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The Enterprise has detected some kind of unidentifiable signal, which they follow back to its source: a planet whose surface was destroyed about 500,000 years ago. When they arrive, a disembodied voice calling himself "Sargon" welcomes them and invites them to beam down.
Kirk is dubious about where they will beam down, considering that the surface is uninhabitable, but no problem - Sargon prepares a subterranean welcome chamber for them with a compatible atmosphere. The chamber is over 100 miles below the surface, which is too much rock for them to beam through, but no problem - Sargon will alter their transporter to be able to function, and in fact he will run it.
These things all seem just a little too convenient, but of course, Kirk is always curious and bold, so he agrees. Sargon's demeanor is that of a doting father who is making gentle corrections to his children. Sargon claims that if they don't want to comply with the request he will make, they are free to leave. However, he then causes a brown out of the Enterprise's power when Kirk decides not to take Spock on the landing party. This doesn't seem so benevolent. Sargon beams Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Dr. Ann Mulhall down to the surface; Mulhall was included at Sargon's "orders", and Sargon didn't beam down the security guards.
The landing party discover a large, glowing sphere; the sphere speaks with Sargon's voice. Sargon's essence is being stored in the sphere. Without permission, he exchanges his essence for Kirk's and takes over Kirk's body. This is quite a surprise to the landing party, but Spock at least quickly realizes they can't do anything about it without hurting Kirk's body. I like how Sargon "moves" Kirk's body with hesitant, jerky actions, like a puppet on a string; given that Sargon hasn't been in a body for 500,000 years, this seems realistic.
Sargon explains that their civilization split into two factions over a fundamental philosophical issue which eventually led to the catastrophic destruction of the surface of their planet. Too late, both sides realized they had destroyed themselves. They managed to save a very few of their people by storing their essences like Sargon's was. Since then, all but Sargon, Thalassa (his wife), and Henoch (leader of the faction opposing Sargon's) have died.
Sargon wants to borrow Kirk's, Spock's, and Mulhall's bodies for them to inhabit temporarily in order to build android bodies into which they can transfer their essences. Obviously, this is a huge decision for the Starfleet crewmembers to make, since who's to say they'll really get their bodies back? An additional difficulty is that the aliens inhabiting the human bodies makes their heart rate, temperature, and other functions increase way beyond normal; the bodies can only handle it for a short time.
Sargon had implicitly sweetened the offer by mentioning that humans and Vulcans could have originated by long-ago colonists of Sargon's race. Because of that possibility, Sargon feels his people have a paternal obligation to help them advance their technology and deal with whatever crises erupt.
Kirk and company return to the Enterprise to debate. McCoy is firmly against the idea, because of his concern for the health of the bodies as well as in the overall risk involved the "loan". Scotty is also dubious, until Kirk promises him that Sargon's technology could enable starships with engines the size of a walnut. Kirk, Spock, and Mulhall are in favor of the plan. Kirk convinces McCoy to go along with it through a rather over the top speech about how their purpose in Starfleet is to take risks. When he's done with this speech, Scotty has a funny smirk in his face, which I charitably interpret as pride in his captain.
The receptacles are brought aboard, and all three aliens transfer into the Starfleet bodies. Sargon and Thalassa have a touching reunion, while Henoch immediately preens over his "superior" body. The bodies of Kirk and Mulhall are overcome very quickly, but Sargon instructs Henoch to prepare a drug that can be used to slow their body functions. While Sargon and Thalassa temporarily leave their human bodies, Henoch goes to work with Chapel's assistance.
I give the writer credit for not trying to deceive the audience: we learn right away that Henoch has an evil plan. He sabotages the drug that will be used for Kirk's body so that the body and Sargon will die. He uses some kind of mind-touch on Chapel to make her forget the drug is sabotaged and to make her always be the one to give the injections. It's not clear whether the mind-touch is Spock's ability that Henoch is taking advantage of, or if it's an ability Henoch has.
The three aliens begin work on their android bodies. Thalassa wants to linger a bit with Sargon so that they can enjoy themselves, but Sargon is completely focused on their goal. He also warns that they shouldn't get too attached to the sense of their human bodies, since the android bodies will not have such capabilities. When Sargon is away, Henoch makes pointed comments to Thalassa about how limited their android bodies will be - essentially eternal prisons for them. Thalassa wants to follow Sargon's vision of helping the human race, but is wavering under Henoch's influence.
In short order, Kirk's body dies, and Sargon is also assumed to be dead. McCoy rushes Kirk's body to Sickbay and hooks it up to life support, but he has no way to put Kirk's essence from the receptacle into the body. And if he did, would Kirk's body live?
With Sargon's restraining influence gone, Thalassa has decided not to leave her human body. For some reason, she goes to Sickbay and asks McCoy to keep quiet her decision, and in return, she will put Kirk's essence back into his body so he can live. In classic McCoy fashion, McCoy indignantly tells her he refuses to "peddle flesh" and he will not exchange lives. She tells him that he should be grateful of her generosity when she could demand that he worship her. Then she demonstrates one of the abilities upon which Sargon frowned: she can torture McCoy using only her mind. She quickly realizes how despicable her behavior is, and stops and apologizes. She understands now why Sargon wouldn't let them use such god-like abilities.
Sargon's voice, coming from the ship, praises her. He transferred his essence into the ship's computer and has been monitoring events. He and Thalassa quickly make plans, since Henoch in Spock's body is quickly taking over the ship using their enhanced abilities. They kick McCoy out of Sickbay, but keep Chapel. There are some cheesy effects of the ship shaking for a minute, and then Chapel leaves Sickbay.
McCoy comes back in and finds Kirk alive and intact, and Mulhall is back to normal. However, the receptacles have been destroyed, which presumably means Spock's essence is also destroyed. Kirk says they now need to kill Spock's body so Henoch will be stopped. McCoy prepares the most deadly poison he knows for Vulcans in a hypospray.
When they arrive on the bridge, Henoch reads their intentions and freezes them. He orders Chapel, who has been under his control, to inject McCoy with the poison. But Chapel defies him and injects him. Henoch tries to transfer into another body, but Sargon makes himself known and prevents it. Henoch's essence dies. Spock's body survives, though, because Sargon had fooled McCoy into only putting enough poison in the hypo to knock Spock's body out. Sargon also hid Spock's essence in Chapel's mind, and now he transfers it back to Spock's body.
Sargon apologizes for all the trouble and asks for Kirk's and Mulhall's bodies for a brief time so he and Thalassa can have a final goodbye. Chapel describes their parting as "beautiful".
This episode had its good and bad points. First, I feel like this was a nearly classic TOS plot, with god-like aliens, beings made only of energy, promises of advanced technology, and the realization that god-like powers are absolutely corrupting. In that sense, the episode was satisfying, assuming one enjoys those themes.
The alien personalities were also reasonably interesting and entertaining. Of course, it was fun watching Spock be so calculating and devious. He obviously knew Thalassa very well from their past lives and knew just which buttons to push to change her mind about their situation.
There was a very big and frustrating plot hole in this episode, in my opinion. When Sargon says they want to build android bodies, Mulhall asks why the Federation can't build them. Sargon dismisses this idea quickly. I really think it should have been pushed more, though. After all, the Enterprise recently discovered a world populated by advanced androids ("I, Mudd"). In fact, those androids would make anyone a body that they could transfer their mind into. We don't know for sure that those bodies have senses, but it's hard to imagine a human wanting to transfer into one for the purposes of immortality if they were limited in that way. These android bodies seem perfectly suited to Sargon's people, and it's annoying that the lack of series continuity kept it from being mentioned.
Sargon's speculation that his people might have been the origin of humans and/or Vulcans adds to the list of alien civilizations that may have influenced Earth in the past. We had the "Greek gods", such as Apollo in "Who Mourns for Adonais?", and we will have the Preservers in "The Paradise Syndrome".<