(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)
Original Air Date: April 13, 1967
Crew Death Count: 0 (but Kirk’s brother and sister-in-law died, and four entire planetary systems have been subject to “mass insanity”)
For years, I’ve referred to “Operation – Annihilate!” as the flying barf episode. That was more accurate than I realized, because according to Wikipedia, the episode’s villainous organisms “were created by prop designer Wah Chang from bags of fake vomit.” The presence of the unnamed organisms is hinted at in the prologue, when the Enterprise approaches the planet Deneva to investigate what Spock describes as a “pattern of mass insanity destroying civilizations” in this region of the galaxy. The phenomenon has affected four planets prior to Deneva, beginning before recorded history, with the first documented example occurring two hundred years ago. Later, a landing party discovers the culprits, the aforementioned organisms, which have caused madness among Deneva’s population by infiltrating their nervous systems beyond the possibility of surgical removal. Among the victims are Kirk’s brother, now deceased, his sister-in-law, who dies soon after on the Enterprise, and his nephew, who is infected and unconscious throughout the episode. During the away mission, Spock is attacked by one of the organisms and also faces certain death unless McCoy can develop a cure.
The two-hundred-year gap between planetary infections stretches credibility; this phenomenon should have been presented as a more immediate threat. Two centuries! That’s even slower follow-up than the Federation’s one-hundred-years-too-late search for the Archon in “The Return of the Archons.” This extended time period makes us question how no one across four planets had time to report sightings of the flying barf. McCoy claims there is no medical or scientific explanation for the mass insanity, which implies that some evidence exists; so why isn’t someone acting on it? Kirk’s sister-in-law, Aurelan (Joan Swift), explains how the organisms moved from planet to planet, by using infected hosts as “their arms and legs” to commandeer starships, one of which brought the creatures to Deneva. When we first encounter Aurelan, she screams “They’re here!” as though the creatures have just appeared. Yet she later claims the organisms arrived eight months ago. We’re also left with no indication of what happened to the four previous systems. Did the organisms vacate the planets once they occupied the inhabitants? Are they still there? I hope someone is looking into this.
Another storyline that never really goes anywhere is the death of Kirk’s brother and sister-in-law. The nature of their relationship is never discussed, so maybe the two Kirks didn’t get along, but the deaths still pass with too little impact. This subplot is well-intentioned; it personalizes the conflict and sets up an ethical quandary regarding Kirk’s priorities: is he more concerned with saving his nephew and Spock, or the millions of infected Denevans? At some level, a cure is a cure and that is Kirk’s goal. But it does raise questions about where he’ll focus his energies in other situations. Again, the scenario is not fully explored, but the show gets credit for raising the question.
Likewise, Kirk faces “the most difficult decision of my life,” in debating whether to risk letting the organisms escape Deneva (via their humanoid hosts) or stopping them the only way he knows how: destroying the planet’s entire population. The whole idea falls flat when Kirk makes it clear he wouldn’t really kill all those people (“I will accept neither of those alternatives”), but it sets up a brief life vs. destruction debate between Spock and McCoy, reminiscent of a similar debate they’ll have in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).
“Operation – Annihilate!” excels primarily as a team effort. Uhura and Sulu get opportunities to make brief but significant contributions. Mr. Scott shows why he should become the ship’s chief of security, as he handily prevents Spock from making unauthorized use of the transporter; we know that any Enterprise security officer posted there would have been knocked unconscious in seconds. Also, more than any previous episode, we get a substantial exploration of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad, flaws and all. Kirk engages in good-natured teasing of Spock’s logic without descending into cruelty. McCoy declares Spock to be “the best first officer in the fleet,” but tries to prevent Spock from overhearing the comment. Spock, as he has before, takes obvious pride in Vulcan superiority over humans, in this case because of the secret inner eyelid that saves him from permanent blindness after being freed from the organisms by exposure to intense light. He even makes a joke, describing the horror of regaining his eyesight to find McCoy standing over him. When Spock, compromised by infection by the aliens, escapes sickbay in an attempt to beam down and recover a sample, Kirk instinctively knows he can trust his first officer.
The highlight of this camaraderie comes during the climactic scenes when that light treatment is tested on Spock. He stoically accepts the prospect of blindness, recognizing that he took the risk voluntarily and made a worthwhile sacrifice for the greater good. When Kirk learns that only UV light was necessary to kill the organisms, meaning Spock didn’t need to risk blindness, he is furious at McCoy’s carelessness, but quick to forgive his friend, who is no more flawed than anyone else. McCoy, upon learning of his error, loses all of his traditional “country doctor” bluster and demonstrates genuine horror. The dynamic between these friends is so spot-on, we can forgive the obvious question of how Spock forgot about his inner eyelids in the first place.
Of course, the “bags of fake vomit” are the stars of the episode, and their behavior is inconsistently defined. (“It doesn’t even look real,” says Yeoman Zahra (Maurishka Taliaferro) upon first sighting them.) They are reminiscent of a sinister version of the plant spores from “This Side of Paradise,” individual units operating as a collective. Where did they originate? Why did they invade this particular region of space? Why do they only seem to be present on one planet at a time? So many unanswered questions.
The organisms use pain to control their subjects, which seems to leave the victims’ will and intellect fairly intact. As a result, Aurelan is able to communicate the organisms’ sinister objective – forcing the Denevans to build starships for them, but to what end? – before being overwhelmed by pain. Similarly, when the landing party arrives, they are greeted by a group of Denevans brandishing clubs; the group’s attitude is hostile but their repeated message is: “Go back!” and “We don’t want to hurt you!” Their willingness to assault the landing party rather than let them become infected implies they consider death a preferable alternative. This is consistent with the prologue, when a lone Denevan pilots his ship into the sun to rid himself of the organisms, providing a clue that ultimately leads to the cure. Like the others, he is impaired by pain, but retains enough free will to take the final, ultimate step.
The crew’s response to the organisms is somewhat bungled. When they find the creatures clinging to the walls and ceiling inside a building, they immediately turn their back to the organisms, thereby allowing Spock to be attacked. They make no attempt to understand or communicate with the aliens, other than trying to annihilate (sorry, Annihilate!) them. Of course, “Operation – Communicate!” isn’t as dramatic as “Operation – Annihilate!” but it is more descriptive of their overall mission. As is common at the end of TOS episodes, there is no follow-up to this disturbing encounter. Will more of these organisms arrive? They are essentially a Borg-like collective without the mobility of humanoid form; like the Borg, we shouldn’t expect them to give up so easily.
Despite their collective nature, the Deneva organisms are essentially parasites along the lines of protozoa, single-celled organisms dependent on their hosts. In this case, the organisms can exist outside their hosts but they can do little else. Parasites that infect humans are generally killed before they can become a problem, or treated with medications after infection. Landscapes are sprayed with chemicals to kill mosquitoes before they can spread disease, but the chemicals can harm people, other animals, and plants. Heat kills Trichinella roundworms in pork. Drugs like ivermectin are used to treat head lice in humans and heartworms in dogs, but anti-parasitic drugs can have severe side effects. So using intense light to eradicate the Deneva organisms, with the associated risk of blindness (or risks not mentioned in the episode, like skin cancer!), is not a farfetched approach.
It’s easy to make a connection between the crew’s response to the Deneva aliens and our own failed handling of Covid-19. As is often the case in TOS, salvation is found in sacrifice and teamwork. “United we stand, divided we fall” is a cliché, but most clichés contain at least an element of truth. In the end, Kirk doesn’t really need to struggle between caring for his friends and relatives versus the population of Deneva, because the same cure will serve them all. Public health is not a matter for politics or self-interest, it is a balance of minor inconveniences to strengthen the overall community. There were 57,628 diagnosed cases of polio in the U.S. during the peak of the early 1950s epidemic; 3,145 of those patients died and 21,269 suffered some degree of paralysis. Thanks to polio vaccines, the disease has essentially been eliminated in the U.S. and much of the world. The rare, and typically trivial, vaccine side-effects are an easy price to pay for the lives that are saved. As are basic steps of mask-wearing, hand-washing, and safe (social) distancing in the face of a global pandemic. Since our questions about the origin of the Deneva organisms remain unanswered, maybe McCoy or some other enterprising (get it?) scientist will develop a vaccine that renders the aliens harmless. Until then, our crew will continue doing what they always do: collaborating and making whatever sacrifice is necessary for the needs of the many. Shame on us if we ignore their example.
Next: Amok Time