For this episode, we found ourselves very interested in the visual elements – in particular, the use of light and shadow to represent truth versus deception/manipulation – and thus we are going to discuss the episode alongside a series of images that we were particularly interested in.
Katie Mae: I found the big, boxy lettering on this cargo container rather hokey. But then again, that’s 1960’s television for you, right?
Ando: We really liked this line from Dr. McCoy – it sets up the character of Bones as someone who, while coming off a bit like a small-town country doctor, is actually one of the most progressive, forward-thinking, “evolved” people in the show, who bristles at inhumane treatment of anybody, no matter who they are or what they have done. He’s a genuinely compassionate person, and perfectly demonstrates the most well-known facet of the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm”.
KM: Up until this point, the scene introducing Dr. Adams is lit traditionally. However, as soon as Lethe enters, the lighting on Dr. Adams’ face shifts, and he is cast in shadow, hinting at his sinister nature. As Lethe approaches him, he casts a shadow on her, symbolizing his control over her.
Ando: This episode is the first time we see Spock perform the Vulcan “mind meld” (though it is not given this name here), which will obviously become an iconic part of his character. It’s interesting to note that Spock tells Dr. McCoy that this is the first time he’s ever used it on a human, and he displays almost uncharacteristic hesitation. It takes Dr. van Gelder literally pleading with him to convince him to take the risk.
KM: Further, in contrast to other times in this episode when shadow is used to depict control and deceit, as Spock brings the truth out of Dr. van Gelder, his face is brightly lit.
KM: In the final shot of the sequence depicting Helen’s created memory of the Christmas party, we zoom in as shadow closes over Helen and Kirk’s kissing faces, reminding us of the falsehood of this memory.
Ando: One thing that really struck me about this episode is – in contrast to Dr. McCoy’s humanitarian compassion and kindness – Dr. Adams’ callous attitude toward the inmates of the several rehabilitation colonies he’s worked at (and the episode indicates he’s done this several times before). He clearly sees the patients as nothing more than test subjects for him to play with and experiment on, and the moment anyone – be they a colleague or a starfleet captain – catches on to his playing God, he subjects them to his neural neutralizer, tortures and brainwashes them.
Ando: The one and only truly disappointing thing about episodic television such as Star Trek is how it is forced to hit the giant reset button at the end of an episode that should actually have interesting and lasting repercussions for the characters. In this episode, Dr. van Gelder and Captain Kirk both undergo extreme mental duress and torture, but in the closing scene we hear that van Gelder is back in his position on Tantalus (assumedly “all better”), and while Kirk briefly appears haunted by the experience (and tells Spock and McCoy that nobody can understand dying of loneliness unless they were subjected to such a thing), he meets Spock’s eye and smirks as only Jim Kirk can, and suddenly everything’s all right. So what was the cure? Did Kirk and Dr. van Gelder get back in the neutralizer before it was dismantled to reverse the effects? Have they both already begun psychological therapy for their ordeals? How much time has passed? Too many unanswered questions, but again, that’s just the curse of episodic TV.
You don’t have to dig very deep into this episode to see the social commentary on ethical and humane treatment of those with mental disorders. Calling Tantalus – and other similar facilities – a “rehabilitation colony” is very forward-thinking for the 1960s. Frankly, we’re impressed by this view of the future and the progress in mental health treatment and prisoner rehabilitation it portrays.