Hello and welcome to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week, we’ve cycled back to the original series for a look at third season, specifically a little episode called ‘Spock’s Brain’. Yeah. We’re going to have fun with this one.
Let’s not mince words about this one. ‘Spock’s Brain’ is one of the most – perhaps the most – legendarily bad episode of the original ‘Star Trek’. The episode’s premise – aliens steal Spock’s Brain – really does say it all. The episode is infamous for being something of a goofy, brainless affair in a series that had over its first two seasons gone out of its way to demonstrate that it was serious science fiction. So what happened? Well, for that we have to talk about the third season a bit more broadly.
Following a letter writing campaign that has since become the stuff of legend, ‘Star Trek’ was renewed for a third season in the spring of 1968. But while this was certainly cause to celebrate, the show wasn’t out of the woods yet. As a condition of the renewal, the show’s budget was slashed. But that wasn’t the end of it. There was to be some fairly significant turnover behind the scenes, not least of which was the departure of Gene Roddenberry himself following a dispute with NBC over the show’s scheduling. While Roddenberry retained his executive producer credit for the third season, he had, for the most part, removed himself from the day to day production of ‘Star Trek’. Even setting aside his status as the series’ creator, this marked a huge change, if only for the fact that Roddenberry had been heavily involved in the creative process, often revising scripts if not rewriting them altogether. This compounded the effect of the prior departures of showrunner Gene L. Coon and story editor D.C. Fontana. Though both Coon and Fontana would contribute stories to the third season, their involvement (like Roddenberry’s) was not nearly as extensive as it had been.
This brings us to the third season’s showrunner, Fred Freiberger. For years, Freiberger was the target of the fanbase’s ire for what they saw as his role in the show’s third season decline. And while a variety of producers and cast members have come to Freiberger’s defense over the years, the fact remains that he never seemed to have quite as firm a grasp as his predecessors on exactly what ‘Star Trek’ was (to say nothing of incoming story editor Arthur Singer, who once infamously wandered on to the set having forgotten what the transporter did). At the end of the day, Freiberger was doing the best he could in an unenviable position, as the budget cuts alone would have put any showrunner between a rock and a hard place.
So what does all this mean for ‘Spock’s Brain’? Well for starters, even though the episode is credited to Gene Coon (writing under the pseudonym “Lee Cronin”), his were hardly the only hands to touch the script. While Coon pitched the story and provided early teleplay drafts, the finished product was rewritten and revised by both Freiberger and Singer. This was hardly unusual in and of itself (as I pointed out earlier, Roddenberry often did much the same thing), but that means that whatever form Coon’s version might have taken, it was then filtered through a pair of newcomers, at least one of whom had no real sense of what separated ‘Star Trek’ from the schlockier science fiction of the period. On top of that, even though it was produced sixth, ‘Spock’s Brain’ was the first third season episode to air. Imagine that for a moment. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who fought tooth and nail to keep their favorite show on the air and when the new season finally rolls around, the fruit of your labor is ‘Spock’s Brain’. Now, I don’t know if that expectation whiplash contributed to the episode’s less than warm reception, to say nothing of its lasting reputation, but it’s not a hard scenario to envision. So that begs the question: Is the episode really as bad as its reputation suggests? Well…
The Enterprise is at red alert. The ship has encountered an unknown vessel equipped with an ion drive, an unusual and advanced technology. Once in range, the ship’s pilot beams herself to the bridge. With the touch of a button on a wrist-mounted device, she incapacitates the entire crew and approaches Spock, placing a hand on his head.
Sometime later, the crew awakens. No sooner does Kirk realize Spock is missing than McCoy summons him to sickbay. There, he finds the missing Vulcan on complete life support. With some prodding, McCoy Tells Kirk that “His brain is gone. It’s been removed surgically.” Kirk quickly realizes that the mysterious woman is the culprit. McCoy explains that even if they find the brain, he doesn’t have the medical knowledge or skill necessary to restore Spock’s brain to Spock’s body. Nonetheless, Kirk orders the Enterprise in pursuit, reasoning that the brain thief had the skill to remove it and therefore must be able to do the reverse. They are able to trace the ship’s ion trail to Sigma Draconis VI.
Upon beaming down, a landing party including Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov encounters a group of large, hirsute humanoids, the Morgs. After a brief skirmish with the alien cavemen, the party manages to take one prisoner. The captive Morg is puzzled. The Starfleet crew’s comparatively small stature had led them to believe they were “the others,” whom the Morg describes only as “givers of pain and delight.” He is terrified when Kirk asks for help finding these others, but the question quickly becomes academic when Chekov’s tricorder detects an immensely old subterranean city. Nearby, they spot a cache of weapons, obviously manufactured. A trap for the Morgs. Hot on the trail of the others, Kirk contacts the Enterprise and has McCoy join the landing party. The doctor soon arrives… with Spock in tow. Though his brain is still missing, McCoy has managed to rig up a remote control device, allowing Spock to accompany the team to whatever surgical facilities await below. With McCoy and his shiny new RC Spock accompanying them, Kirk and Scotty spring the trap, which turns out to be an elevator to the city below. Meanwhile, Chekov and the redshirts (good name for a band?) wait on the surface. The elevator reaches its destination and they are greeted by a woman, Luma. After stunning and interrogating her, they learn that she is an Eymorg, one of a race of women who live below the surface, just as the all-male Morgs live on the surface. Of course, they have to piece most of this together themselves, since Luna has, according to McCoy, the mind of a child – and a particularly dull child at that. Just then, Scotty interrupts. His communicator is picking up some sort of signal. With Kirk’s help, he’s able to get a fix on it, and what do they hear but Spock’s voice? Spock – or rather, his brain – has no idea where he is, and the part begins their search. They are soon met and knocked out by the very Eymorg who stole Spock’s brain in the first place.
Upon waking, Kirk demands to know where Spock’s brain is. The lead Eymorg, who we soon learn is named Kara, proves every bit as childlike as Luma. This naturally leads McCoy to wonder how she could have committed grand theft brain in the first place. As Kirk tries in vain to arrange a meeting with whoever is in control, the Eymorgs react with alarm, assuming he is there to destroy the Controller. Realizing the connection between the Controller and Spock’s brain (namely that one is effectively the other), Kirk tries to bluff Kara into taking him to the Controller. But even she can see through the facade and disabled the Starfleet team using her bracelet. Kirk, Scotty, and McCoy quickly overpower their guards and once again contact Spock using their communicators. Spock appreciates their effort but echoes McCoy’s earlier concern that returning his brain to his body may not be possible. Nonetheless, Spock transmits a signal allowing them to home in on the Controller. They arrive at the Controller’s location, though Kara is waiting for them. Using Spock’s body, they are able to overpower her even as she attempts to incapacitate them once again. Now at their mercy, Kara pleads with Kirk not to remove the brain. It will maintain the Eymorg city for ten thousand years, but without it they will surely die. Questioned by Kirk, Kara only says that she was able to extract Spock’s brain by using the Teacher, which Spock interjects is a device that effectively downloads the ancient knowledge of her civilization into a person’s mind, though only temporarily. After Kirk forces Kara into the Teacher, the two are finally able to have s proper conversation. Unfortunately, it has also given her the knowledge to pull a pilfered phaser on Kirk.