‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Operation: Annihilate!”

“This Side of Paradise!” was Star Trek’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Operation: Annihilate! is closer to Robert Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, which also featured repulsive slimy things stabbing into people’s backs to control their minds.

The first third of the episode admirably captures Heinlein’s aura of squicky Cold War paranoia and mistrust. The rest isn’t really willing to follow through by converting the ship’s crew to evil, though. Instead, the story lurches towards scientific detective work with a predetermined victorious outcome. Scriptwriter Stephen W. Carabatsos and director Herschel Daugherty seem to have seen their plotline heading for genocide and blanched. As a result, the season ends, not with a bang, but with a squelch.

Put on a Hazmat Suit, For Pity’s Sake

The USS Enterprise arrives at Deneva, a Federation colony that is home to Captain Kirk’s brother, Sam, a scientist. The ship can’t reach anyone on the planet, and Kirk (William Shatner) worries that Deneva may have been hit with a wave of insanity that seems to be traveling across the galaxy, destroying entire civilizations. It’s like the Domino Effect the US worried would take over Asia, but in space.

Sure enough, as they watch horrified, the crew sees a spaceship pilot into the sun; the last transmission from the pilot babbles about how he’s now “free.” Undeterred by this ominous evidence of mass infection and psychosis, Kirk orders a landing party to the planet, including Vulcan First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). No one takes any quarantine precautions because Starfleet never does. Because the future is dumb. Sort of like the present.

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Image Credit: Desilu Productions and Paramount Pictures.

In any case, the landing party is attacked by a bunch of men with clubs who scream at them to get away. After phasering those dudes into unconsciousness, the party find Kirk’s brother dead, his nephew out cold, and his sister-in-law Aurelan (Joan Swift) screaming in pain and madness.

McCoy transfers them to the Enterprise. There Aurelan wakes briefly in great agony and manages to tell Kirk that there are things taking over people’s bodies to make them build ships. Then she dies. Kirk still doesn’t take any quarantine precautions though. He is stubborn.

Invasion of the Practical Effects

Kirk beams back down to the planet where Spock and the landing party are investigating. They discover flat pulsing things clinging to the underside of an archway. They are quite effectively repulsive in a low key, slap some practical effects together in fifteen minutes kind of way. Somewhere David Cronenberg was watching (no, wait – he's on Star Trek: Discovery).

What’s even more icky is those practical effects resist phaser fire and can fly. One attaches to Spock’s back and he falls over in pain. Back on the ship they find he’s infected with filaments twining through his nervous system. The filaments cause enormous pain and control their victim’s minds. Spock is compelled to try to take over the ship, but Kirk and others on the bridge manage to restrain him. Spock then manages to override the infection’s commands and control the pain because he’s a Vulcan and they can do anything.

Spock beams down to the planet to collect a specimen, since he’s already infected. He brings it back and upon study he and McCoy decide it’s a single brain cell of a big telepathic hive mind. They can’t figure out any way to kill it though. It looks like they’re going to have to destroy all one million colonists, as well as Spock, and Kirk’s nephew, in order to prevent the infection from spreading.

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Image Credit: Desilu Productions and Paramount Pictures.

Kirk insists there must be another answer. And because it’s TV, there is! Kirk himself figures out that what must have gotten the alien infiltrator when it was flown near the sun was not heat or radiation, but light. So they use high-intensity light on the specimen, and sure enough, it dies.

Then they check if light will kill the thing inside Spock too. It does! But the powerful light leaves Spock blind. Moments after Spock loses his sight, McCoy figures out that its ultraviolet light that kills the creatures. They didn’t have to use visible light at all. Spock went blind for nothing.

Spock says sight for pain was a good trade-off, but McCoy and Kirk both feel guilty, and curse fate, and/or the writers. Meanwhile, they deploy a bunch of satellites to broadcast UV radiation and kill all the ugly cell creatures on the planet. Happy ending, if only Spock weren’t blind.

But! He isn’t of course because Vulcans have a special inner eyelid to protect them from high-intensity light. Vulcans can do anything. Kirk’s brother is still dead since he’s not a Vulcan, but he also wasn’t a main character, so the mourning period is short. The ship flies off towards the second season.

Our Aliens Vs. Your Aliens

As with a good percentage of original series episodes, the Cold War connection here is obvious. Communism is often represented in American popular culture as an infiltrating hive mind, which corrupts good people and turns them to alien ends. Here the plague of foreign ideology sweeps across the sky rather than across Asia, tying into good people’s insecurities and weaknesses until they turn on their own free government.

The interesting twist here is that the one person immune to alien influence is the alien, Spock. More, the Orientalist tropes which define Spock as an alien aren’t so distant from those which define the hive mind in the same way.

Image Credit: Desilu Productions and Paramount Pictures.

The nameless single-cell pulsing blobs are linked to Asian stereotypes. China and Russia are both, from the US perspective, often seen as an amorphous mass, controlled from the top down, without personality, as per Ronald Reagan’s “ant heap of totalitarianism.” Spock is also linked to Asian stereotypes in his very pointed eyebrows, in his rejection of emotion, and in the Vulcan mind techniques that recall pop culture representations of Eastern mysticism and martial arts (via the Vulcan nerve pinch).

The episode, then, is an expression of hope that our aliens can beat their aliens. That hope is based in part in the confidence that our aliens are under the direction of white leadership—it’s Kirk who figures out how to kill the hive mind. Optimism also depends on our aliens being preternaturally self-controlled and self-sacrificing. Spock is almost eager to give up his life and/or his sight for the good of humanity.

To Genocide Or Not To Genocide

In “The Alternative Factor,” one man has to die to prevent the destruction of worlds. “Operation: Annihilate!” provides an easier out. The almost invulnerable hive mind corrupting an entire planet seems to call for extreme measures; genocide appears to be the only way out. But at the last minute, a tech solution is found, and hardly anyone except Kirk’s brother has to die. The future has the resources, and the wisdom to avoid atrocity.

Sort of. It’s true that no humans die. But the hive mind and all its brain cells have to be totally destroyed. That hardly seems like a bad thing considering that the enemy here is a bunch of pulsing foam/plastic inhuman yuck which propagates itself through hideous torture.

But if the hive mind is a metaphor for the enemy in Vietnam, the triumph via weapon of mass destruction takes on a somewhat less cheerful aspect. Alien allies who work for us are admirable and indeed virtually human (Spock, we are reminded, is half-human.) Aliens who work against us are monsters that can’t be reasoned with, or even communicated with. The only choice the episode gives us in a war between superpowers is annihilate or be annihilated.

Every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series is currently streaming on Paramount+.

Rating: 6.8/10 SPECS

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.