Star Trek Rewatch

Star Trek Re-watch: “Spock’s Brain”

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Spock’s Brain
Written by Lee Cronin (Gene L. Coon)
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 3, Episode 1
Episode 61 of 79
Production episode 3×06
Original air date: September 20, 1968
Stardate 5431.4

Recap: David Mack

Question: Brain and brain! What is brain?

Answer: The organ about which and without which this episode was written.

The Enterprise crosses paths with a lawn dart in space. This, of course, is cause for Red Alert. After hailing the alien vessel with all known languages and getting no reply, Uhura switches to “interstellar symbols,” which sounds a lot like trying to make first contact using emoticons. Scotty seems to harbor a crush on the alien ship. He tells Kirk he admires its ion propulsion: “They could teach us a thing or two.” Which is strange, since ion propulsion is a slower-than-light technology and the Enterprise has warp drive. I suspect Scotty’s been nipping from a flask hidden under the science console again.

Spock detects someone beaming over from the alien ship to the Enterprise’s bridge, so Kirk summons security. Then he freezes and his jaw goes slack as a woman in stripper-wear materializes. Kirk introduces himself, and the gal responds by stunning the bridge crew. Then she knocks out the rest of the ship’s personnel, who fall to the deck in some of the least-convincing pantomimes of surprise I’ve ever seen. Stripperella circuits the bridge, gives the unconscious Spock a scalp massage, and we fade to black and credits.

So far, so good. Vintage Star Trek, right? What’s not to love?

The rest of the episode, that’s what.

Everyone awakens, Kirk realizes Spock’s not on the bridge, and then Bones summons Kirk to sickbay without providing any reason why, as usual. In sickbay, Kirk arrives to see Spock on a biobed, tethered to full life support. He asks what happened, and Bones belabors his response for dramatic effect before delivering a proclamation that I suspect was meant to evoke a chill of horror: “His brain is gone!”

At this point, despite having known what was coming, I begin laughing so hard that I have to pause the DVD.

When I let it resume, Bones explains that Spock’s brain has been surgically removed, and he terms it a “medical miracle” for its precision as well as for the fact that, despite being brainless, Spock’s body lives on. Much like this episode.

Kirk declares that the girl from the alien ship took Spock’s brain. Remarkable deductive leaps such as this are what make James Tiberius Kirk the greatest criminal detective of the 23rd century. After being told that Spock’s body can live only so long without its cerebral contents, Kirk initiates this classic exchange:

KIRK: Then we’ll have to take him with us.

McCOY: Take him where?

KIRK: In search of his brain, Doctor.

I pause the DVD again until I can stop cackling like a madman.

Next, McCoy introduces the “ticking clock,” the arbitrary time limit that stands in for dramatic conflict on budgetarily challenged television series: if they don’t recover Spock’s brain and put it back in his head in 24 hours, it will be too late. Cue dramatic musical flourish and a meaningful reaction shot… and… scene!

The Enterprise crew follows the alien ship’s ion trail (Isn’t that a convenient flaw in the technology Scotty thought was so cool?) to the Sigma Draconis system. It takes them 15 hours at warp six to get there. You’d think that with a 24-hour time limit and Spock’s brain at stake, Kirk might have authorized Sulu to go to warp seven or even eight, but we wouldn’t want to make this too easy, would we?

At the edge of the system they lose the ion trail, which provides Davy Jones of the Monkees—I mean, Ensign Pavel Chekov with a stainless steel honey spoon sticking out of his ear—to show us his high school PowerPoint presentation about Sigma Draconis. The upshot is that the system has three inhabited Class M planets, none of which appears capable of launching an interstellar vessel. At least, not until Uhura detects high-energy emissions from the seventh planet, giving Kirk a new lead and garnering Chekov an “F” on his book report. Kirk plays a hunch and orders the Enterprise to Sigma Draconis VII.

Kirk beams down with Chekov, Scotty, and some assorted redshirts, who get ambushed by a bunch of cavemen who are wearing matching outfits. Do the cavemen shop at GAP Stone Age? Are they part of a primitive sports franchise? Did Grizzly Adams spawn an army in his own likeness? And where did they all get their hair styled? Sadly, these questions are never addressed. The cavemen throw sticks and stones that fail to break any bones because they’re actually made of foam, and then Kirk shoots one of them. (Jeez, does he have to do everything himself around here? He brought three redshirts, none of whom got a shot off. They should all be fired.)

Kirk interrogates the stunned caveman, who refers to his kind as the Morg and speaks of “the Others,” whom he describes as “the givers of pain…and delight.” Oddly, Kirk fails to intuit that the guy is talking about women. Not surprisingly, the episode doesn’t dwell on this strange gender-segregated culture, sidestepping the entire idea of a planet full of gay cavemen.

Chekov and Scotty find a trap set by the Others to snare the cavemen and plot to use it to reach the Others. Ready now to confront the thief of Spock’s brain, Kirk has his first officer beamed down with Doctor McCoy. The duo materializes. McCoy holds a remote control whose buttons are not labeled, which seems like a recipe for disaster. Spock wears an unflattering olive jumpsuit and has a gadget on top of his already helmet-like haircut. McCoy presses buttons, and Spock turns stiffly to the left…yes, boys and girls, it’s the new life-size, anatomically correct, Walking Spock™ doll, new from Blamm-O!

I pause again for a laugh break.

When McCoy makes Spock move, there is an ominous and completely nonsensical clicking sound, as if Spock’s body is being driven by gears and chains. But that’s absurd (yes, even more absurd than his brain being taken in the first place): the body is impelled by electrical signals, which do not typically make clicking noises. Are we to understand that McCoy’s super-duper remote control is really just a radio transmitting commands to a hamster pulling levers and running on a wheel inside Spock’s skull?

Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty take Spock into the trap, trigger it, and make their descent in a supersonic elevator. They arrive to find a highly advanced underground civilization ruled by women (a.k.a. Eymorg) who occasionally recruit men from the surface for menial labor or reproduction. In other words, this planet’s species had a bad divorce, and the ladies got to keep the house. Guess which side had the better lawyer.

Kirk shoots the first gal they meet. When he demands she tell him what has been done with Spock’s brain, she replies, “I know nothing about a brain!” And I believe her. Completely. McCoy tells Kirk, “You’ll get nothing out of that one: hers is the mind of a child.” This comment seems to give Kirk an unsavory idea about the young lady, but Scotty interrupts to say he’s hearing Spock’s voice on his communicator. Brain ahoy!

Then they see the brain thief who visited the Enterprise. Kirk yells and charges at her, and the gal stuns the Enterprise guys and takes them all prisoner, leaving one to wonder why no one teaches small-unit tactics at Starfleet Academy. Our heroes (and I use that term in its broadest possible sense) awaken in custody and wearing some truly ugly belts with green ashtrays for buckles.

It turns out the brain thief, Kara, is the priestess-leader of the underground Eymorg city. Apparently, this society of supermodel women and hillbilly brutes is run by an entity known as “Controller.” (Go ahead—take a guess where Spock’s brain is.)

During the argument, Kara blurts out the most deservedly mocked line of dialogue in all of Star Trek: “Brain and brain! What is brain!?”

Go ahead, laugh. It’s impossible not to.

Kirk and his team figure out that Spock’s brain is the Controller, and Kirk changes his rhetorical tactics with Kara. He gets down on his knees in front of her and starts laying it on, fast and heavy. She doesn’t buy it. Kirk begs, but is not only refused, he and his men get zapped by their ugly belts. They roll around on the floor for a while and pass out, which probably is how many of their off-ship escapades come to an end.

The ladies leave to confer with the Controller, and in their diabolical genius, they leave Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty in a room with all their equipment and just two cavemen to keep them from it. Bookies in Vegas know the over-under on how long it will take Kirk to prevail under such conditions is just under four minutes. Scotty and McCoy double-team one cavemen and leave Kirk to fight the other by himself. Remote-control Spock is allowed to sit on the bench and preserve the last shred of his dignity.

Next, they chat with Spock’s brain, who seems perfectly happy living inside a machine that will double as the Romulan cloaking device in the very next episode, “The Enterprise Incident.” Spock’s brain pokes holes in Kirk’s shoddy rescue plan, but eventually the Vulcan is persuaded to help his shipmates find his disembodied brain, for whatever little good it will do.

They walk very slowly through the corridors with their clicking Spock doll and whistling tricorder announcing their approach to everyone within fifty meters who isn’t suffering late-stage hearing loss. They find the brain chamber, and in it is the leader-thief. She stuns them all again, but somehow Kirk, despite being in unbearable agony that prevents him from simply standing up and grabbing the woman’s wrist, is able to manipulate the unmarked controls of the Spock doll with unerring precision to make Spock’s body walk toward Kara, seize her wrists, and press another unmarked red button on her bracelet that releases the Starfleet guys from their pain belts. When you consider that all Kara would have had to do to escape is move at a pace just faster than a sluggish walk, and that she failed to do so, one is forced to conclude that there is a very real reason her society needs to steal brains.

As the Enterprise officers take the woman prisoner, she begs them not to repossess Spock’s brain because it still has 10,000 good years of service left on it. In other words, by sticking Spock’s brain back inside his body, they’ll be depriving him of 10,000 years of solitude and quiet reflection. Basically, Spock is in Heaven, and they’re stealing him back. James T. Kirk really is a selfish bastard.

Further interrogation reveals that the leader-thief acquired the skill to steal Spock’s brain by putting on a spiky helmet that eerily resembles the hat Emmett “Doc” Brown was wearing in Back to the Future when he answered Marty’s first knock at the door in 1955. They force her to put the helmet on again, making her smart enough to take them prisoner with one of their own phasers—but not smart enough to avoid being distracted by Scotty pretending to faint so that Kirk can grab the weapon out of her hand.

After the priestess-leader-thief refuses to help put back Spock’s brain, McCoy volunteers to put on the “teacher” helmet, even though it might fry his puny human brain. Which it sort of does, but he seems to enjoy it, so no autopsy no foul. Performing the operation on the conscious Vulcan leads to some wonderful banter, especially as the knowledge fades from McCoy’s mind. I don’t know when Spock studied brain surgery, but that item on his C.V. proves fortunate for the flustered McCoy.

Meanwhile, Kirk tells the female leader to get ready to move back to the planet’s surface with the Morg and start their civilization over again. She protests that without the pain belts the Eymorg will not be able to control the Morg. Kirk gives Kara’s body a long look and assures her that the Eymorg will think of something.

When the operation is completed, McCoy confesses that he might have made “a thousand mistakes” (one of which is mispronouncing “ganglia”).

Mercifully, the episode ends with this gem of a moment:

MCCOY: I knew it was wrong! I shouldn’t have done it!

KIRK: What’s that?

MCCOY: I should never have reconnected his mouth.

Spock then resumes babbling while our officers laugh merrily and the Morg-Eymorg civilization crumbles into a new dark age. Another job well done by the Enterprise crew.

David’s Rating: Warp 1 (on a scale of 1-6)

ANALYSIS: DAYTON WARD

Yeah, yeah, yeah. “Spock’s Brain” takes a lot of heat, from fans as well as casual viewers who jump on the bandwagon because they hear other people bagging on it. We all know that it’s routinely cited as being one of the original series’ worst episodes, if not The. Worst. Episode. Ever. While it’s certainly not among the best installments, it does manage to escape my “Bottom 5” list so far as the real stinkers go. Are there worse ways to premiere the new season of your show? Sure. Just ask the SeaQuest DSV gang what was up with their second year.

Anyway…

The idea of a brain being transferred from one body to another (or to some other “receptacle”) isn’t new, and wasn’t new back when this episode was written. (I’m looking at you, Dr. Frankenstein.) The Atomic Brain or They Saved Hitler’s Brain, anyone? Let’s also not forget more recent faire like Robocop 2 or the television series Now and Again, either. Even Star Trek had, on a couple of occasions, dabbled in the arena of disembodied brains just doing their thing and trying to get ahead (See what I did there?) in an uncivilized galaxy. Remember the Providers from Season 2’s “The Gamesters of Triskelion?” What about Harry Mudd’s offer to transfer Uhura’s brain into an android body in “I, Mudd,” so that she can live forever? Okay, those were silly, too, but work with us here! It’s our first day, and we’re trying to impress our new bosses.

What dooms “Spock’s Brain” is its execution. We can’t take it seriously because the story really is just that goofy. Would playing it more for humor have done anything to save it? Unsubstantiated rumors claim the episode originally was written as a comedy but that producer Fred Freiberger opted for a more “dramatic” approach to the story. That said, the final episode as written can be played for laughs. In fact, it was done back in 2004 by a Los Angeles-based improv comedy troupe.

Not helping matters any is the portrayal of the inhabitants of Sigma Draconis VI. If this is supposed to be some kind of layered message with respect to the dichotomy of the societal roles between men and women, I think that note got tucked into one of the ladies’ go-go boots.

The women are portrayed as complete idiots until “taught” to do something, after which that knowledge evaporates and they go back to having the intellect of toddlers. In fairness, the men who serve at the women’s beck and call aren’t treated much better; they’re big strong brutes who say little and think less, and who are good to have around for lifting heavy things and maybe stomping on the odd rogue spider. Come to think of it, they’re pretty much every father figure on every American sitcom for the past thirty years. We know the women sometimes corral a few of the boys in order to procreate and perhaps take out the trash, but the rest of time the Morg are forced to live up on the surface of the glaciated planet, running around in long underwear but with some of the nicest hair any Neanderthal could ever want. Why would a society’s rulers, especially those who command such sophisticated technology and who apparently are no longer around, set up something like this? What’s the point of keeping your entire population so completely unprepared to carry out even the simplest tasks? These are questions which might have been worth exploring, but they’re cast aside in favor of the weaker central storyline.

According to The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman, the original story outline for this episode contained what could have been some interesting insights into Spock’s character, with his disembodied mind struggling with Vulcan mental disciplines in an attempt to keep from going insane. Perhaps it’s one of those things that sounds better on paper, and might not have translated to film. The early outline also featured a much more embattled Spock, whose consciousness resists effort to restore his brain to his body when he learns why it’s been taken and to what use it’s been put. In the original version, McCoy’s surgical efforts aren’t entirely successful, requiring Spock to utilize other mental and healing techniques to complete the restoration. Some of that might well have helped to elevate the story above the simplified B-movie tale we ended up getting.

What’s interesting about “Spock’s Brain” is that even with the goofy plot, the equally ridiculous way in which it plays out, the cringe-inducing dialogue, and the laugh-inciting performances by the female guest cast, one thing you can’t call this episode is boring. Aside from one early scene on the Enterprise bridge where Kirk and company haggle for a bit too long about which planet they should visit to continue their search, “Spock’s Brain” actually moves along at a pretty good clip from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong: It’s still dumb, but trust me when I tell you that by the time we get to something like “And the Children Shall Lead,” you’ll be begging us to talk about this one again. I see some of you shaking your heads, but you’ll be back.

The real saving grace of the episode is the core cast and their performances, doing what they can with what they’ve been given. William Shatner’s line delivery and mannerisms actually serve him well this time around, and I still smile when the landing party arrives on the planet and Kirk starts to call to Spock for a tricorder scan before realizing what he’s said and correcting himself. It’s a little thing, but it’s well played. Of course, then the script calls for Kirk to kneel before Kara, the alien society’s leader, and beg for mercy and understanding in his request to have Spock’s brain returned. Not the captain’s finest moment, that’s for sure.

Leonard Nimoy’s job, already harder than those of his colleagues thanks to that pesky “Vulcans suppress their emotions” thing, is even more difficult on this outing because he’s unable to supply even the minimal physical reactions that always punctuated his performances, particularly in scenes with DeForest Kelley. Speaking of Kelley, he admirably sells the notion of a machine “beaming” knowledge into a recipient’s mind as he undergoes the procedure to speed-learn the surgical procedure to restore Spock’s brain. Later, when that knowledge begins to fade, Kelley does a fine job showing McCoy’s confusion and panic when he realizes he holds Spock’s life in his uncertain hands. It’s a shame such performances ultimately are wasted in this very sub par episode.

Dayton’s Rating:Warp 1.5 (on a scale of 1-6)


David Mack is the author of several Star Trek novels and the original urban fantasy The Calling, as well as the co-writer of two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Dayton Ward also writes Star Trek novels and used to host Star Trek trivia on America Online. Look where that got him.


Next episode: Season 3, Episode 2 – “The Enterprise Incident.” U.S. residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.

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