Written by Art Wallace and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Ralph Senensky
I wouldn’t say this episode gave birth to the idea of the “red shirt,” but it sure did rack up the body count of them. For those not in the know, the term came to mean members of the Enterprise crew who were a mere plot point to die; viewers never know who they are or any backstory, they just serve to advance the plot in a particular direction by their death. Most of the time, they wear red shirts due to that being the color uniform for security and engineering.
While on the planet looking for deposits of tritanium, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is reminded of a time in his past when he encountered dikironium in the atmosphere. He gives the red shirts an order to fire immediately at any gaseous cloud they see. Unfortunately, as they search the area for any signs of dikironium, a cloud overcomes them and kills two of the three men.
The Enterprise is due to rendezvous with the starship Yorktown to transfer vaccines needed on another planet. Captain Kirk orders them to wait anyway, wanting to figure out exactly what is happening with the deaths of his crew. Ensign Rizzo (Jerry Ayres), one of the crew originally on the surface, wakes up only long enough to describe feeling like he was being smothered by honey, then dies.
Kirk remembers back to his last encounter with the dikironium. He was on board the U.S.S. Farragut eleven years before when there were mass casualties from the same causes. He directs Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) to pull those medical records. The son of the Captain of the Farragut is now a security officer on the Enterprise. Ensign Garrovick (Stephen Brooks) beams down to the planet with another group of red shirts.
One of the men is killed and another is in critical condition. Garrovick did fire into the gaseous creature, to no avail. Captain Kirk is hard on him for a slight hesitation he had before firing his phaser. Kirk refuses to entertain the thought of leaving for the rendezvous with the Yorktown until they hunt down the creature.
The question becomes, is this dikironium creature the whale to Kirk’s Ahab? It seems to be that way in the beginning as well as to the crew of the Enterprise. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) sees what Captain Kirk is doing as an obsession. He looks back at the records from the Farragut and learns the Captain and half the crew were annihilated. Even Kirk begins to wonder if he’s overreacting.
Obsession is a good episode that questions how absolute a Captain’s authority is. Both Spock and McCoy think about having Kirk removed from command due to his fixation on this creature, especially when it isn’t even confirmed at first that it is intelligent.
The vaccines being needed to be transported is there to add tension to the situation, but it has a forced feeling to it. It doesn’t make sense that the crew of the Enterprise is exploring a planet while they have a deadline to meet another ship to transport life-saving medication. It’s like an ambulance that has to transport organs stopping for pizza on the way to the hospital. This happens a few times in the series to add tension to a storyline, and it gets overused pretty quickly and doesn’t make sense.
What works is the story between the characters. There’s so good interaction between the regular cast that feels like this is a crew that’s worked together and knows how things should be done, as well as a looseness that comes from knowing each other for a long period of time. Still, they aren’t ready to cut the Captain much slack. That is very different than we see in some of the future series’ as well as the movies.
The effects in the beginning where the red shirts are overcome by the cloud are pretty typical 1960’s effects with a sparkly mist over the picture as the men out out their deaths. For the time they weren’t even that impressive. There are some nice phaser shots, but that’s about it.
This is an episode I saw many times growing up and the thing is, it’s pretty forgettable. The flaws really drag it down. The only thing that is good is the personal stories between the crew of the Enterprise. It’s not a bad episode, it’s just that there’s nothing compelling in the story to seek it out.