May 5 2009 4:15pm

Star Trek Re-watch: “Dagger of the Mind”

“Dagger of the Mind”
Written by S. Bar-David
Directed by Vincent McEeevy

Season 1, Episode 9
Production episode: 1x10
Original air date: November 3, 1966
Star date: 2715.1

Mission summary
After the Enterprise boldly goes to the penal colony on Tantalus V to deliver cargo, a man-sized box of research materials is transported to the ship for their next mail run. While the engineering technician has his back turned in the transporter room, a crazed and sweaty man emerges from the cardboard box like some horrible surprise at a bachelorette party, tiptoes around the console, then knocks out the hapless tech. He exchanges his prison garb for the tech’s more stylish red jumpsuit and attempts to blend in with the rest of the crew, which is only slightly less sweaty than he is. After the Enterprise leaves Tantalus, they receive a message from the colony: one of their prisoners has escaped! They suspect he was in the unnecessarily large box that was beamed to the Enterprise, and warn that he is “potentially violent.”

The ship goes to intruder alert, and an unusually observant crewman identifies the inmate immediately. The man gets away and attacks a security officer for good measure, taking his phaser. He makes his way to the bridge (he’s obviously heard how easy it is to take over a Constitution class starship these days) where he identifies himself as Van Gelder and requests asylum. Kirk won’t deal so Van Gelder threatens the ship, until Spock takes the matter in hand and subdues him with his patented Vulcan neck pinch.

On their way back to Tantalus, Dr. McCoy studies Van Gelder in sickbay and is unable to pin down exactly what kind of crazy he is. Van Gelder struggles to explain himself, claiming to be a director at the colony who was assisting Dr. Tristan Adams. It seems hard to believe, but Spock finds an ID tape that corroborates the information, and Adams confirms that Van Gelder was a doctor there who tested an experimental treatment on himself. McCoy is convinced something strange is going on, but Kirk is equally convinced that Adams is on the up and up:

You don’t believe him, and you can’t explain it. Bones, are you aware that in the last twenty years Doctor Adams has done more to revolutionize, to humanize prisons and the treatment of prisoners than all the rest of humanity had done in forty centuries? I’ve been to those penal colonies since they’ve begun following his methods, and they’re not cages anymore.

Nonetheless, McCoy demands an official investigation and Kirk humors him. He decides to beam down himself, since he’s “visited rehab colonies before,” and requests an assistant with a background in psychiatry and rehabilitative therapy. McCoy has the last word when he assigns the beautiful Dr. Helen Noel to the mission, whom Kirk has “interacted” with before at a science lab Christmas party and makes the captain decidedly uncomfortable.

On the planet, which Adams playfully calls “Devil’s Island,” Kirk and Noel meet Lethe, a rehabilitated criminal-turned-therapist who seems strangely vacant. Adams explains that part of their treatment includes memory alteration, essentially wiping out the person who committed the crimes. Adams leads them in a toast to celebrate their visit to the colony: “To all mankind. May we never find space so vast, planets so cold, heart and mind so empty that, that we cannot fill them with love and warmth.” Adams seems sincere and accommodating to Kirk’s questions, except when he asks about a particular treatment room.

Back on the Enterprise, Van Gelder blurts out something about a “neural neutralizer,” which happens to be the very device Adams is now demonstrating for Kirk and Noel. Adams claims it doesn’t even really work, but that it’s meant to calm down patients without the use of chemicals. This is the treatment that Van Gelder tested on himself, supposedly alone and at the highest intensity. Once they leave the room, the therapist operating the equipment on a patient instructs: “You will forget all you have heard. To remember any portion of it, any word, will cause you pain, terrible pain, growing more terrible as you fight to remember.”

Noel trusts Adams’ work even more than Kirk does, but Kirk has become suspicious of the “blank” behavior of the inmates. He decides they’ll spend the night on the colony. Meanwhile, Spock decides to use “an ancient Vulcan technique to probe into Van Gelder’s tortured mind,” after the man warns them that the captain is in danger. As he merges with Van Gelder’s mind, Spock learns that Adams has used the neural neutralizer to drain away Van Gelder’s thoughts and replace them with his own.

On Tantalus, Kirk visits Noel’s quarters in the middle of the night to solicit her help in checking out the neural neutralizer on their own. With her operating the equipment, Kirk subjects himself to its beam and asks her to try a “harmless suggestion.” She complies, planting the idea that he’s hungry. Convinced but wanting to be certain, Kirk asks her to plant a more unusual thought. Noel rewrites their encounter at the Christmas party as a Harlequin romance starring her and Captain Kirk, who sweeps her back to his cabin. In the midst of this fabrication, Adams discovers them and begins planting the suggestion that Kirk is madly in love with Noel and has him drop his phaser. Mustering incredible strength of will, Kirk attempts to contact the Enterprise with his communicator before losing consciousness.

Kirk wakes in his room with Noel crawling over him in bed. She resists when he says he’s in love with her and manages to break through the false memories placed by Adams. Kirk sends Noel through the air conditioning ducts to short-circuit the power and disable the security force field around the colony (which would allow someone from the Enterprise to beam down) and submits to further treatment to buy her some time. Lethe discovers that Noel is missing, but Kirk resists Adams’ questions long enough for Noel to cut the power by cleverly shoving a guard into the power grid, allowing Spock to beam down with a security detail. Kirk knocks out Adams and leaves him in the treatment room. When Spock restores power to the colony, the neural neutralizer switches back on and Adams is caught in the beam. Alone, his mind slowly empties of thoughts until he dies of loneliness—hoisted by his own petard.

Appropriately enough, I had little recollection of this episode, which is understandable since it’s somewhat mediocre. “Dagger of the Mind” obviously engages in questions about the humane treatment of prisoners and mental patients, a matter of great concern in the 1960s. By the time this show aired, barbaric treatments such as electroshock therapy and lobotomies were finally waning in popularity, replaced by revolutionary psychotropic drugs, the hallmark of that decade in medical—and recreational—practice. The effects of the “neural neutralizer” were arguably similar to lobotomy, from the erasure of specific memories to the vacant expressions and behavior of its victims, though the fact that Van Gelder is once again compis mentis at the end of the episode suggests that the treatment is reversible. I wondered if Kirk had his false feelings for Noel removed, or simply had her removed and left her behind on Tantalus, since we never see her again.

Though the ideas explored in the episode were interesting and valuable, I found it heavyhanded and uneven, particularly all the back-and-forth discussion that must have been criticism of modern institutions (in 1966, naturally). I was most struck by Spock’s smug commentary on the matter: “Interesting. Your Earth people glorify organized violence for forty centuries, but you imprison those who employ it privately.” It also seemed strange that Kirk was so gung ho about Dr. Adams’ methods. He mentioned his familiarity with “penal” colonies so many times, I almost expected someone to say to him “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Why, exactly, would Kirk have such intimate knowledge of rehabilitation facilities?

We also have the idea of loneliness again in this episode, and by extension, love; remember Adams’ toast, which spoke of “love and warmth.” It makes sense in the context of a five-year mission in deep space, particularly in the days of Star Trek where communications with Starfleet took days and weeks, unlike the nearly instantaneous subspace communications of TNG and later series. The Enterprise was cut off from contact with Earth for long periods of time, which is probably as lonely as you can get even with 430 warm bodies sharing the same ship. Adams plants an obsessive love for Noel in Kirk, but she clearly harbored her own feelings for the captain. I found it especially ironic as she planted these false memories that her fantasy self tells Kirk “I prefer honesty.” In fact, the title of the episode is derived from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act II Scene I: “A dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” Not too shabby for a science fiction show.

This episode is further riddled with interesting naming choices, some of which are distracting. How odd is it that Kirk met Dr. Helen Noel at a Christmas party? The planet is interestingly named Tantalus, after the tragic Greek figure who sacrificed his own son to the gods, stole the secrets of the gods and gifted them to man, and ultimately was punished by spending all eternity beneath a fruit tree in a pool of water, each of which drew out of reach whenever he tried to eat or drink. Dr. Adams calls the colony “Devil’s Island,” either a poor joke or blatant foreshadowing, since Wikipedia tells me this was the name of a notoriously deadly French penal colony in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then we have a woman named Lethe, after the river of forgetfulness in Hades, who has forgotten the criminal she used to be. Finally, Dr. Adams himself is named “Tristan,” the figure from the medieval tale of a man who falls under the spell of a love potion, in much the same way that Kirk is induced to love Noel. This unlikely conjunction of names means nothing to Kirk, but I imagine that had Captain Jean-Luc Picard encountered this situation, his literary background would have set off some warning klaxons.

This episode is really only notable for one thing: the first appearance of the Vulcan mind meld—the first time it is used on a human. Spock says it’s “a hidden, personal thing to the Vulcan people, part of our private lives,” which becomes very public, at least on the Enterprise.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: I’m going to disagree with Eugene again: I loved it. There are so many great little moments that just made the episode for me. When Van Gelder is loose on the ship, the turbolift doors open onto the bridge, and both Kirk and McCoy jump a little, scared, and give each other a sheepish look. The awkward whispering between Kirk and Noel in the transporter room was great, and Spock gives Kirk a priceless glance when he “catches” them. He gives them the same look when he finds them huddled at the end of the episode.

Now to the serious bits: the “neural neutralizer” struck me as a very Clockwork Orange principle, destroying the prisoner’s (or in this case, the victim’s) ability to make a moral choice.  Lethe has not chosen to abandon her violent past, she has been forced to, and in the process forced to abandon herself. Eliminating that moral choice amounts to dehumanization, not reformation—one must choose to change, and not simply be forced to behave differently. Both treatments leave the victim with a powerlessness that’s darkly monstrous, and criminal in and of itself. Creepy stuff. Love it.

Dr. Adams seemed to be very clearly based on actual people, particularly Dr. Ewan Cameron. Cameron received numerous grants from the CIA in the late ’50s to perform truly horrific and disturbing experiments on both unwitting and voluntary subjects, non-US and US citizens alike. His attempts to brainwash individuals included electroshock treatments (often hundreds of them), hallucinatory drugs (like PCP and LSD), sleep deprivation (for months on end), sensory deprivation (followed by “input overload”), sleep-comas (aided by paralytic drugs), and otherwise trying to force his victims to lose all sense of time and space. While he was all too successful at obliterating memory and “breaking” individuals into psychotic messes, his brainwashing attempts (suggestion, listening to looped noises and phrases), were utter failures. These experiments continued on into the early ’60s.1 It’s interesting that in this episode the brainwashing is successful, since despite man’s general suggestibility actual brainwashing never worked for Cameron. But whether it’s directly analogous or not, the point about destroying memories as a way to bury the past and eliminate the essential humanness was very, very real. It’s history that feels science fictional, not the other way around.

The Stepfordization of Lethe and Van Gelder’s desperation to hold onto who he is scared the bejesus out of me. Again we have a meditation on loneliness, but here it’s worse than that—it’s emptiness, coupled with loss. When Adams tortures Kirk the most painful thing he can create in the man’s mind is the feeling of deep, devoted, sincere love—and then its devasting loss. Adams constructs a memory only to force Kirk to feel the void of its absence. In “The Enemy Within” and “The Naked Time” it’s the loneliness of feeling trapped by who you are; here, it’s being sapped of who you are, and trapped in an empty shell of a body. Which is more frightening?

As McCoy says, “A cage is still a cage.” For Adams’ victims (including himself), their own minds and bodies are their cages. I can’t think of anything more terrifying.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: Kirk: “Mr. Spock, you tell McCoy that she had better check out as the best assistant I ever had.”

Syndication Edits: Kirk’s second log entry: “Mission, routine investigation and report as per ship surgeon’s medical log. As for my last entry, it seems I will get to meet Doctor Adams at last. However, I would have preferred other circumstances.” Spock’s log entry: “Enterprise log. First officer Spock, acting captain. I must now use an ancient Vulcan technique to probe into Van Gelder’s tortured mind.” Finally, Kirk’s recovery from the neural neutralizer session, in which he is lying in bed with Dr. Noel over him, professing his undying love. She reminds Kirk of what actually happened and he snaps out of it.

Trivia: Up until the final draft of the script, Yeoman Janice Rand was to accompany Kirk to Tantalus, not Dr. Noel.

Other notes: Observant viewers may remember Marianne Hill (Dr. Helen Noel) from the Adam West Batman TV show, where she appeared as the lovely Cleo Patrick in the episodes “The Spell of Tut” and “Tut’s Case is Shut.”

1 Klein, Naomi. “The Torture Lab: Ewen Cameron, The CIA and the Maniacal Quest to Erase and Remake the Human Mind,” The Shock Doctrine. New York: Picador, 2007

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 10 - “The Corbomite Maneuver” US 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.

Eugene Myers
1. ecmyers
Terrific analysis, Torie, especially linking Adams and Cameron and the similarities to The Stepford Wives. I agree that losing your sense of self is one of the most horrible fates I can imagine. I'd missed the implication of Adams attempting to break Kirk by giving him love and then taking away the target of that love, which is a pretty dick thing to do. Perhaps I'll nudge my rating toward Warp 4, but I still have to say, Morgan Woodward's performance as Simon Van Gelder was too over-the-top for my taste, though I thought James Gregory was great as a charismatic doctor, who turns out to be the real madman of the story.
2. kwnewton
I don't disagree with your rating. But even run-of-the-mill ST TOS was still better than what it was up against at the time. If you think about it, the movie ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND proves we're still thinking about some of the themes in this episode.

BTW, "hoisted by his own petard" reflects a common misconception. A petard was not a hoisting device but rather an early type of bomb. The quote "hoist with his own petard," meant someone had gotten caught up in the device for getting the bomb over the city's walls with the petard (bomb) still with them. Somehow people assume the petard was doing the hoisting.

karen wester newton
Kurt Lorey
3. Shimrod
Odd episode in the Star Trek universe where there are still human crazy folk and criminals. Not usual.

The thing I found creepiest was Dr. Adams dying alone with the machine.

Scriptwriter wasn't quite up to the Star Trek century with gender relations, either. Tht woman character couldn't think of anything better to imprint on Kirk than juvenile love fantasies?
Richard Fife
4. R.Fife
My initial feeling of this episode was one of disappointment. I'll grant that I enjoyed some of the small things (jumpy crew, Neol/Kirk interaction), but the plot on a whole was fairly weak (as I see it). What I had the hardest time dealing with was Dr. Adams. First, you'd think by now Kirk would already start being suspect of celebrated notable people (a'la "What are little girls made of"), but even then, for Adams being a supposed genius, I don't really get why he slid into monstrosity.

OK, so we have a guy who has revolutionized penal colonies. As Eugene points out in the summary, Adams comments that they use memory supression when Kirk is talking to Lethe, and neither Kirk nor Noel seem the least bit annoyed or awed by it, so it must be passing fair for criminal rehabilitation in Star Fleet. So, here's my question, why the snot did Adams play with Kirk AND Van Gelder in the Neural Neutralizer?

If Van Gedler had a moral objection to the room, Adams probably didn't need to worry as he had the political clout and the Carte Blanche from Starfleet to be using it anyway. And the switch from a gentle, affectionate host (even if us the viewers just /know/ he's evil underneath), to a complete and open villian seems, well, a bit of authorial fait more than clever plotting.

On the bigger and deeper object of what the show is even going after. I'll say that it puts it in some light knowing that "Crazy Houses" were undergoing massive heat during the day, but I still think this seems to be fairly ineffectual as an argument. For one, the criminals are being very humanely treated in physical terms, and two, if they are truly irrehensible criminals that are sent there, are we so sure we wouldn't rather a Lethe than a Hannable Lector? The treatment seems to be fairly effective when done over lower intervals and continuous time instead of the short bursts Kirk (and presumably Van Gelder) recieved, and at least this way the people are being made into semi-productive members of society instead of drains on the space-dollars.

Oh, and before you villify me completely for my above comments, I am also going to have the presumption that since lie-detectors seem to be rather fool-proof in the future long as the right questions are being asked (a la Mudd's Women), seems like there should be a 0% false positive conviction rate.

Shame Harry Mudd was never sent to Tantalus. Coulda saved Kirk and crew some pain, eh?

Oh, anyone else find it funny that a show with a smarty named Spock in it preached against medical smarties (This and "Little Girls"), when not too long before we got Dr. Spock and his revolutionary way to fight SIDS?
Eugene Myers
5. ecmyers
@ 2
Thanks for the explanation on petards. Wikipedia did set me straight, but I was attempting to (mis)quote Shakespeare. I was going for a theme :)

@ 4
Excellent observations on Dr. Adams' motivations. To quote McCoy in this episode, it "doesn't quite ring true," does it? This contributes to my dissatisfaction with the episode. It seemed to have a point, something to say about the medical practices of the time, but it wasn't well made. It scores points for effort though.
Torie Atkinson
6. Torie
@ 4

For one, the criminals are being very humanely treated in physical terms

I find it interesting here that you chose the word "humanely," seeing as they make it pretty clear in the episode that the "treatment" saps them of their humanity. It doesn't matter if they're not physically harmed--what makes them individuals--humans--is destroyed. It's literally inhumane--not human. Even Kirk at the end tells McCoy he can't possibly understand what that feeling is like. You'd rather have something, anything, even if it's someone else's thoughts, to fill the void.

two, if they are truly irrehensible criminals that are sent there, are we so sure we wouldn't rather a Lethe than a Hannable Lector?

Are those really the only choices?

@ 5

I admit the plot has some...holes...but I think it asks enough interesting questions and sets up enough interesting dilemmas to make it a stand-out episode.

Oh, and also: I thought Van Gelder was great in this! He had just the right amount of crazy, in my book.
Richard Fife
7. R.Fife
Torie, I'll grant I was swinging to extremes on the lethe/hannable options, but as I also pointed out, "personality reconditioning" seems to be acceptable in Starfleet, and at the same time isn't implemented all the time, since we still have repeat convicts like Mudd out there.

Oh, and I'll side with Torie on Van Gelder. It was over the top, but in a good way.

Anyway, to the debate of the erasing people's free will, I don't see this as all that much worse than a death sentence, and may even be better. Now, I'll dodge the bullet and not delve into the morality of capital punishment, but I will say that I support it for hineous crimes.

So, from a pragmatic, logical, and perhaps even Vulcan way of looking at things, Neural Neutralization is even better than a death sentence. It is obviously reversible if the criminal is found innocent later, and it leaves the "shell" available for menial labor/societal contribution. Also, is it really more humane to lock people up in cages for their bodies where they full well know what is going on to them, or to put them into an almost coma-like state? Almost like the prison in Minority Report, eh?
Bill Siegel
8. ubxs113
Excellent stuff, especially all the literary allusions, thanks for pointing those all out. I have to side with Torie on this one though, I think it's very strong episode. Keep up the great work, thanks!
Torie Atkinson
9. Torie
@ 7

Where on earth are you getting that they use "personality rehabilitation" in Starfleet? Mudd was sentenced to "psychiatric treatment" -- presumably, you know, therapy. I can't see any reading of this episode that assumes this is common or accepted at all. What Dr. Adams tells them the device does is act as a temporary sedative, to calm down violent patients. He's very secretive of the truth, and when that gets out, everyone reacts with horror.

Re: the other issues, again, you're giving an either/or with no third option, but I don't want to get sidetracked with the moral debate. As far as this episode goes, I think it makes it very clear that the process they're using is dehumanizing on the most fundamental level, and dangerous to such an extent that it will kill you, as it did Dr. Adams.
Richard Fife
10. R.Fife
ack, I'm sorry for inspiring fervor by failing to qualify my bases. I failed to remember that Mudd did recieve psychiatric treatment, and I was drawing the "acceptable in starfleet" from the ho-hum opinion Kirk and Noel have upon meeting Lethe and learning that she has had "treatment" with a heavy implication of memory suppression (which does seem to be the purpose of the NN room).

I'd even say that Kirk is not completely horrified by what the NN room can do. If anything, his reaction was a kid in the candy store over the implications of subliminal thought and redirection.

Dr. Adams behavior over the NN room is part of what I'm calling his poorly written motivation. If Kirk and Noel had acted a hair more suspicious of the device (especially Noel, who has seen them before on Earth, of all places), and also when they started testing on Kirk, then I'd be willing to buy into Starfleet not even being marginally aware and accepting of the personality adjustment treatment. Again, though, as with the Salt Vampire, I might be just giving the writers too much credit at subtle nuance and continuity at this point.

Oh, and to the horror reaction, I don't feel that happens until Adams starts to use the device in a way that seems atypical, even to his own methods (if the treatment Kirk walks in on and away from is any indiciation). The character of Adams was almost a closet sadist in his sudden turn to max settings and "you love, now she is gone" treatment. Perhaps that was what his motivation was supposed to be? If so, I could buy that, provided they would have alluded to it more or straight out said as much.

So, I can accept that the NN room and what is going on perhaps is more of a commentary of the doctors of asylums having godlike power and sadistic fun with their patients, using what might under normal circumstances be perfectly legitmate equipment and taking it to a perverted, twisted level.
Richard Fife
11. R.Fife
Ammendum: OK, I just went back and rewatched the first seen with the NN room, and I am growing more into opinion that Adams was supposed to be a closet sadist that has taken a legit piece of equipment (which Helen ardently vouches for with "I assure Dr Adams has not created a chamber of horrors") and perverted its use.

I'm still standing that personality modification is at least semi-acceptable in SF for the "criminally insane", if perhaps not on such a radical, forceful level.
12. sps49
Where's the nonsexist love for Doctor Noel, who takes out the security guard sent after her?

I remember getting the willies when I watched this show when younger. I would worry that the ceiling light in my room would drain my brain as I slept.
13. Hatgirl
No mention of the wonderful South Park homage (rather than their usual parodies)? Got to admit, it was Kyle's voice I heard during Kirk's "Can you imagine a mind emptied by that thing?" speech.

Yep, go Dr Noel! It also struck me that Kirk assumes she is capable of completing her mission. Assumptions of competence are always a good sign :D

Edit: Whoops. Fixed the link. And the episode is free, even outside the US! Yay!
Torie Atkinson
14. Torie
@ 12 and @ 13

I made a note and it never made it into my reaction. Despite her interesting wardrobe malfunction (business in the front, party in the back?), she did actually kick some ass and successfully complete a mission despite not knowing anything about circuitry. Go her! I do think Shimrod @ 3 makes a good point about not giving her anything more interesting to implant than juvenile love fantasies, but, you know, I'll take what I can get. To be honest, I was rather surprised by the violent electrical death that guy got in the first place. Pretty gruesome, even without showing anything.
Eugene Myers
15. ecmyers
@ 13

Nice catch! Like I said, I'd somehow forgotten "Dagger of the Mind," so I guess when I saw the famous "plane'arium" episode of South Park, I totally missed that reference. Fantastic!

@ 14

Cynically, I assumed Kirk sent Dr. Noel through the air ducts so he could check out her assets while she crawled away...
Avram Grumer
16. avram
Speaking of names, I always wondered if there was a link between the Tantalus Penal Colony and the Tantalus field device used in "Mirror, Mirror".
David Lev
17. davidlev
This reminds me of a part of the background of Babylon 5: one of the extreme punishments that Earth Alliance enacts against criminals. The death penalty still exists, but there's also an alternative, in which the criminal's mind is wiped and they are deported to a different planet, so people who knew them before wouldn't run into them. They were specifically given different personalities--the one person we see on the show was wiped and went from a crazed serial killer to a kind, gentle man who became a Catholic priest. The punishment is viewed to be equivalent to the death penalty, in that someone is executed, even if their body is still alive with a different personality. However, it allows for people to get a fresh start
18. feenix219
In the Mirror verse, its not unlikely that the penal colony there had even more devious tech then they do in the regular universe. Its also not unlikely to think that Mirror Kirk killed them and took their tech when he got to the alternate version of Dagger of the Mind.
19. Benllama
What struck me the most with this episode: Kirk never gets his mind reprogrammed back. So what if forever he is struggling with being completely in love with Noel. He knows rationally that it's an implanted feeling, and he would most likely never give their relationship a chance because of it. But reguardless, those feelings of her being his only true love will never leave. Even threw all of Kirks future romances, he can never stop thinking about Dr. Noel.Sounds down right miserable.

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