“Dagger of the Mind” (which aired almost exactly 50 years ago, on November 3, 1966) is one of a few episodes of the original Star Trek to deal with psychology. Obviously, Gene Roddenberry had a fascination with the workings of the human mind, going right back to his first pilot, “The Cage”, which was about reality and illusion, mixed with sexual temptation. “Dagger”, written by TV veteran Shimon Wincelberg (under the pen name “S. Bar-David”) concerns a psychiatrist who has discovered a new technology that he believes to be the panacea for all psychological ills and could solve many of humanity’s problems with mental illness. The scenario is more than a little similar to the previous episode produced, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, but here, the show avoids the cheap sets and shaky performances and delivers a truly adult take on this issue.
“Adult” is the key word here. There’s nothing “kid friendly” about this outing. There are references to one of Kirk’s affairs at the ship’s Christmas party (not unlike the legendary Christmas office parties depicted years later on Mad Men), truly horrifying psychological experimentation, grown-up romance and real discussion of issues around illness, health, power and control. Lest we think that the notion of a rogue psychiatrist taking advantage of his patients through over medication and suggestion is just science fiction, have a look at Dr. Eugene Landy, the man who both saved and almost destroyed the mind of Brian Wilson. Here, Dr. Tristan Adams (played wonderfully by James Gregory) is genial, kind, scientific and completely insane – a wonderful villain of the week for Kirk, who is himself subjected to some fairly horrific mental torture here.
Adams runs the penal colony Tantalus V, sort of the Trek equivalent of Arkham Asylum. It’s here that the criminally insane receive treatment, and the Enterprise is simply stopping to deliver supplies and pick up cargo from the colony. Kirk has glowing words for Adams as he discusses modern psychiatric treatment with a skeptical Dr. McCoy, who, in keeping with his character, prefers the old-fashioned approach of light medication and lots of cognitive psychotherapy. Adams’ revolutionary new approach is mysterious, but seems to be getting good results. One of the cargo crates beamed up to the ship from the colony contains a stowaway, a menacing-looking feral man, who causes much commotion before being captured and confined to sickbay. It turns out that this is Dr. Simon van Gelder, who used to be Adam’s assistant, but has now gone insane. To remember any of the truth of what happened at that colony, even to remember his own name, causes him excruciating pain. It takes a mind meld from Spock (the first time that technique was ever depicted on Trek in any form) to get to the truth. Adams has developed a machine called a “neuralizer”, which allows him to wipe memories, plant suggestions and even completely empty a human mind, filling it up with whatever thoughts he chooses. This gives him complete and utter control over whatever patient (or staff member) comes under his charge. Adams himself drove van Gelder insane in an attempt to control him. Kirk and his lady of the week, Dr. Noel (Marianna Hill), finally outwit Adams and re-take the colony, but not before Kirk is subjected to the device himself and has a deep love for Noel implanted in it. (Noel, by the way, was originally supposed to be Janice Rand, but this is one of those episodes written during the period when the producers were phasing out the Rand character and Grace Lee Whitney, and Noel is a last-minute re-write. It’s Hill’s wonderful performance that makes the transition seamless. She plays a strong, smart, clever, resourceful character that frankly, it would have been good to see again on Star Trek.)
The first, and most important criticism of this episode in terms of its plot and logic stems from Kirk’s volunteering to step into the neuralizer room one night, with Dr. Noel at the controls. Showrunner Robert Justman protested this, as did others during the writing of the episode, claiming it made Kirk look like he took foolish and stupid risks. In retrospect, it does seem that Kirk could have avoided the device, but at the same time, Kirk was not about to put one of his crewmembers in that machine in his stead, and Noel was a trained psychiatrist, so it is reasonable to assume that she could operate the device with competence. It’s slightly problematic, but in the context of the episode it seems like a prudent decision, and one that Kirk the “man of action” would take.
Another critique of this episode is the performance of Morgan Woodward as van Gelder. A veteran stage actor, Woodward had the deep, resonant voice of the contemporary Shakespearean stage working for him, but he has been accused of going well over the top in his wild-eyed, sweaty, twitchy portrayal of a brilliant scientist with a ravaged mind. Woodward, for his part, put himself in the hands of his old friend Vincent McEveety, the episode’s director, looking to him to say, “Bring it down,’ and would have happily done so, but the direction never came. McEveety let Woodward go as far as he could, and director and actor trusted each other’s instincts. The performance is quite “big”, there’s no question, but it’s hardly incompetent. Woodward has authority and commitment, and during the mind meld sequence, he modulates appropriately and brings his performance down to something less than a fever pitch. (Woodward, by the way, was middle-aged when this episode aired 50 years ago and is still alive and kicking, living on his ranch and riding horses at the ripe age of 91.)
In terms of theme, Roddenberry’s positive vision of the future is on full display here, with Kirk’s faith in psychiatric innovations that could make treatment of mental illness more humane. But this is undercut with the cautionary tale that there are still scientists in the galaxy who lack a comfortable moral centre. Roddenberry believed in humanity as a whole, but still allowed for individuals to be bad apples. For a show to even discuss mental illness in quasi-serious terms was a positive and fairly rare thing at the time, so the episode must be commended for that as well.
But finally, “Dagger of the Mind” succeeds because of its horrifying core premise. We all value our minds, sometimes even more than our bodies, and the notion of someone being able to control them, to empty them, to affect changes to our mental patterns to suit their agenda, is a chilling one. Right back to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we’ve been cautioned about the puppet master masquerading as a benevolent father figure. This applies politically, socially, sexually and in terms of science and medicine. This episode goes directly to that place of primal fear. Kirk, sitting in the neuralizer chair, is at his most vulnerable here, and that lends the whole episode a power lacking in other, less challenging outings.