Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Devil in the Dark

Season 1
Episode 26: The Devil in the Dark
Filmed:  January 1967
First Air Date: March 9, 1967

Karen: We're back to a monster episode, this time featuring a creature called a Horta -or as I referred to it as a child, 'the pizza monster.' Of course, this is Star Trek, so a monster is never just a monster, which we -and the Enterprise crew -figure out over the course of this episode. "Devil in the Dark" speaks to one of Trek's main themes -overcoming our prejudices -and it does this quite well. It isn't perfect -there's obvious budget issues, some story-telling gaps, and well, at times I thought it was a bit boring. But it's quite a feat to take an amorphous shambling mess and make us feel sympathy and pity for it. 

Karen: This episode, written by producer Gene Coon, came about for the most prosaic of reasons: costume maker and stunt man Janos Prohaska created the suit and the production team loved it, especially when they saw it in action. Coon quickly wrote a script, and after a few revisions, they were ready to go. As Marc Cushman points out in These are the Voyages Volume 1, the story is somewhat reminiscent of the early season episode, "The Man Trap," where we also have a creature that is the last of its kind, killing humans on a planet. But in this Coon-penned episode, Kirk is not so quick to condemn the creature; instead he tries to understand its motivations and shows compassion for it (much as he did the Gorn in "Arena," another Coon effort).  Star Trek was evolving before the audience's eyes.

Karen: That's not to say this episode isn't clunky -how did the blobby Horta dismantle the reactor? I never could figure that out. And they don't have any spare parts for a critical piece of equipment? But it's necessary for the drama, so you have to buy it. If you're willing to buy a silicon-based blob boring through solid rock, the rest should be easy, I guess. 

Karen: Depending on your tastes, Spock's mind melding with the Horta is either a fascinating scene or a silly one. Personally I go back and forth over it. I always wondered how he could touch it -shouldn't it still have the residue of the acids it secreted to burn through the rock still on its hide? McCoy is in perfect form, complaining that he is not a "bricklayer" as he has to shovel cement into the creature's wounds. 

Karen: Many fans already know the story about how William Shatner's father died while they were filming this episode. In Shatner's book, Star Trek Memories, the actor described how the show's cast and crew helped him through the tough day of waiting to fly out from Los Angeles to Miami, where his father's funeral would be. Initially they were going to stop filming but Shatner asked them to continue -that he couldn't take the waiting, he needed to be occupied. The show went on.

 "An hour later, after we'd broken for lunch and after the tears and the anguish, we started shooting what we'd been rehearsing all morning. And all through the scene, I kept having trouble with a particular line. My emotion was getting in the way, making me forget. And even though I really can't remember the day's details anymore, the one thing I recall perfectly and that I'll never forget is the closeness that my friend Leonard (Nimoy) had toward me. Not just emotionally but physically as well. I mean I've seen films of elephants that support the sick and dying with their bodies, and Leonard somehow always seemed physically close to me. Our cinematographer, Jerry Finnerman, whose father had also recently passed away, stayed close, too. And together, they kind of herded around me, assuring me that there were people close by in case I wanted to talk or just needed a friend. Between Leonard and Jerry, we were able to make it through that awful afternoon, and I was able to fly out that evening to my father, warmed by their love and affection."

Karen: Shatner says "Devil in the Dark" is his favorite Star Trek episode.


dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

This was one of the episodes covered in a memorable talk on "What can Actuaries learn from Star Trek?" at a conference for life actuaries in the UK about 10 years ago.

Oh, and I feel compelled to provide a link to Devil In The Dark On Ice:

Edo Bosnar said...

Didn't know that anecdote about Shatner. Thanks for sharing that bit from his memoir.

Anyway, I love this one, it's high on my list of favorite Trek episodes. You're so right, Karen: they took this ugly, blobby creature that couldn't speak a word and made you sympathize with it. Absolutely brilliant.
And as usual, this one had great character moments. You already pointed out Kirk's role in the story (I really like that part where he initially confronts the Horta and realizes that it's intelligent), and McCoy's 'bricklayer' comment is now legendary. And there's also this little bit vintage Spock at the end, which never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Martinex1 said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The interaction between Spock and Kirk (and the Horta) was really top notch. The only part that took me out of the story briefly was the missing equipment part that doomed the colony yet they don't have a spare - I am sure the maintenance inventory personnel got a stern talking to.

The costume for the Horta was quite good ...funny that the designer created that with no story plans in place yet.

As always, I am enjoying these reviews as I watch the shows.

Anonymous said...

The first time I saw this episode was a Saturday night at dinner time (rerun, 'natch). Served that night: lasagna... :-P

Anonymous said...

Another classic episode. The first time I saw this one, I don't think I guessed the "twist", though it seems obvious in hindsight. I don't think they ever brought the Horta back again, but they were mentioned in some of the novels.

Mike Wilson

Karen said...

Janos Prohaska also appeared as the Mugato in "A Private Little War", in another suit that he created. He also worked on The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Before all the science fiction shows began hitting TV, he appeared in ape and bear suits on a variety of different shows.

Prohaska wore the Thetan costume from the Outer Limits episode, "Architects of Fear," which required him to contort himself in order for the bizarre creature to walk. The Projects Unlimited crew (which included sculptor Wah Chang) designed it, knowing that Prohaska could assume an 'inhuman' shape. It worked out pretty good!

Martinex1 said...

Did the creators of the movie Aliens ever mention drawing inspiration from this episode? There were certain themes and tropes that seemed familiar to me and I kept getting reminded of that movie. The colony, underground passages, the eggs, aliens with acid secretions, a mother creature, etc.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, despite its budgetary limitations, Devil in the Dark is one of my personal episodes too. The Horta was a revolutionary design in my opinion, a far cry from the typical 'human with extra bumps makeup' alien design we saw throughout the series. Yes, it was a real triumph in terms of its story that you could emphatize with a 'blobby' creature with no obvious way to communicate with the Enterprise crew.

My only regret is that we never saw Horta in any of the later Trek series. I love Klingons as much as the next Trekkie, er, Trekker but seriously I would have loved to see an acid secreting Horta instead of Cardassians, Romulans or Ferengi on occasion!

- Mike 'beam me up Gertrude' from Trinidad & Tobago.

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