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Star Trek – Spock’s Brain (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Spock’s Brain is not the worst episode of Star Trek ever produced.

Indeed, Spock’s Brain is not even the worst episode of the third season as a whole. More than that, Spock’s Brain is not even the worst episode of the third season to this point. Spock’s Brain is a pretty bad piece of television, but it seems difficult to argue that the episode is quantifiably worse than Elaan of TroyiusThe Paradise Syndrome or And the Children Shall Lead. However, the episode’s reputation looms large in the broader context of the Star Trek canon. Many would point to this as the worst episode that the show ever produced.

"Check out the big brain on Spock!"

“Check out the big brain on Spock!”

To be fair, Star Trek fandom has never been entirely consistent or even-handed when it comes to identifying the worst that the franchise has to offer. This is a fandom that decided that Star Trek Into Darkness was somehow a worse film than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek: Nemesis, and that Threshold was somehow the worst episode of Star Trek: Voyager despite sharing a season with episodes like Tattoo and Alliances. When dealing with consensus fan opinion, it is always interesting to wonder why such things matter over others.

Spock’s Brain is pretty dire. It is sexist, it is ill-judged, it looks cheap, and its underlying premise is beyond absurd. It was also the first episode of the third season to be broadcast. In a way, it seemed like the ultimate affront to fandom. After all, these fans had worked really hard to convince NBC to bring the show back for a third season. Having those same hardcore fans tune into the new time slot to catch Spock’s Brain must have seemed like the ultimate insult, a hokey sci-fi b-movie premise executed on a tiny budget from a show that normally did much better.

The brains of the operation.

The brains of the operation.

There is an element of nostalgia to this reading of Star Trek. The franchise has always had a goofy side, even beyond the necessity for science-bending budget-saving plot devices like warp drive or the transporter. The franchise has a long history of misunderstanding the concept of evolution (see GenesisThreshold or Dear Doctor) or embracing Erich von Däniken (see Return to TomorrowThe Paradise Syndrome or The Chase). Star Trek has always run on ridiculous ideas, opening with a story about how voyaging outside the universe turns a person into a god.

Indeed, goofiness is part of the joy of Star Trek, from the giant green space hand in Who Mourns for Adonais? through to the pleasures of space!Lincoln in The Savage Curtain. More than that, the goofiness can even lead to truly spectacular episodes and stories in its own right, as with the weird space!amoeba in The Immunity Syndrome or the “planet of the gangsters” in A Piece of the Action. (Similarly, the “planet of the Romans” in Bread and Circuses and “planet of the Nazis” in Patterns of Force are also underrated episodes.)

Okay, Kirk. It's not THAT painful.

Okay, Kirk. It’s not THAT painful.

It is perhaps a combination of factors that accounts for the hatred directed at Spock’s Brain. It is not just the goofy premise, because there have been goofier premises before. It is not just the sexism, because there has been more overt sexism before and there is more overt sexism to follow. It is not just the bad script, because there have been terrible scripts before. It is not just the cheapness of the episode, because the show’s ambition always outstripped its production budget.

It is a combination of these factors, culminating in the decision that Spock’s Brain should be the show to open the third season of Star Trek on television. This is the stalking horse for the disjointed and uneven third season, and it seems like it is the first show caught in the cross-hairs.

Matters come to a head.

Matters come to a head.

It is hard to overstate just how disillusioned everybody was with the third season of Star Trek. After all, the fans and production team had fought spectacularly hard to revive the season. NBC would have been happy to cancel it at the end of the second season, but a series of public protests and a massive letter-writing campaign helped to keep the show on the air. Spock’s Brain was supposed to be a moment of triumph for the fandom. It was an episode that would not exist but for the efforts of fans like Bjo Trimble.

However, the third season did not mark a triumphant return for the series. The third season did not find Star Trek ascendant. “I remember my sister and I being disappointed with the third season,” confessed future Star Trek: The Next Generation writer and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine showrunner Ira Steven Behr. He elaborated, “Like most fans, I was disappointed with season three.” It was not just fans or future production team members. Leonard Nimoy reflected, “The third season was very weak in general, but it was especially not good for Spock.”

Leonard Nimoy had a fairly extreme reaction.

Leonard Nimoy had a fairly extreme reaction.

Interviewed for These Are the Voyages, veteran production designer and long-term fan Doug Drexler perfectly encapsulated the sense of betrayal embodied by Spock’s Brain as the third season premiere:

I was crushed by Spock’s Brain when I saw it. I couldn’t believe this was my show. What the hell had happened? It was painful, because it felt like certain death. I could feel a difference in the show instantly. There was a quality about it that almost seemed by rote. It seemed by-the-numbers , and it didn’t have the same kind of complexity. Besides that, there was a different feel to the show as far as look. It seemed kind of cold. The episode just seemed almost silly immediately. With lines like “His brain is missing, Jim”, it just didn’t have the same sophisticated quality of the first two years. Many years later I took Spock’s Brain and put a laugh track on it. And it actually made it work. It really was remarkable because the laugh track just made it seem intentionally funny.

Drexler hits at a number of the core issues with Spock’s Brain, and some of the issues that differentiate it from the other spectacular glaring failures of the early third season.

"Was he dead?" "He was worse than dead." "What do you mean?" "Jim." "Come on, Bones. What's the mystery?" "His brain is gone." "His what?" "It's been removed surgically."

“Was he dead?”
“He was worse than dead.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, Bones. What’s the mystery?”
“His brain is gone.”
“His what?”
“It’s been removed surgically.”

The most damning criticism that fans throw at Spock’s Brain is the suggestion that the episode is effectively making a mockery of Star Trek with its stilted dialogue, its ridiculous premise, its repeated use of the words “Spock’s brain.” There is a sense that Star Trek is meant to be “serious business”, and that the fans accept this at face value. By unapologetically running with such a goofy concept and by embraced the pulpy absurdity of the story, it almost feels like fandom treats Spock’s Brain as a tacit betrayal of the series.

This sense of betrayal is reflected in a number of popular rumours that circulated about the episode in the years following its original broadcast. Drexler alludes to one such rumour when he talks about putting a laugh track on the episode. For a long time, there were rumours that Spock’s Brain had been written as a comedy episode, but that either the comedy didn’t land or the production team simply did not “get” that this was too ridiculous to play straight. After all, a live reading of the script was very successfully staged as a comedy show in 2004.

"Spock's body is more dependent on that tremendous brain for life support." "Then we'll take him with us." "Take him? Take him where?" "In search of his brain, Doctor."

“Spock’s body is more dependent on that tremendous brain for life support.”
“Then we’ll take him with us.”
“Take him? Take him where?”
“In search of his brain, Doctor.”

However, there is no indication that the episode was ever explicitly intended as a comedy. The always insightful Michael Kmet argued that the production team never treated it as such:

Except for a comedic scene between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy at the very end, the rest of this outline for Spock’s Brain remains as serious as the above teaser.

When Stanley Robertson, NBC’s program manager for Star Trek, was sent this outline, he made several suggestions. In an April 25, 1968 letter sent to Fred Freiberger, Robertson asked the producer to “give further consideration to the addition of more personal jeopardy to our regular cast of heroes than is intimated here.” Notably absent from this two page letter is any hint that the episode was intended as a comedy.

Given the consistently serious tone of each of these behind-the-scenes documents, and the completed episode itself, there’s little doubt in my mind that Spock’s Brain was conceived from start to finish as a dramatic episode, not a comedy.

Kmet makes a very valid argument. After all, “aliens steal a vital organ from Spock, forcing Kirk to engage in a deadly race against time to save him” hardly promises the amusement of I, Mudd or The Trouble with Tribbles.

"Jim, where are you going to look? In this whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock's brain? How are you going to find it?"

“Jim, where are you going to look? In this whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock’s brain? How are you going to find it?”

At the same time, there is something knowingly retrograde about Spock’s Brain. While a lot of the aesthetic of Star Trek can be found in fifties atomic era science-fiction and horror, most notably Forbidden Planet, there was generally a sense that the series was pushing past these trappings. Star Trek might have its roots in fifties pulpy science-fiction, but it gave those elements a twist for Kennedy’s “new frontier.” The show was very much anchored in a contemporary style of science-fiction.

In many ways, Spock’s Brain harks back to a pulpier old-fashioned style of science-fiction. The image of Spock as a lumbering automaton recalls the cinematic language of the classic Universal Frankenstein films; Spock might not have neck bolts or walk with his arms stretched out, but the recurring image of a braindead body on the slab while McCoy discusses (and later attempts to reattach) his missing brain feels very much in step with the “body-snatching mad scientist” as embodied by Victor Frankenstein.

"Doctor McCoy has lost the surgical knowledge he obtained from the teacher. He has been drawing on his own skills and surgical techniques in an attempt to continue the operation, but he is faltering and uncertain. In a desperate hope that he can draw on Spock's brain for assistance, I instructed Doctor McCoy to give priority to connecting Spock's vocal chords."

“Doctor McCoy has lost the surgical knowledge he obtained from the teacher. He has been drawing on his own skills and surgical techniques in an attempt to continue the operation, but he is faltering and uncertain. In a desperate hope that he can draw on Spock’s brain for assistance, I instructed Doctor McCoy to give priority to connecting Spock’s vocal chords.”

The fixation up the eponymous cranial organ harks back to pulpy fifties sci-fi delights like Donovon’s Brain, The Creature with the Atom Brain, The Brain from Planet Arous or The Brain Eaters. In contrast, the only notable sixties science-fiction film with “brain” in the title was 1962’s The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. Indeed, the theme of brain-stealing and body-swapping arguably resonated more strongly with the cultural context of the sixties, McCarthy era paranoia about enemy agents exerting unnatural influence on American bodies.

Of course, Spock’s Brain engages with an even older science-fiction stories and tropes. For the first (but not the last) time this season, the influence of H.G. Wells is keenly felt upon Star Trek. Visiting Sigma Draconis VI, Kirk discovers a world divided between the primitive Morgs who dwell on the surface and the Eymorgs who live lives of relative luxury beneath the surface of the planet. This division owes an obvious debt to The Time Machine, with even the names seeming familiar. The Morgs evoke the Morlocks; the Eymorgs evoke the Elai.

"Who are the Others?" "Givers of pain and delight." "Do they live here with you?" "No. They come. They give pain and delight."

“Who are the Others?”
“Givers of pain and delight.”
“Do they live here with you?”
“No. They come. They give pain and delight.”

This touchstone is important. Although science-fiction can trace its roots back to antiquity, H.G. Wells is one of the defining architects of its modern iteration. In Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldriss argued that “Wells is the Prospero of all the brave new worlds of the mind, and the Shakespeare of science fiction.” If that is an exaggeration, it is only a minor one. With that in mind, The Time Machine is an especially formative text; originally serialised in The New Review, the story was later published as Wells’ first novel.

All of this serves to make Spock’s Brain feel like something a throwback, a feeling reinforced by various production decisions. The platen surface of Sigma Draconis VI looks very much like a sound stage, the limitations in the show’s production budget beginning to show. Spock’s Brain has none of the imagination of Spectre of the Gun. Similarly, the costuming of the Morgs look like something from a fifties b-movie. More than that, the sequence in which Kirk and his crew are attacked by the Morgs feels clumsy and stagey.

Hail to a classic.

Hail to a classic.

With all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why certain people might choose to interpret Spock’s Brain as a grotesque parody of Star Trek. As quoted in The Fifty Year Mission, David Gerrold offered his own take:

I suspect that Spock’s Brain was Gene L. Coon’s way of thumbing his nose at Roddenberry or something. If not Roddenberry, he was thumbing his nose at how seriously the show was taking itself. … Gene L. Coon had that kind of sense of humour to do that kind of impish stuff. He had an irreverent sense of humour, and I think he wanted to poke Star Trek because someone was taking it too seriously. Maybe it was his way of not buying into it.

Gerrold would certainly have insight; he had worked with Coon on comedy episodes like I, Mudd or The Trouble with Tribbles. While Coon could write comedy that went for broad laughs, he was also fond of cheeky deconstruction.

Green screen effects.

Green screen effects.

In particular, Coon would frequently deflate some of the show’s more self-serious touches. Most obviously, Coon refused to buy into the idea of the Federation as a utopia. Coon tended to suggest that Kirk was uncertain and even ambiguous. In Errand of Mercy, Kirk and the Federation are just as complicit in the escalation of tensions as the Klingons. In The Trouble with Tribbles, the best laid plans of the Federation and the Klingons are thrown asunder by a few hungry furballs.

Coon was fond of writing stuffy Federation bureaucrats. Ambassador Fox seemed to set a template for generations of these characters in A Taste of Armageddon. Under-Secretary Nilz Baris is treated as a joke in The Trouble with Tibbles; just look at that combination of title and name. Kirk finds himself tasked with caring for another such character in Metamorphosis, and the episode ends with Kirk insisting that personal happiness is far more important than the demands of a large bureaucratic organisation.

"Thank you, Mister Chekov. That is a very impressive power point presentation."

“Thank you, Mister Chekov. That is a very impressive power point presentation.”

There are even shades of that to be found in Spock’s Brain. As Spock lies dying in Sick Bay, Kirk frets about what to do. There are apparently three planets that might possibly house the character’s brain, but there is not enough time to investigate all of them. Rather than making a command decision off-screen, Spock’s Brain treats the viewer to an extended briefing in which Chekov and Sulu each outline a case (with nifty graphics) for one of the planets. It is very much a scene from a particularly dull Friday afternoon at the office, not a high-stakes rescue mission.

Watching Spock’s Brain play out, it is entirely possible that Coon was being a little cheeky. However, if that is the case, it seems like Coon was in on the joke. More than that, it feels like an especially mean-spirited joke. Coon was a professional television writer who cared enough about Star Trek to commit to writing three scripts for the third season under the alias Lee Cronin while also serving as producer on It Takes a Thief. It seems slightly counter-productive to spend one of those scripts turning Star Trek into a mean parody of itself without telling anybody.

Sensor detect a stinker, sir.

Sensor detect a stinker, sir.

More than that, there is a clear sense that the production team were actually proud of Spock’s Brain, regardless of the backlash that followed. After all, production teams generally have a reasonable appreciation of the quality of their output. Most television producers will accept that there will be a few stinkers in a given season of twenty-odd episodes. In most cases, the production team will tend to schedule around the stinkers, burying the worst episodes later in the run so that they can make a good impression from the outset.

Spock’s Brain is not buried in the run. The episode is not tucked away, out of sight, in the middle of the third season where it might be forgotten. Instead, the production team decided that Spock’s Brain would make for the perfect season premiere. It would be the episode that open the season, brought forward from its position as sixth in the production order to first in broadcast order. It was not simply that the production team failed to appreciate the monstrosity they had created; the creative staff were actually proud of Spock’s Brain.

Stars in their eyes.

Stars in their eyes.

As goofy as the premise might seem, there is a sense that Spock’s Brain was supposed to be an important episode. Sure, the idea of a sexy alien space babe stealing Spock’s brain to power a super computer in a gender-driven riff on The Time Machine seems ridiculous on the face of it, but the episode was dealing with what was essentially a very hot topic in the context of late 1968. Organ transplants might be taken for granted in this day-and-age, but they were still a novelty in the late sixties.

The first heart transplant took place in December 1967. Lewis Washkansky was a grocery dying from chronic heart disease. He underwent the procedure at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, under the knife of Christiaan Barnard. Washkansky would die eighteen days later, contracting pneumonia as a result of the drugs that were suppressing his immune system. Advances in medical science would see heart transplantation become a more accepted surgical procedure in the decades that followed.

Surgical precision.

Surgical precision.

The first human heart transplant was a big deal. It held the world’s attention for weeks on end. When Lewis Washkansky passed away, the Daily Mail would publish an editorial that provided a sense of scale:

The past 18 days have seen an unusual succession of big news stories. Among them the big freeze, the go-slows, foot and mouth, a toppled throne, a drowned Prime Minister and an acute government crisis. But one story above all has appealed to the deepest emotions of men and women everywhere. It is that of Louis Washkansky, the man with the transplanted heart.

While organ transplantation is something that modern audiences take for granted, it was something truly alien for those following the news at the time. It was like science-fiction come to life.

Organ failure.

Organ failure.

Against that backdrop, the weird retro brain-harvesting of Spock’s Brain makes a great deal more sense. As surreal as the premise might seem to modern audiences, Spock’s Brain is essentially a science-fiction horror story about organ transplantation. In fact, the episode could be seen as an early example of the classic “kidney story”, the urban legend in which young tourists are targeted by organ harvesters. It is a wonder that Spock is found in Sick Bay rather than in a bath tub full of ice.

It should be noted that the fanciful science-fiction premise of the episode becomes slightly more feasible with each passing year. Neuroscientists remain optimistic that it may be possible to one day transplant human brains. Scientists estimate that a head (or full body) transplant may be only two years away. China has taken the lead on this, announcing its own plans to pioneer head transplant surgery. All of this serves to make Spock’s Brain only slightly less crazy, and to suggest just what the production team saw in it.

Bush whacked.

Bush whacked.

In many ways, this is perfect fodder for a Star Trek episode. After all, Spock’s Brain taps into other sixties social anxieties particularly those concerning automation. The move away from manual labour towards automation was a recurring concern on the show, as exemplified by the stories dealing with crazed computers like The Ultimate Computer. In Spock’s Brain, the title character is literally transformed into a computer, into something monstrous and grotesque, but perhaps more efficient and logical.

As in episodes like The Return of the Archons or The Apple, Spock’s Brain suggests that a society dependent upon a computer is portrayed as stagnant and inhuman. The Eymorgs are pampered and spoiled, rendered completely dependent upon machines. Their luxurious existence comes only at the price of their souls. The complex and highly-adaptive computer system has provided for their material needs, but at a steep cost; the loss of independence, the death of their resourcefulness. Even love is a foreign concept.

Duck and cover.

Duck and cover.

Spock’s Brain reflects contemporary uncertainties about a society that was moving towards a more automated computer-driven future. As Brenda Gardenour contends in The Compassionate Country Doctor and Cold-Blooded Biomedicine, the episode’s wedding of the organic and the inorganic offers expression to one of the show’s recurring motifs:

Expressing the concerns of many mid-twentieth-century Americans, Bones questions the dynamic relationship between the traditional practice of medicine, which is focused on caring for the whole person, and biomedical research, which disregards the individual human being in order to examine his or her molecular, chemical, and genetic mechanisms. For Bones, the greatest struggle lies between those who believe that science exists for the benefit of humankind, a powerful tool to improve the quality of human life, and those who believer that humankind serves the master scientific progress, a higher good that must be perpetuated at all costs.

The surgical removal of Spock’s brain and the decision to graft it into the Eymorg infrastructure is a very literal embodiment of that conflict. Spock might be described as a living computer, but Spock’s Brain renders the metaphor liberal. Spock’s live is of secondary good to the concerns of the Eymorg’s automated infrastructure. In some ways, Spock’s Brain is a very typical Star Trek episode.

Medical marvels.

Medical marvels.

After all, not just any episode gets to be the season premiere. The production team carefully weigh the episodes available to them, and pick the one that best reflects the show going forward. It is likely to be an episode intended to reassure existing fans and court new viewers. Amok Time fulfilled that purpose quite gracefully at the start of the second season. Spock’s Brain was clearly intended to do something similar at the start of the third season. This was supposed to be a marque episode.

Why Spock’s Brain? Why not The Enterprise Incident or Spectre of the Gun? In this case, Amok Time provides a fairly handy clue. On paper, it would seem that Spock’s Brain was the safest choice for a season premiere because it was the episode most keenly focused on the character of Spock. Spock was, after all, the breakout character on the show. He was earning more fan mail than Kirk and had evolved into the show’s unlikely sex symbol. Spock’s Brain is the only episode to this point exclusively focused on Spock. Tellingly, The Enterprise Incident would follow next.

And the actors shall lead.

And the actors shall lead.

Indeed, Spock’s high profile caused considerable tension on the set of the show. Freiberger quickly found himself caught up in the middle of the contest between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, as Robert Justman and Herb Solow relate in Inside Star Trek:

Nimoy’s constant demand for scripts with a more involved Spock – and a Spock who maintained his original character values – and Shatner’s insistence that he was still the star of the series put unusual pressures on Freiberger. In his desire to solve the problem, Star Trek’s new producer, frustrated and fed up with the bickering, arranged a meeting with the players: Shatner, Nimoy, and Roddenberry.

Freiberger held the meeting in Roddenberry’s old office, where he explained the complex nature of the situation, something that Roddenberry had been well aware of for at least two years. Freiberger then proceeded to confess that those pressures were preventing him from properly performing his role as the series’s producer. Shatner and Nimoy hung on his every word.

“Gee, I’m sorry to hear that, Fred, “ said Roddenberry. “I hope you get it straightened out real soon.” Roddenberry stood. “Well, I have to go now.” As Roddenberry started to leave his old office, Freiberger stopped him and asked the million-dollar question: “Gene, please tell me. Who’s the star of the series? Is it Bill – or is it Leonard?” Both actors leaned forward eagerly.

Roddenberry became quiet. He grabbed a cigarette, lit it quickly, inhaled deeply, and stared wide-eyed into the space above him. “Ahh… I see,” he mused. He looked out the window, shock his head in Buddha-like fashion, but said nothing else. He looked at neither Bill nor Leonard. Perhaps he was hoping they would jump into the conversation and solve the matter, actor to actor. They did not…

Roddenberry walked toward the door to leave, but turned and stared, angrily, at Freiberger. Roddenberry was sweating.

“It’s Bill. Bill is the star of the series.”

Roddenberry left immediately, and a smiling Shatner and a sullen Nimoy returned to the set.

These were the kind of pressures taking place behind the scenes during the show’s third season. Although Shatner and Nimoy would later reconcile, the two would drift apart again in their later years. Shatner and Nimoy were not talking when Nimoy passed away.

"Bones, you couldn't make him voice-activated, no?"

“Bones, you couldn’t make him voice-activated, no?”

In some respects, Spock’s Brain could be seen as an attempt to effectively “split the difference” between the show’s two de facto leads. Spock is very much the central character, the one who drives the plot. However, Kirk is cast in the role of hero, with William Shatner afforded central stage to play Kirk’s emotional response to the tragedy. Indeed, it seems like Spock’s Brain tries a little too hard to balance both leads. The episode is padded out with a lot of unnecessary Kirk-centric scenes in which the words “Spock’s brain” are repeated all too often.

As the first episode of the third season, Spock’s Brain carries a lot of symbolic weight. It was the show that sets the tone for the year ahead, it is the show that tells the audience what they can can expect from the series going forth. As such, it makes sense that Spock’s Brain would leave such a lasting negative impression upon fandom. Spock’s Brain came to be the standard bearer of many of the faults with the third season as a whole, even if it was not necessarily the most egregious example of any of them.

"Bring him along." "Keep him close to the right." It's like backing up the family car.

“Bring him along.”
“Keep him close to the right.”
It’s like backing up the family car.

There is even a joke to be made about how thematically appropriate the episode was, given how NBC had treated Star Trek. In Up Till Now, William Shatner makes such an observation:

No one in our universe was going to stay home Friday night to watch television. Our audience was out on Friday nights. Not home, no esta en la casa, gone, away. Those people who would be home weren’t going to be watching science fiction. Even then NBC reduced our budget, paying $15,000 less per episode than it had during our first season. That meant that we could no longer film on location, we couldn’t pay guest stars, and one of every four shows had to be done entirely on the Enterprise.

Our first show that third season might have been a tribute to the NBC executives who so mishandled this show: it was about a society in desperate need of a brain.

Again, there’s the notion of Spock’s Brain as a joke; a wry, mean-spirited, passive-aggressive joke. That seems to be the default narrative that has developed around the episode.

There had to be better ways to convince viewers to tune in.

There had to be better ways to convince viewers to tune in.

At the same time, Spock’s Brain hits upon a number of recurring third season anxieties. The dead and sterile society of Sigma Draconis VI plays into the funereal tone of the third season of a whole. It is not quite as effective as the ghost town and death sentence from Spectre of the Gun or the dead bodies at the start of And the Children Shall Lead, but there is a sense that the Enterprise is drifting through a universe that is slowly burning out. It is similar to the tone of certain early first and late second season episodes, albeit a little more morbid.

Of course, thematically appropriate content aside, Spock’s Brain is still a terrible episode. Quite frankly, the dialogue is awful. There are any number of possible reasons for this, of course. Coon was undoubtedly under tremendous time pressure owing to his commitments to It Takes a Thief. The departure of D.C. Fontana meant that Star Trek lacked a script editor who might tighten the draft. The result is a a script that feels very much like a first draft, full of repetition and padding, inelegant and clumsy.

"Do they come for your women as well?" That is a really specifically creepy follow-up question.

“Do they come for your women as well?”
That is a really specifically creepy follow-up question.

The characters frequently recycle dialogue in a way that makes them seem stupid. The Morg interrogated by Kirk identifies “givers of pain and delight.” Elaborating further on the point, he states, “They give pain and delight.” Other dialogue is shaped awkwardly to further plot exposition. “They are here,” the Morg warns Kirk. “You will see. The others will come for you. They come for all like us.” Kirk follows up by asking, “Do they come for your women as well?” In context, it sets up the reveal that the Eymorg are female. But it is also a really creepy follow-up question.

There are moments when the episode’s heightened style almost works. There is something at once ridiculous and horrifying about the way that William Shatner and DeForrest Kelley play the sequence in which Kirk discovers the particulars of Spock’s condition. “You’ve got him on complete life support,” Kirk observes. “Was he dead?” McCoy solemnly responds, “He was worse than dead.” Kirk has little patience. “Come on, Bones. What’s the mystery?” McCoy just says it. “His brain is gone.” It is ridiculous, but Shatner and Kelley do their best.

Belting out the classics.

Belting out the classics.

Unfortunately, Spock’s Brain is undercut by a heavy layer of casual sexism. The Eymorgs are a race of women seeking a man to show them how to live; whether the brain stolen from Spock, the masculinity of James Tiberius Kirk, or reconciliation with the males on the surface. At the same time, the script contrasts their lack of intelligence with their beauty. “I’m sure you noticed the delight aspect of this place,” McCoy observes. “Yes, I certainly did notice those delightful aspects,” Kirk confesses. “But that too was strictly under command of the women.”

The Eymorg are casually described as children; the stunted development of the Morg seems of little note. “Jim, it’s no use,” McCoy urges Kirk at one point. “You’ll get nothing out of that one. Hers is the mind of a child.” Scott insists, “Those women could never have set up anything as complex as this has to be. Why, that takes engineering genius. But there’s no sign of engineering genius in any of those women.” To be fair, this is not the first time that Kirk has come face to face with a society of primitives unable to cope with the advanced technology around them.

Kirk knows best.

Kirk knows best.

However, this is the first time that the society has been comprised exclusively as women. There was also something deeply uncomfortable about Kirk’s paternalistic attitude towards the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI in The Apple or Omega IV in The Omega Glory. However, it becomes even more uncomfortable when Kirk is lecturing a hyper-advanced community of women about how best to run their world. “You won’t be destroyed. You’ll be without your Controller for the first time, but you’ll be much better off, I think.”

Following on from And the Children Shall Lead, there is a sense that Spock’s Brain is just a little reactionary in its politics. And the Children Shall Lead felt like a repudiation of the youth movements of the late sixties, reflecting the anxieties of a social establishment wary of hippies and yippies. With that in mind, there are shades of a similar anxieties bubbling beneath the surface of Spock’s Brain, particularly with Kirk and his crew stumbling upon a society run by women that desperately needs a male brain to run it.

"Did you know that fire was invented by a little old lady from Leningrad?"

“Did you know that fire was invented by a little old lady from Leningrad?”

The premise feels a like a throwback to the kind of trashy and lurid adolescent fantasies which drove fifties b-movies like Queen of Outer Space and Fire Maidens from Outer Space, and which Futurama so ruthlessly parodied with Amazon Women in the Mood. In a way, this fits with the generally regressive tone of Spock’s Brain. The episode feels very much like the kind of cheesy sci-fi b-movie that an audience member might find skipping idly through the airwaves in the wee hours of the morning.

However, there is more to it than that. There is a definite sense that the Eymorg culture in Spock’s Brain is more than simply a retro affectation. Although it would be easy to read too much into what is a clumsy and messy episode, Spock’s Brain fits with the reactionary tone of the season around it. Against the backdrop of the end of the sixties, this pulp science-fiction throwback might be read as a pointed swipe at second-wave feminism. Although second-wave feminism continued long into the seventies, many would trace the origins of the movement to 1963.

"The patriarchy's not so bad."

“The patriarchy’s not so bad.”

As such, second wave feminism is part of the same cultural context as the youth movement, existing as part of the sixties counterculture that rebelled so strongly against the status quo in the hopes of building a better and more idealised world. The third season of Star Trek aired between 1968 and 1969, just as the sixties were coming to an end. The season occasionally gets caught up in the resurgent conservative tone of the ear. Spock’s Brain reads as a rejection of sixties feminism, much like And the Children Shall Lead and The Way to Eden reject the youth movement.

This leaves aside all manner of logical questions underpinning the plot. What drew the Eymorgs to Spock? Is Spock renowned across the galaxy for his big brain? Was Spock’s big brain picked up using advanced scanning equipment? Did the Eymorgs just target the first ship they found? More than that, how long have the Morgs and Eymorgs been like that? How to the species reproduce? The Morgs and Eymorgs seem almost unaware that they are the same species, and there are no Eymorg children visible.

Waist not want not.

Waist not want not.

There is also the simple fact that Spock’s Brain looks very cheap. The budget for the third season of Star Trek was cut dramatically, which is obvious in a number of respects. Most obviously, there are more bottle shows like Elaan of Troyius and Is There in Truth No Beauty? There is much less location work, with only The Paradise Syndrome and All Our Yesterdays filmed outside a studio. Episodes like Spectre of the Gun managed to make their budget constraints work for the story, cleverly integrating them into the plot. Spock’s Brain is not so lucky.

Spock’s Brain looks very much like an episode of early sixties Doctor Who, albeit shot in colour rather than black-and-white. The studio set is unconvincing. The camera work is static. There is little attempt to disguise the budget limitations. There is nothing exciting about the sequence in which the away team is menaced by the Morgs. The point at which Kirk discovers that a cave is actually an elevator captures no sense of scale or adventure. It feels like a bunch of actors playing make-believe.

"Be vewy quiet... we're hunting stawship captains."

“Be vewy quiet… we’re hunting stawship captains.”

To be fair to veteran Star Trek director Marc Daniels, this was not entirely within his power. As Daniel told Starlog, he did not enjoy the strongest relationship with producer Fred Freiberger:

“Fred Freiberger, the new producer, and I didn’t agree on what the director’s role was,” Daniels reveals. “There are many writer/producers who don’t consider the director a partner. They consider him, shall we say, an employee. This is particularly true in episodic TV. They just want you to do the work, get the shots and forget the rest of it. I didn’t particularly care for that kind of thinking.”

Spock’s Brain would be the last episode of Star Trek directed by Daniel, who had helmed fourteen episodes across the show’s first two seasons. Spock’s Brain looks and feels very much like a rush job.

"We should do the megahappy ending."

“We should do the megahappy ending.”

Spock’s Brain is not the worst episode of Star Trek ever produced. It is not even the worst episode of the third season. However, it is a damning season premiere, one that serves as a reminder that the show is not what it once had been. Then again, maybe it is actually a reasonable season premiere. It is certainly representative. Spock’s Brain embodies many of the flaws that haunt the third season. It may not be the worst example of any of those flaws, but place a lot of them out front.

In that respect, at least, it is a more honest season premiere than Spectre of the Gun.

10 Responses

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the most ridiculous part in which Spock helps McCoy make the brain surgery successful. For me, that was the most ludicrous part.

    • Yep. There was just too much.

      Although at points I just quote dialogue from the episode in captions for the pictures. I think I referenced it there.

  2. What annoys me most about this episode is not the sexism or the cheapness or anything like that, it is that brain surgery scene at the end.

    I’m a huge Dr. McCoy fan (the banter between Bones and Spock was a real highlight of the new film for me,) so it really irritates me that the good doctor apparently can’t perform surgery without instructions from his patient. I know Spock was the breakout character but after an entire plot about how amazing Spock’s brain is poor McCoy couldn’t be the hero for a scene?

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful review of this episode. I’ve long thought that this episode is FAR from the worst TOS episode. Oh, heaven knows it’s not GOOD, but it does have a certain goofy charm, which episodes like “And the Children Shall Lead” don’t have.

    I thought Leonard Nimoy was genuinely chilling every time the camera gave us a close-up of his face. Spock’s face with nobody home behind his eyes … it’s actually a pretty scary sight (and actually helps to show just how much Nimoy was doing as Spock during all the other episodes).

    I love the context you gave us for the episode, with the information about organ transplants. I hadn’t connected that up before, that the first heart transplant had just occurred the year before, and knowing that makes the choice to tell this story so much more understandable.

    I also don’t think the premise is as absurd as most people do. I mean SPOCK’S brain … that’s gotta be kinda like Einstein’s brain, right? His brain is an unusually good one; it’s kind of surprising that there weren’t people trying to steal the damned thing every week. 🙂

    I always figured that it was NBC who decided to broadcast this first, not the production team. NBC understood very little about Star Trek, but they did understand that Spock was popular, and this episode had his name in the title, so broadcasting it first must have seemed like an obvious choice.

    According to These Are the Voyages, they did consider making this episode a comedy and re-wrote it as such, but then they decided that it didn’t work that well and went back to taking it seriously. The James Blish short story for this episode is taken from that intentionally comedic version, which explains why it has lines that Spock would never actually say in a non-comedic episode, like the one about Vulcans getting their babies via mail order.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful reviews; I love how much insight you give me, even into episodes that I’ve seen many times.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cory!

      I don’t know about the reordering. Isn’t there some sense that the production team were quite happy with the episode… right until it aired?

  4. Spock’s brain is not sexist. It shows what would happen if feminism is not terminated after all difficult jobs are replaced by machines and all external threats are removed. But again anything that shows the truth about women is sexist these days.

  5. I can understand why someone might feel Spock’s Brain is the worst episode of Star Trek. I have no idea how anybody can not enjoy watching it (okay, except the sexism). The whole episode is just hilarious nonsense from the beginning to the end, especially DeForrest Kelly still giving his heart into it. The way he says the you know what line is reminiscent of the same dramatic weight the teen actor gave to his admiration for the Power Glove in The Wizard.

    • Yep, it’s not even the worst episode of the season. Or this half of the season. It’s not good, by any stretch, but it’s far from the worst sin ever committed.

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