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The Enterprise is exploring deep space searching for the starship Defiant. They come upon the Defiant, apparently dead in space, and the sensor readings are very odd. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Chekov beam over in full protective spacesuits to investigate.
They find that everyone on the Defiant is dead, apparently from murdering each other. It's a very eerie watching the Enterprise crewmen wandering through the Defiant with all the dead bodies. While exploring engineering, Chekov gets a little dizzy. When McCoy explores Sickbay, he discovers that he can pass his hand through various objects that should be solid, such as a table and a dead body. When he reports this to Kirk, Kirk very sensibly orders everyone back to the bridge so they can return to the Enterprise.
This is when we find out that something is messing with the Enterprise's transporters. I feel like this is sprung on us without mention - we suddenly see a crewman with tools working on the transporter console. Shouldn't Scotty have communicated this to Kirk immediately? Scotty has managed to get half of the transporter pads working, so only three people can beam back at once. Kirk, of course, orders the others to beam back first. The transporting process is touch-and-go, but it is successful. When Scotty immediately tries to beam back Kirk, he is unable to - because the Defiant has disappeared, presumably taking Kirk with it.
Spock has somehow determined what is happening to the Defiant: it is slipping in and out between our universe and another universe, which Spock calls "phasing". He has calculated that the next "interphase", when the Defiant will appear again, will be in a few hours and they should be able to beam Kirk back then. In the meantime, he warns that any distortion of their local universe could affect how and when the interphase occurs, so power use will be kept to a minimum and the Enterprise will not use its engines. During the wait, the madness that caused murderous rage in the Defiant crew begins to manifest among the Enterprise crew, beginning with Chekov. McCoy begins to look for a cure.
Unfortunately, the Tholians have other plans. They arrive in a small ship, claiming that the Enterprise is invading their territory. Spock explains about the interphase, and the Tholians agree to wait until then. Of course, the arrival of their ship delays the interphase, so the scheduled transport of Kirk is unsuccessful. When the Defiant does not appear on schedule, the Tholians attack. Spock is eventually forced to return fire, damaging the Tholian ship. The Enterprise is itself damaged and cannot maneuver until repairs are made. A second Tholian ship arrives, and the two ships begin weaving a forcefield web around the Enterprise; Spock determines that the completion of the web will successfully trap the Enterprise.
At this point, Spock must admit the strong possibility that they will not retrieve Kirk. McCoy has been badgering Spock about why they didn't leave to protect the crew from the growing insanity they are experiencing, which McCoy has determined is from the phasing of the space around them. He also berates Spock for staying to fight the Tholians instead of retreating to save the crew. I was wondering if this McCoy, who seems so quick to write Kirk off as dead, is the same McCoy that in "The Paradise Syndrome" was willing to stay and search for Kirk despite risking the population of an entire planet. Perhaps the difference in his reaction is because in this case, Kirk seems more "lost" because of the phasing phenomenon, while in the other episode it was obvious that Kirk had to be on the planet somewhere.
Spock holds a brief memorial service for Kirk. His words are very awkward and unsatisfying, even for him. I have to think that this, plus his previous orders to stay in place even if it meant fighting the Tholians, are an indication of his deepest hope that Kirk will be located and returned alive. McCoy obviously doesn't see this and takes every chance to snipe at Spock; a lot of his complaints and insults are not even rational or self-consistent; for example, he claims that Spock just wanted to become captain of the Enterprise, when he knows that Spock wants no such thing. McCoy's irrationality is a manifestation of his own grief.
After the service, McCoy insists that he and Spock watch Kirk's pre-recorded final orders for them. When Spock tries to delay, McCoy accuses him of being worried that the orders might change Spock's circumstances. To what? Does McCoy actually think Kirk might choose anyone other than Spock to command the Enterprise if he died?
Kirk's final order sum up the situation perfectly: the situation is grim, and Spock and McCoy are locked in "mortal combat". His orders to Spock and McCoy are perfect, especially when looked upon as a "last request". Kirk tells Spock to do his best, but to also try to use his intuition to help him. Logically, Spock should be insulted that Kirk would suggest he use anything other than logic for decision-making, but we know "intuitively" that Spock would consider it a compliment that Kirk thinks he's capable of intuition. We know Spock believes Kirk to be an excellent captain, and Kirk has always valued highly his own tuition, so Kirk is implying the same value for Spock's intuition.
Kirk also neatly defuses the fighting between Spock and McCoy. First, he recommends that Spock as McCoy for advice. Then he reminds McCoy that Spock is in command, and so he should be treated with respect. Both Spock and McCoy are humbled by the final orders and agree they need to get back to work.
Sometime later, Uhura has a dizzy spell and then sees a "vision" of Kirk floating in her quarters in his spacesuit. She runs to find Spock to tell him, but finds McCoy first. McCoy thinks she's just starting to get the same insanity as others in the crew and confines her to Sickbay. However, Scotty and others in engineering have a subsequent "vision" of Kirk. Finally, he appears floating on the bridge. Spock and McCoy are thus convinced that Kirk really is still alive - Spock realizes that another interphase is approaching, and so Kirk is starting to slip into their universe again intermittently.
Spock and Scotty plan for how they will retrieve the captain - Spock wants to use a tractor beam to "grab" him before he can phase out again. McCoy releases Uhura from Sickbay; he also has finally found a cure for the degenerative insanity caused by the phasing space and gives doses to the crew.
When Kirk appears at the predicted time, Scotty locks onto him with the tractor beam. The Enterprise and Kirk are thrown far clear of the Tholian web as a result. Kirk is beamed onto the ship just as he runs out of oxygen in his spacesuit.
Later, Kirk comments on how he's happy to be back in their universe, and asks whether his final orders to Spock and McCoy were helpful. The two lie blatantly and claim they never had a chance to watch them. I guess I can see how it would be awkward to have admitted seeing the final orders, and that Kirk predicted exactly how they would be behaving, but the lie seems odd.
This episode was enjoyable for its suspense: is Kirk alive or not? And will they get him back if he is? The "interphasing" idea is extremely flimsy, but it was presented in an easily understandable way. I'm not sure why only some items on the Defiant were phasing out and not others before the Defiant disappeared. Kirk says that he was trapped in a universe that was completely empty except for him - talk about sensory deprivation! I'm surprised he didn't go crazy from that.
The Tholians were an interesting race, since they appeared to be crystalline. The forcefield "web" was a unique idea that was very visually appealing. Despite the fact that the Enterprise was in uncharted space, the Tholians seem to be known to Starfleet, since Spock commented on them being known for punctuality.
There were some odd parts in the episode, mostly relating to characterization. As I discussed above, McCoy's behavior was exceptionally irrational. I tried to explain this as his emotions driving his actions, but I'm not sure that is enough. He should know Spock well enough to have not made some of his comments. I thought it was odd that we never really got to see a moment where he realized that he thought Kirk was dead - he almost says it offhandedly when berating Spock for not saving the crew.
I also felt that Spock's characterization was a little off. He doggedly decides to keep the Enterprise where it is, presumably in the hope of rescuing Kirk, but even though Kirk is rescued, we don't see any follow-through concerning Spock's actions. Given Kirk's final orders speech concerning intuition, it would have been nice to have Spock admit he was playing a hunch.
One of the parts of this episode that would have been nice is to have seen more of a reaction of the crew, or at least the minor regular characters, to Kirk's death. However, just like with McCoy, we don't see any moment of comprehension for any of the crew. When Spock explains the sequence of events at Kirk's memorial service, the crew obviously knows that Kirk has already been presumed dead. Who told them? How? When? Witnessing some conversation among the crew about Kirk would have been revealing to both his command and his character. Strangely, however, we get nothing along those lines. What we do see of the crew is Chekov yet again being the "canary in the coal mine" that gets afflicted with the problem before the rest of the crew, and Uhura behaving as an overly emotional woman - until, of course, she's proved right.