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The Enterprise has been approaching the home planet of the Melkotians, a famously reclusive race with whom Kirk has been ordered to establish relations. They encounter a warning probe, which speaks to each of them telepathically in their own language, but because of Kirk's orders, they must forge onward regardless. Incidentally, the scene where each member of the bridge says they heard the message in their native language is a very nice reminder of the diverse nature of the humans in the crew.
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov beam down to the Melkotian planet, which appears foggy and dim - nothing like their sensor readings from orbit predicted. A Melkotian appears and tells them they were warned to stay away, and now they will be punished with a scene from Kirk's past.
In the blink of an eye, they are transported (or the scenery around them is changed) into the old west in the late 1800s. The outlines of a small town surround them, but only the outlines - the buildings have fronts but no sides or backs; furniture inside, but no surrounding walls; framed items hanging in mid-air instead of on walls. A newspaper informs them that they are in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26, 1881.
There are other people in the town, and the other people address them as members of the Clanton gang. Kirk and Spock put together these clues and realize that they are meant to play the part of the Clanton gang at the gunfight at the OK Corral, which the Earps win and the Clantons lose. This is how the Melkotians intend to kill them.
Kirk has no intention of allowing them to die in an old west gunfight. His first idea is to try to convince the "townspeople" that they aren't really the Clantons. This is completely futile, as the people just laugh it off as a joke and don't even consider the possibility. The local bartender is highly amused at the "joke". A young woman is the girlfriend of Chekov's alter-ego, and never even considers the possibility that Chekov isn't a gunfighter (in between kissing her). The Earps are not amused, and just order the Clantons to leave town by 5:00pm or they will be killed.
The next idea Kirk has is that they will leave town, just as the Earps ordered. However, they discover that the town is surrounded by a forcefield, so they cannot leave. They have only a few hours until the deadline.
The third idea Kirk has is to use contemporary technology to somehow neutralize the Earps prior to the scheduled gunfight. McCoy realizes he can use a combination of drugs available at the time to make a tranquilizing gas, and Spock says he can make a cannister to release it. Everyone splits up to look for supplies; McCoy has a run-in with the Earps' partner, Doc Holliday, when he goes to the local barber for drugs. When Doc Holliday threatens McCoy with a gun, I can almost see McCoy itching to berate the doctor for being willing to take other people's lives.
Chekov has a confrontation with one of the Earps over Chekov's girlfriend. Not knowing the rules of engagement in the old west, Chekov provokes the Earp into shooting and killing him (not that much provocation was necessary). The other Starfleet men are furious with grief, but Kirk manages to keep them from starting their final gunfight right there. Spock eventually realizes that Chekov's death is important information: in real history, Chekov's alter-ego actually survived the gunfight at OK Corral. The fact that Chekov, and thus his "character", is dead prior to the fight shows that "history" can be changed.
Spock and McCoy finish making the tranquilizing weapon. Kirk wisely insists that they test it, so Scotty volunteers. However, despite breathing in the tranquilizing gas, Scotty is unaffected - the tranquilizer doesn't work, as Kirk feared. Spock and McCoy are both completely mystified that the gas failed - according to all their knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology it couldn't have failed.
Spock realizes that this apparent contradiction of the laws of physics means that their situation is not in fact real. It is some kind of illusion or projection in their minds. Only the things that they believe will be real will have an effect - Chekov thought the bullet of the gun would kill him, so it did. Spock concludes that as long as they believe without a doubt that the bullets from the guns can't hurt them, they will not be hurt.
They don't have much time to ponder this, because it's 5:00pm. When they don't go to the OK Corral, the Melkotians transport them there. As the Earps approach the corral, Spock performs a mind-meld with each of the other crewmembers in order to convince them absolutely that the bullets are not real. As McCoy said, humans can never erase all doubts, so Spock will do it for them.
The Earps arrive at the corral and open fire. The bullets pass through the Enterprise crewmen and blast the fence behind them. When the Earps have finally exhausted their ammunition, Kirk starts a fistfight with Wyatt Earp. He gets ahold of Wyatt's gun, but deliberate throws it away rather than trying to kill him.
As a result of Kirk's mercy, the Melkotians transport them back to the Enterprise, including a very live Chekov. The Melkotians commend Kirk's peaceful nature and agree to open up relations with the Federation.
This episode is a bit of a mixed bag. I'll try to hit the positive aspects first. A much-discussed aspect of the show is the minimalist sets. It's a nice device to indicate the constructed nature of the surroundings (plus it saves money!). It gives the episode an unusual visual appeal; it's one of the things I remember most distinctly when I first began watching TOS.
The "native" people of the town are another interesting and effective part of the episode. The non-Earp townspeople are lively and interact relatively naturally with the Enterprise men. However, the Earps (and Doc Holliday) are played to be very wooden and emotionless. I read this as an indication of their automaton nature: they were created solely to kill the Enterprise men. This is demonstrated effectively when they march robotically toward the OK Corral at the end of the episode.
The characterization of the Enterprise men is pretty good throughout the episode. We get some amusing quick looks at Scotty's personality - quickly adapting to the local liquor. Chekov gets some nice development. He's turning into quite the ladies' man, although he is very responsible in not wanting to lead on the young woman. Spock and McCoy have some typical arguments, although Spock complimenting McCoy's ingenuity was a nice surprise. Coming as it did after Chekov's "death", I wonder how much Spock bothered to voice the compliment just to try to improve McCoy's morale. In another nice touch, when McCoy is needling Spock too much about being emotionless after Chekov's "death", Kirk is about to step in to stop it, but Spock waves him off.
Other parts of the episode feel off to me. In general, the episode dragged, despite Chekov's death. Kirk and company insisted on treating the old west characters as real, sentient people for far too long. Perhaps initially they thought a Melkotian was playing the part of each person (although they never said that), but it became obvious to the viewer pretty quickly that the people were just animated props. Still, Kirk kept trying to convince them to change their courses of action.
Kirk and Spock also had a real mental roadblock in terms of "changing history.". They were transported into the old west scenario. There was nothing to indicate that they had actually traveled backward in time to the old west; indeed, the half-built buildings, dearth of residents, and forcefield surrounding the town would tell them they had not. Nevertheless, they believe for some reason that they are doomed as the Clanton gang because "history cannot be changed". They aren't reliving the actual history, they are in a "play" based on it! There seems to be no reason for them to fail to realize they aren't in real history until Chekov's death prompts it.
The motivation behind the whole situation is vague, as well. The Melkotians supposedly dropped them into the old west so that they could die as punishment for trespassing. Why use such a drawn-out method? Did they expect the humans to take the time to make peace with themselves before dying? Why not just put them in a cell for a couple hours, and then kill them?
I think that the Melkotians were testing the Enterprise crewmen in two ways. First, since the whole scenario was apparently in their minds and not physically real, if they died from the "bullets", they would be essentially killing themselves (and conveniently leaving the Melkotians' hands clean). So the first test was to see if they had the mental abilities to pick up on the illusion and then control their own minds enough to save themselves.
The second test was to see how they would behave when they were about to die and were able to confront their would-be killers. Would the Enterprise crewmen attempt a pre-emptive strike? Actually, that idea had crossed my mind, and I wondered why no one in the episode suggested it. I suppose that since they believed all the people in the old west were real, they couldn't condone cold-blooded murder. At any rate, Kirk and the others showed that they could control their emotions enough to behave in a civilized way, even with impending death. Thus, Kirk and his crew passed the two Melkotian tests, and were welcomed to open relations.