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The Enterprise is sent to a planetary system with two inhabited planets on the border of Klingon space, Troyius and Elas, on a secret diplomatic mission. Kirk first picks up the ambassador from Troyius, Petri, and then they go to Elas to pick up the Dohlman of Elas, Troyius's most hated enemy. The Dohlman turns out to be a young, beautiful, exotic woman named Elaan. She is also imperious, arrogant, and selfish, as we see in her first scene. She demands that everyone, even Kirk, request permission to come and go from her presence, as well as permission to speak.
Petri finally reveals the mission: the Enterprise is to transport Elaan to Troyius for a wedding between her and their king in order to cement the peace between their worlds. Petri tells Kirk to head back to Troyius very slowly, as the ambassador needs time to instruct "her glory" in the culture of Troyius. When Kirk orders a slow impulse drive course for Troyius, the look on Scotty's face is priceless: he can't imagine using the engines for such a trivial speed.
Apparently the Dohlman is not the absolute ruler of Elas. I get the impression that she is a remnant monarch, who does little of the day-to-day governing, but still has a lot of power over her personal situation, comfort, protection, and entertainment. It seems that some type of council rules Elas, and they have decided against her wishes that she must marry the Troyian ruler. She is enraged by her situation, and immediately insults Petri and his gifts to her: wedding slippers, her wedding dress (a gift from her future mother-in-law), and the necklace containing the most cherished jewels of Troyius.
Kirk is called to Elaan's quarters because she is not satisfied with them. (In a nice personal and realistic touch, Uhura is indignant at having vacated her quarters to someone so ungrateful.) Petri tries to explain the situation to Kirk, and then storms off. Kirk tells Elaan that there are no other quarters, and she has some fun throwing things around the room.
When Kirk leaves, Petri confronts him and says the mission is hopeless. Although we initially get the impression that Petri is more flexible since his behavior is more moderate, we soon realize that his hatred of Elasians is just as strong as Elaan's hatred of Troyians; Elaan just doesn't try to hide it. Kirk suggests that since Elasians admire strength and physical prowess that Petri try approaching the situation more forcefully.
Sometime later, Scotty indignantly calls the bridge, asking for relief from Elaan and her guards, who are visiting engineering. Kirk goes to smooth Scotty's ruffled feathers and tries to give Elaan some pointers on Federation courtesy. She is unimpressed - after all, she has already given permission for the crew to not have to kneel in her presence. What more could they want?
The episode gains a bit of suspense when a "sensor ghost" that has been detected intermittently resolves into a Klingon battlecruiser paralleling their course. They do not respond to hails, but are just following along. However, no one knows why the Klingons might be interested in this system.
Petri tries to go in strong on his next attempt to instruct Elaan, but she stabs him. Once he's taken to Sickbay, McCoy patches him up, but he'll be recuperating for several days. Petri refuses to continue, anyway, and blames Kirk for his injury and the shambles the mission has become.
Although Kirk denies responsibility for Petri's injury, he obviously realizes that it's up to him to save the mission. He goes to Elaan's quarters to be her new teacher. She's annoyed that Petri didn't die. She's also involved in eating a rather large meal, tearing apart poultry and eating everything with her hands and drinking right from the bottle of Saurian brandy. Her disregard for Petri's life and her general attitude and lack of manners pushes Kirk over the edge from civility toward her to impatience. He begins by giving her some pointers on table manners, and warns that he's going to finish Petri's mission of instruction whether she likes it or not. She's not used to anyone speaking to her that way, and tosses a knife at his back as he leaves. She must have missed intentionally - apparently even she has some sense to realize that murdering a Starfleet captain would be a bad idea. Kirk is unimpressed.
When Kirk returns for the next lesson, Elaan has refused him permission to enter her quarters, so he has to take her guards into custody. Then he has to wrestle a dagger away from her. She retreats into the bathroom and locks the door. As Kirk lectures her on her duties from the other room, we can see her make a decision.
When she comes out of the bathroom, she's in tears. As she knew it would, this instantly softens Kirk's attitude toward her. She gets close enough so that he will wipe away some of her tears. We had previously learned that the tears of an Elasian woman cause some kind of biochemical response in Elasian men that make them almost seem to be under a spell. We see Kirk fall under that spell almost immediately as they kiss.
Meanwhile, Elaan's head security guard (who was away when the others were put in the brig) is in engineering doing something to the equipment. He kills the crewman on duty. Shortly, Uhura and Spock detect a signal to the Klingon ship emanating from within the Enterprise. They notify Kirk, who is in a distinct daze from Elaan's whiles. He pulls himself together enough to order a security team to engineering when that's identified as the source of the transmission.
Elaan's guard is captured in engineering, but refuses to talk. When Kirk calls Spock for a mind-meld, the guard grabs a phaser and kills himself. Kirk orders Scotty to check everything in engineering for booby-traps.
Kirk returns to Elaan's quarters to question her about the guard. She admits that the guard was hoping to marry her and was infuriated by the arranged marriage, so he could have gone over to the Klingons. Remarkably, Kirk does almost nothing to pursue this - after all, Elaan, by association, may also be under suspicion. However, Kirk is still under her spell. She tries to convince him to use the Enterprise to destroy Troyius; this blood-thirsty plan seems to shake him out of the spell a bit, but when she kisses him again, he's helpless.
For some reason, Spock and McCoy choose this time to track down Kirk. When they opened Elaan's door and discovered the two in a passionate embrace, the embarrassment is painful as Kirk barely manages to pry himself away from Elaan. Despite Kirk's past romantic adventures, Spock and McCoy know he would never jeopardize this mission by fooling around with Elaan, and McCoy immediately realizes he must have been affected by Elaan's tears. Indeed, Kirk can barely stumble out of her quarters and is about as out of it as we've ever seen him. McCoy resolves to find a cure for the tears.
The bridge calls and says that the Klingon ship is changing course for an attack. Kirk visibly pulls himself together into his captain persona and heads for the bridge. The Klingon ship is heading straight for them, and Kirk gives the order to prepare to go to warp speed. Scotty calls to tell him just in time that the Elasian guard left a bomb that would cause the ship to explode if it used warp drive. The Klingon ship veers off without attacking; clearly it had hoped to goad the Enterprise into its own death. However, Klingon ship remains close by and begins harassing the Enterprise.
Elaan has come to the bridge. In a very nice exchange, Spock diplomatically prompts Kirk to have her removed so she doesn't impair his thinking. Kirk escorts Elaan to Sickbay, the most protected part of the ship. Elaan again tries to convince him to run away with her, but he is in better control of himself and rebuffs her, talking about their respective duties toward their people and the mission. When Elaan arrives in Sickbay, she is confronted by more duty-bound men: McCoy working on the cure for the tears, and Petri, who beseeches her to accept the Troyian gifts, now that they are about to die.
The Klingon ship has begun an attack on the Enterprise seriously depleting the ship's shields. Between the attack damage and the previous sabotage, the Enterprise is basically dead in space. The Klingon captain demands their surrender, and Kirk stalls for time by making various communications to the Klingons. As a side note, I really enjoyed the music during these attack scenes; it was very compelling.
Elaan returns to the bridge, this time wearing her wedding dress and the Troyian jewels, saying that she wants to die with Kirk. Spock detects strange energy readings which he traces to her jewels: they are dilithium crystals. Now we all know what the Klingons want! Dilithium crystals are just the thing Scotty needs to make rudimentary repairs to the engines, so Spock takes them to engineering quickly. Kirk and Sulu hold off the Klingon ship for a little while longer with minimal shields and maneuvering ability until Scotty makes the repairs. Then Kirk lures the Klingon ship in close for a deadly attack. The Klingon ship is badly damaged and limps back to Klingon space.
The next thing we know, we are back at Troyius. Elaan has apparently accepted her fate, and bids Kirk a sad goodbye. As she squeezes her eyes shut during transport, we get the most sympathetic picture of her yet: a young woman who is scared to death of marrying a strange man and living on a strange world. McCoy thinks he's found a cure for the tears, but Spock remarks that the captain has found his own cure: the Enterprise.
I enjoyed this episode a lot, although I admit it's a bit of a guilty pleasure, given the somewhat stereotypical treatment of women in it and the fact that not quite all of the plot makes sense. Elaan's evolution from barbarian to civilized woman has a bit of the "Taming of the Shrew" in it, and her calculated manipulation of Kirk by crying is cliched. However, at least in this case it's more than just a stereotypical male weakness that makes Kirk fall for her - the idea of a documented physical process that causes the "spell" is interesting.
This episode gives us a good look at small-time galactic politics in the Federation. It becomes clear why the Federation is so interested in these planets, but overall it's also clear that this type of situation is usually considered rather minor. Kirk and his crew is certainly not at all impressed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Dohlman, for example. I was wondering how much it was an intentional dig at human civilization by the writer when Petri said that the mission had been conceived because now that the two worlds had the technology to mutually destroy each other, they knew they had to find a way to make peace. If only it were that obvious and simple!
There is yet again a lot of good chemistry between the characters. When Elaan is making a pain in the neck of herself, Kirk shrugs and gives Spock a look. The friendship between the characters is especially apparent when Spock and McCoy "circle the wagons" around Kirk after he becomes enchanted by Elaan. I don't know how the writer and the actors do it, but somehow we can see that Spock and McCoy are close friends of the captain's and support him, but it's also clear that he's the captain and they are completely aware of that fact and respect it. There's something there that I just can't put my finger on, but it's extremely effective.
The biggest detraction in this episode in my mind is Elaan's transformation. She has started entwining Kirk to do her bidding. He does resist her at least partially. Why would she suddenly decide Kirk is right, and she should agree to the marriage? I think we are meant to get the idea that Kirk's lecture on their duties to their people (when the Klingons are attacking) and then Petri's devotion to duty have swayed her. However, this just doesn't seem like enough to me.