“Your Earth people glorify organized violence for forty centuries, but you imprison those who employ it privately.“
“You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!” The Enterprise is orbiting Tantalus V, the site of a penal colony run by the famous Dr. Tristan Adams. During a routine cargo exchange, a lunatic stows himself away inside a box and is sent to the ship. He makes quick work of assorted security and crew personnel before he arrives on the bridge, phaser in hand, demanding asylum from Tantalus. Can I just stop for a minute and complain about the security guards on the Enterprise?
With the wild-eyed madman on the loose, nobody thinks to check corners or even look over their shoulders before getting clobbered. Depth-perception also appears to be at a premium on the ship. Luckily Spock is there with his trusty Vulcan nerve pinch. They take him to the sickbay and discover he’s not an inmate but an associate of Adams named Dr. Simon Van Gelder. Adams gives Captain Kirk a sob story about an experiment gone wrong, but McCoy isn’t buying it. In McCoy’s capacity as ship’s surgeon, he basically orders Kirk to conduct an investigation, with sexy results!
Kirk asks McCoy to supply him with an expert in psychology to take down to Tantalus. He does so, but it turns out to be a hot chick he flirted with at the Science Lab Christmas Party. This is where I begin to wonder if Starfleet does not have bust and hip size requirements for female crewmen. Those micro mini-skirts can’t be the most practical uniform to wear. Dr. Helen Noel is, of course, stunningly beautiful and she trades interesting, solicitous barbs with Kirk throughout the episode. Adams takes Kirk and Helen on a tour of the facility, and he shows them a strange device called a “neural neutralizer,” which he swears is harmless, even inefficient for therapeutic value. On the ship, Spock and McCoy are having difficulty reaching Van Gelder, so Spock performs the first Vulcan mind-meld of the series. Through the mind-meld, Van Gelder speaks of the incredible power of the neural neutralizer. It drains brains and turns subjects into pliant bags of mindless meat until they absorb whatever new instructions are given.
Kirk and Helen get caught snooping, so Adams puts him under the neutralizing beam. He convinces Kirk he is madly in love with Helen, and attempts to break him. It seems to work until Helen reminds him of the brainwashing. The sexual tension between Kirk and Helen works, but I wonder how the episode would’ve played out with Janice Rand instead of Helen. From what I understand, the original drafts were to incorporate her character, but the producers rewrote the part.
There’s a great, late ’60s eerie vibe about the whole mad affair. The background actors at the Tantalus colony, especially the actress who plays Lethe (named after the River of Forgetfulness in Hades), are creepily effective at portraying blank “joy.” There was only one other episode of Star Trek to feature a penal colony, “Whom Gods Destroy,” and then only one episode of The Next Generation to show another kind of sanitarium, “Frame of Mind” (although that may have been a manifestation of Riker’s psyche). It was Roddenberry’s idea that mental illness would be a rare occurrence in the future. I hope he’s right.
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