Star Trek

Welcome back to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week we’ll be looking at one of the more maligned episodes of the original series, ‘Wolf in the Fold’. Yes, that one. Written by Robert Bloch and based loosely on the writer’s short story ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’, this is one of the show’s legendary turkeys, with the conventional wisdom of ‘Trek’ fans placing it alongside such duds as ‘Spock’s Brain’. But is it really all that bad? Well, if you want me to answer that, you’ll have to read the rest of the article!

We open in a bar on Argelius II as Kirk, Scotty and McCoy watch a dancer perform. When the performance ends, Scotty chats up the dancer and they leave for a walk. With the engineer occupied, we learn the reason for their visit as Kirk and McCoy discuss his condition. Apparently, Scotty was injured in an accident and the trip to Argelius is meant to allow him some downtime with which to recover. The doctor alludes to potential psychological damage from the accident, including a “total resentment toward women” (because the accident was caused by a woman, you see), though Kirk notes that he seems to be recovering nicely. As the two make their way to another establishment, they hear a scream. When they arrive to help, they find the dancer’s body, stabbed a dozen times. Scotty stands in a daze nearby, holding a bloody knife.

In cooperation with City Investigator Hengist, they begin to investigate the murder. Scotty’s memory of the murder (indeed, his entire walk with the dancer) is spotty at best.¬† Hengist introduces the officers to Prefect Jaris and his wife when they arrive to check on the investigation. Jaris suggests the use of an old Argelian empathic technique to help get to the bottom of things. Over Hengist’s objections, they proceed, meeting at Jaris’s home to begin the ritual. While Sybo prepares, Kirk has Lieutenant Karen Tracy beam down to collect psycho-tricorder readings from Scotty. When Sybo is ready, she asks for the knife that was used in the murder, as she may be able to receive some psychic impression from it. As the assembled men realize that none of them has the weapon, Lieutenant Tracy screams. They find her stabbed to death with Scotty unconscious nearby… and holding the knife.

In the aftermath, Hengist arrives with a pair of men who were at the bar the night of the first murder. With the new arrivals present, Kirk has Jaris seal the room (so that no one can enter or leave) and Sybo begins the ceremony. She senses a presence, an ancient evil with an undying hunger, one which harbors a particular hatred of women. As this continues, she begins to chant a series of names the entity has claimed: Beratis, Kesla, Redjac. Suddenly the lights go out. When they come back on, Scotty has Sybo in his arms. She’s dead, with a knife in her back and blood on his hands.

With Scotty looking guiltier than ever, Kirk convinces Jaris to allow them to take him back to the Enterprise so that they can examine him with all of the ship’s resources at their disposal. In particular, they hope to account for his memory loss and make some determination of his sanity. Aboard the Enterprise, Scotty is essentially placed on trial. While testifying, he notes that Sybo’s murder is the first that he can definitely say he didn’t commit, because this time he didn’t black out. He explains that when the lights went out and Sybo began to scream, he moved toward her, and as he was doing so sensed a malevolent presence between them. Throughout the proceedings, Hengist objects strenuously, though he is overruled by Jaris. Recalling Sybo’s comments about a monstrous evil that devours life and light, he has the computer cross reference the words she gave as the entity’s names, starting with Redjac, which the computer recognizes as “Red Jack”, another name for Jack the Ripper. From there, it’s a short leap to identifying the other aliases as similarly unidentified murderers of women: Beratis of Deneb II and Kesla of Rigel IV. They further extrapolate that this Redjac is a formless entity that feeds on emotions like fear. During this discussion, ¬†Hengist’s objections become more vociferous. With the computer’s help, they are able to trace similar murders through the intervening centuries, culminating in the murders committed by Kesla in the Rigel system, which took place just before Hengist moved from Rigel to Argelius. A computer analysis identifies the knife as a Rigellian design. Rather than take the stand, Hengist attacks Kirk, falling dead when subdued. As they wonder how this is possible, the Redjac entity (which had been possessing Hengist) now possesses the ship’s computer.

As Kirk and Spock try to figure out how to drive Redjac out of the ship, the entity interferes with the ship’s systems and taunts the crew. Spock is able to stymie Redjac by instructing the computer to calculate pi to the last digit, an impossible task. This impaired, Redjac leaves the computer, briefly inhabiting Jaris before returning to Hengist’s body. With Hengist subdued (through the use of a tranquilizer), they take him to the transporter room and beam him into space, with the transporter set to scatter his atoms as widely as possible. And then we end on a joke, because what this episode needed was another jarring tonal shift.

Okay, so, is ‘Wolf in the Fold’ really that bad? Well, yes and no. Now, I’ve used this column in the past to offer a defense of some… less popular episodes. This is not one of those times. ‘Wolf in the Fold’ is not what you’d call a good episode. However, it’s also not as straightforward as saying “it sucks, move on.” You see, the thing about ‘Wolf in the Fold’ is that there actually is a decent (not necessarily good, but decent) episode stuck in the script and trying desperately to get out. The central premise, that Jack the Ripper is this formless entity that feeds on fear and possesses people to commit grisly murders in order to sate that hunger? Yeah, it’s a bit silly, but it’s not exactly out of line with what ‘Star Trek’ has done in the past, namely establishing mythological entities (which, despite being an actual murderer, the Ripper may as well be in the popular imagination) like the Greek gods as powerful aliens. Add to that the element of a crew member being accused of this creature’s crimes, and in the right hands you could get a solid hour of television out of it. And ‘Wolf in the Fold’ comes perilously close to doing just that. The teaser, in particular, is one of the more effective in the show’s run. In fact, I defy you to watch the first five or so minutes and come away not wanting to know where the story goes from there. Unfortunately, it’s a quick slide from there into absurdity, culminating in the reveal that the real killer is, basically, the ghost of Jack the Ripper. To which I’m not sure it’s possible to have a response more enthusiastic than “Oh. Okay then.”

One of the strange things about this episode is the way the diminishing returns set in, even as the stakes ostensibly escalate. And to its credit, it’s never boring. It just gets progressively more ridiculous. For all the effort the script puts into building tension and mystery, it’s all thrown away with the third act reveal of what, exactly, Redjac is. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. As bizarre as that reveal is, it’s not the reveal itself that does in the episode. It’s the beat almost immediate after, when Redjac leaps from Hengist’s body into the ship’s computer. That, more than any other moment is when the episode… Well, it doesn’t so much jump the shark as perform a rocket-boosted backflip over the shark. It’s supposed to be scary, but it’s just the ship cackling at our heroes while McCoy decides that, in the words of Bob Dylan, “everybody must get stoned” in order to prevent Redjac from possessing or feeding off them. On top of that absurdity, matters are not at all helped by the fact that John Fielder, who plays Hengist, is perhaps best known for providing the voice of Piglet. Yes. Piglet. The Piglet from ‘Winnie the Pooh’. That Piglet. Imagine the disembodied voice of Piglet threatening to murder you. Some might count that as nightmare fuel, but personally? I can’t even begin to take it seriously.

It’s not just the late reveals that, well, reveal the story’s unsteady foundation. For example, as evidence of Scotty’s guilt mounts, Kirk digs his heels in, a stance seemingly born more out of his inability to believe that Scotty could commit these murders more than anything else. The Argelians even call this out, asking Kirk if, presented with the same evidence, he would bend over backwards to exonerate someone who wasn’t a close friend. Too bad hanging a lampshade on your script’s problems doesn’t make them disappear. And that ties into one of the more glaring problems with the story, namely the way Scotty is handled. To James Doohan’s credit, he does a great job with what he’s given, believably selling Scotty’s confusion and anguish as he stands accused of murders he can’t remember (and thus, for all he knows, may well have committed). No, the problems are all in the way he’s written. Doohan’s performance, for example, does not reflect Scotty’s supposed resentment toward women. Which is probably for the best if we’re being honest, as it’s wildly inconsistent with the character as he’s been portrayed so far and as he will be portrayed in every subsequent appearance. Hell, it’s not even consistent with the Scotty we see in this episode. It’s an entirely informed attribute and it just doesn’t fit. Worse yet, it’s a plot point (and I use the term loosely) that exists solely to cast doubt on Scotty’s innocence. Can the character be sexist on occasion? Sure, but it’s the sort of casual, thoughtless sexism that men in sixties popular media tend to possess. It’s not okay, but it’s a far cry from “total resentment toward women,” let alone murdering several women because a different woman screwed up.

To James Doohan’s credit, he does a great job with what he’s given, believably selling Scotty’s confusion and anguish as he stands accused of murders he can’t remember (and thus, for all he knows, may well have committed). No, the problems are all in the way he’s written. Doohan’s performance, for example, does not reflect Scotty’s supposed resentment toward women. Which is probably for the best if we’re being honest, as it’s wildly inconsistent with the character as he’s been portrayed so far and as he will be portrayed in every subsequent appearance. Hell, it’s not even consistent with the Scotty we see in this episode. It’s an entirely informed attribute and it just doesn’t fit. Worse yet, it’s a plot point (and I use the term loosely) that exists solely to cast doubt on Scotty’s innocence. Can the character be sexist on occasion? Sure, but it’s the sort of casual, thoughtless sexism that men in sixties popular media tend to possess. It’s not okay, but it’s a far cry from “total resentment toward women,” let alone murdering several women because a different woman screwed up.

But even setting that aside, you’d have to have a pretty severe head injury to flip the misogyny switch like that. Like, severe to the point that your doctor would almost certainly prescribe something more than a few days of carousing and skirt chasing. Not to get all neuroscience-y, but for that sort of personality change to manifest, we’re looking at a lot more than a concussion. We’re looking at actual, serious brain damage, like sort you might see after a stroke.

It’s a sexist, absurd, and overall half-baked affair. While there is potential in the fundamental, bare bones concept of the episode, it’s all squandered here. And while there are some nice touches (the use of table lights for applause, for example, is a brilliant and subtle way of incorporating a bit of alien culture into the show), there’s not nearly enough to save it. I’ve tied myself in knots trying to find the good in this episode, but the simple fact is that there just isn’t that much of it there.

What do you think of ‘Wolf in the Fold’? Is there some hidden brilliance that I’ve missed or have I given it too much credit as is? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for another ‘Final Frontier Friday’!