Captain's Blog pt. 87: The Devil in the Dark

March 9th, 1967
Title: (2) It could be a reference to something specific, I'm not sure. It works pretty well for a fear of the unknown/ we-have-met-the-enemy-and-it-is-us story.

Script: (8.5) Great story all around, good message, thoughtfully and intelligently executed. The exchange between Spock and Kirk at episode's end is amusing enough, though it sometimes boggles the mind how much everyone makes (and how often) of Spock's ears. Still, it serves a point here: what we see is alien is always in the eye of the beholder.

Theme: (8.5) I'm not sure if "humanizing" the monster is quite as groundbreaking as some of the reviews I've been reading indicate. I agree that it's a well-developed theme, but wasn't it fairly common to sci-fi by 1967? Definitely in print but even in tv and film. Doesn't take anything away from "Devil in the Dark," of course; this is more of a comment on the reviews and re-watches and memoirs.

"This is not a zoological expedition."
Roddenberry objected strongly to Kirk killing the Ceti eel once it dripped from Chekov's ear in Wrath of Khan and cited the Horta as a precedent. Which is very confused; I mean, the Horta doesn't occupy and then consume the brains of its host. It fights for its survival; it is not exploited as a weapon. No thematic inconsistency; sounds like Roddenberry was just pissed off.

It is a little odd to discover this Pergium business. You'd figure the matter/antimatter equation would solve a lot of energy problems. But the "this planet has the one element the entire Federation inexplicably needs to survive" artery hadn't hardened yet, so this episode gets a pass. (By the time you get to "The Cloud Minders" and "Requiem for Methusaleh," it's much more of a liability.)

Visual Design: (3) One word:

The story of how the alien's appearance came into being is repeated everywhere this episode is mentioned, so I'll skip it.

Trek conventions haven't changed much.
Kirk and the Gang: (30) First, great performance from Nimoy.

Spock's "I am quickening my pace" line always makes me laugh. But I'd wager that when people think of Spock and this episode they think of:

From the AV Club: "(The mind-meld) should be ridiculous. Spock's basically groping a puppet and treating it like a massive spiritual and moral struggle. But it works. (...) It's not memorable because it's campy, either. Nimoy's acting sells it because he never allows for a moment that what he's doing is absurd."

"He commits, as my old acting teacher would say, and the sequence becomes this whole tragic, horrifying tribute both to his skills as a performer and the writer behind the episode." Hear hear.

Shatner, too, deserves a tip of the brim.

His father died during shooting of this episode, but the show must goes on. RIP, Shatner, Sr.
First use of the "I'm a doctor, not a..." McCoyism.
Guest: (1.5) a veteran character actor.

This guy at the beginning dies memorably. "Sure is daaahk down here..."
"Like the others... burned to a crisp..."
Internal Logistics: (.5) Mr. Myers from Tor: "For some reason, this time around a lot of flaws in the episode stood out, nearly eclipsing the good moments like McCoy’s bricklaying and Spock’s comments on the Horta liking his ears. Why did the Horta steal the pump instead of melting it, and more importantly, how did she carry it off? How could the Horta etch a message so meticulously in the rock? What kind of alien biology requires all but one member of a species to die out every 50,000 years?"

Reasonable questions. Nothing (above or below) is in danger of eclipsing the episode's good points, for me - (I think the fact that the Horta does burn a message/ carry off the piece of equipment is evidence enough that it can do so; how we don't really need to know) - but I was amused enough to keep a list of some of them.

- McCoy's "I'm beginning to think I can cure a rainy day" line was a little odd. Haven't they learned to control the weather already? Other episodes give this impression.

Isn't Pergium even mentioned as essential to atmospheric modification/ weather control in the script itself? I could be confusing this with some Un-obtainium from another episode.
- I realize the message we're supposed to take from the end of the episode is that mutual cooperation between alien cultures is beneficial for all, but I couldn't help but wonder what exactly the Horta will get out of the arrangement. The right to exist, on its own planet? In exchange for dramatically increasing the mining operations and personally enriching the miners? Not to mention taking on a sizable work load for them? I can only hope some of that wealth is re-invested in the Horta's way of life. (Whatever that is. Good thing personal computers seem to have moved beyond silicon in the 23rd century.)

Or perhaps the credits are put into a trust that the Federation then administers. Let's hope not.
- Is it consistent with the 23rd century we've seen that one can get rich from mining the natural resources of an alien world for sale/ profit? I suppose it is - not with Trek altogether, but with TOS at this point in the series. I only mention it because TOS does great work when it brings such things up if only to provoke further discussion (as in "This Side of Paradise" or "Archons") and a line or two questioning (or acknowledging) the somewhat one-sided arrangement the Horta strike with the miners would have been cool.

Memorability: (3)  Walk carefully in the vault of tomorrow.

Total Points Awarded: 56.5


  1. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I find it to be completely unacceptable that there hasn't been a Horta crewman onboard one of the various Federation starships by now. Maybe there is, though, and we only see him/her/it roughly as frequently as we see the 1701-D's dolphin crew.

    You make a good point in terms of wondering if this episode was really all THAT revolutionary in terms of humanizing the monster. The answer is mostly a no, but I imagine that a lot of viewers were nevertheless very surprised by it. Even today, I suspect that the popular mass consciousness sees science fiction as more of a ray-guns/rocketships/bug-eyed monsters genre than as a philosophical-exploration genre.

    I guess it's kind of like playing the "racism is bad" card: yes, we've all seen it a million times, and yet, given how racist the world can still be, it's obviously a card that still NEEDS to be played on the regular. Much the same has to be true of the "monster with a good excuse" card.

    In any case, it's one of my favorite episodes of any of the series. Thank Crom the remastered versions don't try to CGI-ify the Horta! What a travesty that would have been.

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    4. I was frustrated enough by my inability to properly articulate myself that I just decided to delete them and start again from scratch... mainly, too, because I was more or less just saying "right on" in response and then going off in my own direction, which is something I try not to do with comments, as if someone is taking the time to read the entry and respond, it's the least I can do to stay on message. So! Trying again:

      The "racism is bad" message does annoy me, mainly because it's become an end in and of itself. This has nothing to do with "Devil in the Dark" or anything you said, just something that irritates me a lot. It's proven, now that we have a couple of decades of experience with the trend, to be reductive to understanding racism and has become a bit like the end of "All That Heaven Allows" with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.

      But! That's just where my brain goes with the comment and not really appropos to "Devil in the Dark." If one-tenth of the "racism is bad/ aliens are in the eye of the beholder" episodes we've seen since it were as interesting, thoughtful, and intelligent, we'd be sitting pretty. Alas, we seem to get pretty slogans and speeches and an increasing tyranny of the image.

      Ain't that always the way!

    5. It certainly seems to be. I've got a contentious relationship with fiction/movies/TV that tries to have a Message at all costs; it frequently just seems like a big old excuse for proselytizing.

      But when done well -- which, as far as I'm concerned, it is in "Devil in the Dark" -- it is well worth the doing. And "Star Trek" has a fairly high batting average on that score, I'd say.

  2. By TV and movie standards, humanizing an alien or monster was still pretty rare then, but not unheard of. I wish I could think of some examples, but I know they're out there. By literary standards, it had been done long in the past; even ol' Doc Smith included sympathetic portrayals of very inhuman creatures in his Lensmen series. In fact, there were a lot of completely non-human Lensmen.

    Regarding Pergium, it's one of those fictional elements that aggravate me. Even worse is dilithium. The problem I have is that they, dilithium most particularly in Star Trek, are so integral to interstellar civilization, yet are only found in certain places. It makes me wonder how the early warp drives worked - or were invented in the first place! - on planets without these elements. You'd think that such advanced technology would come up with ways to create fusion in other ways, like Mr. Fusion in the Back to the Future flicks. I mean, I know they're a MacGuffin, but the writers sort of paint themselves, or at least future writers in the series, into a corner by off-handedly hinging so much on them.

    Here's a thought that goes a bit off the reservation: the horta would make a great species to add to a fantasy RPG like D&D. I could see using them as allies and friends of dwarf kingdoms, or enslaved by drow or the like.

    1. Sure would re: a Horta as a Dungeons and Dragons character. (And agreed on no exterior plumbing / unobtainium-inspired fusion) I get that these things are necessary evils to tell stories of 1960s (or 2013) American Man but sometimes it takes me out of the future to contemplate such things too specifically.

      As the BEM phenom is just a stand-in for the Boo Radley tendency to stone the outcast/ the other, showing sympathy for such was all over a lot of 60s tv, from Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, sci-fi-wise, to the Fugitive, Hondo, Rifleman, yadda yadda, in its non-BEM-y form. Doesn't take anything away from either this episode or the trope in general, I'm just saying: it's almost more surprising to me when the BEM is actually a bloodthirsty killer and not secretly sympathetic/ justified on his own.

      Basically, tho, what I was trying to get across in this blog was that the same four or five things seem to be said about this episode at every review/ rewatch I read, so I didn't want to follow in those footsteps.