always liked this episode and I still do, though now I’m far more critical of it. It’s a fairly straightforward revenge tale, reminiscent of “The Conscience of the King.” (Boy, Kirk has a lot of baggage!) It’s always interesting when we learn the background of one of the main characters, especially such an important period in Kirk’s career. As if Kirk didn’t have enough of a reason to avenge the death of his first commander and his Farragut shipmates, we have Ensign Garrovick, a convenient reminder of the incident and a man with his own grudge. The ensign must be aware that this cloud creature killed his father, but it never seems to come up; instead, his motivation derives from its murder of his pal Rizzo and his desire to prove that he isn’t a spaz.

If this episode suffers, it’s from trying too hard to offer justification for their actions, and the usual plot coincidences that afflict many a Star Trek episode. Scott leaving the impulse engine open, Garrovick accidentally hitting the air vent switch and allowing the creature in… this strains credibility a bit. Obviously, the Ahab routine is trotted out for this one, as it is again and again in Star Trek. But Kirk’s obsession might be emphasized too much, as well as his callousness to his mission and his tortured indecision—he knows he’s making a mistake, but he can’t help himself. His feelings are probably justified given the horrors of his past, but at the heart of it, I’m not sure Kirk is right to hunt this thing to extinction. Honestly, they ran into the creature at random on a planet, it acted within its nature, and despite its potential to kill more people, as far as we know it’s been minding its business for the past eleven years, moving only from one uninhabited planet to another. It’s sad fate reminded me of a more sinister space-faring creature from TNG, the Crystalline Entity.

Spock theorizes that the cloud creature is going home to spawn, but he has no evidence of this, so it pretty much comes out of nowhere. He barely understands how it even can be alive. (I also found it interesting that this is a rare instance where Spock doesn’t push for the opportunity to study a new lifeform.) Couldn’t they just do their delivery of medical supplies and then come back to kill, contain, or communicate with it? Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but why can’t the Yorktown deliver the supplies if they’re so important?

I’m not sure I believe Spock’s claim that the alien’s time sync would have prevented Kirk from harming it if he’d fired immediately. It appears to fear phasers, given how it retreats at the beginning of the episode (and by the way, I love how that little bit of rock pops off the boulder), so maybe if it doesn’t have time to shift out of sync, it could be killed?

Nonetheless, this episode was a solid blend of mystery and tension, as close to an X-File as we get in Star Trek. I especially enjoyed its horror movie qualities; usually when the fog rolls in, there’s a monster hiding in it, but in this case the fog is the monster. Besides, any episode where Nurse Chapel gets to show her cleverness is worth watching.

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

Torie Atkinson: I enjoyed this episode, but it felt like a weak re-tread of interesting ideas that had been better explored in earlier episodes. The Kirk-wants-revenge plot was much better dealt with in “Conscience of the King,” and we just saw an episode around an unfit-to-command Kirk betrayed by his best friend and first officer in “The Deadly Years.” Even the alien-vampire had already been done with “The Man Trap.”

I do wish that the episode had spent less time obsessing (ha) over Kirk’s recklessness and focused more on the idea of guilt and not being able to let go of the past. I thought the moment where you see Ensign Garrovick return to his quarters and cry was the most moving five seconds of the entire episode. Guilt, earned or not, is an incredibly overpowering emotion. We see its effects on Kirk only as anger—I was hoping we’d get to see the other sides of it. Oh well. Here it was a pretty straightforward excuse to have Kirk do foolish things, like let millions of civilians die (um, really Kirk?).

Also, where was the Spock-blocking in this episode?! We have this unknowable, terrifying, dangerous life form that we understand not in the least, which Kirk is bent on exterminating. We have no idea if it’s the last of its kind, or if it’s actually killed anyone since that incident 11 years ago, or if it even is malevolent. They had thought the Horta was malevolent and discovered it was just another lifeform trying to survive human encroachment. Why didn’t Spock try and prevent its death? No one at any point says “Hey, you know, maybe it just needs blood to survive, like that other vampire we found that we accidentally killed and damn wasn’t that a shame?” Shame on you, Spock.

As far as historical relevance goes, the first thing I thought of when I saw that gas cloud was poison gas of World War II and Vietnam. I’m not claiming it’s an allegory by any means, but there is something particularly terrifying about death from something as insubstantial as gas. We had no idea the damage that Agent Orange would do when we released it in 60s. This enemy is so much more dangerous when you can’t man-fight it to death. It wasn’t until 1984 that Reagan called for an international ban on chemical weapons, and 1997 until the multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention went into force. Even the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo are a reminder of how terrifying and massively destructive poison gas can be. What if it had intelligence? Malevolence, even?

All in all, this is a solid installment of Kirk vs. the unknowable. I liked the tension, the implications, and the general horror of it all. It’s so alien that communication is impossible, its motives are unknowable, and its path is utterly obscured. What is it? Why is it? There are always going to be things in life that we have no explanation for, and we can’t fear them. Life has many mysteries, and not all of them are innocuous.

Just don’t kill them next time, yeah?

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

Best Line: Spock: “Mr. Scott, there was no deity involved. It was my cross-circuiting to B that recovered them.”

Syndication Edits: A Captain’s Log entry on 3619.6 and Garrovick’s initial debrief; Kirk asking if anyone has anymore questions before relieving Garrovick; Garrovick enters his quarters; when McCoy comes to Kirk’s quarters, he calls Chekov on the Bridge for an update, chats with the doctor, and returns to his bed; Enterprise chasing the cloud at warp eight and Scotty’s concern; reaction shots before Kirk orders them to slow to warp six; a pan across Garrovick’s quarters and Chapel buzzing at the door; Chapel explaining what’s been happening.

Trivia: One of the dead shirts in the teaser, Mr. Leslie (Eddie Paskey), previously appeared in a number of episodes and makes a miraculous recovery, as he returns later on in the series. Yet Jerry Ayres, who played Rizzo, previously died as Ensign O’Herlihy in “Arena” and they bothered to lighten his hair to avoid any confusion. The tower Scott admires in “I, Mudd” has been installed in Sickbay. This episode seems to contradict Kirk’s Starfleet record as stated in “Court-Martial,” where it was established that Kirk was an ensign on the U.S.S. Republic.

Other notes: Real world facts: Like Mr. Spock, octopodes have copper-based blood, hemocyanin, but theirs is blue instead of green. Cobalt bombs don’t actually exist; a so-called “salted bomb,” physicist Leó Szilárd theorized it as a type of nuclear weapon that emphasizes radioactive contamination over destructive blast by transmuting cobalt to cobalt-60. In Star Trek terms, this is apparently a yield of 4.6 million megatons, which seems to defy the laws of physics. The writer of this episode, Art Wallace, is probably most “famous” for his work on the original Dark Shadows (1966-71), and also wrote the pilot for the revival series in 1991.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 12 – “The Deadly Years

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 14 – “Wolf in the Fold.” 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.