“The Tholian Web”
Written by Judy Burns
and Chet Richards
Directed by Herb Wallerstein,
Ralph Senensky (uncredited)
Season 3, Episode 9
Production episode 3×9
Original air date: November 15, 1968
Recap: David Mack
The Enterprise nears the last known position of the vanished starship U.S.S. Defiant, which has been missing for three weeks in “unsurveyed territory.” Spock reports unusual sensor readings: space itself appears to be “breaking up,” a phenomenon he cannot explain. As if that alone isn’t sufficient cause for alarm, Scotty warns that there is a slow, continuing, and inexplicable loss of power from the Enterprise’s warp engines.
Chekov sights an object dead ahead: a green-glowing spectre, a ghostly twin of the Enterprise that barely registers at all on sensors. It’s the Defiant, adrift in space and not taking Uhura’s calls.
Dressed like walking electric shavers, a landing party consisting of Kirk, Spock, Chekov, and Doctor McCoy beams over to the crippled Starfleet vessel. They materialize on the Defiant’s bridge to find it deserted except for two corpses: that of the Defiant’s captain, and the man whose hands are locked around the dead skipper’s broken neck.
Using the Defiant’s internal sensors, Spock finds no sign of life aboard the abandoned but still fully functioning vessel. Chekov is sent to inspect the engineering decks, and McCoy is tasked with checking the sickbay while Kirk and Spock remain on the bridge.
On the Enterprise, acting commander Scotty has his hands full. The transporter’s on the fritz, and then Sulu notes the Defiant is slowly drifting away from them. Sulu asks if he should correct Enterprise’s position to keep the landing party within transporter range. Inexplicably, Scotty has to think that over for a moment before saying yes.
Back on Defiant, Chekov and McCoy have the fun part of the mission: scouting decks full of dead, bloodied bodies, strewn and piled in poses that speak of violent deaths. After reporting in to Kirk, Chekov starts seeing as if through a fish-eye lens and walking like Scotty after a weekend of well-spent shore leave.
From sickbay, McCoy reports that all evidence suggests the Defiant’s personnel killed one another. Then he makes an unnerving discovery: lying in a corridor is a body that he can see but not touch—it’s intangible, like a mirage…or a ghost. But the dead aren’t the only ones becoming insubstantial: the ship itself is becoming less solid.
Aboard the Enterprise, the bridge crew watches the Defiant begin to fade in and out of existence, and it becomes obvious something very bad is about to happen. Scotty asks a technician whether the transporter is working again yet; it’s not. Fed up, Scotty leaves Sulu in the center seat and heads belowdecks to fix the transporter himself.
On the Defiant, Spock determines that whatever has happened to the Defiant seems now to be afflicting the Enterprise. And the hits keep on coming: the same phenomenon that is making Defiant fade away is messing with the Enterprise’s transporter, so only three members of the landing party can beam back to the Enterprise at a time: one of them will need to wait his turn.
Kirk orders the others to go back first, over Spock’s polite but firm protests. For Kirk, there is no debate, no discussion. He will wait for the second cycle. The transport process is made long and difficult by the spatial disruptions around the Defiant. Finally, Scotty works one of his miracles and beams back Spock, Chekov, and McCoy. Then he starts Kirk’s transport sequence…
…but he’s too late. Defiant vanishes without a trace, and with Captain Kirk aboard.
Spock calculates the next period of “spatial interphase” at the Defiant’s last position will occur in two hours. Until then, he needs Scotty to keep the Enterprise steady in the region of disrupted space-time; if the Enterprise tries to maneuver clear, it might permanently shatter the fabric of local space, making it impossible to even attempt a rescue of Captain Kirk. Worse, if they aren’t careful, they and the Enterprise might become victims of the weakened membrane between “overlapping universes,” and share the Defiant’s fate.
Spock explains this all very patiently, which makes Chekov wig out and start seeing through another fish-eye lens until Spock neck-pinches him. Redshirts haul Chekov down to sickbay and, on McCoy’s orders, put him in restraints.
Spock and McCoy reason that whatever made Defiant’s crew go berserk is now affecting their crew. That’s enough to convince McCoy they should withdraw. Spock tells him that moving the ship will mean abandoning any hope of rescuing Kirk. McCoy asks whether Kirk is even still alive; Spock says it’s possible, but that Kirk has only 3.62 hours of air in his suit—meaning there will be no margin of error for his rescue.
Then, because not nearly enough has gone wrong so far on this mission, the Enterprise is confronted by a ship of the Tholian Assembly and accused of trespassing in a “territorial annex” by Commander Loskene, who resembles a drill bit with eyes. Spock explains the Enterprise is engaged in rescue operations; Loskene is quick to point out there doesn’t appear to be any ship in the area for Enterprise to rescue. Spock spells things out and asks Loskene to set his watch for one hour and fifty-three minutes, at which time the Defiant is expected to reappear from interphase. Loskene says it’s a date, and warns Spock not to be lying about this, because Tholians “do not tolerate deceit.”
An orderly working in a medlab with McCoy and Nurse Chapel suffers a bout of Fish-Eye-Lens Madness™. As the disorderly orderly grapples with McCoy, Chapel remembers she’s surrounded by hyposprays and drugs, and doses the wackjob into an afternoon nap.
Scotty tries to beam Kirk back during the next interphase period, only to find the captain is not at his “designated coordinates.” Nothing is as Spock’s calculations predicted—and he belatedly realizes the Tholians’ intrusion into the area disturbed the fragile space. Now Spock has to recalculate to figure out when they might get another shot, but in the meantime, the crew is starting to go nuts.
The icing on the cake: the Tholians open fire on the Enterprise, prompting Spock to remark on “The renowned Tholian punctuality.” Scotty pleads with Spock to do something. McCoy grouses that Spock has “already lost the captain” and urges him to withdraw and save the crew. Spock holds his ground and orders Sulu to return fire, disabling the Tholian ship. Unfortunately, the damage to the Enterprise has been done: Scotty reports that main power has been lost; the ship is adrift. Asked for a repair estimate, Scotty confesses he’s not sure the ship can be fixed.
McCoy takes this latest turn of bad luck as an opportunity to hector Spock’s decisions, but the Vulcan refuses to be baited. Now that the Enterprise is stranded, the crew needs relief from the psychosis-inducing effects of interphase more urgently than ever, so Spock orders McCoy to return to work formulating an antidote.
No sooner does McCoy leave the bridge than another Tholian ship closes in on the Enterprise. This one doesn’t bother talking. It splits in two and starts surrounding the Enterprise with a lattice-like energy field. Spock doesn’t know exactly what it is or how it works, but he knows this much:
SPOCK: If the Tholians are successful in completing this structure before we have completed our repairs … we shall not see home again.
Gee…thanks for the pep talk, Spock. Just in case that remark didn’t torpedo the crew’s remaining morale, he invites the ship’s senior personnel to a memorial service for Captain Kirk in the ship’s chapel. When Spock declares that Kirk is no longer alive, one of the officers goes insane. After the man is hauled away, everyone swaps nervous looks—how long until they, too, all go mad? Then, Spock concludes his remarks:
SPOCK: I shall not attempt to voice the quality of respect and admiration which Captain Kirk commanded. Each of you must evaluate the loss in the privacy of your own thoughts.
Scotty calls the room to attention for a moment of silence, then dismisses the assembly. After everyone else has left, McCoy tells Spock that Kirk left a message tape in his quarters, with orders that it be viewed immediately by Spock and McCoy should Kirk ever be declared dead. Despite the imminent crises facing the ship, McCoy insists they honor Kirk’s final order without delay, and Spock grudgingly consents.
They repair to Kirk’s quarters, and McCoy questions Spock’s rationale for engaging the Tholians in combat rather than retreating. Spock insists he had a moral and legal duty to remain until he had ascertained the captain’s status. Or, as McCoy rephrases it, “Until you were sure he was dead.”
As their disagreement progresses to the point of Spock all but daring McCoy to relieve him of command on psychiatric grounds, Kirk’s final message starts to play. Kirk tells Spock to look to McCoy for insight to act as a balance to his logical reasoning, and he urges McCoy to remember to support Spock in his role as the captain. His words hit home for both men, enabling them to put aside their personal feelings and unite to save the ship and its crew.
Meanwhile, Uhura is in her quarters, relaxing in civvies, when she suffers either a sharp pang of interphase-induced space madness or a really bad moment of heartburn. Then she looks up to see a spectral reflection of Captain Kirk, still in his walking-shaver spacesuit, in her bedroom mirror. Uhura tries to talk to him, but he makes a pained, gasping expression and fades away. Was it a ghost? A hallucination? Or might Kirk really still be alive? (It’s a weekly television series from the 1960s—take three guesses.)
Uhura runs from her quarters and staggers into McCoy’s arms. She tells him what she saw and tries to persuade him it was real, but McCoy dismisses her report as more space madness. Before she can make her argument, she passes out in McCoy’s arms, which robs her of a small measure of credibility.
The next person to see the ghost of Kirk is Scotty, who tells Spock he sees Kirk drifting through main engineering. Spock summons Scotty to the bridge. Scotty arrives and directs Spock’s attention to the ghost of Kirk, floating on the bridge of the Enterprise. Kirk looks as if he’s shouting, but he makes no sound. Spock tries to communicate with him, but Kirk vanishes once again. Which is bad news for Kirk but good news for Uhura, who gets released from restraints now that McCoy is sure she isn’t stark raving mad.
Scotty and Spock confirm that the firing of the Enterprise’s phasers caused the Defiant to be lost to dimensions unknown, but Captain Kirk remained because he was caught partially in their transporter beam. They calculate the timing of the next spatial interphase. Scotty warns that the Enterprise’s repairs will be completed but far from perfect. Spock decides it will have to suffice.
Then, just for a change, they get some good news: McCoy enters and offers them the space-madness antidote, which looks a lot like orange-flavored Kool-Aid™. It’s a dilution of theragen, a Klingon nerve agent that’s deadly in concentration but when mixed with ethyl alcohol is simply a good time waiting to happen. Predictably, Scotty approves (and hijacks the bulk of McCoy’s supply for his personal stash).
As the Enterprise struggles to use interphase-fractured space to escape the completed Tholian web, Captain Kirk reappears. Unable to delay the escape attempt, Spock gives the order to proceed with the rescue and the escape at the same time. Once the ship is clear of the Tholians’ trap, they confirm that Kirk has been pulled along with them and engage the transport sequence.
By the narrowest of time margins, Kirk is beamed aboard—solid and alive.
Later, Kirk explains to Spock and McCoy that, after Defiant vanished, he “had a whole universe” to himself. Understandably, he prefers “a crowded universe much better.” He asks how Spock and McCoy fared in his absence and receives strangely vague answers. When he says he hopes his “last orders” were helpful to them, they both deny having viewed them…much to Kirk’s apparent chagrin.
As the Enterprise warps away to its next adventure, we… FADE OUT.
This week’s recap is very light on jokes, snarky remarks, and sarcasm, compared with those we’ve written in previous weeks. That’s because there is very little, if anything, in this episode that I consider deserving of mockery. It is, quite simply, one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made—not just of the original series, but of all the series.
The action, suspense, wild science, and—most of all—the heartfelt emotional moments between Spock and McCoy (especially when they listened to Kirk’s recorded final orders) all ring true. The performances and effects are top-notch all around.
So, no jokes this week. This is what Star Trek is all about, in my opinion.
David’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1 to 6)
Analysis: Dayton Ward
Over the years, I’ve read a few assessments of this episode that call it overrated, or that it hasn’t held up or aged well. You could say that about the entire original series (though you and I could never be friends after that, of course), so I tend to dismiss such comments. After watching it again, the only thing I can say to such dissenters is: “Bah!”
A lot of what is fondly remembered about this installment involves its Emmy-winning special effects. The realization of Loskene, the Tholian commander, is very effective, particularly when you find out that he’s really just a bunch of shaped and colored tin foil with some clever lighting. Who needs CGI? As for the exterior scenes with the Tholian ships weaving their dastardly web around the Enterprise, these effects shots were pretty intensive efforts for the era in which the original series was produced. Achieving sophisticated optical effects for numerous 1960s science-fiction and fantasy productions was an intensive effort, especially when considering the time and budgets constraints under which Star Trek was forced to operate. Given those challenges, it’s amazing how well the visual effects in this episode come off. I watched this episode twice in rapid succession while preparing this article, once with the original effects and then again with the new CGI “upgrades.” I have to say that, while the new effects look fantastic, the original visuals have nothing to be ashamed of. The Tholian vessels and their web still hold up well, forty-odd years after their creation, and remain a high point of the original series.
With Kirk missing and even presumed dead for a period of time, the focus of the story turns to Spock as he struggles with the trial by fire of being in command during a crisis situation. This isn’t the first time he’s been in this position, but on this occasion he seems to have learned the lessons imparted during the first-season episode “The Galileo Seven.” Whereas a somewhat less experienced Spock hung on to logic—almost to the exclusion of everything else—as a means of solving problems and making decisions in that earlier story, here attempts to balance logic, intuition, and perhaps even personal friendship with Kirk when he decides to keep the Enterprise on station in a bid to rescue Kirk from the wayward Defiant. His initial attempt fails, resulting in the ship being damaged in a firefight with a Tholian vessel and left to drift in space. Now unable to make a retreat, the ship is powerless as Tholian reinforcements arrive and begin to spin their web about the wounded starship.
And what about that web, anyway? At first blush, it doesn’t seem to be all that practical a weapon, given how long it takes to construct. In the two-part Star Trek: Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly,” the Tholians of the Mirror Universe are able to generate similar energy fields much more quickly. I know, I know: “It’s the Mirror Universe, dude!” Okay, I’ll leave it alone. Also, I suppose it’s possible that the Tholians scanned the Enterprise and determined that her damage was so great that they could take their time spinning the web. I can live with that, just so long as we’re all clear that I’d be remiss in my Trekkie duties if I failed to mention this odd bit.
In addition to Spock’s struggles with command in this story, his relationship with McCoy also provides several of the episode’s best character moments. The pair initially is at odds over Spock’s decisions that result in the Enterprise being helpless before the Tholians, with McCoy hammering him at every opportunity over the mistakes he’s made. However, it’s when they watch Kirk’s prerecorded “last orders” and realize how they must proceed if they’re to weather the current crisis that crystallizes the relationship they share. Spock and McCoy might fight like brothers, but each knows the other will be there when the chips are down. Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley absolutely carry this episode with their strong character work, and both actors get full marks for their respective performances.
Another nice element to this episode is the “space suits” worn by Kirk and the boarding party while on the Defiant. They’re delightfully garish in the finest tradition not only of the original Star Trek but 1960s science-fiction film and television, and I say that with absolutely no hint of intended disrespect. One can see them as extrapolations of the suits worn by astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, while still retaining the signature style developed by original series costume designer William Ware Theiss. Despite the weird electric-razor-like helmets, I still think these suits are more interesting than other, similar outfits developed for latter-era Star Trek productions. I even like them a bit better than the ones created for Star Trek: Enterprise, which are more like backward, retro-extrapolations of the Next Generation-era suits than an attempt to bridge the gap between modern astronaut EVA suits and those seen in “The Tholian Web.” The only question I’ve ever really had is, without a backpack or other visible apparatus, how do they work? I suppose the blue-and-red tubing and other gizmos attached to the suit’s front act as some kind of CO2 scrubber or oxygen-replenishing mechanism, allowing the wearer to move about without the weight of burdensome equipment strapped to his or her back.
What’s that? My geek’s showing again? Okay.
Despite the praise I’m heaping upon this episode, it’s still a third-season entry, and it shows here and there. The budget for extras must’ve been blown for the memorial service scene, since almost no other background players are seen walking the corridors throughout the rest of the episode. The use of the Enterprise sets to double as the Defiant interiors makes perfect sense, of course, and the use of different lighting and camera angles does aid in selling the notion that this is a different starship. Speaking of camera angles, director Herb Wallerstein (who took over for the fired and uncredited Ralph Senensky) manages to sneak in a few nice shots. One scene on the bridge in particular is memorable, with the camera positioned low and looking up at Leonard Nimoy as he sits in the captain’s chair, and DeForest Kelley standing behind him on the upper deck. It’s a bold, dramatic effect, the sort of approach that was quite prevalent during early first-season episodes but tapered off as the series progressed, so it’s nice to see it here.
The aforementioned Star Trek: Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly,” acts both as a sequel to “The Tholian Web” as well as a prequel to the second season’s “Mirror Mirror,” providing viewers with a more detailed look at the Tholians as well as showing us what happened to the Defiant after Kirk’s rescue. Fans of the original series’ ships, sets, and costumes will love this ambitious effort, which showcases an all-new digital model of the Defiant for opticals, and the production crew was given the enviable task of re-creating the bridge and several other original-series-era sets, uniforms, and props. In addition to realizing a full-bodied Tholian, they also give us a brand-new Gorn, though old-time fans likely will prefer the original man in a rubber suit to this CGI incarnation. Despite some missteps in plot and acting, I still say you should check it out; it’s worth it just for the original-series eye candy.
Final word? I agree with Dave: “The Tholian Web” is an absolute highlight of the third season, and one of the strongest episodes of the entire series, if not the entire Star Trek “saga” as a whole.
Dayton’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1 to 6)
Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.
David Mack has been approved for all audiences by the Motion Picture Association of America, but he probably shouldn’t have been.
Dayton Ward has his own video recording with his last orders, but they mostly involve instructions on the proper handling and disposal of his adult film collection…that he doesn’t really have, Mom. Honest.