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The Enterprise has just arrived at a planet after a distress call from a Federation colony reached them; they find no sign of the colony or its destruction. While Kirk, Chekov, McCoy, and a redshirt are on the planet, a Klingon ship approaches. Some unknown problem occurs on the Klingon ship, killing most of the crew. A Klingon landing party beams down to the planet and captures the Starfleet landing party.
The Klingon commander, Kang, accuses Kirk of attacking his ship somehow and killing his crew. Kirk accuses Kang of destroying the colony. Kang orders Kirk to surrender the Enterprise to him, but Kirk refuses, despite threats to torture the landing party. Chekov explodes with rage over the Klingons killing his only brother, Piotr, so Kang orders Chekov tortured with the agonizer. (I think this is the first time we've seen the Klingons use the agonizer - it was used by the evil Federation in the mirror universe in the second season episode "Mirror, Mirror".)
Kirk finally relents and orders Spock to beam them all up, but he cleverly hits a button on his communicator that sends a secret message. Scotty beams up everyone, but at first he only materializes the Starfleet men. Once a pitifully small security contingent is brought in, the Klingons are materialized. Kang's surviving crewmembers are beamed over from his ship, including his wife and science officer Mara, and then his ship is destroyed because it is a radiation hazard. Unbeknownst to everyone but knownst to us, an alien energy being had appeared among them on the planet and has followed them to the Enterprise.
Kirk is still suspicious that the Klingons had something to do with the colony's destruction, but has no hard evidence. Chekov is still on the war path about the Klingons, and McCoy uncharacteristically claims all Klingons are savages. Despite Kirk's suspicions, the Klingons are all being held under guard in one room. I realize that the Enterprise probably doesn't have enough brig space for 40-some Klingons, but you might think that the officers would be held separately. Of course, as we will see, Kirk and the others might already be under the influence of the energy being and so are not thinking rationally.
Things go from bad to worse in short order. They cannot contact Starfleet for no apparent reason. Then the Enterprise suddenly shoots off on a course out of the galaxy at warp 9, and Scotty cannot stop it. To top it off, the majority of the crew is stuck belowdecks because of some bulkheads that closed and inexplicably cannot be opened. Kirk stalks off to confront Kang about this; this is silly of him for two reasons. First, exactly how could Kang have caused the ship's strange behavior? Second, Kirk revealing so much about the situation to Kang, and in front of the other Klingons no less, is foolish.
While Kirk and Kang are arguing, common objects in the room suddenly change into swords. Kirk and the security team's phasers turn into swords, as do all other weapons on the ship. Kirk and the redshirts somehow manage to escape being completely overwhelmed by Klingons, but the Klingons are now free. The Klingons quickly access computer schematics of the ship and plan how to take over. Their first move is to capture engineering; Scotty manages to escape.
Tensions are running high among the crew. Chekov storms off the bridge to avenge his brother, and Sulu reveals that Chekov doesn't have a brother. Spock finds the first signs of the alien energy being when he counts too many "life units" on the ship. He finally determines it is made of energy, but cannot determine its purpose; nonetheless, Kirk reasons that the energy being is behind the ship going off-course and the appearance of the primitive weapons. He decides that he needs to convince Kang to agree to a truce so they can find the alien being. McCoy has just come up to the bridge, and he goes into a cold rage at the thought of a truce, going on about how the Klingons are butchers and deserve to be wiped out. His tirade stuns Kirk and Spock into silence, and he stalks off the bridge demanding that they act like military men before it's too late.
Meanwhile, under Kang's direction, Mara has cut off life support to the bridge. Kang intends to suffocate them to death. On the bridge, Scotty and Spock begin arguing about the situation, but the quickly degenerates into bigoted insults (albeit restrained on Spock's part). Even Kirk almost denigrates Spock, which shocks him sober, so to speak. He realizes that they are not acting themselves, despite the tense situation, and that the energy being is to blame. He and Spock go on one of their classic speculative jaunts that just happens to be true: the energy being has set up a situation that will keep them and the Klingons fighting. And apparently the being doesn't want one side to be wiped out, because the life support spontaneously comes back on.
Kang is frustrated and orders Mara to go to another access point to try to cut off life support again. She is found by Chekov, who notices her female charms in spite of being in a murderous rage. Kirk and Spock arrive in time to prevent Chekov from doing anything too serious, and they take Mara into custody. Kirk tries to explain the energy being to her, and they even see it floating in the corridor, but she is not convinced.
They visit Sickbay, where McCoy informs them that wounded crewmen are healing almost miraculously, which seems to mean that their battle with the Klingons could go on forever. When they get to the bridge, Scotty confirms that the dilithium crystals are unavoidably discharging and in a short time the Enterprise will be without warp power. Kirk calls Kang and threatens to kill Mara if he doesn't agree to a truce; Kang declares Mara a victim of war and refuses. When Mara realizes that Kirk isn't actually going to kill her, she agrees to take him to Kang to try to convince Kang.
Scotty and Spock set up a risky intraship transport, beaming Kirk and Mara directly to engineering. Kang immediately takes Kirk prisoner, and when Mara tries to intercede for Kirk, Kang suspects her motives. Mara throws Kirk a sword so he can fight off Kang. As they fight, Kirk tries to explain the energy being to Kang. The Enterprise crewmen stage an all-out attack on the Klingons outside engineering.
The being manifests itself in engineering, and even Kang realizes it is bad news. He and Kirk stop fighting, and Kang agrees to a truce. They order both sides to stop fighting. Spock suggests that "good spirits" might chase the being away, so they work hard at projecting gaiety. They are successful in evicting the being.
I have to admit that I have always liked this episode, perhaps a little more than it deserves. In general, I think the writing is quite good, and I enjoy the depiction of Klingons in this episode. We see Klingons that are warriors, yes, but that are also intelligent, rational beings. They are used very nicely in this episode as mirrors of ourselves: they fear Federation slave labor and torture, they quickly believe we have attacked them, and they are suspicious of us because we are different. The introduction of Klingon females as crewmembers also brings a different feel to the Klingon behavior. I don't think the character of Mara was used as effectively as she could have been, but frankly, the human female characters don't fare much better on the series. It was nice to see that she was a scientist, and Kang relied on her, and she even warranted a lackey to follow her around.
Kang is also a compelling character, at least partly because of the actor's ability and his wonderful, assertive voice. His aura of command is as palpable as Kirk's. He shows that Klingons are not murderous berserkers, but capable of strategy and restraint, as he led them through a careful conquest of the Enterprise that was only foiled by the energy being. He also gets some of the best lines, possibly in the entire series. Some quotes below (please forgive me if I didn't get them quite right):
The dialog overall is very good. The initial confrontation between Kirk and Kang over who did what to whom is a great bit of misdirection and mutual twisting of words. The other confrontations, such as McCoy's outburst on the bridge, and the argument between Spock and Scotty, are also very well done.
The characterization in the episode was excellent. By this point in the series, we know the characters well enough that things feel very wrong when they begin to act out of character. For example, I have mentioned McCoy's obvious outburst on the bridge; however, toward the beginning of the episode, McCoy has a similar but more subdued outburst in the turbolift. His bloodthirstiness is so strange that we had to wonder about it, and we see Kirk give McCoy an odd look also.
There were only a few detractions in the episode. First, some of behaviors of the characters lacked logic (as I discussed in the synopsis). These items can be written off to the characters being under control of the energy being, but that's unsatisfying.
Second, some of the technology seems to presented inconsistently. We suddenly learn that the transporters have ability to selectively materialize only some people in the beam - gee, it might have been nice to have this ability in, say, the second season episode "Assignment: Earth" in order to avoid beaming up the 20th century security guards.
We also learn that the transporters can be used to beam within the ship; this doesn't bother me so much, since it's clearly stated that this practice is dangerous. I'm not sure why it's so dangerous - sure, you don't want to materialize inside a wall or floor. But wouldn't transporting into the surface of a planet, such as beaming in a couple inches too low, be just as dangerous?
Finally, I'm not sure why Kirk and Kang were successful in getting rid of the energy being. From the evidence we had, it seemed that the energy being could not only transmute matter, but also manipulate matter (as seen when it controlled the Enterprise's engines), and change people's memories (as seen with Chekov's nonexistent brother). Why couldn't it just replace Kirk and Kang's memories with memories of a horrible war that makes them mad enough to want to keep fighting? It may be that the being could only "suggest" memories to a receptive mind or "enhance" specific feelings rather than replace memories wholesale. Nonetheless, the victory seems too easy.
The episode's ending also left lots of issues unfinished. How did they stop the Enterprise's runaway flight? Did they lose the dilithium crystals? Prior to the truce, Kang was virtually in control of the ship. What kind of arrangement did he and Kirk make for their disposition?