Written by Norman Spinrad and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Marc Daniels
Quite often, Gene Roddenberry saw Star Trek as a way of discussing current events and social issues without having the network censors pick the show apart. The Doomsday Machine is an episode that seemed to start out with that same idea but veered off track at some point when the story strayed away from the question of building weapons that could destroy a whole society in just a few moments.
The Enterprise receives a distress call but is having difficulty pinpointing exactly where it is coming from. As Captain Kirk (William Shatner) orders the ship to head in the general direction of the distress call, they find an entire solar system was destroyed where seven planets once were, but the star remains intact.
As they probe onward, the crew finds that every system in that sector is in the same condition. They go in search of the ship Constellation, commanded by Matt Decker (portrayed by William Windom) as that is their only clue as to who might have sent the distress call. They soon happen upon the ship drifting in space.
Commodore Decker is still alive and he tells about a planet-killing machine and being unable to stop it from destroying the planets. Kirk sends him back to the Enterprise for medical attention. When the planet-killing machine appears again, Kirk is determined to stop it from advancing into the next solar system.
Kirk and Chief Engineer Scotty (James Doohan) beam over to the Constellation with a small party to repair what they can. While they are there, the machine makes an appearance. Commodore Decker uses regulations to take command of the Enterprise. First Officer and Vulcan, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) knows regulations and knows he must surrender control of the ship, even though Decker’s actions seem sure to doom them. Meanwhile, on the Constellation, Kirk and Scotty work to restore the ship to the point that they can be of help.
After Kirk orders Spock to relieve Decker of command, Decker overpowers the security guards who are taking him to sickbay for a mental evaluation. He commandeers a shuttlecraft and launches it toward the machine.
The Doomsday Machine works very well in many ways. The two suspenseful stories complement each other very well. Not only must Captain Kirk deal with the threat that is out in space, he must also deal with Commodore Decker’s actions. The two stories work quite well and are totally in synch, which makes this episode so good. Rather than one part being the primary story and the other being a secondary story, both of them are part of the same general storyline.
William Windom gives a very good performance as Decker, especially as he takes the shuttlecraft right into the machine. He doesn’t seem to be as brave as the image he’s been giving off but emits a tremendous amount of fear. This would go along with the idea that he’s motivated to commandeer the Enterprise and attempt to destroy the machine as a way of assuaging the guilt he feels over the loss of his crew.
Shatner has less to do but is quite effective. He doesn’t overdo it when he is screaming at Spock and Commodore Decker. His firmness and conviction in having Spock remove Decker from command and sorting out the regulations later is what makes Kirk a good Captain, and Shatner doesn’t descend into overacting. He is given good material in this episode and handles it quite well.
The same is true for Spock who must deal with the logic that Decker is allowed to take command and at the same time deal with his illogical actions. This is a Spock before the movies and that Spock is quite different. At that time, he would have found a logical way around the regulations. It’s a sign of the difference in maturity levels of Spock through the years. Nimoy has handled the situation well both times and here he does a good job, knowing the ship is in peril and helpless to stop it in the eyes of logic.
The weakest part of the episode is the special effects. I understand episodes have been remastered and had effects updated. In the original version, The Doomsday Machine contains phaser fire which is definitely animated. When the beams of light connect with the killing machine, it looks like a cartoon, rather than a valid effect. Sometimes, the original version with the effects is best and should be left alone. This is not one of those cases, and I’d use the effects here as an argument on the “for” side when it comes to the remastering.
Another issue is the feeling that much of this story is repeated in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, right down to the look of the killing machine, and the name of the characters. While the Commodore is Matt Decker here, the new Captain of the Enterprise in that film is Will Decker, his son. It’s a remarkable coincidence that father and son end up with their fate at the mercy of similar machines.
Finally, the episode doesn’t quite get to the point it seemed like it was trying to make about the bombs we were building at the time the episode was filmed. It shows promise initially, but the payoff never quite happens.
The Doomsday Machine is a great episode of the original Star Trek series, even with the few issues taken into account. The script is well-balanced and paced, and the acting is great. It’s an excellent episode for non-fans to watch as it doesn’t require any previous knowledge of happenings in the Star Trek universe to grasp it.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Apple
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Catspaw