“Pain! Pain!” The original series episode “The Devil in the Dark” gives the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) one of his all-time great freak-out soliloquys. Face clenched in agony, hands raised, he howls in agony and chews all the scenery in sight.
Not coincidentally, the episode is also perhaps Trek’s most sympathetic treatment of otherness. It’s the moment where the series comes closest to embracing an anti-colonial perspective and even endorsing anti-colonial violence and revolution. The Viet-Cong are portrayed metaphorically as shaggy silicon acid-spewing murderers—but it’s the people invading their country who are “the devils in the dark.”
Extracting Resources, and Also Life
The episode, starts, unusually, not on the bridge of the Enterprise, but on the mining planet Janus VI. There we watch a hapless miner stand guard before getting killed by some horrible, nameless something. Director Joseph Pevney and writer Gene L. Coon have crafted a solid horror movie opening—and the episode is a great creature feature, among its other virtues.
Shortly Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Spock, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beam down to the planet to be briefed by Chief Engineer Vanderberg (Ken Lynch). He explains to them that the planet’s vital pergium mining operation has been disrupted by some unknown creature that has killed some 50 men. The creature is big, possibly silicon-based, and appears immune to phaser fire. It kills by burning its targets to death with a strong acid.
No one is sure why the creature has suddenly attacked the miners, who have been working on Janus VI for 50 years. They speculate that it may have been disturbed when the miners broke through to a deeper level of the planet.
Spock also is fascinated by some silicon nodules the miners discovered recently. He stares at them with that gentle, curious Nimoy stare, but refuses to explain his interest and give away the plot too soon. (Whispers: They’re eggs! Eggs! They’re eggs!)
Spock figures that while puny Phaser One might not have hurt the Horta, he can adjust the more powerful Phaser Twos for silicon and that’ll zap the critter. It seems like a good plan, but before they can put it into place, another man is killed, and the main circulating pump for the planet is stolen.
It’s an old model and Engineer Scott (James Doohan) on the Enterprise can’t replace it. The best he can do is jury rig something to keep air circulating and prevent the reactor from going critical for 48 hours. That’s how long they have to find the creature and get the pump back.
Red-shirted security personnel beam down, and of course the Horta has to kill at least one of them, because getting killed by various alien critters is what the red-shirted security people are there for. Kirk and Spock are tougher to burn, though, since they are main characters. When the creature comes upon them, they shoot it and cut a big chunk before it scurries into the wall.
We now know that the creature travels through solid rock, leaving tunnels behind, that it is badly injured, and that it is shockingly cute. Yes, it’s a shuffling lump of rock, but it crawls and quivers expressively. Awww.
Spock thinks it’s so cute he no longer wants to kill it. Or, actually, his tricorder readings confirm it is the only one of its kind, and he is reluctant to destroy it for scientific reasons. Kirk though continues to order his men to kill it on sight.
The Horta Speaks
After further searching, Kirk comes upon a chamber with many nodules (eggs! they’re eggs!) and then is confronted by the creature itself. Having been injured by a phaser, it is now scared of them, and Kirk manages to engineer a stand-off.
Spock shows up to help and suggests he can do a Vulcan technique to join minds with the creature. Kirk urges him on with some delightfully clunky expository dialogue. (“Mister Spock, I know it's a terrible personal lowering of mental barriers but if there's a chance…!”)
Spock manages the mind-meld but can sense little at first through the pain of the creature’s wound. Eventually, though, he learns that the nodules are eggs (told you!), that the creature is called a Horta, and that it is in fact the last of its kind.
Every fifty thousand years, all the Hortas die except one mother, who lays millions of eggs and births the next generation. The miners have been breaking the eggs, killing the Horta’s children. (“Murder. Of thousands ” Spock says with the Horta’s voice. “Devils! Eternity ends.”) The Horta only lashed out to attempt to defend her babies.
Dr. McCoy beams down and despite some initial skepticism about his ability to fix a stone creature (“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”) he figures out how to use a silicon compound to bandage her wound.
The Horta returns the pump. After that, it’s not hard for Kirk to convince the miners not to kill her. He suggests that if she and her children are allowed to live in peace, they could mine more efficiently than human equipment, making everyone rich. Kirk and the Enterprise crew go back to the ship—where Spock reveals that the Horta is such a discriminating and logical creature that she really likes his ears.
The Horta and Ho Chi Minh
“The Devil in the Dark” aired in 1967, at a time of intense debate about US involvement in Vietnam. While the episode is not a metaphor for US involvement directly, it certainly is influenced, and comments on, the issue of imperial and colonial resource extraction.
Janus VI, we’re told, has vital minerals which can support Federation settlements on thousands of worlds. The miners are there to strip the planet of its wealth. In doing so, they unwittingly—but also uncaringly—perpetrate a genocide.
In earlier Star Trek episodes, like “The Man Trap” or “The Galileo Seven” there’s little sympathy for alien monstrosities in competition with humans. The abominations don’t get a chance to plead their case; they are portrayed as irrational, selfish, conniving, and/or mindlessly violent.
Mr. Spock, as an alien himself, is used to validate the antipathy, as he urges the destruction of a salt vampire here or leads the attack on a lurking ape thing there. The good outsider shows he is good through loyalty and through validating the extermination of bad outsiders, defined as those who are not loyal and who are in the way.
But “Devil in the Dark” takes a different approach. The Horta is a killer, and Spock does at one point urge Kirk to kill it in self-defense. But the Horta isn’t irrational, and Spock, as an outsider and alien, is eventually able to enter into solidarity with it and to give it a voice of sorts.
When it speaks of its pain, through him, it’s talking about its phaser wound. But it’s also expressing the trauma and terror of being subjected to colonial, genocidal violence. “Murderers! Stop them. Kill! Strike back! Monsters!”
The episode encourages you to take the view of the silicon thing, which is also the view of colonized people. When you look through the sense-organs of the Horta, it is the humans—the colonizers, the Americans—who are the monsters. And when monsters are killing you, you have the right to fight back.
The Respectable Horta
Star Trek is never exactly a radical show, and “Devil in the Dark” hedges its revolutionary implications in various ways. Most notably, it makes its colonized critters too good to be true.
The Horta, like Spock, is a paragon. As Spock says of them “they are the most inoffensive of creatures. They harbor ill will towards no one.” The Horta is naturally non-violent, tolerant, kind, and “logical.” The colonized here are clearly morally superior to the colonized. Spock himself—the moral center of Trek—says it’s more pleasant talking to the Horta than to humans.
Making the Horta more virtuous than the humans is in part a tactic to get you on its side. It shows that the indigenous inhabitant of Janus VI has a right to defend its territory and its children.
But actual colonial subjects aren’t models of inoffensiveness; they’re just people. If you can only imagine virtuous resistance in cases where the resistors are paragons of virtue, you aren’t likely to think that any resistance is justified. By making the Horta so angelic, the episode is able to finesse the question of whether normal humans—in Vietnam for example— are in the right when they fight against their own invading devils.
Making the Horta angelic also allows for the happy ending. Once communication is established, it turns out the Horta wants literally nothing except not to have her children murdered. Humans call off the genocide; the Horta tells her children to dig where they tell her and makes them all rich.
Essentially, the Horta is getting her progeny to work for free on pain of death. That’s a good thumbnail definition of slavery. In this case, the enslaved are supposedly happy to do the work. But slavers always say the people they’re oppressing are happy.
“The Devil in the Dark” is the best of Trek, both in the sense that it is a perfect episode and in the sense that it is the series at its most open-hearted, tolerant, and utopian. It calls on its viewers to treat even colonized shuffling silicon acid monsters with dignity and kindness.
That’s goofy and inspiring. But it’s also a little depressing that even at its most genuinely utopian, Star Trek’s vision of equality for the colonized looks a lot like enforced servitude.
Rating: 10/10 SPECS
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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.