“The Deadly Years”
Written by David P. Harmon
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Season 2, Episode 11
Production episode 60340
Original air date: December 8, 1967
Captain’s log. A landing party beams down to Gamma Hydra IV, consisting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and Lieutenant Arlene Galway. Nobody meets them, even though they’re there for a standard annual checkup of a scientific outpost. It’s not like they weren’t expected—in fact, Kirk spoke to Robert Johnson, the expedition’s leader, an hour earlier, and while he seemed a bit disjointed, everything seemed fine.
Kirk sends folks to look around, and Chekov finds the desiccated corpse of a very old human male. McCoy verifies that he died of old age—which Spock says is impossible, as he checked the personnel records, and none of the colony personnel were over thirty.
Then Johnson shows up with his wife, Elaine. They’re both quite elderly, and Johnson is half deaf, but they assure the landing party that they’re in their late twenties. There were six people assigned to the colony, and the Johnsons are the only ones left—the other four also died of old age.
Kirk calls a briefing, which includes two passengers on the Enterprise. One is Commodore Stocker, who is being transported to his new post commanding Starbase 10 by the Enterprise, the other is a civilian endocrinologist, Dr. Janet Wallace, whom Kirk asks to assist McCoy in trying to determine what’s happening from a medical POV. Spock is investigating whether or not this is a weapon, since Gamma Hydra IV is proximate to the Neutral Zone that separates the Federation from the Romulan Empire.
After the briefing breaks up, Kirk and Wallace have a chat. They have a past, but they couldn’t make it work due to their separate careers. Wallace did marry a man in her field, who died recently, but it’s obvious she still carries a torch for old Jimbo.
Spock reports to Kirk on the bridge that there is nothing in the atmosphere to account for the aging. However, there is a rogue comet that came through the system. This will probably be important later. Before leaving the bridge, Kirk repeats an order he already gave. Kirk is surprised, but tells Sulu to go ahead and follow it, and both Sulu and Spock are concerned by this out-of-character lapse. This also will probably be important later.
Galway reports to sickbay, looking rather poorly, and also suffering some hearing loss, which she’s never suffered before. After repeating another order to Spock, and feeling some shoulder pain, Kirk reports to sickbay also, just in time for Johnson to die of old age, and also notices that McCoy is getting gray.
McCoy examines Kirk’s shoulder and discovers that he has advanced arthritis, and it’s spreading. Scotty then arrives at sickbay wrinkled and gray.
It quickly becomes apparent that everyone on the landing party—except, oddly, for Chekov—are aging rapidly. (Also the disease has apparently made McCoy and Kirk’s hair be combed differently.) Galway seems to be aging faster than the others, even though she’s in her early twenties.
Wallace and Kirk have an awkward conversation, as Wallace makes it clear she still loves him, but Kirk can’t help but wonder if it’s a sympathy-fuck because he’s dying of old age.
Kirk reports to the bridge, where it’s clear that his mental lapses are increasing. Stocker wants him to report to Starbase 10 so he can take command and also use the base’s greater resources, but Kirk refuses. He later falls asleep in the captain’s chair, only to be woken by a report from Spock. Turns out the comet left some very low-level radiation in the atmosphere, below the usual threshold for sensors. Kirk has Uhura report the comet to Starfleet Command (forgetting that Code 2 was broken by the Romulans along the way and only changing his order to Code 3 after Uhura gently reminds him), and he also forgets an order he gave Sulu.
Galway stumbles into sickbay and dies. Chekov meanwhile continues to not age, and nobody can figure out why.
Stocker talks to Spock privately, concerned about Kirk’s failing mental capacity. Stocker wants Spock to relieve Kirk of command, but Spock himself says he is unfit—while Vulcans live longer, he’s still diminished. But if Spock, with his greater stamina and fitness, is diminished, Kirk is obviously more so. Stocker then points out that regulations require him to call a competency hearing on Kirk.
At the start of the hearing, Kirk declares it to be invalid, but Spock insists that regulations require it. Spock first questions Sulu, who testifies to Kirk repeating orders twice, then Yeoman Atkins, who testifies to Kirk asking to sign a fuel consumption report that he had already signed, then Uhura, who testifies to Kirk forgetting that the Romulans broke Code 2, even though Kirk received and initialed the memo that they’d broken it. McCoy did a complete physical on Kirk, which gives his biological age at between 60 and 72, even though he’s 34 years old. McCoy then (blearily) testifies to Kirk’s physical and mental deterioration that matches aging.
Kirk testifies to his own competence, which fails rather spectacularly by his referring to the planet as Gamma Hydra II, but he insists that this hearing is nothing more than mutiny. Even as he’s making more and more memory lapses, and Uhura and Sulu are wincing, Kirk says he can still command.
After Kirk is relieved, Stocker takes command, since the alternative is to leave a “junior officer” in command in a tense situation. (We’ll just ignore the fact that Sulu commanded the Enterprise during a war against the Klingons.) Stocker, a career bureaucrat, has never commanded a starship. Kirk accuses Spock of stabbing him in the back and kicks him out of his quarters. Wallace stays behind and lets Kirk rant and rave before being unable to stand it anymore.
Kirk meets with Spock, McCoy, and Wallace in sickbay, trying to figure out how to cure the disease. They go over the events on Gamma Hydra IV. They recall that they separated for a bit—Chekov went off on his own, found the dead body, and was scared. McCoy hypothesizes that adrenaline could do the trick, that it was used to treat radiation after the atomic wars. The later discovery of hyronalin superseded it, but they might be able to synthesize something that will work. Spock, Wallace, and Chapel get to work on that.
Stocker has ordered the Enterprise to proceed on a direct course to Starbase 10—but that will take them through the Neutral Zone, in violation of treaty. Sulu questions that, but follows Stocker’s orders. Sure enough, as soon as the ship enters the Zone, Romulan ships show up and bracket them from all sides, firing on the ship. Stocker freezes, then tries to contact the Romulans, to no avail.
Kirk is frustrated by feeling his ship get pounded, and he insists on taking the first shot of the serum. He needs to get onto the bridge before Stocker gets them all killed. Wallace gives him the shot—and it works, though not without a lot of thrashing about.
A re-youngified Kirk runs to the bridge just as Stocker’s about to give up and surrender. Kirk orders Uhura to send a message in Code 2 to Starfleet Command: they’re surrounded by Romulans due to inadvertent entry of Neutral Zone, so they will have to trigger destruct sequence using newly installed corbomite device, which will destroy everything within 200,000 kilometers, and render that area a dead zone that should be avoided by all ships for four years.
The Romulans back off quickly and Kirk zooms away at warp eight before the Romulans can figure out that they’ve been had. McCoy then reports to the bridge, also re-youngified, and reports that he’s fine, as is Scotty, though the latter pulled a muscle during the process. That just leaves Spock, and McCoy assures him that he removed all the breakables from sickbay.
Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Hyronalin is mentioned as the standard treatment for radiation sickness (which will be seen in future Trek productions), but prior to that it was adrenaline, which is the base for the cure of the radiation emitted by the comet.
I’m a doctor not an escalator. Apparently McCoy’s Southern accent gets stronger with age, just as it did with semi-drunken goofiness in “This Side of Paradise.”
Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu was good enough to be left in command in combat against the Gorn and against the Klingons in “Arena” and “Errand of Mercy,” respectively, in the latter case during a declared state of war, so it’s unclear why Stocker can’t just put him in charge after Kirk’s declared incompetent. It’s even less clear as the battle against the Romulans rages on and Stocker keeps asking Sulu for advice.
Hailing frequencies open. Uhura gets the best line of the episode when Stocker asks her to let him know if they contact any Romulan ships. The ship is hit with weapons fire a second later, and Uhura dryly says, “I think we just made contact, sir.”
I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty plays very little of a role here, barely seen, and only getting a few lines. Mostly he’s there to show up in sickbay all gray, as the first one to do so.
It’s a Russian invention. Chekov is very not happy with being poked, prodded, injected, inspected, neglected, and selected while they try to determine why he wasn’t affected by the radiation.
Go put on a red shirt. The one non-regular in the landing party—Galway—is the only one who doesn’t survive. Big shock. She gets a very effective scene when she passes a mirror and complains that it’s a stupid place to put one, but once she dies, she’s utterly forgotten and unmourned.
No sex, please, we’re Starfleet. Wallace is yet another woman from Kirk’s past, and yet another candidate for the “blonde lab tech” whom Kirk almost married, as mentioned in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
Channel open. “Now this isn’t going to hurt a bit.”
“That’s what you said the last time.”
“Did it hurt?”
McCoy trying to reassure Chekov and Chekov having none of it.
Welcome aboard. Charles Drake nicely plays the bumfuzzled Stocker while Sarah Marshall is radiant as Wallace, despite her costume literally being made from drapes. Felix Locher and Laura Wood play the Johnsons, Carolyn Nelson is the latest member of the Post-Rand Yeoman Derby as Atkins, and Beverly Washburn plays the ill-fated Galway. Plus we’ve got recurring regulars George Takei, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and Majel Barrett.
This episode establishes Kirk’s age as 34, which means he was in his early 30s (or younger) when he took command of the Enterprise. A lot of background material on Kirk says that he was the youngest person to achieve a captaincy, though this was never stated onscreen at any point.
This is the first mention of the Romulans since their initial appearance in “Balance of Terror.” Footage from that episode is used for the Neutral Zone battle at the episode’s climax.
Kirk uses the same “corbomite” bluff used in “The Corbomite Maneuver” to trick the Romulans in this episode.
The costume department made larger uniforms for the aging personnel to create the illusion that they were shrinking with age.
The makeup used on McCoy here is very similar to what was used to age DeForest Kelley for his appearance as the 137-year-old McCoy in TNG‘s “Encounter at Farpoint.”
This is the first of three scripts by David P. Harmon. He’ll return to write “A Piece of the Action” later this season and “The Eye of the Beholder” for the animated series.
Early drafts of The Wrath of Khan had Wallace as the female scientist from Kirk’s past, but it was soon changed to the new character of Carol Marcus. As a nod to this, in Star Trek Into Darkness, Carol Marcus’s alias when signing onto the Enterprise is “Carol Wallace.”
To boldly go. “I’ll live—but I won’t enjoy it!” The rapid-aging story is a cliché for a reason, and it’s almost always done stupidly. Wrinkled skin and gray hair are a result of time passing specifically, not an inevitable result of aging, and it’s something that can’t happen instantly—or if it does, it’d be the hair at the roots that’s gray. I especially love that Kirk goes from a receding hairline that’s graying to a full head of hair when it’s all white.
But what sells this particular version of the cliché is the acting. James Doohan doesn’t get to do much, but everyone else is in very good form. DeForest Kelley was born to play a crotchety old man. Leonard Nimoy does magnificently with the slower burn of Spock’s deterioration, weaving increasing exhaustion into his voice. Beverly Washburn does excellent work with Galway’s breakdown in sickbay (the fact that the crew barely even responds to her death is galling, albeit depressingly typical). And William Shatner does magnificent work, as he’s unable to accept his rapidly deteriorating faculties and what it means for the command structure of the ship. It’s a heartbreaking performance.
But it’s not just the faux old folks who do well here. George Takei and Nichelle Nichols do fine work trying very hard not to question their captain’s orders when he gives them multiple times, and they also waste no time in snarking off Stocker when he makes an ass of himself on the bridge. Walter Koenig gives a delightful performance as the put-upon Chekov, especially his epic rant after going through endless medical tests. (He also gets to scream upon seeing the corpse, which is always fun, as Koenig has the best scream this side of Fay Wray.)
What impressed me most on rewatching this episode, though, was Charles Drake’s performance as Stocker. It’s easy to consign Stocker to the same clichéd dustbin as all the other high-ranking dunderheads who get in our heroes’ way, but Stocker deserves more credit than that, because Drake shows that he obviously hates having to do what he’s doing, and is going through the same agony as everyone else watching Kirk stubbornly insist that he’s fit for command when he’s so totally not. Stocker’s only mistake is taking command when there’s a perfectly acceptable junior officer who already took command of the ship during a war right there on the bridge. (Grumble mutter.)
What impressed me less on rewatching this episode was the utterly superfluous character of Janet Wallace. She adds nothing to the story except for a flaccid romance hook that feels utterly repetitive. In fact, it’s literally repetitive: Wallace’s answer to Kirk’s query as to how long it had been since they saw each other was exactly the same as the one Areel Shaw gave in “Court Martial.” In fact, Wallace pretty much is Shaw: woman from the captain’s past who has a vocation that matches the needs of the episode’s plot. The difference is that Shaw was crucial to “Court Martial” while Wallace is irrelevant to “The Deadly Years,” as McCoy and Chapel would’ve been just fine. Hell, the script doesn’t bother to explain why she’s even on the ship, and her scenes with Kirk just don’t have any of the sparkle or interest that any of the (many) other scenes Kirk has had with women from his past on the show. (Hell, even the quick exchange between Kirk and Piper in “The Menagerie” had more sizzle, and that wasn’t even about Piper!)
Still, this is a well-done episode that examines the ravages of aging impressively. Watching everyone wince and stammer as Kirk deteriorates right in front of them is very powerful, reminding me of when my grandmother started suffering from dementia a decade ago.
Warp factor rating: 7
Next week: “I, Mudd”
Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest book is Thor: Dueling with Giants, the first of the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy, available as an eBook (from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo, among others). The print book will be out in March. Other 2016 work planned includes the next two Asgard books, Sif: Even Dragons Have Their Endings and The Warriors Three: Godhood’s End, as well as Stargate SG-1: Kali’s Wrath, stories in Alternate Sherlocks and V-Wars: Night Terrors, and bunches more.