Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Tholian Web

(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: November 15, 1968

Crew Death Count: 0 (but the entire crew of the Defiant is lost)

Bellybuttons: 0

According to the Mission Log Podcast, “The Tholian Web” was initially envisioned as a horror story, and while the episode retains some horror elements, we can only imagine how a full commitment to that concept would have turned out. This week, the Enterprise travels to “unsurveyed territory” in search of the U.S.S. Defiant, which was last heard from three weeks prior. The Defiant is present but the crew members have killed each other and the ship phases in and out of visible space. Spock determines they are in an area of space where two universes intermingle, causing matter to vanish and reappear, and also turning the crew mad one at a time. Kirk is stranded on the Defiant when the transporters break down, interphasing between the current and alternate universes. Meanwhile, the never-before-seen Tholians arrive, claim this area of space as their own, and begin surrounding the Enterprise in a web-like energy field. The crew must wait for Kirk to reappear, according to a complex interphasing schedule, and rescue him before the Tholians complete their web.

“What light through yonder alternate universe breaks?”

“The Tholian Web” has some compelling elements but remains frustrating and, ultimately, feels like an incomplete story. The episode’s primary flaw is the role reversal of Spock and McCoy, who carry the show in Kirk’s absence. Yes, Spock remains relatively calm while McCoy nags incessantly, but typically we would expect McCoy to demand an all-out search for Kirk with Spock inclined to save the crew, because “the needs of the many etc.” Instead, McCoy is immediately ready to call it quits and give up on Kirk. After all, Kirk appears to have vanished along with the Defiant, but we’ve seen McCoy cling to hope in equally strange circumstances in the past. Spock, on the other hand, remains in harm’s way as the Tholians construct their web, facing near-certain doom simply because he believes the captain would do the same if another crew member had disappeared. Stranger still, Spock leads a memorial service for Kirk (one of the briefest memorial services in history), and watches Kirk’s final orders via video with McCoy, all the while waiting for Kirk to reappear during a predicted interphase moment.

“To repeat, if you slept with Kirk, you want the three o’clock service. The two o’clock service is for everyone else.”

In fairness, Spock and McCoy are under the influence of the same space madness that drove the Defiant crew to their mutual deaths. This aspect of the episode is played brilliantly, because the symptoms develop organically without hitting the viewer over the head as to what’s happening. McCoy makes hateful statements about both Spock and Vulcans in general, causing even Spock to become a little testy. McCoy complains so much, he is obligated to apologize twice in one episode. Still, the two officers are out of character nearly from the start, and their flip-flopping viewpoints should have a better explanation, or should be portrayed with more subtlety. Their shared viewing of Kirk’s final orders, via a video recording, also falls flat. The moment lacks the appropriate gravitas, and Kirk’s message – for Spock to seek intuitive guidance from McCoy; for McCoy to support Spock, who is now the captain – feels too tailor-made for the specific scenario of “The Tholian Web.” Still, it does give us the episode’s one memorable takeaway, the importance of uniting during times of crisis, a theme expressed much more effectively in “Day of the Dove.”

Spock and McCoy debate who gets Kirk’s little black book

Another plus is that Uhura, Chekov, and Chapel all have prominent roles. Chapel bails out McCoy with a tranquilizer hypo when an orderly succumbs to the space madness. During the prologue, Uhura proactively tries to contact Defiant before Kirk even orders it. We see Uhura in her quarters in civilian attire while off duty, a nice touch considering how obsessively people wear their uniforms throughout Star Trek. (She even has a multifunctional rotating dresser like something out of the Batcave, a clever space-saver.) Uhura is the first to see the interphasing Kirk but McCoy dismisses her because she’s just a silly old girl. Yes, Uhura’s role is written too much as an over-emotional female, but at least this time we can attribute it to the interphase space madness. Chekov, likewise, goes bonkers and Walter Koenig demonstrates the powerful screaming ability he put to use in “The Naked Time” and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), among others. And let’s take note of the sexist sickbay patient attire – Uhura gets a short, flimsy gown while Chekov wears full coveralls with undershirt and socks.

Welcome to the Sickbay Playboy Mansion. Next stop, the Engineering Grotto.

Like the Spock/McCoy personality switch, other elements of “The Tholian Web” take us out of the existing TOS universe. True, the series was not bound by continuity and canon as later Trek series were, but the disconnects here are too disruptive not to notice. For example, when Kirk is stranded by the transporter failure, we can’t help but think that access to some kind of shuttlecraft would sure be useful right now. And while the landing party explores the Defiant, where crew members have literally fallen dead with their hands around each other’s necks, Chekov asks if mutinies have occurred in Starfleet before. It’s hard not to laugh when Spock says there is “absolutely no record of such an occurrence.” Apparently “The Menagerie,” “The Naked Time,” “Space Seed,” “This Side of Paradise,” and “Day of the Dove,” have escaped Spock’s memory. Finally, while they have different origins, the space madness of “The Tholian Web” manifests itself as an angry version of the virus from “The Naked Time;” the two are similar enough to justify some kind of acknowledgment.

The usual tragic outcome of McCoy’s physicals

Conversely, parts of “The Tholian Web” work quite well. Approaching the Defiant’s last known location, the bridge crew looks genuinely disoriented and frightened during the prologue. Occasional images of Kirk phasing in and out of space are creepy and well-suited to the horror story originally envisioned. Spock voices the episode’s wisest words, a reminder of the variability of grief, during Kirk’s memorial service: “Each of you must evaluate the loss in the privacy of your own thoughts.” McCoy devises a miracle cure to the space madness in the nick of time. And once the cure is distributed and everyone returns to their posts, Spock offers warm words to Uhura and Chekov, showing he learned from the accusations of coldness he received in “The Galileo Seven.” Finally, the pressure suits worn by the landing party are not really consistent with other versions of Star Trek or other science-fiction of the era, but at least they look cool.

Left to right: “The Tholian Web,” Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), actual Project Gemini pressure suits (1965-1966)

As the episode’s villains, the Tholians don’t have much of a presence. The only Tholian we actually see, via viewscreen, is Loskene, voiced by Barbara Babcock, who had a screen or voice presence in seven TOS episodes. Spock comments about “renowned Tholian punctuality,” which must be sarcasm, as this is the first known encounter with the Tholians. “We do not tolerate deceit,” is about the only thing we learn about Tholian culture. (At least it will be, until the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly” provides a sort of prequel/sequel to “The Tholian Web.” A presequel, if you will.) The Tholians seem to have a two-stage strategy to defend their claim. They first attempt weapons fire on the Enterprise. When they realize the Enterprise has them outgunned, they retreat and reveal the second stage: the initial weapons fire damaged the Enterprise enough to leave it stranded. This is when two Tholian ships begin constructing the electronic web. It’s a slow process, but it doesn’t matter as long as the Enterprise is unable to flee. The analogy of a spider’s web doesn’t hold up, as some spiders can spin a fairly elaborate web in only one hour. Real spider webs are complex and fascinating, offering shelter, a trap for prey, a warning system, a community hub, and a line for swinging from tree to tree. We’re never entirely certain what the Tholians’ web would accomplish, other than trapping the Enterprise in its present location. This actually adds to the episode’s tension, because we’re left wondering what will happen if the web is completed. An episode called “The Tholian Web” should provide a lot more information about the Tholians. Spock describes this area of space as breaking apart – will this phenomenon spread to other parts of the galaxy? And why do the Tholians appear immune to the interphase phenomenon that’s affecting the Enterprise? Like so many TOS first contacts, no one expresses any interest in getting to know the Tholians better or learning from them.

Looks more like a net than a web

Ultimately, the message of “The Tholian Web” isn’t about uniting so much as specifically uniting behind the existing power structure. Yes, Kirk’s final orders instruct Spock to seek advice on “human insight” from McCoy, but the bottom line is clear: McCoy should never forget that Spock “is the captain. His decisions must be followed without question.” If we’re not meant to think on that verbiage too closely, it should have been chosen more carefully. We’ve seen that even Kirk’s orders are frequently questioned; to think that Spock’s wouldn’t be is another significant deviation from the established TOS universe. More important, imagine if Spock were not the thoughtful, loyal leader we know him to be. Are we really expected to unite behind a white supremacist, or a climate-change denier, or a Big Lie supporter, just because events conspired to put that individual in the job? It took only fourteen years for an alignment of political and military maneuvers to elevate Napoleon from a second lieutenant to what amounted to a dictatorship as the First Consul of France. No, the “stand by your leader” philosophy only works in the TOS world of generally responsible adults. Should time prove that Spock is a better science officer than captain, we trust that either he or Starfleet will do the right thing and find a new captain. But in a land of confusion, where decisions are sometimes based on who controls the most guns or lobbyists, our very lives may depend on overturning the establishment. We should choose our candidates carefully down the entire line of succession, or one day we might find ourselves in a true horror story, with another con artist calling the shots.

Next: Plato’s Stepchildren