Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Enterprise Incident

(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 27, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0 (There’s no such thing as a Vulcan death grip.)

Bellybuttons: 0 (The Romulan commander is conservatively attired throughout the episode and remains one of the most memorable guest stars of the entire series.)

Anyone traumatized by the wacky hijinks of “Spock’s Brain” should be relieved that we’re back to more conventional derring-do with “The Enterprise Incident.” This week, Kirk establishes a pattern of irrational behavior among his crew before ordering the Enterprise to cross the Neutral Zone into Romulan space. The ship is soon surrounded by three Romulan vessels led by the Romulan Commander with no name (Joanne Linville) and her loyal Sub-Commander Tal (Jack Donner, who played a Vulcan priest in two episodes of Enterprise). We gradually learn that Kirk and Spock are on an intricate espionage mission to obtain a cloaking device, technology revealed in “Balance of Terror” that the Romulans may use toward nefarious ends against the Federation. Let’s ignore the fact that the cloaking device looks suspiciously like the head of Nomad from “The Changeling” on top of a receptacle from “Return to Tomorrow.”

The Enemy Within

“The Enterprise Incident” is remembered with great fondness among TOS fans and for good reason. Joanne Linville is wonderful as the Commander, remaining feminine in a way that, like it or not, would have been expected by 1960s audiences, while projecting a strong leader who is never intimidated by Kirk, the Enterprise, or the Federation. The act-crazy-and-hope-a-million-details-go-perfectly scheme is outlandish, but remains entertaining to this day. In some ways, the episode is reminiscent of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), which, like Star Trek, began its third season in the fall of 1968. Like MI, “The Enterprise Incident” depends on one far-fetched coincidence after another – “You took a big chance that they didn’t start an autopsy,” McCoy says after Kirk simulates death aboard the Romulan ship. Emulating MI was a worthy idea: the show was only 32nd in the Nielsen ratings in the 1967-68 season, but received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in both 1967 and 1968. In fact, the script by D.C. Fontana, though rumored to have been heavily rewritten by the men-folk, was inspired by the Pueblo incident. The U.S.S. Pueblo was a naval spy ship captured by North Korea in January, 1968. Based partly on a disagreement over what constituted international seas, the North Koreans claimed the Pueblo had invaded their territorial waters. (Is it a coincidence that North Korean agents attempted to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee one day before the Pueblo was seized?) One U.S. sailor was killed during the capture and the remaining crew were imprisoned and tortured before being released in December, 1968. The Pueblo remains in North Korean custody to this day.

U.S.S. Pueblo in North Korea (Photo by Eric Talmadge, AP)

The prologue, with Sulu questioning the captain’s order to enter the Neutral Zone, will be repeated to great effect in the Kobayashi Maru scene that opens Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). And while that later story refers to the Klingon Neutral Zone, “The Enterprise Incident” implies Klingons and Romulans may be working together. “Intelligence reports Romulans now using Klingon design,” Spock says when the first Romulan ship appears, looking exactly like a Klingon battle cruiser. This alleged collaboration was not revisited in TOS (though deleted scenes in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) included Romulans in the Klingon-Federation conspiracy to prevent the Khitomer Conference), the premise was revived by TNG. One of the rewatchers from TOR speculated that the Federation may have initiated an intense intelligence gathering operation on the Romulan Empire after the events of “Balance of Terror,” which would explain how Kirk and Spock are so well prepared for this mission, including Spock’s awareness of the Romulan Right of Statement. Spock claims the Right of Statement, literally the opportunity for the condemned to make a full statement of his actions and motives, late in the episode, after Kirk has safely escaped with the cloaking device. It’s primarily a delaying tactic, giving Scott time to install the cloaking device in the Enterprise, but the very knowledge of this privilege indicates the Federation has been studying the Empire.

“I further attest to my assumption that ‘smokin’ hottie’ was considered a compliment.”

Much of the episode depends on William Shatner’s ability to portray Kirk’s descent into madness and subsequent recovery, and for all the jokes about Shatner’s acting, he does fine work here. The crew is quickly disarmed by Kirk’s combativeness because they are accustomed to the captain’s collaborative leadership style. That style is demonstrated throughout TOS via the conference room scene, and “The Enterprise Incident” uses a hostile version of just such a scene to illustrate how much both Kirk and his crew are off their game. Two unidentified crewmen stand at attention in the background, something we haven’t seen before and alerting us immediately that this is not a typical officers’ meeting. Later, Kirk’s depiction of a near-catatonic state while on the Romulan vessel is brilliant. We can easily imagine that Kirk’s anxiety is genuine, because the burden of success or failure rests largely on him. Of course, we never really believe the formal excuse, that Kirk suffers from the burden of command. But during much of the episode’s first half, we can’t be certain whether or not something is seriously wrong with Kirk. The moment we know it’s an act is the same moment we know Spock is in on the secret: when Spock tells the Romulan Commander, “Captain Kirk ordered the Enterprise across the Neutral Zone on his own initiative and his craving for glory.” Kirk isn’t known for his humility, but glory is never his motive, and Spock certainly understands that. By establishing a pattern of irrational behavior before the incursion, Kirk has set himself up as the one person who will be disavowed (if we’re sticking with the Mission: Impossible comparison) in the event of failure. “That’s what this whole masquerade was about,” Kirk says, “to keep the Enterprise and the Federation off the hook.”

This is the worst Love Connection episode I’ve ever seen

While Kirk fakes mental decline, Spock is in the difficult position of trying to manipulate the Commander for information (more on the Commander’s response later). Spock is perfect for the role: besides the fact that Vulcans and Romulans share common ancestors, the scenario exploits the widespread expectation – among those who don’t know him, at any rate – that Spock’s loyalties are torn due to his half-Vulcan/half-human status. Spock makes no secret of his position the first time he’s questioned by the Commander; in fact, she unwittingly helps define that position herself. The Commander asks Spock to confirm the rumor that Vulcans cannot lie. But she prefaces this with, “I have heard of Vulcan integrity and personal honor.” She mistakenly assumes that integrity includes Spock being unable to lie to her, when the truth is just the opposite. He will do whatever is necessary to protect his captain and the crew of the Enterprise. So when Spock tells the Commander he cannot lie, he’s saying what any liar would say and preserving his integrity. He confirms this at the end of the episode. When the Commander feels betrayed at Spock’s subterfuge, she asks, “What are you that you could do this?” The Vulcan’s response is simple and obvious: “First Officer of the Enterprise.” Later, after claiming the Romulan right of statement, Spock says, “The oath I swore as a Starfleet officer is both specific and binding. As long as I wear the uniform, my duty is to protect the security of the Federation. Clearly, your new cloaking device is a threat to that security. I carried out my duty.” We should also take note of Spock’s new superpower. While the alleged death grip he applies to Kirk is a fraud (Chapel delivers the classic line: “There’s no such thing as a Vulcan death grip.”), he achieved it with what McCoy calls “a nerve pinch to simulate death.” I’ve been on a few job interviews when that would have come in handy.

His eyes say yes but his hand says no

The Commander is smart enough to realize almost immediately that the Federation’s real objective is obtaining the cloaking device. Still, the Romulans have as much to gain from this encounter as the Federation. Despite Tal’s initial threat to destroy the Enterprise, the Commander prefers to keep the ship as a prize, because, as Scott points out, “They’ll know everything there is to know about a starship.” The Romulans and the Federation still have a lot to learn about each other, but, like Kirk and Spock, the Commander has done her homework. “There are certain ships, certain officers, that are known to us,” she says. If she is not familiar with the potential dishonesty of Vulcans, she is at least aware of humans’ deceitful nature. When Kirk denies being a spy, the Commander says, “Your language has always been most difficult for me, Captain. Perhaps you have another word for it.” And while Tal and the Commander appear to work well together, security on the Romulan vessel is as poor as the Enterprise. Kirk easily boards the Romulan ship and makes off with the cloaking device, encountering no significant resistance the whole time. There is also reason to believe Romulans don’t share the same loyalty as the Enterprise crew. When Spock approaches the area where the cloaking device is kept, the Commander says, “That corridor is forbidden to all but loyal Romulans.” Does she believe there are disloyal Romulans aboard? Clearly, this culture lacks the cohesiveness of the Federation crew, where armed guards aren’t necessary against their own shipmates. Compare this to Scott’s reaction of pure joy when he learns that Kirk is still alive. Is Tal mourning the abduction of his commander at episode’s end, or celebrating?

An awkward time to learn of Mr. Scott’s long-hidden fetish for Romulans

Many criticize “The Enterprise Incident” because they feel the Commander is too stereotypically feminine, too easily manipulated by Spock. Is she, though? Right through the final scene, we’re not certain how much of the Spock/Commander chemistry is sincere or manufactured as a means to an end. Why else would she have herself beamed on board the Enterprise? She’s too wise to believe a lasting relationship with the First Officer is feasible. We leave the episode assuming Kirk, Spock, and company have outsmarted the emotional woman, but maybe the Commander is simply playing a longer game. Maybe the real discrimination is with us, the viewers: We give the men permission to manipulate women emotionally, but can’t accept the female leader manipulating men in the same fashion? And if Kirk can rip off his shirt now and then, there should be nothing wrong with the Commander slipping into a slinky gown. Even if the Commander really does feel an emotional bond with Spock, the burden of hypocrisy is still with us. It’s Kirk’s prerogative to cope with the stress of command by engaging in one affair after another. Why should the woman be denied the same?


Whatever the truth between these galactic agents of intrigue, “The Enterprise Incident” recalls a cinematic version of the Cold War, with spies falling in and out of love while hiding the secret microfilm behind their backs. Now that the Federation possesses the cloaking device, the Commander says the Romulan Empire will simply find a way to defeat the device. “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all,” Spock agrees. As with the Romulan commander’s concession at the end of “Balance of Terror,” we can hope this episode…sorry, incident…paves the way toward a path of peace. “It would be illogical to assume that all conditions remain stable,” Spock says. Then, at the end, he tells the Commander, “I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.” He means something bigger than these two individuals, profound enough to move empires and render those stares across the Neutral Zone a little less hostile.

More troubling is McCoy’s masterful transformation of Kirk into a Romulan officer. If humans can so easily impersonate Romulans, and vice versa, the galaxy is reduced to a massive Spy vs. Spy operation. Remember how perfectly the Klingon spy in “The Trouble with Tribbles” resembled a human? On the other hand, maybe more such identity swaps would generate empathy. One of the greatest risks of undercover surveillance is that spies might become sympathetic to their targets. Both Spock and the Commander seem to have experienced this in each other’s company – small wonder that it’s Spock who travels undercover to Romulus in the TNG episode “Unification.” Given time, Kirk-as-Romulan may have learned the same empathy. This compassion is ultimately what “The Enterprise Incident” is all about. The three leads, Cold Warriors all, end up a little wiser with no blood shed. Imagine if this empathy could be shared up the chain of command. If we’re not careful, we may learn that our enemies are not so alien, after all.

Next: The Paradise Syndrome

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