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Kirk is on the surface of the Halkan homeworld, trying to negotiate a treaty that would allow the Federation to mine dilithium crystals on the Halkan's planet. However, the Halkans are complete pacifist and are opposed to any agreement because it's possible the Federation might use the crystals for violence. Kirk tries to persuade them, but doesn't have much luck. It's not clear why he needs McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura on this particular landing party, but that's pretty immaterial for the rest of the story.
There is a "magnetic storm" going on whose effects are felt on the surface and by the Enterprise in orbit. When the landing party is beamed up, the storm somehow causes them to be diverted into a parallel universe. The first clue is a stunning image: Spock with a gold sash and devilish mustache and goatee. Kirk and the landing party have had their clothes changed to the uniforms of the Empire's service. There's no logical reason that their clothes would have changed: the original transporter beam contained their original clothes. I don't see anyway that the exchange of transporter beams between the two universes could have exchanged the occupants of clothes and not the clothes themselves. This is a point I'm willing to overlook, however.
Kirk and the others are stunned into silence, which is probably a good thing. Spock reprimands Kyle for a mistake in the use of the transporter, and then uses his agonizer to punish him. (You have to love a military service which requires you to carry around self-punishment devices.) Clearly, the Federation in this universe (called the Empire) is not as peaceful. Kirk wisely keeps his silence and assents to several "standard procedure" decisions. Since the Halkans have refused a treaty, they will be annihilated, and Spock sets in motion the procedures for this.
Kirk uses the excuse of the rough beam-in to order all of the landing party to Sickbay for evaluation. Once they are in Sickbay, they discuss what they have seen so far. Kirk quickly leaps to the idea that they have been transported to a parallel universe, where the people, planets, organizations, etc., occur like in our universe, but slightly altered. So the Federation-equivalent in this universe is bent on galactic domination through conquest and fear, and the people in it have similar tendencies.
Kirk quickly decides that they must figure out if they can reverse whatever accident brought them here, but first he must take care of the more immediate problem: somehow preventing the annihilation of the Halkans. It's interesting that Kirk considers this a priority (as do the others), even though they aren't the Halkans from his own universe, and he isn't really responsible for the annihilation. Life is life, and he's in a position to stop it, so he feels compelled to do so.
He sends Uhura to the bridge to review his orders and options. Uhura must fend off advances from a spectacularly devious-looking Sulu, who has a vicious scar along one side of his face. Meanwhile, Kirk orders Scotty to the phaser room to disable the phasers ("storm damage") to give Kirk an excuse to delay acting on the Halkans. But Scotty finds that he needs authorization to access the phasers and cannot sabotage them.
When Kirk arrives on the bridge, Uhura quietly notifies him that he has no choice but to annihilate the Halkans if they don't cooperate. "Annihilate" is an interesting and telling choice of words for official orders. Sulu has already prepared a phaser barrage for the first target. Kirk does not order it, so Spock orders a change to the second target. Finally, Kirk tells Sulu to cancel the attack, the orders Uhura to tell the Halkans they have 12 hours to change their minds. Spock notifies Kirk that this is a serious breach of orders.
Leaving Uhura on the bridge, Kirk heads to his quarters to confer with McCoy and Scotty. Chekov joins him in the turbolift, having set up an ambush for Kirk when they exit. Chekov positively cackles with glee when his henchmen subdue Kirk: with Kirk dead, everyone moves up in rank! Fortunately for the captain, one of Chekov's men is actually a part of Kirk's personal guard, and he kills the other henchmen while Kirk subdues Chekov. The rest of Kirk's personal guard arrives (where were they, anyway?) and take Chekov off to "the booth".
Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty ponder their situation. The computer displays another tour-de-force of artificial intelligence as Kirk asks it if the parallel universe scenario is possible, and if so, if it's possible to artificially set up the circumstances again so they can return. The computer confirms the situation and conveniently records the procedure for setting up the reverse process. If there's a weak point in this episode, this is it: Kirk's conversation with the computer is so vague that there's no way the computer could determine anything from it. However, the computer is functioning in Spock's place, in terms of the plot - figuring out the scientific basis of their plight, and how to fix it. Since getting this aspect of the plot out of the way allows the episode to focus more on how the characters deal with the situation, it doesn't bother me much. Plus, it avoids a lot of technobabble.
Kirk orders Scotty (with McCoy's help) to rig the transporter for their return. Scotty says that because of the way the universes are contacting each other, it's getting much more difficult as time goes on for them to get back to their universe. So now they've got time pressure as well. They also pause for a moment to explore the Enterprise's recent history. Kirk received command after assassinating Christopher Pike, and since then has been involved in a number of massacres ordered by the Empire. This underlines the fact that they really don't want to stay in this universe.
I have to think that the writer didn't bring Spock along on the parallel universe trip for two reasons: first, it's much more interesting to explore the "evil Spock" character. Second, Spock is needed on the "real" Enterprise to figure out the situation on that end.
Which brings us to events in the "real" universe: the landing party's Empire counterparts did materialize in the Federation's Enterprise. By the time we look in on the situation, Spock has realized that something is seriously amiss and is throwing them all in the brig. One can only imagine what kind of orders the Empire's Kirk gave and the attitudes they all displayed that tipped Spock off so quickly. After all, it's a pretty drastic step to throw someone who is apparently identical to your captain in the brig. Spock has reasoned out the transporter exchange, and we will see that in the end he will do a return transport at the same time as the one in the Empire's universe.
When Kirk leaves his quarters, he encounters Spock, who seems to have been looking for him. Spock warns him that if he continues with his aberrant behavior, then he will begin to jeopardize Spock's position, which Spock will not tolerate. We see later that Spock has been monitoring the unusual computer usage by Kirk and Scotty. He receives a message from the Empire's command that orders him to kill Kirk and assume command of the Enterprise if Kirk doesn't annihilate the Halkans within a few hours. Because of the scheming nature of everyone in this universe, Sulu has noted that Spock received a message and tries to entice Spock into an alliance to kill Kirk. Spock rebuffs him.
While Scotty is working on the transporter, he needs to make some kind of adjustment that would register briefly on Sulu's instruments. Uhura diverts Sulu's attention on the bridge by leading Sulu on about her romantic interest in him, then she snaps him back to reality with a harsh slap in the face. When the Empire's Uhura returns, she's going to have some explaining to do!
When Kirk returns to his quarters, he finds a woman, Lt. Marlena Moreau, waiting for him. She and the Empire's Kirk are lovers, which is apparently a calculated relationship on her part, since she apparently gets a number of advantages from being the "Captain's woman". She has also noted that Kirk is behaving strangely, but attributes it to some scheme that he is working on to gain more power. In the course of their conversation, she shows Kirk the Tantalus Field, which has made the Empire's Kirk nearly invincible on the Enterprise. It is a device he discovered on an alien planet or ship and installed on his ship. It can view anyone on the ship, and with a push of a button, make them disappear. She offers to kill Spock and eliminate a problem for him, but he prevents her.
This reaction, plus his unusually caring and passionate attention to her, tips her off that something is really wrong. When he leaves at Scotty's summons to go to the transporter room, she monitors him. Spock has pieced together Kirk's odd behavior, the transporter issues, and the computer activity, and he arrives in the transporter room to take Kirk into custody. He takes Kirk to Sickbay, where the rest of the original landing party is waiting; he's not surprised to see them.
The Starfleet crewmen attempt to overpower Spock, but one Spock is a match for the four of them. Finally, Kirk smashes something over Spock's head, seriously injuring him. McCoy insists on examining Spock, even though they must transport to their own universe within minutes. When McCoy is working, Kirk gives him such an indulgent smile that I think he must be recalling Spock's previous comment about McCoy having many "human weaknesses" and enjoying the fact that one of the weaknesses is going to save Spock's life.
While McCoy is working on Spock, they discuss their situation enough that Marlena, who is still monitoring, can figure out what has happened. When Sulu and some henchmen arrive to kill Kirk and Spock, she uses the Tantalus Field to kill everyone but Sulu. (Perhaps she knew Kirk would be upset if she killed Sulu, given his concern for Spock?)
Everyone but McCoy heads to the transporter room while McCoy finishes his work on Spock. Spock unexpectedly regains consciousness and forces a mind-meld on McCoy to quickly learn the truth of the situation.
In the transporter room, Kirk, Scotty, and Uhura arrive to find Marlena waiting. She has a phaser, and demands that Kirk take her with them. What is her motivation for this? Does she really like the Federation's Kirk that much more? Does she think that a "nicer" Federation would be better? Is she hoping for opportunities to gain power in the other universe? Kirk says the set-up won't allow for an extra person, and Uhura disarms her.
Spock arrives with McCoy in tow. Now that he has confirmed the situation, he is eager to return them to their universe and (presumably) get his own people back. In the last few minutes they have before they must transport, Kirk tries to convince Spock that the Empire is illogical, because as Spock has admitted, it is doomed. He tells Spock the only logical thing for him to do is to hasten its demise through his own actions. He then tells Spock about the Tantalus Field and encourages Spock to find a way to get rid of his Kirk so that he can use it for his own ends. Spock says that he will try.
They beam out and re-materialize on their own Enterprise, after Spock has just beamed their counterparts back. They mull over the differences between the universe, and whether the alternate Spock will be successful. Kirk meets Marlena Moreau for the "first" time.
I remembered that this episode was very good, but I hadn't remembered just how good it is. The writing is extremely tight, with nothing extraneous. Everything the characters do makes sense, the the situation as it is presented is logical, given the backgrounds of the Empire and the people in it. The writer sensibly gives the characters a "time limit" in the parallel universe, which prevents our suspension of disbelief from failing.
One of the smartest aspects of the writing is how the characters initially keep quiet and observe the strange universe around them, rather than giving themselves away immediately by talking a lot. Kirk's behavior showcases this, as he lets Spock give orders and maintains a demeanor of the aloof captain. He continues this behavior to some extent throughout the episode by answering questions with statements that could be interpreted several ways, allowing him to keep his options open. I actually wish that Kirk had demonstrated more of this common sense when dealing with the unknown when he was interacting with Nomad in "The Changeling".
Spock's character, or more specifically, his counterpart's character is the most fascinating. In "our" universe, Vulcans are peaceful. What must Vulcans be like in the Empire, given that Spock willingly participates in its military services, and implicitly threatens Sulu with Vulcan operatives? Spock seems to go along with the Empire's violent policies without hesitation, using the agonizer on Kyle and commenting that the agonizer booth used on Chekov was "efficient". He also stated to Kirk that the Empire's policy of terror had to be maintained - his view, or was he just speaking Empire propaganda? This Spock is definitely quite a bit different from "our" Spock, since he forced a mind-meld on McCoy - something "our" Spock would never do.
Spock himself seems to be boiled down to his logical, calculating self, without the touches of compassion and morality that he has in the "real" universe. I very much viewed him as playing the ultimate chess match: maneuvering his position on the ship and within Empire politics to attain his goal. He obviously carefully weighed his options in the Halkan situation, calculating that his best move was to inform Kirk of the orders to kill him.
What is this Spock striving for? He said that he was content serving under Kirk as science officer, so apparently he still has his scientific bent. Is that all? Just as the officers have the ambitions to move up to the captaincy, does he have the ambition to go anywhere in particular? We never find out, although now Kirk may have given him a goal. Does he truly believe a more peaceful Empire would be better, or would he follow Kirk's plan just because it's logical? Incidentally, it was brilliant writing to have Kirk choose to make his argument to Spock purely from a logical standpoint.
The other characters dumped into the parallel universe also get their chance to shine. Uhura's interaction with Sulu was titillating, but also a nice display of how brave and assertive she can be. In an Empire where violence and terror is so commonplace, I can't believe it's a fun place for women in general. The only women we see (Uhura and Marlena) are in somewhat privileged positions, but I have to think the everyday woman must be constantly on guard.
Scotty is mostly behind the scenes in engineering, but in the moment when he thinks someone will have to stay behind to operate the transporter, he doesn't hesitate for a second to volunteer. I think this might be the only time in the series when he calls Kirk "Jim".
McCoy's prime scenes are when he insists on caring for Spock before they leave. This is in character for him, but still laudable. What I most liked was when Spock wakes up, McCoy doesn't show any fear or volunteer any information - his attitude here reminded me of when Khan awoke and held a scalpel to McCoy's throat in season 1's "Space Seed".
This episode was a wonderful "what if" scenario, giving us a fun look at the darker sides of the characters. Interestingly, the society depicted in the Empire is almost identical to how Klingon society will develop later in this series and in Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Except the Klingons are messier and eat gross food.)
Throughout the episode, I got the feeling that the actors were having loads of fun playing their evil counterparts. George Takei (Sulu) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) in particular seemed to enjoy themselves.