Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Dagger of the Mind

(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: November 3, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0 (but a Tantalus V staff member is electrocuted)

Bellybuttons: 0

The title “Dagger of the Mind” comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Driven by a prophecy that he will become king of Scotland, Macbeth takes matters into his own hands by killing the rightful king. Presaging the guilt that will eventually overcome him, Macbeth describes the images haunting his mind as he contemplates the crime he is about to commit:

“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 though but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind, showing Van Gelder assaulting a security officer
Van Gelder, as shocked as we are at the Enterprise‘s flimsy security

“Dagger of the Mind” draws heavily not just from Macbeth, but from Greek mythology and more contemporary fiction and real-life sources. The episode opens with the Enterprise delivering supplies to a penal colony on the planet Tantalus V. A highly agitated man beams up, hidden in a crate of “research material” bound for another destination (we’re never told how a fully grown human can transport past the ship’s sensors and decontamination measures, but there he is). The man knocks several crew members unconscious en route to Kirk, from whom he requests asylum at phaser-point. (The one security officer assigned to protect the bridge bravely stands with his back to the only bridge entry point and is knocked out in all of two seconds.) The assailant turns out to be Dr. Simon Van Gelder (Morgan Woodward), an associate of the director of the Tantalus V colony. McCoy senses that something is wrong, and uses Starfleet procedures to force Kirk into an investigation of Tantalus V. The facility director, Dr. Adams (James Gregory), turns out to be a ruthless dictator of his own domain, forcing patients into submission with a malevolent device called a neural neutralizer.

Kirk’s sidekick during the investigation is the clumsily named Dr. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill). “Noel” because she first met Kirk at the “science lab Christmas party.” It seems unlikely that Christmas parties are still common in the 23rd century; even more unlikely that religious-themed parties would be hosted by people of science. Noel eventually saves the day by deactivating the colony’s force field long enough for Spock to rescue them, but she gets there by a terribly unprofessional route. She tries to convince both Kirk and Adams to address her by her first name instead of Dr. Noel, Kirk because they have a personal history, and Adams because, apparently, all those pesky professional titles just confuse the brain. Later, testing the neural neutralizer, she gives Kirk the hypnotic suggestion that they advanced their brief prior connection (which amounted to no more than one dance while Kirk “talked about the stars”) to a full-fledged affair. Imagine a real-world psychiatrist inflicting that on a patient or colleague! It’s odd that in Noel’s own fantasy, Kirk refuses to tell Noel he loves her because he doesn’t want to lie. I’m not sure if this attests to Kirk’s low standards or hers, but the message is clear: even a floozy psychiatrist should understand Kirk is married to the Enterprise. Noel becomes victim to her own misfeasance when Adams hijacks the neural neutralizer and implants Kirk’s mind with the idea that he is, in fact, so in love with Noel that he would make any sacrifice for her. Hence the character’s first name – Helen of Troy, anyone? Thankfully, Enterprise-love kicks in and Kirk swiftly resumes his duties.

Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind showing Noel and Kirk in the neural neutralizer
The face that launched a thousand starships. And Dr. Noel.

“Dagger of the Mind” has some overlap with “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Just as Korby, another neighborhood dictator, wanted Kirk to visit all alone, so Adams asks Kirk to personally conduct his investigation with “minimum staff.” Also like Korby, our crew is reluctant to question or criticize Adams because of his professional reputation. Only McCoy, with minimal support from Spock, expresses doubts. This cult of personality causes Kirk to dismiss McCoy’s concerns early on. It’s a failure on Kirk’s part that he doesn’t consider McCoy’s credibility in this situation. Adams has a vested interest in protecting his colony and his reputation. McCoy, on the other hand, is a reliable advisor because he has no ego at stake here. One fundamental difference between Korby and Adams: Korby, despite his instability, seems to have sincere intentions, whereas Adams comes across as a sadist who wants nothing more than to exploit others.

McCoy’s suspicion of Adams is motivated somewhat by his attitude toward penal colonies. It’s significant that the phrases “penal colony” and “rehabilitation colony” are used interchangeably, as if rehabilitation is the real intent of the prisons, just as America’s penitentiaries were first built to provide contemplative places for wayward souls to be penitent. Kirk claims to have visited some of these facilities and describes them as “resort colonies.” We’re forced to wonder in what capacity Kirk saw the prison colonies, and what realities might have been kept from him. McCoy, the person more likely to have to deal first-hand with those bound to or from penal colonies, makes his position clear: “A cage is a cage.” Adams himself seems to agree with McCoy. When Kirk and Noel meet Adams, he refers to his own institution as “Devil’s Island,” the common nickname for the French Guiana prison that operated from 1852 to 1953 and, at one point, had a 75% death rate among inmates. The real Devil’s Island was the inspiration for the 1969 novel Papillon.

Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind showing McCoy and Kirk on the bridge

The neural neutralizer calls to mind brainwashing, a “technique” that was still widely-feared in the 1960s. CIA propagandists promoted brainwashing in the 1940s and 1950s as a way of explaining the rise of communist China, because it wouldn’t do for the American public to learn that people voluntarily rejected our transactional, consumerist culture. Some American soldiers taken prisoner during the Korean War confessed to crimes they hadn’t committed, and some even refused repatriation at the end of combat. It was later established that these soldiers hadn’t been brainwashed, but tortured.

“Dagger of the Mind” aired at a time when many people were thinking about reform of both prisons and mental health treatment. The protests of Attica inmates was still five years off, and the current prison-for-profit era of mass incarceration didn’t really begin until 1970, but a divisive “law and order” attitude in the 1960s was in conflict with a more rehabilitative approach inspired by the civil rights movement and the social freedoms embraced by the Beats and hippies. Much of the law-and-order sentiment was directed at urban centers heavily populated by Black Americans. When Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, he said, “History…demonstrates that nothing, nothing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets from bullies and marauders.” Goldwater was apparently silent on what we should do if the public officials themselves were bullies and marauders; however, he didn’t hesitate to connect urban violence to the civil rights movement. President Johnson declared a “War on Crime” in 1965. At the same time, prison reform advocates, often led by prisoners themselves, sued for improved Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual treatment and demanded more humane conditions inside prisons, including better educational and organizing opportunities.

Attitudes toward mental health treatment also changed somewhat. Lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, originally called electroshock therapy), similar to Adams’ neural neutralizer, declined in use. Lobotomies were regarded as ineffective and often worse than the condition they were intended to treat; the procedure was banned in the Soviet Union by 1950, though never officially banned in the United States. Brutally honest portrayals of lobotomies in novels and plays (for example, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, and subsequent 1963 play, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) also turned the public off to the idea. ECT also declined, even though it is still practiced today, a decline encouraged by the introduction of psychoactive drugs to treat depression and other disorders.

Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind showing closeup of Van Gelder, and image from movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest showing Jack Nicholson's McMurphy
Two asylum inciters: Van Gelder and Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy from the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Institutionalization of individuals, whether for crimes committed or mental health issues, is largely about the state’s control over its citizens. (It’s also about micro-level abandonment of individuals and our abdication of responsibility for our loved ones to the state, but that’s for another time.) This is largely about power – who has it, how it’s used, and who suffers the consequences – and the corrupting influence of power is a common theme throughout Star Trek. Abuse is so common in prisons, rehabilitation centers, and mental health facilities because they are often isolated and receive little oversight. They deal with the “undesirables” whose very presence upsets us. Of course, it makes sense that few people want a prison or asylum in their own neighborhood, and remoteness is a deterrent to escape, so these facilities are often in remote locations where a lone individual can exercise power unimpeded. Hence the island locations of Devil’s Island and Alcatraz, or the rurally-isolated Arkansas prison farm where, during the 1960s, an Oregon judge refused to return escaped inmates because he found the prison to be an institute of “terror, horror, and despicable evil.”

Mental health institutions, often equally isolated, were sometimes not much better. Lobotomies and ECT procedures were part of a system of power. These procedures didn’t always treat patients so much as make them easier to control; these were among the tools Nurse Ratched used to keep her psychiatric ward in line in Kesey’s novel. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was heavily influenced by Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Goffman described a classist mini-society where everyone knew their place and behaved appropriately. “Admission procedures might be called ‘trimming’ or ‘programming,’” Goffman wrote, “because in thus being squared away the new arrival allows himself to be shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery…”

Today’s mass incarceration system is about a different kind of control, the generation of financial profits by imprisoning the powerless, but it is equally maintained by class- and race-based discrimination. Just as prisons and asylums have often used physical isolation to reduce oversight, today they also rely on institutional distance in the same way. Most of us will never need to directly confront the individuals suffering in prisons over trumped-up charges or an inability to pay excessive fines. The corporate executives and institutional investors reaping financial profits off privately-owned prisons will likely never set foot in the institutions they own. It’s easy to ignore the suffering of people separated from the rest of us by physical and social walls. A decline in local journalism, and making access difficult for those journalists who do try to investigate, further distances us from the imprisoned. When McCoy argues against returning Van Gelder to Tantalus V, Kirk says, “It’s not our problem.” Van Gelder’s response is equally fitting today: “Wash your hands of it. Is that your system?” It is, indeed.

Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind showing McCoy, Van Gelder, and Spock in sickbay

If McCoy is the compassionate heart of “Dagger of the Mind,” Spock is the sage. During the early discussion of penal colonies, he says, “Your earth people glorify organized violence for forty centuries, but you imprison those who employ it privately.” We don’t just glorify our armies, but all institutional regimes. Just wait for the cry of “Blue lives matter” after the assassination of an unarmed Black American. Consider the “job creator” propaganda used to deify CEOs of companies that destroy land, sea, and air with carcinogens that eventually pollute our very bodies. Like our current system of mass incarceration, it all hinges on institutional distance that shields the identities of the guilty and helps us forget that crimes are even being committed.

That forgetfulness, or the inability to forget, lies at the heart of both Macbeth and “Dagger of the Mind.” Macbeth couldn’t forget his crimes, whereas Adams takes the opposite approach and maintains innocence by forcing others to forget. Forced forgetting – removing memories from the mind and inflicting pain if those memories are accessed – is the basis of the neural neutralizer. By first emptying his patients’ minds, Adams then fills the void with his own agenda. Just as “trippers” on LSD benefited from an experienced guide, so the neural neutralizer is most effective with a controller to occupy the overwhelming loneliness of a mind wiped clean. One of Adams’ assistants is a former patient named Lethe. This is a name from Greek mythology, a river of the underworld (just as the Tantalus V colony is far underground) said to cause complete forgetfulness in those who drank its waters. “Part of our cure…is to bury the past,” Adams says. “Why should a person go on living with unbearable memories…?” Unbearable memories in the Cold War Soviet Union were equally “forgotten,” sometimes by killing all the witnesses, other times by simply erasing names and faces from the public record.

Left: Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind showing Noel, Lethe, and Kirk; Right: Before and after image of Soviet cosmonauts showing removal of Valentin Bondarenko after his death
Absent-minded Lethe and real-life “forgetfulness”: after Soviet cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died in a training accident in 1961, government censors erased him from public photos

This expands on the willful ignorance practiced by the children of “Miri.” The perpetually blank-faced Lethe says the person she was before treatment “no longer exists.” In that regard, “Dagger of the Mind” is almost an indictment of the Christian principle of being “born again,” a symbolic death that results in the “birth” of an entirely new person. Like the God of the Old Testament, Adams demands of Kirk, “You believe in me completely. You trust me completely.” Superficially appealing, rebirth means starting from scratch and losing all accumulated wisdom and experience. Just like mass incarceration, and the lobotomies of the early twentieth century, it leads to obedient followers to serve the egos of the ambitious. It’s no accident that the Tantalus V colony logo is a hand restraining a dove as it attempts to fly. Wings offer freedom, the one thing Adams can’t tolerate. The logo symbolizes both the relentless call of freedom through a prison window, and the all-consuming seduction of ambition for power. In Greek mythology, Tantalus took advantage of Zeus’ hospitality and tried to provide his own people with the secrets of the gods. He tested the gods’ omniscience by serving them his own son in a gruesome act of cannibalism. Tantalus’ punishment, like the inmates of Tantalus V, was to be sent deep underground, where food and water were always in sight but never within reach, the source of our contemporary word “tantalize.”

In Macbeth, our would-be king commits murder out of ambition. Once in power, Macbeth then has to commit other crimes to cover up the original crime. Unable to forget his actions, he becomes haunted by hallucinations. The real dagger of the mind, however, is not the blade that Macbeth imagines, or the physical one he wields, but his overpowering ambition, just as Adams’ ambition is the real dagger of this episode. Ambition results from emotions – fear, or self-entitlement, or pride. When Spock confronts McCoy about humanity’s love of institutional violence, McCoy asks what solution Vulcans came up with. Spock reminds McCoy of what he already knows: they rejected emotion. “Where there is no emotion,” Spock says, “there is no motive for violence.” For once, McCoy is speechless. It’s a tough point to argue.

Image from Star Trek episode Dagger of the Mind showing Van Gelder and Spock
Consent comes first – Spock’s compassionate use of the Vulcan mind-meld

McCoy’s regard for life and Spock’s compassion are the antidotes to Adams’ ambition. Unlike Adams’ invasive assaults with the neural neutralizer, Spock asks Van Gelder’s permission before using a Vulcan mind-meld to retrieve Van Gelder’s lost memories, the first use of the mind-meld in TOS. He doesn’t proceed until Van Gelder understands, and accepts, the risks involved. Our modern-day politicization of compassion has turned it into an emotion, but compassion is really a simple, and eminently logical, respect for the rights of others. Compassion is the opposite of greed or ambition; it’s an agreement that we’re all equal.

At episode’s end, Adams dies after being left alone with the device for too long. McCoy is surprised that a person could literally die of loneliness, but Kirk, having been through the neutralizer with a guide, understands how much worse it would be without one. Perhaps he’s recalling this very experience when he tells us, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), “I’ve always known that when I die, I’ll die alone.” Refusing to forget, actively remembering, is a consistent theme in Star Trek. Memory and experience are the sustenance of wisdom, and this is why the forgetfulness of “rebirth” is so dangerous. Kirk won’t forget the lessons of “Dagger of the Mind.” For the same reason, following his own rebirth in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), regaining his memory is Spock’s first order of business in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). If we forget the horrors of past dictators, we may too easily give power to new ones. If we forget the pain of injuries inflicted on us, we’re in danger of losing compassion, and thereby causing those same injuries to others. Police brutality, systemic discrimination, and all manner of social and economic ills can only be addressed by relying on our memory of the past. This is not weakness. It is, in fact, the only sustainable path forward. We must remember.

Next: The Corbomite Maneuver

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