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The Enterprise encounters a large asteroid that is moving on an independent course. It's a nice bit of astronomy that Kirk and Spock discuss that an asteroid must be orbiting something, and the fact that it's not shows that it's unusual. Further measurements reveal that the asteroid has been altered into a 200 mile diameter spaceship. Unfortunately, Spock realizes that it is on a collision course with the heavily populated world Daran V.
Spock's ability to determine this so quickly is nothing short of miraculous. He's not just saying the asteroid will enter a specific planetary system, but that it will intersect with a specific planet, meaning that he is able to mentally calculate the asteroid's trajectory and that he knows the location of the planet on its orbit right now and knows enough about the planet's orbit to know where it will be in the future.
The episode "The Paradise Syndrome" earlier in the season did a good job handling the issue of an impending asteroid impact, showing the practical and logical approach of diverting the asteroid off course. It's stated in this episode that the collision will not happen for a little over a year; again, compared to the situation in "The Paradise Syndrome", this is a longer lead time, and the asteroid is smaller than the object in the previous episode. However, in this episode, the characters don't seem to consider any courses of action except two: use the asteroid spaceship's controls to change its course, or destroy it. What about diverting it? There's a whole year to come up with options... must they decide right now? The handling of this part of the episode is disappointing, considering "The Paradise Syndrome".
Another urgent situation has developed: McCoy has diagnosed himself with xenopolycythemia, which is a terminal illness. He has less than a year to live. We aren't told much about how one gets this disease or what its effects are, which is probably a good thing, since it couldn't help but be dated by now. Since no one seems worried about catching it, it's apparently not contagious. Kirk (and Chapel, a nice detail) is devastated by this news. McCoy says he'll continue to be effective at his job, but Kirk feels obligated to to request a replacement for McCoy from Starfleet.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam over to the asteroid spaceship over Kirk's doubts concerning McCoy's health. They beam into an area that has been constructed to look like the surface of a planet, completely with a sky and atmosphere projected overhead. Some human-appearing guards show up and capture them, under the direction of Natira, the High Priestess of Yonada. They are taken underground, which is where the people of Yonada live.
Natira takes them to a religious chamber where she tells the Oracle of the People about them. We cannot see the Oracle; its presence is made known as a voice. The Oracle declares that before the strangers can be their friends, they must find out what it means to be their enemies - the Oracle then gives the three Starfleet men a strong electrical shock.
They come to in a guest chamber. McCoy remains unconscious the longest; Kirk is extra worried about him given his illness. This is all a little amusing, because surely McCoy's condition isn't significantly different today than it was yesterday, before he knew about his illness. It reminds me of the sudden solicitousness that everyone exhibits for a woman who has announced she is pregnant, as if she has flipped a switch and now can't do anything for herself. Kirk takes the liberty of informing Spock of McCoy's illness. It's a bit presumptuous of him, but Spock does deserve to know of possible weaknesses in the landing party. When McCoy does wake up, Spock gives him extra support, non-verbally expressing his concern, much like he did earlier in the season in "The Empath".
An old man sneaks into their room and asks where they are from. Kirk's careful replies are sufficient to goad the man into revealing that he once climbed the mountains of Yonada, even though it is forbidden. When he got to the top, he could reach up and touch the sky - he knows that the people are inside some kind of hollow object, but it's not clear that he knows it's a spaceship. He spasms and falls over, dead; we see some kind of device pulsing on his temple.
Natira arrives and demands to know what has happened. She accepts the Starfleet men's claims of ignorance - probably the old man was a bit of a troublemaker. She has his body taken away. Then she reveals that the Oracle has ordered the people to treat them as honored guests from now on, and she has refreshments for them.
The Starfleet men have noticed that Natira seems overly fascinated and solicitous of McCoy; Kirk suggests that McCoy distract Natira for awhile with conversation so that he and Spock can find the controls for the spaceship. I'm sure Kirk also thinks this is a fine way to keep McCoy from straining himself.
Kirk and Spock leave, and McCoy and Natira talk. After a little small talk, we learn Natira has fallen in love with McCoy at first sight. She asks him to stay with her on Yonada as her mate. To his credit, McCoy tells her right away about his illness. She is undeterred, stating that a year with him would be wonderful. She accepts that McCoy needs time to think about her proposal.
Kirk and Spock have returned to the Oracle's chamber and are poking around. Spock says that the writing in the chamber is Fabrini. We learn that the Fabrini's sun died some 10,000 years ago, and it was believed that their civilization died with it. They realize that the Fabrini constructed this ship to save at least part of their civilization. However, it's not clear to Kirk and Spock nor to us why the people on Yonada do not know that they are on a spaceship, nor do they seem to be allowed to know by the Oracle.
Natira enters the chamber, and they hide. She tells the Oracle about her proposal to McCoy; the Oracle permits the pairing on the condition that McCoy consent to the insertion of the Instrument of Obedience and learn about the religion of the people. As Natira turns to leave, the Oracle denounces Kirk and Spock's presence, giving them another shock. Natira has them taken away.
Next we see Natira and McCoy together. McCoy begs Natira to let the two return to the Enterprise, but Natira says that their sacrilegious act requires death. McCoy says that he has decided to stay on Yonada with Natira, and that he'd hate to ruin their happiness by starting off with the deaths of his friends. Natira agrees to let them go.
McCoy's decision to stay with Natira is certainly borne of two desperate situations. First, he has not yet had time to come to grips with his illness, and he's obviously casting around for something that he thinks will give his life meaning. And certainly the idea of dying with a beautiful woman devoted to him must be appealing. Second, he is desperate to save Kirk and Spock. He doesn't quite state that their release is a condition of his agreement to stay, but Natira can certainly appreciate the trade-off.
Kirk orders McCoy not to stay, but McCoy refuses. What can Kirk do to him, really? In the end, Kirk relents, and he and Spock return to the Enterprise. Kirk apprises Starfleet of the situation, and Starfleet tells them someone else will be handling the situation from here on out - maybe they are considering other options for the asteroid.
Natira conducts the ceremony for the implantation of the Instrument of Obedience in McCoy's temple. Then they say some simple vows for their marriage. Afterward, Natira begins McCoy's religious instruction. She shows McCoy a book hidden in the Oracle's chamber that contains the wisdom of the Creators, and instructions for what to do when they reach their promised destination. (It's very odd that they deny they are on a ship, but actually expect to go somewhere. I suppose that's what "gods" are good for.) They are supposed to arrive "soon".
McCoy contacts the Enterprise to tell Kirk about the Creators' book. Before he can finish the conversation, the Instrument of Obedience activates, and he screams in agony and falls unconscious. Natira comes in and looks down at him with an unreadable expression, ignoring the communicator. Kirk and Spock beam over to McCoy's position immediately. Spock removes the Instrument of Obedience from McCoy; he will survive the Oracle's punishment.
Kirk prevents Natira from leaving and tries to explain the reality of the situation to her. She begins to doubt what she has been taught, and the Oracle begins to punish her through the Instrument of Obedience. She finally escapes from Kirk and flees to the Oracle's chamber to ask it the truth. It chastises her for doubting and then apparently uses the Instrument of Obedience to try to kill her, as she collapses.
McCoy awakens, and the Starfleet men follow Natira. McCoy tells Kirk and Spock how to access the Creators' book. Natira is at first upset, but finally decides that she believes and trusts McCoy; he removes her Instrument of Obedience. The Oracle declares that they will die: it locks the door and then begins heating the room to unbearable temperatures. Spock takes the Creators' book and flips through until he finds instructions for accessing the control room. He and Kirk open up the door to the control room, and immediately turn off the heating of the chamber.
Kirk remarks that the machinery in the control room is (conveniently) similar to that on the Enterprise. He and Spock spend a little time with the controls to put the spaceship back on course. Spock declares that the computer control should be sufficient for the remainder of the journey. As they are about to leave the control room, Spock notices a database of all Fabrini knowledge, including a sizable amount of medical knowledge, and he scans it with his tricorder.
Meanwhile, McCoy and Natira realize that they are going to part ways after all. McCoy has had a change of heart regarding his future, and he wants to spend the time he has left searching for the medical knowledge that might help him and others with his illness; he asks Natira to join him. Natira says that she must remain to guide her people, especially in light of the new knowledge she has gained and the fact that she is now free of the Oracle's control. We get the impression that she is going to remove the Instrument of Obedience from others, too.
The next thing we know, McCoy is being treated in Sickbay with methods found from the Fabrini database. His illness has been cured. Kirk remarks that the asteroid spaceship is supposed to reach its destination in a little over a year, and he thinks the Enterprise could be there to greet it.
This episode has some interesting ideas, but it doesn't follow through with them very well, and some of the ways the ideas are presented do not make sense. The general premise of the episode - a generation spaceship off course - is an interesting one. The problems faced by a small society that is completely self-contained for thousands of years are numerous and fascinating. It does make sense that a civilization that is about to die would attempt such a huge undertaking.
What doesn't make sense is the "Creators" of the mission hiding the true nature of Yonada from the people on board. We get the impression that the entire mission started out this way since the Oracle seems to have been constructed to rule the civilization on the ship. The "Creators" apparently felt very strongly about the need to control the people on the ship, since we have to assume they developed the Instrument of Obedience the Oracle uses for control. What point does it serve to hide the fact that they are on a spaceship? It seems like the people that began the journey must have known they were on a ship - how did that knowledge get lost or forgotten? If it was purposely removed from their minds somehow, I again ask why?
The only motive I can think of is that the "Creators" for some reason thought the people might try to subvert the goal of the mission if they knew there was a mission. This doesn't make sense to me at all. If anything, you would think the knowledge that they are the only survivors of an entire race would be motivating. And hiding this knowledge from the people seems counterproductive, because they will have to prepare for moving to a real planet when they reach their destination. Even though that destination was a little over a year away, the Oracle had not provided any new knowledge to help them prepare. The revelations of their true ancestry and the nature of the mission will certainly be a shock to them.
We also are never explicitly told that the Oracle is actually a computer. We figure that out from Kirk and Spock "looking behind the curtain" so to speak and finding nothing but machines. Was Natira and her people aware of this? She didn't seem especially shocked. When Kirk and Spock accessed the control room, did they turn off the Oracle? We get the implication at the end of the episode that the Oracle will no longer be running things, but we aren't told why that is.
Another small point: why would the knowledge of the people's ancestors be stored away instead of being in use? What if one of the people somehow got a deadly illness? The loss of even one person from such a small society (before he/she reproduced) could be very detrimental. It's very convenient to the plot, though, to find this knowledge to save McCoy.
The parts of the plot regarding McCoy's illness were otherwise well done. I thought the concern of McCoy's friends and their overly solicitous behavior was very realistic. I also thought it was quite realistic for such a shocking discovery to make McCoy act out of character - suddenly deciding to leave the Enterprise and stay with Natira. This does not mean I think he didn't have genuine affection for her, but in any other case he would have gently rebuffed her and moved on. He finally regained his senses, so to speak, by the end of the episode and returned to his characteristic desire to heal people, even if he has to heal himself. So, did he and Natira get an annulment?