Star Trek is not Game of Thrones. No matter how much peril the main characters are placed in, we know that they’ll be out of it and safe by the end of the hour. That was one of the reasons the climax of The Wrath of Khan was so shocking – you don’t just kill a main character. That fact robs “The Galileo Seven” of some of its power, but if one can suspend disbelief about the stakes (or lack thereof), there’s much to enjoy in this character-oriented episode.
Trek got right down to business with character-focused episodes in the first season (“The Naked Time” is essentially all about the characters), but this episode really shone a spotlight on the Spock-McCoy relationship, and the nature of Spock’s character. The question of Spock is one that Star Trek returned to over and over again throughout all its incarnations. Even the recent (and quite good) Star Trek Beyond featured a prominent Spock subplot in which he contemplates his place in the universe and the true nature of his character. “The Galileo Seven”, therefore, is a truly seminal Star Trek episode, setting up character dynamics that would resonate for the next 50 years.
The plot itself cuts the supporting cast away from Kirk himself, sending Spock, McCoy, Scotty a four other crew members (who we meet for this episode only) to investigate a quasar formation using the shuttle “Galileo”. For a moment, it feels as if Star Trek will truly live up to the mission Kirk intones each episode over the credits – it’s pure exploration and the reason the ship out there in first place. (One could quibble about why exactly McCoy is essential for an astronomical observation mission – surely if medical staff were necessary, a lower-ranking physician or nurse could be spared – but that’s the price of admission on the show.) The problem for Kirk is that the Enterprise also has other duties, in this case delivering medical supplies to a plague-ridden Federation colony. The exploration of astronomical phenomena is a standing order, but assisting colonies is a special order. Kirk at first sees that he can have it both ways – a quick observation mission can be squeezed in as the ship is en route to the colony, a decision that irritates a Federation Commissioner accompanying the supplies. Commissioner Ferris, played by veteran writer/actor John Crawford, is a type that will turn up again in most incarnations of Star Trek. The “meddling politician/bureaucrat” reminds the audience that the Enterprise is part of a larger governing structure in the galaxy and not simply off on a joy ride. These characters can’t help but come across as an antagonist – the “Skyler White” of the show – but like that Breaking Bad character, audiences must admit that they almost always make good points. The plague is threatening the lives of thousands, but after the shuttlecraft is forced to crash land on an unexplored planet and is out of communication with the ship, Kirk devotes all of the resources of the Enterprise to finding his seven crew members, ignoring the increasingly urgent calls of the Commissioner. On the ethical scale, Kirk is probably in the wrong (I seem to recall a saying about “the needs of the many…”), but as an audience our sympathies are with our characters, not the dying colonists. (Imagine how different we, the audience, would feel if we were shown images of colonists suffering from some sort of horrible disease.) It’s an issue that becomes more problematic in retrospect. In any case, while stranded on the planet, Spock is in charge, and McCoy constantly challenges him to make decisions based on empathy and emotion rather than logic. McCoy accuses Spock of not “caring” about his crew, because he doesn’t express emotions, and argues that this essentially disqualifies him for command. The hostility McCoy expresses is a bit startling at first, but the tension between the two characters forms the essential emotional contours of the episode. For example, when a crew member is killed by a hostile native inhabitant, Spock resists McCoy’s demands for a memorial service, dismissing it as a waste of time. Eventually, Scotty manages to fix the shuttle’s engine and the shuttle manages to achieve orbit, but with no radio contact with the Enterprise, Spock has to ignite most of the shuttle’s remaining fuel like a signal flare to attract attention. The scheme works, and the Enterprise crew is reunited. (No word on the fate of the colonists.)
The questions McCoy raises here are of somewhat questionable significance, but really he’s just commenting on the differences in command style between Spock and Kirk. Imagine if the situation were reversed, and Kirk was on the shuttle mission, leaving Spock in charge. One might think, if the show was being entirely consistent with the nature of the character, Spock would have abandoned the crew members and proceeded to the colony, which would have been the logical thing to do. But then again, Spock has an interesting way of interpreting the logic of situations sometimes. In season two’s “The Doomsday Machine”, Spock finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being outranked on the bridge of the Enterprise by a mentally unstable Commodore. Unwilling to openly violate regulations, Spock nevertheless reaches for any way out of his situation, a move that seems to acknowledge some emotional investment on his part, or in other words, underneath his rule-following exterior, Spock does care. But there’s never any doubt that Kirk will do anything he can for his crew. His responsibility to his ship and his crew is always foremost in his mind, and his actions in this episode – he’s willing to risk the lives of thousands and defy order just to save seven people – are as good an example of that as anything else. (It is a bit odd that this episode ends with gales of laughter, given than one of the crew was brutally killed on the surface of an alien world, something that Kirk seems to overlook or forget by the end, neither for the first or last time.) The question of whether Kirk’s actions are morally justified would make a heck of a lesson topic in any applied ethics course (and it may indeed have already been used that way). It’s one of those issues that the longer it’s contemplated, the less clear-cut it becomes.
Of course, all of that discussion about leadership ethics hinges on the notion that the crew of the “Galileo” is actually in jeopardy, which as we mentioned above, requires a certain suspension of disbelief. But if one can make that leap, there’s much to think about in “The Galileo Seven”.
Many Trek fans know that there is a famous deleted shot in this episode that actually shows the face of the stone-age monsters that threaten the Galileo crew, removed because the network censors at the time felt it was too shocking and too ugly. Looking at the shot now (images have long been available), this was probably for the best, as the makeup is less than convincing and it certainly makes for more effective drama when the menace is somewhat obscured. The sound of stone scraping and the sight of giant stone-age weapons is absolutely enough – the audience’s imagination will do the heavy lifting. Another fairly well-known behind-the-scenes note here is that the part of Yeoman Mears was originally written for Yeoman Rand. The character herself is fairly slight, so it’s interesting to consider how the show would have played differently with Rand. It seems unlikely that her inclusion would have raised the dramatic stakes (the lives of Spock, McCoy and Scotty are just as much at risk, and every other character is essentially along for the ride), but one can imagine her perhaps having a word or two with Spock herself, just as Lt. Boma does here.
Ultimately, “The Galileo Seven” is a morality play about leadership, empathy and sacrifice, and that alone makes it stand out from most contemporary science fiction shows. It might not be perfect, but it’s classic Star Trek.