Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Changeling

(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: September 29, 1967

Crew Death Count: 4 (Nomad kills four Enterprise security officers; more importantly, four billion were killed by Nomad in backstory and that’s an unimaginable crime in any century)

Bellybuttons: 0 (Changelings don’t have bellybuttons)

I often evaluate books, movies, and television programs by how much they make me think afterward. By that standard, I feel “The Changeling” deserves more credit than most people give it. This week, the Enterprise responds to a distress signal from the Malurian system. The Federation received a “routine report” only a week ago, but by the time the crew arrives, all 4+ billion inhabitants in the system are dead. A surprise attack on the Enterprise reveals the source of the destruction, a device that turns out to be Nomad, an interstellar earth probe from the early 21st century. A lot of debating and four red-shirt deaths later, we learn that Nomad was damaged in a meteor storm. Thrown off course, it encountered Tan Ru, an alien probe designed to collect and sterilize soil samples. Tan Ru and Nomad combined, creating the current Nomad, with a revised mission of finding and sterilizing (“correcting”) all imperfect life forms. Nomad’s scrambled circuits confuse Kirk with its creator, Jackson Roykirk, leading to a test of wits that ends with Kirk convincing Nomad it is also imperfect and must, therefore, destroy itself.

The Enterprise crew busily prepares for an attack by- Good Lord, is that yeoman a mannequin?

If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because this is the second time Kirk has talked a computer into self-destruction: he used a variation of this strategy on Landru (hmm…Landru…Tan Ru…?) in “The Return of the Archons.” (Technically, he used a similar trick on Ruk in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”) More importantly, the plot of “The Changeling” is nearly identical to that of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), right down to the probe’s intent to return to earth, its description of puny humans (“biological units” for Nomad versus “carbon units” for V’Ger), and Spock’s painful mind-meld with the semi-sentient invader. The Motion Picture is a work I appreciate more and more as I get older, so “The Changeling” lacks in comparison. Still, as I indicated, there’s a lot here to think about.

At least V’Ger built a cool bachelor pad

Nomad’s resources and procedures are inconsistently defined. It has somehow destroyed an entire planetary system in one week, but after less than a day it gets outwitted by the Enterprise crew (except for those poor security guys). Also, Nomad only seems intent on eliminating humanoid life forms. There’s no mention of what happened to plant and animal life in the Malurian system, but Nomad’s summary of its actions there, that it destroyed “only the unstable biological infestation,” implies flora and fauna were probably spared. None of this explains why Nomad fires on the Enterprise before investigating. Its standard procedure is to determine imperfection before sterilizing; shooting first, then coming on board for chit chat, puts the proverbial cart before the horse. Once Nomad is on the ship, it still behaves inconsistently. It kills Scott for trying to subdue it; then, thankfully, revives him. (Too bad again about those red-shirts!) Later, however, Nomad decides the Enterprise warp engines are inefficient and improves them. There’s nothing in its mission about improvement; by rights, it should have destroyed the ship once the vessel was found to be imperfect. Nomad changes tactics again when Chapel interferes with it in sick bay, and the robot only knocks her unconscious. Nomad’s fried innards are the only explanation for its random conduct. Spock decides that Nomad’s “reaction to emotion makes it unpredictable. It almost qualifies as a life form.”

Conversely, the episode includes a few intriguing science-fiction elements appropriate to the free-thinking Trek universe. For example, upon first contact with the Enterprise, Nomad communicates with mathematics until it quickly masters English. We’re also reminded of the diverse potential of “new life, and new civilizations”; when Scott initially dismisses Nomad based on its diminutive size, Spock reminds him, “Intelligence does not necessarily require bulk, Mr. Scott.” Spock also considers Nomad’s counterpart, Tan Ru, as a possible “prelude to colonization.” We can only speculate what happened to that civilization. Spock further reminds us of the mission of exploration: “The study of it [Nomad] would be of great use, Captain.” He’s right, but Kirk understandably overrides him, considering Nomad’s catastrophic potential. Finally, Spock, again, demonstrates his own unique abilities when he mind-melds with Nomad. This is a bit problematic, as it’s never clear how a mind-meld is even possible with what amounts to a robot; it’s also not clear why the mind-meld is even necessary. If the history exists in Nomad’s memory banks, why is it so difficult to retrieve?

Spock regrets not joining the union after his robot replacement shows up

Uhura plays a key role in the episode. While Nomad loiters around waiting for Kirk, it overhears Uhura singing from the bridge. In a nice detail of continuity, she sings “Beyond Antares,” the same tune she performed in “The Conscience of the King.” In an attempt to understand the phenomenon of “singing,” Nomad sucks all the data out of Uhura’s brain. She is left a blank slate who McCoy and Chapel immediately begin to re-educate. That’s even more problematic than Spock’s mind-meld. We’re left scratching our heads that someone can be re-educated to Uhura’s level in such a short time; McCoy promises to have her back on the job in only a week. This creates awkward questions about nature versus nurture and just how much information Uhura really lost: what about her memories and the many other non-academic qualities that make up her personality? It’s interesting that Uhura’s language skills come back unevenly. She becomes fluent in Swahili faster than English (remember, we learned that Uhura is fluent in Swahili in “The Man Trap“).

There tends to be much fuss surrounding an exchange between Spock and Nomad after Uhura’s memory wipe. I understand the upset, but I interpret the dialogue a little differently than most. Nomad describes Uhura’s mind as “chaotic” and “a mass of conflicting impulses.” Spock’s response is, “That is a woman.” On the surface, this seems misogynistic, and that’s reasonable given the show’s history. Considering Nomad’s general disdain for all “biological units,” however, I feel the statements describe humans in general, rather than a particular gender. And Spock’s counter-dialogue could just as easily have been, “That is a man,” had Sulu or McCoy been the victim. For example, Spock doesn’t hesitate to tell Kirk, in the final scene, that he hadn’t believed Kirk capable of sufficient logic to defeat Nomad. Recalling Spock’s earlier statement, equating unpredictability with sentience, he most likely accepts most humans as “chaotic” and “conflicting,” regardless of gender.

Nomad’s death rays prove inferior to vitamin D supplements

Unfortunately, the episode’s title doesn’t give us much to work with in terms of analysis. Kirk briefly tells us of “an earth legend” about a baby being replaced by a “fairy child” that assumed the human child’s identity. Imagine traumatizing your child with that horror story! That could easily qualify as one of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I suppose we’re intended to interpret Tan Ru as the changeling, but we have no reason to think the Tan Ru/Nomad collision was anything but an accident. There seems to be no sinister intention behind it. Clumsy title aside, however, “The Changeling” offers a number of interesting possibilities for interpretation:

  • People are better explorers than robots: Remember that Nomad started out with the same mission as the Enterprise, to seek out new life. That mission was corrupted by a combination of unforeseen circumstances. Humanoid explorers, like the Enterprise crew, offer greater adaptability in the face of the unexpected. Even Spock, for all his emphasis of logic over emotions, demonstrates enough compassion to override Nomad’s unwavering mission. This gets into deeper questions of artificial intelligence and the hazards of technology unsupervised by living beings.
“Dammit, Jim, I’m a murderous robot, not a doctor.”
  • Teams are better explorers than individuals: Nomad was sent into space alone. Even if subspace course corrections from the Federation were possible at the time, damage from the meteor collision left the probe isolated and subject to other influences. The Enterprise crew functions as a team, and TOS shows us repeatedly how essential that is to their survival. Work can be divided and tasks delegated. Unique personalities with different specialties and varying life histories offer opportunities for real-time mission adjustments after debate and scrutiny of available options. We see this in Nomad’s failed attempt to “improve” the warp engines: Nomad simply wants to go faster, but thanks to Scott’s knowledge of structures, he understands the increased speed will overstress the ship’s hull. The crew’s various perspectives also offer checks and balances to prevent the fundamentalist genocide that Nomad inflicts on the Malurian system.
  • Perfection is a myth: Back in my comic-book-collecting days in the 1980s, a character called Foolkiller showed up in a storyline of The Amazing Spider-Man. Foolkiller did what his name implies: he killed fools. Sooner or later, the inevitable occurred, and Foolkiller had to admit that he was as big a fool as everyone else. (There have been other iterations of Foolkiller with which I’m less familiar.) Like Foolkiller, even the robotic Nomad is bound to fall prey to his mission of sterilizing the imperfect. Humans (and Vulcans!) are imperfect, which requires that anything humans design or build will be equally imperfect. V’Ger’s merger with Decker and Ilia at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an improvement precisely because of the introduction of human flaws: “I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose,” Kirk says in the movie’s final scene, “out of our own human weaknesses.” This is the very quality that Nomad lacks.
  • Frankenstein is alive and well: One of the Tor rewatchers compared “The Changeling” to a good old horror story. I particularly found myself thinking of Frankenstein while watching the episode. Nomad’s creator, Jackson Roykirk, comes across as something of a mad scientist with a God complex, described by Spock as “brilliant though erratic.” Roykirk’s “dream was to build a perfect thinking machine” (see the previous paragraph) and he saw Nomad as something of a new, human-created life form, hence Nomad’s reference to Roykirk as the Creator. While Nomad’s motives and those of Frankenstein’s Creature are entirely different, they share a common origin, brought to life by the misapplication of scientific genius in an act of hubris. Both creations result in tragedy. And just as Nomad was sent into space to self-destruct, the end of Mary Shelley’s novel finds Victor Frankenstein’s Creature fleeing on an ice raft, intent on dying.
“He’s dead-ish, Jim.”
  • Fear of miscegenation: I’m sure episode writer John Meredyth Lucas didn’t intend this interpretation, but it does fit in the context of the times. It may seem hard to believe (or maybe not, considering how rampant white supremacy is in the world today) that bans on “race-mixing,” or marriages between different racial or ethnic groups, were enforced in parts of the United States as late as 1967. That was the year the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, declared such laws unconstitutional. The soul-crushing “one drop theory” claimed that a white person with even one Black ancestor would be considered Black and, by implication, inferior. Nomad literally refers to Tan Ru as “the Other,” and it’s only after combining with this foreigner (created by aliens!) that Nomad becomes corrupted. Thankfully, the crew doesn’t dwell on this aspect of Nomad’s experience, but it’s worth remembering that freedom isn’t truly valid until it’s shared by all.
Saving us from ourselves in three different decades

The conclusion goes for lazy humor that diminishes some of the episode’s potential. The four dead security officers – who Nomad somehow killed in a different manner than Scott, so they vanished and could not be revived – are long forgotten, as are the four billion casualties in the Malurian system. The crew shows no interest in the civilization that created Tan Ru, or if more Tan Rus might be exploring the galaxy. Whatever symbolism we take from Nomad’s reign of terror, the moral is the same: our actions will come back to us, sometimes sooner than we expect (or much later, where humpback whales are concerned). As of this writing, an estimated 128 million pieces of debris, each larger than 1 mm, currently orbits the earth, including nearly 3,000 inactive satellites. Most of this debris will eventually burn up in the atmosphere, but not before creating a hazard for manned and unmanned space missions. Space junk is not as existential a threat as earth-bound pollution, but it reaffirms the reality that, as TOS reminds us repeatedly, we humans are often our own worst enemy. Jackson Roykirk sent an exercise in vanity into space and billions paid the price. As we pollute our oceans and atmosphere with equal disregard, how many billions will ultimately suffer? Confronting the direct correlation between today’s actions and tomorrow’s consequences may be one of Star Trek’s most enduring legacies. However, we can’t wait for a crew of saviors to mend the errors of our ways; the future is up to us.

Next: Mirror, Mirror