Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Spock’s Brain

(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: September 20, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 0 (but check out Kara’s groovy go-go boots)

Some people consider “Spock’s Brain” the worst episode of the original Star Trek series. These people have either not suffered through the colossal suck of “The Omega Glory,” or they’re Republicans who fear a powerful mind. What I didn’t previously know is that there is a whole series of philosophical thought experiments called “brain in a vat,” considering whether a disembodied brain powered by a computer can distinguish between that simulated reality and the reality it experienced while in its owner’s head. Those philosophers are an eccentric bunch and were clearly watching a lot of Star Trek. This week, an alien woman named Kara (Marj Dusay) pops onto the Enterprise and incapacitates the crew with a nifty Bat-utility wristwatch. She surgically removes…well…Spock’s brain. The Enterprise crew tracks Kara to Sigma Draconis VI, where a landing party of Kirk, McCoy, Scott, and zombie-Spock confront the indigenous people, locate Spock’s brain, and restore it to Spock’s head. And while “Spock’s Brain” is written at about a third-grade level, there is more going on here than most people acknowledge.

International Woman of Mystery

One of the biggest problem’s with “Spock’s Brain” is the illogic of the underlying premise. Sigma Draconis VI is “a primitive, glaciated planet” with neanderthal-ish men living on the surface and wearing the latest in leg- and arm-warmers. The women live in a comfortable underground habitat and are dressed for a 1960s London night club. All of them have the mentality of preschool children, but the women (eymorg in local jargon) enjoy the civilizing influence of their climate-controlled home and dominate the men (morg) with the same utility bracelet Kara used to steal Spock’s brain. They are ruled by a Controller, essentially a large computer that needs a living brain to power it. It’s a miracle they’ve lasted this long; such a system seems unsustainable. The men refer to the women as “givers of pain and delight”; pain comes from the utility bracelet and delight – or so it’s implied – comes from the women themselves, wink, wink. The men and women living separately is clearly meant to seem unnatural to us: the natives don’t even recognize the terms “men” or “women” and demonstrate their lack of civilization by showing no interest in romantic relationships. As in “The Apple,” Kirk seems preoccupied with bringing together males and females in a “natural” order so they can properly fool around Kirk-style.

Life before the Dollar Shave Club was nasty, brutish, and short

This bizarre arrangement of a Controller with infantile subjects was established by a previous society variously referred to as “the ancients” and “the builders of this planet.” Are these the ancestors of the current inhabitants? Or are they the same Old Ones referred to in “Catspaw” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” They left behind sophisticated technology – Scott notes that Kara’s ship is powered by ion propulsion, saying, “They could teach us a thing or two.” Either way, the inhabitants of Sigma Draconis VI have become dependent on a computer, and we know from “The Apple” and “The Return of the Archons” that Kirk won’t sit still for that. With Spock’s brain safely returned, he tells Kara, “You’ll be without your Controller for the first time, but you’ll be much better off, I think.” From experience, we know Kirk’s two motives for cutting the locals loose from their caretaker. The first is the aforementioned conjugal relations. Kara fears the men won’t cooperate without the pain bracelet; Kirk, understanding the incentivizing force of a roll in the hay, assures her otherwise. Kirk’s second motive is to get these people on track to becoming good, hard-working, stressed-out capitalists: “You’ll learn to build houses, to keep warm, to work. We’ll help you for a while. Humans have survived under worse conditions. It’s a matter of evolution.” Maybe they’ll be offered the same academic fast-track Uhura received at the end of “The Changeling.”

Kirk’s courtship rituals are a mystery to everyone but himself

Nearly as insidious as Kirk’s mating preoccupation is the implication that women are not fit to govern themselves. Despite their lack of common sense, the women look healthy and seem to be getting by just fine. In fairness, the men are forced to rough it on the surface and they make it clear they’d like the “pain” part of the equation to go away – the landing party gets a taste of this and Kirk describes it as, “Every nerve in my body was on fire.” Otherwise, they, too, seem healthy, and this is the system that was established by someone, as silly as it might seem. We’d hardly realize it by watching Star Trek, but 1968 was a busy year in second-wave feminism: the first national meeting of equal rights activists was held outside Chicago, Illinois; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released updated Title VII guidelines prohibiting gender-specific job listings; the very term “second-wave feminism” was first used in a New York Times Magazine article in March; and only two weeks before “Spock’s Brain” aired, the group New York Radical Women demonstrated at the Miss American Pageant in New Jersey, unfurling a “Women’s Liberation” banner during the event. The women on Sigma Draconis VI are the dominant gender and, while he never says it, Kirk indicates his disapproval of a maternalistic culture. “You will live and develop as you should have,” he tells Kara. “All this shouldn’t have been done for you. Now the women here below and the men here above will control together.” Sorry, ladies, but you need some men-folk to help you make decisions!

Shagadelic, baby!

Before we get to the episode’s strengths – and it does have some – we’re forced to acknowledge the silly dialogue. It’s true that there are only so many ways to describe a hijacked brain, but frequent laugh-out-loud moments lend a lot to the episode’s campy nature:

  • McCoy after finding brainless Spock in sickbay: “He was worse than dead.”
  • Kirk after informing McCoy where they are headed: “In search of his brain, Doctor.” That explains the title of the TV series In Search Of… (1977-1982) and why only Leonard Nimoy could have hosted it.
  • Uhura once the search is underway: “What would they want with Mr. Spock’s brain? What use is it?”
  • Kara when Kirk confronts her over the missing gray matter: “Brain and brain! What is brain?”
  • Scott during the exploration of Sigma Draconis VI: “How does Spock’s brain fit into this?”
Spock learns the hard way that “dead” and “worse than dead” are not that different

So some of the scorn toward “Spock’s Brain” is well deserved, but it’s not all bad. For example, the Enterprise bridge was a unique set even at the time, and this episode shows us the bridge from angles we’ve rarely seen before. Kirk demonstrates TOS’ life first philosophy, when he reminds Kara that Spock will die without his brain: “No one may kill a man. Not for any purpose. It cannot be condoned.” [Sorry, women!] Kara counters that with the same “needs of the many” argument Spock will make in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): “Why do you not understand that the need of my people for their Controller is greater than your need for your friend?” And McCoy and Scott perform a technological miracle, creating a remote control that manipulates Spock’s body – despite the comical result, possession of an individual’s body is a classic horror/s-f plot device.

Someone finally figured out the bridge is a 360° set

The Others, whoever they were, didn’t leave their people completely helpless. They left behind the Teacher, a device of great intrigue that gets overshadowed by its goofy appearance. Wearing the helmet-like Teacher conveys expert-level knowledge on a particular topic, what Kara calls “old knowledge.” This is how Kara performed the surgery to remove Spock’s brain, and how McCoy performs the restorative surgery. This is no Youtube video, but true mastery of the problem at hand. The knowledge is temporary, however, which explains why Kara has no memory of the experience by the time the Enterprise crew shows up. It’s a nifty way of sharing knowledge without the drawn-out process of traditional learning. Imagine what one could achieve by becoming a subject-matter expert for a few hours – auto repair, emergency surgery, plumbing, there is no end to the cost and time savings such a device could deliver. The device is configured for minds of the natives, so McCoy risks his life when he wears the Teacher. The moment raises an important ethical question that never gets explored. Is saving Spock’s life McCoy’s real motive? He hopes to retain the Teacher’s proficiency to share with the Federation. It seems like a worthwhile objective, but is the Federation really ready for this level of knowledge? For every genuine life-saving procedure, we can easily imagine a hundred nefarious uses cropping up. It’s a moot point in the end, because the knowledge escapes McCoy as quickly as it did Kara, revealing the limits of temporary insight: the brain-restoring ability eludes McCoy mid-surgery and Spock is forced to guide McCoy through the rest of the operation. (We’re told McCoy will die if he uses the Teacher a second time, but the reason for this isn’t clear.)

Hot for Teacher: At least the Teacher provided useful information

Had the doctor been able to recall the brain surgery technique, it would have opened up an entirely new field of organ transplant. Brain or full-head transplants are considered impossible in our own time, partly because of the necessity of severing the entire spinal column and the resulting loss of transmission in scarred nerve tissue. But the 1960s was a profound decade in the field of organ transplantation. After progress with kidney transplants in the 1950s, the first successful pancreas transplant was performed in 1966, the first successful liver transplant and the first heart transplant in 1967, and the first successful bone marrow transplant in 1968. Also in 1968, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws issued the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, establishing eligibility guidelines for organ donation and creating the Uniform Donor Card as a legal document throughout the United States.

Rule number one at slumber parties: first one to fall asleep gets pranked

“Spock’s Brain” also bears comparison to that most famous of contemporary brain in a vat stories, The Matrix (1999). While victims’ brains aren’t physically separated from their bodies in The Matrix, they are controlled entirely by machines and immersed in a simulated reality. In some ways, “Spock’s Brain” is an anti-Matrix story: Spock is generally aware of his situation, or at least he can understand his situation without the need of a red or blue pill; despite being hostage, he will be the Controller, maintaining the society much as Landru and Vaal did for their own respective cultures; instead of being one of many, as in The Matrix, Spock’s brain will be in charge and remain apart from the masses. The Controller’s specific duties not fully specified, but include life support systems. The natives have lost most of the intellect of whoever devised this arrangement (Spock calls it “a retrograde civilization”), and Kara tells Spock, “You will give life to my people for ten thousand years to come.”

Early Alexa models were simply not practical

A disembodied brain is hardly new to Star Trek. The Providers in “The Gamesters of Triskelion” were gambling, primary color brains. Personality transfers to android bodies – which presumably involves some transition of the brain or its contents – were offered in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and “I, Mudd.” The problem with “Spock’s Brain” isn’t the premise so much as implementation. If the sets had been designed more seriously, if the dialogue had been cleaned up, and if the deeper issues had been explored in lieu of lengthy perambulations by zombie-Spock, “Spock’s Brain” had the potential to offer serious insights into identity, sacrifice, and friendship. Is Spock a different person for having his mind relocated? Perhaps not now, but imagine the divergent paths of Spock on the Enterprise compared to Controller-Spock, denied the company of his friends and their future adventures while tempted with the vanity of giving life to thousands (millions?) of people – no doubt alluring even to a Vulcan, after ten thousand years. Spock encourages the landing party to save themselves rather than risk their lives in what is likely to be a lost cause. McCoy risks brain damage or death using the Teacher to save Spock. Kirk literally gets on his knees, begging Kara to free their comrade. And Scott is alongside them every step of the way, providing a clever distraction for Kirk to disarm Kara when she threatens him with a phaser.

The third season took a real toll on the cast

Sometimes life is preceded by a false reputation, and if we can’t judge a book by its cover, we certainly can’t judge “Spock’s Brain” by its notoriety. Yes, it’s a clumsy episode with writing better suited to 1930s Flash Gordon than 1960s Star Trek. But, like Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” we know one of Star Trek’s greatest lessons is the need for exploration to understand the good – and sometimes the bad – that is often obscured by superficial first appearances. The good: Kara and her cohorts aren’t sinister, just desperate to save their society and, in the end, easily reasoned with. The bad: Our hypocrisy is in full view; we casually dismiss Kara’s “needs of the many” contention while accepting it later from Spock and Kirk. And as viewers, if we’re too quick to jump on the worst episode bandwagon, we’ll miss out on a few laughs and even a little food for thought. Every series with twenty-plus episodes per season will have a few clunkers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the ride. There’s nothing wrong, once in a while, with a little mindless entertainment.

Next: The Enterprise Incident

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