Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Doomsday Machine

(Note: This post appears 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: October 20, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0 (but the inhabitants of multiple planets and the entire crew of the Constellation are killed)

Bellybuttons: 0

“The Doomsday Machine” fits right in with some of the best TOS episodes, written by prolific science-fiction author Norman Spinrad, featuring William Windom in one of the series’ finest guest appearances, and equaling “The City On the Edge of Forever” and “Balance of Terror” in its use of classic themes to touch on contemporary issues. This week, the Enterprise responds to a distress beacon from another Galaxy-class starship, the Constellation. Along the way, they pass through system L-370, where seven planets have been reduced to debris, and system L-374, where all but two planets have been similarly destroyed. The Constellation has been severely damaged and her crew killed, with only Commodore Decker (Windom), surviving in a traumatized mental state. Kirk, Spock, and Decker engage in a test of wills among themselves while battling the source of the destruction, a “robot” that mindlessly roams the galaxy and sustains itself by breaking up planets and consuming them.

The remastered visual effects are dramatically different from the original

The planet destroyer is a non-sentient version of Galactus, the world-destroying villain created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee for a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. Galactus was a god-like character, ambivalent to the lives of lesser beings who inhabited the planets he consumed. The planet destroyer of “The Doomsday Machine” demonstrates no sentience and we’re left to speculate on its origins. Spock calls it “an automated weapon of immense size and power.” Kirk offers a convenient twentieth century analogy by comparing it to the h-bomb, the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb first tested by the United States in 1952, followed by the Soviet Union in 1953. This gets us into the U.S./Soviet arms race of the Cold War and the appropriately-named policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction). MAD was a theory that if all parties in a conflict possessed sufficient weaponry, none of them would initiate an attack for fear that both defender and attacker would meet their doom. The problem, of course, is that MAD is awfully difficult to put back in the box, it requires flawless safeguards, and it only works if all the decision-makers want to live. If you don’t think much about nuclear weapons in these days of climate change, Covid-19, and rampant fascism, here’s one more thing to keep you awake at night: as of early 2021, nine countries are in possession of more than 13,000 nuclear weapons. Kirk’s theory is that the creators of the planet destroyer never intended it to be used, yet here it is crushing planets, and headed toward what Spock describes as the most densely populated section of the galaxy. Looking at the number of unstable, apocalyptic extremists occupying the U.S. government (with more than 5,500 nuclear weapons), let alone megalomaniacs like Kim Jong-un (with only twenty nuclear weapons!), does the global nuclear stockpile really make the world safer?

Destroyers of worlds and dreams: Moby-Dick as illustrated by Augustus Burnham Shute, Galactus as illustrated by Jack Kirby, the planet destroyer from “The Doomsday Machine”

“The Doomsday Machine” also draws inspiration from the classic tale of obsession, Moby-Dick. In Herman Melville’s novel, Ahab pursues the whale for revenge: the whale attacked the Pequod on its previous voyage and took one of Ahab’s legs from the knee down. In “The Doomsday Machine,” Decker seeks redemption from the guilt that torments him after the loss of his crew. We know nothing of Decker’s background, but he sounds rational on his log entries just prior to his encounter with the planet destroyer. It seems clear the death of his crew has overwhelmed him. When he boards the Enterprise and takes command from Spock, his stated objective is the same as Spock’s: “Our primary duty is to maintain life and the safety of Federation planets.” Yet Decker’s self-destructive strategy betrays his emotional status. Interference from the planet destroyer prevents communication with Starfleet Command. Spock prefers to reach safety, notify Starfleet, and regroup for an organized attack. Decker, however, only sees his target, and insists on confronting their enemy immediately. Windom also took inspiration for his performance from Humphrey Bogart’s role as Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954). Watch how Decker fidgets with a set of data disks, much as Queeg did with ball bearings.

Psychologically unfit for command: Humphrey Bogart as Queeg, William Windom as Decker

With a couple of exceptions, the Enterprise crew performs wisely and courageously. McCoy offers to declare Decker unfit for command and give the captain’s chair back to Spock, but lacks the evidence of an examination. Considering how often McCoy has overruled Kirk on the subject of physicals, he could certainly take a similar action here. And later, when Spock finally does direct Decker to sickbay, he assigns a security officer to escort the commodore. It’s an almost laughable moment, and while the red shirt puts up a noble effort, Decker soon knocks him unconscious and makes off with a shuttlecraft (which apparently is just sitting around with the keys in the ignition). Spock, even after he is relieved of command, never stops being Decker’s conscience, consistent in his message that Decker is taking them down the wrong path.

Why even bother?

Kirk and Scott are the real heroes of “The Doomsday Machine.” Scott may perform more miracles here than any previous episode. He restores partial impulse power to the Constellation, recharges the spent phasers, and makes the final, dramatic repair to the Enterprise transporter, beaming Kirk to safety at the last second. Kirk demonstrates considerable engineering know-how, quickly calculating the destructive force caused by exploding the Constellation inside the planet destroyer and making hands-on repairs in the Constellation’s auxiliary control room. Kirk also reminds us of the importance of coffee-serving yeomen; when surveying the abandoned Constellation, “No half-empty cups of coffee” is one of the first things Kirk notices.

Kirk does invite trouble when, still on board the Constellation, he orders Spock to take back command from Decker. The commodore, as the senior officer, is clearly within his rights to take charge. Kirk’s response – “Blast regulations!” – is nearly identical to McCoy’s. Since Decker is later killed, and Kirk is proven right, it’s a moot point, but would Kirk be remembered so kindly if things had turned out differently? Spock, who has faithfully respected the chain of command, is in the clear: if any questions were raised later, he could rely on the fact that he was following the order of his superior officer, Kirk. It’s a clever bit of maneuvering that gives Decker the respect he deserves but ultimately protects the ship.

Just as the white whale became symbolically larger than life, so the planet destroyer becomes in “The Doomsday Machine.” “They say there’s no devil,” Decker says, “but there is. Right out of hell.” Some debate whether this is acceptance or rejection of religion in the Trek universe. I hear a referencing of hell as a place out of mythology, like Shangri-La or Asgard. We’re never told the populations of the destroyed planets, or even if they have populations, but the magnitude of these events ranks right up there with the Borg or the probe from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Or, a more sinister interpretation is one of manifest destiny, a galactic cowboys-and-Indians story, with the Federation clearing hazards from the frontier in preparation for settlement.

Decker learns that they’ve run out of coffee

The classic Star Trek theme of sacrifice is the point, regardless of the context in which we see the planet destroyer: the crew of the Constellation, in dying, allows Decker to live and make his contribution to defeating the enemy; Decker gives his life to stop the planet destroyer and give meaning to his crew’s loss; Kirk risks his life in the final assault on their nemesis; Spock accepts possible loss of face (the only crew member who can, because “I have no ego to bruise,” as he will remind us in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)) to respect Decker’s rank and keep the Enterprise functioning at a time of crisis. Some scholars interpret Moby-Dick as Melville’s rejection of a philosophy of self-reliance promoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Self-reliance seems sensible to a point, encouraging us to think for ourselves: “Whoso would be a man [and woman!] must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote. Melville shows self-reliance taken to its extreme end, however, when Ahab allows his desire for vengeance to consume him, sacrificing not only his own life, but that of his crew. Whoever Decker was before losing his own crew, his self-reliance is his undoing, while Kirk takes a different path and prizes his crew’s safety above all else. Twelve years after Matt Decker competes for command of the Enterprise, this dynamic will come full circle when his son, Will Decker, will engage in a similar conflict after Kirk becomes the man obsessed, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

Dueling Deckers: one ship, two generations

It’s human nature to see the world only in its capacity to serve us, but “The Doomsday Machine” reminds us that time and space take little notice of our affairs. Yes, the planet destroyer was stopped, but at a terrible cost, and we cannot expect to matter much in the grand scale of a cold universe. Q’s reminder to Picard after his first encounter with the Borg is equally applicable to Star Trek’s first generation: “You are about to move into areas of the galaxy filled with wonders you cannot possibly imagine. And terrors to freeze your soul.” Decker chose confrontation over life and suffered the ultimate consequence; Kirk and Spock chose life first and lived to tell the tale. We will not always be able to mold the universe to our liking, so the best we can do is observe, learn, and appreciate what we can of the cosmic design. Psychologist Martin S. Bergmann, in his role as Professor Louis Levy in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), said, “Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” While I don’t entirely share the sentiment because the universe hardly needs us to give it meaning (in fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that humans cause more harm than good for our own planet), it’s certainly true that our capacity to care for each other gives meaning to our experience in the universe. Decker, having lost his crew, like Ahab losing his leg, becomes untethered in the vastness of life: “I’ve been prepared for death ever since…I killed my crew.” We would be wise to treasure our shipmates on planet earth, because in a world operating far above our mortal concerns, our fellow travelers are all we have.

Next: Catspaw

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