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Kirk and the aforementioned crew members beam down to do a routine check of a scientific mission on the planet Gamma Hydra IV. Chekov (also in the landing party) discovers the dead body of an old man. I thought the direction leading to Chekov's discovery was rather nice in how it emphasized Chekov's quick transition into the dark building, which would temporarily blind him and add to his fright. The discovery causes Chekov to panic temporarily.
When Kirk and the rest of the crew investigate, they discover that all but two of the scientific party have died of old age - despite the fact that none of of them are much over 30 years of age. The last two people are so aged that they are in a state of mild dementia and can provide no clues about what happened to them. They die shortly after being transported to the Enterprise.
Kirk doesn't like this strange and tragic puzzle of the death of the scientific mission, plus he is wary of some kind of Romulan influence or weapon, since the planet is near the Neutral Zone. He decides to remain in orbit and investigate. This doesn't please Commodore Stocker, who is newly assigned to command Starbase 10 and is eager to get there.
Within hours, the members of the landing party (except Chekov) begin to manifest signs of rapid aging, such as failing memory, fatigue, failing hearing, and arthritis. Scotty and Lt. Galway (a crew woman that was on the landing party, apparently for the purpose of having someone expendable that can die early) seem to be aging more rapidly; as McCoy says, everyone ages differently. McCoy doesn't know why Chekov hasn't been affected, and Kirk orders the full resources of the Enterprise to work on the problem non-stop.
These resources include Dr. Janet Wallace, an endocrinologist. She is apparently new on the Enterprise, but it's not clear why she's there. She's not a member of Starfleet, but she doesn't mention being on her way to Starbase 10 like Stocker or any other purpose. We learn that she and Kirk used to be an item, perhaps very serious, until their different careers pulled them apart. She ended up marrying a colleague some 20 years older than her, who is now dead.
The actors are the ones who really make this episode work, by doing a wonderful job of gradually copying the mannerisms, attitude, and gait of the elderly. Kirk becomes short tempered; Spock acts like all the energy has been drained out of him, and squints when he has to concentrate; McCoy reverts to his best country doctor behavior. It's not often that I think the acting on TOS is good, but here it's quite good - which is needed to sell the episode, since the makeup of the aging characters is not so good.
As Kirk ages, Janet renews their earlier conversation about whether or not their relationship could start up again. Kirk (!) brusquely analyzes her interest: does she bring this up now because she really cares about him, or because now that he's a little "older", he reminds her of her late husband. Have we ever seen Kirk actually analyze romantic feelings before? As he continues to age rapidly, even Janet realizes there may be no future for him, but the continual looks of pity as she watches him deteriorate are painful.
Kirk's aging has the most important effect on the ship. He begins to forget that he's given specific orders and signed specific reports. The rest of the crew only sees this sporadically and would cover for him without thinking twice about it, but Commodore Stocker is watching and realizes that Kirk is in trouble. From his words and actions throughout the episode, I think that Stocker is genuinely concerned about Kirk and the others and does not harbor any agenda, despite his repeated requests to go to Starbase 10. I think he is acting as he thinks is best, and according to regulations, not out of any malice or arrogance. This is somewhat unusual, compared to other high-ranking officials we've seen, such as the ambassador in "A Taste of Armageddon".
Stocker approaches Spock and asks Spock to take command. Spock makes an error here, which is evidence of his own mental deterioration. Spock tells Stocker that he (Spock) cannot take command because he's having trouble concentrating, his reaction rate is slowing, and other physical problems. Stocker makes the obvious conclusion that if Spock's somewhat super-human physique is failing, then Kirk's must be much worse off. I have to think that if Spock was in perfect health, he would have foreseen such a logical trap and not lead the conversation in such a direction. However, the logic is inescapable, and Spock must agree to hold an Extraordinary Competency Hearing on Captain Kirk.
Kirk, of course, thinks the hearing is a complete waste of time. However, Spock calls on various witnesses of Kirk's forgetfulness; this is a nice bit of writing because we had seen each incident ourselves and perhaps shrugged them off, but presented all together they are damning. The most painful part of the proceeding is that Kirk himself demonstrates his incompetence by ranting a bit and forgetting key pieces of information. Once Kirk leaves and the other officers confer, Stocker decides that he's the only possible person to take command, since the rest of the senior officers are also afflicted. It's either him, or a junior officer, such as Sulu.
The ironic part of all of this is that although Stocker is truly trying to do what he thinks is best, he has no experience commanding starships or in combat. He doesn't realize that leaving Kirk in place, with his support structure of Spock, McCoy, and the others, would probably make for a more effective commander than he himself can possibly be. Stocker's first decision is to head for Starbase 10 immediately, by taking a shortcut through the Romulan Neutral Zone.
The scene where Spock tells Kirk he has been relieved of command is particularly painful. We know from past episodes ("The Enemy Within" and "The Naked Time", for example) that Kirk's greatest fear is to lose the Enterprise, and now he has. He rips into Spock, blaming him for the hearing, but I actually thought his reaction was more subdued than I expected, possibly because of the aging. When Spock reveals that Stocker is in command, he still remembers enough to realize that Stocker has no idea what to do.
The direction of this scene is also quite good, as Kirk berates Spock for part of the time with his back to Spock (and Janet, who has come in silently). He doesn't notice Janet until Spock has left, and watching him regain his composure in front of her is interesting. She's still trying to assure him, but it's not really working anymore.
The remaining afflicted crewmembers gather in Sickbay with McCoy to brainstorm about a cure, since they can't do anything else. Previously, Spock had detected unusual radiation from a comet whose tail the planet had recently passed through. Researchers throughout the ship have been working on this aspect, but with no luck so far. (The idea of a comet having significant radiation is completely wrong. Comet tails are so diffuse that a planet would encounter insignificant amounts of particles when passing through one. In addition, the planet's atmosphere would block out most harmful particles, just as the Earth's atmosphere blocks most cosmic rays.)
Kirk keeps returning to the fact that Chekov wasn't affected. Eventually McCoy realizes that the adrenaline in Chekov's system might have protected him from the radiation, as adrenaline was used to treat radiation sickness before current treatments had been developed. Spock and Janet get to work on a serum based on adrenaline, which leads to one of the funnier sequences, with "scientific" scenes of them looking very serious and calculating or pouring fluids into beakers while 1960s "scientific" music plays.
Meanwhile, Stocker's first order - to cross the Neutral Zone - has come back to bite him. Romulan ships surround the Enterprise and open fire; I think Sulu at one point says there are 12 ships. The shields of the Enterprise must have been upgraded since "The Balance of Terror" in season 1, or the Romulans aren't using their new weapon, since the ship withstands numerous attacks while Stocker dithers. He has the good sense to realize he can't afford to return fire - besides the overwhelming odds, he's in the wrong, and so he'd be starting a war. He tries to communicate with the Romulans, with no luck. He decides to surrender, but the junior officers remind him that Romulans don't take prisoners.
Spock and Janet come up with a serum, but they need a guinea pig to try it on. Kirk is frantic with ship under attack and demands to receive the first shot. We get many shots of Kirk thrusting his groin, and then that's it: he's cured.
I don't know how much this episode started the TV science fiction tradition of not only miraculous cures, but the cure returning the person back to the way he ways when the episode started. Kirk is back to his former physique, without any leftover wrinkles or hanging jowels. Even his gray hair is gone - which is completely laughable, since it takes time for hair to grow in and replace the old hair. Wouldn't it have been more interesting for Kirk to still basically look old and have to convince the others that he's been cured?
Kirk races to the bridge and has Uhura send an intentionally decodable message, ostensibly to Starfleet Command. He says they'll be using the Corbomite Device, which will kill not only them, but all the ships around them. This is a nice nod to Kirk's corbomite bluff way back in season 1's "The Corbomite Maneuver". The Romulans eavesdrop on the transmission and back off, allowing the Enterprise to escape at high warp. Stocker actually apologizes for his actions, but even Kirk realizes he was only doing as he thought was best. The rest of the afflicted crewmembers are cured.
This episode aged (pardon the pun) much better for me than I expected. As I noted above, I thought the aging of the crew (as depicted by the acting) was excellent, and the issues raised were important to the characters, especially Kirk. No one looks forward to the mental and physical degeneration that will eventually happen to them, but at least normally the process is very gradual and one has time to adjust. Seeing our favorite characters deteriorate in such a short amount of time was shocking, and the characters themselves did not have time to adjust.
I have to wonder what the point was of introducing the character Janet Wallace. The possibility of re-igniting the romance between her and Kirk was toyed with, but ultimately it didn't go anywhere, and we don't even know what happened to her at the end of the episode (since we know she won't be returning). I suppose she represented a different type of point of view from which to observe the aging of Kirk: one that is more personally emotional and not tied to Starfleet.
One additional scene that I loved was Chekov's speech about all the tests he's been put through and that "I am going to run out of samples." What a riot, and Sulu's matter-of-fact response, "You'll live" really capped it off.