Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “The Practical Joker”

The Practical Joker
Written by Chuck Menville
Directed by Bill Reed

Season 2, Episode 3
Production episode: 22021
Original air date:  September 21, 1974
Star date: 3183.3

Mission summary

The Enterprise is on a routine geological mission exploring asteroids. Kirk notes that they’re ahead of schedule and “the cruise has been uneventful,” which is filed with “They’ll never find us here!” or “What could possibly go wrong?” in the Ways You Should Not Tempt Fate folder.

As if alerted by the hubris, a trio of Romulan ships begin to fire on the Enterprise. They had been hiding behind one of the asteroids, waiting for an opening to attack. Kirk demands an explanation for the unprovoked aggression but the Romulans claim he has trespassed into their territory. Outnumbered and outgunned, Kirk decides that “discretion is the better part of valour” and high-tails it to the nearest energy field. Its dense concentration of subatomic particles does a number on the ship, but eventually they do manage to make it to the other side intact, albeit in need of repairs.

To celebrate, Kirk convenes his senior officers for a celebratory dinner. But when they toast to their (cowardly?) victory, they all spill their drinks on their shirts. An odd coincidence, or something more sinister? Kirk brushes it off as a practical joke until his fork goes limp when he tries to eat his dinner. Now it’s gone too far!

Soon the whole ship is reporting so-called practical jokes. Spock’s microscope-looking thing blackens his eyes; Scotty orders a sandwich and gets a feast, then a pie in the face; and Kirk picks up his dry cleaning to discover a nicely embroidered “KIRK IS A JERK” sign on his back. When Kirk and Spock investigate steam rolling under the doors, they discover the entire corridor has been turned into ice! They slip and nearly fall, and hear a strange voice laughing at them from some indeterminate location. It sounds like a woman–the Enterprise herself!

Meanwhile, McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu are spending their off-hour together in the recreation room, aka the proto-holodeck. They settle on a peaceful, practical joke-free stroll through the woods. Everything seems so gosh-darn pleasant until the joker digs a big hole, covers it with twigs and leaves, and laughs as the the trio fall right into the bear trap.

SULU: There it is again. Someone is definitely laughing at us.
MCCOY: I’m going to get to the bottom of this right now.
COMPUTER: Get to the bottom of this! (She laughs.)
MCCOY: Okay, whoever you are, so we fell for your juvenile joke. Now get us out.
COMPUTER: Fell for my joke! (She laughs again.)

The bridge crew isn’t faring much better. When McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu fail to show up at their stations during the alert klaxon and don’t respond to repeated summons, Kirk is suspicious of the computer.

KIRK: Spock, quiz the central computer about McCoy and the others.
SPOCK: Yes, Captain. Question. Why are we unable to communicate with crewmembers McCoy, Sulu and Uhura?
COMPUTER: Answer. That is for me to know and for you to find out.
KIRK: Did I hear that right?
SPOCK: Affirmative. The dysfunction is more severe than I thought. Question. Are you deliberately holding our missing crewmembers prisoner?
COMPUTER: I’ll never tell.

Now it’s time for bad cop. He demands, via direct order, that she release his crewmembers from the recreation room.  “Say please.” Kirk grits his teeth and says please, but Femputer wants more: “Say pretty please with sugar on.” To hell with that! It’s clear this behavior is a result of the energy field they passed through earlier, which Spock says has plunged the computer into some kind of “nervous breakdown.” The captain orders Scotty to get McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu out of the recreation room and disable the computer’s (il)logic functions.

As these things always are, it’s easier said than done. When Scotty tries to disable the Femputer, she turns off the gravity and he floats away from the panel. Since it’s probably a threat response, Scotty leaves the room–and she drops him to the ground with the gravity restored. Meanwhile, some redshirts are trying to pry open the rec room doors with old-fashioned crowbars, and the crewmembers trapped inside have been condemned to blizzard whiteout conditions for antagonizing the computer. Uhura has an idea: walk long enough in one direction and they’re bound to hit a wall, and then find the door, right? Walking through a blizzard proves to be no easy task, though, and McCoy collapses from exhaustion. At least this seems to elicit some kind of sympathy response from the computer, who replaces the blizzard with a beautiful, intricate garden maze.

The bridge crew, meanwhile, can’t stop laughing. The computer has flooded the ship with nitrous oxide–laughing gas–which won’t be so funny when they all pass out from oxygen deprivation. Spock manages to switch on the emergency air, but it will only last six hours. Thankfully by this point a rescue team has pried open the rec room doors, so at least McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu have rejoined the rest of the Enterprise’s victims.

But the joke must go on. The ship plots her own course–right back to the Romulans! She’s got a trick up her sleeve, too, and releases into space an enormous inflatable version of the Enterprise, twenty times the size of the Romulan ships. Knowing that they fear disgrace more than death, the Enterprise aims to shame them in revenge for attacking her.

It works! The Romulans fire on the fake ship, which of course deflates on impact. Furious, they want revenge on the Enterprise and engage in a hot pursuit. Kirk, meanwhile, nonchalantly asks the Femputer if their escape route will take them near the energy field.

SULU: Our course will take us nowhere near it.
KIRK: Good! I couldn’t face going through there again.
COMPUTER: The energy field frightens you?
KIRK: It petrifies me.

That’s just what the ship wanted to hear. She sets a direct course for the energy field, against Kirk’s protests, with the Romulans right behind them.  And now that it’s too late, the ship understand that it’s been had:

COMPUTER: My circuits! You tricked me, Kirk. How could you?
MCCOY: What the devil is going on?
KIRK: Bones, the worst thing you can do to a practical joker is to play a practical joke on them.
COMPUTER: It’s not fair!

And soon, the ship is back to normal. Well, their ship is. The Romulans on the other hand…

UHURA: Captain, I’m picking up strange transmissions from the Romulan warships. Listen.
ROMULAN: Turn off those food synthesizers! We’re knee deep in desserts and they’re still pouring out!


I wonder if the whole thing couldn’t have been averted by just turning Femputer off and turning it back on again.

Where most computers-go-awry plots are more sinister (see “The Ultimate Computer”), this is a G-rated, largely innocent version. There’s some threat from the Romulans but never a serious one, and the pranks the ship pulls only verge on dangerous when the Joker toxin nitrous oxide is released. (Why that is “especially” dangerous for Vulcans is unclear; it’s pretty dangerous to humans anyway.) The gags are fairly harmless and I suppose they’re appealing to kids but aside from the “Kirk is a Jerk” uniform (why does he put it on once he finds out what it says??) and Scotty getting pied in the face, few of them actually made me laugh. At first I thought that was the point. I mean, who likes a practical joker? But the rest of the crew seemed wildly amused by these “little surprises,” as Kirk called them. Maybe I’m just too old.

And speaking of cranky: space balloons? How exactly are they replicating the atmospheric pressure that prevents the whole thing from popping? Grump, mumble, harumph.

For once, Spock doesn’t have an answer to the problem, and I did appreciate that. After all, the whole situation was too profoundly illogical for him. (Letting Kirk suss it out means another tally to his outhinking computers score, too.) I also liked Uhura’s solution to getting out of the recreation room, even if they weren’t able to follow through on it. Everyone else is ready to give up, and she says, hey, it’s still a room, right? Nice thinking, lieutenant.

Yet I’m still bothered by so many… oddities. Are food cubes a thing of the past? Since when do they toast anything, let alone a narrow escape? And why do McCoy, Uhura, and Sulu hang out on their off-hours together? (Am I the only one who thought that was weird? I mean, it’s one thing if they were doing group sports/playing Street Fighter or something, but going on a quiet stroll together just sets off my wackydar.) I also snickered when Kirk expressed relief at McCoy being “back on the bridge.” You know, where he belongs. But by far the weirdest moment was in the beginning, when Scotty refers to the Romulans as “heathens.”  What was that about?

Overall silly and enjoyable, but weird.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: This is just…not good. The script is as unsophisticated as the juvenile gags the computer plays on the crew, and I don’t think I laughed once. I guess I was impressed that they didn’t resort to a whoopee cushion in the captain’s chair, but that’s hardly something to be proud of. The writer didn’t give the plot enough thought, so it certainly isn’t worth much of my own attention, but I can’t help wondering: How did the computer manage to pull off these pranks in the first place? It created a new instrument with black ink on the eyepiece and somehow got it to Spock’s station without anyone noticing? It’s not like it has avatars or robots at its command.

Naturally, this episode’s most interesting contribution is the first appearance of the holodeck, or recreation room. I’ve heard about this for a long time and I figured it would turn out to be something similar to the holodeck, in a proto form. But no, that’s pretty much a holodeck, just as we see it in TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint.” In fact, it’s either funny or sad that the first appearance of the holodeck in the franchise is a story where it malfunctions, thereby establishing the unfortunate trend.

I was also surprised to see what seems to be a food replicator in nearly the form it appears in later shows. I was never quite sure if the food units on the original series were simply delivering food from a predetermined menu, or if they were prepared in a kitchen somewhere on the ship and delivered like an automat (they do refer to a cook, after all), but the way the unit sent food flying at Scotty suggests this is roughly the same technology we’ll see later.

I think it’s best if I just ignore the giant inflatable Enterprise entirely.

Let me try to find some nice things to say: I liked seeing the Romulans again, and I enjoyed Kirk’s increasing frustration with the jokes on the ship. Also, I thought that was a very well-painted asteroid. But really, the story is simply ludicrous. I’m tired of resolutions where going through the same storm/field/process/whatever that caused the problem conveniently reverses the effect. Not only that, but it has the exact same effect on the Romulans’ computers! And why are these strange fields always animated as fireworks? I might have been a smidge happier if the computer had known Kirk well enough to realize he was bluffing at the end.

Finally, and most importantly, why hasn’t anyone manufactured “KIRK IS A JERK” T-shirts yet?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2

Best Line: COMPUTER: Answer. That is for me to know and for you to find out.

Trivia: This marks the first appearance of the holodeck concept, here referred to as a recreation room. Roddenberry had hoped to include it in the third season of TOS, but budget restraints prohibited it. It of course became a regular feature on TNG, providing both a fictional technology the world would long for, and some of the worst episodes of the franchise. Go holodeck!

The inflatable starship decoy gag appeared again in John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet?

Other notes: Chuck Menville also co-wrote TAS’ first season episode “Once Upon a Planet.”

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 2 – “Bem.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 4 – “Albatross.” 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.