What Trek Meant to Me: The Doomsday Machine, Part I

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Another look at the lessons taken from a lifetime of Star Trek fandom, with our featured writer Keith Parker.

When I was a kid, I knew that the original pilot of Star Trek – The Cage – would be my all-time favorite even before I got a chance to watch it.  That’s because, like most Trek fans, I knew the storyline had been revealed in The Menagerie and in James Blish’s short story adaptation for the Star Trek IV anthology.  What I did not realize was that that episode would have stiff competition for the number one position in my personal poll. And what was that competition? The Doomsday Machine, of course.

The Cage was my favorite episode of all time except for the fact that The Doomsday Machine was my favorite episode of all time. The contradiction bubbled inside my pre-teen skull for quite a while before I realized that such thoughts were actually healthy. Life, it seemed, was littered with such peculiarities.   

I was aware of contradictions, of course.  My favorite sport, college football, was rife with them. College football fans had to wrestle with the possibility of two (or more) national champions virtually every season (for example, Alabama/Notre Dame in 1973; Oklahoma/USC in 1974) – it even happened as recently as 2003.  Coming to grips with these conflicting thoughts didn’t bother me at all. I thought the yin and yang of emotions were really cool. Sadly, I seemed to be the exception.

At dinner one night my dad asked what my favorite episode of Trek was. We all watched Star Trek. It was a thing.

I frowned and told the truth. “I have two favorites.”

I then mixed English peas with my mashed potatoes, and passed the meatloaf to the left. I was spooning in a mouthful when my brother informed me that having two favorites was both illogical and impossible.

I crossed my arms and insisted it was true.

My father and brother — left-brained, logical and largely unsentimental — guffawed heartily and proceeded to tell me I was full of shit.

That delightful was a little coming-of-age moment has stuck with me ever since (I hate English peas, by the way).

Written by science fiction great Norman Spinrad, The Doomsday Machine takes the classic science fiction concept of a big, dumb object (BDO) and gives it a Cold War-to-its-tragic-end spin. What if we and the Soviets nuked each other to ashes and all that was left behind was a hydrogen bomb (and, presumably, cockroaches)? Unlike the ambiguity inherent in other BDO stories (like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama), Norman Spinrad provides a simple reason for a giant corn cob running amok: The weapon pulverizes planets because it’s hungry; poor thing. Weirdly, this gives the planet killer quasi-character qualities itself.

In Act I, Kirk’s rescue party beams aboard the beat-to-hell U.S.S. Constellation, stumbles around through the rubble and debris until they find Commodore Matt Decker dazed, unshaven and suffering from shock. Even after being treated by McCoy and listening to his own captain’s log Decker is unable to fully articulate the horror he’s been through.

DECKER: They say there’s no devil, Jim, but there is. Right out of hell, I saw it.
KIRK: Matt, where’s your crew?
DECKER: On the third planet.
KIRK: There is no third planet.
DECKER: Don’t you think I know that?

This is the scene that first sparked the flame that led me to the fire of contradiction. While the cognitive dissonance of this dialog can be resolved — there actually had been a third planet before the doomsday machine blasted it to itty bitty rocks — this exchange started my brain cells smoldering.

And then Decker pours gas on it, turning my camp fire into an inferno.

KIRK: What is it, an alien ship? Or is it alive, or is it —
DECKER: Both or neither. I don’t know.

Both or neither? Whoa. Logical contradictions. Unity of opposites. As I got older and learned a bit more about these philosophical concepts I began to realize that such things not only didn’t bother me, they were actually something I enjoyed.  As Plato said of Heraclitus, “You could not step twice into the same river.”

This premise was also addressed famously in The City on the Edge of Forever as Spock grapples with the incongruity of the Guardian of Forever… but that is a subject for another day.

So what did all that mean to me? Well, The Doomsday Machine, in addition to giving us some of the best actions sequences in classic science fiction, provided an excellent twist: let’s use a nuclear bomb to destroy an allegory for a nuclear bomb. It also revealed that the road of my life was going to be paved with wave/particle duality, Coke/Pepsi doublethink, and living/dead cats. Contradictions, it seemed were unavoidable, and I loved it.

There’s even an unintentional contradiction during the episode’s denouement. After Kirk uses the Constellation to destroy the doomsday machine, Spock takes a sensor reading and proclaims:

SPOCK: Energy output zero. Radiation level normal.

I’m blessed and cursed (see what I did there?) with a degree in physics, so Spock’s analysis is a rather dicey statement.  I know, of course, that he’s referring to the fact that the planet killer’s weapon is dead; it can no longer fire its beams of anti-proton —

DECKER: “pure anti-proton; absolutely pure!”

— but a normal radiation level means that there is actually is energy there. Otherwise ye olde planet killer would be at absolute zero, which — besides being a really bad 2005 movie — is a physically impossible state of existence where the atoms in a substance completely top moving.

Anyway…

Having now harangued you with everything from Greek philosophy to anal-retentive dialog analysis, I can draw two conclusions:

The Doomsday Machine was then and still is now my favorite episode of Trek, bar none; and so is The Cage, bar none.

I learned how to stop worrying and love cognitive dissonance.

In Part II of my article on this episode, I will look at the action sequences and tell you why the battle scenes meant so much to me growing up.

Until then, pax vobiscum,

Keith Parker

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About author

Keith Parker

Keith Parker is a traditionally published science fiction and fantasy writer, history geek, college football fan, and long-time collector of games and shiny objects. You can find him at NASA unless he has transmogrified himself into an elephant.

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