(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 3, 1969
Crew Death Count: 0 (But poor Marta dies)
Bellybuttons: 0 (But Marta’s dance is so scandalous that the episode was banned in the UK for years)
During its third season, TOS made something of a habit of repeating plots from earlier episodes. And while I seem to enjoy “Whom Gods Destroy” more than most, like many remakes, the later versions are generally not as good. This week, the Enterprise travels to the planet Elba II to deliver important medicine to an asylum for the criminally insane. The landing party – Kirk and Spock – finds out the hard way that the asylum has been taken over by Garth (Steve Ihnat), a former Starfleet captain who has recruited the other inmates in his quest to become “master of the universe.” The episode’s title amounts to a spoiler alert, essentially spelling out Garth’s fate. The title comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1875 poem The Masque of Pandora, which includes the line (derived from an earlier Greek saying), “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” Since Garth is clearly mad, we can easily assume that destruction is imminent.
The episode largely revisits the first season episode “Dagger of the Mind”: we not only have an asylum taken over by one of the patients, but a modified neural neutralizer, a device used to replace real memories with hypnotic suggestions. And, like “Dagger of the Mind,” memory is critical to the story. Garth is a legendary captain within the Federation and Kirk urges him to recall his achievements prior to the onset of mental illness. At one point, Garth, having been previously introduced as “Garth of Izar,” describes himself as “formerly of Izar,” emphasizing the disconnect between his past and present selves – “It’s almost as if I had died,” Garth says, “and was reborn.” The Elba II asylum also features the same hand-gripping-dove logo as the Tantalus V facility in “Dagger of the Mind”: Just as mental illness took Garth’s freedom, he intends to deprive others of theirs. “All the people of the galaxy who will not bow to my will must be confined or destroyed,” he says. The Elba II asylum is no ordinary asylum, however. According to Kirk, this is “where the Federation maintains an asylum for the few remaining incorrigible, criminally insane of the galaxy.” The name comes from the Mediterranean island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled after being overthrown as Emperor of France. Napoleon escaped Elba, just as Garth intends to escape Elba II.
“Whom Gods Destroy” calls back other episodes in addition to “Dagger of the Mind.” Inmates on Elba II include an Andorian and a Tellarite, species both seen in “Journel to Babel.” And Garth’s would-be Mata Hari is an Orion woman named Marta (Yvonne Craig), as skilled a dancer as Vina in “The Menagerie.” Late in the episode, Garth declares himself superior to the usual list of dictators (Alexander, Hitler, etc.), including Lee Kuan, whom we know nothing about but was also mentioned in “Patterns of Force.” Finally, historic but unspecified events at the planet Axanar are recalled. Kirk describes Garth’s “victory” at Axanar as required reading at the Academy, and a later mission of peace to Axanar made Kirk and Spock “brothers.” The implication is that this was a key occurrence in the formation of the Federation. Whatever happened, Kirk received the Palm Leaf of Axanar, one of many achievements cited during Kirk’s trial in “Court Martial.”
Giving “Whom Gods Destroy” a firm context in the Star Trek universe is a nice touch, but it doesn’t distract us from the episode’s hyperbole, which reinforces Garth’s delusions of grandeur but remains excessive even by TOS standards. The medicine transported by the Enterprise is so significant, the Federation “hopes to eliminate mental illness for all time.” That’s an extraordinary achievement, given the many causes and manifestations of mental illness. Likewise, Garth has devised a substance that he describes as “the most powerful explosive in the universe.” How did he manage this on a planet where the necessary materials are certainly in low supply, and with no research or testing facilities? Kirk does describe Garth as a “genius,” but he would have to be a magician to pull off such a feat. Even more off the wall is Garth’s shape-shifting ability, empowering him to impersonate anyone, including Kirk, Spock, or Governor Cory (Keye Luke), the director of the Elba II facility. Given the physiologic impossibility of such a skill, it would have made more sense to simply make this one of Garth’s inherent abilities; after all, he’s not of earth, but the planet Izar. Garth’s very objective, to serve as “Lord Garth” over the “future masters of the universe,” takes us beyond the final frontier and into the super-mega-ultimate final frontier. He even speaks of conquering other galaxies, despite the unpleasant results when the Enterprise has previously ventured beyond our own galaxy. Garth’s biggest claim to fame may be his past as a Federation explorer. He says, “I have charted more new worlds than any man in history,” and neither Kirk nor Spock disputes the statement.
One could argue that Steve Ihnat’s over-the-top performance contributes to the episode’s “master of the universe” hyperbole. Some find the performance too much (particularly when Shatner steps in while Garth assumes Kirk’s form), others find it perfectly suited to the villain’s grandiose aspirations. I find Ihnat’s performance just about right, especially when held up next to the real-life rantings of the Very Stable Genius, Hitler, and other real or aspiring dictators. (For example, in his final days, Hitler “gave way to hysteria,” unleashing bitterness toward the long list of people who had “betrayed” him, believing to the end that he could unite the western world against “Jewish bolshevism.”) Garth’s frequent toggling from his galaxy-conquering dreams to mundane trivia like a throne and crown – not to mention his mismatched boots – fill out the performance even further. And as effectively as Garth is portrayed, Yvonne Craig as Marta is even more compelling. She recites poetry by Shakespeare and A. E. Housman, claiming it as her own. We’re never certain if she is really attracted to Kirk, if she is trying to manipulate him on Garth’s orders, or if she sees Kirk as an escape route to greener pastures. She even warns Kirk and Spock as soon as they arrive, telling them that Cory – actually Garth in shape-shifting mode – “isn’t really Governor Cory at all.” Marta constantly keeps us, and Garth, on our toes as to her real intentions. Craig’s performance foreshadows Sharon Stone’s excellent work in Basic Instinct (1992), when she tries to seduce Kirk before pulling out a knife and attempting to kill him. The scene demonstrates why “leaders” like Garth become so bogged down in loyalty oaths and paranoia – any followers they are likely to attract will be equally unstable.
We don’t take Garth entirely seriously for much of the episode, despite hints of a history that is both brilliant and dark. Even the neural neutralizer torture scene doesn’t have much impact. Garth has a reasonably well-rounded education, recognizing one of Marta’s poems as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. In addition to his claim to have explored more planets than anyone, Kirk describes Garth as an inspiration for Starfleet officers, calling him “the prototype, the model for the rest of us.” Kirk’s respect for Garth is evident from the start, as he remains polite to the former captain despite being a captive. He knows how to appeal to Garth to a limited extent: when Garth keeps Cory restrained in a painful upright position, Kirk secures Cory’s release when he asks, “Are you so afraid of him that you must keep him pinned?” The fact remains, Garth is on Elba II – home for the “criminally insane” – for a reason. When he makes the “charted more new worlds” comment, Spock responds, “And tried to destroy Antos IV.” We don’t get the full story, but whatever Garth did at Antos IV caused his crew to mutiny, leaving us to wonder what happened to them, or the people of Antos IV. Despite being out of contact with the Enterprise, Kirk takes Garth’s threats about as seriously as we do, considering Garth’s abstract claims and the fact that the Enterprise crew outnumbers Garth’s followers by more than twenty-five to one. The stakes become grim, however, when Garth proves that his explosive really works by killing poor Marta. This act demonstrates the stark line between Garth, willing to kill for power, and Kirk, trying desperately to avoid bloodshed and maintain peace.
The wise commentators at the Mission Log Podcast suggest that Garth and Kirk might represent a generational change within the Federation. I would take that a step further and speculate that despite his imperialist tendencies, Kirk here represents the long-haired, hippy anti-war generation compared to Garth’s old-fashioned military-industrial establishment. Garth is the renowned military strategist while Kirk, capitalist that he is, always prefers to conduct business rather than make war – it was Kirk, after all, who inadvertently helped bring about the Organian Peace Treaty with the Klingons. Garth seems to recognize this – he plans to declare Kirk a prince in his new order, calling Kirk the “heir apparent” – yet is unable to accept a world that rejects his old patterns. He believes to the end that people will “flock” to his cause because of “unlimited power,” never specifying who exactly that power will rest with.
While Kirk and Spock struggle on Elba II, the Enterprise crew in orbit is left with little to do. With no disease to cure, McCoy is reduced to his secondary role as backseat driver. Scott, in temporary command, adheres strictly to the security code Kirk arranged previously – no one beams up or down unless Scott receives the proper response to a chess move. It’s only the second time in the series that such a system has been used and it really should be standard in every away mission. A force field surrounds the planet to keep the asylum secure. Early on, Sulu identifies the weakest point in the force field, but this information isn’t acted on until forty-one minutes into the episode, when Scott finally decides “there’s one last thing we might try” – which is, in fact, the only thing they have tried. It’s a time-wasting exercise, as the phasers can’t penetrate the shield, but why didn’t they make the attempt much sooner?
It’s no secret that the end is somewhat bungled. When Garth assumes Kirk’s form, Spock faces the dilemma of which of the two Kirks to shoot. It doesn’t occur to Spock to simply stun both of them – as Kirk himself suggests later – instead giving us a Kirk-fights-Kirk scene that will be repeated with a different shape-shifter in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Spock still gets credit for escaping in the first place, brilliantly applying the Vulcan neck pinch to both the Tellarite and the Andorian simultaneously. And the Federation earns praise by going to great lengths to see that society’s benefits reach all individuals. The fifteen patients on Elba II are, from a mental illness standpoint, the worst of the worst. “A total of fifteen incurably insane out of billions is not what I would call an excessive figure,” Spock says. Yet the Federation maintains the Elba II station and has invested considerable resources in developing the new medication, even if the medication’s ultimate effectiveness remains in doubt.
Persistence in building a society of equals is what sets the Federation, represented by the Enterprise crew, apart from Garth and his acolytes. Power as an end in itself is hardly a noble objective and that’s why Garth fails. He is destroyed in the end, as the title predicted, not in a literal sense, but spiritless and lacking nearly all memory. Cory claims the medication is already taking effect and calls Garth’s case “very encouraging.” While Garth’s blank expression doesn’t seem encouraging, we trust that Cory will continue trying, supported by whatever resources he needs from the Federation. Garth and company may remain isolated from society, keeping civilians secure from the patients, but they will not be forgotten, and will have something the mentally ill rarely receive in our own culture: safety and comfort. If we can’t provide stability to those who need it most, why bother having power in the first place?