(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: December 8, 1967
Crew Death Count: 1 (Lieutant Galway is our red-shirt stand-in this week; also, all six members of the Gamma Hydra IV outpost died from the aging illness)
Bellybuttons: 1 (the Shat appears topless to remind us how young and vigorous he is)
I interpret “The Deadly Years” a little differently than most – the title is a clever sleight of hand that reminds us that, for the Enterprise crew, as Kirk will specify later in season two, “Risk is our business.” This week the Enterprise is assigned to escort Commodore Stocker (Charles Drake) to his new command at Starbase 10. (Kirk directed the Enterprise toward Starbase 10 at the end of “Operation – Annihilate!”) En route, the ship stops to resupply a Federation research post on the planet Gamma Hydra IV. The landing party of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov, and Lieutenant Galway (Beverly Washburn) initially finds a deserted station. Chekov panics when he finds a dead body in a dark room, an apparent victim of old age. Then a doddering elderly couple appears, claiming to be the Johnsons (Felix Maurice Locher and Laura Wood), who are really both in their twenties. The Johnsons are soon goners, and the landing party, except Chekov, begins to age at the approximate rate of thirty years per day. Unless a cure is found soon, they will die, just like the inhabitants of Gamma Hydra IV.
One of the first things that caught my attention about “The Deadly Years” is that Stocker must be the most polite flag officer in Starfleet. He is almost subservient to Kirk, despite out-ranking him. This may relate to the vaguely defined role of commodores in Starfleet. They appear to primarily oversee starbases, as Commodore Stone commanded Starbase 11 in “Court Martial.” Yet in earth-bound navies, commodores usually lead a fleet of vessels, closer to Commodore Decker’s position in “The Doomsday Machine.” During a briefing room scene, Kirk indicates that Stocker’s role will be primarily administrative. Either way, we’re forced to wonder how Stocker rose to such a rank – he has no combat experience, as becomes clear when he finally assumes command of the Enterprise and directs the ship to cross the Neutral Zone. He panics at the site of Romulan vessels and begins deferring to other bridge officers in desperation. His service record doesn’t even include starship command, as Spock confirms during Kirk’s competency hearing. Stocker acknowledges his limited experience at the end of the episode, observing that he finally understands the full capabilities of a starship and her crew. Drake is perfect in the role, portraying the strong administrator out of his depth in the far reaches of space.
We’re also never clear about Stocker’s true priorities. Despite five officers literally dying before his eyes, he persistently – but gently – reminds Kirk and Spock that they are expected at Starbase 10. He claims a starbase offers more comprehensive facilities and is better suited to attacking the strange illness afflicting our crew. Yet he never sounds entirely convinced, as if he’s in some kind of denial about the crew’s status. And when Stocker assumes command of the Enterprise, he doesn’t simply take charge as a result of Kirk’s obvious age-induced incompetence. Even pre-doomsday, we can easily imagine Commodore Decker, or Commodore Mendez in “The Menagerie,” pulling rank in such a situation. Stocker, however, orders a competency hearing to demonstrate that the onset of senility has rendered Kirk incapable of fulfilling his duties. It’s a time-wasting exercise that ties up key members of the crew when they should be charging ahead with their research. It’s equally time-wasting for us viewers, as the drawn-out scene primarily revisits examples of Kirk repeating orders that we’ve already seen. The key moment comes when Spock is forced to agree that Kirk is unfit for command. But the conflict is unnecessarily forced, because by now we’re familiar with Spock’s dedication to duty. He would have already done what’s best for the Enterprise crew. The one benefit of the hearing is the interaction between Kirk and Spock when Spock delivers the bad news; his pain is obvious when Kirk says, “I never want to have to look at you again.” Otherwise, the entire formal hearing feels more like an exercise in filling time that doesn’t remain true to the situation.
Chekov feels equally out of character here. Despite Chekov’s youthful behavior in previous episodes, he doesn’t come across as a highly-trained Starfleet officer. He panics like a young child when he encounters the dead body during the prologue. Later, as the only member of the landing party not subjected to rapid aging, he complains with genuine bitterness about frequent medical tests that attempt to establish the reason for his good fortune. His worst moment occurs when Galway stumbles into sickbay and dies in Kirk’s arms; spry Chekov, fully alert and resting on a sickbay bed, doesn’t even get up! Chekov may be the least experienced member of the bridge crew, but his reactions throughout the episode are exaggerated and distracting. He would certainly show more sympathy to his colleagues.
An even more bizarrely written character is Dr. Janet Wallace (Sarah Marshall), whose presence is never explained. My impression is that she’s part of Commodore Stocker’s entourage, but that’s a big leap considering we never see anyone else traveling with Stocker. Wallace is another old flame of Kirk’s, who he greets exactly as he greeted his old flame in “Court Martial”: “How long has it been?” Not long enough, apparently, as they each still have feelings for the other. More importantly, Wallace is an endocrinologist just when we need one, so she becomes an important member of the research team. Her primary function is to provide a mirror for Kirk, a face that remains young and attractive while his is eaten away by age. The character is largely non-essential, but, like Drake, Marshall does very well in the role.
“The Deadly Years” is widely regarded as a commentary on aging. One common criticism of the episode is that it focuses entirely on mental and physical decline without depicting the finer qualities we (some of us, at any rate) develop as we age. To which I respond: that is the point. If we’re fortunate, we gain such qualities as wisdom, maturity, and patience with age, but that’s entirely a result of experience and reflection accumulated with the passage of time. The Enterprise landing party is denied that time, so decline is all that remains. Gray-haired grace is not part of this equation because the crew is not experiencing true human (or Vulcan) aging, but what McCoy calls “a peculiar physical degeneration which strongly resembles aging.” (The syndrome is later found to be caused by radiation from a comet that recently passed through the system.) From this standpoint, the depiction of these intelligent, hearty individuals losing control of their minds and bodies is quite good considering the time limits of the episode. The initial graying of hair is chalked up to the stress of their work, a reminder of exactly how much pressure these people live with. Galway, the only member of the landing party who doesn’t survive the illness, gets the finest moment: she’s afraid to sleep because, “What will I find when I wake up?” When confronted with her own wrinkled reflection in sickbay, she says, “That’s a stupid place to hang a mirror.” Spock ages more slowly than the others thanks to his Vulcan physiology, but still feels the effects and never loses his dignity. McCoy’s dialect becomes more hillbilly-ish by the moment, similar to his depiction of 137-year-old McCoy in the TNG pilot “Encounter at Farpoint.” Disease is cruel, and reducing or eliminating the lengthy hearing would have allowed time to explore that further.
Most of the focus, of course, is on Kirk, whose physical prowess and quick thinking have repeatedly saved his life and his crew; the early scene of the captain with his shirt off emphasizes this. Kirk has the hardest time facing infirmity, becoming increasingly crabby as the crew questions his repetition of orders. This particular mental decline seems to reduce the patient’s understanding of their situation: Kirk declares himself an old man during the early stages of the disease, but later, clearly nearing the end, he insists to Wallace, “I’m not old, Jan. I’m not.” The Johnsons, the elderly couple from the prologue, behave similarly, acting completely nonchalant as they recite their biological age, as if nothing is really happening to them.
Instead of a reflection of how we treat the aging, maybe a better comparison is how we treat the terminally ill, because that’s the real situation our characters face. Years ago, the father of a friend suffered inoperable cancer. Despite his being a good man appreciated by everyone who met him, I mostly recall the last time I saw him, at a gathering where everyone in the room feared physical contact, as if cancer might be contagious, and struggled awkwardly with what to say. Terminal or long-term illness, in the United States especially, is often considered both a financial burden and a moral failure. U.S. law specifies that a deceased patient’s estate (if they have any remaining assets) should be applied to medical debts, and in some states a surviving spouse is liable for any unpaid medical expenses. This relates insidiously to not only the greed of healthcare providers, but a widespread view of disease as the fault of the patient. Basic lifestyle choices such as smoking are not as clear-cut as we might like to believe, caused as much by addictively-designed products as personal choice. We even regard cancer as a contest of character, where patients do battle against an anthropomorphized combatant. Like so much in Western society, pending death is reduced to a transaction or a negotiation with God.
This is a far cry from the Enterprise, where the victims never entirely lose their inherent optimism, with the possible exception of Scott, who doesn’t have much to do but sulk and look tired. McCoy and Spock never give up their efforts to find a cure. Once the rapid aging syndrome is confirmed, Kirk says, “I want the answers and I want the remedy,” never doubting that a remedy is within their grasp. Wallace reflects this soon after, when she tells Kirk, “No problem is insoluble, not even ours.” The very fact that she considers Kirk’s disease to be “our” problem is light years ahead of much Western thinking. When Spock and Wallace prepare an experimental concoction, despite Spock’s warning of possible death, both McCoy and Kirk volunteer to be the first candidate, never doubting their colleagues and the potential of 23rd century medical science. This faith is only reaffirmed at the end, when newly revived Kirk takes back the bridge and has no doubt that the corbomite maneuver, the trick he used so effectively in the episode of the same name, will cause the Romulans enough hesitation for the Enterprise to escape. Even Stocker, if we’re optimistic, is working for the sick, urging them on to the starbase that he believes offers the help they need.
Before the final cure is tested, while Stocker waffles in the face of a Romulan assault, Chekov informs the commodore, “The Romulans do not take captives.” We’re reminded that the Enterprise crew is already living the true deadly years: not the nobility of earned old age, but the five-year mission that requires them to continually risk their lives. The crew has already forgotten her at the end, but poor Lieutenant Galway is proof that these are the deadliest of years. In his 1979 book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe wrote that the best test pilots were the best not because they took risks, but because they carefully calculated how much they could risk on any given day and survive. “This ineffable quality,” Wolfe wrote, was more complex than risking one’s life:
“The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here…seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment – and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite – and ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.” -Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff
That is the real point of Commodore Stocker’s presence in this story, to verify that we are among just such a crew. Stocker expresses this directly, calling Kirk “almost irreplaceable.” and later telling Spock, “My admiration for Captain Kirk is unbounded.” No sooner has this disease been cured than the crew is off to the next mystery, on a journey through the final, infinite frontier of knowledge that will mean something to humanity and its interstellar allies. This explains Kirk’s terror when he learns that the “paper-pusher” Stocker has taken command. It’s the reason Kirk reclaims the Enterprise from Will Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and the reason the crew, reluctantly, delays their own retirement to escort the Klingon chancellor in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Like the test pilots in Wolfe’s book, these characters will never name the quality that makes them exceptional, but they know they possess it, they recognize those who don’t, and they accept their duty to go out day after day, putting their hides on the line in a cause that means something.