The Chamber of the Ages: TOS #26: “The Devil in the Dark”

The Enterprise comes to the aid of an underground mining colony where miners are being killed, and machinery destroyed, by an unseen monster that moves through solid rock.

  • This is a justly famous episode that challenges our assumptions and overturns our preconceptions about who the victims are and who the devils are, in classic Trek fashion.
  • It’s also famous as being a story inspired by a stunt man (Janos Prohaska) wearing a funny suit, who came through producer Gene L. Coon’s office, that inspired Coon to crank out, in his typical fashion, a script in four days; and it went before the cameras just six weeks later. (In contrast to many Trek scripts, that went months between initial outline and final script.)
  • At the same time the script is rather talky – with characters repeating in dialogue things we already know – and with lapses of credibility, as Cushman’s book notes, with mining guards being stationed *alone* and not in pairs even after 50 others have been killed. And limitations of production: how the floors of the mine are completely flat and smooth; how the tunnels the Horta make are perfectly round. This was TV in the ’60s, with a limited budget.
  • The story opens in the mining tunnels of Janus VI, as a miner put on guard post is attacked, off-screen, and found by mining chief Vanderberg moments later as having been “burnt to a crisp.” Memory Alpha (http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/The_Devil_in_the_Dark_(episode) notes that this is the only teaser in TOS that does not include any of the Enterprise crew.
  • At the same time, it’s notable that the besieged miners mention that “the Enterprise is on its way”. Perhaps we haven’t realized the reputation the Federation’s starships have, perhaps especially the Enterprise.
  • In Act 1, the Enterprise has arrived, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down, where they are briefed by Vanderberg. Spock is fascinated by a silver sphere, about a foot across, displayed on Vanderbeg’s desk (this is the episode’s proverbial gun on the mantel).
  • We then see another monster attack, of a man stationed outside the mine colony’s reactor room. As Kirk and the others receive this news, and learn that the reactor’s circulating pump has been stolen (by the monster, apparently), we have Kirk walk up to the camera to declaim about their choice between asphyxiation and radiation poisoning. (An identical dramatic resolution ends Act 1 of Coon’s next script, “Errand of Mercy.”)
  • As Scott works to install a replacement pump, Spock speculates about “life as we know it” and the possibility of other forms of life based on silicon. It’s an idea that goes way back, to SF of the 1950s I’d guess (Arthur C. Clarke?), and the script has McCoy voice a couple obvious objections to the idea. (“Especially in an oxygen atmosphere.”)
  • Nevertheless, Spock adjusts his tricorder to register silicon—and picks up a life form. As an Enterprise redshirt is killed by the creature, Kirk and Spock pursue the signal—and see the monster. A rock-lumpy blob, skittering across the floor, with a fringe of hairy tendrils. Kirk fires his phaser at it, and breaks off a chunk, before it slithers away.
  • Spock examines the surrounding caverns, and observes that there is only one creature, and far too many tunnels to be the result of one creature. Is it, perhaps, the last of its kind? (Trek was prone to this device, which I’ve always found implausible; e.g. in “The Man Trap”. We would see it again in 2nd season episodes that involved, if not last surviving specimens, then apparently unique creatures or devices without any concern about how they came about – “The Doomsday Machine”, “Metamorphosis”, “Obsession”, “The Immunity Syndrome”.)
  • And so Spock notes that to kill this creature, the last of its species, would be a “crime against science.” But Kirk insists the creature must be killed, anyway, to protect the miners [or perhaps protect the mining operation!], and Spock is forced to agree. (I might think if this story were made now, or even anytime in the past 30 years, there might indeed be a motivation to shut down the mining operation to protect an endangered species. The rationale might well be different on another planet than here on Earth…. Yet.)
  • Then there’s a bit about whether Kirk and Spock should stay together, or split it, due to the risk of being killed by the monster. Of course this begs the larger issue of why the senior Enterprise officers are always beaming themselves down into danger – a flaw of TOS that, as I’ve noted, was addressed by TNG. (Perhaps due to David Gerrold’s contributions, as he’d described this flaw in his 1973 book The World of Star Trek.) Here, though, we have a Gene L. Coon moment: Spock claims the risk of their both being killed is 2278.7 to one. Really?, Kirk asks, and repeats the number. Really. There’s an identical scene in Coon’s next script, “Errand of Mercy.” It’s absurd, and implausible.
  • Kirk and Spock explore…and Kirk finds a cavern of nodules, those silver spheres we saw one of which in Vanderberg’s office. Spock, without explaining what he suspects, advises Kirk not to damage any of them.
  • And then the creature emerges to confront Kirk. It’s smart enough to know that Kirk’s holding up his phaser is a threat, and stands back.
  • Spock catches up with Kirk, and understands they can be near it without danger (as long as Kirk has his phaser)… And then ensues a long scene, alternatingly creepy and moving, in which Spock ‘mind melds’ with the creature. He initially experiences **pain!!**…. But quickly understands that the creature, calling itself a “Horta”, is intelligent, and sensitive. Spock channels its feelings – it’s despairing, on the verge of a sort of suicide: “the chamber of the ages!… the altar of tomorrow!…. murderers… devils… kill!… strike back!” And then “It is the end of life… eternity ends…”
  • Meanwhile Kirk has McCoy beam down to treat the creature, which has a large scar from Kirk’s earlier phaser fire. McCoy is aghast, but quickly pursues a plan – he beams down some concrete, and patches the wound with that. “By golly, Jim! I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!”
  • And Spock explains the big reveal. Those silicon spheres are the Horta’s eggs. Babies. It only started attacking the human miners when they started destroying its eggs.
  • And—every 50,000 years the entire race dies, except one, this one, who is left to regenerate her race.
  • Ahh… this is evolutionary nonsense, of course. No species dies every few thousand years and regenerates through a single specimen. The risk of survival, of a single specimen, is too great.
  • The story ends as Kirk makes a deal with the miners – not to kill this ‘monster’, but to let her live, and have her babies. The tunnels those babies build will open up this mineral-rich planet, for the miners’ benefit.
  • This is the classic Trek reveal and reversal – the alien isn’t the monster; to it the humans are monsters; to understand the monster is the benefit of everyone.
  • The final, scene, back on the Enterprise bridge, cements the story’s theme. Kirk takes a call from Vandenberg, who says that though the miners find the Horta’s appearance “revolting,”, he thinks nevertheless they can get used to it.
  • Spock responds to Kirk, “What Chief Vanderberg said about the Horta is exactly what the mother Horta said to me. She found humanoid appearance revolting, but she thought she could get used to it.”
  • It’s the classic Trek – and science fiction’s in general – tactic of undermining human assumptions of normality, and superiority.
  • And then there is a Gene L. Coon joke about Spock’s ears, in the final moments.
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