Season 1 – The Devil in the Dark
|Show||Star Trek: The Original Series|
|Air Date||March 9, 1967|
|Written By||Gene L. ****|
The mining operations on Janus VI have been terrorized by something in the dark. It burrows “through solid rock as easily as we move through the air,” and it’s killed fifty people. So, the Enterprise must investigate what devilry hunts the miners of Janus VI.
This is an episode I’ve been both excited and nervous to write about because I’m afraid I won’t be objective about it. I’m writing this paragraph here before rewatching. This is one of the episodes that I watched and rewatched endlessly as a child.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve last seen it, but my memories of it are vivid. Spock crying out in pain as he mind melds with the creature. The Horta, even though it looks like Pizza the Hut from Spaceballs, was simultaneously terrifying and absolutely engrossing to me as a kid. I knew it was fake, but I also knew for a fact that it was real. Spock touches it, speaks for it, and it speaks for itself. Nimoy sells that scene more than anything else in his career – more than his final scene in The Wrath of Khan. It’s brilliant and has stayed with me my entire life.
There. Those are my unfiltered thoughts. Now, I’ll rewatch and comment accordingly.
Let’s Dig Deeper
If Star Trek dipped its toe in the waters of horror with “The Man Trap,” it jumps headlong into that genre with “The Devil in the Dark.” The trope I discussed there of the misunderstood monster is seen clearly here. And even knowing the ending – I never remember not knowing the ending – I still watch this episode with trepidation (and I’m a horror movie lover! The first thing I wrote for Ready Steady Cut! was a Halloween retrospective!). But this episode still gets me, and its point is still as pungent as ever: just because they don’t look like us doesn’t mean they’re evil. Sometimes, we’re the ones that start the problems, and we reap the consequences.
This is what I’d like science fiction shows to do more often: really deal with otherworldly, non-humanoid creatures. I get why they don’t – budget, storytelling, to name a few. However, I’m going to assume that, if there were really aliens out there, they wouldn’t just look like humans with forehead bumps and funny makeup.
The miners didn’t mean to attack the creature, didn’t know that they were killing its offspring. This puts everyone in a quandary: whose life matters more? The humans or the creature killing them? It’s easy to just see the Horta as the Other, the object to be killed. However, it demonstrates intelligence and dexterity. It has built tunnels, stolen a reactor, hunted the people of the colony. Yet its consciousness is hidden from view by the danger it poses to the Enterprise crew.
I never noticed before that, in the mind meld, Spock speaks for the Horta and calls the colonists devils and monsters. Even more, he says cryptic, tragic things: “Murder. Of thousands. Devils! Eternity ends. The chamber of the ages. The altar of tomorrow! Murderers! Stop them. Kill! Strike back! Monsters!… The end of life. Murderers… It is the end of life. Eternity stops. Go out into the tunnel. To the chamber of the ages. Cry for the children. Walk carefully in the vault of tomorrow. Sorrow for the murdered children. The thing you search for is there. Go. Go. Sadness. Sadness for the end of things. Go into the tunnel. There is a passageway. Quickly, quickly.” This is the last creature of its species mourning the death of its future. There will be no more Horta if it dies.
What works best is that, finally, when presented with the creature’s intelligence, its conscious thought, and its desire not only for self-protection but for the preservation of its race, Kirk does the right thing. That’s to be expected: he’s our enlightened hero. What’s better is that Vanderberg (Ken Lynch) also chooses to make a deal with the Horta. It reminds us that not only is Kirk our idealistic, civilized hero, but the regular guys, the average joes, can make the right decisions, too.
What else stands out?
Leonard Nimoy is superb throughout, whether he’s debating with Kirk on the need to kill the Horta or when he’s in the mind-meld with it. I still get chills when he yells “Pain!”. Imagine what it must have been like to watch that scene actually be acted out. I know that it’s a dude in a carpet and another guy with fake pointy ears, but that doesn’t come through. The Horta is pulsating and vibrating and twitching, and Nimoy is so earnest and intense. The voice he uses when speaking through the Horta is so eerie; I can’t easily get it out of my mind.
Random Thoughts from The Devil in the Dark
If this thing is so dangerous, why are they only sending one man at a time to walk through the dark? Why not teams of two or three, at least if one person is attacked they could team up on it. I know that the type-1 phasers they’re using barely scratch it. But still. Bad planning, guys.
McCoy: “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”
Kirk: “You’re a healer. There’s a patient. That’s an order.”
–McCoy, creating a cliche.
Venderberg: You know, the Horta aren’t so bad once you’re used to their appearance.
…SPOCK: Curious. What Chief Vanderberg said about the Horta is exactly what the Mother Horta said to me. She found humanoid appearance revolting, but she thought she could get used to it.
MCCOY: Oh, she did, did she? Now tell me, did she happen to make any comment about those ears?
SPOCK: Not specifically, but I did get the distinct impression she found them the most attractive human characteristic of all. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that only I have
KIRK: She really liked those ears?
SPOCK: Captain, the Horta is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive creature, with impeccable taste.KIRK: Because she approved of you?
SPOCK: Really, Captain, my modesty
KIRK: Does not bear close examination, Mister Spock. I suspect you’re becoming more and more human all the time.
SPOCK: Captain, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted.
–This is another TOS motif that this episode really solidifies: the wrap up joking conversation. Remember, kids and families were watching this – they wanted to have a light ending, maybe even a moral or two. I love the interchange between our trio of heroes.
Coming up next…
After this brilliant, emotional episode, we’ve got a new iconic race on our hands. It’s the KLINGONS! These guys are the best. While The Original Series didn’t do the Klingons justice that later series and films would, the groundwork is all laid in “Errand of Mercy.”
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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.