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The episode opens with a classic Spock-McCoy exchange. McCoy complains about the oddness of a new crewman, listing qualities that the crewman displays and that also apply to Spock. Spock gives lie to the idea that he cannot be insulted, as he subsequently dismisses McCoy rather acidly. The new crewman, Norman, proceeds to takeover the Enterprise's key systems and put the ship on autopilot to an unknown planet. He reveals to the captain that he is an android, and then proceeds to turn himself off until they get to their destination.
When they arrive at the previously-unknown planet, Norman requests that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, and Chekov beam down. On the planet's surface, they find Harry Mudd in charge of an android population of over 200,000. Mudd relates how he escaped from authorities after the events of the first seasons "Mudd's Women" and then became embroiled in other problems, which led to his ship being shot up and eventually drifting to this planet.
I have always rather enjoyed the character of Harry Mudd, despite his tremendous sexism. He perfectly fits the definition of a scoundrel, and while he's always looking for illegal ways to get ahead, his schemes tend to be rather penny-ante considering the scope of the Federation. The way that he spins everything he says is amusing, and his chemistry with Kirk really sells things. Kirk knows Harry is bad news, but he really can't take him seriously and can't help yanking his chain whenever possible.
Did I mention Harry's rampant sexism? Well, since he arrived on the android planet, he had them construct numerous series of scantily-clad female androids to satisfy his every desire. As we find out later on, the androids are fully functional as females, so we can only imagine just what Harry has been doing with thousands of them. Despite this apparent paradise, Harry is bored. So he told the androids how to get more humans to study and take care of: hijack a starship.
Supposedly Harry gave Normal enough instructions for him to find, board, and take over the Enterprise - and I don't buy this part of the story. If Harry had such detailed and in-depth knowledge of Starfleet operation and starships, why hadn't he used it to his advantage before? Why would he be stuck doing things like selling unlicensed patents? As we will see later in the episode, the androids themselves certainly do not have the creativity or ability to learn things on-the-go, so they could not have accomplished the takeover themselves.
At any rate, it's becoming increasingly obvious that this episode was written for laughs, not to accomplish anything serious. Harry says that he and some of the androids are going to take the Enterprise and leave Kirk and his crew on the planet. Obviously, Kirk isn't taking this idea lying down.
Some of the androids proceed to give a tour of the facilities to Kirk and the others. Spock and McCoy are excited about various research facilities available. Chekov explores the possibilities with the female androids. Uhura learns that a human brain can be transplanted into a human body, giving the person virtual immortality and beauty. (Of course, we don't see any black androids, so Uhura is pining over a pale beauty.)
Shortly after, Scotty joins the bridge crew, and they discover that the androids have been transporting the crew to the surface, with Scotty being the last one. Kirk shakes his bridge crew out of complacency and determines to take back the Enterprise. Mudd joins their cause when the androids refuse to take him along, having learned that he is a poor representative of humanity. Norman says that the androids' goal is to take over humanity and curb its violent and acquisitive impulses by becoming indispensable help.
Kirk and Spock have deduced that Norman is a kind of control center for the entire android population, so they plan on how to neutralize him. First, they make an obvious escape attempt to convince the androids that they have been completely defeated. McCoy gives Harry a sedative so he becomes unconscious, and Kirk tries to convince the androids that if they don't take Harry back to Sickbay on the Enterprise, he will die. However, Uhura reveals the fakery, claiming she doesn't want to leave, because she wants an immortal android body. This is a fun scene, with its tremendously exaggerated acting, but I suppose the androids don't realize that.
Next, the crew sets out on its true plan. I have to admit that these scenes are a lot of fun, even though they are complete fluff. In Harry's "throne room", Kirk and two androids watch Chekov and Uhura dancing to non-existent music provided by McCoy and Scotty. Uhura slaps Chekov because "she likes him", and then Chekov follows orders to stand perfectly still by jumping up and down. These contradictions confuse the two androids, and they eventually freeze up. I particularly liked the direction and music in this scene. The camera was slightly askew, giving us a little disorientation along with the androids. The music was in the soundtrack of the episode, not from the "players", so the dancing made sense to us - although it included a lot of jarring chords to show things weren't quite right.
Meanwhile, Spock is conferring with two other androids. I liked that he tried to do the Vulcan nerve pinch on one - might as well make sure that it won't work! Then he causes the two androids to freeze up by telling one that he loves her and the other that he hates her - because she's identical to the one he loves. It's somewhat ironic that a Vulcan would employ a paradox about love.
After their success in knocking a few androids out of commission, they all go after Norman. I really enjoy the absurdities in this scene. Scotty dying from too much happiness, so the others shoot him down with their fingers. But then once Harry brings out an "explosive", Scotty miraculously comes back to life to get out of the way. Then combining baseball, explosives, golf, and the explosions, along with the characters' perfect reactions, is a riot.
This brings me to an interesting point: Spock apparently has no trouble going along with all of this play-acting. It's been said that Vulcans do not lie, although I'm not sure that's been stated before on TOS. Clearly Spock does lie when he wishes. The first obvious lie I can recall is from season one's "A Taste of Armageddon," when he tells a guard there's something crawling on his shoulder in order to distract him. His play-acting in this episode is essentially lying through his actions. If Spock can and does lie, then that would make his statement "Vulcans don't bluff" in "The Doomsday Machine" a bluff, which is funny in itself.
Why wouldn't Vulcans lie? I suppose the basic logic would be that there is no logical reason to harm another person, and lying can harm another person, although not necessarily physically. However, we have seen Spock (and presumably other Vulcans would have to do this) weigh the consequences of different actions, and one could imagine situations where lying would be less harmful to more people than telling the truth. This would be especially true in everyday situations, which we would consider "white lie" situations, and even more true if Spock himself or other crewmen are in danger. This is the situation Spock finds himself in in this episode, so he goes along with the fakery. This is something that distinguishes Vulcans from programmed beings, such as androids, because they are able to operate within the gray areas of real life.
After all of the play-acting, Normal is having issues with the contradiction between what he's seeing and the reactions of the humans. I find this very hard to believe: Norman had told Kirk that the androids originally served other humanoids from the Andromeda galaxy, who had since died out. It's implied that this service went on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We also learned that none of the android bodies has stopped functioning, so that means at least some of them have been around since that time. Did none of them ever witness their humanoid masters in a theater performance? Or observe children playing at make believe? The other culture won't necessarily parallel our own, but there has to have been something like that.
Kirk and Harry compound Norman's problems by giving him a classic paradox: Kirk tells Norman that everything Harry says is a lie, and then Harry says he's lying. Norman chews on this momentarily and then freezes up, which disables the entire android population. Again, I can't believe that the androids don't have some kind of programming to deal with paradoxes. In thousands of years, no one has ever given them one before? I would think that after one, they'd program a fix for themselves. Apparently not!
Kirk and crew take back the Enterprise and reprogram the androids back to their original goal: terraforming the planet. They leave Harry on the planet as punishment, but now the androids no longer follow his orders. As a parting joke, Kirk reveals that he has had the androids build a series of 500 female androids resembling Harry's wife. Of course, his wife is depicted as a shrew, but I suppose the depiction is based on Harry's mental image of her, which can't be objective.
This episode is a guilty pleasure of mine, because after you take away the silly scenes, it's completely pointless. It only exists for the viewer to enjoy the character interactions and their imagination at escaping.
The depiction of androids throughout the episode is unintentionally funny. I've mentioned some of the logic problems with their programming. It's also laughably old-fashioned to think that androids at that level of sophistication could be completely made of wires and vacuum tubes. Despite the fact that the androids are supposed to be extremely advanced, they still have very stilted, robotic speech and serious gaps in vocabulary and conversational skills. I suppose in another 40 years we'll be laughing at how science fiction depicts androids today.
I complained earlier about how I thought the androids should have been able to deal with the logic paradoxes presented to them. This is because the paradoxes dealt completely with logic and statements by others. This is very unlike the paradox in "The Changeling" which caused Nomad to self-destruct: in that episode, Nomad caused his own paradox by realizing he had committed errors that required him to sterilize himself. That is the best example of Kirk using a "paradox" to neutralize a computer. The other paradoxes, such as in this episode and in season one's "Return of the Archons", for example, were not as believable.
I do wish that Harry Mudd had returned to the series - it seems that the ending of the episode allowed for it. He would have been much more effective in "The Trouble with Tribbles" than the other character that was introduced.