Dying of Loneliness: TOS “Dagger of the Mind”

An escapee from the penal colony on Tantalus Five leads to a confrontation between Kirk, a beautiful psychiatrist crewman, and the genial yet mad director of the colony.

  • The enhanced graphics for this episode depict the planet, Tantalus Five, as having rings! A cool touch, though irrelevant to the story. We also get a new depiction of the penal colony’s surface-side entry structure. In the original show, we saw a modified version of the lithium-cracking station matte from “Where No Man Has Gone Before”; now we see a completely different structure, a circular building on top of a round plateau, appropriate for a penal colony worried about escapees. See Memory Alpha entry.
  • The story opening depends on an escapee from the penal colony, who turns out to be staff, one Dr. Simon Van Gelder, boarding the Enterprise by hiding *inside a shipping crate* and then sneaking around the ship, disabling not one, not two, but three crewmen, to get on the bridge and confront Kirk with a phaser, demanding asylum. Spock disables him with his nerve pinch. For all the red-shirt security men we see here and throughout the show, actual security procedures seen here are remarkably lax.
  • Trek physics: As the Enterprise reverses course to return to Tantalus, the enhanced graphics show the Enterprise making an absurdly banked arc as it turns around. (It’s Star Wars physics—spaceships behave like fighter jets, that bank as they fly through an atmosphere. Real spaceships would never maneuver that way.)
  • The story inserts a romantic angle involving Kirk, by having his psychiatrist assistant, assigned by Dr. McCoy, to be a beautiful woman, Dr. Helen Noel – with whom Kirk has apparently had some kind of dalliance at the science lab’s “Christmas party” (one of the rare references in Trek to any kind of religious observance). Kirk is discomfited by her presence, in a way that seems pretty sexist by current standards of behavior. Are they both not professionals?
  • Similarly, Dr. Noel insists that Kirk call her “Helen”, and does the same when they meet Dr. Adams.
  • This episode introduces the Vulcan mind meld, a telepathic procedure whereby Spock joins minds with another person. He uses it here to connect with Dr. Van Gelder, whose conditioning has driven him catatonic, so he cannot bring himself to speak of his experiences without choking up in pain. The procedure involves Spock placing his fingers across Van Gelder’s face, then speaking slowly and suggestively, as if their minds are joined. As the scene plays, Spock’s face becomes blank, as if becoming the blank mind of Van Gelder. (In later episodes, this procedure evolved, so that Spock could speak the other person’s thoughts…)
  • Meanwhile, on the planet, Kirk and ‘Helen’, apparently after dinner, sneak into the ‘neural neutralizer’ room that Dr. Adams showed them earlier—admitting that that’s where Dr. Van Gelder had his unfortunate ‘accident’ – to try it out for themselves. Seriously, is this wise?
  • Kirk subjects himself to the beam, and at Dr. Noel’s suggestion, realizes he’s hungry. It works! A second suggestion leads to a fantasy scene in which Kirk carries ‘Helen’ back to his quarters after that science lab party…
  • But then they are discovered by Dr. Adams and his assistant, and Adams subjects Kirk to the full force of the beam.
  • Here’s the big flaw of the episode – what is Dr. Adams’ motivation? What is he trying to accomplish? Why did he destroy the mind of his assistant, Dr. Simon Van Gelder? And how does he think he can get away with applying this devastating technique to a starship captain, who is answerable to any number higher officials, who surely would come down upon Dr. Adams?
  • The simple answer, on the basis of what we see, is that Adams is simply another mad scientist – like Dr. Korby in the previous episode! – a scientist with a new discovery, driven to apply it where he can, for his personal gain, regardless of consequences to other people.
  • The deeper answer involves the motivation as written by the original scriptwriter, Shimon Wincelberg, in a speech by Adams – quoted in Cushman’s book, p277t, in which Adams expresses cynicism about humanity’s reward for his work, instead relying on the power he’s gained “over minds and thus over everything that counts.”
  • Roddenberry, as producer always the last rewriter of every script, deleted this speech. It conflicted with his premise about an idealistic future for humanity, in which petty emotions like greed, envy, and jealousy, would be overcome. But it left this story without a core motivation, except the standard ‘mad scientist’ trope, unfortunately just seen, in a different way, in the previous episode.
  • The end game of this story has Dr. Noel escaping Kirk’s and her confinement quarters via unrealistically large air ducts to find the power control room and deactivate the colony’s force field, allowing Spock to beam down and rescue them. These huge air ducts were a cliché; the notion was also used on Mission: Impossible (a sibling show, at Desilu) in the day, and has an entry at TV Tropes.
  • The story resolve with another fistfight, sigh; but this was typical of 1960s TV.
  • Yet the finale becomes thoughtful, even philosophical. The ‘neural neutralizer’ leaves a person’s mind blank, open to suggestion – but when Adams is left on the floor, after the fistfight, exposed to the beam, but without anyone there to offer suggestion, he dies. Some nice lines at the end. McCoy: “It’s hard to believe that a man could die of loneliness.” Kirk responds: “Not when you’ve sat in that room”.

Blish adaptation, in ST1:

  • Again, Blish tends to summarize scenes rather than transcribe lots of script dialogue.
  • There’s no mention here about a planetary force shield, suggesting that the planet’s atmosphere is sufficient deterrent to potential escapees.
  • Some lines from the deleted speech by Adams explaining his motives survive here, p37: “I’m tired of doing things for others, that’s all. … Trust mankind to reward me? All they’ve given me thus far is Tantalus. It’s not enough. I know how their minds work. Nobody better.”
  • Blish acknowledges the huge air duct but calls it a crawl-space meant for servicing power lines.
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