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Star Trek – Operation — Annihilate!

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

How do you follow The City on the Edge of Forever? The previous episode is one of the best-loved episodes of Star Trek ever produced, one of the great science-fiction television episodes of the sixties, and one of the best science-fiction romances ever written. It’s a gigantic and massively influential piece of television, one of the cornerstones of Star Trek and perhaps the best indicator of just how thoughtful and how genuine the franchise can be when it tries. So, what’s next? Where do we go from here? What is the next shot after that last scene of Kirk abandoning the Guardian of Forever on a desolate rock?

It’s always interesting to compare the first season of Star Trek to the first year of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The former can be counted among the very best of the show’s thirty televised seasons, while the latter can be counted among the worst. However, they do have something in common. They both probably should have ended an episode early, with The City on the Edge of Forever and Conspiracy serving as effective caps on each show’s first season, leaving the audience a chance to digest what they had seen.

Unfortunately, neither show ended on anything that could be measured among the strongest show of a given year. The Neutral Zone ended the first season of The Next Generation with a moralising whimper. While Operation — Annihilate! is quite entertaining on its own terms, it doesn’t rank among the best of the season. Still, it’s a solid pulpy science-fiction tale, which might not be the worst thing.

Man of action!

Man of action!

It is worth comparing Operation — Annihilate! to Conspiracy. Not only are both episodes located towards the tail ends of two first seasons of Star Trek, they share considerable common ground. Both concern a parasitic infiltration of the Federation by an alien force, something decidedly more alien than an actor with some dodgy make-up. In Conspiracy, it’s a carefully orchestrated plot to take over Starfleet. Here, it’s an infestation on Deneva.

Paranoia and uncertainty bubble to the surface as we discover that those people walking and running around are being controlled by some other external force. However, it’s also fascinating to contrast the two shows. Both Operation — Annihilate! and Conspiracy are products of their time. Both speak to a particular form of paranoia and uncertainty. In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra Affair and at the cusp of the conspiracy theory era of the nineties, Conspiracy is a story about an organised abuse of power by forces unseen.

It's guy love, between two guys...

Hold me!

The aliens in Conspiracy infiltrate carefully and meticulously. Despite some rather over-stated plays during the episode itself, it seems these aliens have been organising something big. They have been re-routing ships and infecting particular high-ranking personnel. They are very selective about who gets to join their planned military coup, as these aliens trade in power and influence. These are conspirators who rule the world, and can get away with having crazy worm-eating parties behind closed doors because they are just that well insulated.

In contrast, Operation — Annihilate! is a product of the sixties. The aliens aren’t a vast or well-organised conspiracy. They can’t seem to control the mouths of their hosts, and instead coerce their subjects to behave through the threat of pain. They direct mass insanity, and they seem to deal with problems by charging at them, possibly while holding a pipe. These creatures don’t want control or domination. They don’t have an agenda to keep secret.

I don't think you're ready for this jelly (fish-like alien)...

I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly (fish-like alien)…

They just spread like mass insanity, spontaneous and unpredictable. Their instincts seem to be pretty basic – build a ship and fly to the next planet so it can begin again. Given that Starfleet has been excavating their former nesting site without any difficulty, it seems like the creatures don’t even establish themselves on a given world. They aren’t expanding outwards and laying a claim behind them. They are just spreading, a strange and surreal wave of insanity travelling through the cosmos.

They are more an “overall pattern of mass insanity destroying civilisations” than an intelligent organism. When Kirk asks him to comment on the phenomenon, McCoy insists that it simply isn’t rational. “There’s no medical or scientific cause for what happened on those planets, Jim.” When Kirk and the crew arrive at Deneva, they find an idealised world that has changed dramatically. Gangs roam around with blunt clubs. When Kirk finds his sister-in-law, she’s ranting and raving like a paranoid lunatic. “They’re here! They’re here! Please keep them away!”

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

We’ve discussed before how Star Trek really is the perfect relic of its time. Events on Deneva seem like a familiar nightmare from the sixties, and perhaps quite close to one we’ve seen on Star Trek quite a bit. The violent and inexplicable paranoia on Deneva seems to recall both the mass panic of “red hour” in The Return of the Archons and McCoy’s freak-out in The City on the Edge of Forever. It looks almost like a drug-induced freakout. The initial behaviour and the insanity could just as easily be explained by the suggestion that the colony’s water had been spiked.

This seems quite a bit like another LSD-inspired set-up. Star Trek seems to have latched on to LSD as its sixties drug of choice, if only because it’s probably hard to theme an episode around the somewhat zen (or lethargic) sensation that accompanies marijuana consumption. The closest to that is probably the benign “trip” featured in This Side of Paradise. However, it seems like the universe was trapped in a bad trip in episodes like The Naked Time or The Return of the Archons.

This is what Kirk calls a productive morning...

This is what Kirk calls a productive morning…

This reflects what must have seemed a very real fear in the late sixties, concerning the psychedelic counter-culture movement, embracing drugs and sexual liberation. It must have seemed so much like hedonistic chaos. Of course, it is worth knowing that these sorts of incidents of mass insanity have actually occurred to real communities, so Operation — Annihilate! is playing on very real fears. The village of Pont-Saint-Esprit in France experienced a bout of mass insanity in 1951, which some have suggested was the result of CIA experiments involving LSD.

Of course, it’s possible that fear of youth culture drug-use is too narrow a metaphor for Operation — Annihilate! Steven W. Carabatsos was the show’s story editor for its first year, and one of his more substantial re-writes was on Miri, another story very clearly laced with subtext concerned about modern youth. You could argue that Operation — Annihilate!, with its fears about mass insanity spreading across the void, has a similar subtext.

A man alone...

A man alone…

Operation — Annihilate! aired in April 1967. It was a time of great social change and radical shifts in cultural norms. The Summer of Love lay right ahead, but there were some very troubling times beyond that. The following year, spontaneous youth demonstrations exploded around the world. Protesting to the Vietnam War, college students rioted and rebelled in multiple countries, taking a stand against the authorities and acting in a way that seemed so strange and threatening.

It is too much to suggest that Operation — Annihilate! predicted the protests of the following year, but it is quite possible that Carabatsos was picking up on the mood of the time. Events don’t happen in a vacuum. Even if the riots couldn’t have been predicted, they were the result of a feeling of disenfranchisement that had been building for years. They weren’t the first examples of spontaneous protest, and represented the culmination of some deep-seated disillusionment.

Don't worry, this will be over in a nerve pinch...

Don’t worry, this will be over in a nerve pinch…

As Mark Kurlansky wrote in the first paragraph of his book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, it was a very different time:

There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again. At a time when nations and cultures were still separate and very different—and in 1968 Poland, France, the United States, and Mexico were far more different from one another than they are today—there occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world.

That combustion might have been spontaneous, but the seeds could be spotted scattered a few years in advance.

Oh, brother!

Oh, brother!

And, as Justin M. Joffe notes in Prevention Through Political Action and Social Change, it’s worth noting that these sorts of actions would have been considered to be “mass insanity”, quite like what Spock reports spreading across the universe:

It is instructive, however, to note that many explanations of the motivations of persons using drugs, of urban riots, of demonstrations on university campuses were cast into clinical molds; thus concepts like mass insanity, acting out behaviour, and unresolved hostility towards authority were invoked to explain social movements and, of course, failed to do so.

That doesn’t seem so far removed from Operation — Annihilate!

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

Even some individuals caught up in these protests would describe them as outbursts of “mass insanity.” For example, conservative pundit Peter Hitchens talks about his involvement in the movement as if it were clinically diagnosable:

For I was suffering from a collective lunacy, and a particularly virulent version of it, that would eventually carry me into a revolutionary organisation just a few inches from the borders of terrorism, and at one of whose meetings I had a nasty confrontation with a man I am now certain was an IRA killer. How on earth does the privately educated son of a Royal Navy Commander end up in such company? It needs explaining. And my explanation is that millions of us went barmy. Mass insanity is much more common than the individual kind, but much less studied. Let us call it the 1968 disease.

It’s a reading that fits Operation — Annihilation! quite well. Given that a conservative reaction to these protests and riots was the assumption of mass insanity on the part of those involved, and given that Carabatsos’ Miri was a less-than-flattering portrayal of youth, there’s enough evidence to support this interpretation. The only problems is that Operation — Annihilate! aired in 1967, the year before these riots became international news.

It's hard to point to a cause...

It’s hard to point to a cause…

Although 1968 was the year that these protests and riots came to the forefront of the national consciousness, it is worth noting that Operation — Annihilate! could have been responding to any number of flare-ups that took place earlier in the decades. The Official Proceedings of the National Guard Association of the United States of America described the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles (along with protests in Newark and Detroit in 1967) as “violence and mass insanity.”

Of course, they weren’t. They were the result of racial tensions that had been building for a considerable amount of time, ignited by a particular spark. They were a result of institutionalised racism and poor social policies that provoked so strong a reaction. However, to those only watching the riots on the evening news, without too much context or in-depth exploration, they might agree with that association from the National Guard.

"And you're sure these are in style, Bones?"

“And you’re sure these are in style, Bones?”

In Operation — Annihilate!, we get the same sense of conservativeness that we’ve seen flashes of throughout the show’s first season. The inhabitants of Deneva are crazy and violent, but we’re also led to believe that they are idle and lethargic. “Sensors report the expected number of humans on the planet surface,” Spock remarks. “However, they are strangely quiet. Very little activity.” When they beam down, Spock confirms, “They’re here, Captain. In the buildings. Strangely quiescent.”

Even before the gentlemen with blunt objects show up, that’s the first indication that something is wrong on Deneva, calling to mind the idleness that was the first cause of concern in This Side of Paradise. Everybody is accounted for here, but nobody is actually doing anything. Of course, there’s a reason for this. The aliens don’t like sunlight. However, the repeated observations of idleness seem rather pointed. Star Trek has a very low tolerance for lethargy, suggesting that a civilisation that is idle is a civilisation waiting to stagnant and die. That was the implication from as early as The Cage.

There's something on your back!

There’s something on your back!

When Kirk and Spock confront the creatures responsible, we’re repeatedly reminded how unreal and unconvincing they are, as if to suggest that – even if they explain the insanity – they remain unexplainable themselves. “Incredible,” Spock notes. “Not only should it have been destroyed by our phasers, it does not even register on my tricorder.” He adds, “It is not life as we know or understand it. Yet it is obviously alive, it exists.”

In what might be a rare moment of wry meta-commentary from the show, one member of the team offers her judgement. Staring at a plastic pancake, the officer remarks, “Captain, it doesn’t even look real.” It’s still more convincing than “Kirk’s brother looks like William Shatner with a moustache.” Still, I get the point. The parasites are hard to explain and unreal. Just like that invisible wave of insanity spreading across the globe in the late sixties. Or, if you’re less inclined to read that commentary into the episode, a melted plastic pancake.

Getting ready for a dagger of the mind...

Getting ready for a dagger of the mind…

Of course, there are any number of other readings that could be made of Operation — Annihilate!, which remains a relatively under-discussed part of Star Trek‘s first season. Coming after a run of episodes including several bona fides classics, you can understand why “mind-controlling pancakes” gets a little overlooked in serious scholastic analysis of the show. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself. Like The Return of the Archons, several possibilities present themselves.

This could just be a simple condemnation of communism, as various commentators have read into episodes like The Return of the Archons. It turns out that each sinister flying pancake is actually “a one-celled creature resembling, more than anything else, a huge, individual brain cell.” These beings are part of one giant collective mind, sapping any hint of individuality. If you accept this reading, there’s also a rather patriotic subtext to the episode’s climax. Those dirty commie aliens are afraid of the light, hiding in dark places. There’s a none-too-subtle pro-American suggestion that light and truth are enough to defeat this insidious threat.

Stunned by Kirk's response...

Stunned by Kirk’s response…

That said, one of the defining features of parasites in science-fiction is that they can be used for pretty much anything, and can represent just about any danger to individual thought. As Alison Sinclair notes in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Parasitism is seldom a simple matter of physical infestation, particularly in works from the 1950s and 1960s, where it has been interpreted as expressing fears of communism, McCarthyism, or conformity (see Individualism and Conformity).

As such, Operation — Annihilate!, as a story of extraterrestrial parasitism, opens itself to all nature of readings and interpretations.

A (para)site to remember...

A (para)site to remember…

Indeed, those looking to support a reading of Operation — Annihilate! concerning communism need only look to The Puppet Masters. Robert A. Heinlein’s 1950s communism paranoia fable is a very clear influence on the script for Operation — Annihilate! The organisms here establish control by landing on the back of their victim, rather like the slugs from Heinlein’s novel. (Of course, the slugs stay there, while these parasites drop off.)

Both sets of parasites communicate collectively in an unconventional manner. They sap the enthusiasm of the host. In Operation — Annihilate!, it represents itself through the idleness of the hosts. In The Puppet Master, it’s the initial suppression of sexual desire. Both organisms expand across the cosmos in ships piloted by host organisms. The aliens in The Puppet Masters seem to come from Saturn, but it turns out those are just the latest hosts.

Somebody's about to throw a wrench in the works...

Somebody’s about to throw a wrench in the works…

Operation — Annihilation! evokes the same sense of isolation and strangeness that we saw in some of the earlier episodes of the show, coupled with the mood of the last few episodes. In early episodes of the show – The Man Trap, The Enemy Within, What Are Little Girls Made Of? – space seemed cold and empty and full of random existential horrors. It was so vast that the Enterprise could run of fuel in the middle of nowhere like in Mudd’s Women, or find a barely-used refuelling station on an abandoned rock like in Where No Man Has Gone Before.

In contrast, the second half of the season established that space was filled with wonder and alien civilisations. The Return of the Archons and A Taste of Armageddon made it seem like it wasn’t unusual to stumble across an alien society. The Klingon Empire was established as an intergalactic expansionist power in Errand of Mercy. Human colonies were presented as forms of paradise in This Side of Paradise.

All Federation colonies come with obligatory pools...

All Federation colonies come with obligatory water features…

Deneva looks more like one of the futuristic paradises seen towards the end of the season. Shot at the headquarters of TRW Inc., the scenes on Deneva portray an idealised planet resembling a stylish business complex or even an industrial complex. It seems more like the sterile beauty of Eminiar VII in A Taste of Armageddon than the harsh sand storms of Rigel XII in Mudd’s Women. It is populated by scientists and families, and it’s clearly not a place expecting anything too harsh or too strange.

Although, as Spock observes, it may have be founded for practical reasons (“as a freighting-line base in this area”), it has clearly moved beyond that. It almost seems like the type of Federation colony you might see in the more sterile and more idealised universe of The Next Generation. However, Operation — Annihilate! rather brutally subjects this idealised world to an abstract existential horror space-bound horror and watches as this Federation world tears itself apart through mass insanity.

You'd think the plastic would be easy to melt...

You’d think the plastic would be easy to melt…

In a way, Operation — Annihilate! seems to serve as a reminder that the Star Trek universe is still inherently hostile, even as it becomes more populous and familiar. There’s still a sense that space is vast. Spock reports that the wave of insanity has taken two centuries to cross four worlds. They must seem far apart. Reporting on the situation, he remarks, “No Federation contacts for over a year.” It appears that this, of itself, is not cause for concern.

Space is so large that even built-up colonies like Deneva can disappear for over a year without triggering any alarms. It reminds me of the way that – in The Man Trap – the Enterprise was Professor Crater’s first encounter with humanity in quite some time. Imagine being left alone for so long that nobody even notices when civil order breaks down. It’s a terrifying thought, and an effective way of underscoring just some of the horrors of expansion and development.

Spock the difference...

Spock the difference…

The parasites themselves, despite their flimsy plastic design, are also unnerving. The original Star Trek actually did a much better job (on a much lower budget) of presenting genuinely “alien” aliens than any of its spin-off shows. There’s the unsettling idea that these are all parts of a whole expanding out from a central source, so ancient and so timeless that centuries mean nothing in its quest to consume. There’s something quite Lovecroftian about that idea, of an unspeakable evil that is almost beyond our ability to comprehend or understand it.

“Existing so differently from any living matter or energy as we know it,” Kirk hypothesises, “that it may have come here, planet by planet, from an entirely different galaxy.” Spock agrees, “From a place where our physical laws do not apply. We may therefore find it difficult to destroy, Captain.” It comes from a place different from the universe as we understand it, from a place where our understanding of universal norms mean nothing. What else lurks in the darkness, waiting for us?

He needs some light relief...

He needs some light relief…

All of this is fascinating, but Operation — Annihilate! doesn’t gel together perfectly because it decides to convolute the narrative with personal hooks. To be fair, we’ve heard Kirk mention his brother Sam before (fleetingly in What Are Little Girls Made Of?), so his appearance here is not unexpected. However, given the decision to put Shatner in a cheesy moustache, his appearance here is hilarious. The problem is that the story doesn’t really need a personal hook, let alone a whole bunch of them, and that it doesn’t know what to do with them.

The City on the Edge of Forever established a meaningful romantic relationship in forty-five minutes, but it remains a major exception when it comes to the Star Trek canon. The show worked well off the power of the three leads, and asking us to invest in guest characters was always a risky proposition. Don’t get me wrong. There are always exceptions that prove the rule. The City on the Edge of Forever is such an example, and I can list off a whole bunch. But, as a rule, the show had difficulty getting the audience to care about guest stars.

I imagine the episode must have been a fun shoot...

I imagine the episode must have been a fun shoot…

Operation — Annihilate! has that problem. We don’t get to know Sam, his wife or his son well enough to invest in their well-being. The script doesn’t even give Kirk enough room for us to feel sympathy for his loss. His nephew spends the episode in sickbay, fighting for his life, but there’s never any meaningful interaction. Even though McCoy thinks it is a good idea for Kirk to be around when his sister-in-law wakes up, their conversation is more concerned with communicating plot points than establishing character beats.

We know that this is Kirk’s brother and we should probably care a bit for that reason. However – beyond Kirk yelling at Uhura a bit – we don’t see any impact of that. It doesn’t raise the stakes, because there’s no meaningful connection between the audience and the characters, or even Kirk and his family. They might as well be complete strangers who just happen to have a patriarch who looks like William Shatner with a dodgy moustache.

Shining a light on the situation...

Shining a light on the situation…

As proof of how pointless the family subplot is, and how much of a waste of Kirk’s family, consider Spock’s arc here. When Spock is attacked and controlled, we care. When Spock is blinded, we care. We’re also sceptical, because there’s no way he’ll stay blinded, but it is a dramatic plot point. To be fair, that comes from the fact that Leonard Nimoy is great, but also because we’ve just spent a whole year with the guy and come to care for him a bit.

If Operation — Annihilate! occurred in a vacuum, we’d probably care less about Spock, which is a major weakness of the script. None of the characters feel real or important. The only reason that we care about Spock and Kirk is because there were a bunch of other episodes before them where they were awesome. Still, whatever the reason, Spock writhing in pain as he tries to fight off the parasite is more compelling than Kirk’s sister-in-law or his nephew doing the same thing, making their role redundant.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

But Operation — Annihilate! bungles even that emotional hook. Most obviously, it goes too far with Spock. We know that he will probably get through the episode okay. Today, in the era of shock season finalés, we might entertain the notion the show might kill him off, but Leonard Nimoy’s name was in the title credits. He was pretty okay. However, it’s still painful to watch him suffer, even if we know he will be okay and will never mention it again.

The problem is when Operation — Annihilate! decides to blind Spock in order to raise the stakes. At that moment, we know that there’s going to be a magical reversal. We know the episode is going to wuss out on that plot point, because there’s no way Spock spends the second year blinded. Given the reality of television in the sixties, we know that he’ll be able to see by the end of the episode. All scripted emotional angst is audience manipulation, but this feels like cheap and casual manipulation. There’s no weight to it, no substance.

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

Why care now if – in ten minutes – everything will be fine? Spock’s pain is immediate and compelling, as is the idea that – even if it is never referenced again – he will carry it around for the rest of his life. Once the script tries to convince us that he’s blind for the rest of his life, the illusion is shattered. It becomes clear that Operation — Annihilate! is just looking to wring some emotional response from the audience without any real will to follow through on it.

And that’s the biggest problem. It’s silly to talk of “consequences” on an episodic television show like this, where the last episode might as well have unfolded in another universe, but Operation — Annihilate! won’t even carry those conclusions through to the end of the episode. Kirk has just lost his brother. Spock is blind. This should be devastating. This episode should, by any measure, be as bleak as the conclusion to The City on the Edge of Forever.

I think I've seen this movie. They're going to shoot London, aren't they?

I think I’ve seen this movie. They’re going to shoot London, aren’t they?

But Operation — Annihilate! wimps out. Turns out Spock as magic eyes, but he just forgot to mention it. So he shows up on the bridge fine at the end of the episode to explain, “The brightness of the Vulcan sun has caused the development of an inner eyelid, which acts as a shield against high-intensity light. Totally instinctive, Doctor. We tend to ignore it, as you ignore your own appendix.” The episode even ends with the trademark banter between the leads, like any other episode. Sure, Kirk’s brother is dead, but Spock is okay. And since we’re only planning on ever seeing Spock again anyway, that is all that counts, right?

Still, I quite like Operation — Annihilate!, even if it is the weakest episode of what has been a phenomenal stretch of a season. The first year of Star Trek probably should have ended with The City on the Edge of Forever, giving Kirk and the audience a summer to consider his loss. One of the better things that author David R. George III does in his tie-in trilogy Crucible is to suggest that – although there’s no evidence of it in the aired episodes – the events of both The City on the Edge of Forever and Operation — Annihilation! have taken their toll on Kirk.

A man for all seasons?

A man for all seasons?

Operation — Annihilate! is pulpy science-fiction. Given how so many of the last few episodes have managed to use that as a launching pad to something more profound, perhaps it is a bit disappointing that Operation — Annihilate! never transcends those genre roots. Still, it’s not a bad episode by any measure, and it’s proof that – even when it isn’t exception – Star Trek can do pulpy science-fiction very well.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

2 Responses

  1. I’m having a hysterectomy on Friday — and not the laparoscopic kind, either; I’m having the kind where they slice you from hipbone to hipbone — and I wanted some inspiration towards serenity. So naturally, as I have so many times before, I turned to Spock.

    I was trying to figure out which episode would be especially inspiring for my particular circumstances and decided on this one; I just re-watched it tonight. A lot of people seem to think that this episode is subpar, and perhaps it is in some ways, but for my purposes, it’s perfect — Spock is a BADASS in it!

    He’s a physical badass — it takes four people to subdue him on the bridge when he tries to take over the ship.

    He’s a mental badass, using Vulcan mental control to rise above levels of pain that drive everyone else crazy.

    He’s a moral/ethical badass, calmly recommending his own death as the best way of saving the galaxy from the menace the creatures pose.

    He’s an emotional badass, handling sudden blindness with complete equanimity.

    Geeze, Louise. With inspiration like that, what’s one little hysterectomy? 😛

    Thanks, Spock! You’ve always been there for me when I’ve needed you. It’s completely logical that I love you to pieces. 😉

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