‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “The Enemy Within”

Esteemed horror/science-fiction writer Richard Matheson penned this lumpy farrago of technobabble and psychobabble saved by William Shatner’s impersonation of not one, but two enormous prime hams. Along the way, the episode half-inadvertently explicates the dual nature of Star Trek’s genre commitments, with two feet in utopia and two dug into pulp.

“The Enemy Within” is set in orbit around planet Alpha 177, where an Enterprise team led by Lt. Sulu (George Takei) is taking geological samples. Captain Kirk (Shatner) finishes supervision and beams up to the ship. At which point a transporter accident improbably divides him in half—a good Kirk and an evil Kirk. With the help of First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), good Kirk has to find and capture his worse self, while Engineer Scott (James Doohan) rushes to fix the transporter before the expeditionary force is frozen to death in overnight temperatures of 120˚ below zero.

Much of the fun of the episode is watching Shatner throw the entire sandwich with all the fixings at the performance of evil Kirk. With an assist from some red-lighting and studio sweat, he twists his face into a mask of hate and animal cunning, eyes darting, lips wrapped around the mouth of a bottle of Saurian brandy. Shatner’s characteristic tics—especially his penchant for sudden power turns into the camera—are used to good effect, as he wheels towards the audience like an enraged gorilla. You can practically see the spittle flying.

The Mirror Has Two Faces

Shatner’s evil Kirk performance is flamboyant, but the good Kirk performance is equally over-the-top in its own way. As Spock and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) explain at some length, the Kirk split is not exactly evil/good, or at least not just evil/good. It might better be characterized as animalistic/civilized or yang/yin. The animal Kirk is the violent id, but that same violence gives him force, certainty, magnetism, and (stereotypical) masculinity.

Without bad Kirk, good Kirk starts to lose his force of will and power of command. Shatner turns vague and dithering, relaxing his facial features and letting his body language go limp. In line with misogynist tropes, he’s soft and feminized, unable to make the tough decisions needed to save the men on the planet. Bad Kirk, meanwhile, unhesitatingly and brutally sexually assaults Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) in her quarters. The two Kirks are either too hypermasculine or too emasculated. It’s only when reintegrated that the Captain is assertive enough to command a starship and restrained enough not to try to rape his subordinates.

Kirk’s desperate struggle to find a perfect equilibrium of virility is also, I think, the show’s struggle. Star Trek, in the early days and throughout the franchise’s history, has tried to balance Gene Rodenberry’s vision of a peaceful, utopian, civilized future with an action framework reliant on pulp genre conflict.

The swaggering, brandy-swilling, woman-chasing alpha-male Kirk—the part of himself Kirk says “no man should ever see”—is simply a (not very) exaggerated caricature of pulp heroes like Tarzan, John Carter, Errol Flynn, or even the Superman of the early comics.

He’s the guy who solves problems with his fists and his cunning, luring good Kirk into a false sense of security and then punching him out, or dynamically crawling and leaping around the engine room. This is the Kirk who’s always breaking out of prisons, wrestling Gorns to a standstill, or defeating Khan in nail-biting ship-to-ship combat. Without a bad captain, there’d be no action-adventure.

Good Kirk, in contrast, is the Next Generation Kirk with an earnest furrow in the brow and a phaserful of compassion. Evil Kirk keeps trying to fight and shoot good Kirk. Good Kirk instead appeals to evil Kirk’s better nature. “You can't hurt me. You can't kill me. You can't. Don't you understand? I'm part of you. You need me. I need you.” This is the Kirk who refuses to kill the Gorn—the ancestor of all those ship’s counselors and Klingon peace treaties, the Kirk who presides over a multi-national bridge crew. Without a good captain, there’d be no benevolent space social worker Federation.

If we follow that metaphor through, it’s interesting that good, vacillating Kirk is also the courageous Kirk. Bad Kirk is forceful and determined, but he’s also deeply motivated by fear. He doesn’t want to be reintegrated because he’s afraid of dying as his separate self, and because he’s afraid that the strain of the transport will simply kill both Kirks outright. Real courage isn’t bounding into the fray to shoot at one’s enemies, per pulp narratives past. It’s having the courage to admit vulnerability and to offer a helping hand to the guy who’s got the blaster aimed at you.

“The Enemy Within,” then, suggests that Star Trek needs that violent Kirk and his adventurous self in order to make the show function as a militarized genre franchise, dedicated to exploration and conflict. Someone has to decide to cross those barriers and meddle in other cultures. Someone has to decide to punch the salt monster. There has to be action and adventure, or you don’t have a captain or a show.

Fear or Love

At the same time, when the bad Kirk grabs onto those genre tropes and marketing realities with a feral grunt, good Kirk is off to the side shaking his head sadly at the cowardice. Fear of cancellation and/or death militates against a good-Kirk-only show of counseling and empathizing. A bolder Kirk, without swashbuckler violent Kirk, couldn’t exist on television at all.

In the last scene of the episode, Yeoman Rand tries to suggest that she might be open to a relationship with Kirk—one the evil Kirk hinted at when he ran into Rand sometime after the sexual assault. Spock is amused, “The, er, impostor had some interesting qualities, wouldn't you say, Yeoman?” Rand looks embarrassed and exasperated and huffs off.

The “joke” here is the sexist, frankly cruel implication that Rand enjoyed the sexual assault, or at least that she finds sexual assaulters exciting and appealing. The casual misogyny integrated into the conclusion mirrors the integration of the evil Kirk into the good Kirk. Reactionary pulp, complete with sexism, is part of the Star Trek formula. As McCoy says, “Without the negative side, you wouldn't be the Captain.”

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Courtesy of Desilu Productions.


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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.