Hello and welcome back to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week we’ll be taking a break from ‘The Next Generation’ and returning to the original ‘Star Trek’. This time out, we’ll be taking a look at the second season episode ‘The Deadly Years’. I know usually try to include some background on either the episode itself or why I decided to cover it before getting into the summary and critique, but I don’t really have a lot to say on that front this week, so why don’t we just cut to the chase?
A landing party (consisting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekov, Scotty, and Lt. Galway) arrives on Gamma Hydra IV for a routine check-in with a scientific expedition. Chekov finds the body of one of the scientists and panics. As McCoy declares the man to have died of old age, Spock begins to express his skepticism, before he is interrupted by a surviving member of the expedition, who claims to be twenty-nine despite looking closer to eighty-nine.
The Enterprise brings the two survivors- Robert Johnson (no, not that one) and his wife Elaine – aboard. While all of this is taking place, they are also in the midst of transporting Commodore Stocker and members of his staff to the nearby Starbase 10. The ship remains in orbit while investigating the expedition’s fate, though Stocker believes the Starbase’s facilities would aid the investigation. Meanwhile, members of the landing party begin exhibiting odd symptoms. Lt. Galway notices trouble with her hearing, Kirk with his memory and some minor muscle strain. No sooner do McCoy’s scans show Kirk’s “muscle strain” to be advanced arthritis does Scotty enter sickbay – sporting a full head of grey hair.
The entire landing party, with the perplexing exception of Chekov, is affected by this mysterious affliction. All of them are aging rapidly, though at strangely different rates. Though Lt. Galway is several years younger than Kirk, she appears far older. Spock estimates they will be dead in a week and senile even sooner. The landing party continues to deteriorate, with Kirk’s mental state coming into question when he orders a communique to Starfleet using a code the Romulans are known to have cracked (both the outpost on Gamma Hydra and Starbase 10 are near the Neutral Zone) and begins repeating orders. Lt. Galway succumbs to the disease and Commodore Stocker approaches Spock, urging him to take command. Spock objects, reminding the Commodore that he is suffering from the same disease as the Captain, thought he agrees to convene a competency hearing per Starfleet regulations.
At the hearing, Kirk stubbornly insists on his ability to command the ship, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that he is in no shape to shoulder such a responsibility. With Kirk relieved of duty, Stocker assumes command, despite having never in his career commanded a starship (much to The alarm of Kirk, who describes the man as a “chair-bound paper pusher”). While brainstorming with Kirk, McCoy realizes the reason for Chekov’s apparent immunity. Namely, the adrenaline rush that accompanied his panicked reaction at finding the first body protected him from the disease. Meanwhile, Stocker orders the ship to cut through the Neutral Zone over the crew’s objections in order to more quickly reach the Starbase. This turns out to be an even worse idea than it sounded like, as the ship is quickly surrounded by Romulan ships, the commanders of which do not take kindly to this treaty violation. In sickbay, they have with Spock’s assistance synthesized an adrenaline serum to counteract the disease, which Kirk insists on testing on himself. As the Romulans prepare to destroy the ship, Stocker is paralyzed by uncertainty. A rejuvenated Kirk arrives on the bridge and successfully bluffs the Romulans into giving them the opening they need to escape.
Okay, I have to touch on this right out of the gate. I usually make a point of not commenting too heavily on the makeup and special effects when I cover episodes of the original series. The reason, in a nutshell, is that I’m not interested in beating up on the show for dodgy effects (and let’s be honest, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel), especially given that as often as not, they did pretty well given the constraints of their budget. I’m bending that rule a bit this week, though, specifically because of the old age makeup. It’s not that it’s particularly bad, all things considered, though it does get hard to ignore Kirk’s hairline moving back and forth throughout the episode. (Maybe, like Shatner himself, Kirk has taken to wearing a Tribble on his head?) Not to mention the stipple that gets ever more visible as the characters age. The sticking point for me is based not on the caliber of the makeup departments work but on knowing how all of these actors eventually aged in real life. It’s not something that I can fault the show for, but that doesn’t make it any less bizarre a viewing experience for me.
One of the more interesting elements of ‘The Deadly Years’ is Commodore Stocker. The Starfleet officers we’ve seen to this point in the series have been, at a minimum, uniformly competent. And of course they have been. These people are meant to be the best of the best, after all. Stocker, though, provides an almost aggressive contrast to all that. Despite the fact that he’s a flag officer, Stocker has zero experience at the helm of a starship when he takes command of the Enterprise. I’ll repeat that. A middle aged Starfleet flag officer has no command experience whatsoever. This is easily the single most unbelievable thing in an episode about space travelers who age decades in days. Indeed, so staggeringly unqualified for the job is Stocker that his first act in command is to fly the Enterprise straight through the Neutral Zone, nearly getting everyone aboard killed when the Romulans decide to get touchy about enforcing little things like treaties and boarders. Thankfully, that sort of thing could never happen in real life.
Taking a broader look at the episode, it is often the subtle touches that make it work as well as it does. For example, while this is not the first episode to acknowledge the length of Vulcan lifespans (look to ‘Amok Time’ and ‘Journey to Babel‘ for earlier examples in this season alone), it is perhaps the first in which that element proves crucial to the plot, allowing Spock to operate in a (relatively) undiminished fashion while Kirk and the others struggle to do the same. Other such touches include the crew’s willingness to stand by Kirk even as he deteriorates, whether it’s Spock’s reluctance to convene the competency hearing or a Yeoman making excuses for his memory lapses in her testimony. It speaks volumes about the degree of loyalty the man inspires.
Still more of the episode’s nuances come from the performances, particularly from the big three as they age. We see Leonard Nimoy mainly giving a more subdued version of his usual interpretation of Spock. McCoy, meanwhile is a character often described (by himself and others) as “an old country doctor”, and DeForest Kelley plays that side of him to the hilt as he ages. In fact, Kelley arguably plays McCoy more in the country doctor mode here than he does when he actually is playing an older version of the character in the movies. But we can’t talk about nuanced performances in ‘The Deadly Years’ without giving some acknowledgement to William Shatner. Shatner’s reputation for overacting, particularly on ‘Star Trek’ is well earned, but that also means that it’s easy to forget just how good he can be when he’s not playing to the cheap seats. In particular, Kirk’s frustration, confusion, desperation, and yes, fear, as he loses his capacity to do his job is not only genuinely moving at times, but Shatner’s restraint makes those scenes effective in a way that a more stereotypically “Shatnerian” performance simply would not have been.
What are your thoughts on ‘The Deadly Years’? Are there any specific episodes you’d like to see me cover? Speak up in the comments, and check back in two weeks for the next installment of ‘Final Frontier Friday’!