Written by Shimon Wincelberg and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Vincent McEveety
Like other science fiction shows of the day, Star Trek managed to comment on many issues of the day and couch it in a setting in outer space in the future. Many people wouldn’t “get” the reference while other saw the deeper meaning behind what seemed simply like a well-written and thrilling story.
In Dagger of the Mind, the subject is mental illness. At a time when many were being warehoused in psychiatric facilities and subjected to electro-shock therapy, this was a story that asked how far we were willing to go to “cure” people.
The Enterprise is delivering supplies to the Tantalus Penal Colony. What is supposed to be classified research material is beamed back up to them. As it turns out, it is not research material, but the vessel for the escape from the colony by a well-known and highly regarded psychiatrist, Dr. Simon van Gelder (portrayed by Morgan Woodward). At first, the man is portrayed as an escaped inmate by the officials at the colony.
At Dr. McCoy’s (DeForest Kelley) insistence, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) beams down to check out the penal colony. He takes along only another member of the medical staff with a background in rehabilitation, Dr. Helen Noel (portrayed by Marianna Hill). Dr. Noel and Kirk share a bit of history.
Once on the ground, the pair meet up with Dr. Tristan Adams (portrayed by James Gregory), who runs the facility. As he takes them on a tour, they are impressed with the facility. However, the Captain comes across a machine that Adams is using to control not just the inmates but the staff as well. The Captain attempts to understand the machine better, with Dr. Noel’s help and without Adams’ knowledge. However, Adams comes into the room while they are playing with it. The result is that the Captain is now madly in love with her.
Adams believes that what he is doing is for the greater good, and doesn’t understand why members of his staff object. He has no compunction in using the machine on them to bring them in line with his thinking. The same is true when Kirk and Dr. Noel object to the machine. At the same time, he must know the objections would be out there or he would not have couched its use in secrecy.
Although set in a penal colony, Dagger of the Mind had a lot to say about mental illness and treatment. How far should we go to change the person into a “model citizen” and what qualities were okay to wipe out in their personalities to achieve that? Dr. Adams sees anyone who opposes his methods as the enemy and what he is doing as being good. It begs the question of who really has the criminally insane mind.
In the future, criminals are treated as if mentally ill and sent off to where they can be cured. Captain Kirk extols the virtues of the penal colonies to Dr. McCoy, stating just how far Dr. Adams has brought the concept of a penal colony. No longer are those sentenced there treated like animals in cages. It’s never made clear whether the reason for all of the advances Adams has made is due to the machine, or if it’s just the latest tool he has used to treat those sentenced to his care.
The acting is first-rate. James Gregory is a character actor many have seen over the years. I remember him best from the cop show Barney Miller. He has the ability to shift gears nicely and doesn’t seem to be playing the same character over and over again in a different setting. Adams is definitely megalomaniacal but has enough restraint initially to sucker Kirk in.
William Shatner is terrific as Kirk. He goes into what he thinks will be an innocuous situation and ends up with his back to the wall. He carries through it with confidence that doesn’t ebb over into arrogance, something that was a problem later in the series and in the movies.
The biggest surprise this early in the series was the assertiveness of Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). He manages to stand his ground against Kirk after Dr. van Gelder arrives on the Enterprise and forces Kirk into taking action. Later on, he seemed at times to be cowed by his Captain, but not here at all.
Finally, guest star Marianna Hill does a great job as a love interest for Kirk who is also a strong figure, rather than acting like one of his groupies. She’s not going to just stand there and flutter her eyelids at him and show off her legs, although, with the shortest skirt in Star Trek history, her legs are definitely something Kirk gets a gander at.
Dagger of the Mind is a very strong episode in the first season. It’s well-written and well-acted and manages to tie in with the 1960s quite well. There’s not much in the way of special effects, and what is here is standard Star Trek fare of the transporter and the like. This episode is also noteworthy as the first time Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) uses the Vulcan mind meld – on Dr. van Gelder. it’s definitely a must-see for series fans as it shows a bit of the other side of the supposed utopia of the future.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Miri
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Corbomite Maneuver