|That's no moon...|
The Enterprise discovers the wreck of its sister ship, the USS Constellation, victim to a giant robotic vessel that eats entire planets for breakfast. There is only one survivor of the Constellation and he's gone a bit mad, which is going to make dealing with this thing a bit harder.
This episode apparently owes a considerable amount to the classic novel Moby Dick, although having never read it, I didn't spot it. At any rate, dealing with a mass killing entity that can't be reasoned with - although there isn't exactly an attempt to try - is a classic staple of science-fiction and horror. We've even got a blonde lady in a short dress...
The Captain of Constellation (incidentally there was a real US carrier of that name in service at the time - it would remain in commission until 2003, seeing action in the invasion of Iraq that year) is one Commodore Matt Decker, an "all ahead full and [expletive deleted] the torpedoes" officer who is determined to avenge the death of his crew by destroying the Planet Killer, acting rather recklessly indeed. He's clearly someone who is dire need of a sedative and some serious counselling; yet ends up making things worse. William Windom (himself a Second World War veteran) patterned his portrayal on Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny and if we're being honest, occasionally overdoes it. In particular, one scene sees facial expressions that remind me of 'gurning' from Doctor Who.
No Uhura or Chekov in this one, but everyone else is great. Spock may take a while to act, but when does he's highly effective. Kirk is willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good and there is a genuinely tense scene near the end when he comes rather close indeed to doing just that. You know he's going to survive, but they really run it close... although there is a rather flexible definition of '30 seconds'.
The spaceship action is very intense, with lots of phaser action (no photon torpedoes?) sweeping turns and a considerable amount of the old 'Star Trek shake', with at one point characters jiggling in their chairs to simulate turbulence. This does get a bit silly at some points. It's worth noting this was written as a 'bottle episode' to maximise the use of existing sets to save costs; a common device for TV shows in general, but when done right capable of producing some cracking good stories. This is most certainly done right.
It's worth noting that there are a number of references to the hydrogen bomb (which was possessed by the US, UK, France and China at this point in time) in the context of that being a doomsday device. Certainly the development of a fusion powered nuke was pretty controversial partly due to fears that if you built one large enough or had enough of them you could destroy the world or at least cover it in a globally lethal level of fallout - see Doctor Strangelove for an example. Six years prior to this episode airing, the USSR had tested a 50 megaton bomb that, being the biggest nuke test of all time, had managed to break windows in Norway, however it was far too large to be practical for military use and much of the energy was 'wasted' by going out into open space. Today, no-one really makes the A-Bomb/H-Bomb distinction in popular culture.
Now I've gone on about these a lot, but I really must say that while the final scene was good, it didn't need Kirk cracking a smile at the end of it. That seemed tonally very off.
Occasional overacting aside, this is a rollicking space adventure with times of high tension.