Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Changeling”

“The Changeling”
Written by John Meredyth Lucas
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 2, Episode 3
Production episode: 2×04
Original air date: September 29, 1967
Star date: 3451.9

Mission summary
The Enterprise responds to a distress signal in the Malurian system, but when they arrive it’s already too late—the entire race, some four billion people, have mysteriously disappeared. The cause of their total destruction is less mysterious when an unknown enemy attacks the ship with energy bolts traveling at warp 15, each with the strength of ninety photon torpedoes. Shields hold up under three such attacks while they pinpoint the source and fire a photon torpedo at it, but it’s easily absorbed by their assailant. The fourth energy blast destroys their shields and they finally decide to attempt contact. Spock also determines that the enemy vessel is tiny: “Weight, five hundred kilograms. Shape, roughly cylindrical. Length, a fraction over one meter.”

Surprisingly, the minuscule vessel answers their hail with a compressed message in binary, which they soon translate as a mathematical symbol for “repeat.” Kirk obliges, again identifying himself and the Enterprise, and the vessel requests information on their language. Spock opens up their translator systems to communications, and the vessel shorts out the terminal while drawing the data at high speed. “I guess they can take it faster than we can give it,” Kirk says. But the vessel got what it needed, because it responds: “USS Enterprise. This is Nomad. My mission is non-hostile.” That’s a relief, because it might have done some damage to their ship if it had tried. Nomad agrees to beam about the ship and Kirk, Scotty, Spock, and McCoy greet it in the transporter room.

A small cylindrical object appears, hovering over the transporter pad, its screens impervious to their scanners. Nomad wants to know their “point of origin” and asks to see some star charts. When it asks Spock to explain the meaning of the word “opinion,” he points out that it reacts “much like a highly sophisticated computer”—and he would know. Nomad responds to their attempts to understand it with “Non sequitur. You are uncoordinated,” which pretty much means “Sorry, try again.” In its roundabout way, it explains that it isn’t a vessel (“I contain no parasitical beings. I am Nomad.”) and Kirk suddenly remembers a probe named Nomad was launched from Earth in the early 2000s.

Kirk brings Nomad to the auxiliary control room where it scans their star charts and connects them to Earth. It identifies the captain as “The Kirk, the Creator,” claiming that he programmed it. This is news to Kirk, but he plays along. Nomad describes its purpose: “My function is to probe for biological infestations, to destroy that which is not perfect. I am Nomad.“ Well, that doesn’t sound right. Who would build something like that? Nomad confirms that it “sterilized” the Malurian system, as it was going to do with the Enterprise before discovering that the Creator was on board. Spock insists that yes, Kirk is the Creator, so Nomad won’t kill them all immediately.

Spock’s research in the “history computer” reveals that Nomad was built by a man named Jackson Roykirk as “a perfect thinking machine, capable of independent logic.” (Who would want to build something like that? Certainly not us… Ahem.) Nomad was dispatched as the “first interstellar probe seek new life forms,” presumed destroyed by a meteor collision. But rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated—it only went a little crazy. Its memory systems were damaged so it has confused Kirk for Roykirk (an amazing, and lucky coincidence) and its mission has been somehow perverted, perhaps by “the Other” that it mentions. It’s a good thing they have the dangerous machine under guard.

Or do they? Mr. Singh makes for a terrible babysitter, because Nomad wanders out of the auxiliary control room without him noticing and finds its way to the Bridge, drawn toward Uhura’s beautiful singing. It asks her, “For what purpose is singing?” then scans her with a beam to figure out what music is. Scotty makes a grab for it and Nomad zaps him backward, killing him. Apparently Nomad doesn’t like to be touched. Meanwhile, Uhura’s looking a little blank and unresponsive and Kirk orders she be taken to Sickbay.

KIRK: What did you do to her?
NOMAD: That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me.
SPOCK: That unit is a woman.
NOMAD: A mass of conflicting impulses.

Nomad then offers to repair the “unit Scott” for them, so they give it some tapes on human anatomy and bring it to Sickbay, hoping to work a miracle on the miracle worker. Luckily for them and Scotty, Nomad brings him back to life. It can’t do anything for Uhura though; her mind has been wiped from the scan, and their only option is to re-educate her. “I’ll get on it right away,” Dr. McCoy says. Spock wants to study Nomad, but Kirk only wants to learn how to “render it harmless.” He orders Nomad to lower its screens and submit to Spock’s scans, but it’s so damaged he needs to dig deeper. He decides to perform a Vulcan mind meld to figure out what happened to it.

From the fragments of memory, Spock pieces together the full story. Nomad’s memory banks were damaged in its collision with a meteor and wandered without programming until it encountered Tan Ru, a powerful alien probe designed to collect and sterilize soil samples. The two machines merged and repaired each other, combining into a new entity and confusing their programming into a new mission: to seek out and sterilize imperfect life forms.

KIRK: A changeling.
SPOCK: I beg your pardon?
KIRK: An ancient Earth legend, Mister Spock. A changeling was a fairy child that was left in place of a human baby. The changeling assumed the identity of the human child. So, it is to sterilize, and for sterilize read kill.
SPOCK And it has the power and sophistication to do it.
KIRK: Yes, it’s powerful, it’s sophisticated, but it’s not infallible. It’s space-happy. It thinks I’m its mother.
SPOCK: And that is the only thing that has saved us until now.

Unfortunately, Nomad’s growing up quickly. It vaporizes two red shirts (no chance of repairing those units!) then makes a beeline for Engineering, where it increases the efficiency of the warp drive so it goes to 11. Kirk orders it to stop before the speed tears the ship apart. They find out that Nomad killed two crew members, and it explains, “Creator, your biological units are inefficient.” Kirk loses it and blurts out, “Nomad, it’s about time I told you who and what you are! I’m a biological unit, and I created you.” Shhh! Ix-nay on the iology-bay, Kirk.

This confession throws Nomad for a loop, since its programming indicates that biological units are inferior. It decides to “re-evaluate” before returning to launch point. Uh oh. Nomad is on to Kirk, and it’s heading back to Earth to exterminate the biological infestation in the system. In short order, Nomad kills two more red shirts, freaks out Nurse Chapel, reads Kirk’s medical files, and cuts off life support to kill the crew without ruining a perfectly good ship.

Back to Engineering! It’s time for Kirk to do what he does best: outthink a computer. He engages Nomad in a circuitous debate on logic:

NOMAD: I shall continue. I shall return to launch point Earth. I shall sterilize.
KIRK: You must sterilize in case of error?
NOMAD: Error is inconsistent with my prime functions. Sterilization is correction.
KIRK: Everything that is in error must be sterilized.
NOMAD: There are no exceptions.
KIRK: Nomad, I made an error in creating you.
NOMAD: The creation of perfection is no error.
KIRK: I did not create perfection. I created error.
NOMAD: Your data is faulty. I am Nomad. I am perfect.
KIRK: I am the Kirk, the Ccreator?
NOMAD: You are the Creator.
KIRK: You are wrong! Jackson Roykirk, your creator, is dead. You have mistaken me for him. You are in error. You did not discover your mistake. You have made two errors. You are flawed and imperfect and you have not corrected by sterilization. You have made three errors.
NOMAD: Error. Error. Error. Examine.
KIRK: You are flawed and imperfect! Execute your prime function!

Harsh, Kirk. Nomad buys his argument and they get it to the transporter room and beam it into space just before it self-destructs, completing its purpose. Back on the Bridge, Spock congratulates the captain on his “dazzling display of logic,” but laments the wasteful destruction of the machine. And McCoy tells them that Uhura is recovering well, back up to college level and likely ready for duty in a week… Really?

The most interesting thing for me about this episode is how Nomad is so clearly a perversion of the Enterprise’s own mission. Like them, it was initially sent from Earth to seek out new life, but along the way Nomad’s own “Prime Directive” was distorted until it began to do the exact opposite. It might be stretching things to say that this is a caution against best intentions and inadvertently harming the very things you value, but I’ll leave it at simply unsettling. When Nomad states its purpose, it’s downright chilling. Yet it’s worth noting that despite their peaceful mission of exploration, Kirk and his crew are often forced to destroy the very life they find, as they do again here.

I would argue that this episode is influenced by horror tropes. Kirk calls Nomad’s presence “nightmarish,” and it is, especially near the end when it roams freely, lurking in shadows and wantonly zapping crew members—not with malice, but because of its programming. That one scene shot from its POV is genius. It’s hard not to see this story as a warning against pursuing artificial intelligence; Spock describes Roykirk, Nomad’s creator, as “brilliant though erratic,” indicating his dream was foolish, if not outright dangerous. He never could have imagined his creation would turn so sour, but this only occurs after it makes contact with an alien intelligence.

The episode is also an exploration of intelligence without emotion, pure computer logic. It’s natural for Spock to take an interest in Nomad. He says it “almost qualifies as a life form,” and as such he places importance on studying it. This is his usual stance, and Kirk’s standard reply is that it must be destroyed. In this case, he might be right; machine or not, Nomad is responsible for the genocide of an entire race. It might be too alien now to reprogram, especially when they barely understand it, but disappointingly the suggestion is never even made. Kirk calls it a “changeling,” an analogy that doesn’t quite fit, but Nomad does seem to have a childlike innocence and naivete for all its destructive ability. It can preserve life as well as it kills, as it does when it resurrects Scotty in Sickbay, and it contains advanced knowledge that could be a great advantage. Just knowing that Warp 11 speeds are possible with their existing technology is enough to drive Federation engineers mad for years to come. (There’s also the disadvantage of robotic artificial intelligences, the fear that computers will replace humans. Despite its reverence for its creator, Nomad doesn’t need people, and it can do Scotty’s and McCoy’s jobs better than they can, albeit without compassion.)

Because Spock and Nomad are logical creatures, they have a strong bond even before he mind melds with it. He understands Nomad as no one else can, explaining to McCoy about its inability to understand emotion. If anything demonstrates that Spock is not just a machine himself, it’s seeing him directly compared to one in this episode, though Nomad does show what he could be. Nomad’s seemingly callous view of inferior biological infestations is not far off from T’Pring’s cold treatment of Spock for her own benefit in “Amok Time.” Logic can excuse a lot, apparently.

As for the mind meld, I don’t quite buy it, but Nimoy’s handling of the scene is beautiful. The way he keeps his distance at first while relating Nomad’s and Tan Ru’s individual memories, then rotates around it and embracing it to show the transition to a new mind created from the two probes (with him briefly connected to them) is so elegant. “We are Nomad.” His robotic monotone is not even as ridiculous as it might otherwise seem; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more intimate melding of minds in all of Trek. It kind of looks like he’s dancing with the thing.

The biggest issue for me in this episode is what happens to Uhura. The mind wipe is scary and intriguing, but why couldn’t Nomad have fixed her, too? I’d take that deus ex machina over them trying to teach her everything she knew again from scratch. If that’s true, then what good is Starfleet Academy? How can she pick up Swahili, which presumably no one taught her, before she masters reading basic English? That one line of dialogue (“Bluey?”) still makes me cringe. And hello, what about her memories? How can those be replaced? There’s no way Uhura will be back at work in a week, if ever.

That isn’t the only thing that strains credibility. Can a computer really short out because information is drawn from it too quickly? And I’m frankly surprised that the Enterprise could survive a blast equivalent of ninety photon torpedoes, let alone four such attacks, even with Scott drawing every ounce of power from the warp engines. Still, a lot of details felt right to me, too, such as the initial communication through mathematics (how cool to hear them reference an “analysis sector” that does all the translation work!).

I didn’t remember the attacks on the ship before Nomad appeared in the transporter room, so I was engaged by the tension of the opening battle during my re-watch. And now I recall that this is the episode where Scotty is blasted backward and killed; given it aired right after “Who Mourns for Adonais?” it’s no wonder I had the two episodes mixed up. Despite its oddities, the encounter with Nomad is a classic Star Trek scenario, from the frightening attack by an unknown enemy to hesitant contact with new life. Like Spock, I was fascinated the entire time.

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

Torie Atkinson: Though I, like Eugene, was struck by the numerous plotholes and stretches of credibility, I found this episode absolutely compelling from beginning to end. It maintains a tension and intensity that I haven’t felt since “Balance of Terror.” This little cylinder can eliminate entire planets, and it’s right there on the ship, a knife’s edge away from possibly killing them all. A refreshing change from getting tossed around by omnipotent space douches.

The scene in the transporter room when Nomad arrived was brilliant. I love the way they watch it float out of the room, utterly terrified and yet fascinated all the same. Their fear felt palpable, and each second that ticks by in silence feels like an eternity.

But what really defined this episode was the mind meld. At first I let out an uncontrollable giggle, because come on! Spock is holding an enlarged soup can! But his focus, the subtlety of his physical cues, and the stillness that sets over the whole scene gave me chills. I can’t wait to go back and watch that one again. It’s an incredible few minutes.

As for zombie Scott and the miraculous re-education of Uhura, well, okay, I guess. I think resurrecting Scott was more than a little problematic because if he can do that, can’t he just restore the entire Malurian system? Better not to think about it too hard.

As much as Nomad prefigures V’ger in ST: TMP, I think it more closely prefigures the Borg. I can’t help but wonder if the one directly inspired the other, or if they both emerged from the same fear. Nomad’s a relentlessly logical entity whose quest for perfection will inevitably destroy all of us. It is technology incapable of finding a purely biological entity that meets its standards, and it has a coldness and sterility that make even the most seasoned horror fan uncomfortable. Most terrifying of all, both Nomad and the Borg have unquestionable, unquantifiable power, but lack a human soul. They lack a spirit with a reverence for life and autonomy, and there’s no reasoning with them, and no stopping them.

Well, unless outthinking a computer is your superpower.  Why doesn’t Nomad just assume that Kirk is imperfect and thus must be in error?

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

Best Line: Nomad’s description of Spock: “This unit is different. It is well-ordered.”

Syndication Edits: Everything between Uhura receiving Nomad’s first transmission and its second message; Spock’s computer shorting out and Kirk’s comment that the attackers got what they needed; Kirk asking if Nomad needs any special conditions before beaming aboard, Scott’s objection, and ordering repairs for Spock’s computer; Spock explaining “opinion” to Nomad; Lt. Singh speaking to Nomad before Uhura calls him; Nomad approaching Uhura; Kirk calling for Bones after Scott is knocked over; Nomad asking if Kirk will repair “the unit Scott” before it offers to fix him itself; some moments in Sickbay after Scott is revived; Uhura reading about the dog running; Spock pushing some buttons before telling Kirk that his scan of Nomad is insufficient.

Trivia: In the original draft of this episode, the probe was named Altair and among other differences, Kirk defeats it by flash feeding all the literature from the Enterprise computer into it, causing it to self-destruct from the flood of illogic. Vic Perrin returns to the series as Nomad, once again seizing control of the horizontal and vertical as the voice of a powerful alien entity. The director of this episode, Marc Daniels, appears as Jackson Roykirk in the photograph of Nomad’s creator, oddly enough in a Starfleet uniform.

Other notes: If this episode seems familiar, you might be remembering what little plot there was in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which the transformation of the Voyager probe into V’ger bears a close resemblance to Nomad’s fate. This led some snarky fans to retitle the movie “Where Nomad Has Gone Before.” A Malurian named Garos is seen in a season one Star Trek: Enterprise episode, “Civilization,” which takes place before his race is destroyed.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 2 – “Who Mourns for Adonais?

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 4 – “Mirror, Mirror.” 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.