Forcing Us to Build Ships for Them: TOS #29: “Operation—Annihilate!”

The Enterprise comes to the aid of a colony planet – where Kirk’s brother lives with his family – that has been invaded by alien neural parasites that cause mass insanity.

  • The last episode of the 1st season, both in production order and airing order.
  • This is a somewhat grim episode; it has a solid SFnal premise, and it benefits from location filming in an urban setting, but its resolution involves a huge, unforgivable scientific blunder.
  • We begin as the Enterprise approaches the planet Deneva — note the planet itself has a name, instead of being referred to via its star, as designations like Beta V or Omicron City III — which has gone radio silent. Spock provides background: a pattern of planets suffering mass insanity over the past few hundred years, with Deneva being apparently next in line.
    • Spock illustrates this by pointing to a ‘star map’ of sorts on the screen above his station. It’s very crude; a photo of several clusters of stars, each slightly differently colored, which Spock points to, one by one, as being different planets.
  • The episode has a personal angle in that, as McCoy recalls and Kirk confirms, Kirk’s brother Sam and his family are stationed on this planet (which is a human colony). This kind of personal angle was used perhaps a bit too frequently in Trek; it’s a useful device for writers to heighten the stakes of whatever drama or threat that ensues, but used too often it becomes improbably coincidental.
  • The opening teaser ends with a dramatic scene involving a Denevan ship flying directly into the sun – with its pilot crying out, “I’m finally free of it!” just before his ship incinerates. (In the enhanced graphics of the remastered episode, we see a tiny image of the ship, which I don’t think was there in the original.)
  • Trek physics: As the Enterprise, trying to rescue the Denevan ship, approaches its sun, Spock advises that the “gravimetric pull is increasing” and then when they pull away, that gravimetric pull is “approaching tolerance level.” Trek writers and producers never took physics 101.
    • (To spell it out: there’s no such thing as “gravimetric pull” from being close to the sun that would tug at the ship, as Spock seems to imply; there is only the effect of the sun’s gravity on the Enterprise’s path through space near it. No one aboard would feel increased ‘pull,’ nor would the ship experience any kind of ‘gravimetric’ strain.)
  • Kirk’s log at the beginning of Act 1 mentions that the planet Deneva is “one of the most beautiful in the galaxy,” a claim which ties to the production filming on location, at the TRW site in Redondo Beach, a campus facility with modern buildings surrounding grassy plots and ponds. More about that in a moment.
  • Kirk has Uhura try a private transmitter channel, and gets snippy when contact is broken. That personal angle.
  • Kirk and his landing party beam down, into the center of that TRW office park. (See image above.) What I didn’t realize until seeing the episode in high-definition Blu-ray (and seeing it for the first time in 30 years or so), is that those futuristic sculptures, the red spiral and the white teardrop shapes, are actually small structures *on top of a roof* in the immediate foreground. They are not on the ground, and scaled to the size of the buildings we see in the background, as I’d always thought. It seems obvious now, but on ’60s TV my impression was this was a beautiful city with huge sculptures the rivaled the surrounding buildings.
  • There’s a moment when Kirk points to a building and says that’s where his brother’s lab is. There’s a short establishing shot of the building – and it’s not at the TRW office park, it’s the Knudsen Hall of Physics at UCLA, which I recognized when watching this episode ever since I attended UCLA in the ‘70s (and took many physics classes in that building). Here’s an image: http://www.publicartinla.com/UCLAArt/knudsen1.jpeg. You can recognize the building by the panels of tiles along the top between the columns.
  • They walk around the seemingly empty area, until attacked by four men with clubs, and dispatch them. They hear a woman scream, and follow the sound, into a building, where they find (coincidence!) Aurelan, Kirk’s brother’s wife, screaming about the invaders, as Kirk’s brother lies dead on the floor, and his nephew Peter lies still barely alive. It’s a heart-rending scene, as Shatner expresses Kirk’s grief, yet determination to duty, effectively. Shatner really was, in those days, a terrific actor.
  • Aurelan is subdued and is beamed up, along with Peter, to the ship, where in sickbay she provides background: the creatures appeared 8 months ago, carried by a vessel from another planet, Ingraham B (the same Spock identified earlier as last before Deneva), by taking over the vessel; not their fault. The creatures control them, she explains, through pain; and then she herself gives up to pain, and dies.
    • There’s a striking angle here: the creatures were an *invasive species* brought by a ship from one environment [planet] to another. The same thing has been happening on Earth, over the past few centuries – the past century especially, with air travel – and the effects have been almost equally disastrous, on smaller scales. See Elizabeth Kolbert. (my review: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2015/06/30/elizabeth-kolbert-the-sixth-extinction/”)
  • Kirk returns to the landing party, as it tries to locate the invaders. We see an interior room, with a short flight of steps down into an anteroom, following a buzzing sound. We see the creatures: flat, pancake-sized white globs, pulsing. One of them flies into the air and hits Spock flat on the back, and he collapses in anguish.
  • Act II: Back in sickbay, McCoy and Chapel operate on Spock, lying back-up, until McCoy gives up, to Nurse Chapel’s distress. He takes a specimen to the bridge to explain to Kirk: the creature implanted a stinger, like a wasp or bee, that grew tentacles entwined throughout the body, impossible to remove by conventional surgery.
  • Spock loses control, breaks out of sickbay, makes his way to the bridge, and tries to “take the ship down” by overpowering Sulu, until Kirk and the others overpower him, and return him to sickbay.
  • Where Spock, being a Vulcan with (as always) superior physical and mental abilities than humans, learns to control his pain, and insists he’s able to return to duty. Kirk hesitates. Spock prevails; he makes his way to the transporter room, insisting on beaming down, and convinces Kirk and McCoy that a specimen must be captured and he’s the only man for the job.
  • Spock returns to the surface. There’s a lame act break as a local threatens Spock with a club, until after the commercial, when Spock subdues and pinches him. He gets a specimen.
  • Back on the ship, we’re in a new set, a new medical lab (perhaps the decompression chamber from “Space Seed” is off the left side?), with a containment device into which Spock has placed the specimen. He explains that it’s like a single brain cell, one that connects with all the others. Kirk says, “like something from a different galaxy”; Spock replies, “or from a place where our physical laws do not apply.” Ecch. Both comments are unjustified or nonsensical.
    • To spell it out: First, there’s no reason something unlike anything ever seen before need be from another galaxy; it might as well be from the next planet. [Somehow ‘galaxy’ just seems more intense, I guess.] The second comment is a cop-out, since there’s no reason to expect that any such place exists, and every reason to think such a place is logically impossible. Unless we’re talking alternate branches of the multiverse, perhaps, a concept ahead of Trek’s time.
  • In any event, several scenes go by as McCoy tries to find ways to kill it, unsuccessfully. He gets exasperated. “I’m sorry, Captain. I’ve tried everything I can. Varying radiation, intense heat…” Effects which would kill the human hosts, anyway.
  • Kirk realizes if they can’t find a way to kill this infection, he’ll have to wipe out the million people on the planet, lest it spread to yet another planet.
  • And so they brainstorm—what else was there about the sun, that the Denevan who flew into it seemed to become freed? Maybe…light?! So McCoy rigs up a chamber to floor “a million candles per square inch” of light on…Spock, who’s the only logical test candidate. Spock enters the chamber.
  • McCoy hesitates—they realize what this will do to Spock, right? He tells Kirk, “Mr. Spock’s the best first officer in the fleet.” Kirk tells him to proceed.
  • The test is successful. Spock emerges from the chamber, free of the creature. But he is also… Blind. Stumbling into a table.
  • Now, this is inexcusable since, boys and girls, light *is* radiation. If McCoy tested all types of radiation, he should have tested all types of light. Worse, as the screenplay acknowledges moments later, as Nurse Chapel walks in with “results of the first test on the creatures,” visible light is only a very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum. The story here ratchets up the tragedy of Spock going blind by having McCoy realize that he didn’t have to throw the “total spectrum of light” at Spock. As we learn a bit later, only UV light is needed to kill the creatures.
  • Kirk stares daggers of hatred at McCoy for this blunder. It is McCoy’s fault, but it’s really the scripters’ fault, for making such a boneheaded mistake. McCoy had already tried “radiation,” but apparently the scriptwriters didn’t realize that radiation would have included, oh, say, UV light. This is the kind of mistake a bright high-schooler would have caught, had he read the script before filming. (I made a similar comment about the boneheaded scientific mistake in Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine.)
  • And so the Enterprise, very quickly!, deploys 210 UV satellites in orbit about the planet, to project the light that will disinfect the million inhabitants there.
    • Sulu explains they’re put in orbit at 72 miles altitude, “permanent orbit”. This isn’t plausible—it’s too low. Typical “low Earth orbits” begin about 100 miles up (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_orbits). This is ironic since Trek is always worried about the Enterprise’s orbit decaying if the ship isn’t kept under power. A 72 mile altitude orbit would indeed decay pretty quickly; a typical Enterprise orbit, suitably high, would not decay and would not need ship’s power to maintain itself indefinitely.
    • The remastered episode’s enhanced graphics visualize the scene of the Enterprise deploying these satellites – a scene only implied in the original episode. But the new scene is a prime example of intuitive, wrong, Trek physics. A panel opens at the very bottom of the ship’s lower hull – like a bomb bay door on a plane – and these little satellites drop out, as if dropped downward in gravity, and then sorta bob into place behind the ship, like objects being dropped into the ocean from an aircraft carrier and following in its wake. Wrong in so many ways.
  • The satellites work, of course, and soon all is well on the planet below.
  • Even Spock is well. The tragedy of him going blind wasn’t just the result of a stupid scientific blunder, it’s also a dramatic cheat. We knew, in a 1960s TV series like this, that the major characters will survive each episode, in order to return fresh for the next. Knowing this, even a viewer at the time might cynically wonder, without worrying in the slightest that Spock will be OK, what explanation the writers will concoct for taking back the consequences of that earlier tragic scene.
  • Why, it’s the little-known fact that Vulcans have an inner eyelid, because of their planet’s bright sun, of course! So Spock’s blindness was temporary.
  • The writers even seem to acknowledge this handy Vulcans-are-special gambit, as McCoy mutters to Kirk, “I might have known he’d turn up with something like that.”
  • And, to conclude… there’s a mild Gene L. Coon joke about what McCoy said about Spock earlier, and Spock’s hearing.
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