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With the passing of Leonard Nimoy (1931 – 2015), we lose the embodiment of one of our greatest television creations, a character of immense compassion, intellect and most importantly, humanity. Ever the voice of reason, Spock was the loyalist of officers and the truest of friends.
Of his many great moments, it has always been the wonderfully written and imaginative episode from the series called The Devil in the Dark (Season 1, Episode 25) that remains my favorite, showcasing everything about the true essence of Mr. Spock. Originally airing in 1967, the show encompasses much of what Star Trek meant to me, as a parable, as a statement, and as an adventure.
Show Summary: A strange creature has killed 50 miners on Janus VI, using a unknown corrosive substance. The starship Enterprise is sent to investigate, with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) heading the landing party, along with Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and First Officer Spock, a half human/half Vulcan man from a race of people with logical characteristics, which are often in conflict with human emotions. They discover the creature appears to be invulnerable to hand phaser weapon’s fire and more oddly, minors are finding a number of spherical nodules in the shafts, thousands of them. By this time, the nuclear reactor powering the operation is sabotaged by the beast, and if isn’t repaired within a few days, all with be lost. It’s a race to save the colony, but an ethical battle erupts over the rights of the creature as well.
Scene Setup: The creature is discovered to be, of all things, silicon-based, something thought entirely impossible of being a reality. Therefore, Kirk and Spock rationalize that they need a different kind of phaser, as their’s work on carbon life forms, and call upon their security force to beam down with Phaser Type II’s, a stronger, more appropriate weapon that might do in the monster. As they investigate the tunnels, Spock adjusts his scanning equipment and is soon able to track the beast as it moves, saying is cuts “through rock as easily as we move through air.” What’s more, though there are thousands of tunnels in the area, Spock only accounts for one creature. He surmises that it must be either a very long-lived animal, or the very last of its species, which, he flatly announces, means killing it would be a crime against science. This creates a conundrum for Kirk, but the two first agree it must be destroyed in order to save the colony, but as they later brief the hunting party, Spock hopes it can be cornered and captured. This sets off Kirk and a confrontation begins, where Kirk removes Spock from the hunt and reassigns him to assist the engineers trying to keep the reactor stable. Spock is no fool, and recognizes the reason why, countering that he has limited knowledge in that field and would be useless in such a capacity. Kirk, clearly angry at his orders being questioned, tells him that it’s dangerous having the ship’s two senior officer’s in the area, to which, amusingly, Spock rolls off some statistics about the odds of them being simultaneously killed: 2228.7 to 1. Good odds. Kirk grins, and allows him to stay. Squabble over.
It’s here where they learn that the reactor is irreparable, so Kirk gives the order to evacuate the colony. Many of the miners opt to stay and fight, joining the Enterprise security teams in the hunt. As they are assigned to their posts and patrols, Spock gets a strange feeling and tells Kirk they are being watched. They discover two nearby tunnels, which readings indicate converge not far ahead. The men separate, each carefully working their way through the bored rock. Eventually, Kirk comes upon a liar of the silicon nodules and by communicator, calls Spock. Spock urges Kirk to be sure not to damage any of them, he has a feeling what they are. This is when the monster attacks, knocking a pile of rocks toward Kirk, creating a cave in that traps the Captain. And that’s just what the monster wants. From the rock wall itself, a glowing red light burns a hole and out emerges the grotesque beast. Like a heap of molten hamburger, the animal approaches.
Interestingly, the creature recognizes that Kirk’s phaser can do some damage and holds its place, creating a kind of weird Mexican standoff, tragically with no Ennio Morricone. More interestingly, Kirk decides not to kill it as his own order demanded, and instead starts a chitchat. The animal makes an attempt at communication, showing the damage the last phaser shot incurred. Spock arrives and makes a bold suggestion: perform the Vulcan mind meld and learn more about the creature. If you’re not familiar with the Vulcan mind meld, welcome to planet Earth, there is much you must learn. For the rest of you, as you’re aware, the process involves making a telepathic connection the host and absorbing the subject’s thoughts. It’s dangerous, but Kirk sees no other option. Spock assumes the position and initiates contact. The first and only thought he receives is: PAIN! So jarring is the animal’s agony, the Vulcan is thrust out of the connection. Before Kirk and Spock can even decide what to do next, the monster leans over a slab of rock and writes a cryptic message in English with its corrosive juices: NO KILL I. But what does it mean? A plea not to kill it or a promise it won’t kill them. Ambiguous at best. But during his brief connection, Spock learned the animal is highly intelligent and calls itself a Horta. Kirk surmises that their best course of action is to learn more from it. Spock volunteers to make a second connection, but this time, in order to get deeper, he needs to touch it. Cue ominous music. He approaches, leans in, and lays his hands upon the monster.
Spock, affixed telepathically, learns that the creature is not a monster, but a mother. The silicon nodules are eggs, and the real devil in the dark are the humans, killing the eggs as they mine the tunnels.
Why it Matters: Leonardo Nimoy was perfectly cast as the Vulcan star fleet officer. His elongated features and deadpan delivery are what has come to define what Spock is, no matter who portrays him. In Devil in the Dark, Spock reveals much of the character’s identifiable traits, but more importantly, we see the humanity. The ironic things is he is indignant of most human behavior and is often (as in this episode’s amusing ending) insulted at the comparison of himself to humans. Spock’s logical thinking is really the ideal that humanity is striving for, such as capturing the animal instead killing it, solving the issue instead of breaking it, and communication rather than ignorance. By connecting with the creature, Spock sacrifices his own safety as well, especially being such a dangerous creature. This is a characteristic that is not uncommon with Spock, culminating with his final act in facing Khan, fixing the warp drive by hand in order to rescue the Enterprise and her crew. It actually kills him. Here, this same fate is possible, even implied, but of course, he survives. But while he is connected, Spock becomes the “voice” of the Horta, and we hear something unexpected. Spock cries in agony, wails with pain, and his face contorts in misery. The usual stoic Vulcan rarely expresses emotions, so it is especially moving to watch. Nimoy actually has a very expressive face, which is necessary for a character that actually shows few expressions. Without the anguish from Spock during this connection, audiences would never have had the sympathy needed to sustain the eventual ending. Nimoy’s performance gains that sympathy, providing a human voice for the voiceless animal. It’s remarkable how effective it is. Sure, the show is a cheaply made 1960s TV show, and by today’s standards lacks the special effects and grittier acting that defines modern programming, but because of this, it needs the actors to carry it along, and Nimoy does the most with the least amount to work with. As his character is expected to be rigid and complex, Spock remains as such. But Nimoy knew how to get the most out of a raised eyebrow or a tilt of the head. Watch him as we moves and talks in a room with actors given more range. It’s a joy to watch. And so we must say goodbye to a cultural icon. A character with depth and humor few humans on the ship he worked on ever possessed. And we say goodbye to the actor portraying him. He lived long and prospered.