Monday, June 1, 2009

Star Trek--"The Changeling"

Ask anyone who has collected comic books for any considerable period of time what his favorite Back of the Closet Comic is. He will quickly rattle off at least one comic for which there is nothing special about. The creators are probably not stars. It is not an first issue, anniversary issue, or an event issue of any kind. Yet this comic is one of his absolute favorites even if no one else cares about it. I own a handful of comics like that. “The Changeling’ qualifies as the closest thing TOS came to as a Back of the Closet Comic for me.

I am sure there are plenty of people out there who like this episode, but rarely does it show up on any best lists that I have encountered. I suppose I can understand that. There are major flaws in the story: f NOMAD shot the Enterprise with the equivalent of fifty photon torpedoes, why were the shields only 80% damaged? How did NOMAD merge with Tan Ru when it collided rather than be destroyed? How did Uhura reeducate herself so quickly after NOMAD wiped her mind? But I do not not care. I love this episode.

The Enterprise responds to a distress signal only to find all life in the sector wiped out. It is then brutally attacked by NOMAD, an old earth probe that has altered its peaceful mission of gathering knowledge after colliding with an alien probe, Tan Ru, to one in which it kills all imperfect life it encounters. The only thing that stops it is the belief Kirk is its creator, Jackson Roykirk.

Like the salt vampire in “The Man Trap,” I recall NOMAD scaring the heck out of me as a small child. It started me on a long fascination with doomsdayy devices both in science fiction and the real world that still persists. Am I hooked on everything from Cold war propaganda films, to Gort from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, to War Games, to Terminator and even nutty conspiracy theories involving super computers poised to take over the world, the idea that a merciless machine will someday decide to kick humanity’s collective behind has been thrilling. That is probably why I am willing to overlook “The Changeling’s” flaws.

It is a sadistic factoid, but “The Changeling” features the highest body count in science fiction television. Four billion people were killed by NOMAD that we know of. Kirk unwisely assigns two red shirts to guard it as though no one could ever figure out those poor guys were not long for the mortal world. Once NOMAD wipes Uhura’s mind and temporarily kills Scotty, it is clear it will eventually destroy everyone on board the Enterprise whether it believes Kirk is its creator or not.

Kirk demonstrates his extraordinary ability to talk a computer to death when he reveals he is not Roykirk. NOMAD has made a mistake and is therefore imperfect. The realization causes NOMAD to pop a gasket. While working out the contradiction of believing it is perfect and the realization it is not. Kirk and Spock beam it off the Enterprise before he can fulfill his mission to destroy imperfect life by self-destructing.

Kirk will talk a computer to death on two more occasions. Star Trek: The Motion Picture will revisit the idea of an Earth probe gaining intelligence. But two other really bad imitators have emerged in pop culture worth mentioning. The first is the final scenes of the truly awful Dark Star where an astronaut argues self-existence intelligent bomb to convince it its orders to explode where misheard. If the astronaut had only seen "The Changeling,” he would have known it would explode even if he won that argument. The other is a sordid tale about Jackson Roykirk as a villain in an episode of Team Knight Rider in 1998. I cannot bring myself to talk about the crossover. Check it our here, if you must.

Rating: **** (out of 5) .

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