Star Trek: The Original Series Revisited: “The Changeling”

“The Changeling” is an episode with a hybrid threat; it fuses a Cold War fear of high-tech apocalypse with a WW II fear of fascist eugenics.

Smooshing those anxieties together creates a vivid sense of dread. Writer John Meredyth Lucas and director Marc Daniels recapture a bit of the horror vibe of the first two Star Trek episodes, “The Man Trap” and “Charlie X”.

The dual metaphors also create thematic confusion though. You can’t really by-your-own-logic fascism to death, and suggesting you can seems dangerously glib.  Scrappy imperfection triumphing over cold logic is supposed to feel empowering. But, in our current historical moment at least, it just feels kind of silly.

The Daleks Invade Star Trek

Like many a Star Trek episode over the years, this one starts with a distress call. The Enterprise arrives in the Malurian star system in response. But instead of 4 billion souls, they find no life at all. This, everyone agrees is bad.

And things soon get worse. The Enterprise is attacked by a series of incredibly powerful energy pulses. Their shields are just about to go down when they identify the source—a very dense, meter-long object. They open communications as a last-ditch effort to save themselves and are surprised when they receive a response. After some discussion, they beam the entity aboard.

And what is said entity? Well, it’s basically a Dalek, first introduced on Dr. Who in 1963. It’s about the right height, and it has the same kind of antennae and probes sticking out. It’s got a similar goal of extermination.  The big difference is that this evil robot floats in the air and is called Nomad. Also, it can destroy star systems.

After much questioning and analysis, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) figure out that Nomad was originally a probe from Earth programmed to search out life. It was mostly destroyed in a meteor storm, but it limped along and somehow fused with an alien probe designed to sterilize soil samples.

It ended up thinking its mission was to find and sterilize all imperfections, including all biological life. So it’s basically a roving uber-powerful eugenic nuclear apocalypse. There are some great Nomad point-of-view shots where the mechanism floats through the Enterprise as humans glance at it with fear and uncertainty. It’s a clanky death approaching steadily and without haste.

The only thing protecting the Enterprise is that Nomad thinks Kirk is its Creator. The original Nomad model was built by genius inventor Jackson Roykirk, and the supposedly perfect robot got the names garbled. Since it thinks Kirk is the boss of it, it follows his instructions to some degree and doesn’t immediately kill everyone.

Even so, it murders a bunch of security personnel and mind-wipes Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) because it doesn’t like her singing. It also kills Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan), but then at Kirk’s command, it fixes him up good as new.

Eventually even the dumbest super-intelligent robot can figure out it’s made a boo-boo, and Nomad does at last tweak to the fact that Kirk is just another imperfect biological doofus. It stops obeying him, and heads to engineering to shut off the life support system and free the Enterprise of its biological infestation. After that, it threatens to return to Earth and sterilize (ie, kill) everyone there.

But that biological infestation is hard to disinfest. Kirk confronts Nomad and points out that it has mistaken him for its creator. Therefore it is imperfect. And since its mission is to destroy all that is imperfect, it must destroy itself. This fuses the robot’s circuits; it begins to gibber and blink. The crew rushes it to the transporter and beams it into space just as it explodes.

Robot vs. Jazz

Nomad’s demise is similar to that of Landru, another computer Kirk prompted to self-destruct.  Landru, though, was a Communist computer; it self-destructed when it realized it was not benefiting the collective.

Nomad doesn’t care about any collective. Its programming is fascist; it is out to eliminate all that doesn’t meet its standards of purity. For Nomad, that doesn’t just mean one group of humans. It means all humans.

Still, its first target is telling. Nomad is floating quietly enough in engineering when it hears Uhura singing a jazzy song over the intercom. It goes to the bridge to confront her and demands to know why she is singing. When she replies that she just likes to sing, Nomad scans her brain, erasing all her memories.

It justifies the assault by saying, “That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me.” Spock responds “That unit is a woman”; it’s not clear whether he’s protesting her treatment or making a really unfortunate misogynist joke.

In any case, the Nazis, obviously, hated Black people. They also hated Black cultural output, especially jazz. They believed Black people were uncivilized, imperfect, and childlike. And so Nomad reduces Uhura to a childlike state;. She spends the rest of the episode relearning her (multiple) languages and regaining her technical training. (The rest of the crew is disturbingly cavalier about Uhura’s regression and seem to take her incredibly unlikely full recovery as a given. But that’s Star Trek.)

Nomad thus uses the language of racist eugenics—the sterilization of the imperfect—to target, first of all, a Black woman performing jazz. The threat of cataclysmic mechanical annihilation, always top of mind in the Cold War, is linked, not to Communism, but to fascism.

Are Fascists Really Logic Machines?

The thing about fascism, though, is that it is not especially logical. Kirk defeats Nomad by demonstrating that it has made a mistake, and then stepping back as it destroys itself in shame. It’s as if Trump exploded after realizing he’d lied about the size of one of his crowds. Which is, I think everyone would agree, an unlikely scenario.

Fascists are sometimes presented as models of brutal efficiency. Resistance, in that case, can be framed as a matter of rejecting the stark, inhuman machine logic of progress and regiment. You can fight the power by slouching, loosening your tie, and maybe singing a song or two with feeling.

It’s hard to look at resurgent fascism, with its clown car of Steve Bannon's, Tucker Carlson's, and Putin's, and come to the conclusion that the danger we’re facing is an excess of efficiency and consistency. Right-wing nationalists cheerfully abandon rudimentary logic for sprawling conspiracy theories and barely coherent moral panics over fentanyl. You can’t shame them by pointing out that their leader isn’t who they thought he was.

Obviously, it’s an hour-long television show. They need to wrap up world-threatening menaces in 50 minutes. There are going to be a certain number of plot contrivances.

The idea that you can debate fascists into defeat using their own logic, though, comes across as especially naïve and ill-considered right now. Contra Nomad, the logic of genocide isn’t really logical. It’s just hate. There’s not much point in arguing with that.

Rating: 7.3/10 SPECS

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.