(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: January 24, 1969
Crew Death Count: 3 (Ensign Wyatt, Lieutenant D’Amato, and Engineer Watkins, all of whom are forgotten by the end of the episode)
Bellybuttons: 0 (note the precise cut-outs in Losira’s costume)
“That Which Survives” is not only derivative of previous TOS episodes, but a downright boring story that feels incomplete. This week, the Enterprise encounters a “ghost” planet, which Spock determines is only a few thousand years old, about the size of earth’s moon but with similar mass and atmosphere as earth. The planet’s age makes the possibility of evolution highly unlikely, despite the presence of advanced plant life. Spock describes it as “a seemingly impossible phenomenon.” When a landing party of Kirk, Sulu, McCoy, and Lieutenant D’Amato (Arthur Batanides) beams down, a mysterious woman (Lee Meriwether) appears in the transporter room and kills the transporter operator Ensign Wyatt (Brad Forrest), before the Enterprise is abruptly thrown over 990 light years away.
A potentially interesting setup falls short almost immediately with an episode that feels bogged down by distractions in place of a genuine story, starting with that 990 light years. It’s really 990.7 light years, one of many trivial points that Spock nitpicks throughout the episode. Spock is left in command of the Enterprise in Kirk’s absence, and rather than demonstrating the superiority of Vulcan logic, as he has done so often in the past, the character is distractingly petulant and never convinces us we should be worried about what’s happening. Spock bickers with Uhura, Scott, and Lieutenant Rahda (Naomi Pollack) over details that have no bearing on their situation or strategy. For example, when Scott reports an intuition that something is wrong with the Enterprise, Spock throws a mini-Vulcan-tantrum, rather than acknowledge the relevance of the chief engineer’s experience. (In fairness, Scott should probably have done some investigating before reporting a feeling, but still…) A few attempts at humor fall flat and contradict the episode’s otherwise dramatic tone. It’s almost as if Spock’s dialogue was written for a different episode. Likewise, the landing party spends most of “That Which Survives” puzzling over the various versions of Losira (the mystery woman) instead of learning anything of substance.
The good news is that, while Sulu is away, a woman – the aforementioned Rahda – takes the helm. It would be nice if she got to do more than tolerate Spock’s nagging. Also, Dr. M’Benga (Booker Bradshaw), who first appeared in “A Private Little War,” returns and is equally put-upon by Spock. When he reports the manner of Wyatt’s death – “it’s as though every cell in the body had been individually blasted from inside” – Spock only criticizes the doctor for not yet having identified the cause of the cell destruction. M’Benga also mentions a Dr. Sanchez, implying that there are at least three physicians on board the Enterprise, although we never see Sanchez.
The landing party slowly figures out that the strange planet they’re stranded on might be hollow, a conclusion they could have reached sooner if they had recalled “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” less than three months previous. One piece of evidence is the resistance of the planet’s rocky surface to phasers, giving us a nice continuity moment when Sulu references the Horta from “The Devil in the Dark” (proving that the crew does have a memory, and should use it more often).
Only late in the episode do we see more than one Losira at once; until then we (and the crew) are inclined to assume she’s a living individual. As she approaches Wyatt, D’Amata, and Engineer Watkins (Kenneth Washington) one at a time, the men all seem flummoxed by a beautiful woman and are too slow to question her presence or purpose. The fact that Losira is dressed in TOS’ traditional Frederick’s of Hollywood attire only adds to their distraction. Since all three men die because of their hesitation, there was an opportunity to slip in a message about priorities, but it never happens. Sulu even comments, after D’Amato’s death, “What a terrible way to die.” Kirk distracts us from any possible lesson, while simultaneously presaging the loss of his friend in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), when he says, “There are no good ways, Sulu.” (One of the episode’s best moments occurs just prior to D’Amato’s death, with a fine montage of the landing party surveying the planet. It’s the only time they actually conduct themselves like explorers.)
Sulu is the true hero of “That Which Survives.” He is the only crew member savvy enough to suspect Losira the moment she appears. He wisely tries to apprehend her for questioning, but only finds himself gravely injured before she disappears. The scene is diminished by TOS’ requisite sexism, when Sulu aims his phaser at Losira and says, “I don’t want to have to kill a woman!” (Tough luck, men!) Later, he says, “Such evil. And she’s so beautiful.” It’s a pointless comment that only exists to set up Kirk’s dialogue in the final scene. The fact that Losira targets a different person every time she appears, saying “I am for D’Amato” or “I am for Sulu,” creates the impression that she is more programmed assailant than reasoning being. When she comes for Kirk – with McCoy and Sulu around to provide interference – the captain questions Losira intently and this somehow throws her off task. Given Kirk’s preoccupation with procreation, it’s no surprise that one of his first questions is, “Are there men on this planet?” He speculates that Losira is lonely and asks about the creators of the planet/outpost. “They are no more,” she says. So is Losira sentient or robot?
The explanation is rushed into the final scene and leaves no room for contemplation or future planning. When the landing party finds the underground control center, they learn that a species called the Kalandans (who look remarkably human) built this station. A disease wiped out the station’s population and was spread to their other locations by supply ships. All that remains is the station’s automated control system. The outpost’s defensive system, designed to allow only other Kalandans to approach, created the various Losiras to target individuals based on DNA, a severely inefficient method in the event of a large landing party. The template for these DNA-specific Losiras was the real Losira, the last surviving Kalandan, who programmed the system. The defense-Losiras seem to have inherited the real Losira’s compassion – when the first Losira appears in the transporter room, she urges the landing party not to beam down. The whole thing ends up feeling like “Spock’s Brain” with an impersonal brain and almost no time to learn about the alien culture. “Anonymous Brain” might have been a better title. We never learn how the Kalandan computer was able to fling the Enterprise such a vast distance and still project a Losira onto the ship, or how it accessed Enterprise computer records. If the control system could transport the Enterprise so far away, couldn’t it also send the landing party back to the ship without harming them? And, by the way, remember those three crew members who died? Shouldn’t we mourn them or something?
We viewers aren’t the only ones to leave frustrated. Story originator D.C. Fontana was so unhappy with the final teleplay that she gave credit to her pseudonym “Michael Richards.” In the final scene, while Kirk and McCoy moon around about how beautiful Losira was, Spock claims, “Beauty is transitory.” Kirk disagrees with this bizarre statement: “Beauty survives.” Huh? The line is not only nonsensical – since Losira clearly didn’t survive – but it also feels like a poor callback to the iconic final line of King Kong (1933): “It was beauty killed the beast.” Is Kirk saying that Losira’s physical beauty survived while her character did not? In King Kong, the line is an appropriate wrapping up of the story. In “That Which Survives,” there’s not enough story to bother summing up. Here was an opportunity to consider the concept of beauty – is it transitory, as Spock claims? Is it subjective, defined by the eye of the beholder? Or are certain qualities inherently beautiful? I’ve never heard anyone call a butterfly ugly. Are we humans limited to a superficial estimation of beauty? Is a caterpillar beautiful by itself, or because of the butterfly it will become? Or the episode could have gone in other directions, exploring loneliness, or technology run amok, or the terrifying potential of a disease that targets the DNA of individual victims. There were even more radical possibilities: for example, we had a chance to see how the men-folk of Star Trek would respond to a sexual predator that hunted them for a change. Or what if Losira represented sexually transmitted diseases as a consequence of the sexual revolution of the 1960s? It would have been relevant at the time: Rates of gonorrhea skyrocketed in the U.S. during that decade, going from 145.4 per 100,000 in 1960 to 294.2 in 1970. Whatever the episode’s muddled intent, an individual’s physical beauty may survive in imagery, and the beauty of their deeds or personality may survive in our memory, but those don’t hold a candle to the real thing.
Next: The Lights of Zetar