“The Tholian Web”
Written by Judy Burns & Chet Richards
Directed by Ralph Senensky (uncredited) and Herb Wallerstein
Season 3, Episode 9
Production episode 60043-64
Original air date: November 15, 1968
Captain’s log. The Enterprise is searching for the U.S.S. Defiant, which went missing three weeks earlier. Spock’s sensor readings indicate that the fabric of space where the Defiant was last reported is literally breaking up. Chekov picks up what appears to be the Defiant on the viewer, but though they can see it, there are no significant sensor readings from the ship. Nonetheless, it is there, even if it is all green and glowy.
Leaving Scotty—who reports a minute drop in warp power, which has him concerned—in charge of the ship, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Chekov don environmental suits and beam over to the Defiant bridge to find several dead bodies of crew who have apparently murdered each other.
Spock says there has been no reported mutiny on a starship ever before, having apparently forgotten his own mutiny in “The Menagerie.” The captain’s neck has been broken. Spock finds absolutely no signs of life on board. Kirk sends Chekov to engineering and McCoy to sickbay, and both of them find more corpses, all having died violently. Chekov starts feeling a little woobly as he leaves engineering. McCoy asserts that they all killed each other—and the doctor’s hand passes through both a corpse and a table.
On the Enterprise, Sulu has to course correct, as the Defiant keeps drifting, and he’s having trouble getting a lock on it. O’Neil can’t get a transporter lock on the landing party, either, and Scotty has to deal with it himself—however, he can only transport three at a time, and it’s touch and go at that. He manages to get Spock, McCoy, and Chekov on board, barely, but by the time they materialize, the Defiant has completely disappeared—with Kirk still on board. (Cue dramatic music.)
Spock’s data indicates that there is an interphasic rift into which the Defiant has fallen, and the computer says it will be two hours before the Defiant will reappear. On the one hand, the weak fabric of space means they can’t leave without making things worse for the Defiant; on the other, this area of space seems to be having a deleterious effect on the ship’s systems, not to mention whatever caused the Defiant crew to go binky-bonkers.
Speaking of that, Chekov goes nuts, attacking Spock with the same murderous fury that apparently affected the Defiant crew. Sulu, McCoy, and Scotty have to restrain him until Spock neck pinches him. Security takes him to sickbay and McCoy orders restraints. He needs time to isolate the cause of the insanity, and he advises moving away from this area of space, but Spock can’t without risking damaging space enough to lose the Defiant. McCoy is also attacked by one of his medtechs.
A ship approaches belonging to the Tholian Assembly, whose commander, Loskene, accuses them of invading their space. Spock replies that they’re in free space and are attempting to rescue another ship. Loskene detects no other ship (and insists that this is Tholian territory), but is willing to give Spock the two hours says he needs for the Defiant to reappear.
Unfortunately, the Tholians’ entry into this space has changed the interphase pattern, so they cannot beam Kirk over. Even more unfortunately, McCoy reports that it’s this region of space that’s causing the nutsiness and they have to get out of there.
The Tholians fire on the Enterprise right when the two hours have passed. Their weapons fire damages the Enterprise sufficiently that the ship is now drifting. However, return fire does stop Loskene from pressing the attack.
Another Tholian ship arrives, and links up with Loskene’s ship. They then separate, a strand of energy between them. The ships are weaving a web around the ship, and with the Enterprise adrift, there’s nothing Spock can do.
Spock holds a service for Kirk in the ship’s chapel. In the midst of the service, another crew member goes batshit, and McCoy has him brought to sickbay.
Kirk left a message for Spock and McCoy to play in case he was declared dead. Both Spock and McCoy snipe at each other, with McCoy bitching Spock out for trapping them in this area of space for sentiment, or perhaps to make sure that Kirk was really dead so he could take command. Spock, meanwhile, needs McCoy to practically put him in a headlock to obey Kirk’s last wishes.
They play the recording. Kirk urges Spock to temper his logic with intuitive insight—and if he can’t do that, to go to McCoy for help. He also urges McCoy to advise Spock, but also to remember that he’s the captain now and the doctor should follow his orders and inspire the same confidence that they had in Kirk.
Abashed, McCoy apologizes, and Spock—well, he is less harsh with McCoy, at the very least.
We cut to Uhura in her quarters, preparing for bed, when she feels a sharp pain in her stomach—and sees Kirk in her mirror! He looks like he’s in pain and crying for help, and then he fades away. Uhura immediately runs into the corridor and bumps into McCoy, insisting that she saw Kirk, but she’s also in bad shape from the looniness.
One of Scotty’s engineers goes nuts and attacks Scotty and some others. They take him to sickbay, where McCoy and Chapel are getting closer to a cure, at least. Then Scotty also sees Kirk, just like Uhura did. And then, after McCoy starts to lose it on the bridge, Kirk shows up there, too, where the whole bridge crew can see him.
McCoy releases Uhura from sickbay, since she’s not crazy, and that’s followed by news that he’s found a cure: a diluted form of theragen, a Klingon nerve gas, mixed with alcohol. It deadens certain parts of the brain, which Scotty insists that any good Scotch can do. (That explains why Scotty’s unaffected—he’s already soused most of the time.)
The ship goes into interphase just as the Tholians close their web, with the Enterprise going through interphase to escape the web. Kirk appears twice on the viewscreen, and O’Neil manages to lock onto him and beam him safely aboard.
Kirk reports that the Defiant disappeared after the Tholians fired, leaving him completely alone in the strange other universe. He’s grateful for the rescue as he prefers a crowded universe. Spock and McCoy then lie through their teeth and say they never watched Kirk’s final orders to them, apparently preferring to let Kirk think that they got along fine without his advice forcing them to reconcile.
Can’t we just reverse the polarity? The region of space the Defiant was lost in is fraying like an old tapestry (because that’s totally how space works) and it does unfortunate things to the human brain.
Fascinating. Spock does everything he can to save the captain, even though it risks the whole crew. His rationale is that Kirk would do the same for a member of his crew, which McCoy agrees with, so you wonder why he’s giving Spock shit about it.
I’m a doctor not an escalator. McCoy finds a cure for the interphasic insanity. Because he’s just that awesome.
Ahead warp one, aye. Sulu flies the ship, on those rare occasions when the ship is able to move, and that’s it. He doesn’t get to do any repairs or calculate any trajectories or do any other fun stuff (that’s all Scotty), he doesn’t get to do any science stuff (that’s all Spock and McCoy), he doesn’t get to see Kirk’s silent image (at least not until everyone does, prior to that it’s Uhura and Scotty), and he doesn’t get to go binky-bonkers (that’s just Chekov and a bunch of supernumeraries).
Hailing frequencies open. It’s a good thing Uhura doubled over in pain before seeing Kirk, because otherwise there was no justification for putting her in sickbay after that. As it is, her entire reaction was appallingly close to stereotypical hysterical behavior because she’s just a girrrrrrrrrrrrrl.
However, it is cool to see her in civvies.
It is a Russian invention. Walter Koenig gets to do what he does best: scream. He screams on the bridge and he screams in sickbay.
I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty gets to fix everything that’s broken and save the day. He rewards himself by wandering off with McCoy’s theragen-and-alcohol cure to get swozzled. In fact, it’s left to O’Neil to beam the captain back on board, since Scotty is presumably off on a bender somewhere…
Go put on a red shirt. A couple of redshirts go nuts, but at least they all survive!
Channel open. “One good slug of this, and you can hit a man with a phaser stun, and he’d never feel it or even know it.”
“Does it make a good mix with Scotch?”
“I’ll let you know.”
McCoy and Scotty discussing the finer points of the antidote, with Scotty wandering off to enact what will be his next share at his AA meeting.
Welcome aboard. All the billed guests in this one were recurring or returning characters: Sean Morgan reprises his role of O’Neil from “The Return of the Archons,” alongside regulars George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, and Majel Barrett.
Barbara Babcock does an uncredited turn as the voice of Loskene. Previously, Babcock did the voices of Trelane’s mother in “The Squire of Gothos,” and both the Beta 5 computer and Isis in “Assignment: Earth.” She also played Mea 3 in “A Taste of Armageddon,” and will return in “Plato’s Stepchildren” as Philana and do the voice of Zetar in “The Lights of Zetar.”
Trivial matters: This episode was mostly directed by Ralph Senensky, but he was fired most of the way through for going over schedule and was replaced with Herb Wallerstein, who received sole credit, even though most of the footage was shot by Senensky. According to Senensky’s account on his blog in 2010, the schedule overrun was not his fault, but due to the environment suits not being completed in a timely manner.
The final fate of the Defiant will be revealed in the Enterprise two-parter “In a Mirror, Darkly,” where it is discovered that it went through the interphasic rift into the Mirror Universe (from “Mirror, Mirror” and a mess of DS9 episodes) a century previous, where it’s found by the MU version of Jonathan Archer.
Four years prior to that Enterprise story being produced, Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore wrote a two–part Starfleet Corps of Engineers story called Interphase in which the U.S.S. da Vinci retrieved the Defiant from the interphasic rift, which also revealed what the Defiant was doing in the sector and why the Tholians were so antsy about it. After “In a Mirror, Darkly” aired, Ward had been ruminating on a plot that would reconcile the two, but the S.C.E. series was cancelled so the opportunity to write it never presented itself.
The Tholians will continue to be mentioned throughout TNG (e.g., “The Icarus Factor,” “Reunion“) and DS9 (e.g., “The Way of the Warrior,” “Call to Arms“), but will not be actually seen again until Enterprise‘s “Future Tense” and “In a Mirror, Darkly.”
In the tie-in fiction, the Tholian Assembly is one of the primary antagonists of the Vanguard series by David Mack, Ward, and Dilmore (including a certain amount of backstory for this episode), and the Assembly also becomes a major player in the Typhon Pact starting in your humble rewatcher’s A Singular Destiny and seen in many subsequent novels.
Among the many other appearances by the Tholians in the tie-in fiction besides those listed above: the Destiny trilogy by Mack; issues #71-75 of DC’s second monthly TNG comic book series written by Michael Jan Friedman; the IDW one-shot Captain’s Log: Sulu written by Scott & David Tipton; the Lost Era novel The Sundered by Andy Mangels & Michael A. Martin; the TNG novel Vendetta by Peter David; issues #10 & 11 of the comic book series Star Trek: The Early Voyages written by Dan Abnett & Ian Edginton; the short story “Fracture” by Jeff Bond in the original series anthology Constellations; etc. The Tholians are also part of the games Klingon Academy, the Decipher role-playing game module Aliens, and Star Trek Online. Finally, a version of this story in the alternate timeline of the 2009 film and Star Trek Into Darkness was done in issues #46-47 of IDW’s monthly Star Trek comic written by Mike Johnson.
This is the second time we see the ship’s chapel, previously seen in “Balance of Terror.”
This episode debuts the new environment suits, which look much better than the shower-curtain rejects from “The Naked Time.” They’ll be seen again in “Whom Gods Destroy.”
The special effects from this episode got the show nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction and Scenic Design, losing to Mission: Impossible.
To boldly go. “He’s alive, Doctor!” This was always one of my favorite episodes as a kid, so it was really disappointing to sit and watch it now and see all its flaws.
Not that they change this into a bad episode. In fact, by the low standards of the third season, it’s quite good. Parts of it are superb. The eerie atmosphere of the Defiant in the first act is very effective. Watching as crewmember after crewmember succumbs is likewise, with the added bonus of Chekov—someone we actually know and care about—being our first victim. (Plus there’s no better screamer this side of Fay Wray than Walter Koenig.) It’s nice to see Uhura in her quarters off duty, it’s nice to see an actual acknowledgment of other crewmembers (even if it is only long enough for them to go batshit or to be extras in the service), and it’s nice to see Kirk delivering one last bitch-slap to his best friends to stop being morons from beyond the not-really-his-grave.
Best of all is another set of aliens like the Melkotians and the Medusans who appear to be truly alien, not just people in suits/makeup. Loskene’s bizarre appearance combined with Barbara Babcock’s filtered voice make for a very compelling antagonist.
Unfortunately, that’s the primary problem with the episode: the Tholians are introduced as this grave threat, who then weave the slowest web in history (how do they entrap ships that aren’t crippled, one wonders?), and then are irrelevant to the rest of the episode. Aside from a nifty visual of the Enterprise being entangled in an energy web for establishing shots, the Tholians barely register as even existing once we get past their initial appearance.
Also the Spock-McCoy sniping feels a bit too constructed. Part of the problem is that McCoy is a moving target: Is he criticizing Spock for being too human in going after Kirk? Isn’t that what he always wants Spock to be? Then he’s accusing him of staying to make sure Kirk is dead so he can have command, which McCoy knows is nonsense—but it’s there to create extra suspense. Some of this we can chalk up to grief and McCoy fighting off the effects of the looniness, but still, it just feels off from the usual.
Ultimately, though, despite the flaws, the episode works because there is genuine tension—with the fate of the Defiant crew hanging over everyone as a possible outcome—and because it gives the rest of the crew a chance to take the spotlight and see how they function without their captain. Mostly it shows up how important Kirk is to the dynamic, since the crew is discombobulated without him, though they eventually suck it up and get it done.
Warp factor rating: 6
Next week: “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”
Rewatcher’s note: Due to the Independence Day holiday, there will be no Original Series Rewatch on Tuesday the 5th of July. (Yes, it’s past the actual holiday on the 4th, but your humble rewatcher is spending the preceding weekend at a convention and then the days after it with family.) We’ll be back on track with “For the World is Hollow and This Title is Too Damn Long” on the 12th.
Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at InConJunction XXXVI this weekend in Indianapolis as a Special Guest, alongside media guest of honor Rockne S. O’Bannon (creator of Farscape, among other things), author GoH Simon Morden, artist GoH Heather V. Kreiter, music GoH Wax Chaotic, and tons more. He will be signing and selling his books at the show, and also doing programming: his full schedule, including a Farscape panel with O’Bannon, is here.