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Star Trek – Obsession (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 Star Trek franchise really does like Moby Dick, doesn’t it?

The show had done its first appropriation of Herman Melville’s iconic story of obsession and revenge earlier in the second season with The Doomsday Machine. In that episode, Commodore Decker sought to avenge the loss of his crew upon an unstoppable planet-killing machine. However, the basic formula quickly worked its way into the franchise’s blood. Obsession casts Kirk in the role of Ahab, albeit with a radically different ending and tone. After all, it is very cast Ahab as the heroic lead of a weekly television show.

"It's behind you!"

“It’s behind you!”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would return to Moby Dick for inspiration. Khan would even paraphrase from the book, without a hint of self-awareness or irony. After that point, it seemed like the franchise was more interested in mimicking the themes of The Wrath of Khan , which inevitably meant carrying over the themes of Moby Dick as well. Nevertheless, Star Trek: Voyager did its own variant of Moby Dick in Bliss and Star Trek: First Contact would reference the book directly.

Obsession is a competent if unspectacular episode, one that suffers from the fact that it has been done better and more compellingly in recent memory. However, given all the changes taking place behind the scenes, Obsession flows surprisingly well.

It really sucks to be a red shirt, eh?

It really sucks to be a red shirt, eh?

There are some pretty heavy stumbling blocks with Obsession, problems that hamper the story on a fundamental level. The most obvious is that The Doomsday Machine had already covered this ground. The Doomsday Machine had been the sixth episode produced in the second season; Obsession was produced only twelve episodes later. It is hard to believe that the similarities slipped through the net, even with everything else going on in the production offices at the time.

The problem became even more pronounced when the show went to air. The second season of Star Trek was aired wildly out of sequence, with episodes pulled forward and pushed back. The Doomsday Machine and Obsession aired only seven episodes apart, both on the same side of the Christmas break. This would have made comparisons to The Doomsday Machine even more likely. These aren’t episodes separate by seasons; these come almost right on top of one another.

"Doctor McCoy is not here, but I seem pretty confident in making a declaration, Captain."

“Doctor McCoy is not here, but I seem pretty confident in making a declaration, Captain.”

In an interview with Starlog about the genesis of the episode, writer Art Wallace was quite explicit about his influences. He pitched the idea to Roddenberry in person:

“Gene and I were having dinner one night,”  Wallace recalls, explaining the story’s origin,  “and then it came to me that it wouldn’t be a  bad idea to do a version of Moby Dick, which became Obsession. I just substituted the  cloud for the great white whale.”

According to These Are the Voyages, Ray Bradbury had pitched his own “Moby Dick… in space!” story to Roddenberry, but the latter had declined; thinking it too similar to Obsession. (Bradbury would later write Now and Forever based on the idea.) It seems odd that he would dismiss Bradbury’s idea as too similar to Obsession, but not Wallace’s idea as too similar to The Doomsday Machine.

Yeah, like that's gonna keep you safe...

Yeah, like that’s gonna keep you safe…

To be fair, Dorothy Fontana noticed the similarities. She also noted that Obsession seemed to recycle a lot of material from earlier episodes. In a memo quoted in These Are the Voyages, she noted:

Kirk’s obsession with getting this creature is much like Decker’s in The Doomsday Machine. … Regarding the teaser in general, I see touches of The Man Trap in it … [and] the creature, as described so far, may have a tendency to look like the creature in Metamorphosis. Will it? It shouldn’t.

There is a very strong sense of familiarity to proceedings, a sense that this has all been seen before. The story for Obsession feels very much like a construct fashioned from elements and ideas scattered around the Star Trek writing room.

"You! Anonymous red shirt! Investigate that strange noise!" Kirk demonstrates finely-honed survival skills.

“You! Anonymous red shirt! Investigate that strange noise!” Kirk demonstrates finely-honed survival skills.

It seems likely that Gene L. Coon is somewhat responsible for this. The producer defined Star Trek as most people remember it, but he was also very fond of recycling elements from earlier scripts. Director Ralph Senensky has identified Coon’s influence on the script:

The shoot was a very pleasant one. I think the script was very tight. I think Gene Coon had left already, but he’d just left, and I felt that he’d still had great input into the script. He might even have rewritten a lot of it.

The result is something of a Star Trek cocktail, a selection of familiar elements brewed together to create something just a little bit novel and exotic. Obsession is a very typical Star Trek episode at this point in time, one packed with recognisable ingredients.

There is one more way to kill a space vampire cloud, but it is as intricate and precise as a well-played game of space chess...

There is one more way to kill a space vampire cloud, but it is as intricate and precise as a well-played game of space chess…

Of course, Obsession was not produced by Gene L. Coon. By the time the episode entered production, Coon had been succeeded by John Meredyth Lucas. Indeed, when Senensky had to take time off for Yom Kipper, Lucas stepped behind the camera to direct a couple of scenes. It is interesting to note that Obsession was the first episode produced by Lucas to air, and the only one of Lucas’ episodes to be broadcast in 1967. (Journey to Babel had aired earlier, but Lucas’ production credit on that was an error.)

This seems like a very strange choice. Moving the episode earlier in the schedule suggested some measure of confidence. After all, Amok Time and Journey to Babel had both been pushed back earlier in the broadcast season to capitalise on Spock’s popularity with audiences. In contrast, it is hard to justify the decision to push Obsession so far back into the season. This was going to be the first glimpse that viewers got of the show as overseen by John Meredyth Lucas, but it is hardly the strongest example available.

Kirk clearly wasn't paying attention during his phaser safety class...

Kirk clearly wasn’t paying attention during his phaser safety class…

Even outside of the fact that Obsession feels highly derivative of what came before, the episode suffers because it is less willing to commit to the idea of “Moby Dick… in space!” than The Doomsday Machine was. After all, William Shatner is signed on as the series lead. There is no way that Obsession is going to end with Kirk dead or court martialled. So, almost immediately, there is a limit to just how obsessed Kirk can be – just how reckless and dangerous and single-minded.

Over the course of Obsession, Kirk confronts an evil alien space cloud vampire that murdered a lot of crew members on the USS Farragut. Kirk hesitated in that encounter, and holds himself responsible for those deaths. When he encounters the creature again, he immediately plots his revenge. He focuses all his energy (and the energy of the crew) on tracking the creature and killing it in order to avenge the death of Captain Garrovick and his loyal officers.

Despite being informed that he only has a 50/50 chance of survival, Kirk is surprisingly confident about his chances...

Despite being informed that he only has a 50/50 chance of survival, Kirk is surprisingly confident about his chances…

To be fair, it is clear that Kirk is on edge. He is short-tempered and angry with the crew. He seems lost in his own world, unable to get the emotional distance necessary to make rational decisions. However, there are limits to how far the show can push Kirk while keeping him sympathetic. There’s a very thin line for the show to walk – Kirk has to be just on edge enough to make the plot work, but not so on edge that he has to be removed from command.

So Obsession creates a number of contrivances that help to sell Kirk’s fragile mental state. The episode creates the character of Ensign Garrovick to help share Kirk’s anxieties and uncertainties. This diffuses the tension greatly; Kirk’s response to the creature does not seem so extreme if another character is experience the same emotional turmoil. Still, the fact that Garrovick – the son of the commanding officer murdered on the Farragut – just happens to show up for this particular story feels a tad convenient.

Spock discovers first hand why you don't turn the Enterprise's mood lighting and fog machine on at the same time.

Spock discovers first hand why you don’t turn the Enterprise’s mood lighting and fog machine on at the same time.

Similarly, Obsession falls back on the tried-and-tested way of generating tension in an episode like this – it gives us a somewhat vague deadline, to provide a somewhat ambiguous ticking clock. The Enterprise, it turns out, is ferrying vaccines to another ship. “Jim, the Yorktown’s ship surgeon will want to know how late,” McCoy advises Kirk. “Those vaccines he’s transferring to us are highly perishable.” Spock agrees, “Those medical supplies are badly needed on planet Theta Seven.”

Again, this all feels rather contrived – it is an arbitrary deadline imposed by an outside force to make Kirk’s decisions seem just a little bit more reckless. Obsession never actually gives us a firm deadline for the vaccines. We never know exactly how long Kirk has to pursue the creature. We also don’t get any sense of the consequences of his delay. Are people dying right now from the lack of the vaccine? Has Kirk’s mission to kill the space cloud cost more than just the lives of some anonymous red shirts?

"Damn it, man. I've lost too many red shirts today!"

“Damn it, man. I’ve lost too many red shirts today!”

These sorts of external deadlines are an effective way of building tension. They’ve been used well in episodes like The Galileo Seven and Amok Time. However, they can also seem quite convenient and lazy for writers trying to build a sense of looming dread. The deadline here feels just as vague and artificial as it did in The Deadly Years, a convenient and under-defined plot element that exists merely to add a bit more pressure to our characters.

This isn’t the only overplayed Star Trek plot element that is used here. Obsession is incredibly ruthless when it comes to killing off anonymous red shirts. This isn’t anything new, though. The Man Trap and The Apple were also quite brutal in their treatment of hapless security officers. Nevertheless, Obsession has the highest death toll among the Enterprise crew of any classic Star Trek episode. It is a show where death is treated in an incredibly casual manner, a means of raising the stakes.

"Maybe they're all just sleeping..."

“Maybe they’re all just sleeping…”

Obsession is even more overt about this mortality hierarchy than most episodes featuring red shirts. Generally, you can discern the victims-to-be by the colour of their uniforms and their absence from the main cast list. However, Obsession creates a very clear hierarchy within the guest cast. Those security officers without names are mostly dead men walking. In contrast, the featured guest star Garrovick manages to endure several encounters with the creature. It feels quite transparent.

As if to underscore this point, Obsession contains a rather infamous continuity gaffe. Actor Eddie Paskey was the show’s stand-in for William Shatner, but he also worked as one of the show’s generic crew members. He wore all three department colours during his time on the series. He was even named as “Lieutenant Leslie” in The Conscience of the King. He got a more thorough (although still brief) interaction with Kirk in This Side of Paradise.

Counting dead red shirts is not the best way to get to sleep...

Counting dead red shirts is not the best way to get to sleep…

Here, the show is so thirsty for red shirt blood that Paskey plays an officer killed by the creature. However, the actor reappears in the following episode, The Immunity Syndrome. The continuity glitch has sparked much discussion, with Paskey suggesting that he always played the same character and that he was not meant to have died in Obsession:

In the second season episode Obsession, our poor red-shirted Lt. Leslie is one of the security guards killed in the first act by a dikironium cloud, rendered pale blue after having every blood corpuscle drained from his body. Happily he returns the next week as hale and hardy as before. The script had originally called for the dead crew members to be brought back to life with some sort of magic potion, but the scene was never shot. However, William Shatner still needed his stand-in, so Lt. Leslie slid by on a technicality!

That missing scene would help a great deal. It would make it seem like Kirk’s quest for vengeance had not in fact led to the deaths of five crew members. Indeed, it would also help to explain the weird tonal dissonance at the end of the episode where Kirk and Garrovick are delighted at having killed the creature, ignoring what should have been the harrowing cost of their victory.

"Dammit, if the Gorn couldn't kill you!"

“Dammit, if the Gorn couldn’t kill you!”

Director Ralph Senensky points to another example of the red shirt problem in the same episode, where actor Jerry Ayres turns up despite dying in the earlier episode Arena. As Senensky notes:

There has been a continuing question about this episode: how could the character Jerry Ayres played in an episode (Arena) of the first year, who was killed, show up in this episode. I have read an interview Jerry gave in which he said there was a scene filmed that explained that, but that scene ended up on the cutting room floor. I don’t think so; at least I didn’t direct that deleted scene, and I know it couldn’t have been one of the Yom Kippur scenes directed by John Meredyth Lucas because that scene was not in the script. Another thing, the characters played by Jerry in the two productions have different names. I find all of this an unusual happening, since I know how careful the production was NOT TO BRING BACK ACTORS unless they were playing the same character. I’ll have an interesting story to tell on this same topic regarding a later episode.

It seems that Obsession was just as blood-thirsty as any space vampire cloud. Not only would it kill off so many red shirts that some had to be revived the following week, it was also so desperate for red shirts that it would revive already dead ones to kill them again.

Clouding his judgement...

Clouding his judgement…

To be fair to Jerry Ayres, the show did dye his hair for his appearance in Obsession, suggesting that he was not meant to be the same character. Using the logic at play with William Shatner’s moustachioed guest appearance in Operation — Annihilate!, it could be that the two characters were brothers who had the misfortune to serve in the same division on the same ship. There is a sad story to be told in there somewhere.

Despite Senensky’s comments above, the show was quite fond of bringing back familiar actors for different roles. Vic Perrin would provide several voices for the show. Majel Barrett would play both Number One in The Cage and The Menagerie, but also Nurse Chapel across the rest of the show. Diana Muldaur would play two different characters in Return to Tomorrow and Is There in Truth No Beauty? Mark Lenard would appear as both the Romulan Commander in Balance of Terror and Sarek in Journey to Babel.

"Operation: Cannon Fodder can commence."

“Operation: Cannon Fodder can commence.”

The episode is also rather gentle in how it handles Kirk’s obsession with this vampire. Naturally, he gets to prove that it exists, but also gets to kill it. He winds up vindicated, which seems like a very weird reading of Moby Dick. It also avoids any real sense of consequences to Kirk’s decisions. While he may never collapse as completely as Matt Decker did, there are points where Kirk makes decisions that merit a review of his command skills.

McCoy and Spock both broach the issue with him. McCoy lays into Kirk quite aggressively – but not unfairly. “One man has a chance for survival, the other is dead,” McCoy tells Kirk. “You can add that little price tag to your monster hunt.” When Kirk insists that McCoy has made his point, McCoy replies, “It’s not enough! You didn’t care as long as you could hang your trophy on the wall. Well, it’s not on it, Captain, it’s in it.” Kirk’s decisions not only endangered lives on Theta Seven, they endangered his crew.

Back seat navigating...

Back seat navigating…

However, Kirk quickly wins McCoy back on-side with a cunning plan. “Scotty, try flushing the radioactive waste into the ventilation system,” he instructs. “See what effect that has.” That would seem like a pretty risky move, particularly considering that the crew will be breathing air through that ventilation system when this is all finished. It doesn’t seem like a move more concerned with the safety of the crew than with the death of the creature. However, it wins McCoy over. “I’m sorry, Jim. I was wrong.”

It all feels rather light and insubstantial. There’s no sense of weight to any of this. Obsession is an episode that takes the blurb of Moby Dick, but without any really understanding of how the novel actually works. There’s never a sense that the show stops believing in Kirk as the hero. It may provide enough doubt for McCoy and Spock to come into conflict with him, but the script never allows Kirk to be completely consumed by his vendetta. It can’t; Kirk has to back next week, just as sure as Eddie Paskey has to be.

"He tasks me and I shall have him..."

“He tasks me and I shall have him…”

On the other hand, there are aspects of Obsession that do work. It never feels as forced or tired as The Gamesters of Triskelion. Much like Wolf in the Fold, this is an episode written to focus on William Shatner. It is a nice meaty role for the series star, who was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with Leonard Nimoy’s rising profile. Indeed, Obsession was broadcast between The Deadly Years and Wolf in the Fold, a veritable Shatner sandwich.

Shatner does great work here. He goes all-out. Shatner’s performance does a lot more to sell the idea of an on-edge Kirk than the script. There are points where Shatner’s deliver seems almost stream of consciousness, creating a very real sense of uncertainty and anxiety. “Do you smell that?” he asks upon encountering the creature after all these years. “A sweet odour like honey. It was years ago, on another planet. A thing with an odour like that.” It’s written like a question, but delivered like a rhetorical thought process.

A gas time...

A gas time…

Similarly, Shatner excels during his attempt to communicate with the wounded Ensign Rizzo. There is a genuine sense that Kirk is confronting a demon from his past, a nightmare that he had buried away for years that has come back to haunt him after all that time. The script often feels clunky and contrived, but Shatner shrewdly amps his performance up. Obsession is a showcase for Shatner’s theatrical and exaggerated performance style – the sort of pulpy adventure suited to that form of delivery.

The creature itself is also intriguing. A gaseous life form that needs to feed off human blood; the fact that it finds Spock unappetising is a very clever use of the show’s internal continuity. There’s a sense that this is a very different sort of alien, distinct even from the stunt-men-in-suit monsters from The Man Trap or The Galileo Seven. Even the little detail that the creature communicates through scent is fascinating. There is a genuine sense that Kirk and his crew have found something completely alien and weird.

Holding Kirk's tricorder is possibly the safest assignment that a red shirt could ask for...

Holding Kirk’s tricorder is possibly the safest assignment that a red shirt could ask for…

The vampire cloud creature is a delightful grotesque creation. It seems hark back to the early episodes of the first season that presented space as a hostile and almost incomprehensible void. In those episodes, it seemed like space was a grave yard, haunted but almost extinct monsters and entities beyond human comprehension. Those early episodes captured a feeling of almost Lovecraftian horror at the alien terror waiting in the darkness.

The cloud creature from Obsession marks a return to that particularly pulpy sort of Star Trek storytelling – an approach that would continue into the very next episode. Watching Obsession after all these years, produced as it was before decades of Star Trek spin-offs and continuity, it is interesting that Kirk and the Enterprise do not seem too bothered about communicating with the alien creature once they ascertain its intelligence.

"You changed him out of the shirt, right? That should help with recovery?"

“You changed him out of the shirt, right? That should help with recovery?”

There is no attempt at negotiation, no desire for peaceful reconciliation. Instead, everybody reaches a consensus that the monster must be destroyed. The space vampire is alien and other, it is accepted as unquestionably hostile. Perhaps this is correct. After all, the creature murders five members of the crew of the Enterprise, and Kirk first encountered it when it massacred the crew on the Farragut. At the same time, it seems a little strange that no effort is made to speak with it, to warn it, to reason with it.

Obsession is not a misfire on the same scale as The Gamesters of Triskelion. It is a competent production, well-staged and featuring a fun central performance. However, it feels just a little bit too stock and familiar; it is treading over well-worn ground, better-worn ground.

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

3 Responses

  1. I think the thing I like most about “Obsession” is the view it gives us of what Kirk’s senior officers can do if he starts behaving badly. That scene in Kirk’s quarters where McCoy comes in and tries to talk to Kirk, only to get stonewalled, so the door opens to reveal Spock waiting in the corridor, is an interesting one. It reveals that there’s a procedure in the manual for the CMO and First Officer to question the captain and to relieve him of command if the answers show him to be incapacitated. That extends our understanding of Starfleet procedure and also shows us that although these three men are very close friends, they also all take their duties seriously (even McCoy, who often seems like something of a loose cannon). It shows what a fine line they all have to walk, in being friends and officers at the same time.

    And in spite of the intended parallels to “Moby Dick,” I think the way that Kirk revisits his understanding of what happened eleven years ago and the way in which he projected his own failure onto young Garrovick shows some psychological sophistication. Kirk came down hard on Garrovick for his OWN failing, and Kirk only truly realized that his own “failing” had not been a failing at all when he comforted Garrovick about the same issue. This IS the way in which people often work, and if you forget the “Moby Dick” jazz for a minute and take the episode on its own merits, it does have something to say — something useful, even.

    Of course, I’m a licensed psychologist in real life, not an English professor, so what I get out of the episodes may be different from what you get. 🙂

    • That’s actually an interesting way of looking at it. Obsession is interesting as the rare occasion that we get to dig into the history of a member of the TOS cast. Spock gets a couple, but Kirk and McCoy are generally blank pages, except when some exposition is needed. (Although I think the idea that McCoy thrived during a past assignment on Capella in Friday’s Child tells us a lot about him.) Obsession is arguably Kirk’s most character-driven story from the entire television show.

      • Although Spock is my favorite character, I find all of the three mains interesting, and I like this episode and “The Enemy Within” for what they tell us about who Kirk is. Of course, a Vulcan is more interesting, because we’ve never seen one before and don’t know what they’re like, but Kirk is interesting enough to hold his own. 😉

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