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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.25 Animal, Vulcan, Mineral

The Devil In The Dark

"No kill I. Yes kill L or more. BOOM! Latin burn. Stings like my acid, right?"

Back when I wrote up "Space Seed", I complained about the difficulty inherent in writing up an episode which is clearly terrible, but terrible in ways that have been clearly documented elsewhere. It can be hard in those circumstances to find something new to say (admittedly, I then went on to write well almost 7000 words, so…).

That isn't the nightmare scenario, though. What really worries me is stories like "The Devil In The Dark". These are the sort of episode that are also thoroughly hollowed out by smarter critics than me, but are also incredibly good, which means I can't even pull the trick of being snarky and insulting as a substitute for insight.

And "...Dark" very clearly is good. I praised "The Corbomite Maneuver" for the way it returned to the general themes of "The Man Trap", but this time refused to take "explode" for an answer. "...Dark", though, goes far further. In "...Maneuver", Kirk shows commendable restraint in how long he waits to destroy Balok's probe, but after that, the fact the encounter doesn't end in violence has more to do with Balok's overwhelming technological superiority than our heroes' commitment to peace, love and interstellar understanding.

"...Dark" puts a lot more effort into its parallels - human explorers have accidentally run into the (currently) last member of an alien race, who begins murdering the newcomers at an astonishing rate. Which is lovely, and all, but it’s a bit of a headache for me, personally. What is there to be said? The fact that the answer given - find out what the issue is and work out a peaceful solution - is so clearly correct, and so clearly necessary for the franchise to learn and its audience to hear, doesn't actually make commentary on it either easy to write, or interesting to read.

Well, when in doubt, go with what you know. Let’s lapse into nit-picking. The common view of this episode, which is that it’s about turning a clash of societies into an opportunity for cooperation, has the rather glaring problem that the Horta get precisely nothing out of the peace that’s arranged. Literally all the miners have to do is stop killing baby Horta, and they end up in a better situation than they started in. The underlying message becomes how not killing those who don’t look like you for no damn reason at all is actually in your own best interests. It labels genocide as counter-productive which, while probably not actually wrong, is pretty revolting in terms of its framing.

So what can we say instead?

As Above, So Below

First, let's consider the importance of location. This is the third (and final) time this season where the show opens neither on Kirk nor the Enterprise. It's the only time in the entire show's run that neither feature before the credit sequence. The Enterprise is mentioned, of course, but so is the Horta, at least to the extent the miners of Janus VI are able to do so without actually knowing what it is, or what it calls itself.

This frames the story, at least initially, as about the pergium miners in the upper tunnels. Above them are the authorities that demand they dig ever deeper, below lurks the horror they've awakened that is climbing ever-upward, and murdering everyone it finds along the way.

Centring the miners this way is a savvy move. This isn't a story in the mould of "This Side Of Paradise", in which mankind stumbles into what looks like premium real estate, only to find its beauty hides a dark secret. There's no evidence that anyone was enjoying their time on Janus IV even before the killings kicked off. The justification for just leaving whatever is in the tunnels well enough alone isn't the "it's my land and no-one will force me off it" attitude colonisers often seem remarkably quick to adopt. It's that the people above them have engineered a situation in which the miners have to keep doing their hard, unpleasant and potentially lethal job, or other people are going to die. The Enterprise, and the government it represents, are in some sense as antithetical to the miners’ interests as is the Horta.

This is not to claim moral equivalence between the Federation and the Horta, even if presumably at least some of the people at risk of death if the pergium stops flowing will be children. We likely have enough evidence already (and "Errand Of Mercy" will seal the deal next episode) that the Federation are an expansionist culture. Setting up colonies that require mining operations to keep alive is not the same thing as having a creche in the place you were born.

But the relative justifications for the pressure don’t change the underlying fact that Vanderberg finds himself trapped in a pincer movement. He’s wedged between two external forces demanding something from him - a murderous silicon-based lifeform below, a representative of Federation muscle above. Caught between a rock and a hard case, if you will.

So it’s not surprising Vanderberg and his men quite clearly have beef with the Enterprise crew. Schmitter seems spooked enough to be glad Kirk is on his way, but he seems to be the only one. And Vanderberg responds to Schmitter's hopeful question of impending relief with the non-answer of "You'll be alright". His attitude toward Kirk and his crew isn't that of a man relieved help has arrived, but of someone grudgingly using a visit from head office’s rep as an opportunity to run through their list of complaints. Even his offer to have his club-armed men help in the search reads less as an offer of cooperation, so much as him demanding he be able to keep an eye on what the newcomers are up to.

Interestingly, Coon' script suggests Vanderberg has at least something of a point. Consider Spock's pointless (and surely illogical) insistence on challenging Appel on whether he shot the Horta, or merely shot at it. Spock saw Not-Nancy survive a phaser blast from close to point-blank range in "The Man Trap", with a phaser-2 no less (which this episode chooses to make a big deal out of). Insisting the possibility an alien lifeform could survive being shot - without even knowing the setting the phaser was on – must be less likely than a miner simply lying about his aim is an unusually dickish move for Spock. It reveals a low-yield contempt that the miners themselves are clearly reacting to - just look at the unremarked but upsetting moment where two of them, having knocked down one of Kirk's security officers, proceed to hold him down while a third keeps beating on him.

This is the first real evidence in the show that the universe of the Federation contains both a class system and class resentment ("Mudd's Women" circled the idea, but was too busy being a misogynistic mess to commit [1]). The miners' safety is on the line, yes. But so are the jobs they need to do, in order to benefit the ruling class.

The Rock Whisperer

This isn't just me stretching my lefty muscles again. It further helps us frame the story. Give the ways in which Trek is rooted in the Western genre (see again "Mudd's Women", on which grounds it does somewhat better), it might be tempting to read this story as being about a clash between settlers and an indigenous population. Indeed, to a greater or lesser extent, I think that’s the common approach. As I’ve started sketching out, though, there are issues with that particular angle. Firstly, it lets the miners, and their bosses, too far off the hook. The Horta's undetectable life-signs, their inability to communicate, and the fact there's currently only one of them, all contribute to a situation in which it's genuinely understandable that the pergium miners don't realise they've invaded someone's home. The horrifying tactics employed by white settlers to gain control of Native American land - up to and including deliberate acts of genocide - are entirely absent.

There's also the issue of the Horta herself. If we’re meant to read her as a person, it becomes no small issue that she completely lacks a voice of her own, being entirely dependent on a man to communicate her wants and needs. This feeds into both tropes of othering and the white saviour narrative, a common issue with stories about interactions with native cultures that this episode is neither the first example of, nor the last. I'm not down with arguing that the commonness of a problem makes it unfair to criciticise any given instance of it, though. This is the sort of situation where familiarity breeds enough contempt to fill the Horta's vault.

So why not short-circuit these issues, and try something else? What if we consider the Horta as a metaphor for, not some foreign culture the white man must learn to respect, but a desperately rare and unusually intelligent animal? It’s not as though there isn’t precedent for Spock bridging the gap between human and animal, after all. And while there are obvious issues with taking specific cultures and turning them into animals for the sake of a clumsy metaphor, the Horta isn’t clearly meant to be a stand in for anyone in particular. It’s just an unusually angry rug.

We might even conceive of the Horta as a reminder that no actual distinction exists between human and animal in the first place. We are animals, no many how many spaceships or dungarees or episodes of Strictly Come Dancing we put together. How much sense does trying to draw a bright line between an animal and a person make sense in the context of a lifeform not made of animal matter [2]?

But if the line is so blurry, then why am I recommending we choose one side over the other? Well, again, there are some unpleasant implications we dodge that way. But there's a more positive aspect to the decision as well. It allows us to frame "The Devil In The Dark" as an environmental parable.

This would be rather fitting, given when it aired. "The Devil In The Dark" was written and filed at either side of Christmas 1966. That's just after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book credited with kick-starting the American environmental movement (the EPA's very existence can be traced back to Carson's work).

While the specifics of that book involve the environmental costs of indiscriminate pesticide use, it parallels the episode in the overarching message that ignoring the world around you in pursuit of profit is not just problematic, but ultimately self-defeating. And that’s a message that can work, just so long as the Horta are a stand-in for nature rather than an indigenous population. “Just imagine how much labour they can do for you on the land you've stolen, so long as you condescend to allow them to live" is an appalling message. Consider the Horta the zenith of the local ecosystem, though and the episode's conclusion becomes much more powerful - if the miners want to keep taking advantage of the tunnels, they need to not actually destroy the life cycle of what’s creating the tunnels in the first place.

Which I guess is all my way of saying that people are absolutely right to heap praise on this episode for saying something that should be obvious, but somehow isn't. It just isn't saying what they think it is. It's still a message of hope, of course. The speed with which Vanderberg switches from "the creature must be destroyed" to "we had no idea; how can we sort this out?" is genuinely heartening. And if it's undercut a little by Kirk noting a restraint from obliterating an ecosystem as having a financial upside, well. I'll take the right song with a few bum notes over a production-throttled ballad about the need to hold your ground, thanks. The message that ultimately we only hurt ourselves with short-term thinking still comes through.

And really, what matters most here is the twin ideas that people can do tremendous damage without realising it, and that people can abandon destructive modes of behaviour astonishingly fast, if they're given the chance. If circumstances change to give them another option.

Intersections And Interpretations

Let's finish off by returning one last time to the "Horta as animal" idea, because we still haven't quite mined it out completely. Viewing the Guardian of the Vault this way also smooths out the otherwise jagged edges of Spock and McCoy’s attitudes here. Which is something we could do with doing. It’s hard work watching both Spock’s insistence that Kirk open fire, and McCoy’s complaints that saving silicon lifeforms lies outside his purview. I’m not saying that being blasé about an animal’s life is OK, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a little easier to understand our protagonists’ attitudes if that is indeed the territory we find ourselves in.

And it's nice to be able to minimise the damage here, because outside of those choices, both characters have themselves a pretty good episode. McCoy's pride at having been able to save an entirely new category of lifeform with his pavement poultice, for instance, is delightful. Pow. One more life impossibly saved. You’re welcome. He's a doctor, not a bushel-hider.

But it's Spock who we can draw the most from this time around. It's notable that Spock spends much of the episode deferring more than he normally might to human bloodthirst. Yes, he notes that, given the creature's plausible status as the last of its race, killing it would constitute "a crime against science". That though feels like underselling the situation - a deliberate act of genocide in order to ensure the ongoing exploitation of natural resources is a crime against rather more than just science - and he immediately concedes the point when Kirk insists the Horta has to be killed. In the very next scene, he tries to suggest an attempt be made to capture the alien assailant, only to back down immediately when Kirk once again demands the creature's death.

Things get worse. Upon learning Kirk in a standoff with the Horta, Spock immediately counsels his captain shoot to kill. There are multiple ways to read this sudden lurch into bloodlust, naturally. Spock being devoted to Kirk is perhaps the most obvious one. A take that took advantage of my own theories might take this further, suggesting Kirk's peril has finally cut through the black fog freezing Spock's brain, hitting him full force with his first emotion in months, a sudden, suffocating terror that his best friend/romantic interest is about to get melted down to nothing.

Neither of these angles quite get the ball in the pocket, though. Kirk has faced longer odds in his life than outdrawing an ill-tempered boulder. Even pointing out Kirk is staring death in face while Spock is powerless to help doesn't really explain matters. It's only been six weeks since "Arena", in which Spock calmly watches Kirk come close to being torn to pieces by an enraged Gorn. And that story and this share a writer [3]. There has to be some reason Coon has Spock react so much more, well, emotionally this time around.

We might want to frame this as coming down to the difference between the Gorn - clearly a sentient species - and the Horta - not clearly anything other than a threat. That's not a take that's easily dismissed, but I think there's a better one. What if, despite his protestations, extended exposure to humans is causing Spock's needle to swing closer to his mother's side of the cultural dial? That's essentially Kirk's argument at the end of the episode. Yes, Spock's Vulcan upbringing - and the low-key (and not even all that low-key) racist expectations of his crewmates - both push him toward performative aloofness. Further, even without Surak's injunction against emotion, Spock is presumably aware of the dangers in allowing himself to react to the structural injustice aimed against him. To admit to being troubled would be to be accused of causing trouble. Insisting to all that he is completely unconcerned by his crewmates' criticisms of his attitude is completely understandable.

That doesn’t make it true. Spock wouldn't be the first person to find the culture in which they find themselves beginning to rub off on them. And here's the thing - on its own, this is a morally neutral development. Assimilation as a phenomenon is neither good nor bad, simply because both insisting on it and denying it as a possibility are both clearly the latter. It can though present opportunities to operate as a link between cultures. Note the word choice there, opportunities. Not responsibilities. If Spock hasn't the slightest interest in being a bridge between mankind and Vulcans, that's literally no-one's else's business.

But if it's a role Spock chooses to take on, then that's a worthy choice to make. And it's one that would make sense, given who he is. There's more to Spock's identity than his genetic make-up. We learned last episode that Spock's father is an ambassador, and his mother a teacher. Spock comes from a family not of computers, but communicators.

So it is Spock's upbringing and awareness of his own context that prompts him to span the gap between humanity and Horta? Or is it a form of penance, based on the awful realisation that of all the properties for him to have absorbed from the humans around him, it's their fear of the other?

Could be either, could be both. Either way, I see something wonderful in the idea that Spock's identity both as a scientist [4] and a Surakian ultimately fail him here, but his identity as a man raised by talkers, and who knows what it's like to be surrounded by those who are utterly unlike you and don't care to understand you at all, is what carries the day. His Vulcan side tells him an animal may have to die if the alternative is precious fuel being denied the Federation. His human side tells him the animal is a threat to the person who means most to him, and therefore it's too dangerous to risk keeping it alive.

But neither side wins out. We are not our biology. We are not our culture. We are what we choose to do with where we started, and where we've ended up. For perhaps the very first time, Spock allows himself to allow his opposing drives to operate in synthesis, rather than in antagonism. The result is thousands of lives saved, both Federation and Horta.

Less than two months after Coon used a story about the importance of intercultural understanding to redeem Kirk from his earlier bloodlust, he uses a story about the importance of environmental awareness to redeem Spock from his earlier snobbishness. At this point, with occasional assistance from DC Fontana, Coon is single-handedly spinning the moral case for the show. His contributions to the lore are well-established, but that's not where his true genius lay.

Which is a point which will be proved rather convincingly in our next TOS episode, where Coon gives us both Trek's most iconic antagonists, and a nightmare of expansionist nonsense, obviously. Well come back to that next week, though. First, the Romulans want a quick word...

[1] Though at least that story contained women, something "The Devil In The Dark" rather pointedly refuses to (for reasons we'll get to, I don't think it makes sense to count the Horta.)

[2] This is tangential and far from important, but how is Spock able to describe the guardian as a "Horta" to begin with? Surely her actual name must sound like a minor tectonic movement.

[3] Note how the two stories share a similar structure - Federation citizens are murdered in what initially seem unmotivated acts of violence, but are eventually revealed to be cases of mindlessly blundering into other people's territory. Which means we have another reason to take the environmentalist tack in analysing "...Dark" - faith that Coon wouldn't write basically the same story twice in four scripts.

[4] In that he's unable to locate the Horta using technology until he first sees it, and in that he doesn't give his full hypothesis about the situation when pressed in Vandenberg's office. And why? Because he doesn't want to get more abuse from Dr McCoy. He's embarrassed. How human.

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