“THE DEVIL IN THE DARK”
Season 1, Episode 25 (Production 27), Story 25
Written by Gene L. Coon; Directed by Joseph Pevney
PLOT: Workers at an underground mining colony are being killed by some unknown monster.
SUBPLOT: What’s the worst part of STAR TREK, the awful music or the ridiculous monster costumes?
KIRKISM: “Either one of us by himself is expendable. Both of us are not.”
HEADER QUOTE SPOKEN BY: McCoy
Rankings depend on the context, of course. Yesterday, I reviewed the DOCTOR WHO two-parter, HUMAN NATURE and THE FAMILY OF BLOOD and though I don’t give official ratings to DOCTOR WHO during the reviews, if I did, I would’ve given it 5 stars. THE DEVIL IN THE DARK gets 5 stars, too, but it’s not nearly on the level of NATURE/BLOOD. In fact, if this were a DOCTOR WHO episode, it’d probably get a generous 3, but different shows doing different things with differing merits, and THE DEVIL IN THE DARK does the STAR TREK thing very well.
At the heart of the mystery lies an unseen monster that’s killing workers of an underground mining facility. It is certainly not a complicated story; the first time you see Spock take note of a round silicon ball on Vandenburg’s desk, you know darn well it’s an egg and that the unseen monster is attacking because of it. As that moment passed, I was worried I was in for a very long, very boring final 30 minutes or so, but that doesn’t happen. It’s not that DEVIL offers any great examples of plot brilliance, but rather than it delivers the expected story so wonderfully, complete with some fabulous interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
Remember how awesome that salt vampire was back in THE MAN TRAP? Did they blow 98% of their entire monster budget in that episode? The Horta looks like giant dog barf. Or an early DOCTOR WHO monster where there’s some poor dude laying on the floor wriggling around, sweating his balls off for minimum wage while the actors keep flubbing their lines.
(Man, I wish the “Real Man of Genius” ads were running in 1968: “Here’s to you, Mr. Wannabe-actor-sweating-in-a-monster-costume-for-minimum-wage-unable-to-use-the-bathroom-or-eat-pre-made-lunch-sandwiches guy.”)
What makes the episode work is how it builds a typical mystery and then alters what happens when there’s contact made between Kirk and the creature.
The front half of DEVIL is pretty standard monster murder mystery stuff – something is killing workers and the Enterprise shows up to investigate. The workers are nervous and falling behind schedule. There’s a whole bunch of planets waiting on this facility to give them pergium, so there’s added pressure to get this thing solved right away. It’s easy to see the workers as the villains of the piece, and if there’s one criticism I have with this episode (beyond all of the usual Star Trek foibles of an overly simplistic plot and weak resolution) it’s that the attitude of the workers isn’t made more clear. Let’s not forget these are working class dudes working underground on incredibly tight deadlines. Something out there in the myriad of tunnels has come up from down below and is killing them off, one by one. They’ve got a reason to be on edge.
STAR TREK has done this “unseen monster” bit before, but it’s done really well here. What elevates DEVIL above most other STAR TREK episodes is that the monster isn’t a monster at all, and this simple idea of the unknown monster being benevolent and justified in its attacks on the workers (because they were killing the creature’s eggs) really makes the second half of the episode unique.Kirk finds the creature but doesn’t kill it, despite all of his earlier assertions to Spock that they have to kill it on sight. Kirk tries to communicate with the giant pile of dog barf, but of course he can’t. Luckily, Spock is around to mind meld with it and infodump all of the relevant backstory into the episode for us. The Horta creature is the last of its kind, in charge of serving as Queen Mommy to the new batch of Horta babies, which is what the workers have been destroying.
All credit to Nimoy for making you really feel the big barf’s pain, and to Shatner for giving Kirk a kind of bemused, but determined openness to the situation. He calls McCoy down and orders him to make the Horta better. When McCoy tells him, “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer,” Kirk gets all curt and captainy, telling McCoy in no uncertain terms: “You’re a healer. There’s a patient. That’s an order.”
The episode does end with the lame, stock, “let’s get the principles on the bridge and have them make fun of Spock” routine, but the absurdity of the conversation – it centers on the Horta thinking Spock’s ears were the most attractive feature on humans – makes it work well enough.
DEVIL IN THE DARK is hardly fantastic television, but it is highly enjoyable, memorable television, and I do love the twist of having the monster turn out to be benevolent in nature and justified in its course of action. It’s probably really a 4.5 star episode, rather than a 5, but I don’t do the half-star bit. What matters most is that there’s a bunch of TREK episodes I’ll watch again, but only a few so far that I really want to watch again, and DEVIL IN THE DARK is one of them.