It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #26!
This week’s episode is “The Devil in the Dark” and it does what “The Man Trap” should have: it provides a tight, contained horror story with strong direction and tight writing.
We open on the mining planet Janus VI, where a man named Schmitter relieves another guard at his post. When the other guards and their boss, Chief Vanderberg (Ken Lynch) move on, they hear a terrified scream and they rush back to see Schmitter gone, reduced to a smoking pile of ash.
After the theme music, we see the Enterprise has arrived at Janus VI in response to a distress call sent out by Vanderberg. As we learn, for the past three months, something has been terrorizing the mining colony, killing people, sabotaging machinery and halting production of the valuable mineral Pergium in its tracks. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to the surface and meet Vanderberg as well as Chief Engineer Ed Appel (Brad Weston), the only person to have seen the creature and lived; he even shot at it but to no effect.
(L: Vanderberg. R: Appel)
McCoy analyzes Schmitter’s remains, then says he wasn’t burned to death but corroded, as if by acid. Spock notes a sphere made out of pure silicon on Vanderberg’s desk; the mining chief says there are thousands of them underground but they have no value. They’re interrupted by an alarm at the colony’s nuclear reactor.
They head over there and discover that the creature has killed the guard stationed outside the reactor, burned its way in, and stolen the main circulating pump. Without it, the reactor will go critical and destroy half the planet. Kirk contacts Scotty, who says he can rig up a makeshift substitute for the ancient pump, but it’ll only last 48 hours.
Spock, still pondering the silicon sphere, postulates that they’re dealing with a silicon-based lifeform, not a carbon-based one, which would explain why it is impervious to phasers. Kirk summons a security team led by Lt.Cmdr. Giotto (Barry Russo) while Spock adjusts their phasers to be more effective against silicon. The security team is sent to Level 23, which was opened just before the creature began attacking. Kirk orders them to set their phasers to maximum and fire whether or not they’re attacked.
A security officer with the miners gets killed by the creature, which makes Kirk and Spock rush to the scene, where they actually spot the creature. They fire on it, wounding it, but it escapes by boring a tunnel with its acid.
What is this creature, and why does it keep attacking the miners? And what will Spock and Kirk ultimately do about this new lifeform…?
This episode is marvelous and in a lot of ways, it reminds me of “The Man Trap.” If you’ll recall, that was the only episode I’ve seen so far that I’ve just hated, mostly because its premise wasn’t lived up to by its writing and direction.
This episode, then, does the opposite. We get an instant hook, a great conflict and a nice sense of atmosphere: it’s not just that everyone is trapped on a planet with a dangerously unstable nuclear reactor, but that they’re all underground, which insures that if anyone dies, they might not be taken out. That adds a real sense of horror and entrapment to the proceedings.
The creature, here, is far more realized than the one in “The Man Trap.” Yeah, it looks like somebody crawling around some fake, rubber lava but hey, it’s effective. Its total alien appearance is what makes it so interesting, especially considering the huge twist that happens later in this episode. Such a game-changing element fundamentally alters the nature of the conflict and ramps it up in the process.
The script here is by Gene L.Coon, his first solo effort since the great “Arena” and, according to Memory Alpha, he wrote this episode in four days. While usually that’s a detriment, I can believe it because the pace is relentless. He gives us one conflict, ramps it up, then switches things around–through a scene involving mind-melding by Spock with the creature (although it’s still not called mind-melding yet)–and gives us a whole something else to care about. It’s a gripping story that sweeps you up.
Joseph Pevney is directing once again and, once again, he’s brilliant, taking full advantage of the underground surroundings in this episode. He really plays up just how shadowy the caves are which makes it all the more scary when the creature attacks. On top of that, he makes his actors state their positions with words and body language that clearly conveys what they’re trying to do.
The cast is terrific here. We actually see a bit of a conflict between Kirk and Spock as to what to do for the creature, and Shatner and Nimoy really bring out this ideological coming to blows, which tells us a lot about these two characters. Vanderberg is really the most prominent of the miners, and Lynch plays him well enough; he’s an authority figure wanting to protect his authority, which is one-note, but Lynch sells it.
So yeah, we have a terrific writer and a great director teaming up once again to give us a stellar episode towards the end of the first season. Recommended.
Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.