“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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.
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David Mack is heading for a showdown. Or a hoedown. He always gets those two confused.