Thu
Nov 11 2010 12:07pm

Star Trek Re-watch: “Spectre of the Gun”

Star Trek episode Spectre of the Gun
Written by Lee Cronin (Gene L. Coon)
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Season 3, Episode 6
Production episode 3x1
Original air date: October 25, 1968
Stardate 4385.3

Recap: Dayton Ward

The Enterprise crew is at Red Alert as the ship approaches an glowing, spinning dumbbell that refuses to let them pass. Then the thing broadcasts a message that is heard by each crewmember in his or her native language (English, Vulcan, Russian, Swahili, LOLcat, etc.) and transcends all cultural and linguistic boundaries with its simple, elegant message: “Go away.”

Star Trek episode

Because Kirk has orders to make peaceful contact with the mysterious Melkotians, he disregards the lessons imparted by previous encounters with alien space-thingees that told him to “Go away.” Instead, he orders the Enterprise to proceed on past the space buoy and head for the Melkotian planet. However, forty-odd years later, that beacon is still there, drifting in the void as a warning to the rest of us—to change the channel, swap DVDs, run out into traffic, or whatever.

Star Trek episode Kirk wastes no time beaming down to the Melkotian homeworld, taking Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov with him for laughs. Despite what the sensors report about the planet’s surface, the target area of their arrival is enveloped in fog thicker than the chronic cloud in Jeff Spicoli’s van. Attempts to contact the Enterprise are unsuccessful, and then an alien emerges from the fog, looking like a cross between a mushroom and a Sleestak’s great-great grandfather. It’s a Melkotian, and he’s quick to tell Kirk and company that there will be consequences for daring to encroach upon his lawn:

MELKOTIAN: Our warning was plain. You have disregarded it. You shall be punished. You, Captain Kirk: the disobedience was on your orders. Yours is the responsibility. Yours shall be the pattern of your death.

At this point, you can almost see Chekov looking around, wondering why this of ALL episodes has to be the one where he’s the lowest-ranking dude in the food chain (“Awww, come on! I’m not even wearing a red shirt!”).

Drawing his phaser, Kirk warns the Melkotian that though they come in peace, they’ll defend themselves if necessary. How does the Melkotian react to that? Well, anyone seeking inspiration for their Star Trek/Firefly fan-fiction crossover dream project need look no further than this next scene, as Kirk and the others find themselves whisked away to...Frontierland? They’re standing in the middle of a town right out of the Old West, their equipment is gone and has been replaced by leather gun belts, and instead of a phaser Kirk now wields an ancient six-shooter. As for the town, it’s a bit of an odd place, the buildings little more than façades in the finest tradition of Western stunt shows from Universal Studios. It doesn’t take long for the group to figure out that the setting has been manufactured by the Melkotians, presumably as the stage for whatever fate the landing party is meant to suffer.

Star Trek episode Oh, and about that? Yeah. The town is Tombstone, Arizona. The date? October 26, 1881. Since the Melkotian said that Kirk would provide the “pattern for their death,” Kirk and Spock figure that since Kirk’s ancestors pioneered the American frontier, this era of their history provides the ideal setting for the landing party’s elaborate execution.

Wait. Isn’t Kirk’s family from Iowa? That’s a pretty fair distance from Arizona, isn’t it? Hold on...I’ve got it. According to Hollywood, everything between Rodeo Drive and Times Square is really just one big hick town, in which we all add extra syllables to perfectly good words pretty much for our own amusement. Okay. Glad we got that settled.

After talking with the “town sheriff,” Kirk realizes he and the others are playing the roles of the “Clanton gang,” who fought the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral on…wait for it…October 26, 1881! The theory is only strengthened by the landing party’s interactions with various town residents. Despite their best efforts, everyone views them as the Clanton gang—including a young woman named Sylvia who fancies Chekov, or the man he’s supposed to be, Billy Claiborne. The events of the day seemed destined to play out as recorded by history: if they’re in town at five o’clock, they’re dead men. Kirk’s all like, “Let’s boogie!” but they’re not even able to make a run for it, thanks to a mysterious force field surrounding the town.

Whoops.

Unable to avoid a confrontation with the Earps and Doc Holliday, Kirk and crew have just a couple of hours to figure out a plan. McCoy hits on the idea of some sort of tranquilizer, and Spock figures he can create a gas grenade as a delivery vehicle. Where the heck is MacGyver when you need him? Venturing to Tombstone’s dentist, McCoy is looking for the drugs he’ll need to roofie the Earps when he runs into Doc Holliday, and the two sawbones almost have it out right there in the dentist’s office. Man, the welcoming committee in this town sucks.

Meanwhile, Chekov gets a kick out of pretending to be Billy Claiborne and schmoozing with Sylvia—at least until Morgan Earp shows up and busts a cap in him. As the Earps look on, the rest of the landing party rushes to Chekov’s side, and McCoy pronounces him dead. However, he doesn’t utter the famous line, “He’s dead, Jim,” so anyone playing the Official Star Trek Drinking Game™ at this point gets denied.

After resisting the Earps’ attempts to goad them into a fight, Kirk and the remaining members of the landing party are back in the town’s saloon, working on the tranquilizer grenades. With an hour before the five o’clock deadline, Spock recalls what he knows of the real “gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Billy Claiborne survived the actual battle, which implies the Enterprise officers might not be bound to repeat history. Boo-yah! Suck on that, Melkotians! Seizing on this, Kirk runs to the sheriff and asks him to stop the fight, but the sheriff is all about having the Clantons punk the Earps.

SHERIFF: You and your boys set up this whole thing to take care of the Earps. It’s a little late to decide you don’t have the belly for it!

Star Trek episode Even though he’s basically being given a “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free” card by the sheriff, Kirk can’t come to grips with the notion of fighting and possibly killing the Earps. Any hope of McCoy’s tranquilizer being the key to their victory goes out the window when they test it on Scotty. The engineer inhales enough of the stuff to stun that space amoeba whatchamahoozit from last season (“The Immunity Syndrome,” for those keeping score at home) with no noticeable effects. Spock reasons that this is evidence of something really weird going on here.

Yeah, because the tranq not working was the first clue.

With ten minutes until the deadline, Kirk decides that they’ll give history the finger and simply stay in the saloon until well past five o’clock. That plan, elegant in its simplicity, is sure to work.

Um, no.

Our heroes are transported instantly to the O.K. Corral and trapped there thanks to more of those pesky force fields. Kirk prepares for the coming fight, but Spock tells him to pipe down so he can explain what he was starting to piece together back at the saloon:

SPOCK: Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. Where the laws do not operate, this is no reality. All of this is unreal.

With the knowledge that the Melkotians have manufactured their surroundings as elaborate theater, Spock is certain that a firm belief in the unreality of the landing party’s situation is enough to avoid dying at the hands of the Earps. Because his human companions can’t quell every shred of doubt the way he can, Morpheus Spock will give them the red pill meld with Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty, and provide them the reassurance and conviction they need to survive.

Star Trek episode Spock completes the melds as the clock strikes five and the Earps and Doc Holliday make their way to the corral. The landing party stands ready as their foes arrive and order them to draw. Kirk makes the first move, and the Earps and Holliday unleash a hail of bullets...that do nothing except punch holes in the fence behind the Enterprise officers. That’s right; Kirk and company just got shot at by the A-Team. After a brief exhibition of Kirk-Fu that puts Wyatt Earp in the dirt, Kirk draws his pistol as if he plans to kill the other man. Then he tosses the weapon aside...and everyone is back aboard the Enterprise an instant later, Chekov included!

The Melkotian space buoy approaches the ship again, and when it starts to emit harmful radiation Kirk orders it destroyed. However, the buoy blows up of its own accord, and the Enterprise is contacted by the Melkotian spokes-shroom, who’s impressed that Kirk didn’t kill Wyatt Earp. Kirk’s rather impressed with himself, too. Then again...when isn’t he?

Now interested in peaceful contact and communication with the Federation, the Melkotians invite the Enterprise to their homeworld. Cue end credits.


I’ve always had a soft spot for “Spectre of the Gun.” Sure, it’s an easy one to dismiss, and I can admit that, at first blush, it might seem better-suited to an episode of Lost in Space. Still, it manages to rise above its admittedly quirky premise with a story in the stylish Star Trek mold.

It’s yet another twist on the well-worn “advanced aliens test humans” trope that’s already had a good workout by this point in the series, but an effective one nonetheless. The half-formed setting of Tombstone, supposedly realized in scattershot form as drawn from fragments of Kirk’s knowledge of the Old West era, is quite effective when contrasted against the “mountains” and red backdrop of the series’ venerable planet set.

Any shortcomings in the setting are counterbalanced by the story itself as well as the core cast, all of whom present their characters in pitch-perfect fashion as the story plays out. This is definitely one of the third season’s most solid entries.

Dayton’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1 to 6)

 

Star Trek episode

Analysis: David Mack

Why does the Enterprise crew have orders to make contact with the Melkotians “at all costs”? It’s never explained. The Melkotians are clearly reclusive and not known to be a starfaring race. So, why does the Federation desire diplomatic relations with them? Especially since, having been told to bug off, the only way to do so is to trespass? More important, why does Kirk call Spock “science officer” in the teaser? Did they have a fight off-screen? Is Kirk punishing him by refusing to say his name?

Having the Melkotian warning buoy address each member of the crew telepathically in his or her native language was a nice touch. It reinforced for viewers that the Enterprise was up against something not only alien but also tremendously advanced.

Rationalizing the episode’s minimalist sets—first nothing but fog, and then a town constructed unapologetically of flat façades that don’t even have buildings behind them and surrounded by trees that cast shadows on the sky when lightning flashes—as creations drawn from Kirk’s incomplete and imperfect memory is one way to cope with the series’ sharply reduced third-season budgets. Coupled with director Vincent McEveety’s excellent camera angles and clever blocking, the result is surreal and strangely effective—especially the brilliant image of our heroes standing unscathed as the fence behind them is blasted to pieces by “gunfire.”

Chekov, as usual, seems to be present for the purpose of comic relief, which makes his apparent demise in the middle of the episode all the more shocking. It’s an effective subversion of the audience’s expectations. It’s also worth noting that the lack of any blood or an obvious wound offers the audience a clue that the cause of Chekov’s “death” was literally all in his mind, foreshadowing Spock’s eventual solution.

Star Trek episode As cheesy as this episode might seem at first glance, its writing and performances succeed at evoking and maintaining a palpable sense of menace and peril from start to finish. Most effective is William Shatner’s escalating anxiety as every tactic he tries—diplomacy, strategy, retreat—ends in failure. It’s almost as if he’s being forced to replay the Kobayashi Maru test, and this time he’s not being allowed to cheat. (Though the Melkotians are, and they do so repeatedly.)

Also, considering that Star Trek brought us planetary cultures modeled on such cultures as ancient Rome (“Bread and Circuses”), Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force”), mob-run 1920s Chicago (“A Piece of the Action”), Native Americans (“The Paradise Syndrome”), and even one exact duplicate of Earth (“Miri”)—some with semi-plausible explanations, some less plausible, and some not explained at all—this invocation of the Old West is better justified than most of the original series’ episodes based on Paramount’s supply of stock sets and backdrops.

How many times has Spock mind-melded so far this season? This incident makes it three of the past four episodes, and he scores a trifecta this time: Scotty, McCoy, and Kirk, all in one session. I imagine someone back on Vulcan teaching the kids, “Every time you mind-meld with someone, you meld with everyone they’ve ever melded with!” Which makes Spock a total mind-slut.

Apparently, the Melkotians aren’t in touch with the Metrons (“Arena”), otherwise all this could have been averted by having the Metrons vouch for Kirk and his crew. (“Hi, Melkot? This is the Metrons. … Yeah, humans are a little primitive, but they’re cool. Kirk totally could’ve iced that Gorn, but he let him live. … Uh huh. Give our best to the Excalbians. Later, bro.”)

The ending is a classic twist: it was all a dream! If so, and if Chekov was never really dead, one has to wonder whether the others would also have been resurrected after being slain the gunfight. Might the Melkots have considered the simulation of trespassers’ deaths to be a sufficient warning? Given their paeans to peace, that would make sense. But if none of what occurred was real, then none of them were ever physically on the Melkot’s planet. Which means Spock can’t have actually had physical contact with any of them. Which means he can’t have mind-melded with them. Which means…

…which means my head hurts from overthinking this. I’m going to pour myself some more scotch and call this analysis a wrap.

Bottom line: this episode is awesome, and probably the single best hour of Star Trek’s third season. Which means it’s all a downward spiral from here.

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


Next episode: Season 3, Episode 7 — “Day of the Dove.” 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.


Dayton Ward has been modified from his original version. He’s been formatted to fit this site, to write in the space allotted, and edited for content. Reader discretion is advised.

David Mack is heading for a showdown. Or a hoedown. He always gets those two confused.

22 comments
Scot Taylor
1. flapdragon
Would anyone else pay real money to see Spock mind-meld with pre-Reaver-slaughter River?
Scot Taylor
3. flapdragon
I've wondered about contagious mind-melds too. In later years, Spock melds with Picard, who had previously melded with Sarek, so Spock holds all of Picard and Sarek's memories. Spock then takes all of these minds (including Kirk Prime's) to an alternate universe and melds them into Twerp Kirk. Hmm. CHRIS PINE'S HEAD ASPLODE.
Marc Houle
5. MightyMarc
I love the simplicity of the set. It was like Dogville, only 25 years earlier.
Paul Arzooman
6. parzooman
A few points about this episode as it's one of my favorites from the original series:

1. I love the surreality of this episode. The not quite complete town, the color of the sky, the strangeness of the action -- very much a nightmare come to life.

2. In addition to the visuals, the soundtrack is pretty incredible as well. The off-key, almost dissonant version of, I think, "Buffalo Gals" just makes the viewer feel uneasy and on-edge about what's going on.

3. Chekov's death is a great Star Trek moment.

4. The "reveal" that the action is not following its historical counterpart is very well done as is the whole knockout gas sequence. Very suspenseful.

5. The mind meld stuff is just cool.

6. Best bullet ricochet sounds ever.
Steven E. McDonald
7. StevenEMcDonald
The score for Spectre Of The Gun was by Jerry Fielding, who's notable for writing music that tends to put people on edge...and this was one of his best TV entries, I think.

It ought to be entertaining for the masochistic to compare this Trek episode with the Doctor Who serial, "The Gunfighters," which was also set in Tombstone at the time of the gunfight. It's considered to be the worst Doctor Who story of them all.
john mullen
8. johntheirishmongol
Wow, you guys loved this ep and I found it really bad. This was one of my least fave eps ever and the few times I have seen it since I was in hs, I didn't find it any better. I thought the whole "I'm going to make you kill whether you like it or not" was pretty silly. They already were trying to avoid it, why transport them? Laughable.
David Mack
9. davidmack
^ You hate it, we dug it. That's what makes horse races, I guess. :-)
Sharon Foster
10. firstgentrekkie
I can't think of any TOS set that would ever be termed "elaborate," even by the standards of the day. This set was, of course, spare, but that's our first not-so-subtle clue that nothing is what it seems to be. It was sort of a Trek-meets-Twilight-Zone episode. I've always liked it, but your rewatch reviews have persuaded me that it's an even better episode than I thought.
M G
11. parabola
You might even say that Chekov's death in Spectre of the Gun is particularly meaningful... like it's meant to be used later in the story... hmmmm...
David Mack
12. davidmack
^ Yes, the classic rule of drafa: if you see Chekov on the mantle in act one...
***Dave
13. ***Dave
Wow. I'm really glad you like this ep, because it's always had a surreal appeal to me. The odd filming angles and close-ups, the inexorable menace of the Earps (ostensibly the good guys of the piece, here black-garbed agents of DOOOOOM), the Twilight Zone-like half-setting (lacking just some melting clocks to be perfect), Spock's urgent last-second mind-meld, even the creepy Melkotian voices ... it's a tale that doesn't bear too close examination, but is a nice little (and inexpensive) character piece.

I seem to recall the James Blish version of the tale made Tombstone much more realistic-looking, which seemed less effective.
Mike McCaffrey
14. earlgrey
No one has mentioned DeForrest Kelly as Morgan Earp in "Gunfight at the OK Corral".
rob mcCathy
15. roblewmac
I can see where you might like this. The use of sets is kind of cool but it's always been my second least favotrte.
I think "the EMpath" is better with worse sets
Dayton Ward
16. daytonward
^ I'm actually looking forward to "The Empath," as I've not had cause to watch it in many years.

Now, is it me, or does that pic of Spock and Scotty mind-melding look as though Spock's totally picking Scotty's nose?
***Dave
17. trekgeezer
The surreal setting is thanks to the genius of Matt Jeffries. He had planned a normal western town setting , but alas, this ep suffered the same problem as as all the 3rd season , lack of budget.
***Dave
19. Kebster
@daytonward

Yeah, he looks like he's picking Scotty's nose!

I have to say, I thought this was one of the hokiest episodes EVER when I first watched season three. Now I still don't like it a lot, but you guys have pointed out some things that I hadn't thought to appreciate before.

(same with Paradise Syndrome, actually...though I still feel embarrassed when I watch that one...)
rob mcCathy
20. roblewmac
krebster you think you you got your perception whacked I just figured out a huge plot-hole in fave 3rd season show but we can talk about that when they do recquiem for Mathusa.
Michael Burke
21. Ludon
@ Trekgeezer

I heard Walt say a couple of times at artists forums that Star Trek "...had a great budget. We worked off of Mission Impossible's budget." He then told about the raids on the dumpsters outside the M.I. soundstages.

@ daytonward

Yes indeed, Walt "Matt" Jeffries was the man. Not only for what he did with Star Trek, but also for the teacher that he was. I only knew him through the annual ASAA Artist Forums but I learned a lot from him during those contacts. He and Wilson Hurley (another person I loved to listen to) were greats at using stories of their personal experiences to teach. And their best lessons were taught in the evenings in the hospitality suite. Walt would sit and talk about anything and everything while working on additions to his Aircraft Profile series of drawings.

The only negative thing I heard him say about Star Trek was when someone asked him what he thought about the Enterprise in The Next Generation. He said "I don't like it. They took my functional bridge design and turned it into the lobby of the Hilton."
David McIntee
24. Lonemagpie
I'm a bit late to being able to comment on here (having just signed up as a member) but this is easily my favourite of the third season - I love the surrealist quality to it all, and the way it makes the budget resctrictions and studio environs into a positive factor. Fabulous.

(I can also say it's Bob Justman's favourite episode of the third season as well, at least according to a letter I have from him from 2004)

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