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Star Trek – The Tholian Web (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.

Who hath seen the Phantom Ship,
Her lordly rise and lowly dip,
Careering o’er the lonesome main,
No port shall know her keel again…
Ah, woe is in the awful sight,
The sailor finds there eternal night,
‘Neath the waters he shall ever sleep,
And Ocean will the secret keep

– Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1897

Here there be ghosts...

Here there be ghosts…

The Tholian Web is a maritime ghost story.

In many ways, it fits well with the funereal tone of the third season. Death runs through the season. The Defiant is ultimately just another haunted house, a grotesque funhouse mirror of the Enterprise stacked with dead bodies. The universe seems populated by dead bodies frozen in final moments of terror; just look at And the Children Shall Lead, The Empath or The Lights of Zetar. Not for the first time this season, following both The Paradise Syndrome and The Enterprise Incident, Kirk dies. His ghost haunts the corridors of the Enterprise, refusing to let go.

The haunting of the Enterprise.

The haunting of the Enterprise.

The Tholian Web encapsulates many of the recurring themes and anxieties of the third season as a whole, the sense that the lights are being turned down on the universe and that it might just be time to get those last orders in before the bar closes once and for all. The third season of Star Trek occasionally feels like an extended twenty-four episode wake, as the cast and crew wait for the axe to fall and for the series to shuffle off its mortal coil. Much like Kirk in his shiny silver space suit, the third season of Star Trek finds the show in limbo.

Of course, The Tholian Web is notable for its use of maritime metaphor. The episode is very much structured like a ghost story told at sea. There is a lost ship, adrift and abandoned. The crew appear to have mutinied, although there is no indication of what caused this insanity. The ship moves in defiance of the laws of physics. A rescue effort is attempted, but the ship is lost to the depths; it vanishes into the void. The captain is lost in such an attempt, although his spectral form still visits with the crew. Tellingly, he visits Uhura through a mirror, traditionally a portal.

Mirror, mirror.

Mirror, mirror.

In an interview with Starlog, writer Judy Burns acknowledged that she wanted to craft The Tholian Web as a space-age maritime ghost story:

“I met a student who was a physicist, and told him that I wanted to write a Star Trek script which would be a ghost story based on fact,” she says. “He said, ‘Why don’t you use the theory of infinite dimensions?’ What came out was In Essence Nothing, which became The Tholian Web. At the time, if I remember correctly, the very first draft of the story had Spock as the one who disappeared. The agent submitted this one and, once again, it disappeared.”

In many ways, this sort of haunted house narrative runs counter to the hard science-fiction bent that many fans associate with Star Trek. However, it fits nicely with the more abstract sensibilities of episodes like The Empath.

Space dementia.

Space dementia.

In some ways, this story makes a great deal of sense. Star Trek borrowed a great deal from naval tradition. The production team were fond of using oceanic metaphors in crafting their stories. Even before Nicolas Meyer reworked the franchise as an extended Horatio Hornblower metaphor in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the series employed naval language and rank structure. Shore Leave took its name from a rich navy tradition. Balance of Terror imagined deep space combat as akin to submarine warfare.

This is not even the first time that Star Trek had offered its own take on a classic quasi-supernatural maritime story. There were definite shades of a postcolonial feminist take on The Tempest to be found in Is There in Truth No Beauty? Even in the earliest days of the first season, Star Trek had eased viewers into this science-fiction universe by reworking the classic siren myth as The Man Trap. So The Tholian Web was not a massive departure from form for the series in its third season.

Murder, most foul.

Murder, most foul.

The basic plot of The Tholian Web recalls all those classic maritime stories about ghost ships found adrift in mysterious circumstances. These stories are often little more than maritime legend, tales of mutiny and accident embroidered with each retelling. Still, they are haunting. Consider the tale of the Orang Medan, as told by maritime historian Roy Bainton:

We’ve all heard the ghostly fable of the Mary Celeste; like many similar stories, a modicum of determined digging can usually strip away the romance and often leave us with the bare, demystified facts.

Not so with the Orang Medan. The more one digs, the more fragments, hints and nuances appear. This is a story with a secret; a secret buried somewhere in the guarded records of maritime officialdom. Turn down the lamp, cue the creepy music…

In February 1948 (or June 1947, depending on which source one consults) a series of distress calls were sent out by the Dutch freighter Orang Medan in the Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and Indonesia.

“All officers including captain dead, lying in chartroom and on bridge, probably whole crew dead… ” This chilling message, accompanied by a spate of desperate SOS calls, was followed by indecipherable Morse code… then a final message just two stark words “I die.”

Boarding parties found the dead radio operator, his hand on the Morse key, eyes wide open. The entire crew even the ship’s dog were discovered in the same terrified posture, all dead.

According to a frequently mentioned document (which I have so far been unable to trace) called The Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, the crew were found “teeth bared, with their upturned faces to the sun, staring, as if in fear…”

There is something quite harrowing in these tales, these stories of crews lost thousands of miles from home in the wide open (and unforgiving) ocean. It is a reminder of just how hostile the ocean can be, and how fragile the human body (or mind) must be in the face of such enormity. It makes sense that those same fears could be translated to the universe as it appears in Star Trek.

A haunting vision.

A haunting vision.

Indeed, The Tholian Web fits quite comfortably within the grand tradition of Star Trek episodes about how the universe seems inherently hostile towards human life. For all that Star Trek is an optimistic show about the wonders of space exploration, the series repeatedly suggests that the wider galaxy is full of monsters and terrors just waiting to prey upon unsuspecting visitors. This was particularly true in the early episodes of the first season, when it often seemed like humanity was wandering alone through a vast open interstellar graveyard.

“Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence,” McCoy states in JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek. It is a line that seems rather strange to a generation of fans raised on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager, but which sums a lot of the mood and aesthetic of the original show. McCoy’s description would apply quite easily to episodes like The Man Trap, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Operation — Annihilate!, ObsessionThe Deadly Years, The Immunity Syndrome, The Gamesters of Triskelion and The Omega Glory.

Bridging two worlds.

Bridging two worlds.

For most of the run of the original Star Trek show, space seemed to be trying to kill our heroes. In The Tholian Web, Bones goes so far as to suggest that the problem is not a disease or a contagion. This area of space itself is deadly to the crew. “The disease is not transmitted by the men, Mister Spock,” he states. “The cause is the area of space we’re in. It’s affecting the whole crew. The molecular structure of the brain tissues in the central nervous system are distorting. And the madness that affected the Defiant’s crew will soon happen to the Enterprise.”

Indeed, it is perhaps telling that the only way to truly neutralise that infectious form of insanity is through consuming alcohol. McCoy uses Klingon nerve gas to synthesise an antidote. “That’s right, and in this derivative, mixed with alcohol, it merely deadens certain nerve inputs to the brain,” McCoy informs Spock. Scott wryly responds, “Oh, well, any decent brand of Scotch will do that.” Alcohol numbs the pain and deadens the receptors. It is the only way that the human brain can process the enormity and insanity of the larger universe.

"Pour Jim. Pour, pour Jim."

“Pour Jim. Pour, pour Jim.”

(This is not the only time that the third season of Star Trek toys with the idea of a perception-altering substance as the solution to an absurd situation. In Spectre of the Gun, Scotty found himself inhaling a pharmaceutical tranquiliser improvised by McCoy, in a sequence that leads the characters to understand the unreality of their situation. Even in Is There in Truth No Beauty?, exposure to Ambassador Kollos is presented as akin to an acid trip. Chekov wryly observed, “A madman got us into this, and it’s beginning to look as if only a madman can get us out.”)

There is a very morbid tone to The Tholian Web, as one might expect from an episode that is effectively a science-fiction ghost story. There is a sense that the world of Star Trek is falling apart, that the fundamental narrative elements of the show are being eroded and decayed. “Jim, this ship is dissolving,” McCoy reports of the Defiant. Of course, the production limitations of the third season mean that the Defiant is really just a collection of redressed sets from the Enterprise. Even in those early sequences, it is like the Enterprise is haunted and decaying.

The show is fading fast.

The show is fading fast.

There is a sense that the Defiant fell apart, that the social order on the ship collapsed. One of the first (and most striking) images on the bridge of the Defiant is that of two crewmembers dead, their hands wrapped around one another’s throats. “Has there ever been a mutiny on a starship before?” Chekov inquires. Spock responds, “Absolutely no record of such an occurrence, Ensign.” As such, what happened on the Defiant is contrary to the natural order of things. It runs against the fundamental principles of the Star Trek universe.

The entropy in The Tholian Web seems to threaten the narrative logic of Star Trek. Early in the episode, Kirk is lost. Unlike other episodes that open with the “death” of a major character like The Galileo Seven or The Paradise Syndrome, this “death” is not immediately reversed or revealed to be a sham. Kirk stays “dead” for the majority of the story. He does not even appear as a “ghost” until half-way through the episode, after Spock has held a memorial ceremony and listened to his last will and testament. Even then, the visions of Kirk are tied to a shipboard insanity.

Somebody just snapped.

Somebody just snapped.

In The Spacesuit Film, Gary Westfahl argues that the introduction of the new and improved space suits in The Tholian Web plays into this theme of anxiety and collapse:

Today, one watches The Tholian Web and knows immediately that it is all a mistake, that Kirk will be found alive and rescued before the episode ends. But at the time, even relatively youthful viewers knew that television stars occasionally had disputes with colleagues, fell seriously ill, or abandoned series for other opportunities, sometimes abruptly. Thus, it was possible that The Tholian Web represented Shatner’s final Star Trek episode, and that subsequent episodes would feature Spock as the Enterprise captain. No other episode of the series so forcefully suggested that space travel, even in the distant future, could be dangerous; and it is at least an interesting coincidence, and perhaps an unintended consequence, that this message came in the only Star Trek episode featuring a spacesuit, the genre’s most powerful icon of the daunting hazards of space.

To be fair, it is a stretch to suggest that any savvy television viewer would have thought that James Kirk was really dead. However, it is an interesting point about how The Tholian Web emphasises the dangers of space.

"This isn't even the weirdest thing we've seen this season."

“This isn’t even the weirdest thing we’ve seen this season.”

In making space so hostile and so alien, The Tholian Web undercuts some of the fundamental assumptions of the larger Star Trek franchise. At its core, Star Trek is an ode to exploration and voyaging; the clue is in the title. Rendering space as hostile and dangerous undercuts the novelty and wonder of the series, suggesting that perhaps mankind is not meant to be warping between the stars. The Tholian Web offers a region of space in which the fundamental assumptions of Star Trek seem to be up for grabs.

More than that, the crew of the Enterprise are fundamentally undermined. Both Chekov and Uhura are confined to Sick Bay, as the insanity seems to spread. McCoy worries that he has been affected. “It must be this space. It’s getting to me too.” Who could possibly treat the ship’s physician? The threat to the crew of the Enterprise is so noteworthy that Spock even acknowledges the return of Chekov and Uhura towards the climax of the episode. “Welcome back, Lieutenant,” he advises Uhura. “Your absence was keenly felt, Mister Chekov.”

Give her some space.

Give her some space.

Ultimately, the only way for the Enterprise to escape the eponymous trap is to journey into the alternate dimension in which Kirk is adrift. Kirk likens that void to oblivion. “I had a whole universe to myself after the Defiant was thrown out,” Kirk reflects. “There was absolutely no one else in it.” In contrast to the potent heaven and hell imagery of The Empath, it seems like The Tholian Web suggests that what lies beyond the living world is eternal nothingness. In order to be free of the trap that had been set for them, the Enterprise must travel through that nothingness.

It is a potent metaphor, particularly for a show facing its own inevitable cancellation. In many ways, this “outer space ghost story” speaks perfectly to the tone of the third season as a whole. The third season seems fascinated with the concept of death and spectres, whether in the half-formed worlds of Spectre of the Gun and The Empath or the ghost stories of The Tholian Web or That Which Survives. It seems almost as though the drama behind the screens is playing out in front of the cameras.

"Unfortunately, there was only enough money in the budget for one transporter effect."

“Unfortunately, there was only enough money in the budget for one transporter effect.”

Director Ralph Senensky explained how the sense of dread mounting through The Tholian Web captured the tension on the production lot:

And finally just as the Tholians created a web to capture and destroy the Starship Enterprise, the studio and the network created a web to destroy Star Trek. The studio (Paramount) was not happy with the films costing more to produce than what the network was paying. Executive in charge of production Douglas Cramer had a scorched earth policy. If a director could not complete a film in the mandated six days, he was put on the Do Not Hire list. Joining me on that list were two other experienced Star Trek directors: Vincent McEveety, who had directed six productions, and John Meredyth Lucas, who had written scripts, directed and served as producer for the series. The network (NBC) was even more diabolical. Twice they had cancelled the series — at the end of Season One and again at the end of Season Two, only to restore it to the schedule because of overwhelming response from outraged Star Trek fans. This time at the end of Season Three, without announcing whether or not the series would return in the fall, the network announced Star Trek would return in twelve weeks for a series of summer reruns. When the reruns ended, so did Star Trek, its original five-year mission cut off after three years.

It seemed like the Enterprise was right. The only way that Star Trek would survive the trap set for it by the network was to take the plunge into deepest darkest oblivion and hope that it might emerge out the other side. It did.

Chekov checks out.

Chekov checks out.

The third season was not a happy time for the production team at Star Trek. It felt more and more like the series had become a ghost ship. Key creative personnel had vanished into the ether, taking new and more reliable job opportunity. The show’s strongest creative voices had all abandoned ship. Gene Roddenberry had moved his office to the other side of the lot after locking himself in a contest of wills with NBC. Dorothy Fontana was no longer story editor. Gene L. Coon was producing It Takes a Thief.

Meanwhile, tensions were mounting on set. The production team were forced to turn to non-professional writers in order to meet the episode order for the season. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were both competing for top billing. Incoming producer Fred Freiberger had alienated a lot of the key creative personnel. The budget had been dramatically cut, meaning that location work was a novelty and that one in every four shows had to be filmed on standing sets.

"Star Trek is dead. Long live Star Trek."

Star Trek is dead. Long live Star Trek.”

The crew felt abandoned and forsaken. As George Takei confessed in To The Stars:

The ratings numbers week after week continued to be bad. Gene was no longer with us. His periodic visits became fewer then almost nil. Even Bob Justman, the co-producer who had been with us all three seasons, couldn’t take the strain anymore.

That is a truly harrowing snapshot of life on Star Trek in the middle of the third season.

Feeling faint.

Feeling faint.

To be fair, Justman would not resign until later in the season. His last co-producer credit would come on Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the fifteenth episode of the year. However, the grueling production realities were taking their toll on him. He explained in Inside Star Trek:

I despaired about the show’s loss of quality. By the time episodes were filmed, whatever excitement existed in the original stories and scripts had been diluted by a rewriting process that was no longer overseen by Gene Roddenberry; it was now strictly budget-driven. There were no highs and no lows—just a boring in-between. My never-ending battle to cut costs without compromising quality had failed. The Star Trek I knew, and was proud to be a part of, was no more.

By the midpoint of the production season, I dreaded coming to work every day. It felt like being in prison—and I wanted out.

It seemed like Star Trek itself was a ghost ship, a shell of its former self. The nightmarish visions of The Tholian Web, in which the crew of the Enterprise are presented with a ghost ship that looks and feels a lot like the Enterprise, perhaps captured this mood very well.

It is like everybody is disappearing.

It is like everybody is disappearing.

Although Justman was still working on Star Trek at this point in the season, and would remain a vital part of the production team for another six episodes, The Tholian Web marked a point of transition and departure for a number of veteran Star Trek talents. Cinematographer Jerry Finnerman finished working on the series with The Empath. According to Cinefantastique, there was no ill will:

Finnerman left the show in its third season when he was offered The Lost Man with Sidney Portier, a motion picture assignment. “The Star Trek producers were wonderful about it,” he said. “They said. ‘Good luck Jerry, we wouldn’t hold you back.'”

Finnerman had worked on Star Trek since The Corbomite Manoeuvre early in the first season. As such, his departure represented the end of a very long association with the show. It added to the sense that Star Trek was itself becoming something of a ghost ship, many veterans disappearing into the ether. The Tholian Web was the first episode to be overseen by Finnerman’s replacement, Al Francis.

Things were REALLY tense on set.

Things were REALLY tense on set.

The Tholian Web saw another significant departure of a Star Trek veteran. Although the episode is credited to director Herb Wallerstein, approximately half of the episode was shot by long-established Star Trek director Ralph Senensky. Senensky was another member of the production team who had been around since the first season. His first Star Trek credit had been This Side of Paradise. He was one of the show’s most distinctive visual stylists, and he came to The Tholian Web right off the back of his work on Is There in Truth No Beauty?

As with Is There in Truth No Beauty?, Senensky was working with a script written by television newcomers. He was a very steady pair of hands for a script credited to a pair of novices, Judy Burns and Chet Richards. Senensky’s strong visual aesthetic can be seen in the final cut of the episode, most notably in the use of a wide-angle lens during the “freak out” sequences shot from the perspective of insane Enterprise crewmembers. Senensky had used a similar technique in Is There in Truth No Beauty?, for those affected by Ambassador Kollos.

Suits up.

Suits up.

Appropriately enough, given the content of the episode, the issue with The Tholian Web was time. As Senensky has explained, production on the episode was delayed by issues with the new silver space suits designed specifically for the episode:

We got to the studio and the problem was that the camera crew was there at 8 o’clock, and we were ready to shoot, but there was nothing to shoot because there were no spacesuits. I discovered that the four guys had been called to the studio on Sunday for the first fitting of the suits. As of Monday morning, they were still putting them together. Once they had the final fitting, they had the matter of finishing them, because they were silver lame, very tight-fitting. There was no way they could put on a zipper, no way they could put on a snap. So (the actors) had to be sewn into the suits. So we sat around half a day, just waiting. Eventually, by late morning, Shatner’s suit was finished and so I was able to find two or three places where I had close-ups of Shatner for scenes we hadn’t staged yet. So we got those in.

Time was a critical element for the Star Trek production team. When Leonard Nimoy was asked to identify the most important attribute of a Star Trek director, the veteran actor responded, “Get it done fast. How to get it done fast.” That was particularly true during the third season of the show.

Everybody was just dead tired.

Everybody was just dead tired.

Star Trek had always had a phenomenally tight production schedule. As a rule, the show tended to film episodes within a six-day block. Given the relative complexity of Star Trek scripts, involving sets and costuming and practical effects, this was no small task. While this restriction existed within the first two seasons of the show, there was generally a little leeway afforded if production on an individual episode ran over by a half a day or so. With the budget cuts and the tighter production on the third season, that option was no longer available.

At the same time, budget constraints meant that directors working on Star Trek were strongly discouraged from taking a production into overtime. As a result, shooting would typically wrap around 6pm on a given day, in order to avoid paying the staff any compensation for overtime. This often put directors in an awkward position, between a rock and a hard place. They had to get an episode completely shot within six working days, but none of those working days could stretch beyond the 6pm deadline to get the work done. It was madness.

"You've got some nerve (gas) serving that, Doctor."

“You’ve got some nerve (gas) serving that, Doctor.”

The delays with the space suits put Senensky half-a-day behind schedule. This was noticed. At the end of the third say, Senensky was called into the office by producer Fred Freiberger:

By the end of the third day I had completed all of the Defiant sequences in the transporter room, sick bay, the medical lab, engineering and all but one of the skin-tight silver suited sequences on the bridge. What was scheduled for those first three days that had not been completed were four scenes on the Enterprise bridge — a total of 7 1/8 pages. I was asked to come to Fred Freiberger’s office at the completion of the day’s shooting. There he informed me I was being removed from the project. I was being replaced by what he called a “fireman”, someone who could come in and just get it in the can. The matter of the loss of time on the first day, which I figured would have given me an additional five pages completed, was not discussed. I had spent the past six weeks on Star Trek, prepping and shooting Is There in Truth No Beauty? and The Tholian Web. I know I must have had some meeting with Freiberger before this, but this is the only interaction with him I remember.

It appears that Star Trek itself was operating according to “renowned Tholian punctuality.” As with Freiberger’s conflicts with other veteran staff members like Dorothy Fontana, it does not paint the producer in a flattering light.

"At least my suit was reflective enough that the Enterprise could see me out there."

“At least my suit was reflective enough that the Enterprise could see me out there.”

Freiberger did not get a directorial credit on The Tholian Web. This was given to his replacement, Herb Wallerstein. However, Senensky did explain his case to the Directors’ Guild of America and was given residuals on reruns as an acknowledgement of his contribution to the episode. Certainly, a lot of atmosphere and tone of The Tholian Web can be traced back to Senensky; a lot of the more memorable and effective sequences were shot during those three days. It is heartening that his involvement in the episode has come to light in recent years.

The Tholian Web demonstrates various facets of Fred Freiberger as an executive producer. In the years immediately following the broadcast of the third season, Freiberger was frequently vilified by the fan press. During the eighties, it seemed like Freiberger alone was accountable for all the issues with the show’s trouble final year. Public disagreements with key Star Trek creative figures like Dorothy Fontana and David Gerrold tended to put Freiberger on the defensive, leading to the narrative that he was an outsider who simply did not understand Star Trek.

Hail to the chief.

Hail to the chief.

In the nineties, this view of Freiberger softened somewhat. A large part of that was due to the publication of Inside Star Trek, which allowed Freiberger to make his own defense and which pointed out that Freiberger inherited a show without a lot of essential creative personnel and with much tighter budgets and restrictions. Several prominent figures would mount a defense of Freiberger, such as Nichelle Nichols in Beyond Uhura:

In the third season new producer Fred Freiberger did everything he could to shore up the show. I know that some fans hold him responsible for the show’s decline, but that is not fair. Star Trek was in a disintegrating orbit before Fred came aboard. That we were able to do even what we did is a miracle and a credit to him. One day Fred and I had an exchange, and he snapped at me. Even then, though, I knew he wasn’t angry with me but with his unenviable situation. He was a producer who had nothing to produce with.

These are two contradictory depictions of Freiberger, that of the hack company man who cared little for the soul of Star Trek and that of the embattled line producer fighting losing battles on all fronts. As with just about any historical figure, it seems likely that the truth falls somewhere between those two extremes. Freiberger was working under tremendous pressure, but his decisions were not always productive.

Into the void.

Into the void.

Freiberger was a veteran television producer with little experience in science-fiction, who did not always appreciate the complexities of the show to which he had been drafted. In reading the accounts of embittered staffers like Fontana or Gerrold, it seems like Freiberger was not properly orientated to the show’s highly political working environment. He did not fully appreciate the nuances of the team with which he would be working. He did not always trust writers like Fontana or Gerrold to understand that show.

At the same time, Freiberger was quite clearly respectful of Star Trek. The producer was in frequent contact with Gene Roddenberry, despite the fact that Roddenberry had moved over to the other side of the lot. Freiberger inherited a significant number of episodes from Roddenberry, notably feeling ambivalent towards The Paradise Syndrome but pushing ahead with it because Roddenberry supported it. Freiberger would even give out two late-season assignments – The Savage Curtain and The Turnabout Intruder – to Roddenberry himself.

"On second thoughts, I really should have brought a red shirt on this mission."

“On second thoughts, I really should have brought a red shirt on this mission.”

Indeed, Freiberger would later argue that he never really had a chance to put his own mark on the third season of Star Trek. As he argued to Starlog, he inherited a lot of the third season from Gene Roddenberry:

When I went on Star Trek, Roddenberry, who had thought the show was dead after the second season, had given out 17 story assignments … for whatever reason. I honored those assignments, two of which were for Dorothy Fontana and a lot for writers who had already written for the show. I may have cut off a couple of them because  they didn’t work out, so let’s say there were 15 out of 22 that were not mine. Gene Roddenberry wrote two of the remaining seven. The third one David Gerrold wrote. The fourth one Jerry Bickel wrote. The fifth was done by the late Gene Coon, who was under contract at Universal at the time and could not have his name on his three scripts. His pseudonym was Lee Cronin.

That said, it is perfectly reasonable to criticise Freiberger and new script editor Arthur Singer for not whipping those scripts into better shape. However, could any script editing have saved Elaan of Troyius or Spock’s Brain?

A warped sense of humour.

A warped sense of humour.

Perhaps the best defense of Fred Freiberger is to be found in the stretch of three episodes following Spock’s Brain, running from Is There in Truth No Beauty? through to The Empath and ultimately to The Tholian Web. These are three very strange episodes, that look and feel quite unique in the history of Star Trek. While a script like The Enterprise Incident might feel like a holdover from the first or second seasons, these three episodes are very much of a piece with the rest of the third season. They would feel rather strange in the context of the first two seasons.

Is There in Truth No Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web are all oddities, but they are oddities that largely work. They are not flawless; The Tholian Web is by far the strongest of the three episodes. However, they do something interesting and novel with core Star Trek ideas. They hit upon a number of core Star Trek themes, in ways that feel strange and refreshing. These three episodes linger in the memory, for much better reasons than And the Children Shall Lead or Spock’s Brain.

It really is one of the best in the season.

It really is one of the best in the season.

What is most notable about all this is that Is There in Truth No Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web all came from novice writers with no prior television experience. Indeed, Is There in Truth No Beauty? and The Empath were written by writers with no further television experience. In contrast, The Tholian Web was a gateway to a long career in television for writer Judy Burns, who originally saw it as a gateway to Africa:

I wanted to go to Africa… to dig bones. I put a note on Lewis Leakey’s pocket…”take me to Africa.” Lewis met me and told me he’d take care of me… if I could get to Nairobi. He was looking for Diane Fossey (The Gorilla Girl) and thought I could do the job. I didn’t want that job, but I wanted to go. I was poor I couldn’t find the $2500.00 needed to go, so I began to look for a way to make it. I thought, well perhaps I can write something for the show I like Star Trek. I called and asked how much I could earn. They said $2500.00. Well, a voice from heaven… So I began to study the show and then I happened to be in LA dating some bones… I was from UC Irvine at the time… about sixty miles away from LA. It rained, I decided to go to Paramount just to kill time. I called in and said I needed some samples. The Secretary took pity and gave me two and a bible. I happened to be teaching Buddy Ebson’s kids Algebra. I asked Buddy if he knew an agent. He didn’t but he knew a writer. The writer had written Davy Crockett. He read material (nice guy) and called his agent and said you’re a fool if you don’t take this girl on. I got an agent. Then I sent in the script and it disappeared…never to surface again. So I took a class… no money so the teacher let me in for free. This teacher happened to work for Freddy Freiburger long ago. When Star Trek changed staffs, he called to find out if Freddy happened to see my script. Freddy looked at it, and it was bought the next day… luck…

It is also worth noting that those three scripts are all credited to female writers. The only male writer credited on any of those three episodes is Chet Richards on The Tholian Web. While women writers were not unheard of in television, most obviously in the person of Star Trek veteran Dorothy Fontana, it is still noteworthy that Freiberger made a conscious choice to encourage a develop new female writing talent.

Time out.

Time out.

Indeed, that might just be the best legacy that Freiberger left to Star Trek. At a point when the show desperately needed scripts and ideas, Freiberger was willing to look outside the production team for stories. More than that, Freiberger and Singer were willing to encourage those young writers to develop their own stories and ideas into scripts. By all accounts, it was a very collaborative and inclusive process, with the production staff showing remarkable trust in these young writers. It speaks well to both Freiberger and Singer.

After all, Michael Piller would make a similar decision during the third season of The Next Generation. With a shortage of material available to him, and emboldened by the discovery of a young fan writer named Ronald D. Moore, Piller would throw open the show to fandom and encourage writers to submit scripts or pitch ideas to the show. This would lead to some of the franchise’s strongest episodes. Although Piller was not directly influenced by Freiberger in his decision, Freiberger’s policy is very much antecedent of Piller’s later open submission policy.

"Do I make myself clear?" "Crystal."

“Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal.”

In fact, it is surprising how much of the core iconography and mythology of Star Trek can be traced back to the third season, despite its troubled production history and unflattering reputation. The Enterprise Incident encourages the franchise to look beyond Starfleet. Day of the Dove sets a new template for the Klingons. That is just as true of these three episodes. Is There in Truth No Beauty? has an ethereal and lyrical quality, meditating on the idea of the alien and perception. The Empath distils the franchise’s humanism more efficiently than later episodes.

The Tholian Web introduces all manner of ideas that would linger in the collective fan consciousness. The Tholians would remain a fixation for later Star Trek writers. This makes sense, given how truly alien Commander Loskene looks during his brief communication with Spock. Like the Gorn, there is a sense that the Tholians are truly alien. They are not simply an actor with some face paint or with a prosthetic forehead. It is no surprise that the Tholians would endure in various non-canon role-playing games; most notably FASA and the Star Fleet Universe.

Web of deceit.

Web of deceit.

Although the early Berman era would never countenance an alien design as weird and surreal as these crystal monsters, the Tholians popped up frequently in dialogue in episodes like The Icarus Factor or The Way of the Warrior. Indeed, The Tholian Web would receive a belated sequel in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise, with In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II. As such, The Tholian Web had quite a legacy beyond this troubled third season.

Perhaps the episode’s most lasting legacy has nothing to do with those iconic crystal spiders. In many ways, The Tholian Web serves to codify the dynamic between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Many fans argue that the trio represents a Freudian psychology, with Kirk serving as ego negotiating between Spock’s hyper-rational superego and McCoy’s hyper-emotional id. It has become something of pop psychology shorthand in discussing the show, an observation made so often that it has become a tautology.

Where there's a will...

Where there’s a will…

In Terror Television, veteran horror critic John Kenneth Muir argues:

There has been much written in fan and literary circles about the fact that the central troika of the classic Star Trel represents ego (Kirk), id (McCoy), and superego (Spock). Indeed, the unceasing joy of Star Trek is watching how Spock and McCoy debate life, and Kirk, in the middle, mediates and makes decisions based on their opposing input. This trio of enterprising heroes roughly represents how a single human being thinks and makes decisions. Emotion on the one hand, logic on the other, with a “listener” in between mediating and balancing the two.

This is very much a stock portrayal of the dynamic, but it is not inaccurate by any measure.

"If you're watching this. I am dead. At least temporarily."

“If you’re watching this, I am dead. At least temporarily.”

The Tholian Web marks the first time that the characters truly acknowledge this dynamic. At one point, after Kirk has gone missing, Spock and McCoy gather to listen to his last orders. Kirk offers advice to Spock on how best to emulate his command style. “Use every scrap of knowledge and logic you have to save the ship,” Kirk urges Spock. “But temper your judgment with intuitive insight. I believe you have those qualities, but if you can’t find them in yourself, seek out McCoy.”

Kirk seems to believe that the key to command is to be found in balancing “knowledge and logic” with “intuitive insight.” To Kirk, Spock obviously represents “knowledge and logic” while McCoy provides the “intuitive insight.” Kirk sits between the two, weighing their arguments. In some ways, this is a simplification of the dynamic. Most notably, McCoy is much less important than Kirk or Spock; DeForest Kelley was only added as a regular in the third season, and most stayed clear of the posturing of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

Three of a kind.

Three of a kind.

Nevertheless, this portrayal of the dynamic lingers in the popular consciousness. It is a very effective (if slightly reductive) way of summarising the relationship between the trio. It is critical shorthand, something that fits just well enough that it is not readily falsifiable. It is interesting to see this observation effectively rendered as text in The Tholian Web. As with a lot of the third season, it almost feels like Star Trek is trying to distil itself down to a set of iconography that might be unpacked by a later generation.

The Tholian Web is very much a classic episode of Star Trek. It is also an episode that speaks very much to the production realities of the third season as a whole, capturing the feeling of a production team trapped in a dying and shrinking show. Once again, the Enterprise finds itself confronting madness and death. It seems appropriate for where the show is at this point in time.

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6 Responses

  1. What I’ve never understood is why Roddenberry brought in Freiberger to produce the show, instead of promoting Bob Justman to lead producer. Justman had been with the show for a long time, understood it deeply, and wasn’t just the budget guy; he made a lot of creative suggestions and should have received story credit on a couple of episodes. It’s no wonder that the heart went out of him halfway through the third season — not only had most of the creative team left, not only had the budget been slashed, but a newcomer had been promoted to the lead spot over him.

    I find myself wondering what the third season might have been like if Justman had been put in charge.

    • As for why it was Freiberger and not Justman, I think that Cushman makes a not-unconvincing case in These Are the Voyages that NBC would never have accepted Justman due to his limited outside experience, and that Freiberger was a more experienced candidate from their perspective.

      In terms of “what-ifs”, it’s impossible to know how things might have been different.

      But I do think that the third season was a poisoned chalice, and whoever took it over was going to face an impossible situation. On the other hand, it does seem possible that Justman might have been able to convince Fontana to stay on, which would arguably justify putting him in charge all by itself.

      But then that would have likely come at the cost of the three-hitter of Is There in Truth No Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web, which are the third season’s strongest consecutive run of episodes, I’d argue. And in large part due to the peculiarities of Freiberger and Singer’s styles. At the very least, I suspect Justman would have taken the pitches more firmly “in-house” to be re-written and developed, which would have made the three episodes feel more conventional and less… esoteric. But then, I’m probably the rare fan who really likes the odd “feel” of those episodes.

      I do find the move to rehabilitate Freiberger in the past few decades is perhaps a little overstated. There were certainly issues with the third season production that were firmly inside his control; his relationship with Fontana, his questionable statements about women, which might have contributed to the particularly sexist tone of the third season. At the same time, I think that rehabilitation was a reaction to an overblown critical assessment of his work during the seventies and eighties, which didn’t account for the limitations on the season that would have existed for ANY incoming producer and which ignore the (admittedly quite few) strengths of his tenure.

  2. Love this episode, even if just for the Tholian web effect. And Kirk’s tape.

    • I love this episode completely. The Tholians are fantastic. The ghost story is a surprisingly good fit for the Star Trek universe. And the tape is really great, one of those iconic “this is the core of the show in a scene” moments that the third season (for all its many flaws) does surprisingly well.

  3. I really like “The Tholian Web.” It’s such an intelligent, atmospheric episode. I feel it’s another good example of how a quality script, strong direction and solid acting can transcend a shoestring budget & murderous production schedule.

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