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Star Trek – The Immunity Syndrome (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 Immunity Syndrome is an underrated masterpiece, the first genuine classic overseen by producer John Meredyth Lucas.

It is bold, brilliant and more than a little bit weird. This is Star Trek as pure sixties science-fiction. It is a psychedelic ecological tale focused on mankind’s place in the larger universe. It doesn’t just pit the Enterprise against a giant space amoeba, it suggests that the universe itself is a singular gigantic organism, a complex system in which the Enterprise is just one part. The Immunity Syndrome is weird and wonderful, eerie and beautiful in equal measure. It is one of Star Trek‘s most effective encapsulations of the sixties.

Freak out!

Freak out!

It is a bit of a disappointment that writer Robert Sabaroff did not contribute another idea to Star Trek or Star Trek: The Animated Series. After all, something as rich and vivid as The Immunity Syndrome would work very well in animation – with a small central cast and a reliance of visual effects, as well as a decidedly “out there” story idea. However, Gene Roddenberry did recruit Sabaroff to write for Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the writer contributed two of the stronger scripts to the show’s first season.

In a way, both stories can be seen as extensions of Sabaroff’s concepts in The Immunity Syndrome. If The Immunity Syndrome proposes the entire universe is a single living organism, Home Soil dreams a little smaller – it offers a planet that is a literal living organism. Similarly, Conspiracy finds the crew of the Enterprise confronting a hive-minded threat to the Federation. The alien parasites are an infection that corrupts and infects an organisation rather than simply a person.

"If I can't see it, it isn't real..."

“If I can’t see it, it isn’t real…”

Interestingly, despite its massive sense of scale, Sabaroff pitched The Immunity Syndrome as a bottle show, as a way for the series to save money. After all, the show was regularly coming in over budget, and there was a need to get that under control given the change in ownership from Desilu to Paramount. As Sabaroff told Starlog:

His Star Trek, focusing on a colossal  amoeba that threatens to destroy the galaxy, was actually a budget saver for the series.  Sabaroff worked primarily with Gene Coon, the late producer whom the writer classifies  as “a very under-remembered man who was one of the major creative forces of Star Trek. Gene explained that they had run out of guest star money but they still had a special FX budget. He asked me to write a story that wouldn’t require a guest star. The optical wasn’t expensive to make. A guest star would have cost them much more.”

The idea was that The Immunity Syndrome could be filmed on standing sets without a guest cast, needing only a few external special effects shots to help tell the story. Relying on the existing cast and standing sets was not only a very clever way of saving budget, but also of saving time.

The right stuff...

The right stuff…

As director Ralph Senensky has noted, the shift in ownership from Desilu to Paramount had brought with it a new set of expectations. Star Trek could no longer be allowed to run over-time and over-budget. Senensky cites this change in atmosphere as part of the reason he is so dissatisfied with his late second season episodes:

I cannot speak for the other directors and the other productions, but I can definitely say there was a drop in quality from This Side of Paradise and Metamorphosis to the other episodes I directed the second season. And I ascribe the reason for this drop to the impossible expectation that episodes of Star Trek could be filmed in five and a half days and maintain the standard of production excellence that had been established. There was an even more insidious influence caused by this shortening of the schedule. In the process of developing scripts, knowing there would be less time to film what was written had to have had an influence on what went onto the printed page. The series, which already leaned toward the cerebral, was now being nudged into telling even more of the story in long dialogue sequences.

This pressure was very much bearing down on the series as a whole, and they can be very clearly seen in the development history of The Immunity Syndrome, an episode largely written to be cheap and quick to shoot.

"It's like the Fantastic Voyage, only without all the shrinking..."

“It’s like the Fantastic Voyage, only without all the shrinking…”

Senensky wasn’t the only director who felt this way. The Immunity Syndrome was the last episode credited to veteran director Joseph Pevney, who had overseen classics like Arena and Amok Time. According to an interview with Starlog, there were other factors at play complicating the production:

“I couldn’t enjoy working on Star Trek  any more,” Pevney says. “The show’s whole  character had changed for me. The quality  of the writing deteriorated, because, I think,  they were scared that whatever the writers  submitted would be torn to shreds. There  was a loss of confidence from the top in  terms of material, and if that happens,  you’re shaking up something awful. When  Gene Coon left the show, much of the discipline had gone. From the time I made Arena to the time I did my last show, there  was a hell of a difference. If you run both of  those episodes, you’ll see that there’s a  difference in performance quality, changes  which give you a sense of the overbearing captain and Spock. In addition, there’s a  kind of challenging between the two of them  on screen. Now, this is OK in life and in rehearsal, but it shouldn’t be there on the  screen. When we started Star Trek, teamwork was the key word. Nobody was more  important than anybody else. The captain  was the captain, but the actor was no more  important than any of the others. So, as a result of the changes, the atmosphere, feeling of teamwork and whole Trek quality  diminished.” 

However, The Immunity Syndrome is a prime example of how working under this sort of pressure could bring out the best in Star Trek. While it seems unlikely that anybody believed this approach could be sustained for an extended period, The Immunity Syndrome is a triumph for the series – particularly with all the changes taking place behind the scenes.

A tough cell...

A tough cell…

It should be noted that The Immunity Syndrome never looks cheap. There is enough action and drama that the audience never notices the lack of scenes outside the ship. The special effect sequences are memorable and vivid. The plot is distinctive. However, according to Mark Cushman in These Are the Voyages, this budget-saving approach paid off:

This is the first episode funded and controlled by the new studio, with the Paramount Television logo replacing that of Desilu. Being a bottle show with no guest stars, the first Paramount episode was brought in close to its $171,391 budget.

Although the “close to” is probably quite telling, it is worth noting that The Immunity Syndrome demonstrates the most you could expect from Star Trek on the allocated production budget and schedule time. While setting an episode on the Enterprise with no guest cast worked very well here, it could not become the show’s standard method of operation.

Spock found working with the computer to be much more productive...

Spock found working with the computer to be much more productive…

On its own merits, The Immunity Syndrome is quite a piece of work. It is very big science-fiction, with an epic scale and even larger ideas. Robert Sabaroff’s script and Joseph Pevney’s direction conspire to create a decidedly claustrophobic and unsettling atmosphere. This is very much Star Trek as existential horror – the Enterprise venturing into the unknown, to discover that the unknown does not operate by the rules they would expect. Kirk ventures into darkness forty years before JJ Abrams arrives.

Much is made of the inexplicable darkness of the region the Enterprise explores. When Kirk first sees the void, he remarks that it “looks like a hole in space.” Nevertheless, the Enterprise forges ahead into “the dark area ahead.” McCoy refers to is as the “zone of darkness”, while Spock describes it as a “negative energy zone.” It is very clear that this is something that is simply wrong. Something that is not meant to be.

"Anger. Confusion. Loneliness. Fear. I had experiences those feelings before, multiplied exponentially..."

“Anger. Confusion. Loneliness. Fear. I had experiences those feelings before, multiplied exponentially…”

Much is made of how little Kirk and his crew understand what is happening. “No speculation, no information, nothing,” Kirk protests. “I’ve asked you three times for information on that, and you’ve been unable to supply it. Insufficient data is not sufficient, Mister Spock. You’re the science officer. You’re supposed to have sufficient data all the time.” Spock replies, “I am well aware of that, Captain, but the computers contain nothing on this phenomenon. It is beyond our experience, and the new information is not yet significant.”

It challenges the way that the Enterprise understands the cosmos. “We still have no specifics, but we seem to have entered a zone of energy which is incompatible with our living and mechanical processes,” Spock theorises. “As we draw closer to the source, it grows stronger and we grow weaker.” However, the field affects the Enterprise in ways that defy physics and the crew in ways the defy biology. “There’s nothing organic,” McCoy insists of the crew’s ailment. “They all seem to be nervous, weak, and irritable. They say it happened suddenly, like a balloon popping.”

Into the void...

Into the void…

This hole in space is unsettling because it obscures the stars in a way that should be impossible. When Chekov suggests that it is “an interstellar dust cloud”, Kirk refuses to buy into that. “You’d be able to see stars through a dust cloud.” No, this is something much stranger and more unsettling. This is something that is fundamentally not correct. This is Star Trek without the stars. This is a Lovecraftian nightmare in the howling haunting emptiness of space, a realisation that we do not understand the universe as much as we think that we do.

The influence of Lovecraft has been keenly felt on Star Trek, most obviously through the work of his protege Robert Bloch on episodes like What Are Little Girls Made Of? or Catspaw or Wolf in the Fold. However, the general portrayal of the wider galaxy in the early few episodes suggested a dead universe stalked by monstrous terrors – once glorious and now long departed civilisations that left only monsters or tormentors behind to frolic in the ruins. In those earliest episodes of the franchise, the universe was not a friendly place.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

Lovecraft had considerable influence on the development and growth of science-fiction as a genre, particularly around the type of science-fiction that influenced and inspired Star Trek. As Robert H. Waugh notes in Lovecraft’s Influence in Science-Fiction:

Arthur C. Clarke responded to Lovecraft’s work, and followed his lead in feeling that humanity would be overwhelmed by the universe. Fritz Leiber was stirred by the weird aspects of Lovecraft’s work, and scholars have examined that response; but Leiber was also a witty science-fiction author, and we see traces of Lovecraft in The Wanderer and The Big Time. Philip K. Dick read Lovecraft with interest and explicitly felt that some Lovecraftian themes spoke to his own condition.

As such, it is no surprise that Star Trek would pick up on these themes and ideas; Gene Roddenberry took great pride in the connection between Star Trek and contemporary science-fiction. It was inevitable – given the occasionally pulpy aspects of Star Trek – that the show would reflect some of those Lovecraftian themes.

Kirk of fate...

Kirk of fate…

There is a larger context for all of this. The sixties saw something of a resurgence for H.P. Lovecraft, who had passed away in 1937. As Gary Lachmann notes in Turn Off Your Mind, there were several reprints of Lovecraft’s work in the early years of the decade:

New paperbacks appeared, like Lancer’s The Dunwich Horror and Others. Pyramid Books, who had been reprinting Sax Rohmer’s Fun Manchu novels, smelled pulp in the air and released Weird Tales edited by Leo Margulies in 1964. They followed this in 1965 with Worlds of Weird. Both paperbacks had fantastic Virgil Finlay covers, and both contained other Weird Tales writers like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft’s popularity only grew stronger from there. Although The Haunted Palace took its name from a work by Edgar Allen Poe, Roger Corman’s 1964 horror owes a considerable debt to the writings of Lovecraft. A psychedelic rock band named themselves in his honour in 1967.

Shaken to their cores...

Shaken to their cores…

In a way, The Immunity Syndrome is very firmly anchored in sixties counterculture. This isn’t a surprise. After all, Star Trek is inevitably and inexorably a product of its times, engaging and exploring various facets of the sixties in a variety of diverse (and occasionally conflicting) ways. The product of dozens of different voices, writing from dozens of different angles, Star Trek never seemed to have an entirely consistent voice on the issues of the day.

To pick a rather obvious example, the show’s attitudes toward Vietnam seem to change on a weekly basis. It’s hard to reconcile the “some wars need to be fought” moral of episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever or A Private Little War with the “war is pointless, futile and stupid” moral of episodes like The Trouble With Tribbles, Errand of Mercy or The Armageddon Factor. Gene L. Coon seemed quite willing to criticise Kirk’s gung-ho interventionism, while Roddenberry was more likely to endorse it unquestioningly.

The sound of slow death can be exhausting...

Listening to the howling madness of the void…

This internal conflict was particularly obvious when it came to matters of counterculture. This Side of Paradise offered a vision of utopia that seemed informed by the optimism of various youth and political movements, rejecting it as a gilded cage. The Way to Eden was wrong-headed and patronising in its portrayal of the hippie movement. Both Return of the Archons and Operation — Annihilate! seemed genuinely panicked by what they saw as the potential breakdown of social order.

However, episodes like The Immunity Syndrome and Wolf in the Fold seem more intrigued and enthused by aspects of sixties counterculture. Wolf in the Fold saw Star Trek dabbling in the occult and psychedelia, with the crew of the Enterprise defeating a demonic infestation by getting doped up to the gills. The Immunity Syndrome takes things one step further, not only is McCoy regularly injecting the crew with drugs to alter their mental state, the imagery gets decidedly trippy.

A good trip, or a bad trip?

A good trip, or a bad trip?

Indeed, the production team seemed quite excited about the episode’s psychedelic imagery. The summary submitted directly from the production office to TV Guide proudly boasted, “This episode features psychedelic special effects created by Frank Van der Veer.” Given that Van der Veer had already contributed the special effects for Friday’s Child and Mirror, Mirror, the emphasis would seem to be on the novelty of the “psychedelic” effects.

The Immunity Syndrome is certainly psychedelic. The giant space amoeba itself is a delightfully bizarre creation, but the shots of the Enterprise and the shuttle inside the organism are beautiful and wild. While the special effects team digitally remastering the classic series generally did a wonderful job at maintaining the mood and atmosphere of the classic series, the replacement special effects on The immunity Syndrome lose a great deal of what made the original version so effective.

Not exactly firing on all the thrusters...

Not exactly firing on all the thrusters…

Psychedelia was very much a part of the general mood and atmosphere of the sixties. The movement is perhaps most associated with Timothy Leary, who was infamously described as “the most dangerous man alive” by Richard Nixon. (A fact, he boasted to Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, of which he is a very proud.) He published The Psychedelic Experience in 1964, explaining:

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently, they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs.

Although inexorably linked to sixties drug culture and the popularity of LSD during the decade, it is easy to see the connection between the utopian futurism of Star Trek and sixties psychedelia. Both philosophies posit a world that exists beyond current reality, suggesting that that mankind’s potential is so much more than the world around us would suggest.

"Doctor, can't you give me something to ease my pain?"

“Doctor, can’t you give me something to ease my pain?”

Even Leary himself has made the connection, pitching the explosion in deep-space science-fiction in the late sixties and into the seventies as a logical expansion of psychedelia. In Your Brain is God, Leary writes:

The neuro-astronomical revelation has been reported by many psychedelic experimenters. Many believe that the boom in space consciousness reflected the movies 2001, Star Wars, Star Trek, and such are predictable sequelae of the Neurological Revolution the 1960s.

While not a water-tight position, it is interesting to contemplate. Inner space reflected in outer space, which is – conveniently – a recurring theme of The Immunity Syndrome.

"And... cut!"

“And… cut!”

In Pyschedelicacies: Psychedelia and its Legacies, writer Glenn O’Brien goes one step further, extrapolating a history of psychedelia through on-screen science-fiction:

The science-fiction psychedelic experience has since morphed from the optimistic futurism (through the past) of Star Trek and Star Wars into the bad trip future of Alien. Perhaps one of the great masterpieces of psychedelia is the monster from Alien, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, the Leonardo of Apocalyptic modernism. Giger’s work, based on a stunning synthesis of biological and mechanical forms, envisioned the future as the ultimate bad trip, Sontag’s ‘cancer as metaphor’, with technology extruding from the human soul the darkest of mankind’s motives and creating a Frankenstein universe-as-existential maze.

Still, we are a little away from that. Despite its darkness, The Immunity Syndrome postulates a vision of the universe as a living organism with the Enterprise as its defense mechanism.

"In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."

“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

Robert Sabaroff’s original pitch was much more explicit in this idea. These Are the Voyages reprints an excerpt from his original outline, which featured a guest cast member named Loretta:

Loretta believes that the alien body is a giant virus, spawned by spontaneous generation in a force field and a sea of hydrogen atoms. But a virus can only function inside a living cell. Kirk is stunned by the concept that the Universe itself is a cell — the solar system, star clusters, even galaxies being only bundle of greater matter arranged toward the construction of a super-organism. … They [Kirk and Loretta] reflect that it would be indeed ironic if the ultimate function and historical purpose of Man’s evolution were to serve the function of antibodies to the universe — a line of defense against viral bodies seeking to make the Universe sneeze — an ignominious raison d’etre indeed, by Kirk’s standards. The most noble one, by Lotetta’s. She wonders who the Universe is.

Although these more philosophical elements were toned down in the final version of the script, echoes remain.

A heady cocktail...

A heady cocktail…

“This thing, this cell, this virus,” Kirk tells McCoy, “it’s eleven thousand miles long, and it’s one cell. When it grows into millions, we’ll be the virus invading its body.” McCoy smiles at the idea. “Now, isn’t that a thought?” he ponders. “Here we are, antibodies of our own galaxy, attacking an invading germ. It would be ironic indeed if that were our sole destiny, wouldn’t it?” This is a very interesting way of looking at the universe – as a living organism so vast that mankind is just a part of a much larger system.

The Immunity Syndrome is fascinated with the idea of live and death, frequently acknowledging the ideas on a scale almost beyond human comprehension. It isn’t just people dying, it is ships and entire systems. “Captain,” Chekov reports, “I have just completed a full long-range scan of Gamma Seven-A system. It is dead.” Kirk is shocked, “Dead? It’s a fourth magnitude sun. There are billions of inhabitants there.” Chekov responds, matter-of-factly, “It is dead.”

McCoy proscribes an existential painkiller...

McCoy proscribes an existential painkiller…

The teaser suggests that Spock is himself in tune with the larger universe. “I sensed it die,” he tells McCoy of the Intrepid. McCoy seems to have difficulty processing the idea. “Not even a Vulcan could feel a starship die,” McCoy insists, stubbornly. However, Spock reports not only the death of the four-hundred Vulcans on the Intrepid, but the death of the Intrepid itself. After all, are they not the same thing?

“I know not a person, not even the computers on board the Intrepid, knew what was killing them or would have understood it had they known,” Spock explains, suggesting that the computer on the ship was capable of its own existence and experience – its own style of thought and perhaps life, even if it does not conform to the idea of life as humanity understands it. The Immunity Syndrome is an episode that challenges Kirk’s mission to “seek out new life forms”, asking him to fathom “life” that exists outside his conception of it.

"There is a disturbance in the force..."

“There is a disturbance in the force…”

It seems that mankind thinks of “life” in very definite and individual terms. “I’ve noticed that about your people, Doctor,” Spock reflects. “You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.” Spock suggests that mankind has difficulty processing scale, making it ironic that the Enterprise should be confronted by what is essentially a gigantic single-cell life form – something that is at once impossibly large and incredibly small.

Spock seems to advocate for greater empathy and sympathy from mankind. “Doctor, even I, a half-Vulcan, could hear the death scream of four hundred Vulcan minds crying out over the distance between us,” he assures McCoy, as if to suggest that mankind’s inability to sense such things represents a disconnect from the universe around them. Later, McCoy teases, “Suffer the death of thy neighbour, eh, Spock? You wouldn’t wish that on us, would you?” Spock simply observes, “It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody.”

Into the hazy red yonder...

Into the hazy red yonder…

Part of this idea of universal empathy seems to involve mankind coming to an understanding about how the universe works – that mankind itself does not own or dominate the stars, but instead must exist in harmony with the cosmos around them. The Immunity Syndrome posits the Enterprise as part of the universe’s immune system, suggesting a responsibility that comes with mankind’s technological advancement. Mankind should not see themselves as masters of their domain, but instead as caretakers.

This is a rather optimistic idea, particularly given mankind’s history of abusing and neglecting the planet. In a way, The Immunity Syndrome feels like Star Trek engaging in ecological issues on a much larger scale. Not only must mankind protect their planet, they must also protect the larger universe. In that respect, The Immunity Syndrome can be seen as an extension of the environmental consciousness at play in The Devil in the Dark.

From a single cell...

From a single cell…

In fact, The Immunity Syndrome seems to draw upon what has been termed “the Gaia Hypothesis” and extrapolate outwards. Pushed into the public consciousness by scientist James Lovelock, “the Gaia Hypothesis” suggested that Earth is itself a large ecological system maintained by a delicate balance of smaller ecological systems. Everything plays its part in maintaining that balance, and there is a direct causal chain. As such, everything is a part of something bigger.

Lovelock first published his theories in 1972, although he had been working on them since the sixties. Although it was Lovelock who gave the theory the name “Gaia Hypothesis”, it should be noted that there is a long line of historical precedent for the idea. In many ways, Lovelock’s observations were foreshadowed by the work of Vladimir Ivanovich Vaernadsky and possibly even Aldo Leopold. These ideas date back to the early twentieth century, even if they had yet to gel into a single cohesive hypothesis.

Warped speed...

Warped speed…

Appropriately enough, Lovelock’s theory had its roots in the increased fascination with space exploration in the sixties. Lovelock began speculating about these interlinked systems while working with NASA:

That is how James Lovelock discovered Gaia; from outer space. In the 1960’s, during the space race which followed the launching of Sputnik, he was asked by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA to help design experiments to detect life on Mars.The Viking lander gathered and tested some Martian soil for life with no results. Lovelock had predicted as much, by analysing the atmosphere of Mars: it is in a dead equilibrium. By contrast, the atmosphere of Earth is in a “far from equilibrium” state- meaning that there was some other complex process going on which maintained such an unlikely balance. It occurred to him that if the Viking lander had landed on the frozen waste of Antarctica, it might not have found any trace of life on Earth either. But a sure giveaway would be a complete atmospheric analysis… which the Viking lander was not equipped to do. Lovelock’s approach was not popular at NASA because NASA needed a good reason to land on Mars, and the best was to look for life. Viking found nothing on Mars, but Lovelock had seen the Earth from the perspective of an ET looking for evidence of life. And he began thinking that what he was seeing was not so much a planet adorned with diverse life forms, but a planet transfigured and transformed by a self-evolving and self-regulating living system. By the nature of its activity it seemed to qualify as a living being. He named that being Gaia, after the Greek goddess which drew the living world forth from Chaos.

This captures some the optimism of the space race – and perhaps even science-fiction as a genre. It suggests that looking at world from the outside invites us to examine it from different perspectives, to reevaluate what we think we know. After all, isn’t that what Star Trek does at its very best?

Monitoring the situation closely...

Monitoring the situation closely…

Timothy Leary’s theories about psychedelic subculture might suggest that journeying to inner space invites us to speculate about outer space; the development of James Lovelock’s ecological theories suggest the opposite is also true. The Immunity Syndrome hits on both points beautifully. The Enterprise can has a psychedelic trip to the centre of a single-celled organism, but they can also come to understand their place in the much larger scheme of the universe.

The Immunity Syndrome is a vastly underrated episode of Star Trek from a vastly underrated writer. It’s a second season classic, and one of the absolute highlights of John Meredyth Lucas’ tenure as producer.

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

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