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Devil in the Dark

Here's the perfect example of a memorable episode which really doesn't qualify as a great episode. It's certainly competent, but the plot has too many holes, and the whole thing relies on the believability of a single element -- the Horta.

But the Horta looks like an inside-out calzone with fringe. The story goes that the costume inspired the episode, which isn't exactly the best place to start. Fortunately, Coon has written a nice little tale about xenophobia, and built in some memorable Kirk-Spock interaction. Unfortunately, he's written himself into a corner in too many ways, and, for the most part, needlessly.

The concept of the monster is somewhat convoluted. If it moves around inside rock like humans do through air, why does it leave tunnels? I mean, we leave no tunnels as we move around. And if it tunnels to survive, why is there any rock left at all? It should be so porous that the caves -- in fact the entire planet -- would be collapsing around them. And with just what limbs did it carefully extract and preserve the critical piece of equipment? I mention these only because there are perfectly good alternatives which could have avoided the questions altogether (the creature breathes air but eats pergium, and tunnels while foraging; or better yet, the creature only tunnels as an act of self-preservation). This is one of the differences between a good script and a great script. The great script avoids needless, cluttering details -- along with unnecessary artificial deadlines -- and gets right to the characters.

In other words, the creature presents sufficient danger without any further explanation. In fact, the less we know about it, the better (imagination will always fill in the blanks better than bad special effects). More than that, the monster presents enough danger all by itself, and we don't need a ticking clock. The clock idea, of course, is to build excitement as the deadline approaches, but this is cheap (in general, the audience knows that the dire consequences will not happen). The meat of any episode will always be the characters, and the Horta is a very interesting one all by herself. Of course, the ticking clock gives Scotty something to do, and allows him to utter a line which would be repeated and amplified by geeks for generations: "A PXK pergium reactor? No, sir. We don't have any spare circulating pump for a thing like that. I haven't seen a PXK in 20 years." (Substitute "2400 baud modem" for "PXK pergium reactor" to see what I mean. And don't tell me you've never seen that look on your tech guy's face...)

Where this episode succeeds is in giving us wonderful character moments between Kirk and Spock, and some great Spock moments by allowing him to speak for the monster. The scene in which Kirk attempts to reassign Spock is a true gem, in part because the acting is so solid. Kirk says one thing but means another, trying to spare feelings which Spock theoretically does not possess. Somewhat unexpectedly, Spock takes offense (an emotional stance) but defends his reaction with logic (and a wonderfully arbitrary odds calculation). Shatner plays Kirk as a combination of beat cop, vampire slayer, and concerned boss, showing flares of temper throughout the episode (especially when Spock contradicts his strategy). Shatner's personal tragedy during filming is well-known, but it doesn't explain why he's suddenly looking a bit pudgy. Nimoy shines as the voice of the Horta, a truly challenging sequence which may have had the actor wondering if all that classical acting training was worth it.

The uncredited Janos Prohaska plays the creature to great effect (he also created the costume). Other guest stars are serviceable, with very little of substance to do. One exception is the strange case of Appel, played by Brad Weston, a miner with a serious chip on his shoulder about Starfleet. Is he a failed cadet? The sequence sticks out like a sore thumb, and has no real bearing on the rest of the action. With or without his chip, we know the miners are going to turn into a torch-wielding mob before we're through. How could they not?

Jefferies has again created a wonderful cavern set, complex enough to look very different depending on the shooting angle. It comes off as much more extensive than it probably was. The lighting is a major factor in the set's success as well, and Pevney and Finnerman do an exceptional job of being creative within a very limited environment. I also like especially the remains of the guard outside the reactor room. The black spot, with wisps of smoke, is horrifying every time I see it. Cudos to Jim Rugg.

To Coon's credit, he dispenses with the mystery in the middle of Act II, and proceeds to make the solution interesting. His missteps are mostly forgivable, especially because some of the character detail is so rich. The calzone monster wound up being one of Trek's most recognizable images.

Rating: Middle-Upper (3)


The actor who plays the second miner on guard who gets killed by the Horta...
is it me, or is that John Ritter?

Posted December 24, 2012 5:10 PM by Tom