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Star Trek – The Deadly Years (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.

“Accelerated ageing” is one of those classic science-fiction tropes. It’s one of those stock element that can be easily baked into an episode – like “evil duplicate” or “body theft.” It instantly adds drama, gives the actors something to do, and offers a chance for the make-up team to work on something that might be considered a bit more prestigious than aliens. It pops up on shows as diverse as Stargate SG-1 and The X-Files.

Within the Star Trek franchise, the trope shows up a couple of times. The Deadly Years is the most obvious example, but it also shows up during the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when that show was trying hardest to channel its direct predecessor. Too Short a Season inverted the trope to give us “accelerated de-ageing”, while Unnatural Selection played it entirely straight.

A wrinkle in the timeline...

A wrinkle in the timeline…

The Deadly Years is an episode that doesn’t quite work as a cohesive whole, although if its populated with some intriguing moving parts. There is a sense that the writing staff are trying to plug perceived gaps in the story by throwing everything they have into the mix. Some of these are good ideas, some of these are already so familiar that they feel like Star Trek clichés at what marks the halfway point of the original production run.

There are several elements here that would arguably support their own episodes. On top of the idea of the crew ageing rapidly, we get the wonderful dramatic hook of Spock trying to prove Kirk unfit for command – a plot point that never feels like it gets enough focus. However, we also get another “incompetent/crazy/stupid senior official” plot heaped on top to provide a suitably dramatic climax to the episode. And the Romulans return, albeit as generic heavies. The Deadly Years is a mixed bag at best.

"She's... well, you get the idea..."

“She’s… well, you get the idea…”

As a whole, the Star Trek franchise tackles the idea of growing old quite well. This was particularly true of the original Star Trek cast. William Shatner played Kirk as a leading character for a quarter of a century, even disregarding Star Trek: Generations. None of the other crews have enjoyed a similarly impressive run – and it’s difficult to imagine any enjoying it for the foreseeable future, given the current trend towards reboots and relaunches.

Kirk was allowed to grow old and confront his mortality, to face the idea that he might be outdated or obsolete, that he may not be physically able to be the action hero that he had always been. Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek films, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, tackled this idea heads-on and sympathetically. They offered viewers a nuanced view of what it must be like to grow old within the confines of the Star Trek framework.

This could get old fast...

This could get old fast…

So it is interesting to see The Deadly Years broach the topic only halfway through the show’s second season. The results are certainly quite mixed – not always succeeding at walking the line between insight and stereotype. However, while the prospect that the cast would be doing this for decades likely seemed unimaginable at the time, The Deadly Years still provides a rather interesting piece of foreshadowing for the actors and characters involved.

The Deadly Years suggests that Kirk will try to remain a captain for as long as humanly possible, resisting the urge to retire gracefully or move on. He is captain of the Enterprise, and he will always try to to remain so. Encounter at Farpoint reveals that McCoy ages pretty much exactly as he does here – becoming even more cranky and folksy, wearing the same style of make-up. Spock and Nimoy will arguably grow old the most gracefully of the ensemble, remaining an essential and active part of the franchise longer than any of the other actors.

"I don't know what you mean! 'Suggestive'?"

“I don’t know what you mean! ‘Suggestive’?”

There is a bit of a problem with these sorts of narratives. One of the most unsettling aspects of growing old is that it happens inevitably and organically – there’s a creeping feeling that time is running out and that your faculties may fade and your opportunities may decrease. While there are undoubtedly big “moments” along the way – birthdays, retirements, that sort of thing – the experience is primarily measured as a forward march that never stops. One day, you look back and it is all behind you. You don’t realise it is happening until it has happened.

This was the beauty of Kirk’s struggles with old age in The Wrath of Khan or The Undiscovered Country. At the start of The Wrath of Khan, he had been away from the Enterprise by quite some time when it suddenly dawned on him that he was getting older. In The Undiscovered Country, Kirk is forced to confront something that he had always taken for granted and clung to since his youth – facing the fact that the universe has moved past him.

Old Scotty is sad Scotty...

Old Scotty is sad Scotty…

By their nature, “accelerated ageing” stories like The Deadly Years remove that aspect of growing old entirely. Ageing becomes less of a philosophical or existential crisis, and something reduced to simply biology. Inevitably, it becomes a collection of physical quirks. The actors start juddering and talking slower, the production team pile the make-up on, the script starts drawing attention to various medical conditions that hinder our characters.

The Deadly Years is a prime example of this. When we first meet the aged members of the research team, it is not enough to see that they have been aged dramatically. The episode has to make it clear that growing old is a terrible thing from a biological perspective. “I can’t pin it down,” Kirk remarks on beaming down to the research post. Trying to explain his sense that something was wrong in his earlier communications with the head of the research team, he offers, “His conversation was disjointed, his thoughts a little foggy, unrelated.”

Nap time!

Nap time!

The episode makes much of how the human (or alien) body inevitably fails us. “You’ll have to speak louder,” Robert states in the teaser as Kirk asks him pressing questions. Although less affected than his colleagues by virtue of Vulcan longevity, Spock seems more sensitive to the cold than usual. McCoy becomes even more folksy. Kirk becomes quite cranky and adversarial. “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter,” he mumbles during his hearing. “There’s a lot more to running a starship than answering a lot of fool questions. A lot more. Go ahead. Ask me questions.”

These are all somewhat stereotypical portrayals of old age – even if Spock’s sensitivity to cold is exaggerated to reaffirm his alien biology. Kirk finds himself struggling with his memory, unable to remember orders that he issued moments earlier and documents that he already signed. To be fair, these stereotypes do have basis in reality, but it very much feels like The Deadly Years is aiming for low-hanging fruit. It is going for easy targets.

"Still got it..."

“Still got it…”

To be fair, writer David P. Harmon was trying to grapple with big existential questions. In an interview with Starlog, he suggested a more philosophical approach than is present in the episode itself:

“I was inspired to write the script by examining the American syndrome versus the Oriental reverence of old age,” Harmon says. “The concept of youth and beauty is such a shallow one, simply because it doesn’t last very long. That’s the inch of truth I was looking for. How important is it in the overall scheme of things in a person’s life, if at all? But we make it important.”

This is an interesting hook, and it suggests a more interesting – and subversive – episode than the version finally produced. The Deadly Years could have been ahead of its time. After all, Robert Neil Butler would not coin the word “ageism” until 1969. It is a problem that still occurs today, with over one third of Europeans having experienced some discrimination based on age.

These old Bones...

These old Bones…

The problem with episodes like The Deadly Years is that they make old age seem like a purely biological experience – a collection of horrific things that happen to the body and the mind as the mileage increases. They tend to gloss over the more interesting and larger aspects of growing old – how people relate to you, how you interact with society, how you face inevitable mortality, how you change to deal with changing circumstances.

At the climax of The Deadly Years, the Enterprise finds itself under attack. Commodore Stocker has taken command of the Enterprise, and pushed the ship to the brink of destruction. The ship needs a commanding officer; the ship needs James T. Kirk. In theory, the resolution writes itself. Kirk should get to prove that – despite his advancing age – he is still smart enough and resourceful enough to command the ship. His functions may be slipping, but he is still James Tiberius Kirk, not a complete invalid. There are some things that cannot be taken from him.

An old hat at this sort of thing...

An old hat at this sort of thing…

However, The Deadly Years instead ends in the most flippant way possible. It turns out that the Enterprise does need Kirk. It needs a young Kirk. Kirk volunteers himself for a risky treatment that successfully rejuvenates him so that he can take command of the bridge and save the ship. The implicit moral is that Kirk was completely and utterly useless as an older man, and that the best thing that older Kirk could do is risk his life so that younger Kirk might be able to take command again.

It’s a rather unfortunate conclusion, one that suggests that old people might be useless. After all, while Stocker is the worst possible candidate to command the ship, he is shown to be correct in removing the rapidly-ageing Kirk from command. He is correct in his decision to brush Kirk aside because he was old and useless. (As opposed to, for example, keeping Kirk around as an adviser and drawing on his wealth of experience – acknowledging that Kirk might not be fit to command a starship, but still has some worth.)

Lean back and enjoy the ride...

Lean back and enjoy the ride…

The Deadly Years is particularly questionable when it comes to the portrayal of its female characters. There are a lot of unnecessary odds-and-ends in the script, and the two major female characters rank among them. Galway might dress in blue, but she is a glorified red shirt – she exists to die so that we might take the threat seriously. This feels largely redundant, given we have the research staff to serve the same plot function.

More than that, though, it is slightly frustrating that Galway is presented in an incredibly sexist light. While the male members of the team seem to worry about their health and ability to do their job, Galway is fixated on her appearance. “I don’t want to sleep,” she tells Kirk. “Can’t you understand? If I sleep, what will I find when I wake up?” She is staring at her own reflection. Leaving, she remarks, “What a stupid place to hang a mirror.”

"I fell asleep in a pile of silly putty... and this happened!"

“I fell asleep in a pile of silly putty… and this happened!”

Galway defines growing old in a very superficial manner – she is worried about her physical appearance rather than her ability to do her job or even her health. The fact that the concern is limited to the team’s token (and expendable) female member is another example of the series’ casual sexism. As an aside, casting actress Beverly Washburn – primarily known as a child actor – the role makes for a delightfully wry in-joke.

In contrast to Galway, the male members of the cast are more focused on practical concerns. Kirk struggles to prove that he is capable of commanding the ship. Spock does his duty. McCoy works to find a cure. In fact, Kirk explicitly argues that old age can’t take away his sense of identity – clinging to relevance in a way that Galway doesn’t. “A few muscular aches doesn’t make a man old. And you don’t run a starship with your arms. You run it with your head.”

"He'll sleep it off..."

“He’ll sleep it off…”

Again, there’s a sense that The Deadly Years is playing into clichés about aging rather than exploring the issue. There is a difference between men and women as they grow older, as Inge Powell Bell discusses in The Double Standard:

There is a reason why women are coy about their age. For most purposes, society pictures them as “old” ten or fifteen years soon than men. Nobody in this culture, man or woman, wants to grow old; age is not honoured among us. Yet women must endure the spectre of ageing much sooner than men, and this cultural definition of ageing gives men a decidedly psychological, sexual, and economic advantage over women.

The Deadly Years doesn’t seem to criticise or explore this double standard – it just enforces it. Ironically enough, this was also the case behind the scenes. According to Marc Cushman in  These Are the Voyages, the early plot had Uhura as part of the away team, but Gene Roddenberry cut that for fear of making her unattractive.

"I may be 102, but I can still put my own toupée on!"

“I may be 102, but I can still put my own toupée on!”

While Galway is devastated by the loss of her beauty, Kirk retains his sex appeal for a good while longer, to the point where he is propositioned by Janet Wallace. Wallace is another moving part in The Deadly Years, a plot that feels somewhat over-stuffed. She is an old flame for Kirk, and a character of little importance to the plot itself. She exists primarily to assist McCoy, even though Nurse Chapel also appears to serve the same purpose. She is on the Enterprise as an expert in cells structure, but her primary plot function is to serve as a former love interest to James Kirk.

It’s a very weird plot element, because all we ever really learn about Wallace is that she likes older men. We never discover what attracted Kirk to her, or vice versa. There is never a sense that the characters deeply mean anything to one another, despite the exposition. At one point, she suggests getting back together with Kirk, in a scene that exists merely so Kirk can call her out on her fetish.

"I really should have some anti-wrinkle cream around here somewhere..."

“I really should have some anti-wrinkle cream around here somewhere…”

Kirk deduces from her suddenly reawakened romantic interest in him, coupled with the twenty-six year age difference between Janet and her eventual husband, that Wallace has a bit of a fondness for men of a certain vintage. “What are you offering me, Jan?” Kirk quips. “Love, or a going away present?” It’s a cutting line, but it is an awkward scene. It seems to suggest that Wallace is nothing but an emotional predator, playing into some of the worst stereotypes of people who form emotional relationships with older people.

Wallace only exists so Kirk can realise this, which is surreal. Sure, she assists McCoy and provides a vehicle for exposition, but you could cut Wallace from the story (and, indeed, some syndication cuts do remove that conversation) and lose very little. What is interesting about The Deadly Years is that there are so many random elements at play that none of them get much development or exploration.

Sitting up and taking notice...

Sitting up and taking notice…

Despite these awkward elements including the female characters, there is an interesting conclusion to The Deadly Years. It turns out that Chekov is not affected by the accelerated ageing. In fact, he holds the cure for Kirk and the rest of the team. Chekov is a character who was introduced into Star Trek so as to appeal to youth culture. He was very consciously modeled on Davey Jones from The Monkees. There is something quite symbolic about the idea that Kirk and the team save themselves from growing old by tapping into youth culture.

In a way, that is how Star Trek itself managed to avoid getting old. The show endured by striking a chord with a young and excited audience, resonating with an engaged and enthusiastic crowd. Chekov’s adrenaline turns out to be the key, and it seems to foreshadow the energy that those young fans would use to keep Star Trek alive even as the show faced cancellation and possible pop culture obscurity. In a way, The Deadly Years is almost pop culture prophecy. As the JJ Abrams reboot demonstrated, a shot of adrenaline is all it takes to literally make Kirk young again.

Chekov's visit to the planet surface is a scream...

Chekov’s visit to the planet surface is a scream…

That said, Chekov continues to be a very weird little character – playing into the sense that the production team may have been courting a young audience, but weren’t entirely sure about how best to connect with them. One of the show’s most surreal cutaways has Chekov complaining bitterly on the bridge about being subjected to tests by a medical staff working around the clock to save five members of his crewmates.

“Give us some more blood, Chekov,” he mimics. “The needle won’t hurt, Chekov. Take off your shirt, Chekov. Roll over, Chekov. Breathe deeply, Chekov. Blood sample, Chekov. Marrow sample, Chekov. Skin sample, Chekov. If I live long enough, I’m going to run out of samples.” To this, Sulu finds himself playing the straight man. “You’ll live,” Sulu remarks, in a wonderfully disinterested way. You get the sense that he has gotten used to his co-worker’s eccentricities. “Oh, yes,” Chekov replies. “I’ll live, but I won’t enjoy it.”

This is not a happy Chekov.

This is not a happy Chekov.

It is a scene that could very easily come across as callous and grim – making Chekov seem like a malicious sociopath. After all, he might not get to enjoy it, but his colleagues may not get to live. It is Walter Koenig’s wonderful deliver that makes the moment work, reminding us that Chekov is a rather eccentric individual with his own particular quirks and perspectives. Like Chekov’s courtship of Landon after the deaths of the red shirts in The Apple, it’s a moment that could misfire spectacularly, but ends up making Chekov more interesting than he might otherwise be.

In many respects, The Deadly Years could be seen as an actor’s showcase. It provides the cast with a chance to flex their muscles – playing versions of their characters dealing with old age. However, the episode heaps a little bit extra on top. Forcing Spock to prosecute Kirk is a great plot point, and both Shatner and Nimoy do great work with the sequence. Nimoy does a wonderful job portraying Spock’s conflicted state. However, there’s a sense that this is an idea that could have sustained another, stronger episode; here, it doesn’t have room to breath.

"Vulcans do not dye, Captain."

“Vulcans do not dye, Captain.”

(In fact, Star Trek: The Next Generation would do something quite similar with The Measure of a Man, forcing Riker into the position of prosecuting Data. While Riker was not the focal point of that episode, the conflict between duty and friendship helped to inject another spark into an already superlative episode. Giving Spock’s prosecution of Kirk a bit more space would have greatly enhanced The Deadly Years, particularly given the behind-the-scenes tensions between Shatner and Nimoy, and their markedly different acting styles.)

The subplot involving Commodore Stocker is another element that feels like the production staff just heaping on more plot points to get the episode across the finish line. Stocker is a character archetype that is very familiar to Star Trek fans. He is the authority figure in who exists to make things difficult for Kirk and Spock. Indeed, that character archetype is so common within the franchise that it has its own subcategories. There’s a little grid or checklist of these sorts of characters, like a magic eight ball of plot obstructions.

Kirk's still got it...

Kirk’s still got it…

Stocker is a member of Starfleet, like Decker in The Doomsday Machine. He is very clearly an administrator with little experience of life in the field, like Nilz Baris in The Trouble With Tribbles. However, there is very little memorable about him, beyond the fact that he really wants to get home for some reason. Which a lot of people can empathise with, but still. Stocker is ultimately so generic that he doesn’t even rank in the top five “authority figures in who exist to make things difficult for Kirk and Spock” over the course of the show’s seventy-nine episodes.

The Deadly Years is sure to hammer home just how crap Stocker is. We’re told that he has “never commanded a starship.” Angry old-man Kirk dismisses him as a “greenhorn, up there ruining my ship.” And he’s not far wrong. One of Stocker’s first decisions on taking command is to order the Enterprise to take a shortcut through the Neutral Zone. It’s a very weird choice, one that exists purely because Stocker has to screw up so Kirk can save the day. Surely a pencil-pusher fond of regulations would be less likely to violate the Neutral Zone than Kirk?

"Somehow, I suspected we'd be doing this into old age..."

“Somehow, I suspected we’d be doing this into old age…”

Of course, this plays into one of the recurring motifs on the classic Star Trek. As Nancy Reagin notes in Star Trek and History, this skepticism towards authority is another trope that Star Trek inherited from the Western:

Like a cavalry officer receiving orders from a Washington-based official who has never been out West, Kirk rankles at interference from those who do not comprehend the realities of daily living on the fringes of civilisation. … Living on the edges as he does, Kirk must assert his independence from bureaucrats and out-of-control technology. Kirk’s occasional rebellion against the Federation and Starfleet officials also reflects an element in the real history of America’s West, where dependence on federal spending nurtured strong antigovernment feeling among its independent people, who resented the fact that Washington’s largesse (granting homestead and mining rights, railroad subsidies, and other resources) made them dependent.

In a way, this skeptical attitude towards Starfleet as a whole, rather than simply a few bad apples, suggests that Kirk actually has more in common with Sisko than with Picard.

Star Trek XII: So Very Tired...

Star Trek XII: So Very Tired…

The Deadly Years also marks the return of the Romulans, making them the second adversary to recur following the Klingons in Friday’s Child. However, they are represented through stock footage from Balance of Terror, and serve more as a convenient climactic hurdle than an opponent in their own right. It would be the third season before the show would return to the Romulans. Still, it is nice to know that the production team have not forgotten about them.

The Deadly Years is a rather disjointed instalment that has a great deal of ambition, but is simply too all over the place to really work. It’s a show that perhaps needed a bit more focus and a little tightening up, and which suffers from trying to do too much at once, without doing anything exceptionally well.

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

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