Star Trek just did the “widely admired Federation scientist goes rogue” plot in Episode 7 “What Are Little Girls Made Of.” The creators liked it so much they decided to repeat it in for “Dagger of the Mind.” This time, though, the scientist in question isn’t a cyberneticist but a penologist. And the story, by Shimon Wincelberg under the name S. Bar-David, isn’t a confused metaphor for colonialism. It’s a startlingly nuanced critique of prison reform.
The Enterprise is making a supply run to the penal colony Tantalus V, run by the forward-thinking, humane penal-reformer Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory.) One of the prison’s inmates, Simon van Gelder (an enthusiastically mugging Morgan Woodward) escapes to the Enterprise in a big box helpfully labeled “CLASSIFIED MATERIAL: DO NOT OPEN.” It turns out that van Gelder is a former scientist who has become criminally insane.
Intrigued and suspicious, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) beams down to Tantalus V with a psychological specialist Lt. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill). The two soon discover that Adams is using a “neural neutralizer” to control the minds of inmates for nebulous but nefarious purposes. He tortures Kirk in the neutralizer chair, but Helen manages to escape and shut down the colony’s force field, allowing first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to beam down to rescue them. Adams is ironically killed in his own machine, which is then dismantled to prevent further mind-controlling shenanigans and to avoid the plot complications which would result if the Federation has fully functional mind control tech. (DS9 would sure be a different show if Section 31 got its hands on a neural neutralizer.)
“Dagger of the Mind” is a visually striking episode. Vincent McEveety has an almost Sergio-Leone-worthy love of extreme close-ups, and there are lots of images of Morgan Woodward sweating and rolling his eyes as we stare into his pores. Narratively, though, the script is contrived and hammy, made of more plot hole than plot. Why does kindly Dr. Adams suddenly go rogue and start torturing prisoners? Why does Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) suspect him of foul play? What happens to all the mind-controlled prisoners once the neutralizer is dismantled?
But while the storyline doesn’t make a lot of sense, the skepticism about progress in carceral methods anticipates and parallels the concerns of contemporary anti-prison activists. Adams is a classic prison reformer, who eschews barbaric punishment for humane, medicalized rehabilitation. The doctor “has done more to revolutionize, to humanize prisons and the treatment of prisoners than all the rest of humanity had done in forty centuries,” Kirk says. “I've been to those penal colonies since they've begun following his methods and they're not cages anymore.”
That all sounds good. But historically, kind, gentle prison reformers often ended up inadvertently pioneering new, innovative forms of torture.
Quakers in the late 1700s and early 1800s wanted to end the violent punishments prevalent in jails of the day. So they introduced the idea of solitary confinement. Rather than beating prisoners, guards would simply isolate them from all human contact, giving them the opportunity for quiet self-reflection, prayer, and repentance. Prisoners Quakers hoped, would quickly see the error of their ways and become productive members of society without recourse to violence.
Unfortunately, it turns out that isolating people in solitary is a hideous, terrifying form of torture. People in solitary confinement constitute 6% to 8% of the prison population, but account for about half of those who die of suicide. Humans denied contact with other people suffer anxiety, depression, panic attacks, hallucination, psychosis, paranoia, and often attempt self-harm. Solitary, in short, makes people behave much the way van Gelder behaves—terrified, out of control, and unable to interact with others.
That’s not a coincidence. Van Gelder has in fact been subjected to a kind of high-tech super-solitary. The neural neutralizer is essentially a form of mental isolation. The device empties out minds so that they hunger for human contact. Or as van Gelder puts it while under the influence of Spock’s Vulcan mind meld, “We fought him, remember? But we grew so tired, our minds so blank, so open, that any thought he placed there became our thoughts. Our minds empty like a sponge, needing thoughts, begging. Empty. Loneliness. So lonely to be sitting there empty, wanting any word from him.”
The Quakers hoped that isolation would push prisoners to reform. Similarly, Adams induces existential loneliness in order to push prisoners to change. This is a power trip—and one, “Dagger of the Mind” suggests, that is tinged with erotic sadism.
Kirk and Helen sneak into the neural neutralizer room to try to see for themselves how the machine works. Helen first makes Kirk hungry. But then, as a further experiment, she alters his memories so that he thinks they had sex after a Christmas party (a swift kick in the pants to whichever writer decided to name the Christmas party character “Noel.”)
Just as Helen finishes rewriting Kirk’s memories, Adams discovers the two of them. While Helen is restrained, doubles down on her idea. He tells Kirk he’s been madly in love with Helen for years. “You must have her, or the pain grows worse, the pain, the longing for her,” Adams intones.
Kirk’s will is so strong that the effect of Adams’ suggestions are limited. The not-very-subtext, though, is that Adams locks Kirk in a room with Helen in the hopes that he will rape her, just as real-life prison guards not infrequently encourage sexual violence between prisoners as a form of punishment.
Adams also just seems to enjoy making Kirk fall for Helen. Erotic control is fun and pleasurable in itself. Changing people’s minds in the name of reforming them slides instantly and apparently inevitably into twisting minds into new configurations of sex, love, and desire.
Prison reform is always sold as a clean, kind, disinterested way to take antisocial offenders and turn them into productive members of society. But in “Dagger of the Mind” the drive for reform is less about altruism and more about a lust for power. Adams discovers that he can weaponize loneliness and isolation to erase people and rebuild them. “Dagger of the Mind” suggests that prison reform is most dangerous when it works best—and when the jailers find that they like it.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.