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Mad Captains are a recurring problem in the Final Frontier. Sometimes Star Fleet training fails to uncover hidden personality flaws. Others go mad when they lose their command. Because the episode is so strong I’ve opted to start this series with Commodore Matt Decker from the episode ‘The Doomsday Machine”
This memorable, classic episode opens with the Enterprise discovering the Constellation, a sister ship, wrecked and dead in a freshly pulverized solar system. Its action packed and tension filled. It’s probably one of the best episodes of all as far as minimally moralistic pure trek escapism. It also features a unique and legitimately effective ‘monster’ in the form of the Doomsday Machine.
Its a season two episode and opens with Kirk, in his alternate Green shirt, dealing with the apparent B crew on the bridge as almost no one of importance but Spock is on duty. Uhura is noticeably absent. Sulu is at the helm though like a workaholic who won’t take a day off.
Kirk’s defenses are up as the lifeless Constellation floats devastated in space displayed on Enterprise main viewer. In an analytical mode, Kirk is giving orders and roaming from station to station assessing the situation. Finally, looking at the Constellation’s damage up close Kirk says what everyone is thinking; “She’s been attacked!”, he orders Red Alert.
At this point I need to point out what watching Original Series Star Trek is like now. The outer space shots and exteriors have been enhanced with Computer Generated Images. The model of the ship gets a slick CGI paint job. Sometimes the ship is pure CGI. On Netflix the enhanced special effects are amusing. I’m ok with them. Not everything’s been changed and the added component is that the original Foley art is still there. The crippled Constellation looks great floating through the remains of the stricken solar system. This episode is probably 2 or 3 minutes longer than its original run time as the expanded battle sequences now take place more on the outside of the ships and features real effects as opposed to mostly using crew reactions (people thrown around the bridge,etc) to portray the action.
Beaming over with Scotty, McCoy and some red shirts Kirk leaves Spock in command of the Enterprise. The Constellation is a mess inside, with the engine room in shambles. Fortunately Scotty has a few tricks up his sleeve to revive some of the ships systems.
In the auxiliary control room, equally as shattered as the Constellation, is the ships captain, Commodore Matt Decker.
After McCoy shoots him up with some space drugs he gets it together enough to emotionally relate his ships fate. What he tells Kirk is deeply unsettling.
An enormous robotic space monster, which survives by destroying and absorbing entire planets, had engaged and bested the Constellation in a one-sided battle. On Decker’s orders the crew abandoned ship as he valiantly stayed behind making sure all escaped to a nearby planet, only to hear their desperate cries as the entity destroyed that planet, killing all. He had come to and passed a moment where he was prepared to die without actually getting killed. He’s contemptuous of his borrowed time and longs for death or heroic redemption like a dishonored Klingon.
Faced with this beyond unthinkable fate Decker cracks and becomes vegetative until the landing party finds him. It’s a sad state of affairs for a man so accomplished. Decker is not a mere captain but a commodore. In the Star Fleet world apparently Commodore is a senior, more empowered captain rather than the outright commander of multiple ships, although he nominally is in command of both the Enterprise and the reanimated Constellation for a few moments.
Played by William Windham, Decker is portrayed as being as forceful and dramatic as Kirk. The acting styles are similar but they have strange chemistry. Kirk is short-tempered with the disoriented Decker early on despite some knowledge of his ordeal. One too many captains is obviously going to be an issue from the start.
Despite personal friendship, Kirk, as usual, doesn’t bother playing games. He mercilessly ramrods Decker for information, after all there’s a wrecked starship and dead crew to account for. He gets a pretty good idea of what happened from the unshaven, unkempt skid row drunk looking Decker before McCoy finally reins him in.
Windham scenery chews his way through the episode, but in a great Star Trek-like way. He plays Decker as a broken and now very violent man with grandiose self-confidence. He is deeply and overtly angry at himself and feels he is culpable for the loss of his crew. Self loathing doesn’t stop his alpha Star Fleet captain personality though as he soon starts to work toward his own agenda.
Speaking with Kirk on the Constellation Decker passes quickly through the stages of grief and is fast arguing about the need to destroy the robot, referred to as ‘The Doomsday Machine” or the “Planet Killer” for the rest of the episode. Obligingly, the fantastic robotic de facto Death Star shows up while some of the landing party, including Decker and McCoy, are in mid beam back to the Enterprise, and attacks. While the first wave arrives safely the transporter is knocked out in a raucous battle.
The Doomsday Machine/ Planet Killer is an enormous cone shaped robotic weapon. When it needs fuel it destroys planets and sucks the rubble into its maw, which is about as big as a small moon, “miles wide!” as Decker describes it. Its made of exotic metal, “solid neutronium!”, many, many meters thick, making it immune to phaser blasts.
The Artificial Intelligence it possesses is described by Spock as maintaining a defensive sphere inside which any energy source is attacked. By leaving its proximity you can trigger the Planet Killers reflex to return to feeding/ travelling mode. Using this strategy Spock escapes major damage to the Enterprise and plans an intercept course with Constellation that will keep them clear of the Planet Killers defensive perimeter. This doesn’t sit well with Decker who starts to pull rank and influence operations. Tensions on the bridge are high and rising.
Kirk, after some consultation with Spock and analysis of the Constellations log, has
surmised that the Planet Killer was a Super Weapon of Beyond Mass Destruction built as a bluff in a long ago conflict (the Planet Killer looks beat up as Hell). In a leap of faith he further deduces it’s so inconceivably awful that it was likely never intended for use but rather something akin to our 20th century Cold War ‘Nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction” policy (building enormously powerful weapons in the hopes that mutually assured destruction would ensure peace). It weaves seamlessly into the plot without overwhelming it. Kirk further theorizes the race that built it is likely extinct but their creation simply will move on destroying til stopped. Analysis confirms its destination is a heavily populated region of the Federation.
The Planet Killer is like the shark from jaws, and the episode is like Jaws in some ways. For one thing, they need a bigger boat, the Enterprise is presumably identical to the Constellation, which couldn’t have fared worse against the Planet Killer. Commodore Decker, like Captain Quint, is undeterred and commits everything to destroying his adversary.
The newly resolute Commodore Decker / Captain Quint, is unreasonably and heavily driven to destroy the shark/planet killer immediately when there’s several rational options available as well as the imperative to clear the subspace interference generated by the Planet Killer and warn the Federation of the threat. Clearly Enterprise is no match for the Planet Killer whereas Star Fleet could deploy a task force capable of dealing with the situation far better with an assured favorable outcome. Every passing minute Decker’s getting it more together and refocusing himself after arriving on Enterprise. He doesn’t bother to groom in any way though, unshaven with mad scientist hair, he’s the picture of crazy in his soiled Star Fleet uniform.
On the now somewhat less crippled Constellation Kirk and the remaining skeleton crew are cut off from ship to ship communication with the Enterprise. The blinded Constellation will need a few more minutes to be of any use. Those aboard redouble their efforts to breathe some life into the hulk and have any clue whats going on.
Meanwhile on the Enterprise it doesn’t take too long for Decker, who is now progressively becoming every obsessed captain ever rolled into one, to take exception to Spock’s actions following the attack by the Planet Killer. In an acting / directing flourish and possible homage to “The Caine Mutiny” he fusses with data tapes between his fingers just as Bogart’s Lt Commander Queeg would jiggle ball bearings while acting insane and giving impossible, possibly illegal orders.
After the immediate danger of the initial attack on Enterprise abates Decker makes a bid to take command. Showing he’s still got the killer instinct that made him a captain in the first place, he deftly breaks a coalition of Spock and McCoy by using Star Fleet regulations to achieve his goal, albeit on the merest of pretexts.
Now in full douchebag mode an increasingly and dangerously overconfident Decker orders a full on attack. As the crew hesitates Decker deals with the reluctance by citing regulations and old fashioned upbraiding of anyone who voices doubt or dissent. Spock makes a last ditch attempt to appeal to reason, backed by a fired up McCoy who may be considering
more space drugs to solve the problem (always his first option) and who has surely drank that day.
McCoy in particular is keenly aware that Decker is currently incompetent and needs months of therapy and treatment before any decisions on his command ability are made. Decker may in fact have some blame for his ships destruction. His aggression may have enhanced the level of carnage. Spock had proven tactical retreat would eventually cause the Planet Killer to disengage, something that seems to have been overlooked by Decker. Also, once his ship lost power the Planet Killer returned to feeding. While abandoning ship seemed reasonable it was an unavoidable death sentence for the crew accidentally imposed by their captain. Had they stayed aboard their crippled ship they would have been safe
when the Planet Killer moved off. Decker couldn’t have known but is deeply traumatized and unbalanced by the consequences of his actions. he’s learned nothing. McCoy had also seen Decker’s emotional state in the first moments after they found him. Like Kirk he’s short and sharp with Decker and shows minimal military discipline.(he’s a doctor, not a soldier, dammit!). In something that would be a big deal in any military he shouts right at Decker that he’s wrong. It’s a great moment. Spock remains disciplined and retains his military bearing but clearly is looking to get Decker out of the command chair and into a straight jacket. In the end regulations prevail and Decker has command.
Decker prepares for another attack despite objections. Several more pertinent facts are presented that merely annoy Decker, who is flaunting his commodore status. He arrogantly throws McCoy off the bridge when the later refuses to back down and respect the legitimacy of his command, continuing to engage in severe and caustic verbal jousting even after Decker’s put Spock in momentary check. Bones certifies Decker insane, which Spock informs him can’t be done without a full medical examination. Decker prevails and relaxes in the command chair, preening. McCoy heads to sickbay to get a hit of Romulan ale and put his balls in a bucket of ice. It’s a great McCoy blow up all the better as he is completely right and not in the least bit illogical despite his emotions getting the better of him.
It’s some of the best acting DeForrest Kelly does in the entire series and Nimoy is brilliant
as well. Windham holds up his end and is highly convincing in some challenging acting situations.
Decker gathers a quick situation analysis and (surprise) opts for a full on no holds barred attack on the Planet Killer. The New Netflix edition offers a decent visual battle that I enjoyed. Several phaser runs fail to damage the monster. Decker, Patton-like and delusional, continues to order all out attack, steadily losing the confidence of the crew.
The attack occurs as Kirk has almost fixed the view screen in the auxiliary control room of the Constellation. The Enterprise makes several full on phaser strafing runs with no effect. On the Enterprise bridge Spock is advocating against continuing the attack but Decker wont hear of it. The bridge crew is increasingly hesitant to follow his orders and look to Spock for validation.
This time the Enterprise is heavily damaged and takes many casualties. After beating on the ship for a few minutes the Planet Killer grabs Enterprise in a tractor beam and starts pulling it towards its maw. About this time the Constellations viewer is restored to working order and a horrified Kirk is witness to the rest of the battle.
Spock informs Decker the ship needs to immediately start evasive action or be pulled into the Planet Eaters maw where it will be completely destroyed. Decker reacts with anger and tries to continue the attack. Time starts to run out as the ships power can only escape the tractor beam within a limited window. Decker finally takes Spocks advice but its already too late, the Enterprise is caught firmly in the tractor beam and on its way to being sucked in and destroyed.
Kirk and Scotty rescue the Enterprise by attacking with the now semi resurrected Constellations’s one recharged phaser. Faced with two targets the Planet Killer changes tactics by releasing the Enterprise and going after the weaker ship first. Together the two Federation vessels engage in a well presented (in the updated version), very watchable battle with the Planet Killer. The combined attack confuses the Planet Killer and it opts to move off and begin feeding off the destroyed planets rubble to build up its reserves for another attack. The Planet Killer’s Artificial Intelligence seems to have its limits. Kirk and Decker are able to manipulate the encounter to their advantage to buy time. Both ships will need every minute to repair their multiple failing systems.
As the Planet Killer moves off ship to ship communications are reestablished. Kirk, brimming with raw anger is stunned to hear Decker answering his hails to the
Enterprise and launches into a verbal attack on Decker the entire bridge crew hears. He tries to relieve Decker, who cites regulation. Kirk, with maybe his best hair in any episode, is outright pissed and stands by his declaration that Decker relinquish command. He orders Spock, on his own authority, to ignore regulations and remove Decker, who is advocating for another attack. Spock knows they have deferred to Decker long enough. “I don’t recognize you’re authority to relieve me,” Decker snarks when Spock makes his move. It doesn’t matter. The crew, having heard their own captain call Decker an insane idiot, backs Spock and Decker is removed under guard to sick bay where an angry and possibly drunk McCoy will surely certify him insane as soon as he gets done treating the massive casualties Decker’s attack caused. Spock takes command of the Enterprise with Kirk in overall command from Constellation.
Getting off the turbolift under guard on his way to sick bay, Decker has other plans and in a fit of full crazy super strength has a one of the better Star Trek fights with something we rarely see, a young, fit red shirt. Super insane and maybe still high on McCoys stimulants, he devastates the red shirt and stashes him, unconscious in some closet. Wild eyed, he knows the layout of a Constitution Class Star Ship and stalks off to commandeer a shuttle craft. While he’s on his way there Kirk and Spock coordinate and plan their next step, to meet outside the Planet Killers defensive perimeter.
The Constellation, while still a mess, is moving and has some defensive capacity with more systems coming back on-line by the minute as repairs continue.
It’s this moment that Decker out-crazy’s most Mad Captain’s in the Final Frontier and goes for broke, a suicide run with the shuttle into the creatures maw where he hopes to hurt it enough to slow it down or kill it. More than anything else he’s morose and feels unworthy of life. He’s Ahab alone in a whaleboat on a Nantucket Sleigh Ride into oblivion against his own whit whale. He answers Enterprises hail and converses with Spock and Kirk. He states he has failed in his duties and should have died with his crew. He’s firmly suicidal, ignoring logical assertions from Spock as well as Kirk’s emotional plea “We’re stronger with you than without!” The shuttlecraft enters the Planet Killer and explodes. It seems a pointless suicide.
Immediately it becomes clear that the Shuttlecraft’s explosion had a small but measurable effect on the Planet Killer. “Maybe Matt Decker didn’t die for nothing” Kirk declares and forms a plan. By rigging the Constellation’s engines to explode on a 30 second timer he can guide it into the Planet Killers maw and destroy it with the over 97 megaton explosion that would result. He’s informed the transporter only kind of works but still opts for the ‘calculated risk’, hedging his bet by sending Scotty, the best person to deal with the Enterprises transporter, back first just in case. This is a master stroke as Scotty with some help from Spock, manages to get the transporter working just in time to beam Kirk off the rapidly disintegrating auxiliary bridge of the Constellation.
Kirk’s plan works brilliantly and the explosion kills the Doomsday Machine by blowing it up from the inside.
After finally reaching the bridge he and Spock reflect on 20th Century humans and their folly in the use and proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, noting that Decker’s suicide was instrumental in defeating the machine. The Enterprise changes course and limps back into Federation Space where full repairs can be made.
As far as Crazy Star Fleet Captains go Decker comes off better than most. He’s one of the first we see. He’s much more honorable than Captain Tracey in ‘The Omega Glory” He doesn’t violate the Prime Directive. He doesn’t harm anyone intentionally. Although he loses a starship due to his impetuous nature, aggression was not in itself a mistake. His real mistake is neglecting to inform Star Fleet of the threat, leaving the Enterprise to wander in blind. Definitely an error in judgement. He’s obsessed with the immediate destruction of the Planet Killer over all other concerns. Decker never seriously considers any strategy other than relentless attack. He runs a gamut of emotions but remains suicidal throughout the episode, appearing pathetic at some times and impressive in others. His kamikaze suicide is accidentally relevant and he is listed “Killed in the Line of Duty”. He ends up being remembered well and his son eventually captains the Enterprise by the time of the events of Star Trek The Motion Picture take place.
In the end a good script, strong direction and a simple but riveting narrative make this a great episode with a great Mad captain, unique in being benevolent rather than a mad dog killer.