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The Enterprise is on patrol near the Romulan Neutral Zone. McCoy records a medical log containing his concern for the captain's increasing irritability and irrationality, which he cannot explain. We witness Kirk snapping at the crew, devoid of his usual civility. However, his behavior is not actionable, just boorish and annoying.
The situation quickly becomes more serious when Kirk orders the ship into Romulan space. Within minutes, they are "surrounded" by three Romulan ships; the ships appeared out of nowhere, apparently hidden by a cloaking device. Subcommander Tal on the Romulan flagship demands their surrender within an hour. (I put the "surrounded" in quotes because this is a personal bugaboo of mine: in three dimensions, the Enterprise cannot be surrounded by only three ships. It would take at least four, in a tetrahedron. The three Romulan ships are shown on the same plane as the Enterprise - why doesn't the Enterprise just go "up" or "down" to escape?)
Kirk calls a conference with the officers to debate their situation, but there only seem to be three options: try to fight their way out and die trying; self-destruct; surrender. Spock coldly points out that they wouldn't be in such a situation if Kirk hadn't ordered them into Romulan space without orders. McCoy is aghast, just as Scotty was earlier at this revelation.
Tal contacts them again and says his commander would like to speak with Kirk and Spock on the flagship; two Romulan officers will beam over in exchange. Kirk agrees.
We get a surprise when Kirk and Spock enter the commander's office and discover that the commander is a beautiful woman. The commander reveals that she knew Kirk was in command of the Enterprise, but she was unaware of Spock's presence on the ship. It's not clear whether she knew of Spock's existence at all prior to this meeting.
The commander questions Kirk privately and accuses him of bringing the Enterprise on a mission of espionage. Kirk claims the ship had a navigational malfunction and their presence is an accident. The commander is having none of that. Even though she's tiny in stature, she stands up to Kirk believably well and has quite a presence.
Spock is brought in, and the commander asks him to confirm the legend that Vulcans do not lie, which he does. This in itself is a lie - we've seen Spock lie on numerous occasions, although always in furtherance of his mission and his duty. (I discussed this at some length in my review of season 2's "I, Mudd".) As we will see, his statements in this scene fall into that category. The commander asks Spock to confirm Kirk's story, but Spock refuses to answer positively or negatively, saying, "it is not a lie to keep the truth to one's self".
Of course, the commander pounces on this and uses it to try to goad Kirk, claiming that the whole crew is going to be charged with espionage. Kirk becomes visibly more agitated. Spock breaks in and reveals that Kirk ordered them into Romulan space on his own initiative and that Kirk has gone insane. He says that he is trying to save the crew. Kirk explodes and rages at Spock.
The commander announces to the Enterprise crew that Spock has confirmed Kirk acted without orders, and so the crew will be taken to a Romulan base and then released to the Federation. In command of the Enterprise, Scotty vows not to cooperate with the Romulans in any way. The commander has Kirk put in the brig, and McCoy is called over to examine Kirk.
Once she is alone with Spock, the commander begins wooing him to the service of the Romulan Empire. This conversation is what makes me think that the commander did know something about Spock prior to this episode, since she compliments his abilities and accomplishments. She tells him that Starfleet doesn't appreciate him enough, and that in the Romulan Empire he could have his own command. For his part, Spock does a good job of showing cautious interest. He doesn't tell any lies here (that I recall), but his responses are incomplete or have double meanings. The commander reads her own desires into his statements. For example, Spock never says that he wants to command, but she cannot conceive of an officer not wanted to command, so she reads that into what he says.
They go together to check on Kirk in the brig. I thought it was interesting how naturally Spock fell in beside the commander at her side, just like he does with Kirk. I think McCoy noticed it, too. The commander asks McCoy to confirm Spock's claim that Kirk is mentally unfit, and McCoy has no choice but to do so. While they are talking, Kirk mutters about Spock being a traitor and then rushes at Spock. Spock puts his fingertips on Kirk's head, and Kirk immediately collapses. Spock said that since he was taken by surprise, he instinctively used the Vulcan death grip. McCoy says Kirk is dead.
The commander and Spock leave, and the commander asks Spock to dinner. (It's not really clear how long it will be until dinner.) They exchange some more loaded conversation.
Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, we finally find out what's actually going on. Kirk revives in Sickbay, and we find out that he was only nerve-pinched. (We've never seen a nerve pinch cause the symptoms of death before, but what do we know?) Kirk and Spock have been acting under orders to set up this whole situation in order to be able to get onto a Romulan ship and steal the cloaking device. Since the plan involves Kirk acting crazy, if the plan doesn't work, Starfleet will not be blamed for it. Somehow Kirk told McCoy about the plan while they were on the Romulan ship.
Now, McCoy surgically alters Kirk's face and ears so that he looks Romulan. Kirk asks Scotty to relieve one of their Romulan prisoners of his uniform to complete his disguise. Scotty's reaction to seeing Kirk with Romulan features (after thinking Kirk was dead) is absolutely priceless. Kirk is supposed to wait for Spock's signal to beam over to the Romulan ship and snag the cloaking device, but Spock is delayed, and so Kirk beams over anyway.
And just what is delaying Spock? He is enjoying an intimate dinner with the commander in her quarters. He deftly continues to appear to agree to her every whim while also encouraging her romantic advances. The only outright lie he makes (that I recall) is his agreement that he will lead the Enterprise to a Romulan port - certainly he has no intent of doing that! It takes him awhile to get away from her for a moment so he can contact Kirk. Since Kirk is already aboard, he directs Kirk to the area of the ship with the cloaking device. Kirk's remaining orders for Spock are to get back to the Enterprise safely somehow.
The commander returns, and she and Spock begin some light caresses. They only touch hands and faces, but their reactions to it gives the scene a definite erotic cast. Tal detected Spock's communication with Kirk and traced the transmission back to the commander's quarters. He arrives and explains the unknown transmission. Without a word, Spock hands the commander his communicator.
I liked that the commander sized up the situation immediately and acted quickly, not sparing any time to berate Spock or bemoaning her grievous error in judgment. She races off to check on the cloaking device. But she is too late: we already saw Kirk break into the room with the device, detach it, and beam back to the Enterprise. The commander sends her underlings to search the ship for it, but she knows it's futile. Only then does she rage against Spock for leading her on, but surely a lot of that rage must be addressed at herself for believing him. She asks him who he is to have done such a thing (to her), and his reply is the classic summation of his character: "First officer of the Enterprise." He then asks what the current method of execution is.
On the Enterprise, Kirk delivers the cloaking device to Scotty so he can attach it to their own ship and they can escape. Then he heads to the bridge for a joyous and funny revelation to the bridge crew that he is alive (and has Romulan features!). He orders Chekov to find Spock on the Romulan ship. Meanwhile, Spock has requested the Romulan Right of Statement, which strikes me as a way to filibuster before your death. While he is recording his last thoughts (for some 20 minutes), the Enterprise beams him back. The commander jumps into the transporter beam with him.
Kirk is elated to have Spock back, along with the bonus of the commander. But Scotty hasn't gotten the cloaking device working yet. Kirk orders them to retreat at warp 9, and then tries to stall by telling Tal that he has the commander in custody, but the commander shouts for Tal to destroy the Enterprise, which puts an end to that. Just as the Romulan flagship is approaching for what would be the final attack, Scotty gets the cloaking device working and the Enterprise vanishes. Tal orders an attack on their projected position - what else can he do? But Kirk, of course, has ordered a quick turn, so they are safe.
Kirk orders Spock to escort the commander to guest quarters where she will be held until they can turn her over to Starfleet. In the turbolift, the commander accuses Spock of faking both his interest in serving the Romulan fleet and in her, but Spock tells her she underestimates herself. Then he states what they both know: she would never have truly respected him if he had in fact turned traitor to the Federation.
This is my favorite episode of TOS, so I will admit I'm biased when I say I love almost everything about it. What's not to love? An espionage mission, a female Romulan commander, Spock getting a little romance, and excellent writing all around.
The big question I have after watching this episode innumerable times is: how much did Kirk and Spock know about the Romulan flagship and commander before they actually met in the episode? I see this as crucial to figuring out how much of their plan to deceive the commander was pre-planned and how much was improvised. Did they know the Romulan commander was a woman? I can't think that they would plan for Spock to romance her if they didn't know that! So either they knew in advance, or else they improvised it upon seeing the commander's interest in Spock.
If they planned the romantic deception from the start, I am surprised that Spock would go along with it. We have seen him do things against his Vulcan ethics before (fight, for example, and lie), but I would think that he would find leading someone on romantically to be especially distasteful and cruel. On the other hand, if Spock was winging it the whole time, I'm surprised he thought of it. Either way, his conversations with the commander were masterpieces of half-truths and misleading statements.
The writing throughout the episode was excellent. The dialog was superb, as I've mentioned many times already, and the plot was tight. Small touches in the writing really elevated this episode into something exceptional. For example, not revealing the commander's name gives her added mystery and perceived importance. When she reveals her first name to Spock, we don't even get to hear that, which is very clever: surely no name would be considered by every viewer to be both "beautiful" and "rare", so now our imaginations fill that in for us.
The acting was also terrific, particularly on behalf of the actors playing Spock and the commander. They had definite chemistry and even small gestures and looks were loaded with meaning. Even though Spock never appeared other than emotionless and calm, we still got different nuances of emotion from him, particularly during his dinner with the commander and then later when he is explaining his motivations to her.
Even though Spock says the commander was persuasive, we really don't know how tempted he was to actually go along with her. However, it is easy to imagine them together, since Spock fit so naturally at her side. We know, however, that he could never break his loyalty to Kirk.