Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Deadly Years”

“The Deadly Years”
Written by David P. Harmon
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 2, Episode 12
Production episode: 2×11
Original air date:December 8, 1967
Star date: 3478.2

Mission Summary:
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and Lt. Galway beam down to the surface of Gamma Hydra IV, a scientific outpost in need of resupply. The away team finds absolutely no one on the surface, though, and Kirk orders the party to spread out and look for the colony’s inhabitants. Poor Ensign Chekov gets the shock of his life when he enters a dark building to find an incredibly old man dead on a table. He screams, scared out of his wits, and informs the captain. When Dr. McCoy examines the man he finds that he’s died of extreme old age. Mr. Spock says this is impossible, because no one on the colony was over the age of thirty! But just then, a very old couple enter the building. Hard of hearing and near senility, the man reveals himself to be Robert Johnson, the twenty-nine-year-old leader of the scientific expedition, and the woman beside him is his twenty-seven-year-old wife.

They all beam back and Kirk attempts to question Mr. Johnson, but the man just doesn’t understand and Dr. McCoy suggests he rests. To decide a plan of action, Kirk convenes a briefing that also includes Commodore Stocker, a bureaucrat on his way to his next post, and Dr. Janet Wallace, an endocrinologist and old girlfriend of Kirk’s. Spock explains that the planet is perfectly suitable for human life, so there is no local cause for the disease that has killed four of the scientists and is killing the remaining two. The captain suggests that their close proximity to the Romulans and the Neutral Zone implies something more insidious, but no matter what the cause, the two survivors continue to age rapidly and will not be long for this world. The commodore is anxious to get to Starbase 10, but Kirk firmly impresses that the ship will not leave until it has discovered what happened on that colony. The group is dismissed, but Dr. Wallace stays behind to get a few words in with Kirk.

KIRK: How long has it been?
WALLACE: Six years, four months, and an odd number of days. You mean you don’t know?
KIRK: Well, it’s been a long time. Things wouldn’t change if it started all over again, would it? You have your job, I have my ship, and neither one of us will change.
WALLACE: You said it. I didn’t. In all those years, I only heard from you once. A stargram when my husband died. You know, you never asked me why I got married after we called it off.
KIRK: Well, I supposed that you met someone you loved.
WALLACE: I met a man I admired. A great man.
KIRK: And in your field as you. You didn’t give up a thing.
WALLACE: No. Just you.

Kirk returns to the bridge but the planet checks out—nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. The only oddity is a comet that recently passed by, which Spock decides to investigate. Satisfied, Kirk orders Sulu to maintain a standard orbit while he returns to quarters.

SULU: You already gave that command, sir.
KIRK: Oh? Well, follow it.

In Sickbay, Lt. Galway has somewhat shyly approached Dr. McCoy with hearing problems, an odd complaint for a young lieutenant. Back in his quarters and presumably some time later, Kirk is paged by Spock with a progress report. He tells his first officer to begin investigating the nearby comet—but Spock notes that he already is, and that they’ve already discussed that. Kirk is visibly troubled by this mental slip and decides to go to Sickbay to check on the two surviving colonists. But before he goes he reaches for his back, in pain.

When he reaches Sickbay Dr. McCoy is pulling a sheet over Johnson, the last colonist, who has finally died, and whose death provided the doctor with no information about how or why this terrible thing happened. Kirk jokes that McCoy is going gray and asks him to check out his shoulder, so McCoy runs a scan of his arm and his face changes dramatically.

MCCOY: Jim, I think we better’d run a complete physical on you.
KIRK: Why? Just muscular strain, isn’t it?
MCCOY: No, Jim. It’s advanced arthritis, and it’s spreading.

Just then Mr. Scott walks in, gray-haired and deeply wrinkled.

Every member of the landing party has begun showing signs of rapid aging, with the exception of Ensign Chekov. Spock estimates that they have about a week to live, though their mental faculties are deteriorating rapidly and he warns that they will become “mental vegetables” in considerably less time. Lt. Galway seems to be taking the news the hardest:

MCCOY: Now why don’t you go down to your quarters and get some sleep.
GALWAY: No. I don’t want to sleep. Can’t you understand? If I sleep, what will I find when I wake up?

She catches a reflection of herself in the Sickbay mirror, wrinkled and old. “What a stupid place to hang a mirror.”

On their way out, Kirk and Wallace fall into another conversation about their past. We learn that her husband was twenty-six years her elder—a fact that makes Kirk a little suspicious of her sudden interest in rekindling their romance.

KIRK: Look at me. Look at me. What do you see?
WALLACE: I see Captain James Kirk, a man of morality, decency, handsome, and strong.
KIRK: And old. And rapidly growing older.
WALLACE: Jim, please.
KIRK: What are you offering me, Jan? Love? Or a going away present?

On the bridge, Kirk is cantankerous, defensive, forgetful, and troublingly vacant. He signs a fuel consumption report given to him by Yeoman Atkins, only to forget moments later and demand to sign it. Later, he is napping on the bridge, a fact which everyone is delicately ignoring. Spock enters and wakes the captain to tell him that they’ve discovered the cause of the disease: the planet passed through the comet’s trail, and low-level radiation doused the planet and is responsible for their unfortunate predicament. Kirk is delighted by the news and orders Lt. Uhura to transmit a message to Starfleet (coded, of course, to elude the Romulans). But he asks for Code Two, which Uhura points out has already been broken by the Romulans. Angry, Kirk orders her to send it on Code Three. Everyone on the bridge is uncomfortable, and Kirk is angry and feeling picked on. To make matters worse, he then orders Sulu to increase orbit—an order he had already given.

Commodore Stocker has taken note of this and he confronts Spock in the hallway. He seems reluctant and uncomfortable, but tries to impress as delicately as he can that Kirk is unfit for command. His progressing senility has severely impacted his ability to lead the ship, and Stocker wants Spock to take over. Spock points out that he, too, has been afflicted: his half-human genome means that despite a Vulcan’s longer lifespan, his own faculties have been seriously affected. Stocker makes it clear that this isn’t a request: he wants to convene a competency hearing about the captain. Reluctantly a slave to regulation, Spock agrees.

Meanwhile, time is running out. Back in Sickbay Chekov is undergoing another battery of tests when Lt. Galway enters and collapses in Kirk’s arms. She is dead, and Dr. McCoy estimates that they have only a few days, and maybe even only a few hours, before their own lives end.

And just to make sure those last few hours are wasted in meetings, Stocker’s competency hearing begins. Kirk is belligerent, volatile, and clearly not in total control of his faculties. His attention and speeches meander, and his abrupt emotional reactions to things demonstrate clearly that this hearing was necessary. Atkins, Sulu, Uhura, and McCoy all reluctantly testify against Kirk. They try to protect him, but his incompetency is hard to miss, and with each of his defenses the crew just looks mournfully at him. He has become pathetic.

Stocker reluctantly takes command of the ship, but he’s a bureaucrat, not a starship captain. He orders Sulu to plot a course directly to Starbase Ten: through the Neutral Zone. Sulu protests but the commodore remains firm. You can guess what’s about to happen now…

Spock informs Kirk of the decision to relieve him of duty, and Kirk is visibly wounded by this gesture. He feels utterly betrayed by his first officer, and guesses that Spock just wanted command of the ship himself. But when Spock explains that he has not assumed command, but Commodore Stocker, Kirk’s eyes widen. The “chair-bound paper-pusher” has never had a field command, and Kirk rightly believes that something terrible will surely happen. Calling Spock traitorous and disloyal, he says he never wants to see him again, and the Vulcan, now hurt, leaves.

Dr. Wallace enters to see how the captain is doing but the sad puppy look on her face from the hearing has become a permanent fixture. She looks at this withered old man and feels pity for him. Kirk tries to defend himself, but the more he rambles the sadder she looks, and it’s clear that he is beyond rational thinking at this point. He doesn’t believe he is at all impaired, even now:

KIRK: Jan, you know me. Look at me closely. Tell me. Am I getting old?

Back in Sickbay, a very, very old Dr. McCoy, Kirk, and Spock work together to figure out what it is that made Chekov immune. They realize that the only time he was away from the group was when he found the dead body. Scared out of his mind, his heart rate increased, his breathing became more rapid, he experienced cold sweats, and his adrenaline was pumping. Adrenaline! McCoy remembers that in the post-nuclear age it was used as a treatment for radiation sickness, before the invention of hyronalin. We have a winner!

Meanwhile, Stocker’s tresspass in the Neutral Zone has been noticed by several Romulan warbirds, who have begun to open fire on the Enterprise. Stocker is shell-shocked—he has no idea what to do. The rest of the ship awaits orders as he stands there, paralyzed.

Spock prepares a “crude and dangerous” serum (“Don’t give me any Vulcan details!” McCoy says), which Kirk asks to be the first to try. He knows that he’ll die anyway without it, and he’s desperately needed on the bridge. They inject him with the serum and he convulses as they hold him down.

On the bridge, Stocker suggests that they have no other option but to surrender—until Chekov points out that the Romulans don’t take captives. But before they can be blown to smithereens, a young Kirk enters and takes command of the situation. He orders Engineering to get warp drives online, and tells Uhura to transmit a signal to Starfleet—on Code Two.

UHURA: But, Captain, Code—
KIRK: That’s an order, Lieutenant. Code Two.
UHURA: Yes, Captain. Code Two.
KIRK: Message. From Enterprise to Starfleet Command this sector. Have inadvertently encroached upon Romulan Neutral Zone. Surrounded and under heavy Romulan attack. Escape impossible, shields failing. Will implement destruct order using corbomite device recently installed. Since this will result in the destruction of the Enterprise and all matter in a two hundred thousand kilometre diameter and establish a corresponding dead zone, all Federation ships will avoid this area for the next four solar years. Explosion will take place in one minute. Kirk, commanding Enterprise, out.

It works: the Romulans back off, and the Enterprise warps out of there unharmed. The commodore is humbled, and has learned a valuable lesson about why you don’t sit in Kirk’s chair.
McCoy enters and tells us that Scotty is recovering, leaving only Mr. Spock:

MCCOY: Because of your Vulcan physique, I have prepared an extremely potent shot for you. However, you might like to know I’ve removed all the breakables from Sickbay.
SPOCK: That is very considerate of you, Doctor.
Kirk joins Dr. Wallace, and the look on his face strongly implies that he’ll be testing out his rediscovered youth shortly.
KIRK: Well, gentlemen, all and all, an experience we’ll remember in our old age. Which won’t be for some while, I hope. Take over, Mister Sulu. Steady as she goes.
SULU: Steady as she goes, Captain.
KIRK: I thought I said that.

Star Trek tackles a lot of difficult subjects, but I think the themes it explores best are the fears that surround growing old. Each and every time this comes up Star Trek surprises me with its nuance, its sincerity, and its heartbreaking realism. We’ll talk about it more when we get to Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, which deal more heavily with the idea, but “The Deadly Years” is a worthy exploration in itself.

We all know Kirk by now, and we know that his youth, his strength, his mental acuity and cleverness, and—well, his virility—are important to him. To watch those things waste away one by one is devastating to his crewmates and to us. We’ve all known beloved friends or family members begin this deterioration. Each of the Enterprise’s crew makes gestures that are all to familiar: the wince when he makes a simple mistake; the overpowering feelings of pity and embarrassment; and most of all, the feeling of increasing distance between you and this person that feels so familiar, yet so utterly a stranger. I was moved not only by Shatner’s performance here, but by the authenticity of everyone’s reactions to it. Kirk never looks so old as when he’s beside Uhura, Chekov, or Wallace. It’s as much about how to react to and accept senility around us and cope with the loss of dear friends as it is about facing that down yourself.

I made a note when I watched this that I wasn’t sure what Dr. Wallace was doing in this episode, but upon revisiting it I’ve come to really appreciate her presence. I wish they had given her a bit more depth—she’s the standard 60s career woman who gave up love and family for her job, and we just saw that in “Metamorphosis.” But she anchors Kirk to his past and his youth. When Kirk first begins to age and he confronts her about her intentions, he says “Look at me. Look at me. What do you see?” Her answer is that he looks handsome and strong, but he interjects: “And old.” She sees a young man, and he sees a rapidly aging one. They actually repeat this conversation later: when Kirk has been relieved of duty, she enters his quarters to check on him. He asks her again: “Jan, you know me. Look at me closely. Tell me. Am I getting old?” She doesn’t answer, but we know the truth, and their answers have reversed: he is in denial about his aging, but she now sees him as a very old man.

It’s not the only touch like that. When Commodore Stocker tries to convince Kirk to re-route to Starbase Ten, Kirk tells him, “I have very little time.” Five words, packed with so much meaning.

The line that stuck out most to me in this episode was Kirk asking Wallace if what she felt was love, or just a “going away present.” It’s a chilling thought, and I think it’s an unfair one. She seems to genuinely still be in love with him, and I liked that she had the maturity to discuss her reasons for marriage and wasn’t ashamed of them. She doesn’t regret the choice she made—it was the right one for her—but that doesn’t mean she isn’t saddened by it. That said, I never at any point got the sense that her empathy for Kirk’s condition extended so far as pity sex. Is he just overreacting (possibly due to his mental degradation), or did the rest of you think he was making an accurate observation?

There were a lot of plot points here that didn’t make much sense to me. The whole adrenaline solution is possibly the silliest they’ve come up with so far, and I don’t understand the commodore’s insistence that Spock convene this hearing. We’ve all seen Commodore Decker take command of the Enterprise without any kind of hearing, and certainly without asking permission from Spock first! Star Trek doesn’t like bureaucracy, we get it.

Interesting to note: old Spock here looks a whole lot like old Spock today. Not bad, makeup department. Of course they got Shatner all wrong. The man’s over 80 and he looks pretty fantastic, all things considered.

It felt appropriate that Kirk and the others afflicted aren’t so much scared of death as they are of senility. Only Galways is scared of dying, but even before that she’s scared of losing herself. When she catches her reflection in the mirror it’s not the person she knows. She can’t bear to sleep with the thought of waking up and finding some stranger in her place, some uncannily familiar yet altogether alien entity. But beyond the competency and the identity issues the worst part of their affliction is the loss of dignity. It’s humiliating. That’s what makes it so terrifying, so sad, and so moving.

And the corbomite bit? Genius. All in all, a fantastic episode.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 5

Eugene Myers: This episode was a pleasant surprise. I was prepared to write it off as either bad or unremarkable, since all I remembered was the aging and the hit-or-miss makeup effects, but “The Deadly Years” delivers a compelling premise and nuanced performances. It taps into a fear that many of us share, the dread of growing old, and consequently some scenes are imbued with a horror movie quality—most notably the teaser where Chekov discovers the dead body in the mausoleum-like chamber, and when Lieutenant Galway stumbles into Sickbay and dies in Kirk’s arms.

This is a counterpoint to the many Star Trek episodes about the desire for immortality, though Kirk is never tempted by it. Starfleet officers are probbly more worried about dying in battle or from some crazy thing they run into in space, not from senescence—especially at such a young age. As Kirk mentions here, he’s only 34 years old. I found it interesting that Chekov, likely the youngest member of the crew, is the person who finds the dead body and holds the key to regaining their youth.

For Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, old age is an inconvenience, another puzzle to solve. (Consider though, their attitudes toward their advancing years in the Star Trek films.) The captain’s crisis comes from the threat to his command, though it seems he may also be worried about some other physical abilities. He asks Jan Wallace, “How much older was your husband than you?” She tells him twenty-six years, and he replies, “What are you offering me, Jan? Love, or a going away present?” Methinks Kirk feels he has nothing to offer her, if you know what I mean.

When Kirk is given the adrenaline serum, the camera focuses on his crotch while he convulses on the medical bed. Perhaps this was simply a cost-saving measure to avoid showing a time lapse of his face growing younger, but I think there may be a sly bit of commentary there as well. It’s no coincidence that this affliction befalls him when his old flame happens to be on board, professing that she’s never gotten over him. The last scene on the Bridge implies that Kirk is about to celebrate his renewed youth with the good Dr. Wallace. Speaking of which, what’s the purpose of that giant foil-covered phallic medical instrument in the Sickbay?

I found the competency hearing a bit boring, especially in comparison to similar scenes in the series. It was depressing to witness Kirk in such bad shape, but gratifying to see the loyalty of his crew. I wondered why they waited so long to replace him, especially after he fell asleep on the Bridge. But I was pleased that this Commodore doesn’t want to take over the ship, and agrees to do so only when Spock refuses. His role is essential to show us just how incompetent another officer can be in that chair, with his phenomenally stupid plan to take a shortcut through the Neutral Zone, making Kirk appear that much more awesome in comparison when he returns and pulls the Corbomite Maneuver: Romulan Edition.

This episode is also full of wonderful, subtle touches. Spock’s aging is less pronounced than the others due to his half-Vulcan physiology, and I swear that Nimoy’s performance is consistent with his later portrayals of Spock as an older man. DeForest Kelley is excellent as the curmudgeonly old McCoy, trotting out his pronounced Southern accent (he has another opportunity to reprise this particular version of McCoy in the TNG episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” as a 137-year-old Admiral McCoy). Shatner’s body language is delightful; he walks with a slight stoop, later a limp, and his hands are constantly held up to his chest. I was really impressed when I noticed that Kirk’s uniform tunic was slightly larger and baggier than usual when he’s aging, something I had completely missed on previous viewings.

The earlier stages of their makeup are probably more successful than the later efforts; there’s a troubling patch of latex on Kirk’s chin that distracted me everytime he talked because it bunched up, but overall the makeup was better than I remembered, and better than similar techniques in a TNG episode twenty years later, “Too Short a Season.” TNG also hearkens back to this episode more directly, in the second season episode, “Unnatural Selection,” where Dr. Pulaski ages at an accelerated rate.

I’m not really sold on the serum reversing the aging process instead of merely halting it, but that’s a minor quibble and it was satisfying to have something from the episode’s teaser actually serve as such an important plot point. I was also slightly disappointed by the levity at the end of the episode, when Kirk says “Well, gentlemen, all and all, an experience we’ll remember in our old age. Which won’t be for some while, I hope.” What about Lieutenant Galway, you know, the one who died? Doesn’t matter, because the captain’s about to get some action…

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 4

Best Line: CHEKOV: Give us some more blood, Chekov. The needle won’t hurt, Chekov. Take off your shirt, Chekov. Roll over, Chekov. Breathe deeply, Chekov. Blood sample, Chekov. Marrow sample, Chekov. Skin sample, Chekov. If I live long enough, I’m going to run out of samples.

Syndication Cuts: The big fatality of syndication is the entire first scene in the hallway between Kirk and Dr. Wallace. I can’t imagine how this episode reads without it. It lasts almost two and a half minutes and sets up some of the major thematic elements of the episode.

Other more trivial edits: in Stocker’s conversation with Spock, his initial praising of Kirk before requesting the competency hearing; Kirk’s early cantankerousness during the hearing, Stocker taking responsibility for the hearing, and Spock’s offer to let Kirk make an opening statement; Spock walking back to his chair; several sad puppy faces before Kirk’s final comment during the hearing.

Trivia: Dr. Wallace’s flowing costume was made from actual drapery, and the aging look was complemented by oversized uniforms, to make the characters seem withered and diminished.

Apparently Shatner did not want to look old for this, which is why his hairline keeps jumping back and forth and his makeup seems the least convincing of all of them. His makeup application apparently took so long that he famously cursed out the producer.

To save money, no special effects were filmed for this episode, and the entire Romulan attack at the end is stock footage from “Balance of Terror” and “Errand of Mercy.”

Other Notes: This is where we learn that Kirk is 34 years old.

If the “How long has it been?” exchange been Kirk and Wallace seems familiar, it’s because the exact same lines were in “Court Martial” (though the number of years is different).

In the original script, Kirk ran from sickbay to the bridge with a very old Spock in tow, and reverse-aged. This was eating up too much time so the sequence was cut.

Radiation does cause accelerated aging, and it is an actual concern of space travel (though apparently water and fuel tend to act as natural barriers).

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 11 – “Friday’s Child”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 13 – “Obsession.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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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.