Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Obsession

(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 15, 1967

Crew Death Count: 4 (all red shirts and victims of the cloud)

Bellybuttons: 0

“Obsession” marks a low point for Captain Kirk in an episode that violates the behavioral patterns of series regulars and revisits territory that has been covered in past episodes. This week, the Enterprise crew scouts out the mineral tritanium on the planet Argus X. Kirk recognizes a familiar smell and soon the landing party encounters a cloud that kills two security officers, and injures a third so severely that he dies later in sickbay. The cloud turns out to be the villain that attacked the U.S.S. Farragut eleven years ago, killing two hundred of the crew, including Captain Garrovick, father of the Enterprise’s new security officer, Ensign Garrovick (Stephen Brooks). Kirk was the phaser control officer on the Farragut; he hesitated to fire phasers when the cloud attacked the Farragut, and as a result still blames himself for the crew’s demise. This time around, Ensign Garrovick hesitates to fire when the cloud attacks a second Enterprise landing party, leading to the death of a fourth red shirt. Kirk becomes obsessed (get it?) with pursuing the cloud, to the point of not only risking the Enterprise and her crew, but failing to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Yorktown, transporting life-saving vaccines that have a limited shelf life. “Obsession” sets up a lot of conflicts between Kirk, Garrovick, Spock, and McCoy, and never really pays off.

Today’s forecast: Murderous fog

If “Obsession” sounds like another TOS visitation of Moby Dick, episode writer Art Wallace not only acknowledged the Melville inspiration, but actually based the script on a Gene Roddenberry concept called (get ready to facepalm) “Space Moby Dick.” We’ve seen the all-consuming pursuit idea presented much more effectively in “The Doomsday Machine,” not to mention, in its own way, “The Menagerie.” It will be even more effective when Kirk is the subject of Khan’s obsession in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

No.

The episode’s primary theme is the toxicity of guilt. McCoy tells Kirk, “Monsters come in many forms. You know the greatest monster of them all, Jim? Guilt.” That’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s an idea worth investigating. Any person with a conscience will be troubled by guilt at some point in their life. A little guilt can be a good thing: it motivates us to make amends for hurtful behavior and to learn from our errors. Too much guilt is counterproductive. Because we learn later in the episode that the cloud is immune to phasers anyway (that’s not surprising – it’s a cloud), neither Kirk nor Garrovick can be blamed for their brief hesitation to fire on the entity. What Kirk really seems to be experiencing is survivor’s guilt, living through a situation that so many others did not.

This looks like a really bad Vegas lounge act.

Garrovik, on the other hand, doesn’t experience guilt at first. While he’s distraught over the deaths of his shipmates, he initially doesn’t consider his hesitation – a fraction of a second – to have been significant. Kirk berates Garrovick in front of other officers, however, causing Garrovick considerable angst over letting down both his peers and his captain. Garrovick is an interesting character: the son of a former starship captain and a 3D chess player (we see the set in his quarters). It’s a shame he doesn’t get to do much in the episode other than look anguished and engage in a brief, and ridiculous, fistfight with Kirk when the two men try to out-martyr each other in the episode’s climax.

Nurse Chapel is another featured character in “Obsession,” one we’re always glad to see. She has a lovely exchange with Garrovick, when she brings a meal to his quarters with encouragement to eat and keep his strength up. “Self-pity’s a terrible first course,” she tells him. It’s an added bonus that Chapel has taken this initiative on herself, without orders from McCoy. Chapel even concocts a phony prescription, allegedly from McCoy, requiring Garrovick to eat under threat of intravenous nutrition. As far as we can tell, Chapel is the second most senior medical officer on the Enterprise, so it makes sense that she would have considerable discretion in maintaining the crew’s health.

Chapel delivers meals as often as yeomen pour coffee

The cloud, as a character, is unspectacular, endowed with whatever traits it needs for the story. A “sickly sweet smell” becomes noticeable anytime the cloud is about to appear. It drains its victims of red blood cells, presumably to feed off the iron in their hemoglobin, as Spock’s copper-based blood provides resistance. We assume this is the same cloud that attacked the Farragut without considering that maybe this is another member of the same species. It is composed of, among other things, the element dikironium, which Spock says was not previously believed to exist in nature. Except the cloud can magically change its chemical composition at will to avoid detection. If we accept that this is the only surviving cloud, that makes it another one-of-a-kind similar to the salt vampire from “The Man Trap” and the Companion from “Metamorphosis.” Unlike those earlier “villains,” the cloud is nothing more than a plot device to create conflict for our characters. One of the Tor rewatchers speculated that the cloud could be analogous to Agent Orange or some other poison gas. Agent Orange was specifically developed as an herbicidal weapon and first used by the British in Malaya in a starvation campaign again insurgents who opposed British mismanagement of the Malayan economy. Agent Orange was later used heavily in Vietnam by the U.S. and as early as 1966 U.N. resolutions accused the U.S. of violating the Geneva Convention’s prohibition of chemical and biological weapons. Correlating the cloud with Agent Orange is a fascinating idea that would have made for a far more interesting episode – maybe the cloud is another wayward weapon, like the planet destroyer in “The Doomsday Machine.”

Clouds in spaaaaace!!!

“Obsession” tries to play up the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad, but, again, this has been handled better in prior episodes. Spock and McCoy wisely unite in questioning Kirk’s motives and mental state. Both, equally wisely, are skeptical of Kirk’s claims that the cloud is intelligent. (Kirk talks repeatedly about the cloud possessing “intelligence.” I think he really means “consciousness,” or an awareness of its actions.) More importantly, they (and Scott) keep reminding Kirk that delaying the vaccine transport may cost lives. They press Kirk, but not enough under the circumstances. We do get a sense of the importance of the ship’s logs as a record of the crew’s actions, as McCoy’s pending medical log entry is the subject of considerable debate. When the cloud is confirmed to have “intelligence,” McCoy says, “I was wrong,” and this is technically correct, but the apology is unwarranted; McCoy was right about the larger issue of Kirk’s dereliction of duty. Spock is even more out of character. When the Enterprise pursues the cloud to the site of the Farragut incident, Spock says, “Evidence indicates the creature is here to spawn,” despite a complete non-existence of evidence. Also without evidence, he then decides the cloud will divide into thousands of killer clouds. Spock’s conclusion is that the cloud – the last of it’s kind – must be killed! Thank heaven Spock was in a better mood when he met the Horta.

Ironically, Spock and McCoy forgot their “I’m with stupid” shirts on the same day

If Spock’s guesses about the cloud seem unsubstantiated, Kirk’s are even more so. The entire episode depends on Kirk’s wild guesses being correct. He guesses this is the same cloud that attacked the Farragut, that it is not only intelligent but malevolent (“It’s evil. It must be destroyed.”), and that it leaves Argus X with the intent of returning “home,” which happens to be the site of its encounter with the Farragut. He is magically able to sense the cloud’s qualities in a way that no one else can, apparently the result of his previous run-in with the apparition. No matter how much guilt the captain feels, his obsession with the cloud is completely out of proportion to the situation. Even Kirk acknowledges that his behavior is suspect. In a log entry documenting his decision to delay meeting the Yorktown, he asks, “Why am I keeping the ship here?” Later, in another log entry, he asks, “Have I made a rational decision?” After being reminded, independently of each other, by Spock, McCoy, and Scott, about the time-sensitive vaccines, he claims his senior officers are “conspiring against me,” though he soon admits his word choice was out of line. This is the crazy version of the Kirk we saw in “Shore Leave,” so unable to let go of the past he risks a catastrophic outcome.

Grumpy and Bashful

The real disappointment of “Obsession” is that Kirk faces no consequences for his actions and, as a result, passes along no useful lessons to young Garrovick. The bizarre assumption that the cloud had to travel to a specific area of the galaxy to divide itself into thousands of foggy bloodsuckers is meant to justify Kirk’s dangerous conduct. It’s not enough, however. In the end, we’re still left with only guesswork, but no confirmation of the cloud’s true intentions. For all we know, the cloud left Argus X not to reproduce, but to escape the Enterprise. Two of the four crew deaths are caused directly by Kirk’s thoughtless pursuit. If Kirk really did have a psychic link with the cloud, why not try to communicate with it? There was a real opportunity here to reflect on the desire of one generation to leave a better world to the next. Instead, Kirk comes across as a Republican governor literally withholding essential vaccines out of sheer spite. And Kirk has, typically, forgotten his dead officers by episode’s end – especially disturbing this time, as Lieutenant Leslie (Eddie Paskey) makes a miraculous reappearance after dying in the prologue. Finally, Kirk is also guilty of repeating his own error – in the final confrontation with the cloud, Kirk and Garrovick both stand like idiots while the cloud absorbs their entire stock of hemoplasma bait. Kirk has learned nothing!

A great shot that deserves a better episode

Late in the episode, Garrovick, confined to his quarters and moping over his perceived failure, throws a food tray across his room. The tray strikes a switch that opens the room’s ventilation filter, giving the cloud easy access to his quarters after it enters the ship. This is a key moment and, again, “Obsession” misses the point. This is Garrovick’s real error, not the slight hesitation to fire his phaser earlier. This moment of anger carelessly expressed mirrors Kirk’s own reckless behavior and leaves the crew even more vulnerable. And neither Kirk nor Garrovick has to answer for their sins. Kirk talks of intuition several times during the episode, even telling us, “Intuition is recognized as a command prerogative.” If we’re supposed to take away yet another message of human exceptionalism, the triumph of emotion over logic, “Obsession” has failed completely. Instead, the episode reduces starship command to a game of chance, a dice game with lives on the line. If Kirk and Garrovick leave this incident none the wiser, at least we can learn what they didn’t: true leadership values life over ego and relies, not on whims, but evidence. This is not a political calculation, but a moral one.

Next: Wolf in the Fold

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