Star Trek: The Animated Series Re-Watch: “One of Our Planets is Missing”

One of Our Planets is Missing
Written by Marc Daniels
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 3
Production episode: 22007
Original air date: September 22, 1973
Star date: 5371.3

Mission summary

Starfleet Command has commissioned the Enterprise to investigate a cosmic cloud heading through the Pallas 14 system. Over 800,000 km across and half as deep, the cloud is immense and unlike anything the crew has ever seen. It seems to move intelligently, and sets its sights on the planet Alondra. Before they can say “horta,” it rapidly engulfs the planet Alondra and breaks it into tiny pieces. Soon it’s changed course and heads directly to a new target: Mantilles, the Federation’s most remote inhabited planet, with over 82 million residents. Do they warn those people so that a handful can escape? Is it worth it to risk full-blown panic? They decide to let the governor, Bob Wesley, in on the threat. It’ll be up to him to decide who lives and who dies.

As soon as the message is sent, however, tendrils from the cloud reach out and wrap themselves around the Enterprise. The tendrils are some kind of “koinoenergy” made of “ambiplasma” with an irresistible attractive force. It pulls them into the cloud. Within moments, the ship itself has been engulfed, trapped in the bizarre creature.  They observe that the mass of Alondra within the cloud is decreasing, as if it’s being dissolved–not good news for them. The cloud acts as a kind of digestive system, breaking planets and mass down using cosmic enzymes and processing the energy as food. Spock describes it as like a “huge bull grazing here and there in the pasture of the universe,” a metaphor Kirk likes: he suggests giving it indigestion. (Good thing this one doesn’t have a four-compartment stomach, though!)

Bob Wesley has indigestion of his own. He phones Kirk to let him know that he’s evacuating who he can–the children. Only 5,000 out of 82 million people will be saved if Kirk can’t come up with a way out of this one. No pressure.

Meanwhile, they’ve plotted a course from the cloud’s “stomach” into what seems to be its large intestine. It’s lined with antimatter nodules similar to villi made out of antimatter–one touch and the ship will explode.  The deflectors get turned up to 11 but it’s sapping the ship’s power. They only have twenty-one minutes left of energy before the engines can no longer regenerate, and the ship goes down like the Titanic in a sea of intestinal antimatter icebergs.

SCOTT: Captain, you said that villi are antimatter. If we could get a piece of it, I could put it in the antimatter engine and it would regenerate. We’d have enough power for the engines and the shields to go on maximum again.
KIRK: We need both the matter and the antimatter engines regenerated.
SCOTT: Matter’s no problem. We could beam aboard some of the planet chunks out there. And we can cut a piece of the antimatter villi with the tractor beams and transport it aboard like that.
KIRK: Bring it aboard? If the antimatter touches the inside of the ship or any of us, we’ll be blown to bits.
SCOTT: I can rig a force field box that’ll hold the villi suspended in the centre. Then I can take it into the antimatter nacelle, put it into the regenerating chamber and release the forcefield by remote control.

They put this plan into action, and thanks to the magic of a 22-minute show it goes off without a hitch.  Scotty’s earned his pay for the week. Unfortunately, they still haven’t managed to dissuade the creature from gobbling up Mantilles, and Kirk believes he now has no choice but to kill the creature. They have found what seems to be the thing’s “brain” and analyze the best way to shut it down for good.

KIRK: Am I doing the right thing, Bones? Once, I said, man rose above primitiveness by vowing “I will not kill today.”
MCCOY: But you can’t let this thing destroy over eighty million lives, either.
SPOCK: Captain, I have completed the analysis of the target area. Unfortunately, the brain is so vast, our entire offensive armament will not assure its destruction. However, the brain could be completely destroyed if we convert the entire ship to energy, aimed at the brain’s cortex, and expend the energy in one mortal strike.
MCCOY: That sounds like you’re telling us to blow up the ship.
SPOCK: I believe that is what I just said, Doctor.

But Kirk has an idea. Can Spock mind meld with it? He can’t, it turns out, that requires physical contact–but he may be able to project his consciousness 70s-style and communicate via electrical signals.

SPOCK: If we focus our sensors onto the cloud’s synaptic electrical impulses, the input could be routed to the ship’s computer for analysis into thought.
UHURA: I can link in the universal translator and put it on the audio system from here.

Yeah, right, whatever. With only seven minutes remaining, Spock patches himself in and attempts to communicate with the cosmic cloud. He uses simple language, to which the cloud only seems to respond: “Explain.” But it’s interested in this idea that little beings are inside it. Spock can’t seem to fully communicate the gravity of what it’s about to do to Mantilles, so he suggests a personality swap. The cloud agrees, and possesses Spock’s body. It wanders, silently, around the bridge, touching Kirk’s face. Uhura displays images of Earth on the viewscreen, and the possessed Spock seems to understand.

Finally it releases Spock, and says simply: “Comprehend.”

Spock asks it, finally, to leave this galaxy–to go back where it came from. Though its a long journey home, the cloud agrees. It begins to leave, and the Enterprise exits it via its nose equivalent. But Kirk has one more question:

KIRK: Spock, what did you perceive?
SPOCK: The wonders of the universe, Captain. Incredible, completely incredible.


This show never ceases to surprise me. We have what should be a fairly standard plot–nebulous alien threatens to destroy planet, Enterprise stops it–but in just over twenty minutes it manages to tease out a great story that touches the heart of Star Trek‘s moral compass.  A kind of cross between “The Doomsday Machine” and “Devil in the Dark,” this episode is a little bit sweeter than both without being cheesy or ridiculous. The cosmic cloud isn’t a space douche, toying with the ship or its crew; it’s little more than an animal, doing what it must to survive. Production-wise, the animation has some beautiful painted images of the inside of this cloud-stomach, and I was delighted to get to see the inside of the nacelles for the first time.

The living space cloud may not have been particularly original, but I thought the stomach and digestive system metaphors were actually really clever. It also gets downright educational when McCoy steps up on his little pedestal and explains what villi are and how enzymes in the stomach break down food to be converted into energy.  The antimatter stuff doesn’t really add up, but at least the biology is pretty solid.

This is going to be a recurring theme, but I’ll say again that the animated series manages a level of moral complexity that exceeds most kids’ shows (and, while we’re at it, most adult shows). The bridge crew’s struggle with whether or not to inform Mantilles of their impending and potentially unstoppable doom was thoughtful and serious. Do we prompt wide-scale, potentially destructive panic? Or do we let any chance of escape, for anyone, pass forever? They wound up passing the buck a little, but we did get to see the decision, even if Kirk didn’t make it. (Picking 5000 children kind of means perpetuating your race with a bunch of emotionally and psychologically traumatized orphans, but I digress.) I may have to add a new tag: “That’s some heavy stuff.”

The climax of the episode revolves around whether to kill this unknown creature or allow millions of humans to die. The answer is, again, obvious to those of us who recognize the nobility of these characters (and who have seen this plot before), but there’s an interesting secondary morality going on, too.  When Kirk makes the decision to destroy the creature, note the way he doesn’t spare a single thought for his own destruction. There is no reference or allusion to the fact that they will all die. Instead he mourns that he’ll be responsible for destroying a unique, probably intelligent creature unlike anything the galaxy has ever seen before. What amazes me, though, is not just that these choices have to be made in the context of an animated cartoon–it’s that the characters actively discuss their complexity amongst each other. They talk openly about the difficulties, the pros, the cons, and the seriousness of their decisions.

And finally, the episode concludes on an almost exhilarating note. They’ve managed to not only communicate with an extraordinarily alien species, but, to use the parlance of the time, Spock’s mind is totally blown. In seeking out new life, he’s expanded his own Vulcan experience that much more and come to see the universe through a different window.

Great work, Marc Daniels.

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

Eugene Myers: This episode is far more interesting than its silly title suggests. Despite some odd dialogue (“It is like a huge bull grazing here and there in the pasture of the universe.”), I was intrigued by the Galactus-like space cloud consuming planets and Enterprise‘s Innerspace voyage through its alien digestive tract.

In many ways, I felt like this episode surpassed many of the live-action show’s attempts at depicting alien contact, making it feel like the Star Trek I always wanted but rarely got. No moment illustrates this comparison better than when Kirk announces they’re going to blow up the alien’s brain and his crew stares at him in sheer horror–and then Spock reminds the captain that Starfleet has regulations to protect intelligent life forms. Of course, Kirk pulls rank and Spock-blocks him anyway, but he at least weighs the decision and sounds bummed about it, and when it really matters he does give his science officer the chance he needs to save the creature’s life.

Maybe this regulation protecting sentient life is a new Starfleet rule, but this episode handled the moral dilemma better than the original series often did, even with a shorter running time. First contact was handled with thoughtfulness and care, even with a ticking clock and millions of lives on the line. I also loved how much of a team effort it took to save Enterprise: Scotty figured out how to keep the ship running through a complicated plan that was just crazy enough to work, Dr. McCoy taught everyone about villi, Uhura and Spock worked together to initiate contact with the alien cloud, and Sulu made some charts. There were a lot of charts. But that only added to the realism, because as anyone who has worked in an office knows, you can’t do anything important without first making a chart.

A lot of the science was wonky, but overall I was really pleased with the time they took to at least make things seem plausible. Getting a glimpse inside a warp nacelle was an unexpected bonus, and I think this was the first look we have at a warp core that looks anything like the ones in the movies and later shows, unless that was just a random graduated cylinder in Engineering. The show’s also building up its own internal continuity: once again, self-destruct is located in Engineering, though they do rig a control from the Bridge.

It was a little goofy to see Spock in full-on seance mode, but I was charmed that they essentially save Mantilles and Enterprise by showing the alien stock footage, and that the alien turns out to be a vegetarian. (Or just has the same reverence for sentient beings that Starfleet does.) There was also another nice link to the original series, when Kirk paraphrases his “I will not kill today” speech from an earlier episode. And how often do they stop an alien planet killer without anyone dying or needing to rescue some whales from Twentieth Century Earth first? (Assuming Alondra was uninhabited when the cloud began snacking on it, of course.)

In short, this was an intelligent, interesting, and tense episode, and I was completely blindsided by how good it was. More like this, please.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 5

Best Line: KIRK: Am I doing the right thing, Bones? Once, I said, man rose above primitiveness by vowing ‘I will not kill today.’

Trivia: The Bob Wesley character first appeared in “The Ultimate Computer,” though here he’s voiced by (surprise!) James Doohan.

The “Earth imagery” is actually just stock footage from other Filmation work. The boy and a girl running ahead of a dog is from the short-lived Lassie’s Rescue Rangers.

The line I chose as the best line is fudging history a bit. Kirk never said specifically those words. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” he said: “We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today.” Close enough.

Other notes: Marc Daniels, as I’m sure we all know by now, directed fifteen episodes of the original series and was a giant of television directing. He’s perhaps most famous for directing the first 38 episodes of I Love Lucy before leaving for a higher paying gig (who could have known?). This is one of only two writing credits to his name–the other was an episode of Matt Lincoln, a 70s medical drama that tanked so badly it was canceled mid-season.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 2 – “Yesteryear.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 4 – “The Lorelei Signal.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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.