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The episode begins with Kirk leading a landing party (Spock, McCoy, Chekov, Yeoman Martha Landon, and four security men) to contact and learn about the native people on Gamma Trianguli IV. They spend the first minutes exclaiming about how wonderful the climate and flora of the planet are. Frankly, this is almost funny, because the plants and scenery of the set are just not all that appealing.
I think this episode is what really sets the cliche of the "redshirts" being there just to get killed. The landing party heads toward a native village, and along the way, three of the security men are killed. One is killed by a plant that shoots "bullets", another is killed by stepping on an exploding rock, and the third is killed by artificially-induced lightning. A plant tries to shoot Kirk, but Spock shoves him out of the way just in time and takes the hit. Fortunately the plant is not lethal for him, but he does get a good scolding from Kirk.
I hadn't remembered how long this part of the episode was: fully one-quarter of the episode is spent on this journey. It doesn't really seem to have a point, either, since once they get to the village, all of these dangers are forgotten. I can seen two possible reasons for these scenes. First, a rather forced demonstration that looks can be deceiving, which Kirk bemoans several times. Second, it sets Kirk up with guilt at having his men die and frustration with his orders that make him come to such a dangerous place - these things make him more likely to disobey the Prime Directive at the end of the episode.
They capture a native man, named Akuta, who has been following them. The native people are so peaceful that when Kirk throws an off-hand punch to subdue him, Akuta cries. Akuta says that he is the leader of the Feeders of Vaal, and that he is Vaal's spokesman, as well as Vaal's eyes and ears. Akuta takes them to Vaal - he leads them to a constructed (perhaps carved) serpent head that is sticking out of the side of the hill. Spock's tricorder shows that there is something energetic inside, and the serpent head is surrounded by a forcefield. Vaal does not speak to them. Then Akuta happily leads them to his village, where they find the other natives as peaceful and naive as he is. One initial oddity is that there are no children: Vaal has forbidden love and sex, and apparently no one minds. McCoy examines the natives and discovers that they are not aging. The planet's climate is perfect, and there is a lack of harmful organisms (small or large) on the planet, so the people are essentially immortal. They live only to gather food for themselves and for Vaal.
Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, some kind of forcefield or tractor beam has taken hold of the ship. It's immediately obvious to us, and pretty soon to the characters, that it is caused by Vaal. The ship can only resist the tractor beam for some 16 hours, and then their orbit will decay and they will burn up in the atmosphere. Of course, the warp drive and transporter also fail from the effects of Vaal. Scotty is trying to jury-rig things to get more power to the impulse engines, but it will take time.
Kirk knows that Vaal is responsible for the tractor beam on the ship, so he redoubles his efforts to understand the natives and hopefully contact Vaal. When the natives go to "feed" Vaal, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy observe from a distance. The natives walk up to Vaal's mouth and thrown in food. The Starfleet men realize immediately that Vaal is a computer which is somehow processing the food from the natives to power itself. However, it seems to be a pretty smart computer, as it realizes when the non-natives approach and rumbles in warning.
McCoy is disgusted at how Vaal is exploiting and controlling the natives, claiming that they are stagnating as a result. Somehow he jumps to the conclusion that the native culture hasn't progressed in 10,000 yrs, although how he arrived at this number is not at all clear. They've only been talking to the natives for a few hours! Spock, of course, takes the opposite opinion, admiring the reciprocal benefits between Vaal and the natives, which leaves both happy and healthy. Kirk tells them to stow the argument for the moment - I think he probably was leaning toward McCoy's point of view, but since that aspect wasn't immediately relevant to their situation and interference is not allowed, he would not have taken any action. But then, the circumstances changed.
First, Chekov and Landon sneak off for a romantic interlude. A young native couple watches them, and then tries some of the moves themselves. Instantly, Akuta shows up and tells them they aren't allowed to do things like that. Gee, Vaal is quite a voyeur.
Second, Kirk and Spock try to approach Vaal again. Vaal calls up some more lightning, but fortunately Spock is only grazed by the blast. It's not been a good mission for him!
Vaal orders Akuta to have the native men kill the landing party, and even gives Akuta instructions on how to explain killing, since no one has done it. The men rush the landing party with clubs, killing the fourth and final security man, but after the instant of surprise, the rest of the Starfleet personnel have no trouble neutralizing the natives. Kirk orders all the natives (men and women) to be secured in a hut.
Scotty has finally made the adjustments to the Enterprise, and they try breaking away. They pull away a bit, but the tractor beam is too strong and it wrecks a bunch of their systems. They are doomed to burn up in the atmosphere shortly.
Vaal expended a lot of energy holding on to the Enterprise, so he calls for a feeding. However, Kirk and his crew prevent it. Then Kirk orders Scotty to fire phasers on Vaal, draining Vaal's power even more as it has to defend itself. This finally "kills" Vaal. The natives are upset and directionless, but Kirk tells them they'll learn to take care of themselves, and they'll like it!
This episode is really pretty bad, mostly because of the horribly fake sets, the exaggerated and ugly makeup on the natives, and the annoying arrogance of Kirk completely overturning the native culture. The first two issues are a result of the series' budget, but the last is the real killer.
This is one of the most infamous incidents of Kirk arbitrarily deciding to disregard the Prime Directive and destroy the basis of a culture. However, I realized in this viewing that the arbitrary nature wasn't quite as bad as I had previously thought (although it doesn't make the episode more enjoyable) - I think the writer was trying to set up some justification, but it was very weak, possibly getting lost somewhere in re-writes.
As I mentioned before, Kirk is slammed with the deaths of several of his crewmen, making him resent his current orders. Then his ship is placed in jeopardy by the same agency that is controlling the natives, which doesn't make him disposed to be cooperative with Vaal. Frankly, I think his eventual agreement with McCoy's claim that the culture was stagnating is just something he is using after the fact to show that his violation of the Prime Directive - in order to save his ship - wasn't so bad, after all.
Should a culture that we perceive as stagnating be interfered with? Obviously the Prime Directive as it is written says no. And some people might not agree that the culture is stagnating - Spock, for example, thinks that it is healthy for all involved. Who is right on this?
The ending of the episode is far too glib, with Kirk assuring the natives that they'll like freedom, and sure, Starfleet will help them out. The native society can't help but dissolve into chaos almost immediately. They have little organization, and what was there was directed by Vaal. From what we learned earlier in the episode, Vaal also controlled the climate, making it perfect world-wide, and organisms, eliminating diseases. Now that Vaal has been destroyed, one must think that the planet's original climate will gradually dominate, and disease will begin again. (After all, the Starfleet crewmen have probably contaminated the planet.) The natives have no medical care, and not even any conception of disease.
Now that Vaal is no longer controlling their behavior, there is ample opportunity for ambitious native people to take advantage of the others. As Spock noted, the natives have been taught how to kill, so how long will it be before one of them uses killing to his advantage? After all, without Vaal, they have no moral standards, either.
Kirk also gets a laugh about how they'll find out soon enough what children are. Yes, it's hilarious that the natives will begin producing children at a time when their food supply and climate are no longer assured and they have no medical care. Starfleet has their work cut out for them helping out this society!
It would have been interesting to learn a little bit about the culture's history. Who built Vaal? Akuta mentions that he received his antennae to become Vaal's eyes and ears in the "dim times". That would imply some kind of dark ages (it's even the same name) - was that a time similar to our dark ages, with a medieval level of culture and technology? If so, then someone off-planet must have created Vaal to help the natives.
Or was the "dim times" a period when the native people had a much more advanced technology, but then some type of cataclysm happened? In that case, then the natives themselves could have built Vaal and set up the present society as a way to preserve themselves. If this is what happened, then the natives decided for themselves that this was what they wanted, and Kirk had even less of a right to interfere. This issue could have brought a lot more depth to the episode, but it's not even touched on.
One nice part of this episode is how the friendship between Kirk and Spock continues to deepen. Obviously, Spock saved Kirk's life from the shooting plant. But a more subtle development happens a little later. When Kirk is bemoaning the deaths of his crewmen and how he should have prevented it, this is almost a standard cue for McCoy to step in and remind Kirk that he's only human, after all. However, it is Spock instead who gives Kirk a "pep talk", reminding him that he followed the only logical course of action at each point. "Pep talks" are not logical, so it's interesting that Spock recognizes that he should give one, and shows his own development as a friend to Kirk and as a high-ranking officer that he does so.
A sub-plot of this episode was the blossoming romantic relationship between Chekov and Landon. While it's used to further the plot involving the native people, the relationship is an interesting aspect for another reason. It shows that romantic relationships between crewmen are permitted within Starfleet, since Kirk is obviously aware of it. This sets a precedent that continues in the later Star Trek series.
I'm not sure that it is wise to allow relationships between crewmen serving on the same ship. After all, if a critical decision needs to be made, but the decider must choose between his love and his duty, which would win? If the two people have an "official" relationship, then obviously they could be assigned to different commands, thereby ending the conflict of interest. But for a more casual relationship, it's not as clear what should be done. However, it seems very obvious to me that Kirk should not have allowed both Chekov and Landon to serve on the same landing party. What if Chekov had decided to defend Landon instead of following orders? Heck, what if Chekov did something stupid because he wanted to impress her?
This topic leads me into another blast on the treatment of women, Landon in particular, in this episode. She's obviously there to serve as Chekov's love interest, and gets to mention breathlessly a few times about how frightening things are. The particular scene that really annoyed me occurs in the Starfleet hut after they've just discovered that the natives are forbidden from procreating. Landon wonders aloud how the natives know how to have sex when it's necessary for a "replacement" - but she doesn't state it so clearly, stumbling to a stop on the question when she realizes she's surrounded by superior officers who are all male.
Kirk actually pokes fun at her, by prodding the conversation on. He even tells Spock to explain sex to her, when the unemotional Vulcan is probably the last person Landon would want to have such a conversation. It would have served Kirk right if Spock had embarrassed him (Kirk) by giving a clinical description of human sex - but inexplicably Spock is tongue-tied and doesn't do so. I can understand when Spock was reluctant to talk about his pon farr in "Amok Time", since that rendered him emotional and out-of-control, but he should not have any problem discussing human sexuality.
One redeeming part of Landon's treatment in the episode and by the writer is that when the natives attack the landing party, she competently defends herself and others.
The last scene of the episode has a joke, of course. Kirk and McCoy tease Spock about looking like Satan. The joke is a little force, like most of the ending jokes, but in this case there is a bit of a double-meaning. As I recall, when Gene Roddenberry originally developed the Spock character, the network wanted to get rid of him (Spock), at least partly because of his devilish appearance. It's nice to see the episode making some fun of that previous complaint, as Spock turned out to be the most popular character (although I'm not sure that was known at the time of this episode, so it might just be fortuitous).