In praise of The Doomsday Machine (and William Windom)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the official Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, and one of the panels I went to was to determine the top ten episode of the original series. It was a conference room that was only half-full, but the people who were there were extremely engaged and vocal as they shouted feedback to the panel who was whittling the suggested candidate episodes down to ten.

One episode, a particular favorite of mine, ended up in the list. Devin Faraci, a fine writer and blogger, questioned the choice in this review of the list states “The Doomsday Machine? It’s a good episode, but top ten material?”

Yes, Mr. Faraci, it’s top 10 material. In fact, I think it should rank higher than #7. I think it should be in the Top 5, and depending on my mood on any particular day I could say it’s the Best. Episode. Ever.

Why? Let me provide some points, to rationalize my opinion:

It’s a remake of Moby Dick. A pet theory of mine is that the best Trek has or uses Moby Dick allusions (The Wrath of Khan, First Contact), and it starts here, with Commodore Decker chasing his “white whale” and leaving a path of death and destruction in order to get his revenge.

(Almost) Everyone has great moments. All the major characters get to shine here, with great dialogue and scenes for Scotty, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Sulu and Uhura get left out, unfortunately (Uhura isn’t even in the episode).

It’s got some epic space battles! We had space battles in other episode but this was the first one to really amp the action up to 11. Yes, this one goes to 11.

It’s got a great villain! Yes, the “planet eater” may look like a giant cornucopia, but it pre-dates the Borg, the Terminator and many other heartless “force of nature” bad-guys. You can’t negotiate with it, and it appears unstoppable. It’s like Jaws, a literal “eating machine.”

“Vulcans never bluff.” No explanation needed.

It shouldn’t be as good as it is. It’s one of those “bottle” episodes, where the producers had to shoot a whole episode on the ship, because they had no money to go on location or to even create an alien planet on a different soundstage. That it is so entertaining is a credit to the ingenuity of the production staff and to writer Norman Spinrad.

It was Scotty’s favorite episode! James Doohan frequently said it was his favorite episode. You gonna argue with Scotty?

There’s huge stakes. The “planet eater” is going to go through the most densely part of the galaxy, and it has to be stopped, a far cry from getting a delivery of grain to an outpost or rescuing Spock’s brain…

The remastered version is even awesomer! The somewhat-good special effects of the original episode was replaced with some beautiful new shots that give a great sense of scale to the battle, and replaces some pretty shoddy (budget-limited) model work.

William Windom as Commodore Decker. Last, and certainly not least, it featured one of the best guest star turns in the history of all Star Trek series by the great William Windom. His performance as Commodore Decker is one for the ages, going from a man in shock to a man obsessed to (finally) a man ready to die if it means stopping the destruction being wrought.

Windom died this week at the age of 88, and he leaves this and many other great performances as his legacy. To paraphrase a line Windom said in this episode: He was there… but not anymore.

Goodnight, Mr. Windom. And thanks for the great work

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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