“The Tholian Web”
Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 3, Episode 9
“The Tholian Web” is an interesting entry, for it sidelines Kirk for the majority of its runtime to provide a character study/conflict for (you guessed it) Spock and McCoy. As it’s been observed often, there’s a metaphorical aspect to the triumvirate of Kirk-Spock-McCoy that relates to the psychoanalaytic theory of the Ego-Super Ego-Id. Spock represents the logical and rational part of the mind, McCoy the emotional, and Kirk as the moderating force that channels both of them. With Kirk gone, the episode mines the resulting imbalance for drama during a ship-threatening crisis.
The episode begins (as many Original Series ones do) with the crew staring in bewilderment at the viewscreen as they approach something. What they’re approaching is the last known position of the USS Defiant, which mysteriously disappeared three weeks earlier. Sensors don’t detect it in the vicinity, but on the viewscreen the ship appears with a strange green glow and flickering appearance. Mystery!
There are many aspects of the episode that would make it a potential installment in Spooky Trek, but it doesn’t quite venture into horror territory. It has the setup for one, but veers off into more traditional interpersonal character drama and high stakes. I wish it had stuck with its initial tone, because it’s effectively creepy. The weird green glow of the Defiant and its sensory impermanence create some instant weirdness, and it gives the sense that this is a haunted ghost ship. Awesome!
Adding to that, the away team to the Defiant (garbed in EVA suits, interestingly) finds the entire crew dead, many of them with their hands at each other’s throats. Others are strapped to sickbay beds, apparently to protect others from them (or to protect them from themselves). Kirk and the away team are clearly horrified by what’s transpired, and wonder if it could have been a widespread mutiny. While checking out Engineering, Chekov experiences some sudden dizziness. And even weirder, McCoy finds a flickering dead body that he’s able to pass his hand through. The ship seems to be dissolving, phasing out of our reality. Creepy!
Kirk doesn’t want to take any chances with whatever’s going on, and immediately calls for beam out. Unfortunately, whatever is affecting the Defiant is starting to mess up the Enterprise’s systems, including the transporter. Scott isn’t able to beam everyone off at once, and a self-sacrificing Kirk volunteers everyone else first. It’s a noble gesture, and I appreciate his immediate concern for his men over his own.
Scott is able to bring everyone else back to the Enterprise, but when attempting to beam Kirk back, the Defiant disappears for good, taking the Captain with it. Spock has come to the conclusion that they’re witnessing an interphase event, in which parallel universes/realities are briefly intersecting with one another and objects can move between them. It’s a sophisticated but easy to understand concept, and gels with later Trek iterations of the multiverse. Spock somehow determines that the next interphase event will occur in two hours, at which point they may be able to rescue Kirk again. But because of the instability of the area of space, the Enterprise can’t do anything to disturb it, even moving.
While Spock is explaining this, Chekov suddenly loses his goddamned mind and attacks Spock. As with his earlier dizzy spell, the camera switches to a distorted first-person perspective. It’s a simple but effective cinematography choice that communicates the loss of mental equilibrium going on. Spock subdues the rowdy Russian, and McCoy is convinced that the Defiant‘s crew was affected by the spatial instability. Remaining in the area will eventually cause the same widespread madness and McCoy urges Spock to move the Enterprise away. Kirk’s suit only has a few hours of breathable air left, so Spock is insistent on retrieving him soon.
Things go awry when an alien ship approaches, identifying itself as Tholian and claiming this space as theirs. Spock calmly denies their claim as it is open space and explains they’re attempting a rescue attempt, interphase event, ship trapped between universes, yadda yadda. He urges the Tholian to give them 1 hour and 53 minutes to complete their rescue, to which they agree.
But of course things don’t go as planned, and the Defiant fails to reappear as Spock predicted. He surmises that the approach of the Tholian ship disrupted space enough to throw everything off. The Tholians demonstrate their strict adherence to punctuality by firing on the Enterprise. Hesitantly, Spock returns fire enough to repel the Tholians. But the damage to Enterprise is severe, and they’re unable to move on their own power. Soon another Tholian ship approaches and the two start to weave a strange energy web around the Enterprise.
Spock holds a memorial for Kirk with the gathered crew. It’s kind of odd, given the immediate crisis at hand. This seems like the kind of thing that could possibly wait until they’re free from the Tholians and this unstable area of space? Spock urges McCoy to return to sickbay to work on a cure for the Space Madness, who defiantly (heh) refuses. If anything, Spock seems like someone who would not put much stock in the emotional aspect of command and forego such a ceremony. So it’s a little confused as a plot point, but whatever.
Having given up hope for getting Kirk back, Spock recounts the events that led up to this and definitively states that Kirk is no longer alive. This is also a little strange, since Spock can’t really know that – especially since Kirk still has air in his tank, wherever he is. And of course, we the viewers know that Kirk can’t be dead, because… ya know. One of the crewmembers FREAKS OUT and has to be restrained. The mental instability of the crew is definitely increasing and time is running out.
In private, McCoy criticizes Spock for returning fire on the Tholians and dooming the ship in the process. Spock responds that it was the only logical course of action in the moment since they weren’t responding otherwise. Ornery as always, McCoy even accuses Spock of using the situation as a way to usurp command of the ship. It’s not great. I mean, Spock is the one who wanted to hang around in this dangerous area of space long enough to rescue Kirk – against the urging of McCoy who wanted to get the hell out of there! How short is your memory, pal? It’s kind of nonsensical.
Kirk has left behind a convenient message for Spock and McCoy that is to be played in the event of his death. In it, he urges the two of them to not be such knuckleheads and listen to and support one another in what is surely a difficult time. It seems to strike a chord with both of them, and McCoy at least apologizes for challenging Spock. Even in death, Kirk acts as the moderating force to unite these two disparate regions of their metaphorical mind. Spock’s reaction is cute, as he says: “I’m sure the captain would simply have said: ‘Forget it, Bones’.”
In her quarters, Uhura is relaxing in her civvies (again, the timing is a little strange seeing as how certain death is imminent), when she sees a spectral vision of Kirk in her mirror. He’s still in his EVA suit and soon disappears. She stumbles out of her quarters and comes upon McCoy, who she tells about her strange vision. He assumes she’s just got the ol’ Space Madness, and to be fair, she is acting kinda nutty here. But it’s not long before she’s strapped to a bed near the screaming, berserk Chekov. Uh, not great!
But on the bridge, Spock, Scott, and McCoy see the apparition of Kirk before he disappears again. McCoy then releases Uhura, realizing she wasn’t crazy. The subtext of not believing a woman is of course unfortunate, but sadly realistic. As it turns out, Kirk was kind of beamed aboard earlier, but out of phase with our reality. Still, it’s a vindication for her and she’s grateful that she hasn’t lost her mind.
McCoy has synthesized an oral antidote to the Space Madness in the form of a boozy drink and administers it to the crew. Spock has calculated when Kirk might reappear just as the Tholians spring the final phase of their trap. With some precise timing, Spock is able to beam Kirk aboard while getting the Enterprise blown several parsecs clear of their position and out of danger (while passing between universes through a black void in the process). How this all happens is pretty sudden and the details are a little blurry, but all you need to know is Spock is a kick-ass captain and totally rules.
Back in the captain’s chair, Kirk is grateful to be back in his own universe again. He wonders if his recorded message was useful to Spock and McCoy in his absence, but they lie about having viewed it. It seems odd and silly that they would be too prideful to admit having watched it and learned something from it, but TOS could be a very silly show. Men!
“The Tholian Web” is one of The Original Series’ most iconic adventures. Its titular villain isn’t really the antagonist here, but rather the eternal struggle between the emotional Dr. McCoy and dispassionate Spock. The series presented an optimistic utopia, but it wasn’t a perfect world by any means. Conflicts with aliens usually served to spotlight the conflicts among humanity, but more importantly they displayed our ability to work together and overcome them by accepting all the competing forces within us.
- R.I.P. Nichelle Nichols. Probably the most pivotal Black science fiction icon of pop culture.
- Of course, the ultimate fate of the Defiant would be revealed decades later in a fun Star Trek: Enterprise two-parter – Tholians of the Mirror Universe intentionally created a gateway to an alternate reality and captured the futuristic Defiant. We even get to see an unfiltered view of a Tholian, which builds off the curious viewscreen visual here in a satisfying way.
- It’s not made clear here what the famed Tholian Web here actually does. Obviously, it’s not going to be anything good and anything spider-like is generally sinister and scary, but some specificity to the threat would have been useful. In “A Mirror Darkly, Part 1”, we see a group of Tholian ships quickly form a web around the ISS Enterprise and collapse it while blasting the shit out of the ship with their weapons. Here, the Enterprise is already immobilized, so trapping it seems superfluous. And they start applying a tractor field to it, which… I dunno? What are you guys trying to do here? This is approaching Dr. Evil territory… he’s right there, just shoot him!
- I love Uhura’s rotational vanity wall unit. Stylish and space-saving!
- Scotty’s retort to McCoy’s cure is a legitimate LOL moment.
- Captain Kirk is having a total pose-a-thon in the intro. It’s so great.
- As much of a purist as I am, I’m still generally fine with the remastered visuals of The Original Series. But the redesigned Tholian ship is a big misfire, in my opinion. I loved the sleek and non-detailed original version of the quirky vessel. It looks weird and alien in the best ways. The additional details in the remaster just detract from its iconic design and is more for the sake of more while ultimately being less.
- I never get enough of how well shot and visually awesome this show is. Say what you will about its production values, but it was always a beaut: