Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Immunity Syndrome”

“The Immunity Syndrome”
Written by Robert Sabaroff
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 2, Episode 18
Production episode: 2×19
Original air date: January 19, 1968
Star date: 4307.1
Mission summary

The Enterprise crew is looking forward to some overdue R&R at Starbase Sex Six, but there’s no rest for the weary: they receive garbled orders from the starbase concerning another Starfleet vessel, Intrepid. They aren’t sure what’s up, but Spock suddenly looks stricken with pain. When he recovers, he informs them that Intrepid was destroyed and its all-Vulcan crew of over 400 is dead. Dr. McCoy ushers him off to Sickbay, but it turns out the Vulcan science officer might be on to something; Starbase Six confirms that they’ve lost contact with system Gamma 7A and Intrepid, which was sent to investigate. Starfleet orders Enterprise in to mount a rescue. Kirk protests because he was supposed to be on vacation, but they change course for Gamma 7A. Chekov tells them that long-range sensors indicate that the entire system is dead, along with billions of inhabitants.

Spock resists McCoy’s administrations in Sickbay, insisting that he’s fine and he isn’t crazy: he really did hear the “death scream of 400 Vulcan minds.” The doctor is understandably dubious.

SPOCK: I’ve noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.
MCCOY: Suffer the death of thy neighbour, eh, Spock? You wouldn’t wish that on us, would you?
SPOCK: It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody.

Spock returns to his station on the Bridge and Kirk updates him on the situation. Unable to receive further orders from Starfleet due to subspace interference, they continue on their course toward an “energy turbulence” Spock has never seen before. Their shields come up automatically as they approach what appears to be an ink blot up ahead that occludes the stars behind it: what Kirk describes as “a hole in space.” They launch a telemetry probe into the dark zone, but there’s no signal from it—just a horrible, high-pitched sound. A moment later Uhura has a dizzy spell, and reports come in that half of the crew has just fainted.

McCoy explains that personnel were abruptly “nervous, weak, and irritable,” but he’s administering stimulants which might not improve their mood but will keep them active. The symptoms seem to be catching because Kirk is growing frustrated with Spock’s inability to provide any information on the completely new thing they’ve discovered. He does, however, know what it is not.

SPOCK: It is not liquid, gaseous, or solid, despite the fact we cannot see through it.
KIRK: So far that’s not much help.
SPOCK: It is not a galactic nebula such as the Coal Sack, and since our deflectors were activated by it, it would seem to be some form of energy, but nothing our sensors can identify.
KIRK: Is it possible that this is what killed that solar system and the Intrepid?
SPOCK: Very possible.

Kirk falls back on what he knows and decides to “probe the area of darkness.” As they, uh, penetrate it, they hear the same horrible noise as before and the stars disappear! Kirk orders the doctor to bring some of his drugs to the Bridge and asks Scott why they lost five percent of their power. The doctor and engineer don’t have any answers for what’s causing all their problems either, but Spock is now able to speculate.

SPOCK: That sound was turbulence caused by the penetration of a boundary layer, Captain.
KIRK: What boundary layer?
SPOCK: Unknown.
KIRK: Boundary layer between what and what?
SPOCK: Between where we were and where we are.
KIRK: Are you trying to be funny, Mister Spock?
SPOCK: It would never occur to me, Captain.
KIRK: Do you have any ideas, Spock?
SPOCK: We still have no specifics, but we seem to have entered a zone of energy which is incompatible with our living and mechanical processes. As we draw closer to the source, it grows stronger and we grow weaker.

McCoy advises that they leave immediately, but Kirk reminds everyone that they have a mission to complete, even if it means they’ll die. And it seems certain they will, because the medical instruments show that their life energy is draining as steadily as the ship’s.

While trying to recalibrate Enterprise’s engines, the ship shifts into reverse—and moves forward. They are now being pulled into the center of the dark thingy they’re in. Against all logic, Spock suggests they apply forward thrust, and they slow their inexorable crawl toward the center. At the same moment, life signs stabilize on one of McCoy’s patients. Coincidence?

Spock’s on a roll. In a staff briefing, he explains that the dark zone is a negative energy field, so something else must be draining all their power, just as it did with Gamma 7A and Intrepid. Kirk orders Scotty to channel all their energy, even shields, into “one massive thrust forward” to hopefully reverse them out of the mess they’re in. Spock points out that Intrepid probably tried all this already, but Kirk points out that the situation is so illogical, they might not have thought of it. Spock agrees—they never knew what hit them.

Scotty implements their plan and it’s a rough ride as they go into “reverse.” The crew gets knocked around violently but the ship doesn’t break out of the pull. All they can do is maintain their distance as long as their power holds out, which is about two hours. Then whatever it is that’s drawing them to it and draining their energy approaches. It looks like a… Space Amoeba!

They fire another probe into the strange new structure before them and Spock reads off its vital statistics:

Length, approximately eleven thousand miles. Width varying from two thousand to three thousand miles. Outer layer studded with space debris and waste. Interior consists of protoplasm, varying from a firmer gelatinous layer to a semi-fluid central mass. Condition, living.

It’s alive!!!

It’s time for science lab and basic biology, courtesy of Dr. McCoy. He shows them an amoeba on his microscope and compares it to the alien outside. “You mean to tell me that that thing is a giant single-celled animal?” Kirk asks. Spock takes the analogy even further: “I would speculate that this unknown life form is invading our galaxy like a virus.” They still have no explanation for the dark zone, but the doctor and Vulcan suggest they send a manned shuttlecraft to study the organism at closer range and find its weaknesses. They both volunteer. McCoy is excited about the scientific potential of their discovery, but Spock claims that he’s better qualified for the job. Kirk even entertains the notion of going himself, but science is not his strong suit.

The captain agonizes over the decision of which of his friends to condemn to death. With half the ship’s power gone and only seventy-five minutes until it gives out, he finally selects Spock for the suicide mission. Spock launches the shuttle (No! Not the Galileo, Spock! It’s cursed…) and approaches the space amoeba, losing power the closer he gets. It’s clear this is a one-way trip, so he doesn’t reserve any power for an escape. He needs everything he’s got for shields as “the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive.” Ahem.

Galileo and Spock are jostled but pass into the protoplasm of the amoeba in one piece. He begins running his tests as he approaches the nucleus and soon finds the chromosomes. Apparently the organism has stored enough energy to reproduce, and the only thing worse than one giant destructive space amoeba are two giant destructive space amoebae. If they don’t destroy it now, it could eventually overrun the galaxy with its “anti-life matter”. Just before Spock loses contact with Enterprise, he transmits the coordinates of the chromosomes and one final, incomplete message:

The nervous energy of the organism is maximal just within its outer protective membrane. Relatively insensitive to interior irritation. I believe sufficient charge of… …could destroy the organism. Tell Doctor McCoy he should have wished me luck.

Kirk and McCoy try to puzzle out the important bit that Spock was trying to tell them. Like many threats, it can be destroyed from within—but how? They beat the premise to death until they come up with a solution.

KIRK: How many cells does the human body have?
MCCOY: Millions.
KIRK: This thing, this cell, this virus. It’s eleven thousand miles long, and it’s one cell. When it grows into millions, we’ll be the virus invading its body.
MCCOY: Now, isn’t that a thought? Here we are, antibodies of our own galaxy, attacking an invading germ. It would be ironic indeed if that were our sole destiny, wouldn’t it?
KIRK: Antibodies. Antibodies.

Kirk has a plan, the plan is death. He orders Scott to divert remaining power to their shields and let the amoeba draw them in. Just as Galileo did, they survive the trip through its membrane into its cytoplasm. Conventional weapons won’t work in there, so the captain wants to fire a magnetic bottle of antimatter into the nucleus at point blank range; since the organism runs opposite to their biology, this “anti-power” should cancel out its negative energy. Or something like that. Well, it’ll keep everyone busy, anyway.

As Spock records his last personal log commending Enterprise and her crew, Kirk records his own commendations for his senior officers, most especially Commander Spock. Everyone’s so optimistic about their chances of success! The next seven minutes are tense as they lodge the antimatter bomb in the nucleus for a timed explosion, then beat a hasty retreat before it takes them with it. They notice Spock’s shuttle drifting around and Kirk demands they put two tractor beams on it, even though this will slow them down. Even Spock thinks this is nuts, but McCoy tells him, “Shut up, Spock! We’re rescuing you.”

They don’t quite make it out in time, but fortune smiles on them. Chekov explains that the explosion which destroyed the space amoeba “must have ruptured the membrane and thrown us clear.” The stars are back and Spock’s okay too! And now it’s finally time for shore leave.

This is a fairly solid episode, presenting the crew with the sort of challenge you’d expect them to face in their explorations. Once again, the drama hinges on the mystery surrounding an unknown destructive force which seems unstoppable—an organism that threatens the survival of billions of people. This is Star Trek at its most compelling, and yet the plot is slow and tedious at points, perhaps because they spend so much time without answers and then don’t have to work very hard to get them. As soon as the space amoeba appears, they know exactly what it is, and soon figure out how to destroy it. Blowing it up seems a fairly obvious solution, when you think about it. They’ve even done something like this before to kill that space cloud Kirk was obsessed with.

The creature’s hinky “anti-life” nature is trying a little too hard: not only is it a giant organism draining power from entire star systems, but it also puts you in a bad mood; however, I did like the subtlety of the crew sweating profusely as the organism saps their strength, all except Spock of course, who is cool as always. It just didn’t seem like this element had much of a payoff, just serving as a distraction to the bigger problems at hand. I would have liked it if the episode had pushed the implications just a little bit farther. I mean, where did this thing come from? What if there are more of them out there? For once, Spock doesn’t care to preserve this unique life form. He wants to study it only to learn how to kill it.

Spock had some incredibly moving lines in this episode. Strangely enough, he carries a lot of the emotional weight. He is as bent on revenge as a Vulcan can be after the amoeba snuffs out his pals on Intrepid, and oddly smug when he’s chosen to study it instead of McCoy. (Most interestingly, the man who locks himself in with the warp core in Star Trek II accuses the doctor of having a martyr complex!) One of the most sobering moments is this exchange:

KIRK: What was it you sensed?
SPOCK: The touch of death.
KIRK: And what do you think they felt?
SPOCK: Astonishment.

At the risk of invoking the J.J. Abrams movie once again, it would have been satisfying to see Vulcan’s destruction take a similar toll on old and young Spock, who react only with guilt and depression with nary a mention of “death screams.”

One of the oddest things about this episode is its unusually high level of sexual innuendo. Aside from the usual double entendre, we have Kirk’s blatant, “I’m looking forward to a nice period of rest on some lovely…” (gazes longingly at a passing yeoman) “…planet.” Nudge nudge, know whatahmean, say no more? And in case we didn’t get it the first time, he repeats his comment at the end of the episode! Get that captain some shore leave, stat! Personally, I blame all those stimulants McCoy’s pumping into the crew. Drugs are his answer to everything, whether or not they’ll actually help. How are stimulants going to improve irritability among the crew? At least we don’t have Sulu acting doped up this time around since he’s still off filming a movie; it seems Lieutenant Kyle has stolen both his station and his uniform—he’s traded his usual red tunic for gold. Tired of operating the transporter controls, I suppose.

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

Torie Atkinson: Despite the lack of scientific rigor on display here (“It’s a giant single-celled organism!”), “The Immunity Syndrome” does three things extraordinarily well: gives us a bit more insight into the Vulcans; showcases the friction (bordering on antagonism) between McCoy and Spock; and explores with poignancy the burden of command. Though occasionally slow, I think it’s one of the really stand-out pieces we’ve seen so far in the second season.

Spock gets to shine here by being more than the sum of his parts. I liked the astonishment with which he discovers that the Vulcans died—of astonishment. Very Vulcan. He’s clearly emotionally shaken by what he felt and he is on the offensive, tense and snappish (not very Vulcan) for pretty much the remainder of the episode. His first exchange with McCoy sets the tone of the whole hour as he, troubled and obviously upset, says something I think he’ll later regret: “You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.” An odd bit of foreshadowing if you know the events of the films, and a great way to demonstrate the conflict between Spock’s inherent Vulcan arrogance and his emotional human side. Spock also anchors the episode a bit, and makes the already unsettling horror aspects of the story even more eerie by not reacting to them at all. When the communications console feeds back, disabling everyone on the bridge as they clutch their heads in agony, Spock stands there coolly. When the stars disappear*, everyone seems scared but him.

His hour-long stand-off with McCoy is well played, though the dick-waving began to grate on me by the half-hour mark. The more they fight, the more you can see how remarkably similar they are. Each character’s interest in science, compounded with the need to demonstrate competence and a selfish desire to play the hero, are obvious to all of us watching at home (and to Kirk) but essentially invisible to one another. For two people who (in knowing themselves) clearly know each other very well, they don’t seem to understand one another at all. Spock should know that McCoy did indeed wish him luck, even if he didn’t hear it. He should know, because he would have done the same. And again, it foreshadows a lot of their relationship as it unfolded in the films. As they get older that antagonism transforms a bit into a kind of mutual admiration and competitive spirit. Knowing that friendship’s trajectory makes these scenes all the more rewarding.

Finally, I was really impressed by the way the show handled Kirk’s dilemma of choosing between Spock and McCoy. The burden of command takes on a new and even more somber tone than it did in previous forays like “The Naked Time” and “The Menagerie.” Being a captain isn’t just about being responsible for lives in general—it’s about being responsible for the lives of your closest friends. It means making choices that you might not actually be able to live with. This is a lesson that Kirk doesn’t really learn until Star Trek II, though he gets a taste of it here. His visible torment is so well expressed (good job, Shat!). Each time Spock and McCoy compete for the dignity of a noble death, part of Kirk seems to shudder and wince just a bit—enough for us to see what’s going through his mind but not enough for McCoy or Spock to see it through their single-minded ambitions.

The Next Generation picked up this theme with “Thine Own Self,” a remarkably strong episode in the otherwise awful seventh season. In it, Counselor Troi applies for the Bridge Officer’s Test. The test is a simulation of the antimatter insulation failing, and though she tries everything she can think of to repair the problem and save the ship, the ship always goes down—and she always fails. Though Riker tells her to give up, she keeps trying, and finally has a revelation. She takes the test again, and this time, after all else fails, asks Geordi if he could repair it himself. When Worf says he would never survive, she orders him to repair it—ordering him to his death. She passes the test of course, but is emotionally traumatized by the experience. Being a captain means sending your best friends to die, because your responsibility is to your ship above all else.

Two entirely trivial notes: did the antimatter solution they came up with actually require Spock going out there to almost die? It seemed like the stupid shuttlecraft jaunt they fought over the entire time wound up being kind of meaningless. Secondly, was I the only one giggling uncontrollably during this one? They “attempt to probe the area of darkness” by “penetrating the boundary layer” and “applying massive forward thrust.” The best line came at the end, when Spock notes that “the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive.” Speaking of foreshadowing the films, it kept reminding me of the hilariously vaginal language and imagery in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Oh space. The final frontier.

* I can’t help but note here that one of my favorite books is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, which opens with the stars in the sky disappearing one night. What an unnatural, unsettling idea.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5

Best Line: KIRK: “Insufficient data is not sufficient, Mr. Spock.”

Syndication Edits: Just before the hole in space appears, Chekov switching magnifications on the viewscreen, a conversation between Uhura and Spock, and Spock pressing a button with an odd thunk; reaction shots and Chekov’s speculation after the darkness appears; reaction shots and dialogue between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy when the stars disappear; Kirk asks McCoy for answers when he brings stimulants to the Bridge; Spock rubs it in that he’s going and McCoy isn’t before Galileo departs; Spock in the shuttle just after it launches and Kirk’s order to route telemetry to the ship’s computers; after Kirk orders Scott to prioritize deflectors, a shot that shows Enterprise way too close to the amoeba; a pause in Kirk’s dialogue is removed after McCoy tells him to get off his feet: “I don’t have a few minutes… maybe none of us do.”

Trivia: Robert Sabaroff’s original outline for this episode engages more with issues and theories that were largely hinted at or spelled out in the final episode, including discussion about universes within universes and humanity’s purpose as antibodies against invading viruses. The negative effects on the crew were emphasized and explained as a reversal in the entire ship’s polarity due to their proximity to the creature. McCoy and Spock were mutually excited about studying the amoeba, and Spock takes two crewmen with him in the shuttle, which the amoeba tries to digest. At one point, the doctor nearly dies.

The high expense of creating the visual effects of the amoeba limited the budget for the rest of the production, requiring the use of existing sets and footage recycled from previous episodes.

The name of Intrepid’s Vulcan captain was Satak, though this was cut from the final script.

John Winston (Lt. Kyle) wore a gold uniform so he would match stock footage of Walter Koenig and an extra’s right shoulder from the viewpoint of the captain’s chair. The teaser for the episode shows glimpses of a helmsman in a red uniform.

This is the last time Kirk’s green wrap-around tunic was used in production order, though its last appearance is in “Bread and Circuses,” which aired later.

Other notes: Robert Sabaroff contributed two more Star Trek scripts near the end of his lengthy television writing career—for the first season of The Next Generation: “Home Soil” and “Conspiracy” (one of my favorites).

The end credit images show a makeup test of William Blackburn as an android from “Return to Tomorrow,” which aired after this episode.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 17 – “A Piece of the Action.”

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 19 – “A Private Little War.” 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.