Written by David P. Harmon and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Joseph Pevney
There are few stories that seem to be novel in science fiction television. One of the rather worn-out cliches is that of the rapidly-aging cast who are in a race against time to stop it. Add to it the second cliche of an inexperienced man of rank who takes over the ship and manages to botch everything up, and you have The Deadly Years.
While on a mission to deliver Commodore Stocker (Charles Drake) to Starbase 10, the Enterprise makes a stop at Gamma Hydra IV to deliver supplies to the colony there. When a landing party consisting of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Chekov (Walter Koenig), Scotty (JamesDoohan), and Lt. Galway (Beverly Washburn) on the planet, there is no one to greet them.
As they search for anyone alive, Chekov enters a building an finds the dead body of a very old man. Eventually, they do come upon two others, also very old, who claim to be only 29 and 27 years old. There was no one over the age of 30 at the colony, yet the people they have found all appear old. Four have died of old age and the remaining two appear to have also aged rapidly.
Mr. Spock checks out the planet and they can’t find an explanation for the rapid aging they see. The landing party starts exhibiting symptoms such as difficulty hearing, gray hair, and aching bones. Captain Kirk begins repeating orders he has already given and is diagnosed with arthritis. Scotty appears in sickbay, having aged quite a bit.
Doctor McCoy estimates they are aging the equivalent of 30 years for every day that goes by. Of the landing party, only Chekov is not effected. Their mental faculties are also declining, making it hard for Doctor McCoy to try to discover what’s happening. Fortunately, there’s an endocrinologist aboard, Janet Wallace (Sarah Marshall) who happens to be a former love interest of Captain Kirk’s.
Captain Kirk is also making questionable decisions while in command. Commodore Stocker convenes a competency hearing to remove Kirk from command and take over, despite never having commanded a starship himself. He orders Sulu (George Takei) to set a course for Starbase 10 across The Neutral Zone – an area of space where neither the Federation nor the Romulans are supposed to be.
This is primarily character-driven with the actors having to be convincing as a rapidly-aging crew. They manage to do that very well which is what makes this great to watch. Shatner does a good job with the frustration of a man who was once unquestionably in control aging. Anyone who’s dealt with a strong parent or loved one falling victim to the aging process rather than remaining strong will see a lot of familiarity there. No one can look him in the eye as he asserts that he’s “perfectly fine” over and over again.
Deforest Kelley also plays a big part in the episode as both the ship’s doctor and another one suffering through the aging process. It’s nice that there’s some variance in how they age among the humans, just as there would be in real life.
Kirk is the one who starts to put together how to cure their sickness, and I wonder if this was where Shatner started complaining about how many lines he had in the script versus his co-stars. The logical conversation would have been the doctors putting it together, although it is Doctor McCoy and Doctor Wallace who ultimately find a cure. Just in time, too.
Kirk’s love interest and former girlfriend, Doctor Wallace, isn’t dressed in a Starfleet uniform like everyone else, but a slinky gown. She looks rather ridiculous working on the situation while everyone around her is in uniform.
It would be easy for Commodore Stocker to be a one-dimensional character, but his efforts to remove Kirk from command are right here. His mind is obviously failing him, so Stocker is doing what he must. Where he’s wrong is when he takes over and assumes his authority over the crew without listening to their feedback. His inexperience is evident as well as his desire to prove himself and results in errors aplenty.
Prior to this, we knew the Vulcan physiology and human differed. Spock is half-human and half-vulcan, and here he ages at a slower pace than the rest of the crew. This will come in handy down the road when both Spock and Sarek appear in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
All in all, despite the cliches, The Deadly Years manages to be a pretty good episode. The acting is at its best and the cast has been together long enough that we know what to expect from them. Anyone who’s watched a parent age or felt the process happening in themselves will find familiar ground here.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Friday’s Child
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Obsession
This reminds me of the TNG epidode where they find a man dead in his bed, and in reply to “seems to have died in his sleep” Worf says “what a terrible way to die!”