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Star Trek – The Changeling (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Changeling, an episode so good that they made it twice.

Sarcasm aside, The Changeling is mostly interesting for reasons outside the episode itself. It is the first contribution from John Meredyth Lucas, who would become the show’s producer towards the end of the season. Lucas took over from Gene L. Coon and is notable for being the first production staff member on Star Trek to direct an episode from his own script, with Elaan of Troyius in the show’s troubled third season. The Changeling arguably had an even bigger influence on the franchise, serving as a template for the first feature film.

Probing problems...

Probing problems…

Okay, “template” may be a slight exaggeration. However, you can definitely feel the influence of The Changeling on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, that may simply be because the script to The Changeling hits quite heavily on some of Gene Roddenberry’s pet themes. It has a villainous robot outwitted by emotional humans, Kirk besting a god-like entity, and larger philosophical questions about religion and theology.

Even outside of the themes that resonate specifically with Roddenberry, The Changeling hits on a variety of other classic Star Trek tropes – from a threat leaving nothing but dead star systems in its wake through to an abundance of dead red shirts. There’s an argument to be made that The Changeling is one of the most archetypal Star Trek episode. If you were to bake a Star Trek episode from a stock list of ingredients, it would look a lot like this. For better or worse.

Melding metal...

Melding metal…

There are a lot of good ideas here. Star Trek is a show that had a wonderful capacity to tackle big ideas within the framework of admittedly cheesy science-fiction. The idea of a robot on a visible string voiced by the control voice from The Outer Limits looking for God and the reason for existence while torturing Kirk and his crew seems to hit that cross-section pretty much perfectly. (See also: Mirror, Mirror, an episode that balances a cautionary tale about totalitarianism with goatees and evil sexy costume changes.)

The Changeling concerns Nomad, a wandering space proud sent out into the wider universe by humanity in the late twentieth century. While out there, it collided with “the other”, an unknown entity that scrambled its circuity while imbuing it with awesome power. As a result, Nomad has taken to wandering the cosmos, wiping out entire solar systems because they do not conform to its idea of perfection.

"Your line readings are a little robotic today..."

“Your line readings are a little robotic today…”

This plot set-up is interesting on a number of levels. It’s another firm rejection of utopianism. Although Roddenberry would try to turn the Federation into a utopia in The Motion Picture and the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s quite clear that Star Trek itself rejected this train of thought. Over the course of the series, Kirk rejected the idea of a utopia in various forms – whether the totalitarian oppression in Return of the Archons or The Apple, or the idleness of This Side of Paradise.

In many ways, Nomad’s quest reinforces this rejection of utopia. Nomad is no longer seeking information for the purpose of expanding its knowledge or broadening its range of experience. Instead, Nomad is seeking perfection. Nothing on its journey measures up to perfection. Indeed, although Nomad has set a course for Earth, Kirk and his crew know for a fact that their home planet will not meet the standards of “perfection” set by Nomad.

"Well, if we kept Scotty in this shirt long enough, it was bound to happen..."

“Well, if we kept Scotty in this shirt long enough, it was bound to happen…”

The Changeling explicitly compares Nomad to the crew of the Enterprise. Exploring the back story of the probe, Doctor McCoy notes, “It was supposed to be the first interstellar probe to seek new life-forms.” Given that Kirk explicitly acknowledges that the Enterprise’s mission is “to seek out new life-forms and new civilisations” at the start of every single episode, it seems like The Changeling invites the comparison.

However, while Nomad may have began with the same mission as the Enterprise, it deviated along the way. “Somehow that programming has been changed,” Spock reflects. “It would seem that Nomad is now seeking out perfect life-forms, perfection being measured by its own relentless logic.” In some respects then, Nomad could be read as a cautionary tale – a reminder that the Enterprise is out there to explore other worlds, not to measure them or to grade them or to rank them.

Testing Kirk's metal...

Testing Kirk’s metal…

After all, Nomad is corrupted by its encounter with a strange alien force identified only as “the other.” Spock explicitly acknowledges “the other” as an imperialist force – using exploration only as a means to that end. “The other was originally programmed to secure and sterilise soil samples from other planets,” he tells Kirk and McCoy, “probably as a prelude to colonisation.” This suggests that the Enterprise does not see its own space exploration as colonial in nature – “the other” is but a twisted reflection.

It’s also interesting to note that Nomad poses a direct threat to Earth itself. This would seem to be the first time that the crew of the Enterprise has encountered an adversary heading straight towards Earth. While the planet-eater in The Doomsday Machine had charted a course “through the most densely populated section of our galaxy”, the episode had left it somewhat ambiguous as to whether the organism was heading towards Earth.

"We really should have a procedure in place to deal with this sort of situation..."

“We really should have a procedure in place to deal with this sort of situation…”

This is an interesting twist of itself. Star Trek is a show that has been fascinated with exploring outwards, pushing further ahead – after all, there are lots of strange new worlds to visit. However, the second season has seen the ship pulling back a bit from the edge of known space, operating less on the fringes and spending more time developing the wider universe, building on the characters we already know.

Amok Time and Journey to Babel take the Enterprise to Vulcan, Spock’s home planet. Friday’s Child sees McCoy returning to Capella IV. The Doomsday Machine sees the crew encountering a sister ship. Mirror, Mirror offers dark counterparts to our crew. I, Mudd marks the reappearance of the show’s only recurring guest star outside of the ship’s crew. It seems the Enterprise is spending more time in familiar spaces this season, as interested in building up the world around our characters as it is in confronting them with new ones.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

When the Enterprise last encountered pieces of Earth’s history – Khan Noonien Singh in Space Seed or Apollo in Who Mourns for Adonais? – it occurred because the Enterprise had pushed out further ahead and effectively overtaken those other outward-bound travellers. The Botany Bay was moving slower, and Apollo had settled down to retire. Here, however, the Enterprise encounters a piece of Earth’s history on the way back home.

Star Trek was so fixated on outward exploration that viewers would not catch a glimpse of twenty-third century Earth until The Motion Picture – when another probe with delusions of godhood decided to return home. Indeed, the Enterprise crew made several visits to Earth’s history (in episodes like Tomorrow is Yesterday, The City on the Edge of Forever or Assignment: Earth), but no trips to their own version of Earth. The spin-offs and feature films visited Earth more frequently, with Star Trek: Voyager making it the point of the show.

Where Nomad has gone before...

Where Nomad has gone before…

These are all interesting elements of The Changeling, but the episode feels a little overly familiar. There’s a sense that the show has covered a lot of this ground before, and will do so again. A massive interstellar threat destroying whole star systems? That’s a stock plot ingredient, from shows like Operation — Annihilate!, The Doomsday Machine or The Immunity Syndrome. Nomad’s questions of religion evoke other Star Trek plots that blend technology and religion, like Return of the Archons or The Apple.

The Changeling feels like more of a riff on classic Star Trek tropes than an episode of itself. An evil computer Kirk reasons to death? It’s been done – in episodes like What Are Little Girls Made Of? or I, Mudd. It is such a standard operating procedure that “using logic to defeat an evil computer” was only one small part of the climax to Wolf in the Fold. Even the episode seems a little repetitive itself, as Nomad wastes two separate pairs of red shirts at different point. (Nomad is so enamoured with killing red shirts that even Scotty and Uhura aren’t safe.)

"Thank goodness we won't have to do this again for at least another decade..."

“Thank goodness we won’t have to do this again for at least another decade…”

Gene L. Coon’s stewardship of Star Trek was one of the most intriguing and consistent periods of production. Coon oversaw any number of genuine classics, and more than a few episodes that are more interesting than their flaws might suggest. He is – along with D.C. Fontana – one of the unheralded Star Trek legends. Coon is a creative force that shaped the franchise as we know it only to wind up largely overlooked and ignored.

However, it does seem that Coon had his blind spots. In particular, Coon seemed quite fond of recycling familiar elements into his scripts. There are several instances during Coon’s tenure where the production team pressed ahead with a story that bore uncanny similarity to another from earlier in the show’s lifecycle. This is the second of three consecutive episodes where Kirk has to deal with an insane computer. The next episode, The Apple, feels like Return of the Archons with added biblical imagery.

"Uhura is correct, this is surprisingly comfortable..."

“Uhura is correct, this is surprisingly comfortable…”

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that The Changeling is more of a Star Trek mixtape than an engaging episode in its own right. As such, it makes a great deal of sense that The Motion Picture would feature a very similar plot. John Meredyth Lucas acknowledged the similarities himself in an interview with Starlog:

“The plot, of course, I recognized,” Lucas laughs. “If anything, the film proved that it’s a little hard to sustain that plot for a full movie. God knows that our effects were pretty damn good then, but are primitive today.”

This is an episode that checks all the expected boxes for a particular type of Star Trek. This is big idea-driven Star Trek, a demonstration of the franchise’s lofty science-fiction aspirations.

Everything is askew...

Everything is askew…

The problem with The Changeling – and the problem with The Motion Picture – is a sense that show doesn’t know what to do outside of a pretty catchy premise. A machine looking for God is a great high-concept story hook. A machine that has confused Kirk with God should be a launchpad to a more interesting story. However, The Changeling feels surprisingly lifeless. Once The Changeling has played those two (admittedly brilliant) cards, it has nowhere to go.

Nomad seems to spend most of the episode just wandering around the Enterprise causing trouble that nobody seems too worried about. It wipes Uhura’s memory, but she gets better. It kills Scotty, but he gets better. It kills anonymous security guards… and then kills more anonymous security guards. Nobody seems too bothered. Nomad floats around like it owns the ship, but there’s no palpable sense of dread as it moves, or no sense of mechanical horror to its actions.

"Don't worry, I'm sure these two anonymous redshirts will deal with the problem..."

“Don’t worry, I’m sure these two anonymous red shirts will deal with the problem…”

These problems are best illustrated during Nomad’s visit to Engineering. The probe has already killed and revived Scotty. It has murdered several crew members without so much as a second thought. The probe’s arrival should be a horrific moment. Instead, Scotty scolds the probe as if it were a misbehaving child, rather than an entity that killed him and resurrected him. “What are you doing here?” he asks. As the probe nears a vital control, he instructs, “Leave that alone.” It’s not a genocidal robot with a god complex. It’s a very naughty boy.

There is something inherently absurd about the way that Nomad moves through the ship – taking the tubolift and waiting for the doors to open – to the point where it seems like it should be whistling to itself or something. There’s nothing wrong with the design of the probe itself – which is typically impressive and in keeping the style of the show – but more to do with the way the script was Nomad wandering seemingly randomly around the ship for most of the episode.

"... if not, these two certainly will."

“… if not, these two certainly will.”

And then there’s the show’s “subplot” Uhura. The supporting cast on Star Trek never really got much to do. The show was largely driven by Kirk and McCoy, with McCoy occasionally getting in on the action. It’s telling that it’s easier to think of “moments” featuring the supporting cast over the show’s three year run than it is to think about “a Sulu episode” or “a Scotty episode.” It is quite fair to argue that Star Trek only truly became a functioning ensemble with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which went out of its way to give most of the cast stuff to do.

This is why the amount of exposure these minor characters was such a big deal – why Nichelle Nichols and George Takei resented Shatner’s screen-hogging and line-stealing, and why Shatner could respond by suggesting their characters never had anything worth stealing. (“They didn’t have great scenes. They didn’t have good lines. There was nothing to nick.”) Indeed, when Walter Koenig joined the cast at the start of the second season, George Takei was originally resentful of another member of the cast competing for the limited spotlight afforded ensemble players.

Tonight, on All My Circuits...

Tonight, on All My Circuits…

To be fair, this was largely the style of television at the time. True ensembles were rare, and Star Trek was a show that put its leading actors in the opening credit. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (and, to a lesser extent, DeForest Kelley) were the literal stars of the show. Everybody else was along for the ride. When an actor like Nichelle Nichols or George Takei was unavailable, their character simply did not show up in the script. Uhura’s nature as a day player is alluded to in The Doomsday Machine, when her plot function is taken by a random and anonymous female character.

This is a perfectly understandable production reality – it’s not as if Star Trek was the worst offender on broadcast television. The other spin-offs may have felt more like ensemble pieces, but Star Trek was a product of its time. The problem isn’t so much these realities. The problem is the way that discussions of the show frequently gloss over these legitimate concerns in order to make Star Trek seem like a uniformly progressive piece of television. It was an inspirational and progressive television show in some ways, but the series had massive weaknesses and blind spots that need to be acknowledged.

Take it as read...

Take it as read…

The second season did at least make an attempt to spread the love among the supporting cast. Although Kirk and Spock were never far from the spotlight, some of the episodes of the second season would make a point to draw in the secondary players. Wolf in the Fold saw Scotty accused of murder. Friday’s Child featured McCoy rather heavily. The Apple gives some spotlight to Chekov. Kirk remains the driving force in these plots – even McCoy is left out of the climactic confrontation in Friday’s Child – but it is a nice gesture.

So it makes sense that The Changeling should offer viewers a subplot focusing on Uhura. In many ways, Uhura is the least-developed member of the ensemble. Sulu is established as a botanist and an adventurer. Chekov is an enthusiastic young Russian nationalist. Scotty is a very wry engineer who considers the engine room to be his fiefdom. In contrast… Uhura sings. Uhura’s recreational activities involve singing, and that is only because Nichelle Nichols has a lovely voice.

"Try to out-act me, eh?"

“Try to out-act me, eh?”

That is pretty much the only thing that we know about Uhura as a character. Her first name would not be uttered on screen until the JJ Abrams reboot, when she replaced McCoy as a member of the leading trio. While it does mean that McCoy’s role has been somewhat been diminished in the new films, it does a lot to make Uhura a more rounded and developed character. While a portion of that character development comes from her relationship with Spock, it is still more development than Uhura received over the course of the original Star Trek.

However, Uhura’s plot in The Changeling is just terrible. Nomad hears her singing, and decides to wipe her brain, because the probe’s ability to transfer memories seems to have a “cut” function, but no “copy” command. As a result, Uhura’s mind is wiped. She is set back to “zero.” Uhura can utter a few sentences of Swahili, but has no lingering personality or memory or history. She is taken to sick bay, where she begins the painful process of re-assimilation.

"Where is my mind?"

“Where is my mind?”

Except, of course, she doesn’t. Uhura is taught to read. She is apparently a quick study. By the end of the episode, McCoy informs Kirk that Uhura’s re-education has already reached “college level.” He assures Kirk, “She’ll be back on the job within a week.” There are several very serious problems with this particular plot thread. These problems are both problems of plot logic and of character development – suggesting some uncomfortable truths about how the show actually sees Uhura. (The fact that this plto thread is resolved in a throwaway line from McCoy rather than a scene with Uhura is troubling of itself.)

Most superficially, it seems to reinforce the uncomfortable suggestion that Uhura really does serve as little more than a glorified receptionist, taking and holding Kirk’s calls. To be able to go from “complete memory wipe” to “back at work” in a week suggests that the work is not too hard. It’s hard to imagine that Kirk or Spock or McCoy could re-learn everything they needed to do their jobs within a week, but Uhura’s plot functions are so generic and so basic that she can manage it

"Lighten up..."

“Lighten up…”

More that that, though, the episode completely glosses over the implications of the memory wipe. Nomad forcibly wiped Uhura’s memory. That is Uhura’s entire life. It is any memory of her parents and her home life lost forever. Uhura cannot remember her childhood, her first love, her college education, her love of music, her time in the service. When she next meets an old friend, she will have no frame of reference for the conversation. Anything Uhura did not jot down in a diary is lost forever.

However, The Changeling captures none of that. McCoy never once suggests that Nomad has effectively murdered their friend – that the Uhura anybody knows is effectively dead, and a “new” Uhura has been born in her body. Instead, Uhura’s recovery is measured explicitly in terms of her ability to do her job. There’s a clear implication that Uhura’s life doesn’t exist outside her ability to perform tasks like reading and writing and opening hailing frequencies. There’s no suggestion of counselling or therapy.

Systems failure...

Systems failure…

Let’s talk about Uhura for a moment. As a character, she’s very shallow and very poorly-defined. However, Uhura has been swept up in the mythologising of Star Trek. She is a character who has, in hindsight and in the context of the sixties, to the point where she seems monumentally important to those with even the most casual fan of Star Trek. Much as Roddenberry has done with Star Trek itself, Nichelle Nichols has worked hard to build up the legend around the character.

Uhura has been credited as being the “first major black female TV role” and being part of the “first interracial kiss.” These have become as much a part of the show’s history that they are hardly questioned or interrogated. Fans are eager to give Star Trek plaudits for trailblazing and for being ahead of the times. There are certain segments of television fans who will claim that Star Trek: The Next Generation pioneered the idea of the season-ending crossover, glossing over the existence of Cheers and Dallas.

Nomad's gone mad...

Nomad’s gone mad…

Uhura’s importance tends to get somewhat over-played. Never mind that Uhura was ultimately more of a recurring guest star than a “major role” on the show, or that there had been major black female characters black female characters on television since the fifties, albeit in roles informed by the racism of the times. Indeed, the sixties were a hotbed for significant black characters who tend to get somewhat overshadowed by Uhura – Bill Cosby’s work on I, Spy a year before The Man Trap aired, or Diahann Carroll in Julia contemporaneously with the second season.

Even the famed “first interracial kiss” is something of an exaggeration. After all, Bill Cosby had kissed a Japanese woman in an early episode of I, Spy. It isn’t even a first within the context of Star Trek itself, as William Shatner had kissed French/Vietnamese actress France Nuyen in Elaan of Troyius, an episode produced before (but aired after) Plato’s Stepchildren. This ignores the passionate embrace between Ricardo Montalban and Madlyn Rhue in Space Seed from the first season.

A gesture of good faith...

A gesture of good faith…

This isn’t to undermine the importance of Uhura as an influence. Indeed, Whoopi Goldberg has talked about her enthusiastic response to seeing Nichelle Nichols on the television screen. Many African American women in science and technology have acknowledged that Uhura inspired them. Nichelle Nichols was hired by NASA to help them recruit women and minorities, which shouldn’t be a surprise – Mae Jamison, the first black female astronaut, has cited Uhura as a strong influence.

Uhura was an important and inspirational figure, but it is very easy to get swept up in the hype – it allows classic Star Trek to coast by with a reputation that it doesn’t entirely deserve. As much as the show likes to take credit for featuring a diverse ensemble, the series never did that much with the characters in question. Describing Uhura as a major character pays due respect to the place she holds in the hearts of many people, but it also paints a picture of Star Trek that is misleading and disingenuous.

Does not scan...

Does not scan…

Perhaps George Takei himself best expresses this sentiment. In his autobiography, To the Stars, he reflects on his own struggles with his place in the larger Star Trek mythos:

I was proud to be a part of it. But I wanted to be prouder; I wanted Sulu to be doing more. My ship may have been moving steady at warp three, but I wanted to do more than merely announce that fact.

The same is true of Uhura. It’s one of the weaknesses in classic Star Trek, and one that might be excusable as a product of its time, if the series had not worked so relentless to build up its own reputation as a trailblazer.

"Don't worry, Uhura, I'm sure the franchise'll figure out how to write a communications officer eventually..."

“Don’t worry, Uhura, I’m sure the franchise’ll figure out how to write a communications officer eventually…”

There is a tendency to build a hype around Star Trek, one facilitated by Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry after all, also claimed that he was proud of diversity on Star Trek, and created a narrative where he fought the network to preserve his idealistic vision. This version of events is so well reported that is largely accepted. In fact, the diversity was largely down to NBC:

There were many negotiations with NBC about the diversity of casting. Roddenberry had wanted a female first officer, which the network did not accept according to Solow in our interview, partly because Majel Barrett (later to be Nurse Chapel in TOS, and Lwaxana Troi in TNG, as well as the second Mrs. Roddenberry) did not work in the part. Nevertheless, NBC had a policy of encouraging a degree of diversity from which TOS benefited. The series still looks exceptional in the multiculturalism of its cast. In May 1965, NBC’s Mort Werner had sent out a directive to all network series producers to hire more actors from diverse racial backgrounds; the regular Star Trek crew had African American Nichelle Nichols,Japanese American George Takei, Walter Koenig as the Russian Chekov, and of course, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, the Vulcan, providing a regular commentary on the nature of otherness that was to become a major theme in all the series and movies and the subject of a still-proliferating flow of scholarly comment.

Although Roddenberry likes to point to the removal of Majel Barrett as an example of the short-sighted network thwarting his utopian vision, the studio seemed unhappy with the hiring of Roddenberry’s mistress for a major role in the series. It is worth noting that Nichelle Nichols was also having an affair with Roddenberry when she was cast as Uhura.

"Tell Uhura not to worry, we've got an anonymous extra filling in for her..."

“Tell Uhura not to worry, we’ve got an anonymous extra filling in for her…”

Uhura’s plot is just a small part of The Changeling, but it remains the most significant episode of the series from Uhura’s perspective. Sadly, that is a rather damning indictment.

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

4 Responses

  1. Cool. I really enjoy your thoughtful reviews. Question: Do you know if any of the novels or other expanded universe material ever followed up on Uhura’s dangling plot thread from this episode? I’ve always assumed that somehow those memories got restored (because seriously, none of her subsequent appearances make much sense if that isn’t true), but we’re never told how. It seems like an obvious basis for a new story, but I’ve never heard of anyone doing it.

  2. I’m not sure I agree that Uhura’s value was reduced to that of the help and her personhood was ignored. Yes, it seemed Nomad put her brain in a developmental state below that of a new born baby’s, but why were they able to get her up to the college level before the credits even rolled while a baby needs 2 decades to progress that far? And remember how she instinctively reverted to Swahili? It seems me that this wasn’t a matter of her brain being reformatted but just all her files being deleted and McCoy’s job was to painstakingly undelete them (the most demeaning aspect of that being that her brain has a file system as primitive as FAT) and at the end of all that, they’d have *all* of Uhura again.

    Also, I don’t see this episode as being just more of the tired Humanism you see in all those other episodes (which includes more than just the Apple and the Archons). It could apply to religion, but it seems to go beyond that to anyone concerned w/perfection and the price paid for it, like in Way to Eden.

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