Star Trek: The Original Series Revisited: “Metamorphosis”

“The idea of male and female are universal constants,” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) asserts glibly in “Metamorphosis.” The episode is less confident than he is, though.

Gene L. Coon’s script hints at the possibility of different kinds of bodies and different kinds of love which don’t fit easily into the categories of 60s gender expectations. Rather than seeing those possibilities as liberating or exciting, though, the episode tries to figure out how to contain them. Alien love is a threat which has to be funneled into familiar channels to keep men, women, and the universe in their respective places.

Working Women

“Metamorphosis” opens on the Galileo shuttlecraft. Kirk, First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are transporting Assistant Federation Commissioner Nancy Hedford (Elinor Donahue) to the USS Enterprise. Hedford was on a peacemaking mission to Epsilon Canaris Three when she contracted a potentially fatal illness called Sukaro’s disease. She is awfully cranky about having her mission interrupted by health issues.

Why did they take a dinky shuttlecraft that doesn’t have the right medical equipment to pick up Hedford, rather than flying the Enterprise directly there to get her? Because the Enterprise got stuck in a mysterious space plothole.

Anyway. They are a few hours from the ship when they are intercepted by a glowing orangish energy thing. Spock says they have never seen the like, but it’s not that different from the other glowing energy blobs with vast powers they often encounter on this show. This blob grabs a hold of them and diverts them to a small planetoid with earthlike atmosphere and gravity. None of their instruments work.

Hedford is even more frustrated and blames Kirk though obviously, he can’t do anything. For a diplomat, she’s not very diplomatic (much like Ambassador Robert Fox in “A Taste of Armageddon”.)

While they’re trying to get the ship to work, a man suddenly hails them. He says his name is Cochrane (Glenn Corbett), and tells them he’s been marooned on the planet, though he’s scanty on details. He takes them to his shelter, built from his former ship. Hedford becomes sicker, and Kirk, after seeing the energy form on the surface, demands that Cochrane tells him more details.

Cochrane explains that he’s Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, thought dead for 150 years. As an elderly man he flew into space to die but was rescued by the energy thing which he calls the Companion. The Companion brought him to the planetoid and de-aged him. Now it won’t let him leave the planet. He told it he was so lonely he would die in the hopes it would release him. Instead it brought him Kirk and the others so he would have company.

Cochrane summons the Companion to ask it to cure Hedford. It hovers over him in a joining which Kirk and McCoy suspect is maybe not entirely completely purely Platonic, as it were. But despite the sexy merging, the Companion says she can’t help Hedford.

The Companion attacks and shocks Spock while he works on the shuttle, and he deduces it is mostly composed of electrical energy. He fixes up a device which he hopes will zap it. Cochrane isn’t thrilled with the idea of killing the Companion, but he wants to get off the planetoid and fly and be free. So he calls it and Kirk and Spock use their electrical anti-Companion thingamabob.

The thingamabob doesn’t kill the Companion, but it does make it mad. It almost chokes Kirk and Spock to death before Cochrane calls it back for more fun communing.

Love and Assimilation

Having failed to kill the Companion, Kirk decides to try to talk to it. (Maybe he could have tried the talking first? But everyone makes mistakes, I suppose.) Kirk orders Spock to adapt the universal translator so they can talk to abstract energy entities. This takes Spock about 10 minutes, because that is what the plot says.

Kirk tells the Companion that humans need freedom to live and flourish. He’s given the speech before in other episodes, and maybe the Companion watched those and is bored of it, because it is not impressed. More importantly, though, the Companion’s voice is, as translated by Spocks’ gadget, is female. “The matter of gender could change the entire situation,” Spock muses.

What he means is that since the Companion is female, and Cochrane is male, it must be the case that she is in love with him.

When they explain this to Cochrane, he is horrified. “Do you know what you're saying? For all these years, I've let something as alien as that crawl around inside me, into my mind, my feelings.”

Hedford, though, dying on a couch, has a very different reaction. The revelation of the Companion’s affection for Cochrane sends her into a spiral of self-recrimination. “I've been good at my job, but I've never been loved. Never. What kind of life is that?” she weeps, as she condemns Cochrane for not reciprocating the Companion’s emotions.

Kirk goes back to trying to convince the Companion again to let them leave. He tells her that she can never really love Cochrane as an equal. “You haven't the slightest knowledge of love, the total union of two people.”

The Companion believes him. But instead of releasing Cochrane, she inhabits the dying Hedford. This cures Hedford, and Companion and diplomat are now one entity. Cochrane is much happier about the prospect of loving a human rather than an energy field. When he learns the Companion still can’t leave the planet, he decides to stay with her. They will together, since she’s lost her superpowers.

Meanwhile Engineer Scott (James Doohan), left in command of the Enterprise, has been following the energy trail of the lost shuttle. Now that Kirk’s communicator works, he gets in touch with the ship, and he and Spock and McCoy prepare to beam back aboard. All is well, and Cochrane and his companion live happily ever after.

A Woman’s Place Is On the Planetoid

I remember watching this episode when I was young and wondering why Hedford was such a jerk. She kept barking at Kirk and McCoy and demanding they get her to the Enterprise when it was obvious they couldn’t get her to the Enterprise. “What is wrong with you, random guest star person?” middle-school-me thought. “Get with the program.”

This is exactly what the creators seem to think about Hedford, too. She is not with the program. And the reason she is not with the program, I think, is that she is a working woman.

Star Trek is more or less okay with woman working in fairly traditional feminine roles: nurses, personal assistants, secretaries (Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, placing and taking calls, is basically the last of those.) Women in positions with more responsibility are often regarded with a certain amount of suspicion (like Dr. Dehner in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” or Lt. Marla McGivers in “Space Seed”) and Hedford is no different. In line with stereotypes of assertive women, she’s presented as abrasive and rude.

Hedford’s unpleasantness mirrors and contrasts that of the other powerful woman in the episode—namely the Companion. The energy blob is as prickly as Hedford—she literally shocks the crew members. But in other ways she conforms to feminine stereotypes more fully. She’s focused on love and domesticity; her entire motivation is Cochrane, who she keeps at home with her, preventing him from flying off into the cosmos and pursuing adventures.

Hedford is beautiful and human-looking, but she’s divorced from her femininity by her job and her power. The Companion is devoted to love but is cut off from her femininity by her alien appearance and her power. When they merge, and lose their power, they become the perfect companion—beautiful, utterly devoted, and deferential.

“Metamorphosis” does recognize, somewhat sheepishly, that its definition of acceptable femininity is maybe too narrow. Spock—who is himself the offspring of a mixed marriage between a Vulcan and a human—raises an eyebrow at Cochrane’s “parochial” attitude. When Cochrane calls the Companion “disgusting” and says that Kirk and Spock have no “decency or morality”  he’s echoing Jim Crow language about interracial marriage—which has to have been apparent to viewers in 1967.

Similarly, at the end of the episode, McCoy points out that Hedford was supposed to stop a war. She had important professional responsibilities and important professional skills. She was more than just a companion. Kirk just shrugs, though. “I'm sure the Federation can find another woman somewhere,” he says.

Cochrane’s attitude may have been parochial, but the episode doesn’t exactly think it’s wrong. Woman are supposed to be woman, not diplomats or aliens.

The metamorphosis of the title transmutes unruly, unstereotypical women into a more comfortable archetype. “A man's entitled to that, isn't he?” Cochrane asks. Over the years, the franchise has at various times answered that question with a satisfying “No.” Not in this episode, though, unfortunately.

Rating 7.1/10 SPECS

All episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series are currently streaming on Paramount+.

This article 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.