Star Trek Dagger of the Mind
|Show||Star Trek: The Original Series|
|Episode Title||“Dagger of the Mind”|
|Air Date||November 3, 1966|
|Written By||S. Bar-David|
Slight Spoilers for Star Trek Discovery!
While on a standard resupply mission at the Tantalus Penal Colony on Tantalus V, one of the inmates, Dr. Simon Van Gelder (Morgan Woodward) escapes and asks for asylum aboard the Enterprise. This propels Kirk to investigate the methods of Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory), the renowned psychiatrist and director of the colony.
Kirk beams down to Tantalus V with Dr. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill), one of the Enterprise’s psychiatrists and a specialist in rehabilitation. Oh, and she and Kirk have been romantically involved in some fashion — something happened at the Science Lab Christmas Party. They meet Dr. Adams, who shows them around the colony and the significant successes of his rehabilitation process. However, there’s something more sinister at work here – rather than truly counseling and rehabilitating the patients, he’s brainwashing them with a device called the Neural Neutralizer. Of course, this leads to Kirk being subjected to the machine’s power, and Adams tries to control him. Kirk, with his ironclad constitution, is able to resist, and the Enterprise figures out how to save him, and the day, by the end.
Let’s Dig Deeper in Star Trek Dagger of the Mind
Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we’ve got that quandary of a man trapped in a mental institution based upon someone else’s word, and subject to its rules and restrictions, kept against his will when he doesn’t need to be. Here, we meet another two insane scientists – well, one is deranged because of neural neutralizer experiments, while the other is just a sociopath.
Dr. Adams doesn’t rehabilitate – he wipes minds and imposes his will upon them. There may be a kernel of a message found here: that just locking people away and forgetting about them doesn’t work, that actually getting to the heart of the problem should be the true goal of a penal system. And yet, we don’t get that here in a real way; we really just get a bad guy, and a charming one at that.
I suppose this could be reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera’s expose on Willowbrook, which would happen six years after the release of “Dagger of the Mind.” Essentially, he exposed a culture of ill-treatment at mental institutions around the nation, showing at best neglect and at worst abuse of patients. It’s definitely a stretch to make that connection, for I don’t believe this episode is really saying anything deeper about the treatment of patients, other than it’s scary in those places.
I appreciate this episode much more for the details than for the broader, flimsier message. For instance, “Dagger of the Mind” introduces us to the Vulcan Mind Meld, Spock’s way of telepathically linking himself with Van Gelder’s thoughts, attempting to probe beneath the mental block that the Neural neutralizer has imposed. Like the nerve pinch, seen for the first time in “The Enemy Within,” Leonard Nimoy devised the actual way of doing it, setting the tone for the next fifty-plus years of Vulcan activity. Between Nimoy and Woodward, the acting power in this scene is impactful, illustrating the lengths to which Adams went to cover up his secret experiments. On a personal note, this scene got me just chomping at the bit for “Devil in the Dark.” I can’t wait!
There are quite a few deeply classical references scattered throughout the episode. One would be Tantalus Colony. In Greek Mythology, Tantalus stole the food of the gods and was forever cursed by being trapped in a pool of water, with a fruit tree just out of reach, never able to obtain the thing which he coveted most (a bit like Miri’s world).
The character of Lethe also comes from Greek Mythology: Lethe is a river in Hades that causes forgetfulness when you drink from it. We know very little about Lethe herself, other than she used to be totally different, possibly criminally insane. When Kirk asks her to tell him more, she replies, “Does it matter? That person no longer exists.” Even she has forgotten her former self.
This leads us into something fun: a Star Trek: Discovery fan theory. This year, before Discovery aired its episode “Lethe,” fans wondered if we would meet this enigmatic woman from fifty years ago. We didn’t — at least not explicitly. The episode “Lethe” is all about memory and understanding who Michael Burnham and Sarek are, deepening their relationships through a Vulcan Mind Meld (also appropriate for this episode). However, it’s theorized that Admiral Katrina Cornwell (Jayne Brook) is actually Lethe, before her treatment. She’s a psychiatrist, like Lethe, and goes through intense torture and psychological trauma. As of this review, we haven’t seen the full results of that experience, but there’s pretty solid consensus among fans that Cornwell will eventually become Lethe.
The title of this episode comes from a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I love! In Act II, while Macbeth struggles to complete his task of murdering King Duncan, he muses:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Macbeth here questions a vision he’s having: a dagger that seems to be floating in the air before him, leading him onward toward his destruction. The question in this episode is what that dagger refers to here. Is it Adams’ own illusions of grandeur and control, “false creation[s]” that are unreachable, much like Tantalus’ food? Or is it the Neural Neutralizer that has sliced Van Gelder’s mind, destroying it with its beam?
Morgan Woodward’s Simon Van Gelder is amazingly deranged. Every time he tries to remember anything about himself, he physically must struggle to even speak. It’s a compelling performance, also nicely illustrating the dangerous methods that Adams uses on Tantalus.
It seems as though McCoy is fully aware of Kirk’s indiscreet tryst with Dr. Noel. He smirks when Kirk asks for an assistant who specializes in rehabilitation, then when she shows up in the transporter room she asks if he remembers the Christmas Party. Shatner plays the awkward former lover so well with her, then steps off the transporter pad to tell Spock to inform McCoy that Helen had better be the best assistant he’s ever had. He absolutely knows that McCoy is messing with him here. Those little character touches really sell this show!
Furthermore, when Spock arrives on the planet to rescue Kirk and Noel, he finds them kissing in a darkened closet (a result of Adams’ manipulation of Kirk’s mind). The look on Spock’s face is priceless and says so much: how many times has he walked in on a scene like this?
By the way, I’d fall for Helen Noel, too. No neural neutralizer needed.
There is an air vent in Kirk’s quarters on Tantalus that is nearly the size of a door. It’s got a flimsy vent in front of it, through which Helen climbs in order to help get themselves free. Isn’t this a Penal Colony? Maybe their guards have the same training as Kirk’s redshirts.
How absolutely stupid are the security guards aboard the Enterprise? I’m not just talking about redshirts who get killed off because of horrific creatures that overpower them, like Ruk. This is a security guard specifically placed on the bridge because of an escaped inmate, standing with his back to the only entrance to the bridge, being taken out by a tap on his neck. Captain Kirk: you need a real security chief!
Memorable Quotes from Star Trek
“One of the advantages of being a captain, Doctor, is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.”
-Kirk being Captain
My criticism of the episode’s lack of depth aside, I really enjoyed it. I enjoy the allusions to classical mythology and the performances, especially. Keep on trucking, everyone!
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Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.