“The Enemy Within” was the fifth episode filmed for Star Trek: The Original Series, and only the third after it was greenlit, but it’s the first Star Trek episode that truly feels like Star Trek. The characters are all in place, the world is firmly established and the performances are what we came to expect from the Original Series. We mean this in both good and bad ways, since “Enemy” is the first episode where Shatner really goes off the rails in terms of his performance, but somehow in his scenery chewing he establishes everything audiences would come to love and hate about the William Shatner school of acting. This episode also strikes the right tone for Trek – not serious and dour like “Mudd’s Women”, nor a military exercise straight out of 1950s sci fi like “The Corbomite Maneuver”. Instead, there’s an elevated sense of camp and of unreality in play here that defines the tone and spirit of TOS.
Although it’s a bit “on the nose” in its themes — Kirk is split into “good” and “evil” versions of himself in a transporter accident and the rest of the crew has to find a way to put him back together — this episode boasts an impressive science fiction pedigree. Richard Matheson was a respected science fiction veteran, having written many novels, including the influential I Am Legend, and several important episodes of The Twilight Zone. This was his only episode of Star Trek, but he was in good company. Gene Roddenberry appears to have tried to emulate Rod Serling in the first season by inviting the top names in science fiction literature to contribute script and story ideas, and many, most notably Harlan Ellison, stepped up with great scripts. “The Enemy Within” is, frankly, not a masterpiece, but it does have that strange Twilight Zone quality about it which was so important in creating the tone of Star Trek.
Before getting to Shatner’s performance, we should mention that there are at least two other interesting things going on in this episode, namely the use of Sulu and the invention of a Star Trek hallmark. Sulu, freed from the helm of the ship, where his character functions essentially as a piece of technology (“Warp Two, sir”; “Phasers locked”, etc.) gets to actually play some drama here. Sulu and another crewman are stranded on the planet the Enterprise is exploring when the transporter malfunctions, with a cold night closing in. They try to beam down blankets and portable heating units to the men, and while the blankets make it through, the heating units “duplicate” and are rendered useless. Sulu has to put on a brave face and shiver through increasingly desperate circumstances, keeping up the “Right Stuff” sense of gallows humour throughout. It’s good to be reminded that Sulu is a hotshot Navy pilot, after all, and no one who would sign up for a five year mission in deep space lacks for courage. It’s also interesting to note here, for the record, that Sulu was a remarkable character because, like Uhura, he was played with no regard for his race. George Takei wasn’t asked to do a Japanese accent, didn’t specifically mention his heritage (like, for example, telling some sort of story about his grandmother’s recipe for an ethnic dish) and plays Sulu as 100% American. It was all part of Roddenberry’s vision of a world in which racial differences are basically ignored in the interests of presenting a united face representing earth, in all its diversity.
The other lasting innovation of this episode comes at the climax, when the two Kirks have their inevitable fistfight on the Engineering deck. It’s Spock who intervenes to bring the conflict to a close, employing a fighting tactic known as the “Vulcan Neck Pinch”, used here for the first time. Shatner’s scream of agony as Spock grips his neck is a bit over the top, to say the least, and future instances of the neck pinch wouldn’t solicit such a response (indeed — this was a tool mostly used in stealth), but still, the precedent was set that Spock has unique and effective physical powers that, when harnessed, make him a formidable weapon.
The crux of this episode, however, concerns the character of James T. Kirk, and we’ve already seen how central he and his struggles are to whatever artistic point Star Trek is trying to make. In this case, having been split literally into two morally opposed halves, the message is that Kirk draws his strength and his command ability from his “evil” side, with all its selfishness, sadism and aggression. The kind, gentle side of Kirk is literally unable to function as Captain because he can’t make the tough choices. As Gary Mitchell noted back in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, command can’t be mixed with compassion. Or, at least, it can’t be mixed with too much compassion. In the case of Kirk, overlooking Shatner’s extreme performance, we have a fascinating glimpse into how two sides of a personality contribute to what makes that personality effective. Kirk is a good Captain — even a great Captain — but he’s only that way because lurking inside of him is a sadistic drunken rapist. That’s a bold and interesting notion upon which to rest an hour of television, especially in 1966. Today, shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad spin whole series exploring the shady morality of an antihero, but Star Trek got there first, in its way.
What holds this episode back from achieving undisputed greatness is the “largeness” of Shatner’s performance. As an audience, we can see what the actor was trying to do, namely create contrast between his two sides, so there was never any doubt about which was on the screen at any given time. His “good” Kirk is fey and soft-spoken, and his “evil” Kirk literally growls at the camera, wearing heavy makeup. It’s not subtle, and one wonders how much of this was Shatner’s acting impulses and how much was up to the director, Leo Penn. (Interesting side note – Leo Penn is actually the father of Sean Penn, Chris Penn and producer/musician Michael Penn.) In this case, one wishes Penn took a firmer hand with Shatner, and urged him to tone it down a bit. Directing William Shatner takes some finesse, and as Nicholas Meyer later learned, the key to getting a great performance from him is to make him do many, many takes. On the first take, Shatner always swings for the fences and puts on a big “show”. But after six or seven takes, he gets bored, underplays and finally gives a naturalistic performance because he isn’t trying anymore. There’s time for that when shooting a movie, but on television, especially in the sixties, directors were measured according to their ability to crank out as many scenes per day as possible, so there were no doubt a lot of “first takes” used. Sometimes that works well, especially if the actors are prepared (and no one ever questioned the professionalism of the Star Trek cast: these people knew their lines and came to the set ready to work). But here, it gives Shatner enough rope to hang himself, and frankly almost hangs the whole episode.
The next episode, “The Man Trap”, was actually the first one aired, and it was one of the oddest debut episodes in the history of television, perhaps reflecting NBC’s lack of understanding about what kind of show they had bought when they picked up Star Trek.